THE STORY OF PORT MERCER
What's In A Name?
This small hamlet, located in Lawrence Township, developed after the opening of the Delaware and Raritan Canal in 1834. Prior to the canal’s construction, the majority of settlement in this area of the township consisted of farmland that was further east and clustered at Clarksville along the Trenton-New Brunswick Turnpike or “Brunswick Pike” (Route 1 today). Families such as Clark, Gordon, Applegate, Phillips, Arrowsmith and Forman owned homes and farms in close proximity to the Brunswick Pike. The opening of the canal nearby presented an alternative transportation connection and an economic opportunity; it wasn’t long before Alfred Applegate opened a store at the current bridge crossing across from the new canal bridge house (later owners would be John A. Crater and Charles Mather). By the 1850s this small canal hamlet boasted a cluster of homes, a store, post office, inn, steam-powered saw mill, coal yard and a turning / delivery basin,.
It was the basin that inspired the name “Port Mercer.” This loading / delivery area provided a direct transportation and commodity connection to larger markets at Trenton and New Brunswick and, by extension, Philadelphia and New York City as if it were a bustling seaport servicing a large metropolis. Although modest in size, it did provide a location for the delivery of coal, stone lime, wood and manufactured goods of all kinds to the small cluster of residents, nearby Clarksville and the adjacent communities and farms. In the 1981 edition of the Princeton Recollector George Arrowsmith, son of the last bridge tender at Port Mercer, recalled deliveries to the basin:
There was a lot of activity…all day long, sometimes. The boats used to have a place down on that road as you go parallel to the canal. They had this big pole up with a big boom on; used to go out and lower the bucket into the boat and taken the line out and pile it up in a pile there. I guess it was all stone lime, them days. And then the farmers would come there with their wagons and load up the lime. At Mather’s, coal boats used to unload there. People would come there to get their winter coal.”
Perhaps more important, the basin also offered a waterway connection to ship local produce, grains and even livestock from the thriving local farms and hinterland. In this way it was, for all intents and purposes, “a port” for the hamlet and nearby farms. The small village took the name “Port Mercer” after the fallen Revolutionary War hero General Hugh Mercer who died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Princeton a few miles north along the Princeton Pike.
As the traffic on the canal increased so too did commerce and activity around and south of the Port Mercer basin with the addition of a coal yard, saw mill, lime kiln and mule barn. But as traffic along the canal waned late in the 19th century into the 20th, so too did this buzz of economic activity and the livelihoods that accompanied it. The canal finally closed in 1932 and the store by the canal – established over 100 years earlier – was torn down in the 1940s. The Inn next door, which once accommodated and serviced canal workers and travelers, had long since been converted to a residence by Richard Cook in the 19th century. Today with only a small cluster of historic homes surviving, there is little indication of the commercial activity that once took place here. Only the name – Port Mercer – hints at that story.
A Swing Bridge and House at Port Mercer
As was the case for all roads intersecting with the new canal, a swing bridge was needed to carry the roadway over the new waterway. Such was the case where the construction of the canal intersected with Provinceline Road at what would become Port Mercer in Lawrence Township. A bridge house was constructed in 1833-34 for the original alignment of the road but then abandoned only a few years later in the early 1840s when the road was altered. A second bridge house – the one that survives at the location today – was built to accommodate the new crossing. In the early 1980s longtime resident Lee Marchesi recalled hearing older area residents talk of another bridge house that stood on the dirt road along the berm side of the canal south of the current house. Indeed, a second structure appears on the 1875 Everts and Stewart map of Mercer County south of the “Bridge House” and labeled as “Canal Co.” lending some validation to the story. If it was the first bridge house, it evidently survived at that location through much of the 19th century and was remembered by residents in the early 20th century. Although its use remains unclear, locals referred to it as “the spring house.” By the 20th century the structure likely fell into disrepair and was eventually removed.
Standard canal houses – both lock and bridge houses – on the D&R Canal were small, two-story structures typical of modest homes in New Jersey in the first half of 19th century. Initially these houses were simple, unadorned and painted white. By the latter half of the 19th century, doors and window frames on some were given a darker color, and porches, shutters and decorative brackets were introduced. Most of these additional decorative elements were of the same size and design, suggesting that they were likely standard Canal Company additions. While most of the houses had similar footprints when first constructed, each developed its own individuality fostered by its location as well as later additions and changes made by successive occupants. Eventually 66 of these houses, 15 lock houses and 51 bridge houses, would be built, or acquired, to serve the needs of this transportation corridor. Today 19 of those survive along the canal today including the one at Port Mercer.
The Port Mercer bridge tender house is typical of the basic clapboard-style residence that was built along the canal. This home is two-storied with a gable roof and one central chimney. Its entrance door and porch are located on the gable, or side façade of the structure. It has four interior rooms with two on the first floor and two above on the second floor with an enclosed side stairway and cooking fireplace initially in the basement. Like other canal houses along the D&R, a modern and more convenient lean-to kitchen was added to the house early in the 20th century. Of this style bridge house, seven examples survive.
Bridge Tending at Port Mercer
The D&R Canal Company provided bridge and/or lock houses to the tenders in its employ as part of their wages. These homes served as their primary residence. Although modest in size, they were often home to large families. Such was the case for the last bridge tender assigned at Port Mercer. John Arrowsmith (from a local farm family and the original owners of what would become the Marchesi farm in the 20th century) took the bridge tender position around 1911 where he, his wife Anna Cubberly and six children took up residence in the humble canal house. By 1913 two more additions were added to the already large family bringing the total to eight children – five sons and three daughters (Fannie, Raymond, Carrie, Walter, George, Clark, William and Ethel)! Although space was at a premium, daughter Carrie (born in 1899) remembered in the May 1981 edition of the Princeton Recollector that “The years we spent at the bridge tender’s house were the happiest days of our lives.” In the same edition brother George reminisced:
“Havin’ a big family, y’know, we had a lot of fun with the old canal. In the summertime, us boys used to pitch a tent down there. Then we’d have war up there, and we’d swim, and we had boats that we’d float down the canal. In the wintertime, we could always skate on the canal.”
Likewise, oldest brother Raymond remembered in an oral interview recorded on July 18, 1976 that as a boy "I played all along the canal; I've stayed along the canal; we swam in the canal; we had boats, and we rowed up and down the canal, and we canoed up and down the canal."
Aside from his duties operating and maintaining the swing bridge, John Arrowsmith assisted the boatman and took pride in the home. According to daughter Carrie, he kept the grass trimmed, cultivated a vegetable garden and planted many flowers around the house. As she recalled:
“In his position as bridge tender father was good to all of those passing the canal, helping them with the ropes and to tie up to the posts provided for this. He planted lots of flowers (he loved flowers) on the banks and kept the grass well-trimmed and cut. He always bought flower plants and planted a nice flower bed for my mother up near the house. He bordered it with bricks and white-washed the bricks.”
Son Raymond remembered the vegetable gardens:
"We were pretty self-sufficient people. We had a great big garden down along the canal. And, we had a couple of cows and actually we had a horse, and we raised food we wanted to eat; we raised beans and corn and potatoes, and all those sorts of things. You'd dried the things and put''em in the ground and covered 'em up in the winter time."
George recalled his father’s bridge tending duties:
“My father took care of the bridge. They would blow a horn. . .he was there, he would know when to open it. They used to have these conch shell horns, for the towboats. Of course, if they had steamboats, then they could blow a whistle.”
Because boat traffic sometimes continued after dark, John stayed in the bridge tender's station as Raymond explained:
"My father always slept in the little shanty out there, right by where this crank was where you turn the bridge; there was a shanty there where this crank was. He had a cot in there and this little stove and he used to stay out there, and he would sleep out there. I slept out there many nights."
John, and his sons, also earned extra money by working on the nearby Updike and Gordon farms. While he and the boys were gone on those days, the bridge tending duties were handled by any family members who were on hand to pitch in which included Anna and the children. As George recalled: “During the daytime, my father would have jobs other places, and us kids would open the bridge.”
According to brother Raymond:
"My father worked almost always in the daytime. He worked on the farms around there or he did lots of things for all kinds of people and either my mother, or one of the kids, would turn the bridge."
But living adjacent to the waterway could also prove dangerous to a family with small children. The Arrowsmiths lost their youngest son William in 1915 when he was playing too close to the edge, fell in and drowned. George Arrowsmith recalled the sad incident:
“William drowned in the canal there, right by the bridge. That was a trying time for the family. He was missing. We looked and looked and looked and tried to find him and couldn’t find him. My father said he had a dream that night that he was on a sandbar. There’s a drain that comes all the way down along the Quakerbridge Road that empties in the canal right there at the bridge. And he had a dream that William was drowned and was found out on the sandbar. He went out in the morning and dove down in there and that’s where he was."
Although the family searched frantically for the young boy hoping he was only missing, those hopes were dashed when his lifeless body was retrieved from the canal. William’s funeral was held in the bridge house. This event must have been a crushing heartache to both John and Anna but it wouldn’t be the only child who preceded their own deaths. Son Walter died in 1926 while on duty as a police officer of injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident and daughter Ethel passed in 1935; both were in the early 20s.
While the Arrowsmiths were the last family to reside in the bridge house at Port Mercer, they followed a line of others who were assigned to the location. Although the identification of the preceding bridge tenders at Port Mercer has not yet been thoroughly researched and validated, the records reveal the names of a few potential candidates including Daniel Howell, William Foreman, William Gordon, Caleb Oliver and Ambrose Smith.
The Bridge Tender’s House After the Canal Closes
When the canal closed in 1932 the Arrowsmiths continued to reside in the bridge house as tenants via a signed lease with the Pennsylvania Railroad; they paid $1/year. In 1936 ownership of the canal and all its properties, including the bridge and lock houses, were transferred from the Pennsylvania Railroad to the State of New Jersey. Families such as the Arrowsmiths were permitted to continue their residency in many of the former bridge and lock houses for minimal rent. While John and Anna were alive, they continued to pay a minimal yearly rental fee to reside at the Port Mercer Canal House. Upon their passing - John in 1939 and Anna in 1943 – their daughter Carrie took over the lease with an increased rental payment starting at $10/month.
Carrie Arrowsmith never married and continued to live at the Port Mercer Canal House until November 1965; her final rent to the NJ Department of Conservation and Economic Development, Bureau of Water Supply had been raised to $30/month a few months earlier. Eventually she took up residence at the Eastern Star Home in Bridgewater along with her older sister Fannie. She and sister Fannie lived long lives; Carrie passed in 1988 and her sister Fannie in 1991.
After Carrie Arrowsmith left the bridge house, it was soon occupied by employees of what would become today’s New Jersey Water Supply Authority (NJWSA) – the agency tasked to manage the canal as a water supply for the state (previously the Bureau of Water Supply and part of the Department of Conservation and Economic Development – the precursor to the current Division of Parks and Forestry). Many of the surviving canal houses became NJWSA employee housing for a time until management of many surviving canal properties were transferred over to the Division of Parks and Forestry after the official creation of the D&R Canal State Park in 1974. The Port Mercer Bridge Tender's House was among them.
In 1975 the Lawrence Historical Society was founded and they quickly identified several projects to focus on for their first preservation and restoration efforts – The Princessville Inn that stood on Provinceline Road, The Brearley House on Meadow Road off Princeton Pike and the Port Mercer Bridge Tender’s House. With a management arrangement with New Jersey State Parks in place, the Lawrence Historical Society began restoration and preservation work on the bridge tender’s house in 1978 and it has been maintained as a historic site by the group ever since.