Bridgeton, New Jersey, (population 25,000) straddles the Cohansey River, which served as a convenient route from the Atlantic to the markets of Philadelphia. Since 1686, Bridgeton has seen the evolution of our nation, and it has been the county seat of agricultural Cumberland County since 1748. Relatively peaceful interaction between Europeans, free Blacks, and the native Delawares nurtured a distinctive multi-ethnic regional culture.
Soon after the Revolution, Bridgeton’s Cumberland Iron Works expanded production, and the town later became a center for glass production, machine works, food processing and canning, and textile manufacture. Incorporated in 1865, it was soon considered the most prosperous city in New Jersey. It also developed an excellent reputation in education. New wealth inspired fanciful mansions for the gentry and made gingerbread and woodcraft a feature of even vernacular homes.
When the Iron Works closed (1899), conservationists reclaimed its 1,100-acre watershed as a city park, one of the largest urban parks in the state. Foresighted preservationists, understanding the value of Bridgeton’s built environment, promoted creation of the largest National Register Historic District in New Jersey, which was established in 1983. It documents the rise and growth of an organic industrial and commercial center.
One of Bridgeton’s primary historic sites, the 1791 David Sheppard House, has served over the centuries as a family home, a women’s academy, a maternity hospital, and a nursing home. Today, restored to its classic Federal-style architecture, the building serves as an environmental research and education facility. The building is a satellite of the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, managed by the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (IMCS) at Rutgers University. Among IMCS’s regional programs is MARE (Marine Activities, Resources, and Education), which engages elementary and middle school students, teachers, parents, and the community in the study of the coast and ocean. IMCS has established MARE in more than 50 New Jersey schools, including two in Bridgeton.
Each year Bridgeton presents a historic house tour featuring such sites as the 1865 St. Andrews Episcopal Church; Olde Brearley, the oldest continuously operating Masonic Lodge in New Jersey, founded by Revolutionary Gen. James Giles; and the 1898 Bridgeton Fire House, still in operation today.
As part of the local history curriculum, Bridgeton’s public schoolchildren take an annual “Tiny Tour” to Bank Street, where they view and discuss the Revolutionary-era Brearley Lodge and a typical vernacular half-double of the boom industrial period a hundred years later.
Bridgeton’s Native American past can be explored in the George J. Woodruff Museum, located in the local library. More than 3,000 artifacts from the Lenni Lenape Indian tribe are on display, including thousands of arrowheads, as well as pots, axes, and cooking utensils.
New Jersey’s first zoo is in Bridgeton, one of the few remaining free public zoos in the country.
Bridgeton is in the Delsea region of the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail, a vehicular route highlighting significant natural and cultural sites associated with the coastal area.
Designated a Preserve America Community in January 2011.