now and then helen kull

now and then

I think it’s kind of cool that I have a time machine in my living room.

I will admit, its “Time” and “Place” options are extremely limited, to just a single place in a single point in time. And some might say that you need a very active imagination to make it work… but my “aerial time machine” brings me a glimpse of the Ewing Township of 1849 each time I engage with it. And with it, I’ve been able to explore some pretty interesting places.

Regular readers of this column may recall that earlier this year at a yard sale, I came across an old map of Mercer County, published in 1849. My intention from the start has been to donate it to the Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society, as a resource for all to see.

But before I part with my cartographic time machine, I’ve been able to visit a familiar, yet very different Ewing.

The Ewing of 1849 is pretty rural and sparsely inhabited, and yet structurally familiar. Resident families are indicated by homes and names marked on the map, but there are probably 100 or fewer indicated. There are two crossroads where several homes are clustered: one in Birmingham (the current West Trenton), and one in Ewingville.

The main roads running through the township are ones we would basically recognize. An unnamed (or unlabeled) road runs north-south from Trenton to Pennington on the east side of the township, which we know as Pennington Road/Route 31.

Branching off from that road at the southern end of the township is a road labeled Scotch Road, which we now call Parkway Avenue. It runs through the township as it does today, and turns abruptly to the right at the Scotch Road of today, turns to the left at the bend at the church (the only church marked on the map), and continues on into Hopewell Township — with no indication of passing by an airport.

A third main north-south-ish road is labeled as “Old River Road.” It begins near the river at the Trenton border, and runs northerly past the brand new “Lunatic Asylum” (opened 1848), past a School House, on into “downtown” Birmingham, and north into Hopewell on the other side of Jacob’s Creek. We would call it alternatively Sullivan Way, Grand Avenue, and Bear Tavern Road.

There is also a road that follows right along the river which is still called River Road. And there is the canal which essentially parallels the river. By 1849, the Delaware and Raritan Feeder Canal, completed in 1834 and the critical source of water for the larger D&R Canal, was a crucial part of a system of canals shipping goods throughout the northeast, as well as a local method of shipping goods to and from the farms of western New Jersey.

Not on the map, but destined to make the map outdated within a year or so, is the Belvidere and Delaware Railroad, which was completed around 1850, and vastly improved the shipping of materials from Pennsylvania (coal and iron especially) to city markets.

The east-west roads are there as well: essentially Upper Ferry Road, running across the upper portion of the township, and Lower Ferry Road, running across the township more centrally.

The relatively few homes are generally spread apart and found primarily along these roadways, further indication of the rural nature of the township at the time.

Other familiar landmarks seen from this time machine are schoolhouses (4); stores (3); hotels (2); a church (1); and much less familiar, the Ewing Poor House (1). In the 1800s, poor houses and poor farms were a method by which local communities met, as required, the needs of poor, homeless, destitute individuals before institutional social services were in place, and were often located out of sight.

They are present in nearly each township on the map. At such places, the able-bodied were put to work at menial tasks, and the old or disabled were given the basic needs: a roof, some food, and a few clothes.

My time machine thankfully returns me to the present, with some appreciation for the lives of Ewing residents of old.

Share your story of Ewing history with Helen by emailing her at

Helen Kull is an adviser to the Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society.