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Hoboken During World War One
by Christina A. Ziegler-McPherson

The United States’ entry into World War I on April 6, 1917 on the side of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia had a dramatic affect on Hoboken. Hoboken was one of the most German cities in New Jersey, with nearly 26 percent of its residents being either German-born or the children of German immigrants.

 Hoboken was also the American home port of five major passenger and shipping lines, including the German-owned Hamburg-American Packet Co. and the North German Lloyd Steamship Co., which had been bringing immigrants and other travelers to Hoboken since the 1860s.

World War I brought widespread unemployment and the closure of many businesses, displaced thousands of residents, and militarized the city. Although manufacturing employment boomed as many factories in Hoboken contracted with the federal government to make military supplies, other, travel-related businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and the steamship companies, suffered. Hoboken in 1919 was a very different community than it had been in 1916.

Hoboken WWI Troops Stereoviews 2 JMMcropCaptionThe first thing the U.S. did after declaring war on Germany was to seize the German steamship companies’ piers and the 27 ships docked in the Port of New York, and intern 1,000 German sailors, officers, and officers’ families who had been living on board ship at Ellis Island. Hoboken was designated the Government’s main Port of Embarkation, from which the new American Expeditionary Force would sail to France.

Now at war, the U.S. designated the 500,000 German citizens living in America as “enemy aliens.” Among the dozens of prominent Germans arrested and interned was the Rev. Dr. Hermann Bruckner of St. Matthew’s German Lutheran Church, Eighth and Hudson Streets. Department of Justice agents arrested Bruckner on April 6 while 500 members of his congregation were at the church waiting for him to preside over a Good Friday service. After extensive lobbying and the posting of a $500 bond, Bruckner was finally released from Ellis Island in late August 1917.

Enemy aliens lived under a long list of restrictions. The rule that most impacted Hoboken’s German residents was the one that designated all of the piers in the Port of New York as a “barred zone” in which no enemy alien could live or work without a special permit. By June, Hoboken Germans were complaining of having to pay $1 in graft each day to get their permits to work on or near the docks.

The combination of being banned from the waterfront and discrimination resulted in thousands of Germans losing their jobs. Then, on November 16, President Wilson proclaimed that enemy aliens could not live, work, or even travel within 100 yards of docks, piers, and waterfronts. One thousand families who lived on Hudson Street were evicted from their homes. Another 800 people were arrested in a series of raids the Army conducted on River Street. Anyone who could not prove his citizenship was detained and taken to Ellis Island.

As the Army’s main Port of Embarkation, Hoboken became a militaryHoboken WWI Troops Stereoviews JMMCropCaption town. Approximately 1.7 million soldiers of the 4.7 million-man American Expeditionary Force passed through Hoboken on their way to Europe. Another 2,400 officers and 24,000 enlisted men served in the Embarkation Service, most of them based in Hoboken. The German Seamens’ Institute (Deutsches Seemannhaus) at 64 Hudson Street was converted into sailors’ barracks, and the Grand Hotel, Hudson and Third Streets, was taken over by the War Camp Community Service and filled to capacity with officers and their families.

The war also brought Prohibition early to Hoboken. Soldiers were prohibited from drinking, and alcohol was not allowed to be served within a half-mile of a military facility. Although Hoboken was not a military base, the Army successfully closed all but 60 of the city’s 338 saloons in order to keep soldiers from drinking.

Although German citizens were excluded from enlisting in the U.S. Army, many American citizens of either German birth or heritage served in the AEF, sometimes fighting against German relatives in Europe.

The first Hoboken casualty was Corporal Christopher A. Mohr, Jr., 23, of 123 Monroe Street, who was killed June 9, 1918 attacking Belleau Wood. Both of Mohr’s parents were born in Germany. When Mohr’s body was finally returned to Hoboken, the city hosted a military funeral on February 19th 1922 at the Masonic Club at 11th and Bloomfield Streets.

Mohr was just the first of ultimately 70 Hoboken residents who died during the war. Total American casualties were 204,002 wounded, 116,516 dead; of those, 53,402 had been killed in battle, and 63,114 had died of disease, mostly influenza, and accident.

Once the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, Hoboken began its own battle with the federal government to get the confiscated German piers turned over to a tax-paying entity and be compensated for the loss of tax revenue the city had experienced since April 1917. This effort would last for nearly 70 years until the piers returned to city control in 1987.

 Dr. Christina A. Ziegler-McPherson is a public historian who lived in Hoboken from 2005-2014; she now lives in London.

Posted 15 December 2016