|Kingston: Crossroads To History 1675 -|
Kingston is a place like no other in the state of New Jersey. Although the community remains unincorporated today, residents share a common heritage that goes back to the 17th century. What makes Kingston so unique, however, is that it is the only tri-county community in New Jersey. The former King's Highway and the Millstone River, which historically brought people together to live here, are now the boundaries that politically divide this historic village.
The Millstone River between Kingston and Rocky Hill along River Road divides the Kingston Mill Historic District in Princeton Township (Mercer County) from the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park and Historic District. The park includes the Millstone River, the canal, the Kingston Locktender's House, the Tollhouse, the Kingston Basin, Lock #8, and the bridge that replaced Swing Bridge #16. Kingston Village Historic District is bisected by today's Route 27 with the west side in Franklin Township (Somerset County) and the east side in South Brunswick Township (Middlesex County).
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the area called Kingston, or King's Town, stretched from what is today Snowden Lane in Princeton on the south to what is Raymond Road today on the North. Therefore, a look at the heritage of the village must include some places that are no longer considered a part of the community.
To fully appreciate Kingston's past, we must begin with the Assunpink Trail, which was used by the Lenni Lenape Indians to travel between the Delaware River and the Raritan River. This trail roughly corresponds with today's Route 27 and was used by Dutch fur traders and other early travelers who called it the Old Dutch Trail. As the British gained control of New York and New Jersey after 1664, European settlers began to colonize central New Jersey using the rough pathways of traders, travelers and the Native Americans. What was once the narrow Assunpink Trail became the King's Highway, a key roadway link between New York City and Philadelphia during the colonial period of American history.
Henry Greenland is generally credited with being Kingston's first permanent settler. He arrived in 1683 and built a house with a tavern near the King's Highway crossing of the Millstone River. Travel at that time was by horse or cart. Settlement throughout the river valley resulted in Somerset County being carved out of Middlesex County in 1688. By 1704, the village was called "King's Town". Greenland's daughter married Daniel Brinson and their son, Barefoot, inherited the farm and lived there until 1748. He was appointed a sheriff of Somerset County in 1709, the same year Jedediah Higgins allegedly bought 1,000 acres on the west side of the old Assunpink Trail from the Lanape Indians for a sow and piglets! The Higgins property extended all the way to what is today Route 518 and included the site of Rockingham.
Early 18th century activity in Kingston centered around the numerous stage coaches that traveled by way of Kingston between the two largest cities during colonial times - Philadelphia and New York. Taverns provided a place for food and drink, for finding out the news, changing horses, making an overnight stop or shelter in poor weather. Van Tilburgh's inn, called "The Sign of the Mermaid," is perhaps the most remembered from this era. Jacob Skillman rebuilt a mill on an earlier mill site at the Millstone River.
An early Presbyterian church was organized and located in a log building near the Millstone River. The recorded beginning of the Kingston Presbyterian Church is, however, 1732 when a more permanent structure was built. During this time, both William Tennant and David Brainard preached there. By 1756, Princeton had erected its own Presbyterian Church and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) was moved to Princeton in 1757. These changes drew many parishioners into Princeton for worship.
Joseph Hewes was born in 1730 of Quaker parents at Maybury Hill on Snowden Lane, which was then considered a part of Kingston. After attending the college in Princeton, he moved to North Carolina and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. During the American Revolution, New Jersey was the theater for much action. The British invasion of New Jersey began in November 1776 and was aimed at occupying Philadelphia. As Cornwallis' troops advanced southwards, they occupied portions of the state. The mill in Kingston was burned by the British in December 1776 during the occupation.
General George Washington's victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777 turned the tide of the Revolution. Washington led his weary troops along the King's Highway to Kingston where Washington held his famous "conference on horseback" with his officers to decide whether to attempt capturing British supplies in New Brunswick or to camp in Morristown for the winter. His troops were exhausted and freezing; Washington and his officers chose to march past Rocky Hill and Griggstown along the Millstone River and on to Morristown.
Washington's troops marched through Kingston again in June 1778 en route to the Battle of Monmouth. Later, after the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, Colonel Dillon Lauzun's Legion camped in Kingston. After the war, the Continental Congress met in Princeton during 1783 and George Washington arrived in Princeton in August and stayed at nearby Rockingham. During these months, many of America's most influential people visited this area as participants in the Congress or as guests of General Washington.
In 1798, the four -arch stone bridge over the Millstone River was rebuilt. During the Revolution, an earlier wooden bridge had been destroyed by Continental troops who hoped to delay the British retreat from Princeton. John and Jacob Gulick rebuilt a mill in Kingston. South Brunswick, Franklin and Montgomery townships were formed in 1798, which laced the mill, the two inns and about 20 houses in three different townships!
Kingston's 19th century history centers on the town's development as a transportation center. In 1807, a section of the King's Highway called the Princeton-Kingston Branch Turnpike was improved and tolls for travel were charged. Phineas Withington opened the Withington Inn opposite Tilburgh's Sign of the Mermaid in 1811. Commodore Vanderbilt joined Withington's investment in the transportation boom and started the Union Stage Line. Major John Gulick operated the competing Gulick Stage Line between Trenton and New Brunswick. By 1814, this 25-mile stretch was the most heavily traveled road in New Jersey!
In 1812, the Kingston Library Company was established with the mission of circulating its collection of 284 books to 70 members. This was the earliest public library in the area; members paid only $1.00 a year. It is known that by 1837, there was an academy in Kingston, which was probably associated with the Presbyterian Church. Even a newspaper, the Kingston Record, was briefly published in Kingston during the 1830's.
The event that was to forever change Kingston's history was the completion of the Delaware and Raritan Canal in 1834 by Irish immigrant laborers.
Canal building started in Kingston in 1830 because of the good road network. Water transportation through central New Jersey meant that a broader market was available for farmers, businessmen and factories. Soon, Mercer County and Princeton Township were established in 1838, which indicated that the population was steadily growing. In 1839, the Camden and Amboy Railroad was extended from the main line in Trenton along the canal to Kingston and on to New Brunswick. By 1864, there was a railroad extension to Rocky Hill. This attracted Martin A. Howell of New Brunswick to buy the local quarry in 1872 and take advantage of the convenient transportation via canal or railroad.
A new Presbyterian Church was built in 1852 where there was more space. And, in 1871, the Kingston School (or Academy) was built in South Brunswick Township. Charles B. Moore of Kingston was elected as a state senator from Somerset County in 1875. The Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1878 and the Union Line Hotel opened on the site of the old Withington Inn, which had burned. Between 1860 and 1880, it is not hard to imagine the dust, smoke and noise that were a part of Kingston's canal and railroad transportation peak period. The population had reached 500 people by 1880, when canal traffic began to decline as the Pennsylvania Railroad took away most of the canal business. Many small businesses thrived, however, during this time by providing services and products to the increasing number of workers and travelers.
By 1892, the Excelsior Terra Cotta Factory on the canal and railroad about three miles from Kingston near Rocky Hill began to attract Italian workers to the area, who could also find employment at Princeton University or at the quarry. By 1896, Washington's Headquarters (Rockingham) had to be moved because of the expanding quarry. The village of Kingston had to find ways to integrate a diverse population of newcomers.
As the 20th century opened, the village of Kingston experienced considerable growth due to immigrants and other workers who arrived to work in the reopened New Jersey Copper Company mine between Rocky Hill and Griggstown; the former Excelsior factory, which was renamed and merged with the Atlantic Terra Cotta Plant #3; the Delaware River Quarry Company and Princeton Nurseries. In 1906, Lake Carnegie was dug out and by 1910, the automobile had begun to change the way people traveled and spent their leisure time.
In 1913, the former King's Highway was designated part of the Lincoln Highway. This was part of a paved coast-to-coast roadway link with other highways to encourage automobile travel. Plainsboro Township was formed in 1919.
A Vigilant Society was established to keep the village social fabric together as newcomers arrived. After a fire on the Smilksteins property, the need for a local fire department was apparent. In 1924, the Kingston Volunteer Fire Company was formed at the recommendation of the Kingston Improvement Association.
The quarry temporarily closed between 1918 and 1930 and the Atlantic Terra Cotta plant closed in 1929 after the Stock Market crash. Although the quarry reopened, traffic on the Delaware and Raritan Canal had largely changed from heavy commercial freight to leisure yachts, and the canal was closed in 1932. Linus R. Gilbert, who bought the quarry in 1933 and renamed it Kingston Trap Rock, and the Flemer family, who founded Princeton Nurseries in 1911, kept businesses alive in the village. Garages and small stores continued to operate in town.
In 1956, Rockingham was moved a second time to make room for quarry expansion and in 1970, the site was put on the National Register of Historic places.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal was put on the National Register in 1973 and became a New Jersey State Park in 1974, Railroad service to the quarry ended about the same time.
Located on the historic Lincoln Highway corridor (Route 27), people in the village of Kingston are conscious of the over 300-year heritage and residents have worked diligently to preserve the historic character of their town. By 1984, the Withington Estate (Heathcote Farm) was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1986, the Kingston Mill Historic District became listed on the national Register, and by 1990, Kingston Village Historic District and Lake Carnegie Historic District were entered on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1990's have seen the formation of the Kingston Initiative to work on maintaining the natural, historical, and cultural heritage of Kingston for future generations. Other organizations are working on specific goals to preserve the character of the village; the Kingston Historical Society, the Kingston Greenways Association, and the Kingston Garden Club. The Kingston Fire Company celebrates its 75th anniversary in 1999 and the town celebrates its lengthy heritage.
Rockingham will be moved for a third time just outside of Kingston on Laurel Avenue. Visitors from New Jersey, the nation, and the world will continue to have a variety of historical, natural, and cultural experiences in the area.
Written by Jeanette K. Muser author of Rocky Hill, Kingston and Griggstown published in 1998 by Arcadia Press. Mrs. Muser is a historian and retired librarian who writes occasional historical columns for local newspapers and is also a docent at Rockingham Historical Site.