The City of Bridgeton, New Jersey:

a capsule history




© 2009-17 Flavia Alaya

last updated October 2017













List of photo captions by numberBridgeton_History_files/Numbered%20List.pdf



The county seat of Cumberland County since 1748, the City of Bridgeton (pop. c. 25,000) straddles the Cohansey River--a tidal estuary that rises and falls with the sea-level of nearby Delaware Bay, a major inlet of the Atlantic seaboard. Although the founding history of the original settlement goes back to 1686, the city takes its name from the 1716 bridge that offered the first convenient overland route from the Atlantic through the wild South Jersey pinelands and wetlands to the markets of Philadelphia. Bridgeton’s accessible (if winding) water route to the Bay, however, and its proximity to the colonial port city of Greenwich, assured that shipping (as opposed to overland travel) would dominate transport till the mid-19th century.  Its Customs House records in the National Archives date from 1789-1913.

Historians confirm generally congenial interaction between the Amerindian natives (Lenni Lenape Delawares) and free blacks (probably from the West Indies) and the first European settlers (Swedes, Finns, Dutch and the English, Scottish, and Irish of the Fenwick Colony). This not only encouraged natives to lend their ongoing presence to the community, but led to distinctive patterns of intermarriage and the founding of the first free African American settlement in the colonies in Gouldtown, now within the municipal boundaries of Bridgeton and Fairton.

As the town grew, industrial development never quite overpowered its natural setting, but develop it did. Richard Hancock had established a sawmill here as early as  1686. After the Revolution, Cumberland Nail & Iron Works, envisioning a pioneering American manufactory, turned the upriver wetlands into waterpower beginning in 1814, and slowly expanded the nail-making industry to both sides of the Cohansey. Bridgeton soon became a center for glass production as well, along with metal and machine works (of which the Ferracute Works was the most prominent) , food processing and canning, and even textile manufacture. Incorporated as a city in 1865, it was considered, post-Civil War, the most prosperous in New Jersey.

New wealth also made Bridgeton a pioneer in education, a reputation that was launched by the early Harmony School for boys and flourished with the mid-century rise of several private institutions for girls. By the 1880s, it was home to Ivy Hall, Seven Gables, South Jersey Institute, and West Jersey Academy as well as major initiatives in public education. The same new wealth inspired elegant and fanciful mansions for the gentry, and made gingerbread charm and craftsmanship hallmarks of smaller homes for managers and workers. With the twentieth century, a new rainbow of immigrants spread like a crazy-quilt over the farms-turned-sidestreets, neighborhoods that document the rise and growth of an organic industrial and commercial center as perhaps few other American cities still can. 

Two visionary events have left their planning imprint on the city. When the Iron Works closed in 1899, local conservationists reclaimed its 1100-acre watershed as a City Park, now one of the largest urban parks in the state and home to New Jersey's first and oldest free public Zoo. Foresighted local preservationists later saw the extraordinary legacy of Bridgeton's built environment, and the city in 1983 declared itself owner of the largest National Register Historic District in the New Jersey (about 2200 properties, mostly residential, over more than 600 acres). 

Bridgeton’s Historic District remains a virtual time-capsule of the American dream. Its annual house tour has become a signature event, met with high expectancy every holiday season. But it can provide only a tantalizing glimpse into a district so large, so rich with interesting residential,  industrial and public architecture, so highlighted with distinguished national sites, and so replete with ordinary American memory--the more wonderful, perhaps, because it is ordinary.

The dream lives--as does the creative synergy between farm and city, nature and culture, land and water, that is this city’s hallmark. In the post-war period, the deindustrialization that has left agriculture alone among thriving regional industries has attracted an energizing mix of striving farmworkers, largely from Mexico, and regional ex-urbanites who have discovered here a rare quality of life, economic potential, and cultural diversity--all within easy reach of the entire Northeast-Mid-Atlantic metropolitan region. Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, which recently located in the former David Sheppard House, reaffirms Bridgeton as educational pioneer, even as a tour like this one heralds the city's self-reinvention as a center of eco- and heritage tourism.

Bridgeton beckons you...

Bridgeton welcomes you!

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