In this month’s article we continue to explore the various crossroads and neighborhoods that together have formed present-day Ewing Township.
We left Birmingham (aka West Trenton) last month, reminded of its role as witness to the crucial Christmas Night March on Trenton in 1776. In the late 18th century, it was a tiny hamlet, a crossroads with a few houses and a small group of buildings supporting the requirements of the local farms, including a blacksmith shop and a general store.
The tiny hamlet remained such for decades. But slowly, change came to Birmingham and the surrounding area.
One of the first major changes was the construction of the Delaware and Raritan Canal in the 1830’s (a future topic unto itself!), enabling freight, especially coal, to be conveyed from the Delaware River to the Raritan River, thereby connecting Philadelphia to New York in the days before rail service.
The D&R “feeder canal,” which runs parallel to the Delaware River on the New Jersey side from Frenchtown to Trenton, was built to supply water for the main canal. The construction and development of both the main and the feeder canal enabled local farmers and merchants to more easily obtain and market goods within a far wider region.
The canals also greatly facilitated the shipment of stone from the quarries located along the Delaware, and encouraged the development and growth of the quarry-hamlet of Greensburg, once located at the end of Wilburtha Road.
A second major change in the general area was the construction of the N.J. State Lunatic Asylum (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital) in the 1840s (yet another topic!), and the development of the hamlet of Brookville to serve the needs of that area. Yet through this development, the hamlet of Birmingham remained relatively unchanged and primarily agricultural.
It was the development of transportation for people, not freight, that began to cause growth and change in the area.
The development of railroads in the middle of the 19th century vastly changed the country and small villages across America. It was no different in Ewing. The construction of rail lines in the 1860s and 1870s in the greater Trenton area formed a rapidly-growing network of connected villages, towns and cities, enabling commerce to develop in new ways, and new patterns associated with living, working and shopping.
The construction of the Trenton Junction Railroad Station in 1882, at the juncture of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad to the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad, was the stimulus for the development of the first suburban residential development in Ewing: Altura.
The development plan for Altura was filed with Mercer County in 1892 by two Ewing businessmen/farmers from the area, Charles Walker and George L. Howell. It reflected a new trend in housing, offering “healthful, country” living, away from the noisy, cramped, often dirty living conditions in the cities.
Specifically, these local speculators and businessmen were selling the lots and the homes which would be constructed on these lots. They provided a housing alternative for middle class workers in Trenton, who could easily commute to this “country” location and enjoy the benefits of fresh air and more spacious property.
The grid-type development featured a grand boulevard down the center of the development aptly named “Grand Avenue.” With lots measuring generally 50 feet by 200 feet, the eastern side of the development was developed by Mr. Walker (who lived at #569), and the western side was developed by Mr. Howell (who lived at #502). Located just south of the old Birmingham crossroads, the development would significantly change the area permanently.
Between 1890 and the 1920s, a variety of homes and housing types were built in this area, reflecting the changing tastes of American homeowners. We’ll explore these housing types next month in Part 2 of “Birmingham Becomes Altura”.
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