The first people known to have lived in what is the present Borough of Fort Lee were the Lenni Lenape Indians. The first recorded reference to the area atop the Palisades which is now Fort Lee was by Captain Henry Hudson in 1609. In 1664, the British gained control of the Dutch lands in New Jersey and New York. In 1756, Stephen Bourdette purchased 400 acres of wooded land north of present-day Edgewater; present-day Fort Lee was part of his property. The stone house Mr. Bourdette built was the only one for nearly a mile around. This same house later became General George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution.
Fort Lee found its place in American history during the 1776 British campaign to control New York City and the Hudson River. After the siege of Boston, Washington turned his attention to the defense of New York and the Hudson Valley. The British plan was to control the length of the Hudson with the overwhelming dominance of its Royal Navy. The plan, if successful, would split the colonies in half and hopefully bring an early end to the Revolution.
Washington felt it imperative, along with the construction of fortifications at New York City and Long Island, to build new fortifications along the Hudson River. In July of 1776, work was begun on the site which was originally named Fort Constitution and was eventually named for General Charles Lee, who aided in the defense of New York City. On the opposite New York shore, work had already begun on Fort Washington.
On July 12, Admiral Richard Howe sent two British naval vessels up the Hudson River. Cannon fire from Fort Washington had little effect on their passage. Washington then ordered that work on Fort Lee continue as quickly as possible. Using Major General Israel Putnam’s suggestion, sunken ships were placed in the river channel. With these obstructions and artillery fire from the sister forts, it was felt that no British shipping could sail up the Hudson without sustaining severe losses.
King George III, wanting to end the Revolution as quickly as possible, sent the largest armada of British ships and troops that had ever left England’s shores. By mid-August, Sir William Howe, British Commander-in-Chief, had assembled an army of over 31,000 British, Hessian, and loyalist troops on Staten Island. On August 22, the British landed on Long Island and five days later forced the Americans to retreat to New York City. Through September and October, the British and American forces were involved in battles at New York City, Harlem Heights, and White Plains. The British then turned their forces against Fort Washington. On November 16, Fort Washington fell to an overwhelming assault by the British forces who captured over 2,000 American troops. Following the fall of New York to British occupation, the Continental Army crossed the Hudson River and scaled the Palisades to man the fortifications on the bluffs of Fort Lee. Washington designated the area of what is now Monument Park and the Fort Lee Museum as an encampment for his troops. Huts were constructed around Parker’s Pond and ovens carved of stone.
General Washington, realizing that with the loss of Fort Washington, Fort Lee was of little military value, made preparations to evacuate his remaining army through New Jersey. An orderly retreat, however, was not in store for the Americans. On November 20, General Cornwallis ferried between 6,000 and 8,000 men across the Hudson River north of Fort Lee. When word of the crossing reached Washington, he ordered the abandonment of Fort Lee and an immediate retreat before his army was cut off and captured by the British. Most of the American supplies and artillery had to be left behind. During these darkest days for the Revolution when it seemed as though the Continental Army could not survive, Thomas Paine, who was in Fort Lee with Washington’s army, wrote the famous words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee…
We’re all familiar with the term “cliffhanger”, used to describe a movie filled with suspense, danger, and “seat-of-your pants” thrills. But did you know that the term originated out of the early serials filmed on the New Jersey Palisades in Fort Lee–the birthplace of the motion picture industry in America?
The movies came to Fort Lee when pioneer companies started to look for new filming locations. In 1907, it was found that the Palisades near Fort Lee and Coytesville could be used for “Wild West” scenes and other outdoor scenes. Rambo’s Hotel on First Street was used as a place to dress as well as for the exterior of a Western saloon.
In 1907, Thomas Alva Edison used the cliffs of the Palisades for the exterior of Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. It was in this picture that D.W. Griffith, later to become more famous as a director, first appeared in a starring role as an actor. Although his first directorial effort, The Adventures of Dolly, was actually made in Sound Beach, CT, rather than in Fort Lee (as is listed in some secondary sources), Griffith did direct Mary Pickford in The Lonely Villa in Fort Lee in 1909. In this film, Griffith employed his most sophisticated use to date of the technique of “cross-cutting” or the cut-back to build up tension. InThe New York Hat, with Mary Pickford, he presented many members of the Biograph family: Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Jack Pickford. In The Battle, which was shot in the Coytesville section of the Borough in 1911, he introduced all the “battle photography” which he later expanded in his film The Birth of a Nation. An early example of the “slapstick” comedy was Biograph’s The Curtain Pole, directed by D.W. Griffith. It was shot on the streets of Fort Lee in late 1908 and started the career of the “King of Comedy”, Mack Sennett.