Sunday, June 10, 2012

Williamsburg on the Delaware? Visiting colonial Burlington

As much as I'm a New Jersey booster, it's rare that I get really blown away on one of our visits.

My visit to Burlington blew me away. I knew there was history there, but I didn't realize I'd get bombarded by it as soon as I turned off of Route 130 and onto High Street. The vast majority of buildings I saw were well over 100 years old, some even 200 and older. I mean, even the PSE&G customer service office gets into the act, housed in an old colonial-era building and labeled with a hand-painted sign. (No logo there!)

That first impression was confirmed repeatedly as I walked around town. How in heck Burlington doesn't get more notice as a true historical gem, I'll never understand. Consider that it is or has been:
West Jersey Proprietor, surveyor, Burlington NJ
West Jersey Surveyor General's office (similar to the one
for East Jersey in Perth Amboy)
  • The Provincial Capital of West Jersey 
  • The birthplace of a noted American writer, a hero of the War of 1812 and an early governor of the state
  • Site of the oldest home in Burlington County and among the oldest in the state.
  • Home of of the state's oldest library and oldest continually-operated pharmacy (not in the same building, of course)

In short, it's a New Jersey blogger's dream!

Captain James Lawrence birthplace Burlington
Captain James Lawrence's birthplace on High Street.
I first stopped by the Historical Society on High Street for a little guidance. This modern building is in the yard behind James Fenimore Cooper's house and the birthplace of Captain James Lawrence of "Don't give up the ship!" fame. A researcher there provided me with a small map and told me that regrettably, no tours were available. I'd brought my handy WPA Guide to New Jersey, which would be of some help, but I wish I'd checked the very informative City of Burlington Historic District website before I left the house. (If you're planning a visit, stop there first!)

One of the many vintage buildings
in E. Broad Street's commercial area.
Burlington comes by its vintage legitimately. Founded in 1677, it boasts the site of the first European settlement in New Jersey, populated by French Walloons on Burlington Island in 1624. The land passed to the English in 1664, ushering in the Quakers who developed this Delaware River community into a major port. Unfortunately the city's shipping industry was eventually overtaken by Philadelphia's, but the prosperity it brought is clearly evident in the 18th and 19th century architecture.

Besides the sheer volume of historical places still existing there, and the number of notables who called Burlington home at one time or another, there's the architecture. A portion of the historic area is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's worth taking a stroll around to see the rest. You'll want to see the homes of notable past residents, but many built by the less famous also have plaques stating their ages and previous owners.

What struck me was how authentic it all felt -- because it is. Many homeowners have lovingly restored or preserved their property, but there's still a feeling of weathered experience in the buildings, kind of like an older person who's concerned about his health but not afraid to show some wrinkles and gray hair. If it weren't for the cars parked along the street, you could find yourself transported back 150 years or more.

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