Each month, the Historical Society of West Windsor—a nonprofit dedicated to documenting, preserving, and publicizing the history of our community—publishes a monthly column covering our town’s surprisingly rich heritage. This article explores the history of one of West Windsor’s oldest communities.
Drive down most suburban roads in West Windsor and you may be tempted to think that our town is less than 50 years old. However, several local historic neighborhoods dispel this notion, instead revealing a far older community.
One is Penns Neck, representing our community’s first large wave of settlement, walking a tightrope between the past, present, and future.
The story of Penns Neck begins with the icon after whom it was named—William Penn, famed Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. In 1693, Penn acquired a large tract bound by the Millstone River, Stony Brook, “Province Line” (now Quakerbridge Road’s course through West Windsor), Assunpink Creek, a tract of land owned by Thomas Warne, and a partition line along which Penn Lyle Road now runs. For decades, Penn remained an absentee owner of what seems to be unsettled land.
But in 1737—19 years after Penns’ death—this would change dramatically. That year, two Dutch men from Monmouth County—Garret Schenck and John Kouwenhoven—purchased Penns Neck.
What followed was West Windsor’s first large wave of settlement, concurrent to that of another historic community—Dutch Neck. Here, the Schencks and Kouwenhovens (now “Conovers”) cleared hundreds of acres of forest, drained swamps, and built substantial dwellings and barns. They established orchards and planted local staples such as wheat, rye, and corn, stretching as far as the eye could see.
19th Century Growth
The construction of the Trenton-New Brunswick Turnpike (chartered 1804, now Route 1) and Washington Road (completed in 1808) saw Penns Neck largely localize around their intersection.
Although growth was slow at first, by the mid-1800s, the hamlet had blossomed into a cluster dominated by the Princeton Baptist Church (1812) and the Red Lion Inn (1807) and fueled by the stagecoach industry.
The church was one of the most important buildings, serving as both a house of worship and a community gathering place.
It remains West Windsor’s oldest religious institution. The Red Lion Inn (now next to the AT&T Store) was a social venue of a different variety, providing the expected food and accommodations, in addition to hosting elections, auctions, sales of real estate, and horse races were held.
Additionally, in 1808, West Windsor’s government intermittently held meetings in the inn, long before a permanent town hall was established in Dutch Neck in the 1890s.
When the Delaware & Raritan Canal and the Camden & Amboy Railroad were completed in 1834 and 1839 (respectively), distant markets were now readily accessible to the village’s farmers, helping grow the hamlet.
By the mid-1800s, a second inn, general store, blacksmith, wheelwright shop, harness shop, wagon repairer’s shop and about a dozen residences had also appeared around the intersection.
20th Century developments
The first school in West Windsor is said to have been constructed c. 1760 in Penns Neck. Typically, because classes were held seasonally, it would take years for students to graduate—some at the age of 25!
In 1917, Penns Neck School, and its twin, Dutch Neck School, were constructed, replacing their older wooden counterparts. Penns Neck School operated for the next half a century, until its closure in 1967. Later converted into offices, it was razed in 1995 to make way for the Alexander Road overpass over Route 1.
In the 1920s/30s the community expanded as several new streets popped up on either side of Washington Road, and with them, a few dozen houses. In 1922, the long-gone Penns Neck Community Club was established to “aid the civic, moral, intellectual and social welfare of the community.”
Likely in the same decade, the Washington Road Elm Allée was planted, serving as an arboreal “gateway” linking West Windsor to Princeton.
The 1940s saw further growth when the Radio Corporation of America opened a headquarters on the old Engelke and Olden farms north of Fisher Place.
Later called the David Sarnoff Research Center, it spearheaded innovations such as color TV, long-range communications and satellite technology, and employed many West Windsor residents. Although now owned by SRI International, the center remains an innovation hub.
The mid-century heralded further growth for Penns Neck, with dozens more houses and several more streets popping up east of Route 1.
Several businesses—notably diners and gas stations, among others, surrounded the traffic circle, which had replaced the simple crossroads intersection a few decades prior.
In 1959, the circle was cut through by Route 1—a configuration that remains to this day.
Past, present and future
During the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st, more and more local farmland was replaced by office parks (notably Carnegie Center), shopping districts and housing developments (notably along Canal Pointe Boulevard). No longer was the area surrounding the crossroads a quaint farming community of a few dozen families!
This growth also inevitably led to challenges for the Penns Neck community—largely centered around traffic and development. Numerous proposals to solve the intersection’s congestion have come and gone over the years, notably for a “bypass” that would have cut through the back of what is now SRI’s property along the Millstone River. More recently, redevelopment at the southern corner of the intersection has been a hotly debated topic.
Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to pre-1900s Penns Neck. Only a handful of its structures remain—notably the Princeton Baptist Church, the Red Lion Inn and the Schenck-Covenhoven Cemetery.
Deep into the farmland north of Washington Road, this graveyard is the resting place for dozens of West Windsor’s earliest settlers, featuring stones as old as 1746. For centuries it has stood watch over farmland, a constant amid decades of change. Yet soon it may find itself in a new environment in several years when Princeton University’s “Lake Campus” is constructed in the surrounding fields.
Yet, Penns Neck retains a strong sense of neighborhood and identity, with many residents who care about its history. Its story, dating back to the town’s earliest wave of settlement, is integral to the larger story of West Windsor and will hopefully be preserved for centuries to come.
To contact, donate to, or volunteer for the Historical Society and explore more West Windsor history, visit westwindsorhistory.com. We are also on social media. Search “Historical Society of West Windsor” on Facebook and “@SchenckFarmstead” on Instagram. Email us at email@example.com.
Paul Ligeti is the head archivist of the Historical Society of West Windsor.