“The City At The Nation’s Front Door”


Stevens is a haven of dormitories and lecture halls whose tranquillity belies the abundance of inventions that have sprung from it. Among them were present-day standardized sizes of electrical wiring, gauges that kept hot-water heaters from exploding, and concrete barriers to separate opposing lanes of highway traffic. And one graduate came up with Bubble Wrap. Some of the school’s more important innovations have been top secret. The Davidson Laboratory, on Hudson Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets, tested models for the landing craft used in the Normandy invasion and later worked to develop the world’s first nuclear-powered missile-firing submarine.


That John Stevens’s son founded a school for engineers was not surprising. The colonel had been one of the foremost inventors of his age. He devised the screwdriven steamboat, the multitube boiler, and something visitors to Hoboken in the summer of 1826 would never forget, what he called his “Steam Carriage,” which chuffed around a circular track at speeds approaching 12 miles an hour. Stevens offered rides to spectators, many of whom were horrified at the prospect. Later those who took him up on it could say they had ridden the first steam locomotive built in America. It is in the Smithsonian Institution today. Historians disagree on exactly where the tracks were located; several put them where the school’s Davis Athletic field is now, and it’s worth a moment to nudge your foot into the earth there, where the invention that built industrial America likely made its debut.

Railroading’s birthplace is not Hoboken’s only hallowed ground. Don’t leave town without spending a few minutes in Elysian Park. There the colonel’s River Walk, following a waterside meander from the ferry slips, rounded the bluff that Stevens Institute stands on and opened onto the Elysian Fields; and there, one summer afternoon in 1846, the Knickerbocker Club arrived from Manhattan to face off with a local team called the New Yorks. They came to play a new game called “base ball” that had been growing in popularity but was not very structured. On that day the teams standardized the rules and played the first organized game on record. In the park, you’re standing roughly in the outfield. Walk a block or so to the intersection of Washington and Eleventh, and you’ll find a plaque that marks the Knickerbocker’s 25-1 victory. “Until this time,” it says, “the game was not seriously regarded.”

From a floating dock just south of the Lackawanna Terminal, you can buy a three-dollar ticket for the New York Waterway ferry, which runs on the halfhour and takes about 15 minutes to deposit you at the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. As the boat slowly pulls out from the Lackawanna slips toward the New York City skyscrapers, you’ll be struck by the extreme disparity between skylines. You can’t help admiring Hoboken for standing up to its imperious neighbor, for its stubborn refusal to be anything but itself, for just being there. “Hoboken’s a unique small town,” Dino Panopoulos says. “It’s so close to New York, but it has its own identity. People here think it’s the center of the universe.”