One of the fastest growing suburban areas in central Middlesex County is East Brunswick Township. Located inland of South River, it runs parallel to the South River on its eastern and southern side and is bordered by the Farrington Lake to its west. 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 step son, 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 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 landowners.
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 parts 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 live 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 Philadelphia.” In 1823, a steamboat route was established as 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 current community of East Brunswick. However, the original lands within this geographic area also included the villages now known as Helmetta, South River, and Spotswood as well as Milltown. In 1860 the Township of East Brunswick separated from North Brunswick and Monroe and 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 and 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 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 watermen 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 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, and the Monmouth County Historical Museum in addition to Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The manufacture of brick flourished in East Brunswick from 1850-1878 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, Rues, and Charles Bissett, all Old Bridge residents. This occurred during the period of great expansion in the metropoli 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.
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.
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 East Brunswick Public Library, located at the municipal complex, was dedicated in 1976. It is a fine example of an all encompassing library facility serving the needs of an ever- growing community.
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 (#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 serve by a trolley-line from Trenton. Route 18, built in 1935, diverted much of the traffic from Old Bridge Turnpike.
However, with the conclusion of World War II the demand for post-war housing had a heavy impact on East Brunswick. Its location and farmland were ideally suited to mass-produce residential developments. The New Jersey Turnpike, which intersected the Township in 1951, made distance cities accessible. Consequently, the population growth between 1955 and 1970 thoroughly altered the character of East Brunswick from a farmer agricultural community to an intensely developed commuter suburb.
From 1860 to 1963, the Township Committee consisted of from three to five (part-time) elected Committeemen. Each year a different member was to act as Mayor. The tremendous population expansion created overwhelming problems for the five-member Township Committee government. During 1963 a Charter Study Commission recommended the Township adopt the Mayor-Council form of government. In 1964, the first Mayor-Council organization took office. The Mayor-Council form implemented in 1965 and which is in existence now. In 2010 the Mayor is independently elected by the voters for a four year term. Each of five Council persons is elected for four-year terms, but their terms are staggered. Each segment of the government operates with prescribed duties and powers.
During the 1970-2009 era, all community institutions experienced vast expansion. This was especially true for the public schools, library, houses of worship, and business and shopping centers.
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 49,000 residents. The Township’s educational system has provision for eight public elementary schools, a middle school, as well as a junior high school and a high school. In addition, there are in existence several private schools and a County vocational-technical high school.
Over the years, the Township has been proud of developing community parks for its residents. At the last count, we had 13 such areas for residents to enjoy various forms of relaxation, sports, and a Township pool.
The expansion of cultural opportunities has been enriched by the East Brunswick Museum located in the Historic District, as well as the new residence for Playhouse 22 at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center. More recently, the East Brunswick Historical Society has been the beneficiary of the former L.J. Smith Farmhouse on Milltown as its headquarters and where it continues to present historically significant programs, lectures, and exhibits.
East Brunswick now faces the greatest challenge in its history. Widespread home development emphasizes the need to preserve those historic landmarks which best exemplify our heritage. Over the years, the Historical Society has provided for the presentation of several distinctive structures such as the Marion Thomas House on Rt. 18 at the entry to East Brunswick which has been placed on the National Register. The Society has also succeeded in placing the small, charming, bustling community in the southern part of our town, the Old Bridge section, on the N.J. State Register and the National Register of Historic Places, the first in all of Middlesex County. But this is not sufficient; we must be vigilant and preserve these significant symbols of our past.
Researched and written by:
Estelle Goldsmith, Local Historian
This brief history of East Brunswick has been prepared for distribution by the East Brunswick Historical Society as a public service. The Society acknowledges the following artists and organizations for permitting us to use their art work: Rosalie Littlefield, R.J. Albrecht, and the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission.