Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Penelope S. Watson

Cumberland County, New Jersey

Cumberland County, New Jersey, located on the Delaware Bay about thirty-five miles south of Philadelphia, was formed from the southeastern part of Salem County in 1748. Its location and natural attributes led to a three-faceted economy that bridged centuries: rich farmland supported agriculture; two tidal rivers and the Delaware Bay provided a maritime economy; and deposits of silica sand fostered a glass industry. A diversity of immigrants, from Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists seeking religions freedom in the seventeenth century, to German glassblowers in the eighteenth, and Mexican and Central American agricultural workers in the twenty-first, generated three primary population centers, Bridgeton, Millville, and Vineland, separated by farmland interspersed with smaller settlements. As several industries declined in the second half of the twentieth century, they were only partially replaced economically making Cumberland the poorest county in New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_35078" align="alignright" width="300"]Map of 2014 median household incomes in Cumberland County, New Jersey. Cumberland County, located in southwestern New Jersey, had a median household income of $52,593 in 2018. (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The area that became Cumberland County was first inhabited by the Lenni Lenape, whose settlements clustered along the rivers. Archaeology revealed evidence of ten thousand years of continuous occupation at the Indian Head Site in Deerfield Township. The Lenni Lenape population plummeted after settlement by the Dutch and Swedes, and the Indians claimed two of their people died for every Christian who arrived. About nine thousand people with ancestral links to the Lenni Lenape lived in Cumberland in the twenty-first century, and in 2018 New Jersey formally recognized the existence of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation

John Fenwick (1618-83) established Salem in 1675, the first English settlement in West Jersey, but Swedes and Dutch had already been living in the area for forty years. The nucleus of the Swedish settlement was northwest of what became Cumberland County, but Swedes hunted and cut lumber along the Maurice River without obtaining title to the land. Swedish family names remained common in the area. 

From the beginning, Fenwick planned to found a second town on the Cohansey River, fifteen miles southeast of Salem. He intended for it to be called Cohansey, but settlers renamed it Greenwich, probably after Greenwich, Connecticut. It was not until three years after Fenwick died that his executors laid out the town and began selling sixteen-acre lots.

Early colonists included Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists, attracted by the religious tolerance of Fenwick’s colony. The first settlers in Greenwich were Quakers from Salem, beginning in 1686. Sometime between 1680 and 1685, Presbyterians from Fairfield, Connecticut, and Long Island established New England Town on the east side of the Cohansey. About the same time, Baptists from Rhode Island and from Ireland also settled on the east side of the Cohansey, and Welsh Baptists came to Bowentown, between Greenwich and Bridgeton, by way of Swansea, Massachusetts.

Philadelphia Connections

Commercial connections with Philadelphia were extensive from the beginning. By the turn of the eighteenth century, Greenwich had become one of three official ports of entry in New Jersey.  From 1695 until 1765, the West Jersey Assembly authorized Greenwich to hold semiannual fairs, in April and October, where anyone could peddle wares. Each fair attracted as many as twenty ships from Philadelphia, laden with goods to sell.

Cumberland County came into existence when the Tenth Assembly of New Jersey (after the unification of East and West Jersey in 1702) passed an act forming a new county from the southern part of Salem County on January 19, 1748. The act responded to citizens’ petitions, which objected to the inconvenience of all official business being carried out in Salem, at the extreme western edge of the county. The new county was named for the Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765), a contemporary hero credited with defeating Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1720-1788) at the battle of Culloden in 1746.

Greenwich was the primary settlement at the time, and its citizens were so confident it would become the county seat they neglected to vote in a referendum to locate a new courthouse. The handful of residents of Bridgeton (then Cohansey Bridge) outvoted them, claiming the courthouse site, and, by default, designation as the county seat, to the consternation of the Greenwich inhabitants. 

The rest of the area remained largely unpopulated in 1748 except for farms scattered along the two main rivers, the Cohansey and the Maurice, and a tavern located where Port Elizabeth was eventually laid out, on the Maurice in the southeastern section of the county. Of the 677 square miles that comprised the county, 484 were land and the rest water. The tidal Cohansey and the Maurice (pronounced Morris) Rivers drained toward the Delaware River, while the Tuckahoe River, a rare northern blackwater river, flowed toward the Atlantic Ocean. The high point in the county, 140 feet above sea level, was located in what became Upper Deerfield Township. At sea level, salt marshes bordered the Delaware River and the tidal reaches of the Cohansey and Maurice.

Slavery existed in Cumberland County, though not to the extent found farther north in the state. The estimate for 1790 was 120 slaves, decreasing to 75 by 1800; by 1830, only two people remained in slavery. 

Cumberland County was a destination for slaves escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, accessible by boat across the Delaware Bay. The presence of abolitionist Quakers and free blacks created a haven. As the Underground Railroad evolved, one of the three main routes north through New Jersey became known as the Greenwich line, named for its southern terminus. While many escapees continued north, some settled in Cumberland, especially in the village of Springtown, in Greenwich Township, populated by five or six hundred freeborn and escaped blacks. The settlement was operated as an armed camp, allowing in no unknown whites and subjecting all unknown blacks to questioning by a tribunal. According to Rev. Thomas C. Oliver (1818-1900), an Underground Railroad agent, “The strongest settlement among the colored people that I knew of was Greenwich. None were ever taken out of that place. The fugitives were as safe there as if they were in Canada.” 

Quakers Set the County’s Tone

The Quakers set an egalitarian tone for the county. In 1843, when Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson (1779-1860) visited Greenwich, his ancestral village, he noted that farmers ate at a common table with hired hands, both black and white. It may have been the tolerant atmosphere promulgated by the Quakers that made possible the founding of Gouldtown, a historically prosperous settlement of free, mixed race people—primarily African American and white—that was established east of Bridgeton between 1755 and 1774, when Benjamin Gould (c. 1702–77) purchased a 249-acre tract. According to oral tradition, free black men from the West Indies settled there and married women of Dutch and Finnish descent. Their descendants continued to inhabit the village, which survived as an unincorporated village in Fairfield Township, into the twenty-first century, when Philip Roth (1933-2018) made Gouldtown the hometown of his protagonist Coleman Silk in his 2000 novel The Human Stain.

[caption id="attachment_35082" align="alignright" width="222"]Portrait of Samuel Ringgold Ward from the cover of his autobiography. Samuel Ringgold Ward, depicted in this photograph from his 1885 autobiography, became a prominent African American abolitionist during the mid-nineteenth century. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The presence of Quakers and free blacks probably accounted for the county’s strong support of the Union during the Civil War. The attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, initiated an outpouring of patriotic fervor in the county, where “towns and villages…were decked with the starry banner, and every cross-road of any importance…had its flag waving in the air.”  The first company of volunteers to be raised was the “Cumberland Grays,” (Company F of New Jersey’s Third Regiment); the company set off to war by way of Philadelphia on the steamer Patuxent. Many more companies were formed over the course of the war, and none was ever short of volunteers, some encouraged to join by the bounties offered by various towns and townships. 

Those in the minority who sided with the Confederacy were sometimes treated harshly by the Unionists. Though New Jersey as a whole voted in 1860 and 1864 for Lincoln’s opponents, Cumberland County overwhelmingly supported him in both elections, by 58.58 percent and 56.75 percent respectively.

Following the initial seventeenth-century settlement, immigrants continued to be attracted to the county. The failure of the 1848 democratic revolution in Germany instigated a massive migration of Germans over the next decade, a sizable number of whom settled in Cumberland. Some worked in the glass factories and some started businesses. Italian farmers were recruited by Charles Landis when he founded Vineland in 1861 to realize his vision of a grape industry, and Italian migration continued well into the twentieth century. Many Italian families remained active in agriculture in the county.

The 1881 pogroms against Jews in southwest Russia initiated a worldwide relocation effort funded by wealthy Jewish philanthropists. Expanses of vacant land were purchased in South Jersey. Settlements were clustered on the Salem-Cumberland border, west of Vineland, with Rosenhayn (1883) and Carmel (1882) located in Cumberland. Farming was a struggle, as many of the settlers came from urban backgrounds. Many turned to clothing manufacturing to supplement their income, first under contract with manufacturers in Philadelphia and New York, and eventually with their own factories in Bridgeton, Millville, and Vineland.

African American Farm Labor

Farm labor in the first half of the twentieth century was provided by African Americans who moved north each year from Florida as crops were ready for harvest, and by Philadelphians of Italian descent whom labor brokers transported down for the season; members of both groups settled permanently in the county. Mid-century saw a rise in migrant laborers coming to the county from Puerto Rico, many of whom remained, particularly in Vineland. In the twenty-first century, farm laborers immigrated from Mexico and Central America. Bridgeton became a residential center for Hispanic immigrants, whose proportion of the population approached fifty percent. Some of the migrants commuted as much as an hour away for work in the fields.

[caption id="attachment_35083" align="alignright" width="300"]Laborers picking string beans at Seabrook Farms. This photograph, created in June 1942, depicts day laborers picking string beans at Seabrook Farms in Bridgeton, New Jersey. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Other significant immigrant groups included Ukrainians, Russians, and Greeks. To deal with a World War II labor shortage, Seabrook Farms, about three miles north of Bridgeton, recruited interned Japanese Americans and Latin Americans of Japanese descent, eventually relocating a population of three thousand. After the war, the corporation brought Europeans, primarily Estonians, from displaced persons camps. Eventually, five thousand workers and their families, from twenty-five countries, speaking thirty languages, formed the cohesive community of Seabrook, a rural global village. 

Agricultural Economy

Ancient geological forces combined to give Cumberland a thriving agricultural economy from the beginning. A large river system, often referred to as the "proto-Hudson," flowed in from the north, followed what became the Delaware River valley from Trenton, New Jersey, then curved back across southern New Jersey's interior. Waterways cut into the earlier marine sands of the local Cohansey Formation to lay down the fluvial deposits known as the Bridgeton Formation, thus building the county's surface deposits. During the Ice Age windblown silt known as "loess" enriched the sandy-gravelly deposits of the Bridgeton Formation, which accounted for the increased productivity of soils found in the western part of the county and along the Delaware Bay.

Agricultural development of this prime farmland and timber harvest were the initial commercial enterprises. Products shipped to market by water. As early as the 1690s, the Cohansey sawmill of Richard Hancock (ca.1640-89), previously Fenwick’s surveyor general, supplied Philadelphia with cedar.

The Revolution Intervenes

The American Revolution interrupted Cumberland’s growing prosperity. The area suffered during Philadelphia’s occupation by the British during 1777-78, when it served as prime territory for foraging troops. Farmers were afraid to leave their houses to plow or sow crops, and the population faced an increasingly dire situation until the British evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778.

Shipbuilding began in 1780 when the schooner Governor Livingston was constructed at Bridgeton. Unfortunately, on her first homeward voyage, she was captured by a British frigate, discouraging further shipbuilding for another fifteen years, until John Lee (c. 1765-1840) established a shipyard in 1795 in what became Leesburg. Prior to a decline around World War II, 583 ships were built in Cumberland County, with Bridgeton (153 ships), Dorchester (100), and Leesburg (71) dominating the industry.

[caption id="attachment_35080" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the Mariners' Memorial Windows in Mauricetown, New Jersey. Dedicated in 1921, the Mariners’ Memorial Window in Mauricetown, New Jersey, names the sea captains and mates who perished at sea between 1856 and 1914. (Photograph by Penelope S. Watson)[/caption]

In another facet of maritime commerce, in the nineteenth century, schooners from the Maurice River plied the coastal trade, transporting goods up and down the East Coast from Nova Scotia to the West Indies and South America, and even to Europe. Mauricetown served as the home port for most of the captains, and their homes remained in what subsequently became the Mauricetown National Register Historic District.

Fishing and oystering made up the third aspect of maritime business. The Cumberland County shore and river mouths were ideal oyster habitat, which thrived in a mix of fresh and salty waters. The Lenape harvested oysters at low tide, and they became a food source for settlers in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, oysters became the nation’s fast food, and in Philadelphia were “sold by dozens and hundreds up to ten o’clock at night in the streets.” In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the national oyster harvest became centered on the Delaware Bay, and in particular the Maurice and Cohansey Rivers. By 1874, 372 oyster boats were listed in Cumberland County. Some of the oysters shipped by boat, but a direct railroad line to Bridgeton, the Cumberland and Maurice River Railroad (completed in 1875), offered an alternative form of transporting the oysters to market. At the height of the industry in the 1920s, seven thousand boxcars left Bivalve on the Maurice River alone, with 58,800 tons of oysters shipped in shell during 1923.

The tiny settlement of Caviar on the Delaware Bay in Greenwich Township briefly became the center of the world’s caviar production in the 1880s, after the sturgeon of Russia and Germany were fished almost to extinction. The industry was so profitable a new rail line, the New Jersey Southern Railroad, was built between Caviar and New York City. At the height of the fishing season, fifteen rail cars full of caviar left daily for the city, where most was sent on to Europe, including Russia. Overfishing decimated the Delaware Bay sturgeon population, which declined in the 1890s and crashed to almost nothing in 1900.

The county’s land-based economy transformed around the turn of the nineteenth century, when local entrepreneurs implemented developing hydropower technology by damming both the Cohansey and the Maurice Rivers. Earlier saw and grist mills had used more primitive forms of water power, but the new dams were intended to drive emergent industries. In Millville, Philadelphians Henry Drinker (1734-1809) and Joseph Smith formed the Union Company in 1790 to purchase twenty-four thousand acres in the eastern part of the county. Drinker and Smith built a dam and mills to use the waterpower. Five years later, they sold out to Joseph Buck (1753-1803) and partners, and Buck laid out the town of Millville, producing a plan that reserved the land bordering the river for mills, with residential areas on higher land away from the river.

R.D. Wood & Co.

David Cooper Wood (1781-1859) of Greenwich Township constructed an iron foundry and furnace in Millville in 1814, first manufacturing stoves and iron posts for gaslights and eventually specializing in water pipes. Thirty years later, with the foundry in trouble, David’s half-brother Richard Davis Wood (1799-1869) came to his aid; in 1850, he bought David out and formed R.D. Wood & Co. Richard expanded the available water power and diversified the industries, adding a cotton mill, a bleach and dye works, and a glass factory. The combined industries were managed in Philadelphia, eventually becoming R.D. Wood & Sons. In 1890 Richard’s son George (1842-1926) moved to Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and formed Wawa Dairy Farms as a hobby. The hobby became a business that began selling milk from its own stores in 1964, and in 1968 the two businesses merged as Wawa Inc. From 1971 until 2009, Wawa Inc.’s regional headquarters were located in David C. Wood’s 1814 house in Millville.

Bridgeton’s industrial development began in 1815, when brothers Benjamin (1779-1844) and David (1793-1871) Reeves of Deptford Township, great-grandsons of John Reeves (1674-1748), exclusive operator of the early eighteenth-century ferry between Burlington, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, purchased water power to operate the Cumberland Nail Works, which became Bridgeton’s major industry for the rest of the century.

Steam power had replaced water power by the time Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) left his job at Cumberland Nail and Iron and founded the Ferracute Machine Company in Bridgeton. He and his partners specialized early on in making can presses for local food processers.  By the end of the century, Ferracute was shipping presses around the world, including an entire mint to China. At its height during World War II, Ferracute employed as many as seven hundred people. The automobile industry became the mainstay of the company, and Ford Motor Company was the major client until Ferracute closed in 1968.

[caption id="attachment_35084" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the Whitall Tatum Company's Millville, New Jersey plant. The Whitall Tatum Company survived for 193 years in Millville, New Jersey. This 1907 photograph shows the company’s factory along the Maurice River. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The nineteenth century also saw the development of the glass industry. Cumberland was an ideal location because of the presence of weathered quartz sands of the Cohansey Formation, used in making glass. Also present were molding sands, aggregates of sand and clay, used for making cast-iron molds for the glass. The industry began as early as 1799, when James Lee (1771-1820) built a factory in Port Elizabeth. Lee moved his operation to Millville in 1806, but the Port Elizabeth factory survived under various owners through most of the nineteenth century. In 1838, John Whitall (1800-1877) of Philadelphia became a partner in Lee’s Millville factory in 1838 and was joined by his brother Israel Franklin Whitall (1795-1873) in 1845. The brothers continued to live in Philadelphia and run the company headquarters. The factory specialized in bottles, jars, and vials, many custom-made for Philadelphia pharmacies. Whitall, Brother & Company evolved into Whitall Tatum Company. After 1938 the business went through a series of owners until it closed in 1999, having survived for 193 years.

The first glass factory in Bridgeton, Stratton, Buck and Co., began operations in 1836. Eventually, the town supported twenty glass operations. Cumberland Glass Manufacturing, formed in 1880, evolved into Owens Illinois Inc., one of the largest glass manufactories in the country and Bridgeton’s major employer until it ceased operations in 1984. Owens Illinois closed the plant because the equipment was outdated, and the decreased need for glass containers in the era of plastic did not warrant the expense of modernization.

A Processing and Transportation Center

While Cumberland County as a whole prospered in the nineteenth century, and Bridgeton became the processing and transportation center for the agricultural products of the western side of the county, the poorer soil toward the northeast was left fallow and appropriated for open cattle range. Before the Civil War, the population in that area amounted to only about two hundred people. Charles K. Landis (1833-1900), born in Philadelphia and educated as a lawyer, had already participated in the founding of Hammonton, Atlantic County, New Jersey, when he purchased twenty thousand acres from Richard D. Wood in 1860; further acquisitions brought the total to about fifty-three thousand acres.

Landis, a liberal thinker who supported abolition and votes for women, planned a utopian agrarian community and hoped that Vineland would attract progressive thinkers as well as farmers and grape growers. To this end he banned alcoholic beverages from the start, which appealed to women in the suffragist movement, many of whom also promoted prohibition. He advertised nationally starting in 1861, and though some called him a charlatan for selling unproductive farmland, he had many buyers. Advances in agriculture meant that with much effort and investment, the poor soil could be made productive. In 1866 alone, over twelve hundred buildings were constructed, and by the end of the decade, there were over seven thousand residents. 

Vineland soon became a center for the suffragist movement; during the 1868 election, women brought their own ballot box to the poll and proceeded to vote, knowing their votes would not be counted. From the beginning, Vinelanders were sensitive to the uniqueness of their community, and founded the Vineland Historical Society in 1864, when the city was just three years old.

To encourage the agricultural aspect of his community, Landis reached out to Italian grape growers, offering a twenty-acre property in exchange for building a house within a year, and clearing and cultivating the land for vineyards. In the 1860s and 1870s northern Italians moved to Vineland; in the 1870s and 1880s immigration shifted to southern Italy. Vineland continued to attract Italian immigrants up to the 1920s. The vineyards, orchards, and berry patches flourished, contributing to Vineland’s prosperity and Cumberland’s agricultural economy. 

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Cumberland County bay-shore became a vacation destination, supplementing the existing industrial, maritime and agricultural economy. A forty-room hotel, the Warner House, was built in 1877 at Sea Breeze, south of the mouth of the Cohansey, to accommodate Philadelphians leaving the Chestnut Street wharf on the steamer John A. Warner. The resort boasted a pier, a toboggan slide, a boardwalk and a bowling alley, and an occasional clam bake and yacht regatta. Attractions at East Point, near Heislerville, included a hotel and a tavern, and the Fortescue Hotel offered lodgings in Fortescue, a fishing resort between Sea Breeze and East Point along the bay shore. Railroad access from Philadelphia to the ocean resorts diminished the appeal of the bay destinations by the time of World War I, and Sea Breeze and Fortescue catered mainly to county residents after that.

Bird Hunting for Sport

Railbirding—hunting small waterfowl known as rail—appealed to wealthier Philadelphians. In order to pursue the sport, a few, such as the Wetherill family, owned houses along the Cohansey, and many were members of the Sora Gun Club. Probably the Cohansey’s most famous Philadelphia visitor was artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who travelled regularly throughout the 1870s and 1880s to his family’s “fish house” in Fairfield Township. Eakins first came with his family and later brought his students with him. The Cohansey was the inspiration for some of his best-known works, including “Starting Out After Rail” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and “Pushing for Rail” (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Cumberland’s economy continued to depend in large part on the three components of agriculture, maritime activities, and glass manufacturing. Agriculture, and the related industries of processing and distribution, were still the mainstay of the county’s economy. Founded near Bridgeton in 1933, Seabrook Farms Corporation was a national leader in the development of frozen foods, and in 1955 Life magazine called it “the greatest vegetable factory on Earth.” The tomato and asparagus fields in western Cumberland in the mid-twentieth century gave way, for the most part, to corn and soybeans. The original Seabrook Farms closed in 1976, but in 1978 grandsons of the founder, Charles F. Seabrook (1881-1964), built a new frozen vegetable processing plant in Upper Deerfield, freezing snap beans, spinach, collards, mustard greens, peppers, peas, and lima beans, 95 percent of which were grown within the county. In the twenty-first century, much of the farmland was bought or leased by nurseries, as rising land values in central New Jersey forced growers to seek less-expensive acreage. Around Vineland, farmers specialized in growing vegetables and herbs, particularly for ethnic cuisines.  

Oystering reached its peak in the early twentieth century, but two parasites, commonly known as “MSX” and “Dermo,” devastated the oyster population and the industry at mid-century. Research in management of the parasites, conducted, in part, at Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Laboratory in Bivalve, led to a slow but steady revival of the industry in the twenty-first century. Concurrently, the Bayshore Center, home of restored oyster schooner A. J. Meerwald, New Jersey’s official tall ship, celebrated and interpreted the industry.

In the late twentieth century, the glass industry declined as plastic supplanted glass for many uses. The loss of the major glass manufacturers—Owens Illinois in Bridgeton and Whitall Tatum and the major operations of Wheaton Glass in Millville—eliminated glassmaking as the county’s major industry but did not end it altogether. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the glass industry employed close to three thousand people, with eight companies in operation. Most concentrated on specialized products for medicinal and laboratory needs, but the largest, Durand Glass, produced a variety of hollowware. 

Cumberland County was fully engaged in national events in the first half of the twentieth century. Fortescue, on the Delaware Bay between the Cohansey and Maurice Rivers, was a focus of activity during Prohibition when it acted as a major port for landing whiskey brought to the three-mile international limit by ships from Canada and Jamaica. Tenders brought the liquor into the bay, and many local ship captains transported it to shore and hid it in the marshes until it could be transported north by truck. A light on the roof of the eight-story Cumberland Hotel in Bridgeton signaled when it was safe for the trucks to pass through town. Local residents, including law enforcement, were aware of what was going on, but kept silent out of sympathy, fear, or remuneration.

The Millville Airport, begun as a civilian airport in 1939, expanded to become an airfield capable of hosting fighter planes as World War II engulfed Europe. Leon Henderson (1895-1986), a Millville native serving as head of the U.S. Office of Price Administration, was instrumental in having the airfield dedicated as “America’s First Defense Airport” in August 1941. It opened as a gunnery school for fighter pilots in 1943. For most of the war, training was done on the P-47 Thunderbolt, with about 1,500 pilots passing through the program.

Tourism as a Supporting Industry

Tourism continued to be a major supporting industry.  The New Jersey Motorsports Park opened on five hundred acres in Millville adjacent to the airport in 2008. It featured two road courses, a go-karting complex and other amenities, which attracted fans and participants from across the country. In 2010 the surviving World War II buildings at the Millville Airport became the Millville Army Air Field Historic District in the middle of the still active airport, and were home to the Millville Army Air Field Museum and ancillary attractions

[caption id="attachment_35081" align="alignright" width="300"]Overhead view of the Millville Municipal Airport. The Millville Airport, begun as a civilian airport in 1939, expanded during World War II to host fighter planes. This 2006 aerial photograph depicts the modern Millville Municipal Airport. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Nonprofit arts and culture organizations generated increasingly significant revenue, over $16 million in 2015 alone. In 1994 Millville developed the downtown Glasstown Arts District, a public art center with galleries and studios. Also in Millville, Wheaton Arts, and the Creative Glass Center of America, founded as Wheaton Village in 1968, featured a museum with a major collection of early American glass and working glass artists in a recreated nineteenth-century glass factory. Beginning early in the twenty-first century, the restored Landis Theater in Vineland and the reconstructed Levoy Theater in Millville provided live musical performances, and the Off Broad Street Players Theater Company and the Cumberland Players contributed live theater. Bridgeton reemphasized its century-old 1,100-acre city park and its amenities, such as a children’s splash park, boating on Sunset Lake, and the 1934 Cohanzick Zoo, with over forty species. Vineland was home to the last remaining drive-in theater in the state and the reconstructed Palace of Depression, the 1932 original of which was advertised as “The Strangest House in the World.”

Each year, fishing competitions in Fortescue, the February Eagle Festival in Mauricetown, Bay Day at East Point Lighthouse, an eighteenth-century-style Craft Faire in Greenwich, the Wheaton Arts Festival of Fine Craft, the Millville Army Air Field Museum Air Show, and the Cumberland County Fair provided activities for residents and visitors. The county’s cultural diversity made an additional contribution through a series of annual events such as Seabrook’s Japanese Obon Festival, Vineland’s Puerto Rican and Greek festivals, Bridgeton’s Cinco De Mayo Celebration, and the Friends of India Kite Festival.

The Prison Industry

In the twenty-first century, four prisons were a major source of jobs in the county, with over two thousand employees among them. Cumberland County hosted Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont, and South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton. In 1990, Fairton Federal Correctional Institution, a medium security prison for men, opened. Inexpensive land attracted the state and federal governments to build the prisons, and the county acquiesced on the promise of jobs. Other major employers were health and human services organizations and government agencies. 

As the twenty-first century progressed, the county faced a serious threat to its continuing existence. The close proximity to the Delaware Bay with its rising sea level, exacerbated by sinking land (technically known as glacial forebulge subsidence), endangered the survival of the bay-shore communities. Thompsons Beach, Moores Beach, Money Island, Seabreeze, and parts of Fortescue, once thriving villages along the Delaware Bay shore, were bought out by the state’s Blue Acres program (a fund for buying property subject to increased flooding to discourage further habitation) and the buildings bulldozed. With sea level predicted to rise by as much as six feet threatening to inundate up to a third of the county by the end of the century, the continued long-term existence of large portions of the area was uncertain.

The county maintained many historic connections and patterns in the twenty-first century, as development evolved at a slower rate than in other parts of the region. With a county per-capita income of $21,883 according to the 2010 census, the search continued for new, compatible industry. Growing cultural diversity made Cumberland a majority-minority county (one in which no racial group makes up more than half the population), the only one in the southern part of the state. Cumberland County kept its historic connection to agriculture by purchasing preservation easements on twenty thousand acres of farmland, one-third of the remaining total. It grew 20 percent of New Jersey’s produce and 28 percent of the state’s horticultural product, making it by far the most productive agricultural economy in the Garden State. Agriculture and related industries provided more than four thousand jobs. Glassmaking endured as a viable industry. Commercial oystering, fishing, and crabbing continued at a diminished level, as the rivers and bay were used primarily for recreation. The lack of explosive economic development was a trade-off that many residents were willing to accept in return for a less-congested and more community-oriented quality of life.

Penelope S. Watson, AIA, is a Principal at Watson & Henry Associates, where she has worked as preservation architect for over thirty years.  She has an undergraduate degree from Mt. Holyoke College, a professional degree from the Boston Architectural College, and a Master’s in Preservation Studies from Boston University.

Bridgeton, New Jersey

[caption id="attachment_30715" align="aligncenter" width="567"]This black and white map segment shows the main port area of Bridgeton. Several sailboats navigate an illustrated river labeled "Cohansey River" and approach a bridge. Intricately detailed buildings and streets appear on all sides of the river. This detail of an 1886 panoramic map depicts the southeast corner of Bridgeton where the Cohansey River meets the town border. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Bridgeton, the governmental seat of Cumberland County, originated in the late seventeenth century as a fording place at the upper tidal reach of the Cohansey River, a tributary of the Delaware Bay. Located seven direct miles from the bay (though twenty by meandering river), and about forty miles south of Philadelphia, Bridgeton drew on water power and water transportation for its growth throughout the nineteenth century. These assets became obsolete in the twentieth century, but Bridgeton’s strong industrial base produced continued prosperity through the first three-quarters of the century. Starting in the 1970s, however, industry receded as an economic base, in part because of Bridgeton’s distance from the interstate highway system. Bridgeton nevertheless remained a regional center for the surrounding agricultural area and attracted a growing population of farm and nursery workers who sustained civic vitality despite the town’s greatly reduced tax base.

Cumberland County, in the New Jersey Coastal Plain, consists of unconsolidated sediments formed during the Cretaceous period. The layers of sand, silt, and clay were deposited as the sea level fluctuated during the Tertiary period; the Cohansey Formation, consisting of layers of quartz within thin layers of clay and gravel, covers the entire county and was laid down late in the Tertiary age. The widespread Bridgeton Formation (medium to coarse sand and silty quartz with scattered gravel beds) laid down during the Quarternary period by a river that flowed southeasterly to easterly, is responsible for the high areas of local topography in the city. The Cohansey River eroded the formation, resulting in a narrow river plain flanked by higher ground, sloped steeply on the west side and more gently on the east. The quartz sands found in the Cohansey Formation, purified over the ages by weathering and decay of softer minerals, was critical in development of the county’s glass industry; molding sands, aggregates of sand and clay, were mined from the Bridgeton Formation for the production of cast iron molds.

The Lenni Lenape, the indigenous people of the New Jersey, were long established along the length of the Cohansey River, and in fact gave it its name. Before European contact in the early seventeenth century, the Lenape were numerous throughout the area. Along the Cohansey, they maintained several semipermanent and seasonal villages, with a permanent village located near Bridgeton serving as the cultural center for the southern part of the state.

Known to the English settlers in the late seventeenth century as Cohansey Bridge, the town became unofficially known later in the century as Bridgetown and, in the early nineteenth century, Bridgeton. The early settlement straddled two townships, Deerfield on the east side of the Cohansey River and Hopewell on the west. The township of Bridgeton was set off from Deerfield in 1845, and three years later the township of Cohansey was set off from Hopewell. It was not until 1865 that the townships of Bridgeton and Cohansey were incorporated as the City of Bridgeton with an area of 6.4 square miles. 

Cohansey Bridge Edges Ahead

When Cumberland County was formed from the southeastern portion of Salem County in 1748, the hamlet of Cohansey Bridge had only eight to ten houses. The site was initially included in the tenth share of John Fenwick (1618-83), proprietor of West Jersey, and was first settled by Fenwick’s surveyor general, Richard Hancock (ca. 1640-89), who established a sawmill there sometime before 1686. A bridge over the Cohansey was constructed before 1716, but Greenwich, laid out on the river closer to the bay in the 1670s, continued to be the major settlement and established port. Court was first held in Greenwich in 1748 at the direction of the governor, but an election late that year designated Cohansey Bridge as the location for the court and jail. This essentially authorized Cohansey Bridge as the county seat, to the consternation of the inhabitants of Greenwich who, assuming victory, neglected to vote.  

Development continued slowly in the eighteenth century, centered on the bridge crossing and mills run on water power supplied by Mill Creek, an east bank tributary of the Cohansey. In the early nineteenth century, the construction of Tumbling Dam, a mile north of the town center, harnessed the water power of the upper reaches of the Cohansey River watershed. About 1814, a fifty-percent share of the water power was purchased by well-capitalized brothers Benjamin (1779-1844) and David (1793-1871) Reeves of Deptford Township, great-grandsons of John Reeves (1674-1748), exclusive operator of the early eighteenth-century ferry between Burlington and Philadelphia. The Reeves brothers were attracted to the site by the abundant water power that enabled them to establish the Cumberland Nail Works, which soon became a major manufacturer of cut nails. Philadelphia nail maker Joseph Whitaker Jr. (1789-1870) joined the Reeves brothers in 1820, and the next year together they purchased the Phoenix Iron Works at Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.  The cut-nail operation thrived, shipping nails up and down the East Coast and eventually expanding to include a rolling mill and gas-pipe mill. 

The founding of the Cumberland Nail Works marked a turning point for Bridgeton. A petition by leading citizens for a state-chartered bank had been denied in 1815, but the nail company boosted the town’s reputation, and an 1816 petition resulted in the charter of the Cumberland Bank, the only New Jersey bank south of Camden. This stable, conservative institution served Bridgeton for almost two centuries until it lost its identity in the wave of bank mergers of the late twentieth century. 

[caption id="attachment_30704" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a large courthouse with large glass windows and a central tower. It is surrounded by utlity poles and lights. In 1837, Millville and Bridgeton engaged in a bitter debate over the location of the Cumberland County seat. Bridgeton prevailed and built a new courthouse in 1844 and another, shown in this 1910 photograph, in 1909. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Millville, closer to the geographical center of Cumberland County, grew rapidly in the early nineteenth century, and its residents challenged Bridgeton’s for the location of the county seat in 1837. The c.1760 courthouse was in poor condition and needed to be replaced. The citizens of Millville argued that if there was to be a new building, the county seat should be moved to their town. With four townships on the east side of the county and four on the west, each having two votes, a stalemate prevailed for six years. In 1844, the western townships persuaded the state legislature to form a fifth township, Columbia, on the west side, in the later location of Shiloh, to add an additional two votes in favor of Bridgeton. With ten votes to eight, the west side prevailed, and Bridgeton remained the county seat. The new courthouse was finally built in 1844, and Columbia Township was dissolved the next year.

Industry Grows

As Bridgeton developed, its location in the center of farmland rich in loamy soils made it the processing and transportation center for the agricultural production of western Cumberland County, and the commercial center for the surrounding townships. After the establishment of the nail works, industry within the town grew and diversified, supported by the availability of water power, water transportation, and the nearby quartz and molding sand deposits, essential for the manufacture of glass and cast iron. Glass, iron foundries, and agricultural produce processing, along with clothing manufacturing, developed as major contributors to the town’s economy, with the production of lime, fertilizer, cigars, trunks, soap, shoes, paper, carriages, leather, and ships comprising lesser industries.

A symbiotic relationship fed the food processing and glass industries. Bridgeton’s glass industry began in 1836 with the establishment of Stratton, Buck and Co. Eventually, Bridgeton had twenty glass factories.  One of them, Cumberland Glass Manufacturing Company (established 1880), was purchased in 1920 by Owens Bottle Machine Company, which soon became Owens-Illinois and grew into one of the largest glass factories in the country. The glass industry attracted numbers of German glassworkers, the first major influx of immigrants to the area since the seventeenth century.

[caption id="attachment_30703" align="alignright" width="264"]This photograph shows a glass flask made at the Bridgeton Glass Works. A profile of George Washington is engraved on the front and surrounded by text that reads "Washington." Bridgeton Glass Works produced this flask in the mid-nineteenth century. The engraved image of George Washington was popular at the time; several flasks with similar designs have been discovered and preserved. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The major consumer of glass bottles and jars was the food processing industry handling the agricultural output of the surrounding townships. Between 1860 and 1890, twenty-three new canneries began operating, thirteen of them in Bridgeton. Products included beans, asparagus, pumpkin, peaches, pears, cranberries, but above all else, tomatoes. Tomatoes were processed whole and pureed and made into catsup. Tomatoes not processed in Bridgeton were shipped by barge to the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, which had been founded in 1869 by Bridgeton native Joseph A. Campbell (1817-1900).

The industry that perhaps became Bridgeton’s best known was the Ferracute Machine Company, started in 1863 by Oberlin Smith (1840-1926), to make cast-iron fences and church furniture. Early on, the firm began to specialize in can presses for the local food industry, developing a second synergetic relationship between two Bridgeton industries.

River's Key Role in Transit

Although Bridgeton was served by two separate railroads, the West Jersey and the NJ Southern, the Cohansey River continued to be its main connection with the rest of the world. By the 1880s, coal and lumber came up the river and, annually, 100,000 kegs of nails, 1.5 million feet of gas pipe, 30,000 tons of glass, 1,000 cords of oak and pine, 100,000 bushels of corn, and three million shaved barrel hoops were shipped out. For passengers, the steamer Artisan made regular semi-weekly trips between Bridgeton and Philadelphia. 

The town’s prosperity accrued wealth to the business and industry leaders, many of whom invested in substantial residences designed by Philadelphia architects such as William Strickland (1788-1854), Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-87), Samuel Sloan (1815-84), and Wilson Eyre (1858-1944). Most of the homes of the middle class were vernacular frame double houses, with two residences sharing a party wall; many of these featured a front cross-gable, adding a touch of Gothic Revival style. This significant collection of architectural stock was recognized in 1982 by the listing of the Bridgeton Historic District, comprised of more than two thousand structures, on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bridgeton’s reputation as an educational center grew from several small private schools that opened in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The public school system opened two schools in 1847 and 1848 and thereafter offered free education to all children. The Presbyterians of South Jersey selected Bridgeton for their West Jersey Academy, a boarding school for boys, in 1852. Margaretta Little Sheppard (?-1881) opened Ivy Hall Seminary in 1861; girls from many states attended the boarding school during its fifty-eight years of operation. Bridgeton persuaded the South Jersey Baptist Association to locate its coed South Jersey Institute in the city, where it operated as a boarding school from 1871 until 1907.  

By the close of the nineteenth century, wire nails made cut nails obsolete, and Cumberland Nail and Iron struggled throughout the 1890s. In 1899, the Cumberland National Bank, the company’s chief creditor, bought the property at public auction for $70,000. Although Bridgeton had lost a major industry, it gained a park that remained a primary asset. The bank sold the 500-acre property, including the lake, dam, raceway and wooded tract to the city for $35,000 to become the treasured Bridgeton City Park, which, with subsequent additions, grew to encompass about a third of the city. 

"Gem O' Jersey" 

The loss of Cumberland Nail and Iron struck a major blow to the town’s confidence in its future, but other industries were thriving and soon grew to fill the company’s place. By the 1920s, the Chamber of Commerce was promoting the town as the “Gem O’ Jersey,” a nickname that persisted for decades as the economy and the population continued to grow until the early 1960s.

[caption id="attachment_30707" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a deteriorated machine production facility. It has a long, narrow roof and several windows are broken. Weeds cover the pavement in the foreground. The Ferracute Machine Company specialized in can press production, thriving in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries from its connection with other Bridgeton industries. The plant had deteriorated by the time of this 1990 photograph. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

After exhibiting at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Ferracute Machine Company experienced exponential growth, and by the end of the decade was shipping presses to Japan, Australia, France, Sweden and Bolivia. The firm entered a new segment of the market in 1892 by shipping a coin press to the United States Mint in Philadelphia, and, four years later, successfully bidding for three entire mints to be fabricated, shipped, and set up in China. In the early twentieth century, Ferracute entered the automobile market, and until closing in 1968, Ford Motor Company was its primary client. On an emergency basis during World War II, Ferracute supplied most of the presses required to replace the ammunition left behind at Dunkirk.

A clothing industry began in the nineteenth century with fabric mills and several shirt factories; much of the impetus came from the small clothing factories initiated to supplement farming income by the Russian Jews relocated to Cumberland County following the pogroms of the 1880s. In the twentieth century, the industry grew to include a dyeing and finishing plant, a fabric manufacturer, and six or more factories making dresses, lingerie, and uniforms. Seibel and Stern Clothing Company specialized in children’s clothing, manufacturing a line of high-end dresses for Yves St. Laurent, and bucking a global trend by exporting Little Star frocks to Japan in the late twentieth century.

Tomato processing continued as a major industry throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Philadelphia’s P.J. Ritter Company moved to Bridgeton in 1917 to be closer to its source of tomatoes and operated until 1975; others included E. Pritchard Inc., West Jersey Packing Co., and a Heinz ketchup plant. At the height of the tomato season in August, trucks loaded with baskets of tomatoes waiting their turn at the plants backed up for blocks, and the smell of stewing tomatoes permeated the town.

Italian Immigrants

[caption id="attachment_30701" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a large factory surrounded by houses and open plains. A water tower sits in the middle of the property and several can production buildings sit on both sides. In 1908, the American Can Company acquired a large operations facility from the Sanitary Can Company in Bridgeton. That factory, shown in the foreground of this 1921 photograph, remained open until 1931. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Food processing required large numbers of seasonal workers. In the early twentieth century, Italian immigrants living in South Philadelphia were contracted for through brokers and transported to South Jersey for the season. Eventually, a sizable number of Italians settled permanently in Bridgeton.

The Germans, Italians, and Jews who came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made their own contributions to Bridgeton’s remarkably multicultural population, unusual for a small town in a rural area. The seventeenth-century English settlers in the region coexisted with the indigenous Lenni Lenape, as well as descendants of the Swedes and Dutch who settled in the area in the early part of the century. Settlements of free blacks, the largest known as Gouldtown, existed from around 1700 just east of Bridgeton; they grew with the arrival of escaped slaves from Maryland and Virginia. The descendants of the nineteenth-century Russian Jewish immigrants owned and operated more than one hundred city businesses in the twentieth century in addition to over fifty professional medical, law, and accounting practices. In the mid-twentieth century, nearby Seabrook Farms attracted immigrants from twenty-five different nations, and in particular became home to Japanese Americans resettled from World War II internment camps and to Estonians fleeing the Soviet Union takeover of their country. Though the original Lenni Lenape population was decimated by disease in the seventeenth century and mass migration to the west in the eighteenth, remnants of the tribe remained in the area and retained representation by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, a tribal confederation of the Nanticoke of the Delmarva Peninsula and South Jersey’s Lenape, with headquarters in Bridgeton.

The city did not escape racial friction and prejudice, especially through the presence of an active Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Although schools were integrated, at least after 1881, de facto segregation existed, such as the relegation of blacks to a movie theater balcony, and the distribution of jobs in the Owens Illinois glass plant according to race and gender. Racial tensions culminated in violent protests in 1971, when fights broke out between white and black students at Bridgeton High School; in March and again in October the fights expanded into the streets, where rioters broke windows, beat bystanders, and ransacked stores. The city was put under a state of emergency, with a dusk-to-dawn curfew. In December, over two hundred students held a sit-in, demanding removal of police from the school, implementation of a black history program, and a racially mixed school board; following the sit-in, black and white students linked arms for a peaceful march through the downtown, marking a defusing of the tensions. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Bridgeton’s industries shut down one by one as manufacturing left the Northeast. Owens-Illinois closed in 1984 when the glass container industry in the northeastern United States declined as demand shifted from glass to plastic, eliminating about three thousand jobs. As the tax base dwindled, the poverty rate climbed, eventually reaching 33 percent in the twenty-first century and resulting in a high crime rate.

Twenty-First Century Population Rise

Bridgeton’s population reached a peak of about twenty thousand in 1960, then declined slightly over the next thirty years. An influx of immigrants from Latin America taking work in agriculture and horticulture reversed the trend, and by 2010 the population had reached an all-time high of twenty-five thousand. By 2017, the overall population was approximately one-third African American, one-third Caucasian, and one-third Hispanic.  

The influx of Hispanic residents began to transform the economy and culture of the city. Most of the newcomers came from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, giving Bridgeton one of the highest concentrations of Zapotec speakers in the country. Bridgeton became the residential center for Hispanic agricultural workers, not just for western Cumberland County but for the region, with some laborers commuting to neighboring counties up to an hour away. As storefronts began to empty, many were filled by Hispanic groceries, restaurants, and dress shops. The town began celebrating Cinco de Mayo along with the Fourth of July and the Cohansey Riverfest.

The nonprofit Center for Historic American Building Arts (CHABA) strove to integrate the Hispanic population into the community by teaching restoration skills to the new homeowners in the historic district and providing a sense of shared place by apprising them of Bridgeton’s agricultural and industrial history. Bridgeton’s historic preservation guidelines were translated into Spanish, as the latest wave of immigrants populated the Victorian housing stock and revitalized the neighborhoods. The commissioning of two works by Philadelphia’s Mexican-American muralist Cesar Viveros Herrera (b. 1968) further melded Bridgeton’s history with its present. In 2017 the City Council instituted a municipal ID program, the first in South Jersey, to assist undocumented residents in opening bank accounts, accessing health care, and participating in city activities.

Development in the twenty-first century was primarily publicly funded. Building on the area’s agricultural and food processing base, in 2008 Rutgers University opened a Food Innovation Center, providing space and expertise for startup food manufacturers and over the next ten years aided more than one hundred new businesses. The Cumberland County Improvement Authority broke ground in 2017 for a $9.2 million Food Specialization Center to help the start-up companies take the next step toward full autonomy. Cumberland County College opened STEAMworks, South Jersey’s first makerspace, in 2015, making available to the public a 3D printer, laser cutter, computer lab with CAD software, a fully equipped recording studio, electronics, and standard power tools. As it had many times in the past centuries, twenty-first-century Bridgeton strove to evolve into a new version of the “Gem O’ Jersey.”

Penelope S. Watson, AIA, is a principal at Watson & Henry Associates, where she has worked as preservation architect for over thirty years.  She has an undergraduate degree from Mt. Holyoke College, a professional degree from the Boston Architectural College, and a master’s degree in Preservation Studies from Boston University.

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