Bordentown City Hall is currently closed to the public.

Like many small towns, industrialization didn’t take effect until the arrival of transportation means like the Camden and Amboy Railroad and the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company. Now people and freight could reach their destinations further and faster, allowing for places to grow and expand.

In 1849, an act of New Jersey state legislature approved for Bordentown to become a borough, thus separating from surrounding Chesterfield Township. This was followed in 1852 when the legislature approved to scale back the boundaries of Chesterfield Township for the incorporation of Bordentown Township which also wrapped around the borough of Fieldsboro. According to the US Census of 1850, Bordentown had a population of 2,700 residents. By then, local government matters were held in a town hall that was a decade old.

Positioned in the middle of Walnut Street, this two story structure was quite an oddity as carriages drove around it. The first floor had an open archway on each of its four sides that viewed the food markets primarily on Main Street (Farnsworth Avenue).

The second floor was divided by a room in the front and a room in the back. The room in the front was where general public meetings and elections were held. The room in the back warranted its own special ambiance. It was a small jail cell where a prisoner was held until trial or transferred to another prison. Although its condition was stark and unsanitary, the cell did have an open window with bars that looked onto Walnut Street.

On any given day, it was rather common to watch people on the street engage in a loud conversation or a yelling match with the prisoner. The same could be said by throwing rocks or other objects at the cell window. If the prisoner had a calm demeanor and a sturdy string, then he was rewarded with a bottle of liquor that a caring citizen would tie around the neck so the prisoner could hoist it up to the window. In essence, the jailors didn’t enforce harsh treatment unless they needed to.

By 1857, Bordentown had persistent problems with vagabonds. Many found their way on to train cars, canal boats, and even steamships from other locations, only to disembark at the landing and wander into town. Those that stayed often became public nuisances.

To remedy the situation, members of the town’s Common Council decided to transform the second floor of the town hall into sleeping quarters where those that couldn’t afford a suitable room for the night, could sleep on the floor. Although this humanitarian gesture had good intensions, the abundance of trash, filthy blankets, and stench emanating from the area forced council members to hold their monthly meetings at the nearby American House Hotel.

The sleeping quarters were eventually removed. As renovations continued, the archways were filled in with brick and mortar, two jail cells were built on the first floor, and the mayor’s office was refurbished.

In 1867, an act was passed authorizing the establishment of a city government that included nine council members. One of their principle responsibilities was to levy taxes without the consent of local residents. In light of a major economic decline in manufacturing, shipping, and rail transportation caused by the devastation of the Civil War, the lack of growth within society had to adapt to necessary changes.

Bordentown City’s first mayor, Dr. Leo DeLange, was elected in 1868. DeLange urged council members to amend the city’s charter. In 1872, this arduous task was completed. It read: “It shall and may be lawful for Common Council of the City of Bordentown and they shall have full power and authority to redeem from all municipal taxation all manufactories hereto after to be established therein, where the actual capital invested exceeds the sum of $10,000 for a term of years not exceeding 10.”

The economic doldrums that plagued most of the 1870s were far-reaching. But, like every cycle, many communities asserted their optimism and bounced back stronger than ever. Bordentown was able to do the same.

Before the end of the decade, the Downs and Finch Shirt Company on Park Street was able to hire 500 workers for steady employment. In 1891, the factory was sold to the Springfield Worsted Mill Company, which expanded its facilities and workforce.

Across the railroad siding on Ann Street, a sister factory, the Eagle Shirt Factory, employed 350 women for the princely sum of $3 a week to operate the machinery for sewing silk, cotton, and flannel shirts. Even before these large factories existed, many other industries boosted the city’s population to roughly 4,300 residents by 1880.

With this increase, businessmen and citizens alike strongly urged city officials to find a centralized location for a new city hall that would meet the needs of its people. After much debate, scrutiny, and heated arguments, it was voted upon that the site for a new city hall would be located on Crosswicks Street.

Completed in 1888, the opulence of the two-storied structure was a jewel to behold. It contained city offices, a court room and judge’s chambers, a police station and jail, and a fire house under one roof. Its Romanesque architecture was defined by columns of grooved pilasters topped by ornately carved leaf motifs. The curved fanlight over the multi-paneled entrance doors and adjacent vaulted archway leading into the bay of the Delaware Fire Company No. 2 defied visual splendor.

However, the most dramatic feature was a Seth Thomas clock encased within its clock tower. Considered one of the finest mechanisms in existence, it was made in the clock-making factory town of Thomaston, Connecticut. With speed controlled by a 100-pound pendulum, the clock could hoist an 800-pound striking weight and a 150-pound striking weight from the basement to the tower using steel cables manufactured by the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company in Trenton, and later, in Roebling. The decorative weathervane at the peak of the tower was not part of the original design, but rather introduced as an afterthought.

A year after the municipal complex opened, the former town hall was lifted from its foundation on Walnut Street and transported by teams of horses to its new home next to a harness shop on Crosswicks Street. Facing opposite its gleaming replacement, its worn stucco frame was rife with cracks and unsightly blemishes. Ironically, its last years were spent as a furniture repair shop.

The new city hall served a vital role in local government as it held court trials, council meetings, a polling place (elections), a draft board registration center for young men during World War II, and a guidance center for youth groups.

Decades passed and by 1964, the population of Bordentown City swelled to 5,000 residents. It was an island in a swirling sea of asphalt road systems that surrounded it. The age of the automobile now made it possible for anyone to reach their destination quicker.

Simply put, technological advances of the 20th century made the old city hall obsolete. It was time to relocate city government once more. This time, the city was able to purchase the brick Bell Telephone Company building on Farnsworth Avenue, after the system became all number dialing.

Thankfully, the old city hall did not become a causality of modern progress and survives as a symbol of historic preservation.

Bordentown City Hall 2022

Bordentown City’s new municipal complex, tucked away at the end of the long drive at 101 Park St., was formerly owned by Divine Word Missionaries. (Photo by E. M. Hume.)

At the end of 2020, the torch of government passed once more as the former administration building for Divine Word Missionaries on Park Street was designated as the site of a new city municipal center. A unique blend of man and nature, the building and its former gymnasium is within a beautiful state park consisting of vast greenery, wooded trails, trees over two centuries old, and a picturesque view of Crosswicks Creek.

The site represents more than a government of the people. It needs to be nurtured and cherished for the people — and for our future as well.

Doug Kiovsky is the vice president of the Bordentown Historical Society.

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