In this river town – Vive la différence


The view of The National Hotel facing west from Route 12 West and Kingwood Avenue.

Often lumped in with other Delaware River communities, Frenchtown has carved out its own unique niche.

The story, as is often the case with other nearby settlements in Hunterdon County along the river, begins with the Lenape Indians, who called this area home long before the European settlers arrived in the 1600s.

A settlement by the river was called Calvin's Ferry as early as 1741, after the individual who ran the local ferry boat.

In 1752, three men, William Alexander, James Parker and John Stevens, created a joint stock company to purchase some 34,000 acres of what was known as West Jersey Society land, which includes where Frenchtown and neighboring Alexandria Township now stand.

Gradual building of the town began as early as 1757, with the new landowners drawing up streets and land lots.
In the late 1790s it was noticed that there were many French-speaking people living in the area and the town got its name from that observation, although many of the settlers were actually of Swiss descent.

Among them was Paul Henri Mallet-Prevost, who fled France to escape probable execution during the French Revolution in 1793. His son Andrew ended up with 893 acres of land including Frenchtown following a series of title transactions. The family settled there, and the Mallet-Prevost family had a hand in constructing many of the town's buildings including a hotel.

Many of Frenchtown's early streets were created during this time including South Harrison, Front Street, Lott Street and Railroad Avenue as plantations were transforming into individually owned properties.

The town grew from its grain processing center and ferry crossing origins, accommodating a bourgeoning lumber industry with the construction of sawmills.

The first Methodist Church arrived in 1846, three years after it was envisioned by its congregation. The Frenchtown United Methodist Church on Third Street continues today.

The first Presbyterian Church was built in 1845 where the town hall is on Second Street. The Presbyterian Church on Fourth Street was built in 1854.

Frenchtown's post office can be traced back to 1839, and the building moved around town quite a bit until settling on Trenton Avenue in 1932 where it remains today, after being rebuilt in the early 1960s.

The town grew big enough to operate three hotels, The Lower, Middle and Upper Hotels, by the mid-19th century.
The Upper Hotel is now called The National Hotel and is the first building you see pulling into Frenchtown from Route 12. It had also served as a stage coach stop.

The Lower Hotel is now known as the Frenchtown Inn. The Middle Hotel burned to the ground in 1878.

Prior to the Lower Hotel, Paul Henri Mallet-Prevost built a tavern near the river in 1805 as a rest stop for those traveling between New York and Philadelphia. The building was later sold and eventually became known as The Rail Road House in anticipation of the Trenton-Phillipsburg line in 1838. Today, the track of the rail line still exists from Frenchtown to Trenton as part of a Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park trail. Passenger Service stopped running through Frenchtown in 1960.

Until April 4, 1867 Frenchtown had existed as a section of Alexandria Township. On that day it was incorporated as a borough under New Jersey law and Samuel Hudnit became Frenchtown's first mayor. The population about eight years later was said to be about 960 increasing to 1490 as counted in the 2000 census.

The library, created in 1919 on Harrison Street, now exists under Borough Hall.

Perhaps mirroring the prosperity of the rest of the country in the 1950s, Frenchtown was home to three grocery stores, two hardware establishments, two gas stations, two five-and-dime department stores, a funeral home, a bank and a drugstore among other businesses.

Although today growth has slowed somewhat from the 1950s, as it has regionally, Frenchtown residents embrace their history and their community through annual celebrations like RiverFest and Bastille Day as well as through everyday conversation.

It is a town that encourages diversity and creativity, all of it within walking distance.

2017 © Bucks County Herald