The East Brunswick Historical Society
The East Brunswick Historical Society was organized to stimulate an interest in history, particularly East Brunswick, and to protect and preserve historical sites and structures, artifacts, memorabilia and documents in East Brunswick, in order to create an identifiable cultural heritage for the community.
Over the years its accomplishments included:
- Prepared an inventory of sites which were significant to the preservation of history in East Brunswick and monitor the current status of these sites.
- Creation of an Historic District of Old Bridge-It was formally placed on NJ State Register 1975, and on the National Register, June 1977.
- Society prepared the first Historic District Ordinance in Middlesex County which was instrumental in the protection of historic structures in East Brunswick.
- It spearheaded the concept of the East Brunswick Museum. The establishment of such museum was to house these artifacts, memorabilia and to serve as a conduit for education of people of all ages in East Brunswick and New Jersey.
- The Society researched and prepared a History of East Brunswick, as a public service for the community.
- Creation and perpetuation of an annual History Scholarship for deserving high school graduating students.
- Provide informative, educational programs and exhibits.
- Provide History of East Brunswick brochure, statewide.
- Provide assistance for local history research.
For additional information and Membership: 249-3522
East Brunswick Historical Society
Box 12 East Brunswick, NJ 08816
History of East Brunswick, New Jersey for Three Centuries, Its Strategic Location Has Spurred Development
One of the fastest growing suburban areas in central Middlesex County is East Brunswick Township. Located inland south of the Raritan River, it runs parallel to the South River on its easterly and southern side and is bordered by the Farrington Lake on its westerly side. The area was settled in the 17th century by people of Scotch, English, Dutch and German origin. For various reasons, whether economic, religious or for adventure, they all sought to establish a new way of life.
The first settlers made their land deals directly with the Indians. However, when the English Lords Carteret and Berkeley in 1664 divided New Jersey into East and West Jersey, many of those early plantations had to be repurchased. Some of the earliest landowners in the area were Thomas Lawrence, Cornelius Longfield, David Mudie and John and Asher Bissett. Thomas Lawrence bought several thousand acres from the Indians as did his stepson, Cornelius Longfield. Since the most suitable form of transportation was by way of water, the original pioneers established themselves adjacent to the river routes. The earliest settlement in the northern area of East Brunswick was the vast plantation and home of Thomas Lawrence along the stream which now bears his name. Cornelius Longfield, his heir, finally dissolved these huge land holdings by selling them to smaller but equally enterprising landholders.
Farther south in the township of East Brunswick is the Historic District of Old Bridge. It is bordered on two sides, east and south, by the South River, by the Chestnut Hill Cemetery on the north and by Route 18 and Old Bridge Turnpike on the west. Due to its favorable geographical position located on the navigable part of the South River, the area attracted settlers as early as 1685. Old Bridge derives its name from the fact that the first bridge spanning the South River was built there, and as other bridges were built across the river the first one became known as "the Old Bridge." Prior to that, it was known as South River Bridge. Although the village had never been chartered or incorporated, it nonetheless grew, since it served the people and their needs. Through its long history the village had numerous names but none were as meaningful or as permanent as Old Bridge.
Three Settlements Define the Perimeter
(Old Bridge) East Brunswick is tremendously significant both historically and culturally because it was the center of an industrious community of people whose lives epitomized developments of the 18th and 19th centuries in Middlesex County. The district has withstood the difficulties of the growing nation from the time of its infancy to its maturity. This small secluded community has made its contribution to all the national efforts. Tombstones in Chestnut Hill Cemetery tell the story of numerous generations of families who lived in the village. Pioneers in the years from 1685-1725 included: David Mudie, Samuel Gordon, Robert Hardy, Abraham Barkalew, John Leonard, among others, recognized the potential value of locating their various activities along the navigable part of the South River. These men demonstrated bravery, courage and foresight.
Transportation by water, land and railroad had a significant influence on the growth and commerce of Old Bridge. The village occupied an excellent position on the most direct route to markets north and south. The earliest known commercial transportation utilization of the South River was that of Arthur Brown, who advertised in 1734 that he "plied a boat between New York and South River and would carry goods to Allentown, Burlington and Philadelphia." In 1823, a steamboat route was established at this location. This area eventually evolved into a complete community with commerce, industry and culture.
Early 17th century maps and archive deeds show that the area generally referred to as the Riva Avenue section of East Brunswick, (originally North Brunswick) was initially established by the DeHart family. This prolific family had first migrated from Holland to New England, then to the Princeton or South Brunswick area. Being extremely industrious, they purchased and developed plantations along the Farrington Lake area as well as in South Brunswick. The plantation in the Riva Avenue section was finally decimated and sold to small farmers. The location of the current Bicentennial Park in East Brunswick is on the precise location where the homestead of Abraham DeHart was situated until it was demolished several years ago.
These three widely separated settlements represented the perimeter of the present community of East Brunswick. However, the original lands within this geographic area also included the villages now known as Helmetta, South River, Spotswood as well as Milltown. In 1860 the Township of East Brunswick, separated from North Brunswick and Monroe, was incorporated as an entity. During the period between 1870- 1908 these other communities withdrew and formed independent governments. The area now referred to as the Historic District of Old Bridge was unique in its position by remaining within the Township of East Brunswick.
Raw Materials, Cheap Transportation, a Boom
The growth of industry in 19th century East Brunswick was facilitated by the abundance of raw materials, proximity to large markets as well as relatively inexpensive transportation to the markets of New York and Philadelphia.
(Old Bridge) East Brunswick was the junction point of several paths and roads. In 1684 the East Jersey Proprietors offered the public its first overland transportation route by authorizing the Lawrie's Road. The mails were carried across New Jersey on this route from the late 17th through the mid 19th century. In the mid 19th century this road was used to transport large quantities of fresh fruit from West Jersey for shipment to New York.
In 1740 the Amboy-Bordentown stage line was established and flourished until the Revolution. In addition, land travelers who sought to go to Monmouth and the shore had to traverse this area. Consequently, inns and stagecoaches became part of the local scene. Shortly after, the first railroad (the Camden-Amboy Railroad) was completed in 1833 and ran from South Amboy to Bordentown. Most travelers sought the inexpensive rail transportation and a railroad boom ensued. The railroad company built a freight station in the village, at the foot of River Road, to service the industry of the area. The single track train built in 1832 still passes through the village (Historic District of Old Bridge).
Shipping Prompts Growth, Too
The railroad and overland roads brought a measure of prosperity to Old Bridge (East Brunswick). They provided a way to transport the agricultural output of the interior and encouraged the growth of industry in the village. But the greatest industrial development which occurred early to mid-19th century was non-agricultural.
Docks and warehouses were constructed to accommodate the demands of commerce. Cargoes consisted of wood, produce, brick and clay products to the ever-expanding metropolitan area of New York and Pennsylvania. Several ships were built at Old Bridge as was a shipyard.
The lumber trade furnished employment to the early water- men who made Old Bridge their headquarters. Immense quantities of pine, oak, cedar, maple and ash were cut to meet the demand for building, firewood and shipbuilding. The sandy, clay soil in the area was very well adapted to the manufacture of pottery and bricks, and subsequent to the Revolution, General James Morgan and Jacob Van Wickle established a pottery which remained in operation until 1828. The Bissetts started a similar venture on the wharf of Old Bridge in 1815, as did many others through the mid-19th century. Thus was created a fine heritage of this craft for the area. Due to the unique quality of this area's pottery, which was beautiful, distinctive and useful, its reputation prospered and is now coveted by museums throughout the eastern central states. Examples of this clay craft may be found in the Newark Museum, New Jersey State Museum, Monmouth County Historical Museum in addition to Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The manufacture of brick flourished in East Brunswick from 1850 to 1878 and bricks were conveniently shipped, both quickly and economically, to the ever-expanding cities, north and south. In 1869 the East Brunswick Brick Company was organized by Messrs. Bissett, DeVoe, Rue and Charles Bissett, all Old Bridge residents. This occurred during the period of great expansion in the metropolitan surrounding New Jersey.
Other industrial and commercial enterprises of the 18th and 19th centuries included wood sawing mills, fanning and snuff mills, a distillery, blacksmith and wheelwright shops, general stores, clothing factories, warehouses and inns for the numerous travelers. The onset of World War I brought the revival of the munitions industry in this community.
East Brunswick has been host to extraordinary industries in its time. Currently, it is encouraging industrial parks which cater to light industry and more sophisticated post-industrial concerns, such as computer, electronics and publishing firms. Another hallmark of the area is the plethora of suburban shopping malls and businesses specializing in quick service.
Road Construction a Key
Overland roads, responsible for the area's original growth did not undergo any significant improvement during the 19th century. By 1903, the only improved road was the Old Bridge Turnpike to New Brunswick. A familiar landmark on this route, which still exists today, was the Cosmopolitan Inn (Number 9 Route 18). It was later used as an antique shop. This highway, as well as the Bordentown Road, which joined Old Bridge to Spotswood, represented the major arteries of the community. During the 1920s the Riva Avenue section, which had acquired a reputation as a resort, was served by a trolley-line from Trenton. Route 18, built in 1935, diverted much of the traffic from Old Bridge Turnpike.
Unprecedented development in central New Jersey occurred as a result of the completion of the New Jersey Turnpike in 1952. The phenomenal growth which ensued in East Brunswick far exceeded that of Middlesex County as a whole. The population of East Brunswick multiplied fivefold during the early 1950s.
A Vibrant Community
Combined with the active economic life, the community of East Brunswick started becoming concerned with some of the more educational and cultural aspects of life. One of the first schools established in East Brunswick was located in the Historic District of Old Bridge, and it is occupied today as a private residence. Several other one room schoolhouses have survived and have been converted to other productive uses without destroying their integrity. Miss Conover's School, a highly respected private institution, was founded in the Historic District during the mid-19th century. Established as a boarding school for girls, it continued to enjoy a fine national reputation for many years.
In addition, during the 19th century a number of artists and authors of international repute created highly respected works of art while residing in this locale. The artist, James Crawford Thom, became enchanted with the area and settled in the Historic District. His canvases were in demand in the more prestigious New York galleries and several are presently on exhibit in New Jersey museums and in the East Brunswick Museum.
Henrietta Christian Wright, a native of Old Bridge, East Brunswick, published a score of books for children on literature, history and science. She was the author of such volumes as "Children's Stories in American Literature," "Children's Stories of American History" and "Children's Stories of the Great Scientists." Although out of print now, copies of these are in the East Brunswick Museum Collection.
For more than a century East Brunswick was governed by the township committee type of government. In 1965 the township voted to convert to the Mayor-Council form of government, thus permitting public participation in a direct election of their governing officials.
Today, East Brunswick stands as an example of the evolution of a number of small disparate communities into a major municipal complex with more than 40,000 residents. The township includes 8 elementary schools, 2 junior high schools and a high school. Attendance at 22 houses of worship accounts for a great diversity of religious preferences. In addition, the township maintains approximately 137 miles of roads, and has developed 9 areas into community parks and one forest area. There are facilities for golf, tennis, soccer and other sports.
Preserving Our Heritage
The first library in East Brunswick was established on what is now Main Street in the Historic District and was known as the Appleby-DeVoe Memorial Library. It was in operation as an integral part of the East Brunswick Public Library System. In the future it will serve as an archival center for the East Brunswick Museum. The new Public Library located at the municipal center, dedicated in 1976, is a fine example of an all encompassing library facility serving the needs of a growing community. It has been the designated area library for southern Middlesex County.