History of Maurice River Township, New Jersey
The Township of Maurice River was incorporated as township on February 21, 1798 under the State of New Jersey Township Law of 1798. Today Maurice River Township encompasses 94.7 square miles and includes the villages of Delmont, Heislerville, Leesburg, Dorchester, Bricksboro, Port Elizabeth, Cumberland and a portion of Milmay.
Part of Milmay – a settlement midway between Millville and Mays Landing – lies within Maurice River Township along the upper Manumuskin. Cedar Logging took place in this area as soon as 1758. Along with East Vineland, Milmay was settled from the 1870′s into the 1890′s, first by Italian and then by Polish immigrants attracted to the region by Vineland’s founder and developer, C.K. Landis. The railroad was routed through Milmay around 1894 and a post office established in 1897. Around 1905, the Waldeck Company attempted – ultimately unsuccessfully – to grow first tobacco and then licorice in the area.
There is a historic survey marker somewhat east of Milmay which divides three townships; in the 18th century this marker was placed there by the Council of Proprietors of West New Jersey, a land development corporation founded in 1688. Milmay and East Vineland share two historic Roman Catholic Churches: St. Mary’s, founded in 1884, and Our Lady of Pompeii, founded in 1907.
The Cumberland Pond we see today is a remnant of a major industrial facility called Cumberland Iron Furnace. There had been a smaller-scale “bloomery forge” in the area since around 1785. Eagle Glass Works in Port Elizabeth was established in 1799. In 1810, Eli Budd created the power for his new complex – Cumberland Iron Furnace – by damming the Manumuskin, creating a pond twice larger than at present. Ore was brought to the furnace by wagon overland from Schooner Landing on the Menantico. “Manumuskin Manor,” the home of Wesley Budd, Eli’s son, still stands and serves as a private residence. It was built before 1831 and possibly earlier. Cumberland United Methodist Church was built in 1947, replacing a frame church built in 1862.
Bricksboro was founded by Joshua Brick who laid out its lots in 1807. Brick and his partner James Lee owned a shipbuilding business in Port Elizabeth, producing wooden sailing vessels for the carrying trade. Possibly Bricksboro was the site of wharves built to handle Port Elizabeth’s maritime commerce after that town had, in 1789, been designated by Congress as the port of delivery for the Maurice River region.
Port Elizabeth came into early prominence soon after 1778 as an industrial center and later, as one of the state’s federally-designated ports, when in that year the state Assembly legalized diking corporations and a bridge/dam was built across the Manumuskin River, drying out much valuable meadow for farming upstream of the dam and allowing commercial traffic over the bridge. Wharves were built downstream for shipping.
The owner of the newly valuable lands was Elizabeth Clark Bodly, a Quakeress who lies buried in the Friends Burial Grounds on Route 47. She laid out and sold lots in 1785. The town still bears signs of its once vibrant Quaker heritage. Port Elizabeth United Methodist Church was built in 1827 to replace the county’s first Methodist church built in 1786. Dr. Benjamin Fisler designed the church and oversaw its construction. John Boggs Hall was built in 1854. The present-day Port Elizabeth Library was built, again by Fisler, in 1810 to be his store and just across the street, Fisler built his office, also in the early 1800′s.
Much of Port Elizabeth’s early industrial activity, unfortunately, no longer exists, though pieces of this history remain. For example, the Eagle Glass Works Hotel – built around 1807 – still stands and is used as a private residence. Eagle Glass Works was established in 1799, New Jersey’s third glass house. St. Elizabeth Roman Catholic Church, built as Port Elizabeth Academy by Fisler and others in 1810, was, from 1843, the church used by the glass works’ German workers. In 1878, this church was moved by raft to Goshen where it still is in use.
As told by historian Herbert Vanaman, it was on the Maurice River in Dorchester where the Dutch ship, the Prince Maurice, is reported to have sunk and to have given the river its name. In 1799, Peter Reeve bought the land Dorchester occupies from the West Jersey Proprietors and made lots for sale. Shipbuilding has always been the principal industry in Dorchester. The A.J. Meerwald was built at Dorchester Shipyards in 1928 when it was owned by Charles H. Stowman & Sons. Dorchester United Methodist Church was built in 1856. There used to be a variety of stores and services in Dorchester, including Sickler’s Hotel which catered to stagecoach and river travelers. There was once a ferry connecting Dorchester to Mauricetown.
According to the historian Lucius Elmer, Leesburg was established around 1800 by the brothers Lee, ship-carpenters from Egg Harbor. However, the Leesburg area must have been settled before then because George Heisler, Sr. moved there with his family in the 1700′s. A Methodist “class” was organized in 1792 and in 1812, Leesburg Methodist Church was built. In 1849, the Leesburg Windmill was built by William Carlisle at the site of present-day Allen’s Steel Company. “Oak Leaf Academy”- a two-story, four-room schoolhouse, in use until June 1958, when it was converted to the Maurice River Municipal Building – was built in 1856. Whibco Shipyard was once the home of Delaware Bay Shipyard, founded in 1928 and eventually employing over 500 people in five separate businesses. Once diked farms lined the Maurice River all the way from Leesburg to Millville.
The “Glade” separates Delmont from Heislerville, known until around 1860 as Maurice River Neck. Heislerville’s history is connected to its outlying neighbors: East Point, Matt’s Landing, Thompson’s Beach, Maurice River and Menhaden. Indians migrated south to East Point from their winter quarters along the Manumuskin and the Menantico. Their name for the Maurice River was “Wahatquenak.” European settlement began in the early to mid-1700′s.
Along with fishing, agriculture was Heislerville’s other main industry early on. Train loads of Heislerville strawberries were shipped from “Link City”, a railroad station on Matts Landing Road, which also served the oyster packing operations located in the “ghost” village of Maurice River, on the river opposite Bivalve. Salt hay also was harvested in parts of the huge area formerly known as the Cadwallader Estate, now the Heislerville Wildlife Management Area. Around 1793, George Heisler, Jr. homesteaded in Heislerville and held Methodist meetings there. Heisler Memorial Methodist Church was built in 1855.
Delmont, until 1891, called Ewings Neck, has been home to its earliest European settlers since 1770. To explain the name: the Ewing family was one of the first to settle in the area and a “neck” is a name often given to a stretch of higher ground surrounded by marshes and low-lands. Delmont’s post office was established in 1851; mail first came by stagecoach and later by train after the Cape May-Millville Railroad opened in 1863. Its first church was a one-room wooden structure which also served as the village’s first school. Delmont United Methodist Church was built in 1872. Delmont School – a two-story wood-frame structure now in disrepair- was built in 1887.
Time Line Of Significant Events In Maurice River Township
- Mid 1600′s – Swedes settled in lower Maurice River Valley in what is now Maurice River Township.
- 1657- According to local tradition, the Dutch ship “Prince Maurice” was attacked and sunk by Indians in a river they called Wahatquenak.
- 1691- Thomas Budd and John Worledge laid out the town plot of Dorchester and a second tract extending to the Menantico River.
- 1771- John Bell deeded 213 acres to Elizabeth Bodly who became the founder of Port Elizabeth.
- 1781- The only Revolutionary War battle in Cumberland County took place at Dallas Landing in Maurice River Township between the Patriots and Tories.
- 1785- The first lot in Port Elizabeth was deeded to the Methodist Episcopal Church.
- 1789- An Act of Congress established Port Elizabeth as a port of delivery.
- 1849- East Point Lighthouse was built at the entrance of the Maurice River cove. (Currently the second oldest standing lighthouse in New Jersey.)
- 1861-1865- Scores of volunteers from Maurice River Township entered the Union Army during the Civil War.
- 1928- The vessel “A.J. Meerwald” was built as an oyster schooner at the Stowman Shipyard in Dorchester. In 1998 it became the official tall ship of New Jersey.
- 1993- U.S. Congress designated 10.3 free-flowing miles of the Maurice River and nearly 25 miles of the Menantico Creek, Manumuskin River, and Muskee Creek as the Maurice National Scenic and Recreational River.
- 1994- Vice President Al Gore presided over ceremonies held at the Harris Family property on River Road, Leesburg, designating part of the Maurice River as a Wild and Scenic River.
- 1998- Maurice River Township held its Bicentennial Celebration, celebrating 200 years of Pride, Progress & Prosperity.