Even though I’ve been around here long enough to have observed a large amount of residential and commercial development, I have to admit that the West Windsor and Plainsboro areas are still mostly open space. I won’t try to give an estimate of exactly what percentage of the total area or how many acres are still free of some kind of construction because there will always be differences of opinion on such things, so I’ll just leave it at “mostly.”
As you might expect, a very large percentage of the land that is now occupied by houses was once farmland, most of which has been transformed in the last 30 or 40 years. But when I first came to West Windsor in the late 1950s the only developments were Glen Acres on Alexander Road and Colonial Park on Penn Lyle Road — and it had only just begun.
At that time the word “development” had just begun to be used as the description of a group of new houses that were being built by one “developer.” Even the word “developer,” as used to describe an individual or organization that built a group of houses all at one time on speculation, or in the expectation of selling them, was a new idea, probably brought on by the post World War II economic boom. Before that houses in the country were mostly built one at a time. You had to go to the city to find many nearby houses being built at once.
So with all the open areas in West Windsor, in particular, it was easy to notice when a specific area began to change. And the change did not always involve the adding of houses to the landscape. How about trees? Now that’s really a step back in time.
Much of this area was covered with trees before the farming began a couple of centuries ago, but there are places where the land was cleared to grow crops but the farming just didn’t work out. What do you do then? Let the field lie fallow. One such area is very close to what has become one of West Windsor’s busiest areas: Princeton Junction.
In its present form the Route 571 overpass that carries the road over the railroad main line was built in 1939, just two years before the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) built its research center on Route 1, just north of Penns Neck. Before the overpass was built cars had to cross the tracks at ground level and stop at a crossing gate if a train was passing.
Except for a strip of property along the east side of Washington Road where houses were built between the junction and Route 1, most of the RCA-owned property was open. This included the area once known as the “sheep wash,” where breeders of sheep once washed their sheep before shearing them.
One drawback to having all that open land near the railroad tracks was the frequent field fires that were set by the sparks from the steam engines on the main railroad line as they passed the area. This was before the locomotives were either diesel or electric. Without trees to keep the sparks from igniting the acres of dry grass that formed during hot, dry summers, there was a ready source of fuel to be ignited.
According to friends like Al Carson, who worked at Conover and Emmons lumber yard on Princeton-Hightstown Road where a PNC Bank is today, the Princeton Junction Fire Company had to make frequent trips to the area to extinguish the fires.
Finally, since the fires were occurring on its property, RCA decided to help eliminate them by creating a forest of trees in the area adjacent to the tracks. When I first moved to West Windsor in 1957 you could see the trees being planted as you came down the overpass on the Princeton side. The trees were all evergreens, and they were being planted in nice straight rows about 20 feet apart.
The planting went on for a long time — maybe a year or two — and it seemed that many acres of open land ended up being covered. Because you can’t plant trees in the summer or winter, planting was all done in the spring and fall. Since I wasn’t aware of the significance of the planting, I didn’t pay much attention to the project at first, even though I went right by it — sometimes several times a day — on the way to work and back. Eventually there were enough trees to eliminate the dry, grassy fields and the source of fuel for the field fires.
Today — more than 50 years later — it is still possible to see some of the first trees that were planted then. They are the tallest evergreens you can see as you drive down the Princeton side of the overpass. Some are in nice straight rows as they were planted. But many have died, and the area is now the home of trees of other species, including deciduous ones like oaks and maples. These have been seeded naturally over the years.
If you look at the area now — without any knowledge of the history of the place — it would be easy to assume that the area encompasses one of West Windsor’s original forests. Not so. Just 60 years ago it was one of West Windsor’s most open areas. It’s a good example of what can happen to open land if you don’t build something on it. It goes back to its natural and — sometimes — most attractive state.