Port Murray Historic District
The Port Murray Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Port Murray Historic District is significant for its association with settlement patterns, industry, transportation, commerce, and architecture. Unlike most rural New Jersey villages, Port Murray did not originate as a small commercial center serving an agricultural hinterland. Rather it developed as a service node along transportation corridors created by 19th century technological developments: the opening of the Morris Canal in 1831 and the construction, in 1850, of the Morris and Essex Railroad through the village. Nevertheless, Port Murray shares a linear development pattern with most other rural New Jersey villages Interestingly, this does not follow the important transportation corridors of canal and railroad, but rather the vehicular roadways. The locations of some key buildings and features do, however, relate to the canal and railroad. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Port Murray flourished as the site of small industries, attracted by the excellent rail service and the opportunity to exploit the region's natural and agricultural resources. Although the canal ceased to operate in 1924 and the railroad no longer stops in the village, Port Murray, as the location of Mansfield Township's town hall and two churches, continues to serve as a center for the surrounding area. The majority of buildings in the village predate 1910; these are primarily residential, but also include the former hotel, two stores (one still in use as a commercial building) the former school, and two churches. Collectively these are significant as illustrations of the vernacular architecture of the region from the early 19th through the early 20th century, as well as of some of the more formal styles predominant in the second half of the 19th century.
Until the middle of the 18th century, the area that encompasses Port Murray was uncharted wilderness. In 1752, 1,303 acres of land, including the future site of the village, was surveyed for Samuel Johnson. Some years thereafter, the property was acquired by four men, George, Daniel and Thomas Reading and their uncle Martin Ryerson. The four were the sons and brother-in-law of New Jersey governor John Reading. About 1760 they established Squires Point Forge on the Musconetcong River, just south of what would become Port Murray.
By 1773 Garret Rapalje, a Brooklyn merchant, had acquired the forge. He was in residence when he advertised the property for sale in 1778. By this time the forge had evidently been abandoned, replaced by a grist mill. A few years earlier, an advertisement noted that the property had been divided into four farms. This, as well as the presence of the grist mill suggests that by this time clearance of the area for agriculture was well underway.
The first settler in what became Port Murray was the Rev. Nicholas Cox, a Baptist minister, who purchased 158.5 acres, including most of what became Port Murray, in 1795. In 1803, Cox and his wife sold to John Bryan (1765-1843), whose descendants remained large landholders in Port Murray, except for a brief hiatus, until the 1930s. James P. Snell credits John Bryan's son, Aaron, with building the first house in the village. This probably was one of the three houses shown, along with two outbuildings, on the 1828 survey for the Morris Canal. The most likely candidate is the so-called "Little House" on Main Street. The Taylor-Bigler House at the northeast corner of Rockport and Cherry Tree Bend Roads was built at about the same time the canal was constructed. It joined an older Barney Bigler farmhouse to the north on Rockport Road. Thus when the canal arrived, there were farmhouses in the vicinity, but nothing that could be considered a village.
The completion of the Morris Canal in 1831 initiated agglomeration of settlement near the boat basin and Incline Plane #5 and brought a measure of prosperity and slow, but steady, growth to what became Port Murray. Local families, such as the Biglers, which had heretofore depended on agriculture, obtained employment related to operation of the canal and later the railroad. The canal also spurred small-scale commercial development. A complex in the lower village, adjacent to the canal and close to Incline Plane #5, included a store, blacksmith's shop and warehouse, and obviously was intended to serve the canal. This was a good location because boatmen would leave their vessels at the head or foot of the plane. While the vacant vessels were hauled up or down the plane, the boatmen could fulfill their requirements on shore.
In 1836 Moore Furman purchased a lot at the intersection of the canal and Main Street, halfway between the plane and the canal basin, on which he erected a store. He must have built the store that year. A deed to him from Aaron Bryan, for the adjacent lot, refers to the corner of the storehouse. In the late 19th century, the store was operated by John W. Forker. According to his letterhead, this certainly was a general store, which sold "groceries, dry-goods, ribbons, dress trimmings, hosiery, white goods, Yankee notions, etc." (Forker also owned an undertaking establishment, which advertised that it could service Belvidere, Oxford, Broadway, Washington, Port Golden, Beattystown, Hackettstown and Schooley's Mountain. Its most likely location was in the same complex of buildings housing the store.) When the Mansfield Township Post Office moved to Port Murray in 1867, it was housed in the store, with Forker serving as postmaster. Although Forker, and later others, operated the store, its owner was his father-in-law, Samuel McCrea, whose name appears attached to this property in the 1874 Atlas. McCrea built a 24 x 60 foot addition to the west of the old canal store in 1882; the lower floor remained a store and warehouse, while the upper served as a public hall. The warehouse section later housed a feed mill.
A commercial enterprise with a direct relationship to the canal was a boat yard located at the head of the canal basin. This was founded in 1853 by James L. Bigler and Henry Shoemaker, to whom Aaron Bryan had sold the land. The primary function of the yard was repair work, but boats also were built there. In 1874, when James A. Bigler (James L. Bigler's nephew) owned the boatyard, they launched a new boat, "The Sportsman," built for J.S. Smith. It was 38 feet long and 14 wide. Although it could be towed through the canal, it also was planned for cruising on Lake Hopatcong.
Another public facility erected in response to the arrival of the canal may have been a hotel, built by William Morton in 1837. The location of this is unknown. The present building known to have served as a hotel is opposite the train station and was not built until 1866, responding to the arrival of the railroad. Aaron Bryan sold the vacant lot on which it stands in January 1866; a subsequent deed, in January 1867, refers to the corner of the hotel lot.
More elevated community needs also were addressed. A school was founded in the vicinity in 1841. By the third quarter of the 19th century the schoolhouse stood on the west side of Main Street, just south of its intersection with Karrville Road. Aaron Bryan transferred the land on which it was built to the school district in 1870. The building still stands, although much altered by its enlargement as a schoolhouse in 1922 and later conversion to a residence.
It was at the first schoolhouse that a group of Mansfield Township residents met in December 1841 to form plans for building a Baptist Meeting House. The new congregation moved swiftly. It incorporated in July 1842 and held its first meeting in the new church in January 1843. The building originally was of simple, rectangular meeting house form; the belfry was added in 1894.
By this time it undoubtedly was known that the Morris and Essex Railroad would pass through Port Murray. The railroad was chartered in 1835, but did not arrive at Port Murray until 1850. Port Murray was the only stop in Mansfield Township. The station not only handled passengers and freight. It also served as a coaling and watering facility.
The facilities described above appear on the map published in the 1874 Atlas. It shows the village as relatively well developed by this period. The densest development was in the "upper village" along both sides of Main Street north of the canal. Another node of development, constituting the "lower village" is primarily on the west side of Main Street, extending a short way up Hoffman Road. The canal was a prominent feature, with its basin fed by a spring located to the west of the Baptist Church and cemetery. The boat yard repair shops stood at its head. There were two blacksmiths' shops, one in the upper village and one in the lower village. There also was a confectionery on the west side of Main Street. The village boasted a physician, Dr. Cox, whose house was opposite the McCrea-Forker store.
In addition to buildings, the map depicts two sites related to the exploitation of the area's natural resources. One was a deposit of iron ore, belonging to Aaron Bryan, Sr., located on the east side of the canal, south of the basin, outside the village proper. The other was a lime kiln, also belonging to Bryan, on the east side of Main Street south of the bend in the canal and built into the canal bank. Iron mining was an important factor in the 19th century economy of Warren County, at least until the great resources of the Mesabi Range in Michigan were discovered in 1887. There is no record of iron mining within the village. The lime kiln, however, indicates that Bryan was utilizing the area's plentiful limestone. Many farmers had their own kilns to burn lime for agricultural use. It seems likely, however, that the Bryan lime kiln, because it was shown on the map, was producing lime on a modest commercial basis.
The last quarter of the 19th century witnessed further growth for Port Murray. The canal gradually declined because of competition from the railroads; the railroad, however, which had become part of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western in 1869, continued to serve Port Murray and cause it to grow. Nevertheless, the village remained relatively small because, in 1870, the DL & W opened a new branch through Boonton, which provided a shorter route from the Pennsylvania coal fields to the New York metropolitan area.
In 1875 the Shoemakers, who operated the blacksmith's shop in the upper village, completed a new and larger facility. The 1914 Sanborn shows the lower floor of this building serving as the Township Hall and the upper floor as Mechanics' Lodge. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Perry Brothers General Store operated across Main Street from this former blacksmith's shop.
Modern industry came to Port Murray in 1894 with the start-up of the National Fireproofing Co. This was formed to exploit a deposit of clay found on the Perry farm at the southeast edge of the lower village. The company disbanded in 1963. The Port Murray Dairy, which processed milk products, including the making of cheese, was started by Miss H.L. Hurley of Hope in 1900. Dairy workers are said to have occupied the triple house row-house nearby.
In 1895 the village received one of its most prominent buildings through the generosity of Samuel McCrea. This was the McCrea Memorial Methodist Church. Since 1883 a Methodist Episcopal congregation had been meeting on the second floor of McCrea's store building, which he had fitted up for this purpose. Twelve years later, McCrea donated land adjacent to the store for a church, as well as making a substantial contribution to the building fund. The building was dedicated in December 1895. At his death in 1899, McCrea left his house to the church as a parsonage.
Port Murray reached its zenith in the 50 years between 1890 and 1930. Although its isolation had been ended by the arrival of the railroad, local transportation for the residents further improved when, between 1910 and 1925, a trolley line, operated by the Easton Washington Traction Company provided access to Washington and Phillipsburg. The nearest stop was about a mile from the lower village. The tracks followed the old turnpike road (Route 57), with the terminus just south of Port Murray in Anderson. The 1909 and 1914 Sanborn maps, as well as early photographs, show Main Street solidly lined with buildings, on relatively generous lots, from the point where the road crossed over the railroad tracks in the lower village to a point south of the school house in the upper village. Although there, was no electricity and no city water, the town, with its two stores, post office, two churches, hotel, school, and three doctors, as well as the township offices, clearly was the center of Mansfield Township life. This role was recognized by the construction of a Fire House in 1929, which formerly served as Township Hall. The building was donated by Judge James Somerville, who succeeded Aaron Bryan and Samuel McCrea as benefactor of the town and its institutions.
Architecturally, Port Murray Historic District reflects its roots in 19th century rural New Jersey. Most of the buildings are of frame construction, two to two-and-a-half stories in height. Dwellings for the most part fall into the category of vernacular architecture. With a few exceptions, architectural elaboration is minimal, confined to bracketed cornices and porches with turned or chamfered posts. Even the Baptist Church was built in meeting house form as little more than a rectangular box, in this case with its gable end to the street. The added belfry and porch are in a simplified version of the Shingle Style.
A few more high-style examples punctuate the vernacular buildings. In general these reflect the Romantic Revivals of the second half of the 19th century. Styles include Italianate, Franco-Italianate or Second Empire, Carpenter Gothic and Queen Anne.
A large number of surviving outbuildings contribute strongly to the historic ambiance of the village. Among these are the several accessory buildings associated with a house at the southwest end of the district; a wagon house, and large carriage houses.
Although synthetic siding and the removal or enclosure of porches have taken some toll in Port Murray, the village still retains integrity as a cohesive district. Its density clearly sets it apart from the surrounding countryside. The interrelationships of buildings to one another and to the roads, canal, and railroad remain intact. Buildings retain their original massing and fenestration patterns; many, especially the key buildings, also retain considerable integrity of detail. The village remains cohesive because of relatively uniform setbacks and the harmony of groups of buildings set close to one another along the street. The prevalence of three and five-bay plans, gable roofs, front porches, typical late 19th century detailing, and clapboard siding also ties the village together visually and provides a sense of time and place. A late 19th or early 20th century visitor would have little difficulty in recognizing Port Murray today.
Bertland, Dennis. "A Sketch of the 'Little House' at Valley Home Farm, Port Murray, New Jersey, August 1990." Typescript.
Mansfield Historical Publication Committee. History of Mansfield Township, 1754-1964. 1964.
The McCrea Memorial Methodist Church at Port Murray, New Jersey, 1895-1945. 1945.
One Hundredth Anniversary, Mansfield Baptist Church. 1942
Snell, James P. (ed.). History of Sussex and Warren Counties. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1881.
Warren County Deeds.
Beers, F.W. County Atlas of Warren County, New Jersey. New York: F.W. Beers, 1874.
McCarty, D. Map of Warren County, N.J. Philadelphia: Friend and Aub, 1852.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. Port Murray. 1909, 1914.
Sykes, Lorenzo A. "Map and Field Notes of the Morris Canal and Banking Company for Warren County, N.J." 1828.
Walling, H.F. Map of Warren County, N.J. New York: Smith Gallup & Co., 1860.
† Constance M. Greiff, Heritage Studies, Inc. and Staff, New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office, Port Murray Historic District, Warren County, NJ, nomination document, 1994/1995, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.