Why The Garden State Was So Late to Develop Cities

The Manhattan Skyline from Newark Airport

When we think of New Jersey, it’s so easy to make jokes about “Exit 12”, the Molly Pitcher Rest Stop, the places where Tony Soprano dropped bodies, and characters like Snookie and “The Situation” from Jersey Shore. But there has to be something behind the nickname The Garden State, right? It’s not like George Washington was fighting his way around toll plazas and refineries as he went up against the British there.

New Jersey, in fact, was very much a garden state around 1800. Not only did it have no cities like New York or Philadelphia — it really didn’t have that many people. With just 250,000 residents at the time, it was as densely populated as New Hampshire and Vermont, and had as many decent-sized towns. But unlike New England, its coastline was very thinly populated. There wasn’t even a modest New London, New Haven, or Providence-sized port anywhere in the state.

One of the great blockers to urban development in early New Jersey was the barrier islands off the shore. Much like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, these made any kind of town development extremely challenging, because overland travel was so expensive, and most potential harbors were blocked by the strips of land. The development of Atlantic City, which started in the 19th century with a rail line to Philly, was done entirely as a resort. This was something 17th century Puritans, or even Quakers, would never have imagined.

Early landowners and settlers had sought to build a port in New Jersey. But they pinned their hopes on Perth Amboy. Yes, Perth Amboy, the town on the other side of the Outerbridge Crossing from Staten Island. A quaint village developed there, and it became the capital of the East Jersey colony, and later a capital of the re-unified New Jersey. Still, it was no match later on for the Puritans’ Newark, even when they both became manufacturing cities. Newark, like most Puritan settlements, was built on a short river, and was hardly a location the Scots, Quakers, Anglicans or especially Dutch settling East Jersey would ever see as a location for the state’s largest city.

New Jersey stayed lightly populated until the urbanization of the country accelerated in the 1840s. During the first six decades after the Revolutionary War, it grew much more slowly than neighboring New York and Pennsylvania, reinforcing its garden image. But just as New York City grew faster than Philadelphia at this time, it had much more manufacturing activity to send across the river.

By 1840, America was still 90% rural. But even then, the 19 square miles of Manhattan had nearly as many people as the approximately 10,000 square miles of New Jersey — which still didn’t have many more people than New Hampshire or Vermont. Newark had just begun to grow as a manufacturing center, but was still smaller than Rochester, New York, Lowell, Mass, Troy, New York, and others developing as secondary industrial cities. Across the state, the capital of Trenton had just 4,000 people, not enough to put it in the top 100 nationally.

Manhattan was getting too dense, and its land was getting too expensive to support the same scale of manufacturing in sugar refining and food processing as it had in the past. Brooklyn began to boom at this time, as did Jersey City, which grew nearly 30-fold from 1840 to 1870, by which time it was one of the 20 largest cities in the country in its own right.

Jersey City attracted many manufacturers of household products, most notably Colgate-Palmolive, which kept its headquarters in the city until the 1980s. Lipton Tea and Ticonderoga Pencils were other well known brands making goods in the city. After the rails arrived in the 1830s, Jersey City offered these companies exceptionally good access to the nation’s largest market at reasonable rents.

New York City, unlike Philly and Baltimore, did not sit on a Fall Line with all the advantages that type of location brought to manufacturing.However, Paterson, New Jersey did, and quickly became a center for silk manufacturing. Paterson sat upriver on the Passaic from Newark, and grew to over 100,000 people by 1900.

New Jersey’s growth went from lagging the rest of the Northeast’s prior to 1840, to outpacing it up until the Great Depression. And virtually all the growth occurred near Manhattan. While Trenton and Camden grew, and Burlington County blossomed into a Philly suburb, much of Philadelphia’s manufacturing stayed in Philadelphia. It never required the satellite industrial cities New York did, especially as Manhattan’s skyscrapers really started to make manufacturing goods on the island cost prohibitive. As a result, the six counties closest to Manhattan accounted for 68% of New Jersey’s population by 1920, up from just 28% in 1840.

Today New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country with over 1,200 people per square mile. But rural Salem County, which sits on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, has fewer than 200 people per square mile. This is in spite of being just forty miles from Philadelphia. Cumberland County next door has just over 300 people per square mile. Warren and Sussex Counties in the northwest corner of the state have similar densities. The Garden State legacy might not be gone, but for the millions driving past Newark Airport and the Bayway Refinery along the New Jersey Turnpike, it’s easily forgotten.

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