Colonel John Stevens III
The story logically begins with John Stevens, III (1749-1838) who bought the land upon which the institute sits. The buyer was of the third generation of Stevenses, a family of landed gentry which came to colonial America in 1699. With income from extensive real estate in New Jersey and from a merchant fleet plying the Atlantic trade routes, the second and third generations of Stevenses had intermarried with other wealthy New Jersey and New York families and immersed themselves in the pursuits typical of their class in the enlightened 18th century: education, natural philosophy, architecture and civic activism.
John Stevens, III, was educated at Kings College (Columbia) and followed the example of his father and most of the landed elite by joining the patriot party during the Revolutionary War. While his father was secretary to Governor Livingston (New York), the son, at 27 years old, was appointed captain in Washington's army.
Later, as a colonel, he collected taxes for the American cause as treasurer of New Jersey. After the war in 1784, John Stevens, III, or Colonel John as he became known, bought at public auction from the state of New Jersey land which had been confiscated from a Tory landowner. The land, described as "William Bayard's farm at Hoebuck" comprised approximately what is now the city of Hoboken.
Almost from the start of his ownership, Colonel John was interested in steamboats. In general, the interest of Americans was whetted by the inventor John Fitch's public demonstration of a primitive model steamboat in 1787 before members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the first steamboat in the world. In the late 1780s interest was further stimulated by a pamphlet war among proponents of the application of steam power to boats over feasibility and the issue of monopoly rights in the waters of the several states.
Colonel John became an enthusiastic and active supporter of steam navigation and envisioned, as did Fitch before him, the public benefits and personal profits resulting from steamboats linking the geographically separated population centers in the United States. This combination of civic and private motivation was natural in the 18th century when transportation projects required large initial outlays of private capital given the limited functions of government; investments in turnpikes, canals and bridges were repaid by tolls, and the risks of investment were lessened by the award of monopoly rights for a number of years.
It was also natural that Stevens quickly entered into steam boating, given his wealth and his family's experience in transportation. In addition to owning a merchant fleet, his father had been commissioner of turnpikes for the colony of New Jersey before the war, and Colonel John himself was a planner and later president of the Bergen Turnpike Company incorporated in 1802.