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From the Archives: Signs of the Times

Fort Lee history tour for students of Fort Lee School No. 4 and historic signs and markers of Fort Lee.

Recently I was fortunate enough to lead a historic jitney tour around Fort Lee for local history students. We took several busloads of these young historians around Fort Lee to showcase a hidden history of the past that up until now has been something as invisible to them as Santa Claus was to young Virginia O’Hanlon. But in that great 1897 New York Sun editorial, the newspaper editor Francis Pharcellus Church told young Virginia the following:

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

I take this as a template when giving history tours to Fort Lee students. What we hope to do is lift the veil from their young eyes and show them not only a vibrant town that is, but also the town that was, a borough that encompasses important parts of our nation’s history.

As the jitney bus left School 4, I told the students that this was no mere bus, but a time machine that was about to hurtle them back to 1776, when General Washington and his army encamped along Parker Avenue; to the beginnings of the American film industry in the first film town, where Mack Sennett led slapstick chase scenes down Main Street and Fox Studio star Theda Bara turned the back lot into exotic European locations; to one of the most famous amusement parks in American History, Palisades Amusement Park, where children their age from 1898 to 1971 spent their summers thrilled by rides and the world’s largest saltwater pool; to the construction of the busiest bridge in the world, the George Washington Bridge, which in a real way gave birth to our present day Borough  Hall and , both dating to 1929 as the bridge was being built.

This past week, I received many letters from these very same students, and I must say, anyone who has lost faith in the future should come to my office and read these wonderful, intelligent letters, as it will serve as a tonic for your weary soul.

Below are a few excerpts from the student’s letters:

  • I would like to express my thanks and sincere appreciation for giving us an incredible bus tour of Fort Lee. Who knew that the town I’ve lived in for many years has such a rich history? To tell you the truth, I didn’t understand what I could possibly learn from this tour that I didn’t know before about Fort Lee, but I was very wrong. You completely blew my mind with the information you shared, and it made me realize how little I know about my own town. I guess Fort Lee isn’t as boring as I thought.
  • Out of everything you mentioned there were two topics that really struck me with bewilderment: the film industry and Palisades Amusement Park. I can’t believe the suburban town of Fort Lee was once the center of the film industry from 1910-1917. This means that I’m living in what once was the “Hollywood” of its time, where Mr. Fox had his first studio, which later became Twentieth Century Fox, and where Universal Studio was born in 1912. It is incredible to think that Palisades Amusement Park was practically where my house is now. Also, I’d heard about this huge amusement park but never understood why it closed down. I thought maybe it was because the park was not popular enough and was not making a lot of money, when actually the reason was it was so popular that it caused too much traffic! To me, all of this information was incredible!

These are just excerpts from dozens of letters I was fortunate enough to receive from our young historians of Fort Lee. I hope these tours inspire the students to explore their town from a new point of view and to appreciate history as a living, breathing substance that is as close to them as is their imagination.

As we began the tour, some students asked why historic sites are not marked in town – I lead them to several historic markers and signs the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Fort Lee Historical Society have placed throughout the town in the past decade. 

More signs will follow, but currently there are eight historic markers and two commemorative historic street signs in the borough with two more commemorative street signs set to be unveiled during our June 24 Fort Lee Film History Jitney Tour. 

The Fort Lee Film Commission also produced, via a Bergen County History Grant, a film history map of Fort Lee that is available free to the public; you can get a copy at the at 1588 Palisade Ave., or at any of the summer-long programs held each Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the outdoor stage of the at 1355 Inwood Terrace from July 7 through Sept. 8. These maps will also be available at our June 24th Film History Jitney Tour. Visit www.fortleefilm.org for more information.

So explore Fort Lee via our historic signs and maps, and see your borough as our student historians see it, for at any moment, you may hear the footsteps of General Washington’s soldiers on the bluffs of the Palisades, or you may get caught on Main Street and Linwood Avenue in a slapstick chase scene led by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Or when in the Palisade section of town, you just might get a faint whiff of vinegar fries and hear some muffled screams of kids on the at Palisades Amusement Park.

Our history surrounds us, and all we need to see it is our own imagination.

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