Changing Landscapes Along Petty's Run

Changing Landscapes Along Petty's Run (HM1GE4)

Location: Trenton, NJ 08608 Mercer County
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Country: United States of America
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N 40° 13.217', W 74° 46.133'

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Three centuries ago, the landscape before you would have appeared much different. Looking west toward today's State House, you would have been facing a steep-sided ravine with wooded slopes and a fast flowing stream passing from right to left to join the Delaware River. Behind you, a small village was taking shape, soon to become known as Trent's Town and then Trenton. Over the course of the next 200 years, starting in the early 1730s, this short segment of Petty's Run experienced several make-overs. The site and its surroundings alternated between water-powered industry and residential development before finally being absorbed into the orbit of the State House and transformed into parkland. Historical and archaeological investigations have now instilled the parkland with new life.

Iron and Steel
The Harrow/Yard Plating Mill and the Trenton Steel Works
In the early 1730s, Isaac Harrow, a local blacksmith, erected a water powered plating mill on the east bank of Petty's Run directly in front of where your are standing. A plating mill was a mechanized blacksmith shop where a waterwheel turned a camshaft, alternately lifting and dropping a trip-hammer on to metal being worked on an anvil. Waterpower may also have operated a bellows that kept the forge fire burning. The plating mill was so named because its activities included the conversion of bar iron into plate metal goods like kettles, pans, axes and shovels.

In 1745, the plating mill was acquired by Benjamin Yard, another Trenton blacksmith. Yard operated the mill into the early years of the Revolutionary War, producing gun barrels, scabbards and bayonets for the Continental Army in 1776. The facility was disabled by American troops in the fall of 1777 to prevent its use by British forces advancing up the Delaware. Remnants of the mill foundations were identified at the bottom of the Petty's Run site in 2008-09. These were re-buried and are not presently visible.

Benjamin Yard built a steel furnace across the run from the plating mill. One of only five in use in the American Colonies in 1750, this facility was later owned by a succession of wealthy Philadelphians, before being acquired by Stacy Potts, a local Trenton merchant, toward the end of the Revolutionary War. Like the plating mill, the steel furnace produced metal for the Continental Army, continuing in operation somewhat longer, until 1784, Remains of the Trenton Steel Works have been stabilized and are on display. More detail on this rare industrial site may be found on Sign 6.

State House and Streets
The State House Lot and the West Front Street Bridge over Petty's Run
After being considered as the site of the nation's capital in the 1780s, Trenton settled instead for the lesser role of capital of New Jersey on November 25, 1790. Over the next two years the state legislature decided that the actual seat of state government would occupy land on the western edge of the town adjoining Petty's Run. In early 1792, five lots totaling 3.75 acres were purchased on the south side of the newly extended West State Street, overlooking the falls of the Delaware River. The State House Lot, as this property came to be known, was soon the site of intense building activity.

The State House itself was designed and built by Jonathan Doan, a master builder from Bucks County. It opened for business on October 29, 1792, although work continued on the building into the mid-1790s. In 1795-96, Doan designed and built the state's first office building, for the Secretary of State and the Clerk of the Supreme Court, which stood in the northeast corner of the State House Lot. The footprint of this building is partly outlined in the West State Street sidewalk in front of the the State House. Visitors can enjoy the public tours of the State House and learn more about its storied political past.

Cotton and Paper

The Firthian Cotton Mill and the Front Street Paper Mill
Following the demise of the Trenton Steel Works in the mid-1780s, the stretch of Petty's Run between the State House and the Old Barracks saw no industrial use for almost 30 years. Around 1813-14, water powered industrial activity resumed. Josiah Firthian, a cabinet-maker living on West State Street, bought part of the old plating mill property and erected Trenton's first cotton mill, realigning the run to flow in a stone-lined channel between the West State and West Front Street bridges.

Firthian's cotton mill struggled from the start. Heavily mortgaged, the building was partially destroyed by a flood midway through its construction. It apparently operated for only two or three years, probably for spinning and carding, and in 1816 Firthian ceded control of the property to his creditors. By 1822 the mill was offered for sale with the note that "it could be finished so as make two handsome dwelling houses." Although no longer visible, remains of the cotton mill walls survive above the plating mill foundations, below the corner of the Thomas Edison State College.

Much more successful was the paper mill established by Garret D. Wall in 1827. Wall a leading politician and attorney, owned much of the land along this stretch of Petty's Run, living in a fine three-story house at the corner of West State and Delaware Streets. Constructed atop the ruins of the steel furnace, the paper mill may also have incorporated part of the abandoned cotton mill. The Front Street paper mill continued in business until 1876. Its ruins, prominently displayed before you, are the subject of Sign 5.

Residences and Row Homes
The Petty's Run Culvert and Inner City Housing

By the 1870s Petty's Run was little more than an open sewer, a convenient channel into which industrial and household waste could be pitched and carried down to the Delaware. Residents and the city government recognized the growing health hazard and covered over the run. By the 1890s the Petty's run culvert was incorporated into a new city-wide sanitary and storm sewer system.

Also by the 1870s the Front Street paper mill was approaching the end of its working life. With little room for expansion, declining use of waterpower, and changes in papermaking technology, the mill was no longer economic. In 1876-77 the mill buildings were pulled down and replaced with row houses. The footings of the paper mill were incorporated into the row home basements and are strongly represented in the ruins that survive today.

By 1900 the block bounded by West State, South Willow, West Front and Delaware Streets had attained miximum built-out. Wealthier town houses, occupied by professionals, lined West State, while West Front and Delaware Streets took on a more middle and working class flavor. The State House underwent several expansions during this period, interrupted by one serious fire on March 20, 1885 that forced a major rebuilding. A notable addition to the neighborhood was the School of Industrial Arts, founded by former New Jersey Secretary of State Henry C. Kelsey. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, this Renaissance Revival building, located at the corner of South Willow and West State Streets, was dedicated on June 7, 1911.

Mahlon Stacy Park
Mahlon Stacy Park
As early as the 1870s there were calls to establish a riverfront part to enlarge the surroundings of the State Capital. It was not until 1908, under the direction of adjutant general Wilbur F. Sadler, that the state began to acquire that land to fulfill this goal. In 1911, a concrete river wall was built to frame the park on its Delaware River side. Soon after landscaping designs were developed for what became known as Mahlon Stacy Park.

The finger of land reaching up to west State Street between the State House and the Old Barracks was an important focus of the new park. Between 1911 and 1913 the state set about razing buildings and grading the terrain. West Front Street was removed, the downstream section of the Petty's Run culvert was realigned, and the canal known as the Trenton Water Power was transformed into Smithican Creek. The centerpiece of this part of the park, however, was the restoration of the Old Barracks, which included the recreation of the portion of the building that had been removed more than a century earlier to make way for the westerly extension of Front Street.

In the 20th century, Mahlon Stacy Park first blossomed and then lost much of its luster. The State House Annex was added in 1928-29 and another architectural jewel, the Trenton and Mercer County Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial, was built kin 1930-32. In the post-World War II era, a cultural complex, comprising the State Library, State Museum, Planetarium and Auditorium, was established in place of several old mansions along West State Street, but the park setting fared less well at the hands of highway and parking lot construction that cut the State Capitol off from the river.

Unearthing the Future
The early 21st century has bred renewed interest in improving the environs of the State House and refreshing and recreating Mahlon Stacy Park. Reconnecting downtown Trenton to the Delaware River is a major goal of urban planners and the local community. Showcasing Trenton's cultural heritage and the city's critical role in American colonial and industrial history are part and parcel of the effort to enhance the visual and tourism appeal of New Jersey's state capital.

The Petty's Run Archaeological Site offers a glimpse into Trenton's storied past - a window into water-powered industrial endeavor and the manufacture of iron, steel, cotton and paper along with flashes of light cast on to the broader canvas of the Industrial Revolution, the Revolutionary War and the emergence of state government.

Hints of the buried riches along Petty's Run first emerged in the mid-1980s during archaeological testing in advance of new utilities being installed for an expansion of the State House. When Thomas Edison State College was expanded in the mid-1990s further evidence materialized. Exhaustive research into deeds and other archives revealed the intricate land use history of this site and confirmed its archaeological possibilities.

In 2008-09 large-scale archaeological exploration conducted as part of park planning unearthed a wide array of foundations ranging in date from the early 18th through the late 19th century. In all, close to 5,000 tons of earth and rubble were removed from the site over a period of almost a year exposing numerous mill and house ruins and the long-forgotten Petty's Run culvert. Many of these features have been safely re-buried; some of the more compelling ruins have been stabilized and are displayed before you.

HM NumberHM1GE4
Marker ConditionNo reports yet
Date Added Saturday, September 20th, 2014 at 4:34am PDT -07:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)18T E 519664 N 4452232
Decimal Degrees40.22028333, -74.76888333
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 40° 13.217', W 74° 46.133'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds40° 13' 13.02" N, 74° 46' 7.98" W
Driving DirectionsGoogle Maps
Area Code(s)609
Closest Postal AddressAt or near 200-260 Wilson St, Trenton NJ 08608, US
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