While staying home during the pandemic keeps most history exhibit plans on hold, those ready for a deep-dive into archives and preservation of charming buildings, community resources and small town America represented in West Central New Jersey can take a new “turn of the page” for the digital age through the Hopewell Valley History Project. The project is a grassroots, all-volunteer initiative with much input from a consortium of history nonprofits, municipal, heritage and library partners as well as individuals who have pooled collection items and archives for digitization and ease of access.
The project website, hopewellhistoryproject.org offers multiple examples of greater Hopewell’s work in preserving the past and imagining the use of community resources, including buildings, as a pivotal tool for placemaking and collaborative community-building.
Interest in presentation, storytelling and sharing of Hopewell Valley history stemmed from two local couples performing research on their own, running into a few roadblocks and needing to forge a path for accumulating accurate local information. “We have local professionals who work in history and preservation businesses who helped feed our information and book authors living here — one local woman wrote a book on the area’s Women’s Suffrage, other authors well-versed in New Jersey. They were happy to share their books online. The area is laced with several collectors, and we’ve hooked up with descendants of people who lived here and their collections were laying around, forgotten, but that’s been posted online,” project coordinator Doug Dixon explained.
The Hopewell History Project website features an interactive, Google Maps-platform “Hopewell History Map” for users to explore information and images on historical properties in the Borough. Users can play a virtual “Then & Now” to display the current buildings, properties and structures or see what was in place before. Another interactive feature is the “Step By Date” to virtually explore the Borough’s growth from 1850 to 1910.
The kickstarter to “preservation and presentation” efforts started in quaint Hopewell Borough with its population of under 3,000 in an artistic walkable stretch, centered around Route 518 — East Broad Street — home to the Hopewell Library, a slim, tall red brick building built in 1890 (then the National Bank building) and the Hopewell Museum, pillars for local history, surrounded Quiet and tree-lined residential areas with Colonial and Victorian homes are set behind the ‘main street’ of trendy dining establishments, each well-known in the greater Princeton area, as well as retailers, goods and services, offices and Hopewell Theater. In 1993 the Borough was designated as New Jersey’s first Village Center.
“The Museum is collecting artifacts and books in the Borough while the Hopewell Valley Historical Society is collecting artifacts around the valley in general. The Sourland Conservancy and D&R Greenway Land Trust are doing a terrific job of preserving land and to some degree buildings in the area, but none of them carry forward a digital component and none of the region’s advocacy and history nonprofits were focused on gathering materials online. That’s what we are focused on, and possibly it is a never ending project but again all the valley’s organizations from the Hopewell Museum, Pennington Library to the Hopewell Valley Historical Society are all supporting it and helping. In turn we are burning DVDs for the Museum and Library so they can archive physical electronic copies,” Dixon explained.
A contributing community resource is the historic Hopewell Train Station, an original 1876 Second Empire style brick building, adorned with an elegant mansard roof and decorative gingerbread woodwork. It’s one of a pair that serviced passengers for the former Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad that ran between 1870 and 1930 as well as the Reading Railroad. The Borough took over the building, but there was sufficient documentation on the train line and the growth of Hopewell Valley as well as several bridges for railroad lines in Mercer, Somerset and Hunterdon counties. Dixon noted that Hopewell Boro station was built around 1876 for the second train line running in Western New Jersey, “the line that won the Frog Wars.” A $601,600 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust in 1996 helped fund an exterior renovation, and the three-story station now houses a community center on the ground floor and offices on the upper levels, with a playground outside. Events including concerts, arts exhibits, ‘Food Truck Fridays’ and Reindeer Lane holiday shopping attract big crowds to the historic station. “It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and there is also a National Register for historic train stations in New Jersey, a Meta-entry for this cluster of New Jersey historic stations which is pretty cool as well,” Dixon said.
In the vicinity of Hopewell Presbyterian Church, 80 W. Broad Street, four of the buildings across each other have roots tracing to the 1750s but the Church was lifted and rotated 90 degrees. “Another building was the first Hopewell Schoolhouse which became the Grand Army of the Republic headquarters. It’s crazy — we drive by these buildings every day without knowing their story,” Dixon said.
Dixon is a Borough resident and serves on the board of the nonprofit Hopewell Valley Historical Society. Local areas of Mount Rose, Pennington and Titusville are covered in collaborative efforts to aggregate material for the Project website, but the abundant Hopewell Borough material has surpassed other archived and collection items as of now.
True to its small town-vibe, “Hopewell” often holds similar community-building public events (pre-COVID-19 restrictions) including special holiday-themed gatherings. Every Memorial Day weekend prior to this year, the Museum and surrounding public venues including Pennington Library hosted lectures, reenactments and period-themed exhibitions for the Hopewell Valley Heritage Weekend. In 2019, as part of this themed weekend the Pennington Library presented a children’s activity celebrating Native American culture of the first inhabitants of the Hopewell Valley and greater Delaware River Valley, the Lenni Lenape.
“The Red Library and Hopewell Museum sponsor joint activities and the Heritage Weekend is valley-wide. The library started doing walking tours of the area as well and the continuing effort is really fun to watch. Now that we have many things collected the focus is on telling the story of the Valley’s evolution and making it more interesting with experiences and new activities.
Hunter Research provided the Project with several Sanborn (fire) maps of the valley municipalities, while Sam Castoro provided aerial images of the Hopewell Valley taken in 1932 during the investigation into the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, which took place just a few miles away in Hunterdon County.
Just to the east of Hopewell Borough in the shadow of the Sourland Mountains, across county lines, in Skillman, Montgomery Township is the brand new Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) which opened last fall at the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church and historic cemetery on Hollow Road. In 2019 the museum received grant funding from the New Jersey Historic Trust. SSAAM is also one of 82 organizations to receive a COVID-19 response grant from the NJ Council for the Humanities with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the federal CARES Act.
The historic Mt. Rose Distillery and small, unincorporated Mercer County village Mount Rose is best-recognized by the Whiskey House at 192 Pennington-Rocky Hill Road — a National Register-listed brick office building for inventory and sales of brandys and hard ciders made by Nathaniel Drake’s applejack distillery here in the mid-19th century.
Present-day Hopewell Township, at 60.4 square miles and a population over 18,0000 encompasses lands on the eastern side of the Delaware River north to Lambertville, which is in Hunterdon County. Washington Crossing, New Jersey is where George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania in December 1776 during the ‘Ten Crucial Days’ and preceding the Battle of Trenton in the Revolutionary War. In the small unincorporated village Titusville, the Johnson Ferry House that was standing during Gen. Washington’s Crossing is still in place at the State of New Jersey’s 500-acre Washington Crossing Park, adjacent to the village.
Former East Amwell Historical Society President Jim Davidson often presented his lecture “The Dark Side of the Sourlands” about life in the Sourlands Mountains area 75 to 150 years ago. As a parting gift before leaving the state, he supplied the Dean Ashton manuscript Hopewell Academy, about the Academy’s start in the Hopewell Baptist Church in 1747 as it tells the backstory of James Manning’s founding of Brown University.
Two women’s suffrage publications: Reclaiming Lost Ground and the state election returns for the 1915 New Jersey woman suffrage referendum were supported by the New Jersey Council for Social Studies as well as Nancy Kennedy and Margaret Crocco.
In addition many families’ privately collected postcards of the locale from 50 to 80 years ago were submitted for the website.
For more information or to submit to the project, please email email@example.com
Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki N. Massand serves as Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County. He also covers Hunterdon County government, planning and economic development for Flemington’s TAPInto online news and freelances for multiple tristate area ‘newszines.’
Rikki is a regional historian and local advocate in his present municipal government-appointed roles on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. He is also experienced in not-for-profit administration and advocacy as office administrator, records manager and bookkeeper for a local United Church of Christ.
Rikki holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Quinnipiac University. His work has appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, AsianWeek and more.