The Bordentown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Text, below, was adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright© 2009, The Gombach Group.
Because of the relative lack of intrusions, which resulted from the economic decline at the end of the 19th century, Bordentown has maintained its 19th Century scale. Because of this congruity of scale, and the repetition of the simple 18th century box house from, the district has an overall quiet and restrained character. In some places the streetscapes are characterized by subtle rhythms created by slight variations of height and width of the simple structures. In addition, Bordentown has a fine collection of buildings of various styles and periods, from the early 18th to the late 19th century, some of which achieve a high style sophistication, unsurpassed in New Jersey.
Owing to the relative lack of intrusions, Bordentown is an intact surviving 19th century town, with a more or less complete set of class and economic neighborhoods. It survives thus, with a number of notable historical associations. It played an active part in the American Revolution, and was a focal point of considerable cultural achievement, which encompassed the state, and indeed the nation.
Bordentown was of considerable mercantile and industrial importance. The outstanding visual relic of which is the railroad overpass, designed by Robert L. Stephens (of the Stephens' of Hoboken), it is probably the oldest such overpass in the country.
Located between Philadelphia and New York, on a bend in the Delaware River, just below a series of rapids which make the river unnavigable to large ships and barges, Bordentown was ideally situated for the conduct of trade before the age of the automobile. Goods from Philadelphia destined for New York and further north were brought up river from Bordentown. There they were unloaded from the barges and ships and placed on wagons for the overland trip to New York. Similarly, goods from New York were brought overland to Bordentown where they were loaded on barges for the trip downstream to Philadelphia.
Bordentown, founded by Thomas Farnsworth in 1682, quickly became a thriving trading post for the new colony of Quakers. During the 18th century the town's role as a commercial port continued to expand. In the early 1700's Joseph Borden added a coach line that operated between New York and Philadelphia. Bordentown was an important way stop on the arduous seven-to-eight day journey.
Two developments of the early 19th century substantially increased the already significant importance of Bordentown as a center of trade. First was the completion of the Camden and Amboy Railroad. Not only was Bordentown a major stop, but it was also the location of the railroad shops and the original southern terminus of one of the nation's first commercially successful railroads.
Second was the completion of the Delaware and Raritan Canal for which Bordentown was the southern terminus. Now, goods from Philadelphia were unloaded from ships coming upriver at Bordentown, and placed on canal barges which went as far north as New Brunswick.
By the beginning of the 20th century Bordentown's role as a major commercial center - a role that it had performed for two centuries - had begun to wane, a victim of technological change and highway rerouting. The expansion of the Railroad network had already diminished the importance of transportation of bulk goods by water, and the advent of motorized trucks made it obsolete. The decision of the state to route two major highways so that they bypassed Bordentown meant that the city would not be able to benefit commercially from the age of the automobile.
Although commerce was the main economic life blood of Bordentown from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries, light industry was important almost from the beginning. Joseph Borden, for example, ran a number of enterprises in addition to his coach line; these included a brewery, cooper shops, and stables. There were also numerous grist mills and saw mills along Crosswicks Creek and Black's Creek as well as iron foundries smelting bog iron taken from the creeks' beds. These industries, of course, served primarily a regional market. Tanyards and brick works were also located near the historic district.
Much of what was located in or near Bordentown was related to the city's commercial role. Many of the barges plying the Delaware and the Delaware and Raritan Canal were built in shipyards located between Bordentown and White Hill that also constructed numerous other types of water craft. Most of the workers lived within the historic district.
The railroad age came to Bordentown in 1831. In that year Isaac Dripps, a local engineer, assembled the locomotive John Bull which had arrived in a crate from England. Subsequently Bordentown became an important half-way stop on the Camden and Amboy Railroad. Furthermore, the main shops of the Camden and Amboy were in Bordentown. Much of the city's mid 19th century prosperity and population depended on these shops, and there was a boom in housing construction to accommodate railroad workers.
In 1871 however, the Camden and Amboy Railroad became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The managers of the Pennsylvania decided that maintenance and construction of rolling stock could be done more efficiently in Altoona or in New Brunswick. The closing of the shops in Bordentown would have been a serious blow to the city's economy under any circumstances, but the effect was doubly severe because the closing of the shops coincided with the onset of the Panic of 1873. People were unemployed not only as a result of the depression, but also because of the closing of the shops. This led to a rapid out-migration of workers seeking employment elsewhere. Bordentown's economy never fully recovered.
The resort industry had become important by the mid 18th century. Because Bordentown was easily reached by water, many prominent Philadelphians, eager to escape the noise and congestion of the big city, built summer houses along Crosswicks Creek and along the Delaware. This industry continued to infuse money into the local economy until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when trains and automobiles made the New Jersey shore more accessible.
Bordentown was the site of one of the first successful public schools in New Jersey. About 1850, Clara Barton, then a young school teacher from New England (and later founder of the Red Cross), arrived in Bordentown. She was dismayed to see so many young people standing idly on the street corners. She was also puzzled; there was a district school, supported in part by public funds, for those who could not afford tuition at the numerous private schools in the area. The district school was commonly known as the "pauper" school.
After she investigated the situation, Barton concluded that the social stigma of attending the "pauper school" was the main obstacle between many Bordentown young people and education. Consequently she persuaded the town authorities to establish a completely free school and to make her principal. The authorities agreed, and in 1852 she took over a one room brick school house which had been built about 1839. A replica now stands within the historic district.
Owing in large measure to Barton's enthusiasm and dynamism as a teacher, the new free public school was almost an instantaneous success. In 1854 the school had to be moved to larger quarters to accommodate the increasing number of students. This building was in use as a school until 1954 when it was razed to make way for a more modern facility, appropriately named the Clara Barton Elementary School.
There were also several widely-known private schools that flourished within the historic district. Several of these were dame schools, training young women from affluent middle class families in the social graces and moral rectitude as well as in fundamental literary and mathematical skills. Among the schools of the like were Linden Hall and Bordentown Female College.
Linden Hall was a boarding school founded about 1835 by Madame Murat, wife of Prince Lucien Murat, a nephew of Joseph Bonaparte. After Prince Lucien had squandered his and his wife's fortune, Mdme Murat, herself a Bordentown native, opened the school to bring income into the family. Bordentown Female College, established by a Methodist minister in 1851, was another well-known boarding school; it operated successfully until it fell victim to financial problems brought on by the Panic of 1893.
From 1885 to 1972 the famous Bordentown Military Institute was located within the historic district. The official beginning of the Bordentown Military Institute dates from the arrival of Thomas H. Landon, a Methodist minister, as head of the school in 1885. Many BMI graduates went on to become honor students at West Point or Annapolis. Officers trained at least in part at BMI served in every American war beginning with the Spanish American war. At its height, more than 300 students attended. In 1972, financial problems, and an anti-military attitude which led to declining enrollments, forced BMI to move to Massachusetts where it merge with Lenox Academy.
While no great battles were fought within the historic district during the Revolution, Bordentown and Bordentonians played an important part in both the political and military aspects of the struggle for independence. Especially significant was the role of two Bordentonians, Francis Hopkinson and Thomas Paine, in pushing the colonists toward the decision for complete independence. In June 1776, with the Second Continental Congress wavering, the New Jersey Provincial Congress appointed a five man delegation to represent New Jersey at the Congress. All five delegates were strongly in favor of complete independence, but John Witherspoon of Princeton, and Francis Hopkinson of Bordentown were the most outspoken. Less than a month later Hopkinson became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Even earlier, of course, Thomas Paine's Common Sense had convinced many fence straddlers that complete independence was the only solutions for the problems of the colonies.
Because of its strategic location on the Delaware between Philadelphia and Trenton, the course of military events directly effected Bordentown. Several times the historic district was in British possession. As the British pushed Washington's forces out of New York, across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania during the fall of 1776, the British and Hessians occupied several towns on the New Jersey side of the Delaware as winter quarters. There were about 1500 Hessian troops quartered in Trenton, but the largest contingent, about 2,000, held Bordentown. This garrison was withdrawn after the Battle of Trenton, and about 1500 Americans moved in.
One of the most interesting episodes of the Revolution along the Delaware originated in Bordentown. This was the Battle of the Kegs. Eager to dislodge the British from Philadelphia, several Bordentonians designed mines to float down the river. These mines, launched at Bordentown, were actually kegs made at a local cooper shop, and loaded with gunpowder. A Bordentown gunsmith devised and installed a contact trigger mechanism on the mines.
Militarily, the Battle of the Kegs was an American failure. Because of heavy ice in the river, most of the British ships were tied up at the docks rather than lying at anchor in the flow. Consequently, the mines floated harmlessly by.
Nonetheless, the Battle of the Kegs buoyed American spirits at a time when they were low. As the kegs drifted toward Philadelphia a British barge crew tried to fish one out of the water. The keg exploded, killing four members of the crew. The jittery British commander in Philadelphia feared that the kegs were a prelude to an American assault on Philadelphia. He ordered his men to fire at anything moving on the river. And there they were, in the dark, ridiculously firing away at not only the kegs, but also logs and chunks of ice. Francis Hopkinson wrote a satirical poem about the "Battle." This poem was widely circulated.
In 1778 the British got their revenge. Aiming mainly to capture several American ships in port at White Hill, a British flotilla moved up the river from Philadelphia in May. When the British arrived at White Hill they discovered that the Americans had set fire to their own ships rather than allowing them to fall into enemy hands.
The British continued upriver for a few miles to Bordentown. Here they disembarked, and in retaliation for the Battle of Kegs, set fire to Borden's properties, looted most of the other homes in the historic district, and killed four citizens. The British retreated hastily when American troops, alerted by the smoke, arrived from Trenton.
Bordentown can claim a famous "first" in the colonies by having inaugurated the sculptural medium of the arts.
At the end of the 18th century, Bordentown-born Patience Lovell Wright (1725 - 1786) began the production of her many works in wax. Her work included miniature profile portraits, complete busts, and even a full-length effigy of William Pitt. Mrs. Wright later operated "Wax Works" in New York, London, and Paris.
While in London, she served as a spy for Benjamin Franklin during the Revolution. Her son Joseph (1756 - 1793) painted many portraits of George Washington and was friendly with Francis Hopkinson.
Bordentown stands out as a major center for painting in the Federal period. Most of the American artists of that era visited or lived in the area and their presence influenced the development of local talent and a lasting interest in art. Noted portraitist Gilbert Stuart (1755 - 1828) settled his family here in 1805 and Joshua Shaw (1776 - 1860) renowned for landscapes and marine scenes, lived on Farnsworth Avenue.
In later years, the presence of Joseph Bonaparte attracted many artists, either to view his extensive collection of art or to seek painting commissions. Charles B. Lawrence (1811 - 1864), who had studied under Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart, painted several landscapes of "Point Breeze," Joseph Bonaparte's estate. Bonaparte's daughter, Charlotte (1802 - 1839), was a talented artist and exhibited in Philadelphia salons.
The Waugh family of the Hilltop were superior artists. Samuel Bell Waugh (1814 - 1885) was a portraitist and his son, Franklin Judd Waugh (1861 - 1940), was noted for his seascapes. George R. Bonfield and Thomas Buchanan Read (1822 - 1900), both part-time local residents, gained fame as artists during the Civil War period. The local favorite, however, must be Susan Waters (1823 - 1900) who taught drawing and painting at her cottage at 53 Mary Street. Her animal paintings grace the homes of many local residents.
Juanita Crosby, Helen Wells, Dr. Nathan Smulian, Mirabah LeJambre Combs, and Joseph Sharp are a few of the many 20th century artists living in Bordentown today.
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