A quaint and quiet town lying off just about all beaten paths and surrounded by landscapes of orchards, farms, and greenhouses, Bridgeton possesses the largest historic district of any town in the state of New Jersey. Bridgeton’s own history stems back to the year 1686 when Richard Hancock, surveyor-general to John Fenwick, built a saw mill and workmen’s houses close to where Pine Street meets the Broad Street bypass.
In 1716, locals built a bridge across the tidal waters of the Cohansey River. In 1749, the small settlement of Cohansey Bridge, later to become the small city of Bridgetowne and at last Bridgeton (population 22,000), became the county seat, which it still is to this day.
One of the town’s most significant historical sites, Potter’s Tavern is a two and a half story modified salt box English framed house of the type filled between the timbers with salmon brick on edge set in lime mortar. Such timber-framed buildings constitute the earliest English architectural styles to appear in southern New Jersey.
Potter’s Tavern was a popular meeting place and the area’s principal hostelry just before the Revolution due to its proximity to the Cumberland County courthouse. As revolutionary feelings were seeded throughout the Colonies, the humble tavern became “Bridgeton’s Independence Hall”.
In 1775 at Christmas time, patriots published a manuscript newspaper called The Plain Dealer at Potter’s Tavern. Dedicated to the cause of liberty, in the strongest terms it called for Colonial separation from the Crown rule. The Plain Dealer, New Jersey’s first newspaper and its first newspaper established expressly for the purpose of supporting the sometimes faltering drive for American liberty, is one of the literary and political landmarks of the American Revolutionary period. Tavern keeper Matthew Potter, risking a charge of treason, became one of the unsung heroes of the Revolution.
In rural country just outside of Bridgeton sits Ye Olde Centerton Inn. Now a bar and restaurant with excellent food and an enchantingly cozy atmosphere, it was once upon a time a prominent stagecoach stop between rural southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. Local tales have it that Benjamin Franklin and George Washington ate and slept at the inn in times past. There are, however, no revolutionary ghosts to be found.
Eventually in the second half of the 1800s Bridgeton had expanded and become a town of industrial importance, considered to be a hub of glass and iron production for the Delaware Valley region. Many grand Victorian houses-some might wish to call them “mansions”-that still exist and are lived in within Bridgeton were built during this time, and there are even a few examples of New Gothic architecture as well, such as the town’s very own “Seven Gables”. The Central Railroad Company of New Jersey and later on the Winchester and Western RR ran their tracks through Bridgeton. By the 1950s the town was prosperous with manufacturing and food processing. The first frozen foods made for mass production-Birds Eye Frozen Foods-had come into being at Seabrook Farms on the outskirts of Bridgeton in 1913, and Seabrook Farms continued to thrive and in fact is still productive. The “uncola”, 7Up, had a manufacturing facility in the town. Walking to school in the mid-1970s brought me the rich, heady scent of cooking tomatoes courtesy of Hunt’s Ketchup.
But as the economy changed in the 1980s, Bridgeton did not; and suddenly the prosperous Cumberland County Seat, with its beautiful buildings and “Peanuts”-style neighborhoods and romantic surrounds, was in a deep depression. Bridgeton had been built on production, not service. Furthermore, progressive expansion is very difficult in the historic town, for the Faulkner Act government knows the historical legacy of the area and seeks aggressively to preserve it; these actions are often pyrrhic victories. Soon the ambitious and the young bright minds were moving away in droves. Those that moved into Bridgeton or its immediate surrounding areas like Upper Deerfield more often than not worked an hour’s drive away or more in Philadelphia or a more northerly, progressive area of the state like Cherry Hill or even Princeton. These people’s homes in Bridgeton were more like escapes than integral parts of a community.
But all hope is not lost on this place along the tidewaters. With the implementation of the Internet and its blogs and customized online newspapers and online shopping and telecommutes, with iPods and podcasts and DVRs and satellite radio, Bridgeton could possibly be poised to bloom into a south Jersey micropolis-a 21st Century Mount Airy (minus any mountains) where heavy weather is rare and waters are abundant.
Big money real estate goes for pennies to the dollar in the Bridgeton area. As I write this, one of those Victorian “mansions” has gone for $400,000 to a couple from New York who would have easily paid at least double that price in their home state or, indeed, even an hour north where I sit at my writing desk in Mount Laurel. What was once Bridgeton’s biggest liability-its remoteness-could well be morphing into its best natural resource. It’s got a Walgreen’s now, and one of those Dunkin places.
So. If you come to Bridgeton and you want to scope it out, or if you move to the town to cocoon yourself away from it all and you’re done being plugged in for the day and don’t feel like driving for at least a half hour, then what would you do? Angie’s Diner on Broad Street not only serves some of the best breakfasts around, it’s a converted caboose. Down the street and up the hill, across from the County courthouse-and underground-is the five-star quality Coach Room, situated underneath the honkey-tonk Hillcrest bar. Around behind Angie’s, the Bridgewater Pub has over 300 different kinds of beer and live rock bands. A three minute walk from the Pub can take you to Beva’s for magnificent Mexican food served dirt cheap. A two minute drive from there can find you at Dill’s Seafood (take out or eat in, some of the freshest stuff around). A six or seven minute drive to Karl’s Corner takes you to the Golden Pigeon, featuring a huge menu, fresh-baked cheese bread, and such abundant (but inexpensive) servings that it is unusual to see someone leave without tomorrow’s lunch in a Styrofoam container.
Fear not-there’s plenty of great pizza in the immediate vicinity, too.
Already stuffed? Rent a canoe (or place your own in the water) and ply the “Raceway” through the Cohanzick Zoo, New Jersey’s first, and only municipal, zoo. In August, you can lock up your canoe somewhere along Raceway’s stretch and take a hike from the zoo over to Alden Field and see old style, semi-professional invitational ball games. Keep on paddling long enough and you’ll pass under a bridge to emerge onto gorgeous Sunset Lake. My dad and I once canoed from his dock all the way through the zoo and across the lake to a relative’s dock-which made the beer he served us upon arrival taste even better.
Sunset Lake is also the starting point for the town’s annual summer Sunset Sprint Triathlon and Duathlon (this event ain’t no joke). And the Bay Atlantic Symphony sometimes performs outdoor concerts at the Lake Amphitheater.
Looking for a potential micropolis where you can live away from it all? Check out Bridgeton, NJ.