Before European settlers arrived in Mattawang (Millstone) Valley in the late 17th century, the Lenni Lenape Indians fished the Millstone River, hunted game in its woodlands, and cleared plots of land where they cultivated corn, beans, squash and tobacco. The many projectile points and other Indian artifacts that have been discovered over the years reveal that several Lenni Lenape villages dotted the landscape of present-day Griggstown.
Initial European settlement of the region occurred early because of two key factors, inherent soil fertility and location on a navigable waterway. The Millstone River gave Griggstown’s early colonists access to a transportation and trade route, while also providing a water source for the powering of mills and other early industries.
Most of these early settlers were Dutch as evidenced by 18th century tax records for the township of Franklin. The 1735 tax list reveals that over 120 of the 125 names were of Dutch derivation. These include many of Griggstown’s earliest residents, such the Veghtes, Hoaglands, Van Dorens, Beekmans and Van Dykes.
Documentation of slaveholding in Griggstown also appears in both early tax records and probate records. The inventories of Garret Veghte (grandson of Garret, the original purchaser), Abraham Van Doren, and the Veghte family for example, list slaves among their other assets.
Sometime between 1681 and 1700, Garret Claus Veghte purchased a tract of 1100 acres of land on the east side of the Millstone River which included the area now known as Griggstown. Although Veghte himself did not settle here, by the early 1700s, his grandson, also Garret Veghte, built a house at the intersection of present-day Canal and Butler roads. This house still stands today.
Benjamin Griggs, for whom Griggstown was named, arrived in the area around 1727 with his three brothers - Daniel, Samuel and Thomas. Sometime before 1733, Benjamin built a gristmill on the Millstone River about ½ mile south of the present-day Griggstown Causeway. Griggs sold the mill to Nicholas Veghte in 1752 and by 1770, it was owned by Abraham Van Doren.
Early Roads & Transportation Links
Historically, Griggstown has not had clearly defined boundaries. Early maps show a cluster of buildings along present-day Canal Road just south of the Griggstown Causeway, which represent the center of Griggstown. However, references to Griggstown in early deeds and other historic records suggest that Griggstown was generally considered to be anywhere within a 2 mile radius of the causeway.
Roads and bridges in the area were established early and provided connecting routes for farms and links with mills that had been established along the Millstone River. According to the early 18th century records of the Somerset County Justices and Freeholders, the Griggstown Road (present-day Canal Road) was laid out in 1744 “beginning at ye main road at Rocky Hill to New Brunswick, and passing Griggstown Mill over the Millstone River at Christopher Hoagland’s...”. During the 18th century, the river crossing, which was in place by 1740, was situated south of the present bridge on the Griggstown Causeway. Also known as the “Four Rod Road”, (this being the standard width of a right-of-way), the Griggstown Road would later become the route followed by the British in their retreat after the Battle of Princeton.
Griggstown’s location near a bridge crossing and along an important transportation route led to the establishment of two inns. The Betheir Map of 1781 shows 13 structures in Griggstown including two taverns, the Black Horse Tavern (also known as Skillman’s Tavern) and the Red Horse Tavern, both situated near the intersection of the Griggstown Canal Road and old bridge crossing. The Marquis de Chastellux, who visited the Black Horse Tavern in 1780, described it as “an indifferent inn, in “Greeg Town”.
Agriculture & Industry in the 18th Century
Agriculture was the primary economic pursuit in Griggstown and Franklin Township. The 1735 tax list reveals that in addition to raising livestock, farmers grew wheat and other grains such as rye and buckwheat, which were then ground into flour by local gristmills. A total of 1206 cattle and 592 sheep grazed in Griggstown and the surrounding area that year.
By 1776, in addition to Griggstown’s mill, several other gristmills were in operation in Rocky Hill, Blackwells’ Mills, and Weston. In fact, the movement of wheat and other products to and from these mills stimulated the growth of settlements like Griggstown along the Millstone River and eventually earned the region its reputation as the “breadbasket of the Revolution”.
Richard Stevens opened a copper mine at Rocky Hill in 1748. The mine was excavated by Welsh miners who lived on the property, which was located about one mile south of the causeway and one-half mile east of the Millstone River just below the crest of Ten Mile Run Mountain. Stevens also owned a stamping mill in the vicinity.
The remains of the old mine, mining machinery and an 18th century house occupied by the miners are now part of the privately-owned Copper Mine Farm on Canal Road. In 1752, John Stevens of New York conveyed the mine property with its mines, minerals and ores to William Oppie, one of Griggstown’s earliest settlers. The sale included an access road for the “liberty and license of digging and carrying away minerals for getting timber for the mines and works.”
By 1755 the mine was considered highly productive with 220 casks of copper ore having been shipped to England that year. Benjamin Franklin visited the copper mine in 1770 and George Washington made a visit during the Revolutionary war in 1777 to inspect the machinery. Shortly after, concerns about the loyalty of the Welsh miners prompted Washington to send them to England in exchange for American prisoners held by the British. After 1777, the mine remained closed until 1840 when an unsuccessful effort was made to extract ore from it. In 1901 and 1905 two more failed attempts were made to revive the mine before it was abandoned permanently.
The Revolutionary War Period
According to a local historian, by the time of the American Revolution, Griggstown might have had a store, a flouring mill, a saw mill, a carding mill and power loom, a cider mill and distillery, a cooperage, a coach and wagon shop, two blacksmith shops, a lath mill, and a church in addition to the two taverns and the gristmill.
Although no battles or skirmishes took place in the area, both American and British troops marched through Griggstown along present-day Canal Road several times during the Revolutionary War. After the Battle of Princeton in1777, George Washington and his troops stopped at the Abraham Van Doren House in nearby Blackwell’s Mills for food and clothing while marching to their winter headquarters in Morristown.
Many of Griggstown’s residents fought in the Revolutionary War, but the most well-known is John Honeyman, whose house still stands at the intersection of Canal and Bunker Hill roads. Honeyman was secretly employed as a spy for George Washington and is credited with supplying Washington with valuable information that helped defeat the British at the Battle of Trenton.
Honeyman gathered such information while posing as a butcher selling cattle to the British troops, a practice that raised suspicion among Griggstown residents who considered him to be a traitor. One night a group of neighbors who mistakenly believed Honeyman to be at home, arrived at his house to “burn him out”. After Mrs. Honeyman presented the mob with a letter from George Washington protecting her and her family, the mob dispersed.
After the war, Washington visited John Honeyman in Griggstown to dispel any residual mistrust of Honeyman. However, these efforts may not have been entirely convincing, because Honeyman eventually left Griggstown with his family to reside in Lamington, New Jersey where he remained until his death.
Griggstown & the Delaware & Raritan Canal
The opening of the Delaware & Raritan Canal in 1834 marked a significant event in the history of Griggstown. Dug by local and immigrant workers, the canal created a transportation link between New York and Philadelphia opening up interior regions to a wider market and allowed easier, more efficient movement of goods and produce. For the first time, bulk transport of anthracite coal from Pennsylvania to eastern markets was possible.
The presence of the Delaware & Raritan Canal brought change and encouraged the growth of small commercial centers like the one at Griggstown. Benjamin Griggs’ original gristmill was removed in 1831 to make way for the construction of the canal and a new mill was constructed on the west side of the canal adjacent to the causeway. Farmers who sold land for the construction of the canal used the income to further improve their farms. By 1850 agricultural production in Griggstown was diverse and most farms were about 100 acres in size. The agricultural census records for that year list crops grown as wheat, corn, oats, peas, beans, barley, potatoes, and buckwheat, while livestock raised included cattle, milk cows, swine, and sheep.
Two Somerset County maps from 1850 and 1873 illustrate further the direct effect of the canal’s presence on the development of Griggstown, especially at the town center, situated at the intersection of the Griggstown Causeway and Canal Road. The bridge tender and his family lived in a house built and owned by the canal company as part of his salary. A store and post office were located in the Longhouse.
Another store was located on the east side of Canal Road at the intersection of the causeway and was operated by William and Caroline Oppie for over 50 years until it burned early in the 1900s. Oppie also ran a lumber business in a structure on the southwest corner of Canal Road and the Griggstown Causeway. This building, which was later destroyed by fire, was located on the grassy lot next to the extant Sherman House.
Griggstown’s expansion during the first half of the 19th century is reflected also in the increase in building. About one-third (23) of the 68 structures in the present-day Griggstown Historic District were constructed during the period 1835-1850.
With an increase in the town’s population and prosperity, the Griggstown Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1842. It was situated just north of the causeway on Canal Road. Behind the church sits the schoolhouse. It originally stood along Canal Road, but was moved to its present location and restored by the Griggstown Historical Society.
The Griggstown Bridge Tender’s House
The bridge tender house at the Griggstown Causeway is one among many that were built during the canal’s construction. The first phase of canal house construction occurred during the latter half of the canal’s “official” build period in 1833-34. When the canal opened in June of 1834 only 12 houses were completed. By 1839, 33 houses were on the rolls – 14 lock houses and 19 bridge houses. Eventually the D&R Canal house inventory would come to a count of 67 (road/farm bridge and lock houses) along its 66 mile length. Today only 17 houses survive.
The typical canal house on the D&R Canal was a small, two-story vernacular structure typical of modest homes in New Jersey in the first half of 19th century. At first, these houses were plain and painted white. In the later 19th century, doors and window frames on some were painted a darker color, and porches, shutters, decorative brackets and corbels were introduced. Most of the decorative elements used were of the same size and design, indicating they were probably standard Canal Company additions. While most of the houses started out as cookie cutter editions, each house eventually developed its own peculiar individuality, from its setting, additions, and the changes made by successive occupants.
The majority of the houses were of two basic styles – stone and clapboard. The canal house at Griggstown is of stone construction much like those built in other flood prone locations such as Kingston, Rocky Hill, Blackwells Mills, East Millstone, Weston, Zarephath South Bound Brook and Bogan’s Lane near New Brunswick. Many of these still stand. They varied somewhat in layout and size but these were, generally speaking, two-story with a gable roof, stuccoed stone exteriors with two end chimneys. Most, though not all, had a center door on their façade and a second door on side or rear as is the case at Griggstown. Often there were roofs or porticos over doors and/or porches which were added later. The interior plans consisted of a simple layout with four rooms (2-over-2 with enclosed center stairway) and many had lean-to kitchen additions added towards the end of the 19th century. Interestingly, the Griggstown bridge tender house never included the additional lean-to kitchen found on many of the surviving canal houses. Lock houses were generally larger with more substantial additions.
When the canal officially opened in the summer of 1834 the bridge tender assigned to Griggstown was Hugh Blaney, an Irish immigrant who was born in Ireland in 1793. He is listed in the 1840 census with his wife Elizabeth Perrine (born in Somerset County, NJ sometime between 1809 – 1811)) and five children under the age of 15 (Daniel, Hugh, Charles, Catherine and John). Hugh and Elizabeth would have two more children, Mary (b. 1843) and William James (b. 1852) before he passed in 1853. By the time of his death his two eldest sons, Daniel and Charles were 23 and 19 years old (Hugh has disappeared from the area census) and likely assisted their mother with the bridge tending duties for a time. Neither the 1860 or 70 census specifically assigned the occupation “bridge tender” to anyone in Griggstown but Daniel Blaney still resided in town with his large family and was listed as a “laborer” and “farm laborer” as does Elizabeth Blaney. Elizabeth passed sometime in the 1870s. While it is not clear if she and/or her children tended the bridge and lived in the house until her passing, it is clear that by 1880 Daniel Blaney is officially listed in the census as “bridge tender.” His death in 1887 seemingly marked the end of the Blaney bridge tender legacy in Griggstown although it is possible that another family member took on the post for a time after his passing.
Unfortunately, the records for the 1890 federal census were lost so we don’t pick up the trail for the occupancy of the bridge tender house again until the next available census in 1900. By the turn of the 20th century the Slover family began its legacy of Canal Company employment in Griggstown. Both the 1900 and 1910 census indicate that Aaron Slover was stationed at the bridge tender’s house while Enoch Slover (Aaron’s father) and John Buchanan held the post at the Griggstown lock (lock 9) in 1910. By 1920 and 30 Aaron had taken over the duties at the lock. The 1930 census lists Frank Carr as bridge tender in Griggstown and Sandor Fekete as “gate tender.” It is suspected that Mr. Carr (a single man from France) was perhaps working the bridge at the lock along with Mr. Slover as it is clear from the census that Sandor Fekete was living in the bridge tender house on the Causeway. However, by the time the canal closed in 1932 Harold “Happy” Slover was tending the bridge in Griggstown while Sandor had moved his family to Blackwells Mills.
The Railroad Arrives
The opening of the canal was soon followed by the construction of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, which provided further impetus for industrial growth in the area. The railroad allowed goods to be transported even faster than by road or canal.
A railroad spur built along the canal near Rocky Hill, provided the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, situated on the southern portion of Canal Road approximately 3 miles from Griggstown, a faster way to deliver its products to urban markets.
This factory later manufactured architectural terra cotta for numerous commercial and office buildings, including Carnegie Hall and the Woolworth Building in New York and the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C.
Dawn of a New Era
Griggstown remained virtually unchanged from the late 19th century until after World War I when in 1926 a group of Norwegians purchased a tract of land for a settlement of summer homes they called Norseville. This was followed by two other Scandinavian settlements, Acken Park and Sunset Hill, situated to the east of Norseville. These summer bungalows were converted to year-round residences after World War II.
From the 1940s to the 1970s some newer houses were built along Canal Road. A few small developments were also built on parcels of land east of Canal Road between Bunker Hill Road and the causeway. In 1983, Griggstown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
Griggstown Mill/Mule Tender’s Barracks
The story of the Griggstown Muletender’s Barracks, or Longhouse, still remains – at least in part – a mystery. While Dan Saunders, former Executive Director of the State Historic Preservation Office, dated it as an early 19th century structure based on its clues from its construction, documentation dating its actual erection has not yet been located. According to the deed chronology, the property on which the building stands was acquired by Abraham Veghte in 1848 or 1852. The Veghte family was one among many Dutch farm families that migrated to the Griggstown area, and Somerset County in general, from the colony of New York in the 18th century. The Veghtes (or Van Veghten) thus established their presence in Griggstown almost a century previous to the construction of the Delaware and Raritan Canal. Nicholas Van Veghten, Abram’s grandfather, purchased the first mill in Griggstown from Barnet Griggs (Benjamin Griggs’ son) in the 18th century. He owned and operated the original “Griggs Mill” until his death when it was then sold again to Abraham Van Doren.
It is suspected that the Longhouse has an 1830s construction date. If that is the case then it must be concluded that it was part of the original tract owned by the Simonson family (another Griggstown family of Dutch ancestry) when Abram Veghte acquired it. Simonson’s house was located (and still stands) on east side of Canal Road just south of the church; his barns and fields could likely have been located across the road. Thus, it is possible that the Longhouse was originally built as a barn by the Simonson family and was later expanded and/or converted into a mill store and grain storage facility by A. Veghte when it was purchased in 1848/1852. A photograph of a similar New Jersey structure was located in the Images of America series book Somerset County: Crossroads of the American Revolution. The photograph is described as a “grain barn built in 1768 to store grain for the Van Dorn mill.” This is a significant clue as to the possible use of the Griggstown Longhouse. Its construction and style are almost identical, it is also a Somerset County building and linked to a family with Dutch ancestry. Thus it is fair to surmise that Veghte erected the structure to serve as an additional storage facility and store for his newly constructed Mill complex across the road. It has also been suggested that the building was originally constructed to house 18th century mill workers and/or serve as storage for the first Griggstown Mill. This theory, like many others, has not been substantiated and remains somewhat doubtful since the original Griggs Mill was located some distance from the Longhouse property. Additionally, the property was owned by Cornelius Simonson who did not have a connection to the first mill. Thus, while the chronology of property ownership has been revealed, the building’s origin and original purpose are still to be determined.
Various sources confirm the Veghte family’s ownership of the building in the 19th century and that it functioned – at least in part – as a store. The building appears on the Otley map of 1850 and the Beers map of 1873. The Otley map labels it as A. Veghte while the Beers map indicates “Mrs. T. Edgar; Store & P.O.” When Abram Veghte died in 1865 he left his daughter Ann Veghte Edgar approximately 14 acres of land which included the “mill, store, basin and dwelling house” as well as an additional 5 acres of woodland. William Oppie, a local Griggstown store owner, is mentioned in the inventory taken upon Abram Veghte’s death. Oppie and Company owed $275 for ¼ rent of the mill, $32 for ¼ rent of the store and $275 for wheat. This confirms Oppie’s involvement in the Griggstown mill and store at least prior to A. Veghte’s passing. Ann Veghte Edgar and her husband owned the property and business (including the mill) from 1865 until 1885 when it was then sold to their brother-in-law, John DeWitt Boice. Unfortunately, in 1887 the National Bank of New Jersey took ownership of the property due to a default on an outstanding bank loan. Perhaps this was an indication of the declining profitability of the mill in Griggstown or simply poor management on the part of the Edgars. In any case it was back in Veghte hands by 1901 as Charles Hoagland, Abram’s grandson, took back ownership from the bank. According to Terhune, Harvey Boice, grandson of A. Veghte and C. Hoagland’s cousin, was not only a farmer but also operated the mill, owned a store on the east side of Canal Road at head of the Causeway and ran a door-to-door butcher business in 1905. In 1911, Charles Hoagland bought out his cousin Harry Edgar’s interest in the mill and Longhouse property. Soon after, or perhaps prior to, he had the mill dismantled leaving only its foundations. By the late 20s Charles was ready to relinquish his ownership of the Causeway properties. Presumably, it was at this time that the Longhouse and the Mill properties were split and sold to different owners. In 1927 the Longhouse was sold to Benjamin and Fanny Feyl (possible family members). It remained in the Feyl family until 1937 and then was passed on three more times for a mere dollar until it became the property of Virginia Skillman in 1960 where it remained until it was sold to the State of New Jersey in the 1970s. In the 1950’s the Fairweather house was built directly on the foundation of the old Veghte mill.
Today, the Longhouse building is referred to as “The Mule Tender’s Barracks.” This too, is a mystery. In 1976, local historian Laura Terhune published Episodes in the History of Griggstown. In it the building is never described as the “Mule Tender’s Barracks”. Evidence has not yet been revealed to substantiate claims that it functioned specifically as a “boarding house” for Mule Tenders or canal workers. Thus, it begs the question: Is it possible that this was an invention to justify the significance of the building and its connection to the D&R Canal in order to give good reason for its purchase by the State in 1970s? According to Terhune, the Rightmires (a local Griggstown family) did offer mules for hire presumably around turn of 20th century. These could have been used both for local traffic as well as along the canal. However, major mule concessions/barns were located at Bordentown, Kingston, and New Brunswick which were owned and operated by a single proprietor. Of these, the closest mule barns were located at Kingston. Logically, those who tended the mules would not travel by foot from Kingston to retire for the night. In fact, many canal boatmen and crew remained on their boats for the night.
It is clear that the Longhouse was divided into several attached dwellings, or apartments, at some point in its history. Prior to its most current restoration, the interior layout suggested three separate sections or units each with its own fireplace. These units were, according to census data and local history, rented. This was likely an early 20th century renovation to the building completed in order to adapt it for another use. While the possibility exists that it served as a type of dormitory or “barracks” for mill hands and their families or canal workers, documentation has not surfaced to support or deny this claim. Thus, it will be necessary to conduct further research to uncover any existing manuscripts, diaries, letters or news items that mention the Mill and/or Longhouse and their purpose.
While it is clear that much remains in question regarding the history and function of the building, it is evident that it is a significant canal era structure and worthy of restoration, interpretation and further investigation. Indeed, it is a prominent player in the Griggstown story and a significant fixture on the Causeway.