What do you do if you are a 30-year old Oxford, England-educated minister and you sail across the Atlantic Ocean to practice your religious beliefs in the way you desire and you discover the new Richard Hancock kicked off settlement in this area in 1686 when he built a sawmill along the Cohansey River. When a wooden bridge spanned the river in 1716 the community got a name - Cohansey Bridge. Not that it triggered a land rush or anything. When Cumberland County was formed in 1748 and Cohansey Bridge was selected as the seat of the new county government there were about 15 houses in the village. By the time of the American Revolution thirty years later the community would now be called Bridge Town and it sported a population of around 200.
The Cumberland Nail & Iron Works that started in 1814 gave birth to Bridgeton as an industrial town. By the Civil War glass furnaces and iron forges were humming and processed foods were being shipped by rail to Camden and steamboat to Philadelphia. Bridgeton was among the most prosperous towns in the state of New Jersey. By the 1800s the wealth began showing itself in elegant mansions in fashionable neighborhoods and Bridgeton emerged as an important center for education.
Much remains from those heady times and in the 1980s the Bridgeton Historic District became the state’s largest with over 2,000 qualifying buildings. Our explorations of that bounty will begin on the grounds of the pioneering Cumberland Nail & Iron Works, which have been reclaimed into a leafy parkland of more than 1,000 acres...
Bridgeton City Park
1 Mayor Aitken Drive
Benjamin and David Reeves, of Camden, arrived in Bridgeton in 1815 to found the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works. The concern would operate until 1899 and grow to be one of South Jersey’s largest industries, spanning both sides of the Cohansey River. This mill office is the last building associated with Cumberland Nail and Iron. The City purchased 1,100 acres from the Nail Works for a park in 1901. The park features a zoo with more than 100 animals that is one of the last free zoos in America. The small building just beyond the mill office is the Dame Howell School which was used in the town in the early 1800s and moved to the park.
WALK OUT OF THE PARK THROUGH THE ENTRANCE (THE RIVER WILL ON YOUR LEFT, A HILL ON YOUR RIGHT) TO THE INTERSECTION OF ATLANTIC STREET AND COMMERCE STREET.
6 Atlantic Street at Commerce Street
This outstanding Federal-style house was built in 1810 for Francis Gilbert Brewster. He would establish the town’s first drug store across the street.
TURN LEFT ON COMMERCE STREET AND WALK ON THE SOUTH SIDE (YOUR RIGHT) OF THE STREET.
4-12 West Commerce Street
Business began on this block in 1819 when Daniel P. Stratton opened a general store on the corner of Atlantic Avenue. This commercial block of frame buildings were constructed between 1841 and 1854 when it was known as Prosperity Row. The buildings were restored in the 1980s. Look closely and you’ll see that there are only six sisters; the building on the corner with the brick base is an impostor. The seventh sister was swept into the Cohansey River in a flood in 1934.
McGear Brothers Building
southwest corner of Commerce & Laurel streets
Homeboys Samuel and Frank McGear began as merchants in 1855 and by 1871 had prospered enough to retain the services of busy Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton for a new emporium at the corner of Laurel and Commerce streets. Hutton delivered an ornate Italianate building with six bays on Commerce Street and eight bays on South Laurel Street. The additional bays on South Laurel are skewed to follow the line of the street. “The Corner Store” was advertised as the “headquarters for buyers of dry goods for all South Jersey” and was heated by steam. it was an early recipient of electric lights. An unfortunate ground floor alteration requires a look up to admire the architectural delights of the McGear Brothers Building.
CROSS COMMERCE STREET TO THE OPPOSITE CORNER.
Cumberland National Bank
59-61 East Commerce Street at northwest corner of Laurel Street
This is the site of one of the great early Bridgeton mansions, erected by John Moore White in 1792. White moved to Woodbury in 1808 and sold the property which subsequently became a hotel that operated until the son of the proprietor was murdered. The Cumberland National Bank, that had opened in 1816, built the current Queen Anne-style headquarters in 1886. The designers were Edward Hazlehurst and Samuel Huckel, Jr. of Philadelphia, proteges of master Victorian architect Frank Furness, who used brick over a rough granite base to create its eclectic appearance. The bank was even more decorative than it appears today; although the sandstone columns and frieze remain all the ornamental iron from the windows and roof has been removed.
CROSS LAUREL STREET AND WALK UP THE NORTH (LEFT) SIDE OF COMMERCE STREET.
Central United Methodist Episcopal Church
147 East Commerce Street
This is another addition to the Bridgeton streetscape from the Philadelphia firm of Hazlehurst & Huckel, executed in 1889. The congregation had organized 25 years before and constructed a brick chapel which still stands behind the current sanctuary. The architects applied the Gothic style to a rambling multi-gabled structure on the corner lot studded with slender towers to impart some of the soaring traditional feel of a tradition Gothic building.
Bridgeton City Hall Annex
181 East Commerce Street
Bridgeton was still a port of consequence into the 20th century and this Neoclassical building was constructed as a Customs House and Post Office for the federal government in 1908. The brick building is trimmed in Indiana limestone. The six massive Ionic columns are also made of limestone and were featured in Popular Mechanics magazine when they needed repair. In the early 1970s the Annex was renovated for Bridgeton use after it was bought from the U.S. government.
CROSS COMMERCE STREET TO THE CHURCH.
St. Andrews Episcopal Church
186 East Commerce Street
The first Episcopalian services took place in Bridgeton in 1860 and this board and batten church was in use by 1865. The relatively simple design and its slightly out-of-the-way location from the traditional center of town indicate the congregation struggled to take hold with the citizenry. In time it did grow - and you can look around to the back to see the additions - but there have been few alterations in its nearly 150 years.
TURN AND HEAD BACK TOWARDS THE CENTER OF TOWN AND LAUREL STREET, THIS TIMESTAYING ON THE SOUTH (LEFT) SIDE OF COMMERCE STREET.
168 East Commerce Street
City Hall was constructed in 1932. The building features Neo-Georgian symmetry and detailing with Classical embellishments.
150 East Commerce Street
The Cumberland National Bank of Bridgeton took the first deposits ever in Cumberland County in this two-story brick building on September 26, 1816. James Giles, a general in the American Revolution, was the first president. The building was taken over by the city library in 1901.
First Baptist Church
136 East Commerce Street
The first Baptist church in town was completed on Pearl Street in 1816. In 1853 there was agitation among the congregation for a church “downtown.” This Italianate sanctuary was constructed and the Pearl Street site abandoned. When the Civil War caused a rift in the church 66 members departed for the former meetinghouse in 1866. The First Baptist church bell was used as a back-up for the fire department until it moved next door in the 1890s.
TURN LEFT ON ORANGE STREET (NOT MARKED, RIGHT BESIDE CHURCH).
Bridgeton Fire House
After decades of having their wooden building stock tended by a volunteer fire fighting force the Cohansey Steam Fire Engine Co. was organized in 1877 with 15 men. Within five years Bridgeton would have a fully paid fire-fighting force, a firehouse at Washington and Cohansey streets and a state-of-the art Silsby fire engine. In 1898 the Bridgeton Fire Department settled into this splendid triple-bay Arts and Crafts style fire house highlighted by a Florentine-style belltower. The fire house is still in use today and the original bell and Silsby engine are on hand as well.
RETURN TO COMMERCE STREET AND TURN LEFT. TURN LEFT ON LAUREL STREET.
Bridgeton National Bank
15 South Laurel Street
This highly decorative Beaux Arts confection was the one-time home of the Bridgeton National Bank, organized in 1883. It replaced the original Gothic-styled building on this site.
Weber’s Candy Store
16 South Laurel Street
William Frederick Weber came from Philadelphia in 1888 as a 20-year old who knew how to make candy. He opened a confectionary store on this location and Bridgeton has been getting its candy here from William Frederick Weber ever since - most recently William Frederick Weber IV.
46 South Laurel Street
Bridgeton came to this site for entertainment for 100 years, beginning with the Moore Opera House in 1880. It was reconfigured as the Criterion Theatre in 1901 and lasted a half-century until a spectacular fire in 1949. It reopened in 1950 as the state-of-the-art Laurel Theatre that screened flicks until 1979.
TURN RIGHT ON BROAD STREET.
49-51 West Broad Street
Matthew Potter built this tavern sometime around 1767 and it became a popular gathering spot for those who spoke of open rebellion with England, so much so that it came to be known as “Bridgeton’s Independence Hall.” In 1775 at Christmas time, patriots published a manuscript newspaper called The Plain Dealer at Potter’s Tavern that espoused the cause of liberty. Since it appeared every Tuesday morning, it has been called New Jersey’s first real newspaper. The Plain Dealer wasedited by Ebenezer Elmer, a fervent patriot who burned tea in Greenwich and would be the last surviving officer of the Jersey Continental Line from the Revolution. Reports and commentary were tacked on the tavern walls by such outspoken patriots as Dr. Jonathan Elmer, Dr. Lewis Howell, Richard Howell and Joseph Bloomfield. The latter two became governors of New Jersey. The timber-framed salt-box structure has been carefully restored by the Bridgeton Historical Commission.
Cumberland County Courthouse
Broad and Fayette streets
From its anointment as the Cumberland County seat a courthouse has stood on this general spot. The first was a frame building constructed in 1752 but it perished in a fire before the decade was out. Its replacement was constructed of brick and stood until 1845 when a more stylish building, also of brick came on board at the cost of $10,063. In 1909 it would cost ten times that for the current court house, the fourth for the county. Architects Watson and Huckel of Philadelphia used Indiana limestone to face their Beaux Arts-influenced creation. The clock in the imposing central tower was saved from the 1845 building, which was demolished.
On display inside is the Cumberland County Liberty Bell that was cast in Bridgewater, England in 1776 and rang out the news of the Declaration of Independence on July 7, 1776. It was still ringing in 1948 for the 200th anniversary of the founding of Cumberland County.
General James Giles House
143 West Broad Street
James Giles was a lieutenant in the New York artillery early in the American Revolution and rose to the rank of general serving directly under Major General LaFayette. He studied law in Trenton and practiced in New york City before moving to Bridgeton in 1788. This wood frame Georgian house was constructed in 1791 and Giles lived here until his death in 1826.
Old Broad Street Presbyterian Church & Cemetery
Broad and Lawrence Streets
Plans for this church were hatched in the early 1770s but the matters of independence and starting a new nation got in the way and it was not until 1792 that construction got rolling after Mark Miller, a local Quaker, donated the land. The $4,280 price tag was picked up by a state-wide lottery. It was the first church in Bridge Town which had no houses of worship for 45 years after it became the county seat. Presbyterians either met in the courthouse or traveled to Greenwich for services. The brick church served the congregation until 1836. The building is an outstanding example of early American ecclesiastical architecture but what makes Old Broad Street Church truly special is that, even after it was no longer used, it was kept in pristine condition. No alterations, no re-adaptive use - it remains virtually unchanged from its opening in 1795. The congregation still gathers here on special occasions, Thanksgiving and Sundays in August.
TURN RIGHT ON LAWRENCE STREET AND WALK TO LAKE STREET.
Reverend Leonidas E. Coyle House
35 Lake Street
Wrapped beneath scores of old shade trees, Lake Street features some of the best examples of domestic architecture in Bridgeton, perched above Jeddys Pond. This picturesque Victorian was the first home constructed on Lake Street, built in 1858 for Leonidas E. Coyle who was the pastor of West Presbyterian Church a block away.
25 Lake Street
This splendid three-story Gothic Stick style house was the handiwork of James Sims, a leading proponent of the eclectic style around Philadelphia. He designed the house in 1872 for F.F. Westcott. The building did time as a private school and a particularly rough patch as apartments after it ceased to be a primary residence. In its latest incarnation it served as a convalescent hospital.
TAKE A FEW STEPS BACK TO GILES STREET AND FOLLOW IT ONE BLOCK TO COMMERCE STREET. TURN LEFT.
West Presbyterian Church
119 West Commerce Street
At one time, Bridgeton had four Presbyterian Churches: First, Second, West and Irving Avenue. In 1945 First and West churches merged, keeping the parent church’s name and occupying West Presbyterian Church. The original West Presbyterian Church from was the present side chapel known as Bonham Hall. It was replaced by the present handsome Victorian Gothic sanctuary in 1878-79, given an abundance of dark brown sandstone trim by architect James P. Sims. The truncated tower was intended to have a 160-foot steeple but it never materialized.
99 West Commerce Street
This French Second Empire Victorian was built in 1861 for Richard Lott who operated a grist mill along the Cohansey River in what what would be the City park today. It was later the home of the Chamberlains whose son George Agnew Chamberlain was born while they were doing missionary work in Brazil. They returned to New Jersey so he could get an education, which he did from Princeton. Chamberlain authored some 36 books in a career lasting from the 1910s through the 1950s. Some were turned into major motion pictures, most notably his dark psychological chiller The Red House with Edward G. Robinson in the lead as a lonely farmer tormented by personal guilt, doomed by his unbalanced mind and almost destroying the people around him. Many of Chamberlain’s novels were set in rural South Jersey.
William G. Nixon House
81 West Commerce Street
This house has an architectural pedigree that stretches to the United States Capitol. It was designed by Thomas U. Walter in 1851, a few years before he began work on a new dome for the Washington, D.C. landmark. The owner was William G. Nixon, a Cumberland County farmboy who began his business career as a clerk with the Cumberland National Bank in 1837 at the age of 18. He later became president of the bank in 1886 and served until his death at the age of 88 in 1907. The Italian villa influenced house is little changed in form since its construction.
David Sheppard House
31 West Commerce Street
David Sheppard, descendent of early Cohansey village settlers, built this substantial Federal-style mansion in 1791 that loomed over a prominent intersection in 18th century Bridgeton. Two generations of the Sheppard family lived here before it was expanded to operate as the Ivy Hall Seminary school for young women. The 19th century additions to the house were demolished in 1995. It has now been meticulously restored to serve as a satellite facility of the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, managed by Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.
TURN LEFT TO RE-ENTER CITY PARK AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.