Bridgetowne

Here’s how the Cohansey River got its name and the role it played in naming and identity of Bridgeton.

by Vince Farinaccio

It’s fitting that the Cohansey River is named after a Native American chief of the Lenni-Lenape tribe who populated what is now Cumberland County prior to the arrival of European settlers. In turn, this river would play a crucial role in the naming and identity of Bridgeton over the course of several centuries.

According to online sources, a settlement in the area now known as Bridgeton was first recorded in 1686. Charles Harrison, in his book Cumberland County, New Jersey, explains that Richard Hancock purchased land in order to construct a sawmill on the Cohansey River, the exact location of which is no longer known. Speculation proposes that it may have stood at South Avenue and Grove Street, but regardless of where it was situated, the mill provided lumber for the newly emerging city of Philadelphia.

Hancock’s mill guaranteed the formation of two settlements, one on each side of the river, which remained unconnected until sometime before 1716 when, according to William McMahon’s South Jersey Towns, “a bridge of logs resting on pilings was built across the Cohansey River near the uppermost portion of the waterway. This span connected the north and south settlements of the area for the first time, and the community thus formed became known as Cohansey Bridge, later Bridgetown, and finally the city of Bridgeton.”

Harrison reports that the bridge was built “at a point where the river begins narrowing (around today’s Hampton Street) [but] was not very substantial and couldn’t carry wagons. Plus, it was under water at high tide.” An ensuing debate considered the construction of a new bridge, but its location became a matter of contention.

Meanwhile, according to McMahon, this new community became a “popular crossroads village in the South Jersey system of roads, and a stagecoach stop for wagons in the Philadelphia-Salem route.” In 1716, Silar Parvin, Elias Cotting and William Doubleday each acquired liquor licenses and opened taverns, which McMahon refers to as “gathering places for farmers, businessmen and wood cutters anxious to learn the news of Philadelphia and New York brought by stage riders.”

Harrison reports that the tavern owned by Parvin, after whom Parvin State Park was named, “was situated just south of present-day Commerce Street…and east of Atlantic Street.” Parvin also established the first country store in this area.

Businesses began to develop in the community. Harrison identifies a shoemaker, Jeremiah Sayre, and a blacksmith, John Hall, setting up shop in Cohansey Bridge.

Once Cumberland County, formed from portions of Salem County, was officially established on January 19, 1748, Bridgeton was selected to be the county seat. McMahon reports that “Greenwich, a much larger village, did not take kindly to the idea, and ill feeling delayed the erection of the first county courthouse until the summer of 1752. Court was held there on August 25 with John Brick, a former assemblyman, presiding as judge.”

The courthouse burned to the ground in 1759 and a new brick structure was built with a cupola that housed a bell transported from Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1763. McMahon writes that “this bell became known as South Jersey’s Liberty Bell when it rang out news of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.”

As the 18th century neared its conclusion, a consensus about a new bridge still could not be reached. John Moore White entered the discussions and offered to build a draw for a new bridge, allowing it to be movable. The debate finally gained the attention of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

The Freeholders decided to construct a more expansive bridge with stone abutments and, on August 1799, it approved such a structure. Additional features, which included a 21-foot width for certain sections as well as support posts, were approved that December. The cost of the new bridge was approximately $3,000, not including the draw that would be paid for by White.

McMahon reports that “three-to-four hundred persons resided at Cohansey Bridge” at the start of the 19th century. Over the course of the 1800s, Bridgeton would establish itself through a variety of accomplishments for which it is known today. We’ll examine some of those when this series continues next week. n

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Jersey Reflections