Entrance to Hoboken cave unearthed. Flowing spring, brick wall, cobblestone floor found at site where Poe based story

Entrance to Hoboken cave unearthed
Flowing spring, brick wall, cobblestone floor found at site where Poe based story
12/19/2004  Hoboken Reporter

Sybil's Cave has long been a part of Hoboken's local lore. Wealthy Manhattanites once picnicked outside, health seekers drank water with supposed medicinal powers from its spring, and Edger Allen Poe based a detective story on events there.

But for the better part the last century, the cave has been buried under brush, dirt, and rock, and has slowly seeped into Hoboken legend.

Last year, Mayor David Roberts, who has heard many stories about the famous but hidden landmark, set out to find Sybil's Cave, which is located in the mountainous side of Sinatra Drive at the base of Stevens Institute of Technology. He wanted to reopen it in time for the city's 150th birthday celebration next year.

On Tuesday, after nearly a year of searching for the entrance, the mouth of the cave was rediscovered. Using a large backhoe, construction workers found a brick wall, believed to be part of the cave's original support. Also uncovered were carved granite blocks that appear to be part of the cave's entrance, along with the cave's cobblestone floor.

Contrary to local myth, Sybil's Cave was not a natural formation. According to historical documents, the 30-foot deep cave was dug out of the cliffs to reach a natural spring.

And that's where the most exciting part of Tuesday's find comes into play.

Roberts, and those interested in the project, were concerned that over the past 70 years the spring may have dried up or changed course. But when the cave was revealed, right at its base there was a steady stream of crystal clear flowing water.

It is anticipated that the actual renovation, to which Roberts personally has committed substantial financial support, is scheduled to begin in the spring with a possible dedication as early as next summer. Stevens, who owns the property where the cave is located, is assisting in the excavation and renovation.

"This is going to be such a fun project," said Roberts Thursday. "Being from Hoboken and growing up in the '60s and '70s, you couldn't help but hear old-timers tell stories about Sybil's Cave. This is all very exciting."

Attraction in 1832

Sybil's Cave was first opened as a day trippers' attraction in 1832, according to an Aug. 9, 1934 story in the Hoboken Dispatch newspaper.

In Hoboken's early days, the city's waterfront was a retreat for wealthy New Yorkers. Hoboken, which during the 1800s was most certainly "the country," represented an opportunity for stressed out socialites to spread out a blanket on the "River Walk" and share a picnic with friends outside the mouth of Sybil's Cave.  At night, the area became a popular location for young lovers.

A natural spring

During the summer, thousands of glasses of the spring water were sold for a penny apiece. It's important to remember that this was more than 150 years before the bottled water craze, so it was unusual to pay a penny for a glass of water.

What made this spring water special was that it was said to have medical properties. But unfortunately for the spring water entrepreneurs in the 1880s, local Health Boards started to be formed. At this time, according to historical documents, chemists found traces of sewage, and the water was declared unfit for human consumption.

This was a step backward for the popularity of the cave, but its history doesn't end there.

According to the Dispatch story, Fred Eckstein opened a tavern near the cave, which continued to attract visitors. But soon the cave was locked by a metal door and used for storage by the tavern.

On Tuesday, samples of the spring water were taken so that the water could be tested.

The turn of the century

As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, Hoboken was in the middle of a major transition. Shipping docks had risen on the waterfront, and picnickers were replaced with a much different breed - the longshoremen.

The tavern became a "gin mill" for rowdy dockworkers and after years of abuse, the tavern was torn down in the 1930s. The vacant site quickly became a favorite location for squatters.

Because the cave was not kept up, it was deemed a safety hazard. It was filled with dirt and concrete during the 1930s. Since that time, the cave only existed in local gossip and old wives' tales. As each year passed, it fell further away from the public's consciousness.

The Poe story

On the hot, steamy afternoon on July 28, 1841, James Boulard and Henry Mallin were strolling along the Hoboken waterfront near Sybil's Cave when they saw what appeared to be a body floating in the river.

What they found was the body of a young woman named Mary Cecilia Rogers. They made several attempts to fish out the body, but eventually they tied a rope under the dead woman's chin and rowed the body toward the shore.

Mary, a young and beautiful 20-year-old, left her home on the morning of July 25, 1841 telling her current boyfriend and boarder, Donald Payne, she would be visiting her aunt uptown. She would never return.

According to the account of one of the first reporters on the scene, "...she was laying on the bank, on her back, with a rope tied around her.... Her forehead and face appeared to have been battered and butchered to a mummy. Her features were scarcely visible, so much violence had been done to her...she presented the most horrible spectacle that the eye could see."

Quickly, Rogers' death became one of the biggest stories in the New York area. If something like this happened today, the story might be one of those "ripped out of the headlines" plot lines of an episode of Law and Order. Rogers had run a boarding house on Nassau Street in New York. She also worked as a sales girl in a nearby tobacco shop. Nassau Street at that time was the center of the growing publishing and printing business, including the new "Penny Press," the equivalent of our tabloid newspapers.

Rogers' death was well known by many of the writers and publishers of the fledgling papers, and they picked up the story and gave it legs.

This gave Hoboken and Sybil's Cave a boom of publicity and tourism. Every weekend, visitors, amateur sleuths and journalists would come to Hoboken to try and solve the case.

One of the avid followers of the story was an unknown and struggling writer living in Hoboken at the time named Edgar Allan Poe. Years later he turned Rogers' story into a detective yarn called "The Mystery of Marie Roget." While he changed the setting to the streets of Paris, the rest of the details of the mystery remained the same.

Despite the endless commentary and speculation in the press, the case was never officially solved. Every one of Rogers' former suitors was publicly charged, but officially cleared. In fact, the stress and pressure drove Payne to swallow a flask of poison, and he died at the footstep of Sybil's Cave.

The next step

Daniel Gans, a local developer, and George Crimmins, the city's former business administrator, were the two operating the backhoe when the cave was unearthed. Crimmins, who is Hoboken born and raised, said that he had a good idea where the cave is from stories from his childhood.

"This is definitely it," said Crimmins. "There's no absolutely no doubt about it."

But he said that there are still several challenges that need to be dealt with before the cave can be fully dug out and opened.

"The first concern has to be safety," he said. He said that an engineer will be brought in to make sure that the cave is stable. He added that the cave is old and there is a possibility that it is structurally weakened.

"Right now, if there were to be a heavy rainstorm, there is certainly a chance that it could collapse," Crimmins said. "The last thing we want is for a kid to be down there if that were to happen."

So before the site is stabilized, dirt was used Tuesday to refill cave so that people don't wander into an unsafe situation.

"The good news is that we found the cave and now know exactly where it is," said Roberts. "Now what we have to do is figure out the best way to restore it so that it can be enjoyed by future generations of Hoboken residents."

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