Kingston Village Historic District [†] is an unincorporated village in central New Jersey. The land which made up the village of Kingston is located in three separate counties, Somerset, Middlesex and Mercer counties. The Mercer county lands consisted primarily of the Kingston Mill and the Green!and-Brinson-Gulick house, both of which are now included in the Kingston Mill Historic District and are considered part Princeton Township. The Kingston Village Historic District lies in two townships, Franklin and South Brunswick, located respectively in Somerset and Middlesex Counties. The village lies on either side of State Route #27 and to the east of the Delaware and Raritan Canal, both features that played an important role in the development of Kingston.
References to Kingston can be found in travellers' accounts dating back to 1675. Among the earliest chroniclers of the area were William Edmundson, a Quaker, and Jasper Danckaerts, who arrived in the area with hopes of establishing a colony of Dutch Labadists. The town's central position between Philadelphia and New York made it a natural stopping place for travellers along the Assunpink Indian Trail. The area's first settler was probably Dr. Henry Greenland, who took advantage of the location and established a tavern just west of the Millstone River in the 1680s, which is now in Princeton Township. Another early settler, Jediah Higgins, was probably the first to live in what is now known as Kingston. Higgins was a squatter who arrived during the first decade of the 18th century. According to local legend, he did not obtain title to his land through the East Jersey Board of Proprietors, but instead arranged the purchase with the Lenape Indians. It is believed that Higgins' house still stands as part of the structure in the Franklin Township section of the Kingston Village Historic District. This house was mentioned in several early road surveys, including Azariah Dunham's 1766 survey of the boundary between Somerset and Middlesex Counties.
Other families who arrived in Kingston during the early 18th century by way of the Assunpink Trail included the Bayles, Lake and Gulick families. The settlement of these early families signaled the beginning of Kingston as a community. According to local tradition, the Presbyterian Church began activities in 1723, located on the present site of the Presbyterian Cemetery. The earliest legible headstone in the cemetery is that of Deborah Leonard and is dated 1756. The Presbyterian Church was visited by notable clergy of the time, including David Brainerd and William Tennant, and played a significant role in the growth of Presbyterianism in nearby Princeton. In fact, the Kingston and Princeton Presbyterian churches shared ministers for many years through the early 19th century. Over the years, the Kingston Presbyterian Church seems to have played a significant role in the establishment of the region's Presbyterian Synod and helped to make the Princeton-Kingston area a major center for Presbyterian theology.
By the mid-18th century, Kingston had a sawmill on the Millstone River, a blacksmith shop, and at least two inns for travellers along "King's Highway". Van Tilburgh's Inn was located on the north side of the main road, and the smaller Beehive Inn, dating to 1730, was located on the opposite side of the road in South Brunswick Township). The road through Kingston was improved in 1765-66, shortening the trip between Philadelphia and New York to only two days, so that Kingston and Princeton became centrally-located overnight stops. During this period, two stage coach lines had offices located in Kingston to serve their many customers. In the mid-18th century, Kingston also became the most popular route for the colonial postal riders. Only a handful of 18th century structures survive today, and they include the circa 1709 Jediah Higgins house. Other 18th century houses are located on the south side of Main Street to the east of Heathcote Road.
Both American and British troops marched through Kingston during the Revolutionary War. George Washington is said to have gathered his troops for a "conference on horseback" in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Franklin Township). Washington appreciated Kingston's strategic location, and he used the roads leading through town to mislead the enemy, faking an advance to New Brunswick, and then proceeding instead to Rocky Hill.
In 1797, a journalist named Julian Ursin Niemcewicz stayed in Kingston and wrote an account of the village. Niemcewicz reported that there were approximately twenty houses in the area at that time, and described his stay at one of the local inns: "Breakfast consisting of coffee, tea, and beefsteak, 4 shillings, dinner 5 & 6, and supper one dollar. You have to sleep in a room where there are 5 or 6 beds. You pay often the women's share."
In 1807, the Princeton and Kingston Branch Turnpike was established to improve the old road for overland travel. This was a project undertaken by the local Gulick and Bayles families, who had a major interest in local stage lines. While the improved ^travelling conditions on what is now State Route #27 helped to maintain Kingston's important position in road travel, two new developments during the 1830s dramatically elevated Kingston to a key transportation crossroads of central New Jersey. The Delaware and Raritan Canal, linking Trenton to New Brunswick, opened for commerce in 1834, and the Camden and Amboy Railroad was extended through town in 1839.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal was built to provide more direct access by water between Philadelphia and New York. Before the canal was opened to barge traffic, the trip between Philadelphia and New York by water took approximately two weeks; the D & R Canal shortened the trip to only one or two days. Kingston benefitted from the canal more than many other villages along its route because of its location at the canal's mid-point. The 8th lock, located in Kingston, marked the beginning of the descent to New Brunswick, and Kingston's telegraph office, therefore, provided a convenient place from which to send news of a barge's progress. Kingston's central location also meant that it was a convenient overnight stopping place for canal boat captains, and the town's economy prospered as it supplied services and accommodations for its many overnight visitors.
In 1815, the Camden and Amboy Railroad became the first railroad chartered in the United States. This railroad line was built in stages, and by 1834 connected Camden with South Amboy. The extension of the Camden and Amboy Railroad along the Delaware and Raritan Canal through Kingston in 1839 served to reinforce the important role of transportation in the development of the community. In 1867, this line merged with the New Jersey Railroad to become the United Jersey Railways and Canal Company. In 1871, the United Jersey Railway merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which continued to use this line until the mid-20th century when the track was abandoned.
The impact of these developments upon the area took the form of impressive growth during the first half of the 19th century, including the birth of several cultural enterprises. A library was established in Kingston in 1812; a missionary society was begun in 1822; a private school or "academy" appeared in 1835; and a Sunday School in 1837. The new Presbyterian Church was built in the center of the village in 1852 . Most of today's commercial structures located on the south side of State Route #27 and to the east of Heathcote Brook Road appear to date from this period. In some cases, the early nineteenth century street facades, sited close to the road, seem to have been added to earlier structures located further back on the property.
Two general inventories of Kingston's businesses are available from this time. Gordon's Gazeteer of 1834 lists four stores, three taverns, two mills, a woolen factory, an academy and approximately forty houses in the general area of Kingston. In 1845, John Barber and Henry Howe counted four stores, two taverns, a saw mill, a grist mill, a church, an academy and approximately 35 dwellings. Two of the taverns listed on these inventories were most likely those of Withington and Van Tilburgh; the third listed in the earlier inventory may have been the Beehive Inn.
Another glimpse of village life in Kingston can be found in the 1876 Middlesex County At!as. A detailed inset map (attached) showing property owners both north and south of Route #27 documents local settlement at that time. Several buildings are clearly marked: the Presbyterian Church; a parsonage; a schoolhouse; various railroad buildings, including an engine house and a station; a saw mill; a shoe shop; three blacksmith shops; a meat shop; a post office; a Hall of Building Loan Association; a hay press; a harness and tin shop; and a hotel. Of these buildings, several remain standing today, including the church, the schoolhouse, the hay press, and the harness and tin shop. There are also many residences shown on this map which exist today in excellent condition (See descriptions of structures).
The town's absence from the State Industrial Directories between 1903-1915 illustrates its evolution into a rural village. The businesses which served the transportation-related clientele during much of the 19th century gradually disappeared, to be replaced by businesses serving the more general needs of a typical rural community. The 1916 Rural Directory lists the following businesses for Kingston: blacksmith; carpenter; coal/lumber dealer; post-office and confectionary; dry-goods merchant; fruit and produce merchant; poultry dealer; painter; two general stores; hotel; and a combination wheelwright/undertaker.
With the advent of the 20th century, and the use of the automobile, Kingston experienced its last burst of transportation-related development. The main route through Kingston was renamed Lincoln Highway in 1913, and was to become part of a transcontinental highway for automobiles. It was during this period that two commercial automobile garages were built on the south side of Main Street. Both garage structures remain standing today in very good condition, although neither is used as a service garage currently.
The residential building boom of the early 20th century resulted in several significant structures which remain in good condition today. Included in the houses built during this period are several bungalows which appear to be from one of the many catalogs available at the time, including the Sears Catalog. Good examples of these bungalows are located on Laurel Avenue; on Route 27; and on Church Street in the Franklin Township section of Kingston. The fact that several of these homes appear to be "catalog houses" reinforces the role of railroad transportation in the development of Kingston during these early years of the 20th century because the materials were generally shipped by railroad from the catalog company. Several vernacular Colonial Revival homes were also built during this period, and also remain in good condition in the Franklin Township section of Kingston.
In the mid to later years of the 20th century, most Kingston residents have found employment outside of town. The railroad line through Kingston was abandoned in the mid-20th century, and transportation ceased to play any significant role in the lives of village residents. Without a continuation of its longstanding transportation-related impetus, development virtually ceased in Kingston during the years from the mid-20th century to recent times. Consequently, Kingston offers the unique opportunity to experience a central New Jersey town that has remained relatively unchanged in appearance since its days as a bustling late 19th and early 20th century transportation crossroads. Many of the historic structures along Route 27 have been sympathetically converted to antique shops, and other businesses in town include two restaurants and some craft shops.
† Deborah M. Kelley, Heritage Studies, Inc., Kingston Village Historic District, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., accessed June, 2021.
Academy Street • Church Street • Euclid Avenue • Heathcote Brook Road • Lakeview Avenue • Laurel Avenue • Prospect Street • Route 27 • Union Street