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Hoboken (TBT): The History of the Turtle Club

by Aida
Attain Medspa
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Thursday is here! So it’s obviiiously time for a  Hoboken Girl #TBT. This week’s history lesson is dedicated to the cocktail club we all know and love — and aptly named so: The Turtle Club. This story is one of the crazier Hoboken tales we’ve heard, and it has to do with — you guessed it — TURTLES. Read on for a little trip back to the 1700s in Hoboken:

turtle club hoboken history

(Photo credit: Hoboken Historical Museum)

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Prior to serving their delicious cocktail and food menu {and having pretty much the best Moscow Mule on this side of the Hudson}, the Turtle Club was an actual club founded in 1796, according My Inwood. Founded by John Stevens (you may remember him from our little history lesson on Hoboken’s first family), who was also a former captain of George Washington’s Continental Army. Col. Stevens was a jack-of-all-trades, as he was an inventor, lawyer, and treasurer for NJ.

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Because of his talents in the engineering biz, Stevens gathered an immense fortune — plus some shrewd real estate investments and marriage into a filthy-rich family, he was pretty much enjoying the high life back in the late 1700s. As we all know, one of his holdings was the castle at Stevens Institute of Technology.

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Even with all of Stevens’ merits and accomplishments, he had some issues. But not of the mental kind — well, who knows — that is to be debated, as he was quite the character. But in this case, his *actual* issues were of the reptilian kind…actual SNAPPING TURTLES! Stevens’ riverfront Hoboken estate was plagued by these “conniving cold-blooded reptiles” as he described them — which often poached his prized European chickens.

See More: 10 Facts About Hoboken You Probably Didn’t Know

So, Stevens decided to send a boy who worked as a shepherd to go to the riverbank and check on the turtle sitch. When the boy headed down the mountain to the Hudson River to see the chickens {who excavated the slimy shore for clams}, he came across the creepiest situation ever: the turtles were grabbing the chickens by the legs and pulling them into the river!

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A quote from a NY Times article from 1878 perfectly describes the situation: “a huge turtle, with an arched back completely covered with moss, crept out of the river, seized an unsuspecting hen by the leg and dragged her off to his felonious retreat on the river bottom.” CREEPY! Since the turtles were poaching his chickens, Stevens declared a war; he immediately called some Manhattan buddies to cross over the Hudson to enjoy some turtle soup (we’re sure you can understand how the rest plays out…). Okay fine, we’ll tell you. “Each man cut the throat of his own turtle,” says NYT. Then, they feasted. Eeeeep!

Soon, this feasting became a club — and the eating went on for days. The members of the newfound turtle-feasting group (who assembled at Elysian Fields) were described as “one of the weightiest assemblages of solid men to be found between Wall Street and the Treasury Department.” Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as well as Benjamin Franklin had all been Turtle Club members (pretty solid #squadgoals…), and the club is now known as the oldest club in U.S. history. Together, they chowed down on turtles for several days — really depleting the supply and keeping the shores of Hoboken “safe.” Eventually, there were no more turtles to be eaten! Thank god, because a visit to Pier 13 with the threat of man-eating snapping turtles miiiight just be too much to handle.

In 1878, Manhattan club members voted to move their annual turtle soup-sipping feast into Tammany Hall in the city (sound familiar when your city friends complain about crossing the Hudson in present day?!) — which is a spot in the Lower East Side. At the club’s entrance, a giant turtle shell with the letters “H.T.C “ imprinted hung from the balcony of the locale, signifying the Hoboken Turtle Club.

Years passed and the entry to the club became super exclusive — and was renamed The New York Turtle Club. In 1893, the Old Kingsbridge Hotel became the Turtle Club’s new stomping ground. William Sperb, who was a veteran and a lover of turtles (or should we say eating turtles?), bought the hotel so the club could stay in business. Members, however, were heavy on the booze — and then of course wanted to eat. But that came with a price: it’s said that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr came up with the idea that no one was allowed to eat unless they helped out with the whole process of creating the dinner.

And as for the dinner menu, it consisted of boiled eggs, brandy, and of course — turtle soup. At this time, John Tarbell’s turtle soup recipe was such a hit that French General Lafayette asked for a bowl of the concoction when he came to the USA. Tarbell told the media in secret that his recipe consisted of some vegetables, which were potatoes, turnips, cabbage, radishes, peas, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers and cauliflower. The soup was known to be so rich in taste that nobody was able to have more than two bowls.

Sadly, the Old King Bridge Hotel was destroyed in a fire that swept through the Kingsbridge area. A couple of other buildings were destroyed aside from the hotel on October 27, 1903. Once 1938 approached, the Turtle Club began to meet in the Rathskeller of Manhattan’s Terminal Hotel, which had a sign that read: “When you enter this cellar, you meet a good feller.”

Fast forward to 2016, and the Hoboken Turtle Club has been “reestablished” — located on 936 Park Avenue (in 2003)— and while it doesn’t serve turtle soup, it does have a pretty legit wine club, cocktail list, and dinner menu. Even though the site of the restaurant isn’t at the same spot as the current-day bar and restaurant, it is pretty cool to reflect on the crazy history of the club. And dance to some ’90s on Saturdays. Wonder if John Jay and Hamilton would approve of ‘Return of the Mack’ on the playlist?

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Have a fun vintage photo or Hoboken story you’d like to submit for consideration in our #HobokenTBT? Email it to: hello@hobokengirl.com!

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