History of Lambertville

Union Street at Coryell Street circa 1905

Union Street at Coryell Street circa 1905

The land now occupied by the City of Lambertville was originally purchased from the Delaware Indians as a portion of a 150,000 acre tract along the Delaware River north of Trenton. Agents for the council of West Jersey purchased the parcel in 1703 for seven hundred pounds, or about $2,800. The council subdivided and sold the land to farmers and developers over the years. The portion occupied by Lambertville was quickly sold as two lots. The boundary between the two properties was called the “Bull Line,” named for surveyor Richard Bull, and can still be traced on a City property map. The Bull Line runs eastward from the river and cuts diagonally between Delevan and Jefferson Streets. It continues across Main Street to the Old York Road, now State Route 179.

In 1705 the first resident of Lambertville, John Holcombe, purchased 350 acres north of the first survey line, the Old Bull Line. In 1756 his son Richard Holcombe built the stone house on North Main Street that became known as Washington’s Headquarters. John Holcombe purchased more property to the north that is now known as the Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead. The Farmstead has been restored as a museum to illustrate farm life in Hunterdon County.

The land south of the survey line from Delevan to the far end of town was subdivided and transferred several times before Emanuel Coryell purchased the portion between Church Street and Swan Creek in 1732. He also obtained a charter to operate a ferry crossing the Delaware River slightly south of the present Lambertville-New Hope Bridge. Along with his ferry service, Coryell opened a tavern and inn to accommodate travelers. The settlements–Lambertville and New Hope–were called Coryell’s Ferry. Lambertville was the mid-point on the two-day journey between New York and Philadelphia.

During the Revolutionary War, Coryell’s Ferry served as an outpost and crossing point for General George Washington and his troops. Before the Battle of Monmouth in the summer of 1778, Washington and his fellow officers were quartered at the Holcombe Farm.

Coryell’s 1,016 acre estate was divided among his four sons at his death in 1748. By the beginning of the 19th century, the property had been subdivided by his heirs. In 1802, Coryell Street was laid out and lots were sold. In 1812, a wooden bridge was constructed across the Delaware River and Bridge Street was laid out. Some of Lambertville’s earliest houses, including the Marshall House, are located on Bridge Street. In 1812, Captain John Lambert built a stone tavern and inn on Bridge Street, which today is a beautifully restored inn, The Lambertville House.

The Lambert family settled north of John Holcombe’s land between 1735 and 1745. Their descendant, John Lambert, served in the United States Senate during Thomas Jefferson’s administration. He persuaded the Postal Service to open an office at Coryell’s Ferry. His nephew, Captain John Lambert, was appointed postmaster and his inn was designated as the post office.

Having procured a post office for Coryell’s Ferry, the Lamberts renamed the village Lambert’s Ville in 1810. This outraged the Coryells, who thought the town should be named Georgetown in honor of Captain George Coryell, who had served in the New Jersey forces in the Revolution.

The opening of the bridge, construction of a new inn, and establishment of a post office added to Lambertville’s development. By 1817, Union Street connected Coryell and Bridge Streets. York Street was laid out in 1826, and Delevan in 1832. By then, the area had grown from four houses during the Revolutionary War to over 100 structures. The city of Lambertville with 1,417 persons was incorporated in 1849.

In 1830, the State chartered the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company to build and operate a canal to connect the Raritan and Delaware Rivers. Beginning at Bordentown on the Delaware, the 44-mile canal follows the river to Trenton, cutting across the state to New Brunswick, where it empties into the Raritan River. A feeder canal was built to tap water from the Delaware six miles north of Lambertville at Raven Rock. It flows south through Lambertville to Trenton, where it joins the main canal.

In 1852, the feeder canal was widened and deepened and locks were built. It was used to transport Pennsylvania coal to New York City to fuel the industrial furnaces and heat the houses of the growing city. Coal barges traveling down Pennsylvania’s Delaware Canal were locked into the Delaware River at New Hope. The barges crossed the river and were attached to a cable and locked into the canal south of the Lambertville Lock. The coal traveled down the canal to New Brunswick and on to New York City.

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.