Officially founded in 1664 as one of the seats of colonial America, Middletown was settled by English who migrated from western Long Island and New England, beginning at the 1665 proclamation of the Monmouth Patent by royal governor Richard Nicholls. This grant, issued to 12 Britons, contained several provisions governing settlement. The new settlers were required to secure the land from the local Indians, a population that was, in time, displaced. Additional people were required to settle here in order to foster permanence. Three “villages” were established near-simultaneously, including the short-lived Portland Point located near Atlantic Highlands, Shrewsbury, south of the Navesink River, and the village of Middletown, which was, in a rough geographic sense, in the “middle” of the aforementioned.
Portland Point faltered, but organized community life thrived at Middletown village and Shrewsbury; they were known informally as the Two Towns of the Navesink. Formal records in Middletown began in 1667 with The First Town Book in Middletown; it is arguably the County’s most extraordinary extant document and is now in the collection of the Monmouth County Historical Association. The Town Book was published in Volume II of John Stillwell’s Historical and Genealogical Miscellany. The village at Middletown, which is now a National Register of Historic Places historic district, was laid out with an English nucleated grid, a series of 36 lots placed north and south of a major road, the Kings Highway, a land-division pattern that still exists. Most village property owners also possessed “out lots,” which were typically extensive tracts, often located some distance from the village. These plots were typically cultivated or left wooded. Local government was minimally involved in rural New Jersey. In the absence of public education, regulating escaped animals was one of its principal concerns.
Monmouth County was organized into municipalities in 1693 when its 3 original townships were formed. One, Middletown, then embraced all of Monmouth County north of the Navesink River and east of Freehold Township. New Jersey’s early townships were too large for administrative ease and were divided by the 1840’s. Middletown was split in 1848 by the formation of Raritan Township, a section that included the future Holmdel, Hazlet and Aberdeen townships and the boroughs of Matawan, Keyport, Union Beach and most of Keansburg. Middletown Township’s borders later remained relatively stable, changing only for the secession of Atlantic Highlands and Highlands in 1887 and 1900 respectively, and for a few other minor adjustments.
Middletown residents divided their loyalties during the Revolution. Some significant landholding families remained loyal to the English crown, but did so in the midst of rebellious forces that fought for independence. The conflict in New Jersey was a virtual civil war. Enemy participation in the major battle in New Jersey was headed towards Middletown. The British forces, who had fought the colonials near Monmouth Court House on June 28, 1778, continued their eastward journey after the battle. They reached an encampment in the Middletown hills and stayed prior to fulfilling their planned objective, a departure by sea for New York City. The war’s 2 most notorious acts of local violence occurred after the end of formal fighting, the June 1780 murder by loyalists of Joseph Murray in his field at today’s Poricy Park, and the April 1782 execution of Joshua Huddy at Highlands.
Much of the Township’s spiritual and educational life began in Middletown village where many Christian denominations have been represented from early times. The Baptist Church in New Jersey was founded in 1688 at Middletown. The Episcopal Christ Church was founded as a joint congregation with Shrewsbury, an organization that claims its origins from recorded, informal worship dating from 1702. Christ Church built churches in Shrewsbury and Middletown in 1732 and 1746 respectively; the 2 branches separated in 1854. A second Episcopal church, All Saints Memorial, built in 1864 in Navesink, is a National Historic Landmark. The Dutch Reformed was founded in Middletown village in 1836. Presbyterian and Methodists have early Middletown roots, but their houses of worship did not endure. The Roman Catholic Church in Middletown was founded at New Monmouth in 1879 and is now the predominant faith, numbering 3 churches in the Township and a fourth on the border. In addition, Middletown Catholics worship in at least 5 surrounding municipalities Public education’s traceable roots in Middletown barely existed through the first third of the 19th century. Funding by the State throughout the state, which began in 1829, is regarded as effectively changing public policy to widely available free education. A key landmark to education is a private school, the Franklin Academy; it opened in 1837 and survives as a residence on Kings Highway. One-room schools were built in the latter 2/3 of the 19th century, replaced by more substantial buildings in the first decade of the 20th. Middletown was the region’s first rural township to build a high school, opening 1 in Leonardo in 1913. Library service began with the 1914 openings of the private Navesink Library and was followed by the establishment of the Middletown Public Library in 1920.
Local neighborhoods, their flavor and identity are fundamental to the history of Middletown. The significance of neighborhoods is magnified here since it tends to distinguish and define Middletown by the character of its respective parts, albeit at a cost of municipal identity. Middletown’s neighborhoods arose at varied times over its long history and have singular character. Some smaller sections have a diminished presence on the landscape. The standing of some small parts as neighborhoods has vanished, their names recalled only by street signs. However, 1 key faded example, Holland, reflects a second significant early people. Holland, which was settled by the Dutch c.1700, survived after being split by the 1848 township division around Laurel Avenue, but Holland disappeared through late 20th century change. The neighborhood of Harmony is but a memory. Some neighborhoods changed names, while other settlements arose in the midst of the lengthy distances that separated earlier populated places. Chapel Hill, earlier known as High Point, was centered around an 1809 chapel. The neighborhood is extant, although the chapel was destroyed. Garrets Hills, site of Revolutionary War observations, was located near it to the east. Fairview, once Heddens Corner, is located midway between Middletown Village and Red Bank. The 2 names coexisted for decades, the new 1 taken from Fair View Cemetery which was laid out in 1851 as a beautiful park.
The first sectional identity on Raritan Bay was Shoal Harbor. That name, which reflected locally shallow waters, was changed to Port Monmouth in 1860 when New York transportation interests built a dock there at the point of origin of Monmouth County’s first major railroad, the Raritan and Delaware Bay. The line was conceived as a subterfuge for an alternate New York-Philadelphia route. Several bayshore neighborhoods took distinct identities, including the westernmost, East Keansburg, which was named for proximity to Keansburg, a borough formed in 1917 from parts of Raritan and Middletown townships. East Keansburg, was renamed North Middletown by municipal ordinance around 1988. Belford was established in 1891 to mark the opening of a railroad station and post office east of Port Monmouth. Leonardo succeeded Leonardville in 1897, the year a post office opened; both names reflect the influence of the Leonard family. Locust was earlier known as Locust Point. That name suggested its maritime origins, but the “point” was dropped in the 1890s during a period when the post office streamlined the names of many offices.
Three other sections changed names, 1 twice. In addition, other smaller neighborhoods disappeared, while a once-large section was divided. Chanceveille was established by 1815 between Middletown village and Shoal Harbor, but the name was changed to New Monmouth in the 1850s. Navesink, which embraces a peripheral part of the once-vast mountainous area in the Township’s original northeast section known as the Highlands of the Navesink, was established c1830 as Riceville. Its village, which grew up around small, close lots, has attained the stature of a National Register Historic District. Lincroft was by the end of the 17th century an important crossroads juncture for both north-south and east-west travel. Lincroft was initially called Sandy New and later Leedsville, before the present name was adopted by its post office in 1891. Red Hill was a small African American settlement that arose around 1890 along the road of the same name. It was, for practical purposes, gone a century later, its village character effaced by development, its memory preserved only by 2 small churches. Everett, formerly Morrisville, was a second neighborhood shared, in time, with Holmdel after the 1848 township split, but it too, is forgotten following the passing of its village make-up. Nut Swamp had been a prominent place since the 18th century. A National Register of Historic Places 1-room school still stands at the former village center at Middletown-Lincroft and Dwight roads, but the village character is otherwise gone and the community name has been forgotten. Much of Nut Swamp was absorbed by Oak Hill, a neighborhood which grew from a fine late 1950s housing development. Other parts of Nut Swamp have been or are now in Lincroft and River Plaza. The latter is a c.1900 crossroads community formed around 2 old paths, the road to Nut Swamp and the “back road” from Red Bank to Holmdel, today’s West Front Street.
The waterfront and shipping demonstrated an early impact of transportation on development. For many decades the Township’s population center was located near the shore of Raritan Bay; many of its residents were engaged in maritime trades. One significant activity was the shipping of produce from Middletown’s large farms. Early water transport by sail was difficult, slow and unreliable, while travel by land was arduous; most roads were merely narrow paths. Numerous small docks rather than large ports were established in order to minimize the trip inland. One of the most important of these numerous docks, the commercial center of Middletown Point, was located at the present Matawan. Indeed, the separation of that neighborhood by municipal division in 1848 resulted in the loss to Middletown of a business center, 1 which was never replaced in the Township. A second maritime pursuit was commercial fishing in its many forms. These included fish processing, or the breakdown of the inedible menhaden for commercial usage. This industry was once the Township’s largest employer.
The influence of the railroad was mixed and varied over time. Neither the aforementioned Raritan and Delaware Bay nor the 1875 New York and Long Branch, the present New Jersey Transit North Jersey Coast line had significant impact on local growth when first opened. The Central Railroad of New Jersey, which jointly owned the New York and Long Branch with the Pennsylvania Railroad, was forced to relocate its streamer dock in 1892 from Sandy Hook and chose Atlantic Highlands as its replacement. The opening of their Atlantic Highland Division line, which connected the New York and Long Branch with Seashore branch, spurred growth along the Township’s Bayshore.
The erection of a trolley network in the first decade of the 20th century, which connected the Township with towns to the north, Highlands and Red Bank, spurred development along its route. This included the opening of the Township’s first suburban housing tracts in Fairview. The New Jersey state highway system was expanded in the 1920’s aided growth and facilitated the erection of many small summer houses, especially along the bayshore. The road system was overwhelmed in the late 1940’s when post World War II suburbanization led to the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. These superhighways, which opened in 1952 and 1954 respectively, increased traffic capacity and propelled the region’s and Township’s growth. Interestingly, the automobile fulfilled the railroad’s local transit role; Middletown became a major station after its parking facilities were expanded in the 1970’s.
In the post-Civil War era, country houses and gentlemen’s farms were developed, substantially along the Navesink River shore. The desire of the residents there to preserve the character of this area led to the adoption of the Township’s first zoning laws in 1935. The law initially governed only that region, but zoning was adopted on a voluntary sectional plan; the process was completed in the 1950s when Navesink joined.
Effective land use may be dated from the adoption of the Township’s first Master Plan c1960s. This process resulted in heightened awareness of the value of open space and preservation of historic character. As a result of the aforementioned post-World War II building boom, the population exploded, educational facilities were expanded, roads were improved and infrastructure enhancements, such as sewage treatment plant, were made. Middletown in the third quarter of the 20th century transformed from agrarian-rural to metropolitan-suburban, it had become a bedroom community, shaped by commutation capabilities. Office and research facilities increasingly moved to suburban areas, including Middletown in the century’s fourth quarter and resulted in an additional component to the Township’s land use patterns. Establishing parks, maintaining open space and historic preservation became key public issues in this quarter century. The 20th century closed with the needs of governance aiming to shape a broad, diverse Township into a single entity, a guiding principle where the realities of public life are meeting the historic culture of sectionalism.
By Randall Gabrelian, Middletown Historian
Copywritten Material - ©July 14, 2003