The Stevens Family

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Civic Engagement

Continuing the civic sprit demonstrated by Hoboken's founder in war and peace, several descendents of Colonel John Stevens have had important roles in philanthropy and politics.

The Stevens family never served in elected offices in Hoboken, preferring other roles in civic life. Edwin Stevens served as tax commissioner, public works commissioner and trustee of the local Episcopal Church. He also served the State of New Jersey as chairman of the commission that established the Interstate Palisades Park, a green space just outside the busy New York City metro area that preserves the natural beauty of the Hudson shoreline.

Edwin's wife, Martha Bayard Stevens, showed a generous hand to the city her family had founded. She commissioned the construction of compact row houses at Willow Terrace. They were patterned after similar workers' homes she had seen on a trip to Scotland and were meant to be more appropriate living quarters for low-income families than were crowded tenements. The Church of the Holy Innocents, at Willow Avenue and Sixth Street, was completed in 1874. Unlike many churches of the time, it did not charge a pew fee to be seated.

The current building that houses the Hoboken Public Library, at the corner of Fifth Street and Park Avenue, sits on land donated by the Stevens family. Martha Bayard Stevens laid the cornerstone on April 20, 1896.

Richard Stevens, son of Edwin and Mary, was deeply interested in social service work. In 1896 he founded the first probation office in New Jersey, in a modest office on Newark Street in Hoboken. While the probation office had no legal standing at first, it was a powerful demonstration of a possible option in criminal justice. In 1900 New Jersey became the fourth state to establish probation as an adjunct to the courts, and Richard's office was absorbed by the county government.

Caroline Bayard Stevens, the last surviving child of Edwin and Mary, was a lifelong social reformer. Caroline had taken the last name of Wittpenn from her second husband, a former mayor of Jersey City and naval officer of the Port of New York. Her 1932 death at Castle Point made local headlines, as Mrs. Wittpenn was not only the last Stevens to live in Hoboken, but was so well known for her civic work that Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover sent telegrams mourning her passing.

In a December 15, 1932 article on Caroline's life, the Jersey Observer declared that "Throughout her life she devoted herself to social welfare work and was recognized as one of the foremost women in this work in the United States." She had been active in numerous civic organizations. During the First World War, she held important posts in the administration of Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross. She worked at an almshouse and led reforms of the poor relief system. Together with her brother Robert she successfully advocated the creation of separate courts for juvenile delinquents and a new reformatory system. In 1930 and 1931, President Hoover appointed her to represent the United States at an international conference on prison and crime. Her life's work was recognized with a gold medal from the National Institute of Social Science.

At Caroline's last birthday party she moved all the guests of the surprise affair by telling short anecdotes about their relationship. She may have summed up the Stevens spirit when she said "I have always been curious. I like to know how things are going on. Perhaps that's why I have so many interests."

Though the Stevens family moved out of Hoboken, one descendent with memories of Castle Point was Millicent Fenwick. Born Millicent Vernon Hammond in 1910, she was one of Edwin Stevens' great grandchildren. Millicent worked briefly as a fashion model and had a successful career of writing for Vogue, but she was most well known for her life in politics. She stood out for her quick wit, her eccentric but dignified manner, and her championing of reforms. While serving in the United States Congress, she took a leading role in creating the commission to monitor the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights. Though she would make her home in Bernardsville, New Jersey, she said in a 1974 interview that Castle Point had been a "focal point" that the family had been attached to and that Bernardsville was not too far to stretch the imagination. Almost two centuries after Colonel John Stevens had explored the old farm on the Hudson, Hoboken still mattered to his civic-minded descendant.


Sources

Archibald Douglas Turnbull, John Stevens, an American Record. Archive.org.

Bruce Lambert, “Millicent Fenwick, 82, Dies; Gave Character to Congress,” The New York Times. September 17, 1992.

http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/17/nyregion/millicent-fenwick-82-dies-gave-character-to-congress.html

“Famous Hobokenites: Millicent Fenwick,” Hoboken History, No. 24, 1999, 5. Hoboken Historical Museum Collections.

Interview Transcript, Millicent H. Fenwick, Mary Stevens Baird, and Mr. and Mrs. Archibald Stevens Alexander, Stevens Institute of Technology, December 12, 1974. Stevens Family Collection.

Jim Hans, 100 Hoboken Firsts, 66-67.

Mary Stevens Baird Interviews & Transcripts, Stevens Family Collection.

“Mrs. Wittpenn Dies in Sleep.” Jersey Observer, December 5, 1932, Stevens Family Collection.

“Mrs. Wittpenn’s Death Had Its Historical Importance” Hudson Dispatch, December 8, 1932, Stevens Family Collection.

“Mrs. Wittpenn Death Deplored at White House” Hudson Dispatch, December 6, 1932, Stevens Family Collection.

“Points of Interest.” Hoboken Historical Museum. https://www.hobokenmuseum.org/self-guided-walking-tours/points-of-interest

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