HISTORY OF OLD BRIDGE & THE WATERFRONT
The first inhabitants of the area known as Old Bridge, were the Lenni Lenape Indians. They, like many people today, migrated to the shore along the Raritan each summer from their hunting grounds in the north.
When the English gained control from the Dutch in 1664, the state was divided into two provinces, East and West Jersey. In 1682, the general assembly of East Jersey defined the boundaries of Middlesex County as containing all plantations on both sides of the Raritan River, as far as Cheesequake Harbor to the east, then southwest to the Provincial line. This Southwest line is the border of Monmouth and Middlesex Counties and the Township’s southern border.
In 1684, South Amboy Township was formed. At that time, it covered an area that now consists of the Townships of Monroe and Old Bridge and the Boroughs of Sayreville and South Amboy.
The forty-two square miles that comprise the Township separated from South Amboy in 1869, and was called Madison Township until 1975, when the name was changed by referendum to the Township of Old Bridge.
The first settlers were John Warne, son of one of the original proprietors of East Jersey, and John and Susannah Brown, who obtained a 1,000 acre land grant from the King of England in 1737. A section of the Township still carries the name Browntown.
Initially, the Township was made up of farms and the population grew slowly. In 1880, the population was 1,662 and in 1950 it had reached only 7,365. Then the building boom started and farms gave way to developments. In 1960, the population was 22,772 and that was only the beginning. The 1980 census sited 51,406 people and even that was questioned because areas of the Township have post offices bearing the names of other communities in the area. Today, the Township population is estimated to be 60,000 and continued growth is forecasted. Of the Township’s 38.3 square miles, approximately one third is developed.
History of the Waterfront:
Ever since the Raritan Bay area was first inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Indians, the Old Bridge waterfront has been used for residential, commercial, navigational and recreational purposes. Native flora and fauna have played a key part in the early use and development of the waterfront as the Lenni Lenape Indians regularly traveled to the Bay to harvest the then plentiful Chingarora oysters and soft-shelled clams. Their camp sites, including one adjacent to Cheesequake Creek near the former site of the Robert E. Lee Inn, and another adjacent to Whale Creek, near its present intersection with Route 35, have been documented by historians. It is safe to assume that the waters of the Bay were also used for fishing and recreational purposes by these early inhabitants.
The primary sub-division of the Lenni Lenape Indians residing in the area now known as Old Bridge was the Unami, or “people down the river”. The Indians called the New Jersey area “Scheyichbi”, “land of the shell wampum” or “land bordering the ocean”. One of these tribes of the Lenni Lenape was known as the “Raritans”, which is probably the derivation of the name of the Raritan River and Raritan Bay.
When the Dutch and British began to settle the area in the early and mid 1600?s, the Raritan River and Bay were heavily utilized as water transportation and commercial trading routes. Sailing sloops in the 18th century, replaced in the early part of the 19th century by steamboats, carried farm produce, flour, wood, shingles, and oysters to New York City and other eastern seaports and to more distant lands such as Barbados and Ireland. Cheesequake Creek in particular was a busy, bustling navigations route with inns, taverns and a small village lining its banks. The rich beds of the Cheeequake Creek, first used by the Indians, led to the development of potteries near the headwaters of the Creek and subsequent thriving clay related industries in Middlesex County and New Jersey.
The coming of the railroads in the early and mid 1800?s curtailed much of the commercial activity of the sailing ships and steamboats. By 1850, mills began to appear in the Old Bridge area, including three along the waterfront near Raritan Bay Beach, Seidler?s Beach and Morgan Beach. The mills manufactured paper products and gun powder which were transported by railroad to industrial areas north and south of Old Bridge.
Another activity of economic importance which occurred along the Old Bridge waterfront was harvesting of slat hay. From about 1770 on, slat hay, which consisted of cord grasses and reed grass, was regularly harvested, dried and used as a packing and insulating material. Photographs of the waterfront taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveal extensive stands of cord grass along most of the two mile waterfront. The industrialization of many of the areas adjacent to the Raritan Bay and the resultant perturbation of the water led to the decline of the salt water cord grass stands to the present limited stands scattered along stream inlets.
Not only was the Old Bridge waterfront a scene of commercial and navigational activity, but the area was also well known and heavily used for recreation pursuits. The following is an excerpt from the Historical Society publication At the Headwaters of Cheesequake Creek:
“Another recreation for the farmers in the early 1800?s and perhaps before was an annual outing to the bay shore. It was called Salt Water Day and took place the second Saturday in August. The first Saturday, the Negro population of the area had a day at the beach and in some places it was called “Black Saturday”.
Food was prepared days before and on the appointed day before sunrise, hundreds of loaded wagons came from miles around and headed for the beach at Laurence Harbor and Cliffwood Beach. It was an important family outing and was looked forward to with great anticipation by young and old. Much visiting, exchange and sharing of food and gossip took place. Children frolicked in the sand and waded with bare feet; men, no doubt, talked about their crops and the state of affairs. The entire community joined in the mammoth size picnic. In later years, they traveled mostly in carriages and surreys. Horses and buggies and wagons, rich and poor, all crowded to the beach. In the late 1880?s, some went bathing and there were pavilions. During the summer, dancing was enjoyed in the afternoon and evening at Barbour?s Pavilion, Money Island (Cliffwood Beach). Still later in the 1920?s, there was entertainment and dancing at “Farmer?s Day” when the activities for the day were planned by the Department of Agriculture, New Brunswick and held at Seidler?s Beach. Games and picture taking were enjoyed and other activities as the automobile became popular. When it became more organized, it lost its spontaneity.
Salt Water Day may be connected with the old laws prohibiting the gathering of oysters between May and August. Dating back, perhaps, to the time when the Indians made our beaches their summer camp and enjoyed feasting on baked clams and chingarora oysters that in later years drew the famous of New York City to the bay front.
Thousands of people still flock to the Jersey Shore each summer to carry on an early tradition. The shore is still a healthy, happy and pleasant place to be during the hot and humid weather.
From a historical perspective it is evident that the Old Bridge waterfront has been a site of considerable commercial and recreational activity ever since the area was first inhabited by the Lenni Lenape. Much of this activity was directly attributed to the flora and fauna, natural bathing beaches, and access to the major navigational routes. A combination of the detrimental effects of water pollution on existing bayshore flora and fauna, storm damage and resultant beach erosion and building destruction, unsightly filling of the water?s edge in some locations and a general neglect of this valuable asset has led to a deterioration of the bay front area.
During the past decade the Township of Old Bridge initiated efforts to reverse this trend. Forty-seven acres of waterfront land were acquired and the first phase of the Laurence Harbor Park was developed. Additional plans for groins, erosion control and recreational facilities were also initiated. Hopefully, future historians will be able to look back with satisfaction and pride to the 1980?s as a decade of renaissance for the Old Bridge waterfront. Significantly, the State of New Jersey had established a policy of upgrading and enhancing the State?s waterways in the 1980?s. This policy evolved through continued efforts in planning and regulating development in the coastal area which culminated in a Presidential directive that 1980 be designated as “The Year of the Coast”.
In 1995 as part of the Shore Protection Beach revitalization project, two new groins (jetty?s) were built off the Laurence Harbor beachfront and the entire beach was replenished with new sand. A New Jersey Shore Protection grant of $2,100,000 was provided for the project.
In 1998, the Middlesex County Park Commission leased the shorefront from the Township and planned the development of a major waterfront park.
In March, 1999, the State Department of Environmental Protection awarded the Township with a $300,000 grant to repair the Laurence Harbor Beach groin (jetty). The award was presented to the Township through the office of the DEP Administrator, Bernard Moore, longtime Chief of the Bureau of Coastal Engineering. Since the old groin was already included in the County?s plan for improvements, the $300,000 grant will be used for additional site work and recreational amenities.
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