The Lawrence Hopewell Trail is more than just a meandering pedestrian and bicycle path – it’s a path through the history of Lawrence and Hopewell townships, illustrated by interpretive signs placed at key spots along the trail.
The “History Along the LHT” interpretive signage program was officially unveiled May 14 at the monthly Lawrence Hopewell Trail Saturday Morning Walking Club. Seven of the 31 signs have been installed, and five more are expected to be in place by the end of May.
Dennis Waters, the former Lawrence Township historian and a current member of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail Corp.’s board of trustees, led the walk along a section of the trail in Lawrence Township, near the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. campus on Princeton Pike.
Waters said the suggestion for the interpretive signage program grew out of a discussion with Richard Hunter, whose firm, Hunter Research, is the “premier historical and archeological research consulting firms in New Jersey.”
“I don’t remember who came up with the idea, but Richard and I began discussing the fact that the route of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail takes it past – and through – many locations that have unique histories, from Native American sites and through the Colonial period and into the 20th century,” Waters told the walking club attendees.
“In fact, if you wanted to build a trail specifically to connect and highlight the important local history sites in Lawrence and Hopewell, you would be hard pressed to find a better route than the Lawrence Hopewell Trail,” he said.
And then the walkers stepped off to visit the signs at Lewisville Road, the Brearley Oak and Princeton Pike. The tree, which is surrounded by a split rail fence, is on the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. campus and is visible from the street.
The first stop was the interpretive sign for Lewisville Road.
Lewisville Road was originally named Meadow Road and connected the village of Lawrenceville with the Great Meadow, where settlers grazed their livestock, Waters said. On the other side of Princeton Pike, the unpaved lane that leads to the township-owned Brearley House is still known as Meadow Road.
The land along Lewisville Rad belonged to Lewis Phillips, a slaveowner who became an abolitionist and freed his slaves, Waters said. Many of the prominent families in Lawrence Township were slave owners, he said.
“Phillips began selling bits of property along this road so (the formerly enslaved Blacks) could set up a homestead. Starting around 1840, these free Blacks began building houses and building a community,” Waters said.
During the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, it became “quite an active community,” he said. It was the first and largest Black community in Lawrence. An African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church was built in the 1890s. There were camp meetings and revivals and festivals that attracted thousands of people to the Lewisville Road neighborhood, he said.
Many of the Blacks who lived on Lewisville Road worked for The Lawrenceville School as cooks, porters and servants, he said. Although the Black families left Lewisville Road over time, many of their descendants still live in Lawrence Township.
The next stop on the tour was the Brearley Oak.
The Brearley family was among the pioneering families in Lawrence Township, Waters said. John Brearley settled in Maidenhead Township, which was Lawrence Township’s original name, in 1690.
“John Brearley purchased the land here. Basically, as far as the eye can see around here. The odds are very good that this tree was already here at that time (in 1690, when he purchased the land),” Waters said.
The Brearley family was a prominent family in Lawrence Township, he said. For about 100 years – from the mid-1700s to just before the Civil War – there was always a Brearley involved in local government.
The Brearley Oak is considered a “champion tree,” Waters said. Champion tree status means it is listed on the New Jersey Department of Forestry’s Big Tree Registry. It is the largest black oak tree in New Jersey, and one of the largest black oak trees in the northeastern United States, he said.
The tree has a circumference of about 20 feet, but no one knows how old it is, Waters said. Estimates range from 270 to 410 years old, but the only way to know for certain is to core it.
An arborist who has been retained by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to care for the tree estimated the tree’s age at 450 years or so, Waters said. This means the tree was in existence when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, he said.
Crossing Princeton Pike to the other side of the street, Waters explained the origin of Princeton Pike and the concept of toll roads. There is a sign on the corner of Princeton Pike and Lenox Drive that explains Princeton Pike.
Until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, roads were maintained by the municipality and basically had to be maintained by the property owner whose property had frontage on the road, he said.
“So if you were a farmer, you would be responsible for a piece of road that was in front of your land. You could either put your own labor into it, or you could pay a tax and have somebody else take care of it for you,” he said.
“If you wanted a really nice road, you had to raise capital and you had to build it and then charge people to use it,” he said.
The original road that connected Trenton and New Brunswick was the King’s Highway, or Route 206, Waters said. But a nicer road was needed and could be built as a turnpike. It was decided to build a straight road between Trenton and New Brunswick, and to build it as a turnpike – and that is the origin of Route 1, he said.
The Trenton-New Brunswick Straight Turnpike was chartered in 1804. After it was built, all of the wagons, stage coaches and other traffic shifted from Route 206/The King’s Highway to the new road. The merchants in Princeton and Kingston were not happy about it, he said.
“As a result, the merchants decided, ‘Hey, we could have our own turnpike that will come through Princeton and Kingston.’ So they chartered it five years later – the Princeton-Kingston Branch Turnpike – and that’s what this (Princeton Pike) is,” Waters said.
Today’s Princeton Pike started in Trenton and traversed through Lawrence, Princeton and Kingston, and rejoined the main road – Route 1 – at Raymond Road in South Brunswick Township, he said.
But the turnpikes eventually lost favor upon the opening of the Delaware and Raritan Canal in the 1830s, because it was cheaper to ship products by water than over land, Waters said.