Peek at Past Days

Bridgeton Historic District and beyond offer insights into an industrious past.

by Vince Farinaccio

Throughout the last few centuries, Bridgeton has accumulated a series of impressive accomplishments. It was at the forefront of American independence, served as a model of industrial development and became a leading proponent of education. Vestiges of its legacy can still be traced throughout the city’s Historic District and beyond.

According to online sources, the Bridgeton Historic District, which offers an array of architecture and other historical features, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and remains the largest historic district of any municipality in the state.

One of the city’s oldest sights is Potter’s Tavern, dating back to colonial days. Built in 1773, Potter’s Tavern became a popular watering hole and meeting place in Cohansey Bridge, Bridgeton’s original moniker. Owned by Matthew Potter and located near the county courthouse, it was the birthplace of the Plain Dealer, a weekly publication edited by 23-year-old Fairfield resident and tea burner Ebenezer Elmer. The paper served as this area’s voice of dissent against British rule.

The Plain Dealer was the product of approximately 150 town residents who had formed a politically motivated collective at Potter’s Tavern on December 21, 1775.

Clandestinely conveyed to Cohansey Bridge citizens, the publication, which has been referred to as New Jersey’s first newspaper, offered political discourse on current events by such contributors as Richard Howell and Joseph Bloomfield, each of whom later became governor of New Jersey, Dr. Lewis Howell and Dr. Jonathan Elmer, Ebenezer’s brother and former local sheriff.

The use of Potter’s Tavern as headquarters for the Plain Dealer and its “staff” certainly jeopardized its owner, yet Matthew Potter continued to offer his establishment as a site for the dissemination of revolutionary prose.

Within the Historic District is Atlantic Street, containing homes built by Isaac Mulford, one of Bridgeton’s early entrepreneurs. Mulford, in fact, created Atlantic Street and filled the wheat fields at the southern end of the road with homes that also included his own residence on the southwest corner of Atlantic and Vine streets, which earned the name “Mulford House.” Many of his Victorian constructions are now part of the Cumberland County Historical Register.

One of Bridgeton’s leading industries was the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works, a 19th century company that grew from a single mill in 1815 to a complex on the banks of the Cohansey River capable of handling the manufacture of nails and pipes used locally as well as nationally. Brothers Benjamin and David Reeves are the individuals usually credited with the formation of the company, which became known for not only its quantity of merchandise, but its variety.

Of the dozens of buildings contained on the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works property, only five would survive as the 20th century advanced—the Nail House, built at the start of the company in 1815, the Nailmaster’s House, constructed in 1850, Ireland’s Mill, built in 1856, the Gatekeepers House and the brick cooper shop.

Oberlin Smith worked at the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works in his early years before pursuing his own Bridgeton business venture by opening a machine works and repair shop at 21 North Laurel Street in 1863. This was an early incarnation of what became his establishment, the Ferracute Machine Company, which would develop into one of Bridgeton’s leading manufacturing industries over the next several decades.

Businesses may have highlighted Bridgeton’s name beyond this area, but the city’s educational facilities through the centuries were equally impressive. Beginning in 1773 with John Westcott’s first schoolhouse in Cohansey Bridge, schools would abound in Bridgeton. According to William McMahon’s South Jersey Towns, Westcott’s example was followed by a classical school in 1780, a school at Giles and Academy streets in 1792, Harmony Academy in 1797 and Laurel Hill Academy in 1822.

McMahon reports that “the public school system dates from a frame building erected on Bank Street in 1847. West Jersey Academy for Boys…opened in 1852. Ivy Hall Seminary for girls was launched in 1861 [and] the West Jersey Baptist Association opened a boarding school for boys and girls in 1870.” These three schools, he points out, “gained distinction in the field of education and lasted to the turn of the century.

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