Wednesday, September 10, 2014

History under River Road: the vanished town of Raritan Landing

Over the weekend, we made another visit to East Jersey Olde Towne, a collection of historic buildings moved to Middlesex County's Johnson Park when threatened with destruction. This time around, the buildings were open and we arrived just in time for the afternoon tour.

The buildings themselves are interesting examples of colonial-era architecture, with ties to the area's original settlers and their descendants. The really fascinating part of the tour, however, wasn't the structures or their former owners, but of another town whose remnants remained hidden below the grounds around us. 

A hint of its existence is in the name of the Landing Lane Bridge, which crosses the Raritan River near the borders where New Brunswick, Franklin Township and Piscataway meet. The name always seemed a little odd to me, but it suddenly made sense when I learned the name of the hidden community: Raritan Landing.

True to its name, Raritan Landing was a busy port community starting in the early to mid-1700s. The sons of New York merchants, eager to strike their own fortunes, realized that there was money to be had in the productive lands of the Raritan Valley, if they could get the bounty to the city. Farmers had plenty of grain, timber and livestock to sell, and the growing city populations had a large appetite and shrinking amounts of available land on which to farm. Shipping by boat would be the fastest and most productive route, leading them to set up shop on the farthest inland point of navigation on the Raritan River.

Raritan Landing, courtesy Rutgers Libraries
Warehouses started popping up on the northern banks of the Raritan River, west of New Brunswick as farmers learned of the new opportunity to sell their crops. It's said that 50 or more wagons at a time would be lined up on the Great Road Up Raritan (now River Road), waiting for their opportunity to unload their wares. A small but dense community grew around the commerce with residents building houses, stores, stables and a mill, among other structures.

Land along the Raritan is low, and Johnson Park floods in a decent-sized storm, as we've seen with Hurricanes Floyd, Sandy and Irene. Raritan Landing was a good three feet lower than the land is today, and residents found themselves flooded out time and time again. Wealthy merchants retreated to the bluffs above, building stately houses befitting their success. Today, the stone Cornelius Low mansion stands near the corner of Landing Lane and River Road, the only visible sign of the community that once bustled below.

So why did Raritan Landing disappear? Its demise came in stages. First, the Revolutionary War brought raids from foraging British and Hessians who first looted property and then burned buildings down, driving many residents away in the process. Some locals returned, but many sold their lots to wealthier merchants, changing the character of the community in the process. In the 1830s, newer, faster transportation came to the area in the forms of the Delaware and Raritan Canal and the Camden and Amboy Railroad, enabling farmers and merchants to get their goods to market faster. Raritan Landing essentially became obsolete.

By 1870, many of the buildings had been dismantled, the land converted to pasture. Sixty years later, visible traces of the village were obliterated, covered by three feet of fill dumped there when land across River Road was excavated for the construction of Rutgers Stadium. Fortunately, local historian Cornelius Vermeule created a map of Raritan Landing based on his own childhood recollections and stories garnered from family members. 

Ironically, much of what we know about Raritan Landing comes thanks to sewer enhancements in the 1970's and road-widening projects of the late 90's and early 2000's. The New Jersey Department of Transportation was required to underake an archaeological survey before building the Route 18 extension into Piscataway, resulting in the unearthing of several building foundations and a treasure trove of 18th and 19th century artifacts. Luck played a role in the project, too. Archaeologists were about to walk away empty-handed in the 70's when a local resident came by to ask what they were up to. He recalled the mounds of excavated dirt dumped near the river bank from the stadium construction, leading the researchers to dig much deeper for their quarry.

Several of the more interesting artifacts from the digs are on display at East Jersey Olde Towne, but frustratingly, DOT archaeologists unearthed only a portion of what remains of Raritan Landing. The state was only required to investigate areas that would be disturbed by road construction, leaving much more of the old village below the surface. Even the foundations they discovered are now invisible to the eye, having been covered over again. Some might have even been paved over.

The thing is, it's still there, waiting for future generations to find it. Who knows when it will be unearthed, or by whom. We can only hope that if our descendants choose to build more road there, they'll care enough to dig for the treasure of our shared past.

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