Central New Jersey has long been an important travel corridor. Native Americans, Dutch and English settlers, and the Continental Army all passed through on routes not much different from today’s Route 27. By getting off the highway, we can get a taste of what it was like to travel between Philadelphia and New York going overland from the Delaware to the Raritan River.
The most important Lenape pathway from the Delaware River northeast to the Raritan and Hudson Rivers was known as the Assunpink Trail. Between the Raritan and Delaware Rivers it split into the “Upper Trail” and “Lower Trail.” European settlers expanded and slightly straightened the Upper Trail into a throughway that became known as the Old Dutch Road. By 1765 it was the favorite route for travel between Philadelphia and New York because of its directness and the accommodations for travelers along the route.
George Washington’s troops burned a bridge along the road in January 1777. A stone bridge was built in 1793 to replace it.
But the energy of the new republic could not be satisfied with repairing old roads – new ones were desired. In the first third of the nineteenth century, numerous turnpikes were built to connect markets, manufacturing centers, and raw materials.
In late 1804 the Trenton and New Brunswick Straight Turnpike Company was formed, and their route between the two cities would eventually become part of US Route 1.
Turnpike companies were each created by a specific act of the state legislature, and they received a number of favors. Competing with chartered routes was prohibited for a fixed number of years, if not permanently. Travelers who dodged tollgates by taking byways known as “shun pikes” could be fined three times the legal toll. Turnpike companies could also use the power of eminent domain to take private property in some circumstances.
Turnpike companies often took over existing roads, straightening them where previous concern for property boundaries led them to be circuitous. But others, including the Trenton and New Brunswick, were laid out in entirely new, straight routes.
New turnpikes were required to be as direct as the ground would allow. Those leading through relatively level areas were permitted a deviation of three degrees from the plane of the horizon.
The Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike soon opened to travelers. The Kingston Branch, established in 1807, extended service to Princeton and Kingston over part of the Old Dutch Road.
Increased traffic during the War of 1812 took its toll on the roadway. Heavily loaded wagons turned road surfaces into a maze of “hopeless ruts and quagmires.”
Wheaton Lane shows us that road rage is an old tradition:
This part of the route through New Jersey was in such ill repute with drivers that when the going was bad they sometimes refused to take the short trip of twenty-five miles. When the roads were drier however, teamsters even fought among themselves with whips while struggling to have their wagons loaded first.
Conditions improved after peace relaxed freight transport. The turnpike became a popular route for stage lines to take passengers through the state between Trenton and New Brunswick, where ferries and steam boats took them on the Delaware, Raritan, and Hudson Rivers.
In the mid-nineteenth century, competition from canals and railroads hurt turnpike companies and the roads became mainly used for local travel. In 1897 the state passed a law where remaining turnpikes were bought and turned into public roads with a combination of funds from state and county treasuries and local landowners.
People who held stock in turnpike companies rarely made large financial profits from the pikes, but since they were usually local landowners, farmers, and businessmen, they gained from the improved transportation networks they helped create. Wheaton Lane estimates that toll roads reduced the costs of transportation by as much as 50% and boosted rural and urban development.
Automobile travel in the 1910s and 1920s brought old roads to new prominence. The New Jersey section of the transcontinental Lincoln Highway (now Route 27) largely followed the Old Dutch Road, and the section of US Route 1 between the Raritan and Delaware Rivers was built on the route of the Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike.
Between the two highways, a wooded area offers the explorer an idea of what old roads might have looked like.
The Cook Natural area extends east from Ridge Road in South Brunswick. And there is mud.
The trail leads to an old stone bridge that was once used as a road crossing over the Heathcote Brook.
The roadway across the bridge would hopefully have been better covered when it was in use. Now the structural stones are visible sticking out of the top.
A stone on the middle of the bridge appears to be engraved with “Heathcots Brook”.
The traveler speeding through New Jersey or waiting behind a truck on Route 1 is part of a longer tradition than one might think. But when the luxury of time can be enjoyed, there are many places to discover along the road. Some of them are worth getting a little dirty for.
Backes, William J. A History of Trenton, 1679-1929. The Trenton Historical Society. http://www.trentonhistory.org/His/transportation.html
“Cook Natural Area,” Kingston Greenways Association. http://www.kingstongreenways.org/cook.html
Dawson, George, ed. Guide to Historic Sites in Central New Jersey, 4th
Edition. Somerset, NJ: The Raritan-Millstone Heritage Alliance, Inc,
2012. Page 126. http://www.raritanmillstone.org/2012_Guidebook.pdf
Kingston 1999 Committee. Kingston: Crossroads to History: 325th
Anniversary of the Village of Kingston, New Jersey, 75th Anniversary
of the Kingston Volunteer Fire Company. 1999. Pages 8-11. Accessed at South
Brunswick Public Library, 110 Kingston Lane, Monmouth Junction, NJ.
Lane, Wheaton J. From Indian Trail to Iron Horse: Travel and
Transportation in New Jersey, 1620-1860. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1939. Assunpink Trail, pages 17- 18, 51; Turnpikes, pages 143, 150-162, 168, 199-201. Quote on road condition, 159.
“Natural Areas.” Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. http://www.dandrcanal.com/natural.html