Trenton, New Jersey


The state capital of New Jersey and the seat of Mercer County, Trenton parlayed its strategic location on the Delaware River into becoming one of the most productive industrial sites in the Greater Philadelphia region. A small city of only 7.65 square miles located halfway between Philadelphia and New York, Trenton conveyed its considerable status to the world through the sign the city erected in 1917: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” However, the loss of industry and the rise of social costs as the population shifted put the city into serious decline after World War II, challenges it faced into the twenty-first century.

Trenton (inset and upper right) is linked to Philadelphia, Camden, and other major industrial cities by the Delaware River, a vital shipping lane. Depicted in this 1932 map, it flows through five states: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. (Library of Congress)

Europeans chose to settle in the Trenton area because it was the easiest spot to cross the Delaware. The area’s earliest inhabitants, the Lenape Indians, had already carved out an Indian trail connecting the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. During the colonial period that trail became the most direct route between Philadelphia and New York and as a roadway spurred Trenton’s growth into a town, a small industrial city, and later into part of a larger industrial corridor that stretched along the Delaware River through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Trenton area was first settled by English Quakers in 1679, when Mahlon Stacy (1638-1704) built a house and grist mill along the Delaware River. In 1714, William Trent (circa. 1653-1724), a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, bought Stacy’s property, laid out house lots for sale, and by 1719 “Trent’s Town” was the site of the county courthouse. By 1726, ferries crossed the Delaware to Philadelphia, and by the 1750s, stagecoaches reached New York. From then on, Trenton had a steady stream of travelers from Philadelphia and New York.

By the 1770s, Trenton had become the mercantile center of an area that sprawled over two counties. During the Revolution, it was the site of the two Battles of Trenton when the army of General George Washington (1732-99) crossed the Delaware and twice defeated the Hessian troops on December 26, 1776, and a week later on January 2, 1777. After the Revolution, Trenton became the state capital in 1790, an incorporated city in 1792, and a link in the new nation’s direct inland route from New England to the southern states. During the 1830s, bridges, canals, and railroads improved the Philadelphia-New York route. Transit reinforced Trenton’s central position in the area and led to the creation of Mercer County in 1838 with Trenton as the county seat.

Textiles, Steel, Rubber, Pottery

Photograph of the Lower Trenton Bridge. The slogan Trenton Makes, the World Wakes is illuminated on the side.
The Trenton Chamber of Commerce adopted the slogan “ Trenton Makes, The World Takes” in 1910. It first appeared on the Lower Trenton Bridge, which spans the Delaware River between Trenton, New Jersey, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, in 1911. (Wikimedia Commons)

Good transportation links attracted new industries to Trenton from the 1840s on. Its first industry had been textiles. But in 1845, New York businessman Peter Cooper (1791-1883) opened an iron mill in Trenton, and later John A. Roebling (1806-1869), of later Brooklyn Bridge fame, moved his wire rope/steel cable business to Trenton as well. Many more industries followed. Two of the biggest were rubber, from the 1850s until the 1950s, and pottery (fine china and sanitary ware), from the 1860s into the twentieth century. By 1900, Trenton was a booming industrial city and part of a manufacturing belt along the Delaware River. Trenton had begun by selling manufactured goods to Philadelphia and New York, but it later sold high quality goods to the nation and the world. In 1917, the city proudly proclaimed its industrial might with a large electric sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge, saying “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”

Trenton’s population grew and diversified with its industry. People from home and abroad flocked to Trenton’s mills and factories, causing the population to rise from 6,461 in 1850 to its peak of 128,009 in 1950. At that time, Trenton had the fifth-highest density of cities over 100,000 population, or around 17,000 persons per square mile. Its population also changed as thousands of immigrants toiled in Trenton workplaces, from the earlier Irish, German, and British, to the later Italian, Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovak. From 1905 on, the proportion of foreign born declined steadily, but a new stream of African Americans began arriving during World War I.

In the 1920s, Trenton still had a vibrant downtown, a rising population, and industries producing for the world. But by then, decades of mechanization had eliminated many jobs and weakened Trenton’s unions, and many Trenton companies had left the city. This process began in 1904 when U.S. Steel acquired Trenton Iron Works and continued when Colorado Fuel & Iron bought Roebling’s in 1953. These factors were obscured during World War I and the 1920s but were exposed by the 1930s Depression. The city only managed to survive with New Deal relief efforts and public works until World War II temporarily restored business and jobs.

Trenton’s prosperity ended in the post-war years. Manufacturing disappeared, while young families left Trenton for new housing and jobs outside the city. Downtown retailers relocated to suburban shopping centers, and cultural, state, and educational institutions also left. Only Thomas Edison State College and a satellite campus of Mercer County Community College remained downtown. In 1957, even the governor’s residence moved to Princeton.

African American Migration

Many African Americans migrated to Trenton for World War II defense jobs, and their numbers continued to grow afterwards. Although they constituted only 11 percent of the city’s population in 1950, racial tensions increased because they were arriving just when jobs were disappearing. This was revealed by the 1948 case of “The Trenton Six,” which drew international attention when six Black men were wrongly convicted for murdering a white storekeeper. Although they were later exonerated, racial distrust flared again when the city’s urban renewal program resulted in the demolition of homes of African Americans despite their protests. Tensions intensified in December 1967 when Black and white students clashed in Trenton Central High School, and again in April 9, 1968, the day of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Violence erupted after Black college student Harlan Joseph (1949-68) was fatally shot in the back by a white police officer. During later decades, Trenton suffered deeply from poverty, joblessness, and gang violence. Trenton remained well below the state’s poverty levels into the twenty-first century and often topped the list of the most violent cities of its size with consistently high murder rates.

While parts of the city declined, Trenton’s downtown and central core were rebuilt. This began in the late 1950s with John Fitch Way, an urban renewal highway that cut off the downtown from its Delaware River waterfront. It continued in the 1980s with new county and state office towers and the massive Hughes Justice Complex, and followed with entertainment and sports venues such as a new minor league baseball stadium for the Trenton Thunder in the 1990s. Renewal continued with conversion of the Roebling mills for housing and tourism and a new Trenton Transit Center serving Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, and the River Line. Trenton had a new skyline, but state buildings paid no city taxes, and state employees did not spend enough money downtown to assure revival. City officials often had misgivings about the state’s larger role. But without private investment, state initiatives were the only way to rebuild Trenton.

Reenactors at the Old Barracks Museum preparing to reenact the Battle of Trenton during Patriot's Week.
The Trenton Downtown Association holds Patriot Week annually between December 26 and 31. Pictured is a reenactment of the Battle of Trenton, conducted by the Old Barracks Museum. (Old Barracks Museum)

Trenton lost much population since the 1950s, dropping to 84,913 in 2010. Middle-class residents continued to leave, and African Americans increased from 23 percent of the population in 1960 to 52 percent in both 2000 and 2010. Hispanics began arriving in the 1960s, reaching 34 percent of the city’s total in 2010. Thereafter, the city’s population stabilized at over 84,000, while levels of poverty and crime declined, despite an isolated shootout at the Art All Night festival in June 2018. Earlier that year, multiple news outlets repeated a Wallet Hub online description of Trenton as “the worst capital city to live in.” Despite having to battle such negative publicity, the city was long inspired by the efforts of residents, civic organizations, and city officials deeply dedicated to Trenton and its future. In recent years, residents celebrated the 242nd anniversary of the Battle of Trenton and the city unveiled an ambitious master plan, Trenton 250. In September 2018, New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy (b. 1957), pledged to revitalize the struggling city with new redevelopment and safety measures.

Evelyn Gonzalez is a Professor of History at William Paterson University of New Jersey. She has written essays for The Encyclopedia of New York City and The Encyclopedia of New Jersey and is the author of The Bronx (Columbia University Press, 2004). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Trenton and Philadelphia Connected by the Delaware River

Library of Congress

The Delaware River flows through five states: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. This 1932 map documents the connection between Trenton and Philadelphia created by the river, which gave Trenton the means to transport its manufactured goods: textiles in the 1840s, rubber by the 1850s, and fine pottery in the 1860s. During those early years, a majority of the goods flowed into Philadelphia and New York, but from there they slowly reached into markets around the country. By the 1950s, this shipping virtually disappeared as manufacturing deserted Trenton after World War II, with businesses failing without wartime contracts or support from the New Deal. Beyond its commercial use, the river provides drinking water for approximately 13 million Americans and provides a habitat for a large variety of fish, birds, and other wildlife.

“Trenton Makes, The World Takes” Slogan

Wikimedia Commons

The Lower Trenton Toll-Supported Bridge, more commonly known as the Lower Trenton Bridge or the “Trenton Makes” Bridge, spans the Delaware River between Trenton, New Jersey, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. The photograph was taken from the John Fitch Parkway (New Jersey Route 29) on December 21, 2014. The slogan only appeared later in the bridge’s history. It opened in 1806, serving as the first bridge over the Delaware. Several rebuilds over the next century resulted in its modern appearance by 1928. Built with Warren trusses, which consist of inverted equilateral triangles, it rests on the original masonry. By the twenty-first century, maintained and operated by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, it no longer served as a toll bridge.

The Lower Trenton Bridge became famous for the large sign displayed on the south side: “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.” The Trenton Chamber of Commerce launched a competition in 1910 for a slogan to place on the bridge to represent the city’s industrial capabilities, including the production of textiles, rubber, steel, pottery, and wire rope. S. Roy Heath won in 1910, and the slogan first adorned the bridge in 1911 as large metallic letters. With the proliferation of light bulbs, the city upgraded it in 1917 with a new illuminated sign, which was removed in 1928 with the construction of a new bridge on the same spot. Because of the Great Depression, however, the city did not replace it until 1935. Several upgrades occurred over the next few decades, including changes to the power distribution system and modern energy-efficient LED lights. The sign served as a constant reminder of the city’s past as an industrial center on the banks of the Delaware River.

William Trent House

Digital Commonwealth

William Trent, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, bought the English Quaker Mahlon Stacy’s property in 1714 and quickly laid out houses on the plot that became known as “Trent’s Town.” He constructed a large brick house in the area, with a pathway to the nearby ferry landing, that became known as the William Trent House. After Trent’s death in 1724, his son James sold the property on Market Street to William Morris. Morris later sold it to the Governor George Thomas of Pennsylvania, who leased the property to New Jersey’s first governor, Lewis Morris. Hessian forces later occupied it during the American Revolution. Several New Jersey governors later used it as an official residence into the mid-nineteenth century.

Edward A. Stokes, the last private owner of the property, donated the Trent House to the City of Trenton in 1929. After restoration work during the 1930s, the house opened as a museum in 1939 operated by the Trent House Association . This association worked closely with the city’s Division of Culture to preserve the house for future generations. The postcard depicts the house sometime between 1930 and 1945. Later designated a National Historic Landmark, the Trent Hose continued to operate as a museum in the twenty-first century.

Washington's Reception by the Ladies

Library of Congress

This lithograph, published between 1845 and 1846, shows the warm reception George Washington received on the way to New York for his first inauguration as President of the United States. The banner across the top refers to his famous victory during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. During the battle he led the Continental Army in an attack on Hessian troops stationed within the city, after his night crossing of the Delaware River. Victory inspired rebels throughout the colonies, which gave the Continental Congress hope and resulted in more recruits for the army. Upon his return to Trenton in 1789, he crossed the Assunpink Creek Bridge, where the citizens of Trenton erected a triumphal arch with the inscription, “The Protector of the Mothers will also protect their Daughters.”

Patriots Week

Old Barracks Museum

The Trenton Downtown Association collaborates with a variety of local organization to put on Patriot’s Week to celebrate Trenton’s connection with the Revolutionary War. In addition to the annual reenactment of the Battle of Trenton at the Old Barracks Museum, pictured here, activities have included pub crawls, historical tours, film screenings and art displays. Thousands of visitors every year have been drawn to these activities along with daily musketry demonstrations, lectures, puppet shows, and a colonial ball. In addition to the Old Barracks Museum, participating organizations have included the New Jersey State Museum, Princeton Battlefield State Park, and the Washington Crossing Historic Park.

New Jersey State House

Wikimedia Commons

On November 25, 1790, Trenton became the capital of New Jersey in addition to its status as the seat of Mercer County. The state government brought in architect Jonathan Doane to design and oversee construction of the new State House. On a budget of approximately $400, the building with a bell tower reached completion by 1792. By 1845, the New Jersey General Assembly and Senate outgrew the original structure, so they hired architect John Notman to renovate and enlarge it. He connected the old and newly constructed sections through a large rotunda topped by a dome.

A large fire on March 21, 1885 devastated the State House. No injuries were reported, and most historical documents survived thanks to fireproofing put in place by Notman decades earlier. For several years, the damaged remained unaddressed. Another architect, Lewis Broome, envisioned a new dome and rotunda to replace those destroyed. The new dome, constructed in 1889, is the familiar one seen on the modern State House pictured here. It weighs approximately 200,000 pounds, covered in copper and gold leaf. The cupola seen on top was designed to represent the bell tower constructed on the original State House.

A major renovation project began in 1987 to address structural issues and to renovate the legislative sections of the building. The dome and rotunda received further renovations during the next decade, with a public-private partnership providing the funds to re-gild the dome in 1999. Through “Dimes for the Dome” program, New Jersey schoolchildren donated approximately $48,000 for the project.

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Time Periods


Related Reading

Cumbler, John T. A Social History of Economic Decline: Business, Politics, and Work in Trenton. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Knepper, Cathy D. Jersey Justice: The Story of the Trenton Six. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rivergate Books, Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Kovisars, Judith. An Obituary of a Hometown. Stillwater, Okla.: Thales Microuniversity Press, 1974.

___________­­­_. “Trenton Up Against It: The Prescription for Urban Renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.” In Joel Schwartz and Daniel Prosser, eds., Cities of the Garden State. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1977, 161-175.

Quigley, Mary Alice and David E. Collier. A Capital Place: The Story of Trenton. Trenton: Trenton Historical Society, Windsor Publications, 1984.

Richman, Steven M. Reconsidering Trenton: The Small City in the Post-Industrial Age. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2011.

Washington, Jack. The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community: 1890-1965. Trenton: The Africana World Press, 1993.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy