With the progress and population of current day Old Bridge Township, it can be difficult to see beyond the highways and buildings to another time, when farms and villages covered the landscape. Looking further back, forest growth dominated the land, broken only by Indian settlements, trails and fields cleared for planting.
The Lenni-Lenape people were the first inhabitants of the area who survived for centuries on all that nature provided. In the summer they would meet on the shores of Raritan Bay with other clans and families from north and south to trade, fish and visit. Centuries later others would adopt this tradition and call it Salt Water Day.
Europeans began settling the area in the 17th century, with New Jersey itself frequently changing hands between the Dutch and British. In the late 1600s it was under British rule and it was at that time Middlesex County was created. Thomas Warne, one of the original Proprietors under the Crown, came to New Jersey and settled in the vicinity of a grove of cedars along the road now called 516. Today a museum bearing his name stands on his original lot.
New Jersey, being divided into East Jersey and West Jersey in Colonial times, was further divided into counties and townships. Within Middlesex County, the Township of South Amboy covered an area along Raritan Bay until 1869, when a portion separated. It became Madison Township, named in honor of President James Madison, who had often traveled to the area. He came to visit Philip Freneau, a friend from his years at Princeton. Accounts claim these visits were prompted by Madison’s courtship of Freneau’s sister Mary, though his marriage proposals were not successful.
Madison Township proved to be a thriving rural community, with agriculture and clay mining among the principle industries. Access to Raritan Bay provided a means to transport produce, lumber and other goods to various ports by steamboat, as well as importing items to the area. Roads that were once Indian trails became thoroughfares for wagons and foot traffic, connecting villages such as Brownville (later Browntown) and Jacksonville, as well providing a link to rest of Middlesex and Monmouth Counties. With the introduction of the railroad mid century, commerce and population increased.
Among the fields and orchards, villages, mills and clay pits there could be found churches, cemeteries and schools as well as hotels and taverns — all evidence of a growing social community. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the portion of the township known as Laurence Harbor became a popular summer destination. Lots were sold for bungalows and a resort area sprang up with restaurants and a country club, as well as amusements and beaches for bathing. This served to attract even more people to the area.
In 1964, a group of dedicated township residents formed the Madison Township Historical Society in order to preserve this history. Within a few years, the group obtained the Cedar Grove Schoolhouse, a 19th century one-room structure, to operate as a museum. It stands across from Old Bridge High School on Thomas Warne’s original property, not far from homes that were built by Warne descendants.
In 1975, the name of the township was changed from Madison to Old Bridge, and continues to grow in the 21st century. From a population of less than 2,000 in 1880, Old Bridge Township can now claim over 70,000 residents, and is recognized as the third largest municipality in Middlesex County. It was a contender for Money magazine’s title of one of the best places to live in the United States in 2005 and 2007. In 2016, SafeWise named Old Bridge Township as the sixth-safest city in America to raise a child.
Beyond the obvious signs of progress there is still evidence of the past. Victorian houses, old farm buildings and place names like Browntown call it to mind, along with street names like Cottrell, Ticetown and Lambertson that speak of early families. Like many New Jersey towns, the centuries from Indian trails to a Nike base and the cellphone towers of the 21st century, give us a rich history and much to be discovered. w