When someone mentions Trenton, most people probably just think of the city of just under half a million souls as the seat of New Jersey's state government—maybe as a former industrial hub of the Northeast, if they know their history—and not much more. But like a lot of towns in central New Jersey and all over the tri-state area, Trenton is steeped in rich colonial history, loaded with cultural reminders of two revolutions: the Revolutionary War, and the Industrial Revolution. This month, we take a closer look at Trenton and its historic Old Mill Hill district, a community-within-a-community with a commitment to preserve and protect its history and architectural beauty.
Ye Olde Trent-Towne
In 1680, a group of ambitious Quakers built a gristmill at the falls of the Delaware River and set up camp. The city was named The Falls—it wasn't called Trenton for another 35 years, until William Trent bought the mill and started "Trent-towne" on its path to being a major American city.
Nearly a century later, when George Washington crossed the Delaware River on that cold, Christmas night in 1776, he was looking to defeat the Hessian troops occupying the countryside surrounding Trenton. After a hard-fought victory over the British in the Second Battle of Trenton, the new American army had laid another piece of the groundwork for an emerging country.
From the 1800s to the 1900s, Trenton went along as most American cities did, weathering the Civil War, expanding both socially and economically. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Delaware and Raritan Canal opened, as well as the Camden, Amboy and Philadelphia Railroads, which served as major catalysts for continued urban growth. The city was developing at a rapid pace. By the 1920s, Trenton's famous slogan, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes" was a fair call—Trenton was indeed supplying a good deal of the world with steel, rubber, wire, rope, linoleum and ceramic products.
Up in Smoke
Interestingly, throughout the first half of the 20th century, Trenton was also a source of fine cigars. For many years, female factory workers hand-rolled cigars using the deluxe tobacco leaves brought into the area from Cuba. According to local lore, Trenton cigars were among the finest available anywhere—so good, in fact, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stocked his humidor with Trenton-made cigars. Trenton's cigar industry kept many hundreds of people afloat during the Great Depression in the 1920s, but by the 1960s, automation put most of the cigar-rollers out of work, and the industry shifted inland toward Philadelphia.