By Tom Dwyer
In a recent article in USA TODAY, Jersey City was picked as a model of smart growth for the rest of America to follow. Bob Leach, who is the director of the Jersey City Historical Project, a program of the Jersey City Public Library and the Jersey City Division of Cultural Affairs, remembers when Jersey City was written off as a wasteland back in the 60’s and 70’s. He believes that the revitalization of the city is a great thing, but he also wants the people of Jersey City, old and new, to remember the very important and sometimes colorful past of Jersey City.
Leach, who was born in Jersey City in 1938 and has called it home all his life, grew up hearing stories about Jersey City from his relatives, most times around the kitchen table. “This was before television,” Leach said, “and most evenings we would listen to the radio or just talk. And many times my aunts and uncles would tell stories that would have me on the edge of my seat. And, it was then that the art of story telling captured my imagination.”
His passion for keeping the history of Jersey City alive has taken him to schoolrooms, senior citizen centers, the backrooms of taverns and the libraries in
Jersey City. Twelve years ago, after retiring, he was hired by the Jersey City Library to continue his story telling and to archive his stories for future generations. “I like to tell people that I am not a historian, I am a story teller,” Leach said. “I tell stories based on local history.” And tell stories he does. Recently, he spoke and previewed his video on the life of Frank Hague, the most famous or infamous mayor Jersey City ever had at the
Jersey City library branch located at Five Corners. The group of fifty or more attendees watched the video on the life of Hague and listened as Leach spoke about Hague’s reign, which ran from 1917 to 1949. “I grew up in a very special time. I was born in an era when it seemed that there was only one pope, (Pious the 12th) one president (FDR) and one heavyweight champ (Joe Louis). It was a time of great stability. There were these mythical giants out there, and for us school children in
Jersey City; there was only one man bigger, and that was Mayor Frank Hague.”
Leach has been fascinated by Mayor Hague all his life. Each year, his mother would point out Mayor Hague marching in the Holy Name parade and tell stories about him. Ever since Leach has been a young man he has set out to interview anyone who knew Frank Hague. He has first person accounts on audio and video tapes from dozens of Hudson County residents.
On the fourth floor of the main library of Jersey City, located at 437 Jersey Avenue., Leach has his office where most days he is compiling his stories, videos and tapes for people to hear. “In the beginning, I told my stories mostly in taverns, but now at my age, I want to leave as much material on the history and stories of Jersey City as I can, so I’m busy making sure everything is on video. Soon my videos will be available at the lending desk of the library, and with videos I can reach a younger generation.”
Leach has also written two books, Saloon Stories—about the saloons of Jersey City and Hoboken back in the early days, and The Frank Hague Picture Book. He also founded the Jersey City-based Irish Cultural Society of New Jersey. But the thing that makes him most happy is the telling of the story in person. He has many favorites and some of the most important are about the very early history of Jersey City when the settlers first arrived. One of his favorite stories when he speaks to kids and adults alike is “Half Indian Jack and the Buried Treasure.” It’s a story about an escaped slave who worked on a Dutch farm in Harsimus Cove. He was half Indian and half black. The story is about a treasure that was buried in Downtown Jersey City and still has not been found. Another story is about the colonial heroes like Cornelius Van Vorst who helped found Jersey City.
Leach also likes to tell stories about the unions and just how powerful they were in Jersey City when he was a boy. “Jobs were handed out by the unions and sometimes a scab might try to get around a union. This is where the term ‘The Jersey Bounce’ came from. The scab would be caught, taken to the docks and dangled over the river by their hands and feet. And just when they thought they were going to be tossed into the river below and probably drown, they would be tossed in the other direction and would bounce a few times on the very hard cement—hence, ‘The Jersey Bounce.’
Another topic that Leach truly likes to tell stories about is the Irish of Jersey City. Leach is Irish and has been writing about the Irish in Jersey City for decades.
On March 19th at one pm, Bob Leach showed his original video, “Parade of the Shantytown Dead.” at the Five Corners library.