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Princeton Basin

Untitled, 1982 by Grif Teller. From “Crossroads of Commerce.” (Courtesy of Dan Cupper)

Ghost of a Town

By Anne Levin

At the bottom of Alexander Street where Princeton meets West Windsor, joggers, walkers, cyclists, and nature lovers gather — especially in fair weather — along the banks of the Delaware & Raritan (D&R) Canal. The leafy site known as Turning Basin Park has a parking lot on one side of the road, and a popular kayak/canoe launching site on the other. A few houses line Basin and Canal streets, which hug the narrow waterway. It is peaceful and quiet.

There is little, if anything, to suggest that, nearly 200 years ago, the area was a bustling center of commerce and industry. Princeton Basin was a thriving small town along the 65-mile canal, a mile south and worlds away from quiet, academic Princeton proper.

Princeton Basin took its name from two inlets, or basins, which opened off the north bank of the canal on either side of a turn bridge. These were small ponds where barges could moor overnight, unload their freight, and turn around. Vividly documented in historical publications written in 1939 and 1983, the Basin boasted coal yards, a lumber yard, a hotel, a tavern, and some 20 residences. The general store was a popular meeting place. A school was built as a mission by Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Pulled by mules along the banks, barges carried coal, hay, produce, quarried stone, and more between Bordentown and New Brunswick. The Princeton Steam Mills and the New Jersey Ironclad Roofing and Mastic Company were located at the Basin. It was busy, busy, busy — but the Basin’s heyday was short-lived.

“Settlement of the Basin dates from the early 1830s, when a railroad building furor was sweeping the eastern seaboard of the United States,” reads Old Princeton’s Neighbors, a 1939 publication of the Federal Writers Project. “And to Commodore Robert F. Stockton, United States naval officer and member of one of Princeton’s pioneer families, belongs much of the credit for building the canal and railroad which served central New Jersey. To his initiative, also, Princeton Basin owes its origin.”

Finished in 1834, the canal had four locks at Trenton, and another at Kingston. It wound through the smaller communities of Rocky Hill, Griggstown, Millstone, and Somerville. The Camden and Amboy Railroad ran a line next to the waterway. But as the railroads began to dominate the transportation industry, the canal, and its town, went into a steady decline starting in the 1870s.

Packers Bridge on the Delaware & Raritan Canal at Alexander Street (formerly known as Canal Street), in Princeton Basin. (Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton)

“Princeton Basin existed solely because of the Delaware and Raritan Canal and Camden and Amboy Railroad along its banks,” reads a 1983 issue of the publication Princeton History. “It was born with the opening of the canal, grew up with it, thrived with it, and as an entity faded away as the canal’s business dwindled and died. It was a short century for Princeton Basin, but a lively one.”

Everts & Stewart & Hunter, T. (1875) detail from combination atlas map of Mercer County, New Jersey and Philadelphia. (Library of Congress) – Click to enlarge

Old Princeton’s Neighbors describes the Basin as a vaguely defined area, “not an entity, somewhat like a frying pan, with Alexander Street as the handle flaring out at the bottom of the hill into a skillet-shaped area.”

As for the Basin at its peak, Princeton History reported, “One man boasted that on a Sunday when all traffic halted, he could walk from Princeton to Trenton from barge to barge.” Also, “A company rule enforced throughout the operation of the canal was that Sunday was a day of rest for men and mules. The canallers’ families walked the towpath, visited with fellow boat families, bought vegetables from nearby farms, and while at the Basin could attend church.”

There were numerous opportunities for employment during the heyday of the Basin — among them, mule skinners, blacksmiths, and level walkers who covered 14 miles a day plugging holes in the banks caused by muskrats. “Ratters were paid 15 cents for each muskrat they destroyed when they delivered nose and tail,” notes Princeton History. “The pelt they could sell for 18 cents.”

The boat captains were the aristocracy of the canal, “living on board with their wives and children and their dogs, with songbirds in cages, an awning stretched over the deck in summer, the water barrel and stove amidships,” Princeton History continues. “Life on board was hardly rigorous, moving at three miles an hour for long, sleepy stretches with the captain at the helm, the children fishing off the stern, and the mule driver plodding the towpath or stretched out on the back of the rear mule.”

The 1939 publication is especially evocative when describing the general store, owned for decades by Basin resident Scott Berrien. It was the gathering place for townsmen, bargemen, canal boat tenders, and mule drivers. “The general store was its own billboard,” it reads. “Before it was recently razed one could see the legend of best-sellers of another day: Silk Waists, Evening Gowns, Dressing Sacks, Kid Gloves, Curtains, Blankets, Candles, Wax, Tow Lines, and Mrs. Mary Brown’s Chewing Tobacco.” Berrien’s store was “typically the center of life in Princeton Basin’s mélange of trade and industrial activity.”

Lottie B. barge on the canal near the Steamboat Hotel. Below, the Branch Line crossing the D&R Canal at Princeton Basin in the 1890s. (Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton)

The Railroad Hotel was later called the Steamship Hotel, and still later, the Union Hotel. “The tracks of the railroad ran close to the canal bank almost on the doorstep of the hotel,” reads the 1983 Princeton History. “A passenger station and a freight depot were built and at the top of the hill to the south, a reservoir to water the locomotives.”

Billy Lynch’s Bottle House “was known as a lurid spot even to the hard-living canal workers,” notes Old Princeton’s Neighbors. “Police often had to supervise the activities of the tavern’s patrons.” The 1939 publication details that activity: “No proper person would dare to frequent the Basin at night, with the saloon doors piling out boisterous mule skinners and towboys. By contrast, the boat captains for the most part were sober family men with investment and character at stake.”

The publication continues, “the sinister walked only a step apart from the sublime. Bright is the memory of a little chapel, the mission of Princeton’s Trinity Church.” The ground for the chapel was given by the Stockton family. The chapel was not the only religious influence at the Basin. The first Roman Catholic Mass in the vicinity of Princeton was celebrated about 1850 in a house near the area. And about 1894, members of Princeton’s Black community tried to build a small church at the Basin but could not raise enough money.

“Only the trees of the Basin seem to have escaped the general decay,” the 1939 publication concludes, singling out a giant elm that was, at the time of the writing, “nearly eight feet in diameter at its base and a showpiece of nature’s vigor. In the midst of decay and ruin, this tree survives as the only living thing that has seen the rise and decline of Princeton Basin. It has watched the coming of men and mules, boats and barges, all the industry and trade that followed the freight down the canal from the Raritan to the Delaware and back. And it looked on while twilight — the shadow of the railroad and motor van — settled over the banks of Stockton’s ‘folly’ and enveloped the Basin.”