History of Bordentown
The City of Bordentown is a square mile enclave tucked onto the bluffs of the Delaware River approximately 45 miles upstream from Philadelphia. With New York 75 miles to the North, it is understandable that this small City became a colonial transportation hub.
The City started its existence in 1682 with a log cabin on the riverbank and the name Farnsworth Landing. Settled by Thomas Farnsworth, an English Quaker, the town was a trading point in Colonial America.
In 1717 Joseph Borden settled here, bought up a substantial part of the land and changed the town’s name to Borden’s Towne. By 1740, he started a packet line from Philadelphia to Bordentown. Travelers would stop and rest in Borden’s Towne and then board the Borden Stage for Perth Amboy where they would make their ferry boat connections to New York. Most of the founding fathers of the new republic passed through Bordentown which had become a bustling city of colonial trade.
Francis Hopkinson, member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence lived in this town. His beautiful home is still standing, a treasure on the National Register of Historic Places. It was used as British headquarters when the town was occupied during the Revolutionary War. Francis’ son Joseph, author of our first national anthem, Hail Columbia, resided here as well.
Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, The Crisis Papers and The Rights of Man, through his friendship with revolutionary Colonel Joseph Kirkbride became enchanted with Bordentown and spent much time here. In a letter written while in Europe after the American Revolution, Thomas Paine stated, “I’d rather see my horse Buttons eating the grass of Bordentown then all the pomp and show of Europe”.
Bordentown’s crossroads importance was not lost even to the British. The Town was occupied by the British forces on three separate occasions from 1777 through 1778. During one of those occupations much of the town was burned in retaliation of Revolutionary activities including “The Battle of the Kegs”. The kegs were primitive torpedo’s built in Bordentown, fashioned with a triggering mechanism by Mr. Miles at his gun shop on the corner of Farnsworth Avenue and Miles Alley. The kegs were launched from large row boats just south of Bordentown, floating down to the Philadelphia Harbor, then a British stronghold, on the swift outgoing tide. Although no major British war ships were destroyed, the explosions created so much commotion in the Harbor the British spent much of the night shooting at nothing, creating an embarrassing event exacerbated by a drinking song, penned by Francis Hopkinson, poking fun at the scared British and sung in Taverns all over the region.
The Town’s historical significance did not end with the Colonial period as Bordentown in the mid 1800’s continued to play a major role in transportation. The first movement by a steam engine on rails in this country occurred on the outskirts of town by the famous steam engine the “John Bull” (now a permanent part of the collection at the Smithsonian). Bordentown was an important stop on the railroad line between Philadelphia and New York…. a boom time for Bordentown with hotels, inns and merchants catering to the travelers and the trade they attracted. American Presidents and notables passed through the town, some stayed.
Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon and exiled King of Spain and Naples, was one of those notables that stayed. In 1816, pleased by the river’s beauty, the convenient location to cultural centers and the abundance of unspoiled property, Joseph Bonaparte purchased large tracts of land from Bordentown to Trenton and built his mansion in Bordentown on the bluffs overlooking the Delaware River Valley. Bonaparte brought a European influence to the town spending more than 20 years here. While residing in Bordentown he hosted many important people and was offered the throne of Mexico but turned it down over his preference for a country gentlemen’s lifestyle.
Bordentown’s location on the Delaware, just below the State Capital of Trenton, made it an important river port. Shipbuilding and river trade were important industries. The opening of the Delaware Raritan Canal also played a role in the town’s growth, throughout these changes and boom times Bordentown remained small. As the Town grew from the riverbank east the architecture has evolved as well. Starting with Federal by the river to Victorians on the eastern side, spattered with arts & craft bungalows, Sears Four squares and stately original mansions many of them altered as tastes changed. Mansard roof lines added, Federal buildings dressed up with some Victorian features. Industrialists, inventors, artists, educators and even spies have made Bordentown their home. Preserving the town’s history has been a huge task.
Bordentown today is a city in miniature, multi-racial, multi-cultural with a thriving downtown district and a united community. The City has a designated downtown district with restored circa 1850 storefronts one of the first successful main street programs in the State. The Town today has numerous fine restaurants, art galleries, antique stores, book shops, small boutiques and professional offices. Most of the one square mile is a designated Historic District with numerous properties on the State and National Historic Register. One of the centerpieces in the downtown district is the Bordentown Historical Society’s headquarters in The Friends Meeting House built in 1740 and restored to its colonial appearance. The passenger train has also returned to Bordentown with the opening of the NJ Transit Riverline. The Bordentown Station is conveniently located on the river within short walking distance to the center of town and close to many historical sites.
Some of our Famous Residents Included:
Francis Hopkinson (A signer of the Declaration of Independence)
Thomas Paine (Pamphleteer, revolutionary, and intellectual, best known for Common Sense)
Joseph Bonaparte (Ex-king of Spain and Naples and brother of Napoleon)
Clara Barton (Started the first free public school in and later founded the American Red Cross)
Patience Wright (America's first native-born female sculptor).
Richard Watson Gilder (A noted poet, author and editor of Century Magazine)
Susan Waters (Artist/ Photographer)