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Ferry Tavern

Before the Ben Franklin bridge opened in 1926, Philadelphia-bound travellers crossed the Delaware by ferry.

by Vince Farinaccio

Camden’s Benjamin Cooper House, a former residence and ferry tavern dating back to 1734, has been in the news lately. According to the TAP into Camden website, the building is slated “to serve in two new roles: the trailhead for the county’s planned 34-mile LINK Trail system and the home of the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey.”

The State of New Jersey website declares that the structure is “one of the oldest standing buildings and the only remaining ferry tavern in Camden.”

Benjamin Cooper was, according to a 2013 report on the website, the “grandson of William Cooper, one of the earliest Englishmen to settle in Camden in the late 17th century.” A Courier-Post article from March identifies William as “a founder of Camden and friend of William Penn.” And the Coopers, according to the State of New Jersey website, were “prominent business owners [who] dominated the early ferry industry which connected Camden to Philadelphia.”

Before the 1926 opening of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spent its first 29 years known as the Delaware River Bridge, the standard means of travel from Camden to Philadelphia was by ferry. From the Colonial period through the American Revolution and into the Industrial Age, the section of Camden once known as Cooper’s Ferry provided transportation for travelers needing to cross the Delaware.

The West Jersey Railroad in the 19th century took Philadelphia-bound passengers, including Vineland founder Charles K. Landis (whose law offices were in the City of Brotherly Love), only as far as its Camden station where they would disembark to pick up the ferry for the final portion of their journey. And while waiting, passengers might have a drink at the two-and-a-half-story Dutch Colonial tavern that had been the Cooper home.

The Benjamin Cooper House, located on Erie Street and within walking distance of the ferry, wasn’t always as large. Sometime late in the 18th century, while it was still a residence, the stone structure was enhanced with its second floor and attic. With Benjamin’s passing in 1772, the house was bequeathed to his son Joseph.

But both the building and the nearby ferry are haunted today by their association with the practices that taint early America. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from 2021, “the Benjamin Cooper House also was used for the public sale of enslaved human beings, including children who were brought from Philadelphia to New Jersey so slavers could avoid taxes Pennsylvania levied on such transactions.” And the land on which the Cooper home sits was part of “the hunting and fishing grounds of Native American people along the Delaware” before the arrival of European settlers.

In one of its last incarnations as a tavern, the building sported the name “The Old Stone Jug” before it began housing businesses. The website reports that “beginning in the early 20th century, the property was used by John H. Mathis & Company Shipyard, and its successor, Camden Ship Repair, as offices.”

Although the structure has fallen into disrepair, particularly following a 2012 fire, the website explained in 2013 that the building’s “full Dutch Colonial form, including massive gambrel roof, was intact until the recent fire. The roof’s west gable includes a keystone that reads “B.+H.C. 1734,” recognizing the builders (Benjamin and Hannah Cooper) and year of construction. Much of the building’s first floor, including historic woodwork plaster walls, remains intact despite the recent fire.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer article notes that “the house is listed on national and state historic registries; it also has been designated as ‘endangered’ by the advocacy group Preservation New Jersey.”

We’ll take a look at the building’s role in the American Revolution as well as the plans for its future when this series continues.

Jersey Reflections