The Nineteenth Century

The 1800s was a period of growth for Woodbridge Township as citizens of the new nation got down to the routine business of establishing local government, conducting commerce, and building community institutions. On February 21, 1798, it became one of the initial 104 townships incorporated under New Jersey's Township Act of 1798. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Township's borders were redrawn as communities developed into their own independent townships. Portions were taken to form Rahway Township on April 19, 1858, Raritan Township on March 17, 1870 (now Edison), and Roosevelt on April 11, 1906 (now Carteret).

The century was also scarred by bitter national divisions over slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war. Woodbridge was not immune from these traumas. Its citizens would struggle to rid themselves of that "peculiar institution" and send its sons in defense of the Union. 


During the Colonial era, children were mostly home-schooled or taught trades through apprenticeships. Formal education was limited to those who could afford private schools, though, in 1789, the Township voted to spend interest from their “School Fund” — along with the dog tax revenue — to pay for “the schooling of poor people’s children.”

In 1794, Revolutionary War veteran Jonathan Freeman built the Woodbridge Academy on the west side of Rahway Avenue, which became home to several private schools. The building can be seen depicted at the left edge of this c.1844 woodcut illustration.

On the opposite side of the street left to the right can be seen the spires of Trinity Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church, and the Barron family's home.

Middlesex County Assemblyman James Parker of Perth Amboy (cousin of the Woodbridge printer of the same name) championed legislation establishing a state fund for free public schools in 1817. The New Jersey School Act of 1846 established the idea of incorporated public school districts, with the state's first free school established in 1852 at Bordentown by Clara Barton. Woodbridge had two district schools, Strawberry Hill and Jefferson. The Jefferson School opened in 1866 but closed and reopened several times over lack of funds. On December 13, 1866, students and their principal flew the flag upside down and at half-mast to protest a stove unsuitable against the bitter cold! The districts were combined in 1871 and plans were soon being made for constructing School No. 1. 

On October 1, 1875, the three Township school trustees, Charles A. Campbell, Howard Valentine, and William H. Berry, announced a special election on October 11th at the Masonic Hall to decide the “question of locating and erecting a school building.” The large crowd that turned out approved the measure. On January 21, 1876, Berry recommended a plot of land belonging to Valentine be purchased for a two-story building, 71 x 112 feet, partitioned into six rooms seating 800 students — large enough to accommodate expected growth for at least a decade. The project’s total cost was set at $25,000. By March the land was purchased and bids accepted from carpenters Manning & Rudolph, and masons William B. Vanvoast. On July 7, 1876, Harry Anderson was appointed as the principal, with Sarah E. Eldridge vice principal. Kate A. Moore was named the teacher.

By August a clock and bell were purchased for the tall tower that served for decades as the unofficial “town clock.” The clock, made by the E. Howard Company of New York, and a 1,500-pound bell, purchased from Meneley and Limbery, struck on the hour. The bell’s inscription listed the trustees and contractors, with the added declaration: “Wisdom is better than gold.” The school was dedicated January 6, 1877 and the first class graduated in 1884. When the grades were separated in 1888, it became the high school. A large rear wing was added in 1904.

The tower was removed in 1967 over safety concerns due to its decaying wood. The now-silent bell today sits at Parker Press Park. A set of hands from the clock were saved and are in HAWT's collection. Since 1963, the building has been the home of the Woodbridge Township Board of Education’s Administrative Offices.

  Rise of the Clay Industry

19th Century Woodbridge Clay

Woodbridge Township sits on a clay-rich belt across the state from Raritan Bay to Trenton. Clay mining and brick-making began early in the Township’s history. In 1670, for example, John French was granted 15 acres of land in return for supplying bricks to fellow settlers. 

The earliest recorded export of clay from Woodbridge dates to 1816, when a merchant named Price shipped a boatload to Boston. Industrial production began in 1845 when William H. Berry built a factory to make what is called “fire bricks.” Developed in Wales in 1822, fire bricks are able to withstand very hot temperatures and are used in making ovens, kilns, and furnaces in steelmaking. By 1876 they were making a million bricks a year, shipped all over the country. That same year, Mulford D. and James R. Valentine started the Valentine Brick Company, known for the finest fire brick in the world. The Salamander Works opened in 1825, and, over the course of several different owners, manufactured fireproof furnace blocks and baker’s ovens, as well as sewer pipes and other products. In the 1830s and 40s, they expanded to include Rockingham stoneware and decorative pottery. 

  Slavery & Abolition

Slavery had been part of New Jersey's history from the beginning. During the early 17th century, the Dutch trafficked in African slaves to support their colony of New Netherlands which including what is now New Jersey. England continued importing slaves after taking over the region in 1664. Many Dutch and English settlers came as indentured servants. As conditions improved in Europe, however, such labor declined, resulting in increased importation of slaves. The colonial government encouraged this with "headrights." Settlers received land for every extra person they brought, including slaves. An additional 60 acres were given for each slave imported. In 1704, the unified Province of New Jersey passed a slave code prohibiting slaves and free blacks from owning property.

The Gradual Emancipation Act of 1804

New Jersey banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1788, though such laws were designed to protect the interstate slave trade from outside competition rather than abolish the practice. Blacks from out of state were prohibited from living there. Over the late 18th and early 19th centuries, states in the North started moving towards nominal abolition with gradual emancipation laws. New Jersey was the last of these with an 1804 law that declared all children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1804 would be considered free. This was a relative term, however, as they would still be required to serve "apprenticeships" to the owners of their mothers — until age 21 for girls and 25 for boys. Those already enslaved prior to that date would remain slaves until an 1846 law reclassified them as "apprentices for life."

Slavery and Abolition in Woodbridge

Among the earliest surviving evidence of slavery in Woodbridge comes from a June 3, 1717 record of when Shoball Smith sold "one Negro woman named Phebe" to Samuel Smith, also of Woodbridge, for the sum of £50. Newspaper advertisements announcing rewards for runaway slaves from Woodbridge add to the record. One advertised "a lusty Black Fellow named Mando, aged about twenty Years" who ran away with "a fellow Madagascar, named Tom, about forty years old." A 1797 ad taken out by John Marsh described a runaway slave named James who "speaks good English" and "is naturally fond of reading."

During the War for Independence, a 36 year-old male slave owned by Thomas Edgar of Woodbridge was found to have joined the British Army. Other escaped slaves joined the Continental Army, including Peter Williams, who had run away from Woodbridge resident John Heard, who had joined the British. The state legislature granted Williams's freedom in 1784. In 1789, the legislature similarly freed Cato, a slave of Woodbridge's David Fitz Randolph who fled to Loyalist New York.

Woodbridge was also home to a Quaker community (formally as the Religious Society of Friends), which held its first meeting in 1689 at the home of Benjamin Griffith. Later meetings were held at the home of Nathanael FitzRandolph, until a dedicated meeting house was completed in 1713. Though Quakers did own slaves, a strong abolitionist movement emerged in the 1760s and the practice was formally condemned.

The contradiction of the American colonists having fought for independence from England while at the same time holding Negros in bondage was not lost on some in Woodbridge. On July 4, 1783, Moses Bloomfield, father of
future governor Joseph Bloomfield, asked a crowd assembled to celebrate the new country's birth how, if “as a nation we are free and independent...why should these, my fellow citizens — my equals, be held in bondage?" He then freed the slaves his family had owned. His son, Joseph, was also a lifelong opponent of slavery, and served as president of the New Jersey Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

A man named Jack had been a slave to Jonathan Freeman of Woodbridge. When he died on July 25, 1825 at age 43, he was buried in the graveyard of the Old White Church (First Presbyterian Church). Freeman had a grave marker made for him, which was uncommon. Battered by the elements, the stone was moved inside the church and a replica put in its place (left).

By 1800, there were around 300 enslaved people in Woodbridge. By 1820, the number declined to fewer than 100 and, at the outbreak of the Civil War, there were none.

  Civil War

New Jersey in the Civil War

While no battles were fought in New Jersey, the state did provide many troops and supplies to the Union during the American Civil War. Among the several notable officers who led New Jersey troops were  Philip Kearny and George B. McClellan. McClellan (right) led the Army of the Potomac early in the war, unsuccessfully ran for President in 1864 against Abraham Lincoln, and served as New Jersey's Governor from 1878-1881.

Over 88,000 soldiers from New Jersey served in infantry and cavalry regiments. In total, 52 regiments were created by the state's soldiers during this war. Over 6,000 lost their lives in the war. 

Civil War Woodbridge

On April 14, 1862, the Woodbridge Township Committee held a special meeting where it approved the raising of $6,000 through taxes in order to fund a bounty of $60 per Township man who enlisted in the Union cause. By September of 1864, they approved a resolution to pay $400 "to all persons drafted and accepted and to all who have or may volunteer or furnish or may have furnished a substitute towards filling our quota under the present call for 500,000 men."

164 men from Woodbridge served the Union: 31 in the 5th New Jersey Volunteers, Company H; 57 in the 28th New Jersey Volunteers, Company F, 76 in Navy and Marine regiments.

William C. Berry, a First Lieutenant with the 5th NJ, Co. H, was killed in action at the Battle of Williamsburgh in Virginia on May 5th, 1862. Local lore has claimed the features of the soldier on the Township's Soldiers and Sailor's Monument (left) were fashioned after him. In truth, the figure was more likely a representative generic Union soldier, but perhaps it happened to resemble Berry by coincidence.

Building a Community

Town Committee

Like most communities, growth over the 19th century necessitated the establishment of government services, regulations, and law enforcement. This was especially true for Woodbridge in the post-Civil War period. These things were organized through the Town Committee who met at the Masonic Building (right). It provided enough room for their meetings but proved difficult to keep warm during winter. Things became so bad, they frequently adjourned due to cold. By April 11, 1883 the Committee had enough and moved that "the wood-burning stove be taken from the committee room by the janitor and that never be returned." That autumn, F. & E. Moore delivered a new coal stove for $22.50 — minus $2 in trade for the old stove.

The Lockup

In addition to buying a more suitable stove, in June of 1883 the Committee voted to fund construction of a new jail, or "lockup." Property was purchased for $150 from James Valentine on School Street, across from School No. 1 (where the fire department is today). Measuring 76-feet wide by 100-feet deep, the building was two-stories. The first floor included a small meeting room used for a courtroom with the jail in the back. The second floor were living quarters for the jailer who doubled as the janitor. Hugh McDonald was the first appointed to the post on March 7, 1884. In addition to use of the living quarters, he was given two tons of coal a year as compensation along with a 12.5₵ allowance for any prisoners' meals. Those who found themselves guests of "the lockup" tended to be men who had spent too much of their payday at the local taverns.

The Town Committee began using the building for meetings until this too proved too small in the early 20th century, leading to construction of the Memorial Town Hall in 1924.

Police Department

Up to 1895, the law was enforced in Woodbridge by constables in a system inherited from England during the Colonial period. The modern concept of a police department only evolved in the late 1800s.

In 1895 Patrick "Paddy" Cullinane (left) was made the Township's last constable as the following year he was considered the first police officer. He was a large man, with muscles built up from working in the clay pits as a youth. It seems the only times he put his physical prowess to use was at the annual firemen's picnic when his tug-of-war team was pitted against that of his boss, Patrick W. Murphy, who became the Township's first police chief in 1897. Cullinane was a gentle giant of a man, who earned the respect and affection of many residents with his generosity and hilarious stories.

While crime was not unknown, early Woodbridge police seem to have dealt more with minor infractions and nuisance complaints. Shortly after Cullinane was made a police officer, notices were posted about town that tramps found there would be "arrested and compelled to work on the roads in a chain gang for twenty-four house." On September 6, 1900, officers — all three of them — were ordered to appear before the Town Committee to answer a complaint lodged by George H. Brown regarding loiterers around the corner of Main and Fulton Streets. E. W. Barons made complaints regarding gambling on Florida Grove Road on Sundays.

We will continue with the story of the police in the 20th century section!

Fire Department

During the colonial period through the 19th century, as with the police, there was no fire department as we understand it today. Volunteer night-watches and bucket-brigades managed to more or less handle the threat of fire in Woodbridge. As the town grew in population and buildings, it became increasingly obvious this was no longer adequate. It wasn't until 1893, however, that a harness shop owner and Woodbridge postmaster, John Thompson, tried to organize the first fire company. The Town Committee received his proposal to purchase equipment but did not act upon it.

In 1897, however, a volunteer company was finally chartered under president Charles R. Brown with David A. Brown as first fire chief. Their first purchase was a hose cart, 400 feet of hose, and one dozen water buckets for $260. The following year, they added a horse- or manpowered hook and ladder that was in service until 1924. The first fire house was built in 1901 and we will return to this story in the 20th century section!


By the end of the 1800s, Woodbridge communities had grown large enough to benefit from modern utilities. Residents complained to the Town Committee of needs and individuals, groups, and companies vied for permission to meet them. Working with private enterprises to start, the Township was able to create publicly-owned critical infrastructure.

In 1879 the Town Committee approved allowing the American Union Telegraph Company to string a line along a portion of the Essex and Middlesex Turnpike, but only if it agreed not to "cut, trim or destroy in any manner any tree or shrubbery upon said route and to erect handsome, straight and symmetrical poles."

In 1888, the Woodbridge Improvement Association complained about the condition of the streets and requested Main Street be macadamized. The Town Committee agreed to pave from the railroad tracks west to upper Main Street near where the Route 9 overpass is today. The new modern roadbed was 18-feet wide, costing $1 per foot.  

In 1891 Hugh Bleakly proposed to the Town Committee he be given permission to maintain water pipes to bring water from the Rahway River to Carteret (which was still part of Woodbridge). The result was the Carteret Water Company and, in return for permission, they agreed to include five double nozzle fire hydrants.

In 1893 C. W. Boynton obtained the right of way for the Woodbridge and Sewaren Electric Street Railway Company to build a line from Rahway, down Rahway Avenue, Woodbridge-Sewaren Road, East Avenue, and to his Boynton Beach resort.

In 1894, M. D. Valentine represented the Woodbridge Sewer Company before the Town Committee asking permission to install sewers, which was granted with the provision that the Township could "at any time" put it to use as a public utility.

While the village of Carteret began getting its water from pipes starting in 1891, residents of Woodbridge proper were still getting their water from wells. On April 17, 1896, a group of six men from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut incorporated the Middlesex Water Company and petitioned the Woodbridge Town Committee for rights to lay water pipes under public streets. Township residents seem to have disliked the idea of such "outsiders" and the matter became embroiled in local politics. A few months after the Middlesex Water Company petition, four leading Township citizens submitted a counter-petition in the name of a Woodbridge Water Company. In the end, the Middlesex Water Company prevailed and has supplied Woodbridge with water on to the present day.

Though street-paving had begun on Main Street in 1888, it was not until 1897 that the first bond issue was was approved to grade and pave streets. The agreed $118,000 budget also included building culverts and drains. 1897 also saw the addition of 45 fire hydrants by the Middlesex Water Company.

The approach of the 20th century brought other modern marvels — electricity and the telephone. These will be covered in greater detail in the 20th century section!

Township Seal

On November 11, 1885, the Town Committee adopted the design for the official seal of Woodbridge Township. The center shield is divided into three section, each containing objects symbolic of the Township at the time. At upper left is a kiln, representing the ceramics industry. At upper right are tools used to mine clay. These reflect the central role the clay industry played in the development of the Township. A ship's wheel at the center bottom reflects the maritime role of the Arthur Kill to commerce and recreation.

   Boynton Beach

The Sewaren neighborhood emerged as a major seaside resort. Wealthy residents of Manhattan escaped the heat of city summers by staying at the Sewaren House hotel, which was opened in 1878 by Robert DeForest. Among those who enjoyed the salt air and sea breezes from its double row of open porches were Thomas Alva Edison, President Grover
Cleveland, and pop-lar stage actress Maude Adams. It closed in 1913 and was torn down following a fire.

Acker's Grove and Boathouse was another popular spot with picnickers and fishermen seeking summer diversions.

Perhaps most popular, however, was Boynton Beach. It was named after Cassimer Whitman Boynton (1836-1908), a Maine native who made his fortune in Woodbridge, manufacturing fire brick, hollow tile, and sewer pipes. He owned property all along Staten Island Sound and opened the resort in Sewaren in 1877. The complex featured a bathing beach with bathhouses, pony rides, shooting gallery, nickelodeon, bowling alley, roller coaster, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, a fleet of 100 row boats, photographic booths where tintypes were taken, Punch and Judy shows, and a restaurant complete with New York City chefs. He hired orchestras to play for dancing every summer Saturday night. The highly-polished hardwood floor in Boynton’s dance pavilion acquired a reputation as the best in the state. Boynton was a teetotaler and alcohol was prohibited. The advent of the automobile in the early 1900s made access to other Jersey shore resorts easier and Sewaren's prominence as a resort faded. In 1927 the land was sold to the Shell Oil Company and is now populated by their tanks.