Lambertville, once known as Coryell’s Ferry
New Jersey’s smallest city teems with history and charm
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at Kellers Church and Ridge roads.
In the middle of the York Road corridor (now Route 202), once called the “King’s Highway” between New Amsterdam (New York City) and Philadelphia, sits eclectic and comfortable Lambertville, N.J.
Lambertville was known as Coryell’s Ferry for more than a century before its incorporation in 1849 as the first “city” within Hunterdon County, N.J. It is today, New Jersey’s smallest city.
Its sister river city, New Hope, was also known as Coryell’s Ferry, and both towns still share addresses of Ferry Street – somewhat directly opposite each other on the river. Both streets marked street terminals where boats carrying products and people crossed the river for generations, before bridges, roads and rail lines provided faster access for commerce between Philadelphia and New York City.
As a result, the two “hamlets,” as they were called, remain friendly neighbors.
Lambertville is home to more than 4,000 residences, 500 businesses, and countless historic homes and landmarks. But much of its history is intertwined infinitely to New Hope, so many references are shared.
Coryell’s Ferry, a thriving business, was established in 1733 by Emanuel Coryell. Other settlers of the area included the industrious Holcombe family, for which a river island is named, and the Lewis family, known for generations for its fishing industry, especially shad, on the Delaware.
When the city was incorporated, Lambertville was named in honor of John Lambert, an influential settler, farmer, and United States senator during the Jefferson administration. Lambert’s mark on the small city was profound – he paved the way for opportunity for new industries to develop and prosper along the river corridor.
Because of its strategic location in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Coryell’s early ferry service provided important means for interstate commerce. What was not foreseen at the time of the settlement was the role the descendants of the Coryell family and Lambertville’s river access would play a role in crucial strategy during the Revolutionary War.
Gen. George Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River famously surprised and defeated the Hessians, not far downstream toward Trenton. Despite the intelligence reports that Washington was planning an attack, the Coryells were entrusted by the general to secretly guard the Durham ferry boats, keeping them from view from hills high above Lambertville, now known locally as Goat Hill and Washington’s Table.
From the hill’s vantage, Washington planned his strategy, fully understanding the area’s topography as an appropriate decoy. With help from the Coryell family and the river itself, successful crossing ensued in absurdly cruel weather conditions on that fateful night.
George Coryell, whose grave is marked behind the iconic First Presbyterian Church on Union Street, was a general under Washington’s command, and was an owner of a trading post in town, a site where troops bivouacked before the march on Trenton. (St. Andrew’s Church is now there.) Coryell and George streets, are among other reminders of Lambertville’s founders’ influence.
Lambertville also has a proud history of supporting the efforts of the Union in the Civil War, in manufacturing munitions and other material supplies, as well as training and deploying its young men in service. Many of the contributions are still memorialized in town by plaques and public spaces.
The city has enjoyed the river’s benefits as a conduit for the development of several modes of transportation, including canals, trolleys, railroads, bridges and highway development. In a list too long to detail, these modes of commerce and transportation have had what seems to be a perpetual influence on today’s city and its residents.
Mills and factories (that would likely astound new visitors or residents to the now quaint Lambertville shopping area) were crucial to the livelihood of its work force. Lambertville and its sister, New Hope were once home to mills and factories of vast variety.
A rubber mill was coined by local residents as the “Stink Mill.” North and east of Lambertville were lumber, grain, feed, silk and paper mills. There was also a profitable ceramics company, still operated but more specialized than a mass production company.
The transportation and power source opportunities the Delaware River provided are somewhat unique in scope, even today. Canals and railways on both sides of the river, combined with the tourism demands of sophisticated city folk from both New York and Philadelphia have made the community of Lambertville a unique destination which blends agrarian, industrial and artistic purposes within a community that welcomes it all.
Employment in Lambertville was full of opportunity during and after the Industrial Revolution, when the city’s mills prospered and attracted immigrant workers – particularly those of Irish and Scottish descent. They provided the majority of labor for the construction of the canal system. And despite a serious outbreak of cholera in the height of construction, these laborers who were paid pennies to a dollar’s wages today still managed to construct the canal – and also several houses of worship. In their “spare time.”
Many of the structures are on the National Register of Historic Places. The architectural development continued through the Civil War.
Lambertville, New Hope and other river communities have endured seeing bridges, businesses and homes succumb to floods. The first three bridges between 1814 and the Great Flood of 1903 were all covered bridges, all demolished by floods.
While it still is subject to natural disaster, Lambertville still thrives as a most scenic and quaint destination to visit. Walk down any street to find restored and maintained homes of eclectic architecture.
The city hosts festivals, exhibits and shows. One hundred years ago, one could shop for the famed “Snag Proof” rubber boot, attend the annual musical circus or attend a discreet boxing match on Bull’s Island. Today, one can find a treasure of local and imported art. Events such as the annual Shad Fest or Halloween parade are celebrated with town pride.
Lambertville is a “Destination” worth exploring and enjoying year round.