Looking Back on the History of Teaneck

By Robert Griffin

Teaneck Road

The origin and meaning of the name "Teaneck" has been the source of much study and speculation. Recent research strongly suggests that the name Teaneck is probably Native American in origin and means "villages." Indeed, it's believed there were at least two villages in the Teaneck area, one in the vicinity of Fycke Lane and the other upon the bluff at Brett Park.

Later, the name "Teaneck" specifically referred to the high ridge of land that runs roughly north and south through the town, and on which today's Queen Anne Road runs. Early trails and campsites established by tribes of the Lenape Indians were laid out on either side of the Teaneck Ridge. At the time European explorers arrived in New Jersey and New York, a powerful Indian Sachem or Chief named Oratam was the leader of a large clan of Lenapes in this area. They lived in a village called Achkinhesacky, on the banks of the Tantaqua (Overpeck) Creek, near Fycke Lane.

Chief Oratam gave 2,000 acres of present-day Teaneck to a woman named Sara Kiersted, who, it is said, learned the Algonquin dialect as a child and acted as an interpreter for Oratam with the Dutch of New Amsterdam. However, troubles persisted between the Indians and Europeans until 1665, and it wasn't until 1704 that any reference to a permanent structure within Teaneck's current boundaries can be found.

The earliest houses and farm buildings were constructed beside the old Indian trail that ran along the west bank of the Hackensack River. The neighborhood that grew here came to be known as East Hackensack or New Hackensack. A separate group of Dutch farmhouses was constructed along the eastern slope of Teaneck Ridge.

Today, we are fortunate to have still standing seven of these early stone houses. Officially designated as Teaneck Historic Sites and lovingly maintained by their private owners, they are reminders of our 17th and 18th century Dutch farm heritage.

Revolutionary War

Life was peaceful for the families who lived and farmed in Teaneck for nearly three generations. Then, during a cold and dreary November 1776, Teaneck was witness to Gen. George Washington's famous withdrawal of Colonial forces from nearby Fort Lee on the Hudson River.

Early in the morning of Nov. 20, Washington rode by horseback from his headquarters in Hackensack through Teaneck and across the Overpeck Creek to Fort Lee. There he watched as 5,000 British troops made their way by boats up the Hudson River. He furiously arranged for his own troops to abandon their vulnerable position on the Palisades. Leaving behind camp kettles, tents and most of their provisions, they hastily made their way across the Overpeck Creek and through Teaneck to New Bridge Landing (today's Brett Park). They crossed the bridge, marching two abreast. Many were barefoot, their garments so worn that they were exposed to the cold rain that fell in the late afternoon and evening.

Bergen County was the site of many harrowing events, and Teaneck was right in the thick of it. Throughout the war, both British and American forces occupied several local homesteads at various times, and Teaneck citizens played key roles on both sides of the conflict.

Railroad era

After the war, Teaneck returned to being a quiet farm community. Fruits and vegetables grown locally were taken by wagon to busy markets in nearby Paterson and New York City.

New growth and development were aroused at mid-century by the establishment of railroads throughout the region. Wealthy New Yorkers and others purchased large tracts of land on which they built spacious mansions and manor houses. They maintained New York City as their principal places of employment and traveled daily to work by train, thus becoming Teaneck's first suburban commuters.

The largest estate built in Teaneck belonged to William Walter Phelps, the son of a wealthy railroad magnate and New York City mercantilist. In 1865, Phelps arrived in Teaneck and enlarged an old farmhouse into a spectacular Victorian mansion on the site of the present municipal government complex. Phelps' "Englewood Farm" eventually encompassed nearly 2,000 acres of landscaped property within the central part of Teaneck.

Hence, subsequent development and house construction was refocused along the perimeters of the township, the central part being a lovely parklike tract crisscrossed by picturesque roads and trails.

New beginning

First Teaneck Municipal BuildingThe Township of Teaneck was established on Feb. 19, 1895 and was comprised of parts of Englewood, Hackensack, Ridgefield Park, Bergenfield, and Bogota. William W. Bennett, overseer of the W.W. Phelps Estate, chaired the three-man Township Committee (later replaced by a seven-member Township Council). The town's population was 811.

During these early days of the 20th century, the town's affairs focused on construction of streets and street lamps (originally gaslights), trolley lines (along DeGraw Avenue), telephones and speeding traffic. Social activities centered on church events and harness racing at the popular racetrack on Cedar Lane, near River Road.

Several small inns offered fine dining and dancing to overnight guests. One such establishment, the Teaneck Inn, was a fashionable Victorian mansion that once belonged to Gen. and Mrs. Thomas B. Van Buren. Later, it became a popular speakeasy known as the Bluebird Inn, and, ultimately, it was replaced by today's Volk's Funeral Home.

Residential development began in earnest after the opening of the Phelps Estate in 1927. The completion of the George Washington Bridge in 1931 and its connection to Teaneck via State Highway Route 4 bought hundreds of curious and eager new homebuyers. The population increased 300 percent between 1920 and 1930, from 4,192 to 16,513.

Revamping government

Such rapid growth was not without its pains. Financial turmoil and inefficiencies in the town government finally resulted in the adoption of a new form of government.

A full-time city manager, Paul A. Volcker Sr., was appointed to handle day-to-day business affairs. Volcker's 20-year term, from 1930-1950, provided Teaneck with economic stability, zoning, and long-term development plans, a paid fire department and civil service for township employees. It also established a model for future administrations to follow.

The first Master Plan that was presented to the Township Council in 1933 recognized the dynamic changes taking place within the community, and sought "...to preserve Teaneck's many advantages and to encourage its future development as a predominantly residential community of the best type." This high-minded goal has largely been realized in the intervening years. Teaneck was exhibited as a Model American Community in 1949 as an example of local government at its best.

Teaneck Road 1949

The rapid changes and complicated demands of the modern era have also been met by careful consideration and adherence to the principles established by Teaneck's early citizens and planners. Never was this better illustrated than in 1965 when, after a long and difficult struggle, Teaneck became the first town in the nation where a white majority voted for school integration.

There have been other challenges as well: interstate highways, high-rise hotel and office complexes, the demands of increased vehicular traffic and the needs expressed by a citizenry of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are the fibers that make up the ornate and fine fabric that is Teaneck.