The industrialization of Lambertville began in 1851 when the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad was built along the canal north from Trenton. The Holcombe farm hampered development on the north end of town. In 1851, when John Holcombe died, the estate was divided between his children, John and Cynthia. Cynthia, whose land lay east of North Main Street, kept her portion intact, but John subdivided his into lots. His plans, however, were stymied by a large house which stood on Delevan Street directly in the path of northward extension of Union Street. The Lake and Beers’ 1860 map of the Trenton and Philadelphia vicinity shows only twelve houses north of Delevan Street. On September 11, 1863, the house mysteriously burned down and northward development began.
The Lambertville census taken in 1863 listed 516 structures and 2,851 people. By 1866, the Lambertville Beacon called the northern section of town the “land of promise.” Wealthy factory owners and merchants built large homes in the Italianate and French Second Empire architectural styles along North Union. Industries grew and flourished along the river bank and canal south from Delevan Street.
The railroad shops had a large influence. Shortly after the completion of the Lambertville-Flemington branch in 1854, the shops began to build locomotives and freight and passenger cars. The Pennsylvania Railroad took over the old Belvidere-Delaware Railroad in 1871 and the shops were converted into maintenance yards and repair facilities.
The Lambertville Spoke Factory, located at the north end of town starting at Elm Street, originally manufactured spokes, but by 1860 it built the whole wheel. During the Civil War, it made up to 400 wheels a day.
Lambertville also had two rubber factories. The Lambertville Rubber Company and the New Jersey Rubber Company were organized in the latter part of the century. The Lambertville Rubber Company was best known for its patented “snag proof” boots.
By the close of the 19th century, the city had made great strides in providing utilities: water in 1877, electricity in 1893, sewers in 1897, and telephones in 1898. It was prospering – population reached 4,637 in 1900, representing about one out of every seven residents in Hunterdon County. It peaked at 4,660 in 1920 and numbers about 4,000 at present.
Lambertville’s property was shaken by the flood of 1903, which caused damage throughout the city and carried off the covered bridge. It was replaced by the present iron one in 1904.
The Hairpin Factory opened in 1901, manufacturing 15 tons of hairpins a week. It closed in 1922 after women began bobbing their hair. The Pennsylvania Railroad, a major employer, moved its maintenance yards to Trenton in 1909. This took jobs and also affected shipping to other businesses. Fortunately, the Lambertville Pottery Company began manufacturing toilets that year with two kilns on North Union Street, and by 1922, twelve kilns were producing 300 bowls and tanks daily. The Pottery Company, unable to provide sinks and bathtubs along with toilets and tanks, could no longer compete and closed in 1925. Both rubber companies closed in the face of lower rubber prices and Henry Firestone’s progress. In 1937, the Pennsylvania Railroad officially abandoned the Delaware and Raritan Canal.
In the late 1960’s, Hunterdon, a pastoral, sparingly developed county, free from the typical urban traffic and housing developments found in counties with large cities, was “discovered by outsiders.” In the 1970’s and 80’s, Lambertville had many vacant buildings. City government began to actively encourage new businesses to locate here, and the City Council took advantage of urban renewal funding for various improvement projects, including the purchase of the Lilly Mansion that has been adapted to house the City library. Slowly, dilapidated buildings returned to beautiful, functioning properties.
The area became a mecca for carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and architects, some starting new specialties in restoration. New business use often leads to demolition of buildings. Fortunately, in Lambertville, there has been ongoing, conscious appreciation of existing Victorian architecture and a desire to save it for future generations. Today, the City is resplendent with beautiful homes and businesses on tree-lined streets, a river view, and a restored canal path.