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Montgomery's Bridgepoint Historic District Challenged by Floods & Technology

By Jessie Havens | Posted March 17, 2023

Double jeopardy is hanging over the Bridgepoint Historic District, Montgomery’s pride and joy.

The fate of Opie’s Mill —damaged by Ida’s fierce flood — remains undecided. It is a thorny issue because many factors and viewpoints must be considered. The owner is naturally entitled to first say and has not yet let it be known what her intentions are, so that issue remains on hold.

An oil painting of Opie's Mill in Montgomery Township by James "Jim" Townsend.

This subject [Opie's Mill] has been photographed and painted from ground level, thousands of times. I decided to create this bird's eye perspective from memory! As I spent countless hours, fishing and playing at this site when I was a child, I was able to get the proportions pretty close. — Jim Townsend.

Another long-standing concern of great public interest has come to the fore: a cell tower on top of Bridgepoint hill behind Johnson’s barn. Is there any place in all of Montgomery Township that would be worse than this? A lot of people don’t think so, and the applicant is well aware of the opposition.

Nevertheless, V-COMM LLC has renewed the proposal to put a Verizon tower up there.

An oil painting of the Bridgepoint Historic District in Montgomery Township by Harold H. "Biff" Heins. The area was settled in the early 1700s, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 10, 1975. The Johnson Farm is located on the hill in the upper right portion. Opie's Grist Mill is on the left.

The cell tower application was initiated before COVID hit and has been pending ever since because public gatherings were not permitted. The Montgomery Zoning Board was expected to hear the application in a public in person meeting at Montgomery’s Municipal Center on March 23, however the applicant postponed the hearing.

The Cell Tower Proposal

There is rightly a lot to be said both for and against a 135-foot monster stealth-tree monopole towering over roofs and trees, commanding attention from everywhere in the historic district. It would be the ultimate exclamation point. Advocates, and there are many because in the Millstone Valley there is very poor cell reception — and in some places there is no signal reception at all — anticipate a cell tower at Bridgepoint overcoming their difficulty.

Of course, they are all for it and will be out in force at public hearings to say so. Widespread opposition to flagrant violation of National Register Site protection, which Bridgepoint enjoys, guarantees objectors will have equally much to say and all must be heard. Pity the Zoning Board with ears full on both sides having to decide one way or the other.

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Ethnic Enclave

Here in the Millstone Valley, a forested wilderness was transformed into fertile farm fields early in the 18th century by descendants of the New Amsterdam Dutch, most of whom migrated across the Great Bay from Long Island.

A dozen men, most of them Scots, had formed a stock company to purchase title to East Jersey from the widow of Sir George Carteret and were in a hurry to profit from their investment. The quickest way to do it was to buy off indigenous natives with trade goods, then send surveyors up the rivers to chart out vast territories to be sold to speculators, who in turn divided what they had bought into farm-sized lots and marketed those to Dutch farmers who could realize enough from the sale of a farm in Brooklyn to buy four times as much land in Jersey and thus be able to pass down to each of their sons a farm of his own.

Then as now, cheap land with low taxes was an easy sell, and when satisfied buyers bragged about the fertility of the soil, friends and relations soon followed. The result was Dutch language, Dutch customs, and all else Dutch prevailed in the upper Raritan Valley for several generations.

Where Is Bridgepoint?

It is about six miles north of Princeton on U.S. Route 206, turn right on Bridgepoint Road, go 1.5 miles, turn right on Dead Tree Run Road.

To your left, you will see the historic Johnson Farm, also known as Bridgepoint Farm. Go another 0.34 miles and you will see Opie’s Mill at 43 Dead Tree Run Road. Continue over the three-arch stone bridge across Pike Run [Brook] and you will find parking and hiking paths.

Opie's Mill Pond on a foggy day in February, with a one-lane historic fieldstone bridge and a recently updated dam. Photo by Barbara A. Preston.

The brook powered Opie’s gristmill, which still stands — a tall sentinel keeping watch over a slightly cockeyed triple-arch stone bridge and a village that straggles up the hill to where two Van Dyke brothers built their homes in mid 18th century, (1740-50). Both owned extensive acreage and for a time they were joint owners of a mill at the foot of the hill.

It may well be the presence of a mill that led the patriarch Jan Van Dyke to select this location as a promising place to establish the next generation of his family because the miller’s cottage, which stands at the foot of the bridge, appears to have been built circa 1730-40 and mills were central to an agricultural economy and villages would grow up around them.

At Bridgepoint a little village did grow up early in the 19th century, and that village continues to look much as it did then, not changing and growing because it was bypassed by main roads and served only local farmers. Not exactly frozen in time, but close to it.

Bridgepoint is a rare, indeed unique example of the sort of rural world which evolved from Dutch settlement in the Raritan, Hudson and Hackensack Valleys. Progress and prosperity have swallowed up all the rest.

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Old, familiar, unimportant, Bridgepoint was thought of no consequence until postwar suburbanization of New Jersey reached into rural Montgomery. People began looking around when they realized this too soon could disappear. Then it was, Wow: Look what we have here!

Careful study confirmed it, then application to the National Register of Historic Sites won Bridgepoint its coveted listing, and an image of the bridge and mill became Montgomery’s official logo.

A half-century later Bridgepoint sleeps on. Most of those who use its one-lane, one-way bridge have no idea that what is here is of any special significance. It is obviously old and rather quaint, but so what?

Still for those who know of Bridgepoint, it is well worth a visit.

The Millers House, as viewed from the upstairs window of Opie's Mill, was built circa 1730 and restored in 2006. It has four wood burning stone/brick fireplaces, hand-hewn beams, pumpkin pine flooring, and a cathedral ceiling. Photo by Barbara A. Preston.

In addition to a triple-arch bridge, completely rebuilt after a previous flood, and the mill which Jack Stahl painstakingly transformed into a home for his family, there is an eye-catching miller’s cottage across the road. It began as a modest three-room house and was twice extended; the last addition, now a garage, was once a general store.

Up on the hill a dozen other buildings remain from when this was a 19th century farm community. Several have been repurposed into homes.

A corncrib is now the mill’s garage. Only one low-key modern building intrudes, and the Johnson farm fields spread all down the hill from Jan Van Dyke Jr’s Dutch farmhouse and barn clear to the pond, keep the whole scene apart from the suburbia Montgomery has become.

Although the NJ Farmland Protection program assures Johnson’s acreage will remain, Bridgepoint’s historicity is threatened on both east and west. A cell tower is proposed behind Johnson’s farm at the top of the hill, and recurrent flooding in the Millstone Valley is fiercer and more devastating each time it occurs. The mill is obviously vulnerable.

Damage from Hurricane Ida can be remedied, but how many floods can it withstand? ■


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