Borough of Closter, NJ

Historic Preservation Comission

Closter History

The places that tell America’s story aren’t just the places you have to travel far to see- an appreciation of history can be had in our own communities by just taking a leisurely walk. In Closter you can walk to the old Closter City train depot- a symbol of one of the most significant eras in our history. That was the time when the railway called the "Iron Horse" roared its way throughout our country, and changed everything forever.

Closter was settled in 1710 by Dutch families. For the next hundred and fifty years they farmed, speaking Jersey Dutch and living a life that was generally, with the exception of the disruption of the Revolutionary War, unwavering in its sameness. Farming was generally subsistance farming. If you made money, it was by raising beef: Before the opening of the West, Northern Valley was really cattle country! Imagine cattle grazing under ancient oaks and copper beeches down by Durie and Closter Dock!

For one hundred and fifty years Closter was an isolated place, and a trek to any larger outpost of civilization, such as New York, represented an investment of time and energy. The trip to Closter Landing, the ferry ride over the Hudson, and the carriage ride after that was not short and sweet.

That all changed in 1859, when the first wood-burning locomotive of the Northern Railroad came through Closter, bringing with it new people. One such was John Henry Stephens, a carpenter and businessman from Manhattan. Perhaps because he had connections to the area (his mother was a deClerk, his wife of the great tribe of Huyler), he was able to scope out the situation early and, starting around 1857, buy up a lot of property down by where the railroad would come in. His own building stood down by the tracks where the Closter Bootery now stands. For awhile it was forlorn by itself, but clever Stephens bided his time. And he was right to do so.

Soon the word spread through lower Manhattan. Up north was a garden paradise! People rode up for vacation spells, booking rooms in the many hotels that dotted the line. Those who liked what they saw stayed, and a new community, Closter City, sprang up around the first depot, which was no more than, according to the Handbook of the Northern Railroad, a “tin box, ticket sales, and a hat that contained the U.S. mail.”

Soon John Henry, as clever an architect as he was a businessman, was putting up fine little villas and houses for his new neighbors, and making lots of money at it. His own mansion stood tall on a rise overlooking Closter, the jewel of Durie Avenue and Knickerbocker Road. Soon a proper station was built in 1875 in the then-popular Victorian Stick style.

Closter continued to grow. In 1903, the Closter Chamber of Commerce reported that the population was about 1200; two-thirds of the male citizens were commuters and had businesses in New York City; the rest were men who made their livings in Closter and surrounding towns.

The station served commuters for decades more; however, the building of the George Washington Bridge and later the Palisades Interstate Parkway effectively put an end to the old commuter line. Now a freight train twice weekly runs over the tracks that once carried thirty-six trains a day. The old station still stands; it is now a private home.

Looking at it, you can imagine the sounds of steel wheels running clickety-clack on the railroad track, and plumes of steam and smoke chug-chugging out the stack and into the sky as great iron wheels pushed off with a groan.

The railroad changed Closter from an agrarian backwater to a railroad suburb in the blink of an eye, as it did in many little towns. Yet the old Closter City railroad depot is a reflection of something large in our history, something larger than any station stop. Standing near these tracks and this old depot, you can feel the rocking rhythms of America pushing forward, all determination and eagerness. In the old nearby neighborhoods, you can hear the echo of an America buzzing with confidence. You can hear what Walt Whitman heard, a sound that we can still hear today, if we care to: the sound of America singing.