A Tale of Two Cities
Robert S. Eastwick, December 2005
Just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia lies the city of Camden, New Jersey, whose history has been intertwined with Philadelphia through good times, not so good times, and a recent revival.
The earliest known inhabitants in the area of Camden were the peaceful Lenni Lenape Indians, who engaged in hunting, farming, and fishing, but were displaced in the early 17th century by Dutch and Swedish trappers, traders, and settlers. After the restoration of King Charles II, from the 1660s through the end of the century, there was a much more concentrated English colonization, which effectively displaced the Lenni Lenape, Dutch, and Swedish peoples. Not far from Camden in Haddonfield, New Jersey, one can visit the original 18th-century Indian King Tavern Museum. Named in honor of the local Lenni Lenape Indian "Sachems" (chiefs or kings), the tavern was the home of the New Jersey state legislature when the British occupied Trenton in 1777 and the place where New Jersey was first officially called a "state" rather than a "colony." In 1903 the Indian King Tavern became the state’s first historic site, and it sees 4,000 visitors each year. The tavern’s cellars have been associated with the Underground Railroad and Haddonfield’s Quaker opposition to slavery. (Wed.–Sat. 10 a.m.–noon, 1–4 p.m.; Sunday 1–4 p.m. Admission is free, but it is best to call ahead to make sure of visiting hours. 223 King’s Highway E, 609-429-6792, . The tavern can be reached via the Lindenwold HI-Speed Line.)
Camden owes much of its growth and development to the rise of William Penn’s Holy Experiment in the Quaker City. Philadelphia developed rapidly as a major trade, commerce, and cultural center, benefiting the economy across the river. A series of ferry services grew up across the Delaware River and taverns, hotels, small businesses, and villages cropped up around the ferry stations. In the early 1800s, a commentator described the Camden area as three separate villages along the Delaware River, including Cooper’s Ferry, named for a ferry service operatd by the Cooper family since 1695. Eventually these villages would be consolidated into the city of Camden, which incorporated as a municipality in 1828. As the population rose to nearly 3,500 in 1840, Camden appealed to the New Jersey state legislature for greater representation, which resulted in the creation of Camden County in 1844 (from Gloucester County). In 1848 Camden became the county seat. Evidence of Camden’s early history is preserved at the Camden County Historical Society, which runs a historic house, Pomona Hall, constructed by Joseph Cooper Jr. in 1726. The society also operates a library and museum (1900 Park Blvd., 856-964-3333).
Camden evolved into an industrial city; by 1870 there were 125 recorded manufacturers in town, nearly double the number a decade earlier. Camden industries included lumber and wood products; wagon, coach, and carriage construction; iron making; tanneries; glass and candle making; and South Jersey pork sausages and vegetables. Prominent manufacturers included the Esterbrook Pen Company and RCA Victor Talking Machine Company. An original stained glass window depicting "Nipper" listening to "His Master’s Voice," from the RCA building on the Camden waterfront is housed at the Camden County Historical Society. Perhaps the most famous Camden business, the Campbell Soup Company, was founded in 1869 as a canning plant; by 1897 the company had perfected the process for manufacturing the condensed soup for which it became famous. Today Camden remains the corporate headquarters of Campbell Soup Company, though the company has moved its manufacturing operations. The poet Walt Whitman bought a house in Camden at 330 Mickle Street (between 3rd and 4th Streets) after the financial success of Leaves of Grass. He lived there from 1884 to 1892. Today the Walt Whitman House museum can be visited by the public Wednesdays and Fridays 9 a.m.–2 p.m. and Saturdays
10 a.m.–12 p.m. (856-964-5383, ).
Camden’s less famous residents, as in many industrial cities, included many immigrants. In 1900 immigration was predominantly British, German, and Irish; by 1920, southern and eastern Europeans, most notably Italians, Russians, and Poles, many Catholic and Jewish, came to the city. The new arrivals found work in the Camden shipyards (producing warships for both world wars); in construction, building landmarks like the 1926 Benjamin Franklin Bridge; or in the many factories and smaller businesses in Camden.
By the 1950s Camden began a long, steady decline that marked it as one of the most economically depressed cities in America. However, since the 1990s Camden has begun an economic revival that included the opening of the New Jersey State Aquarium (1 Riverview Dr., 800-922-6572), the Sony-Blockbuster Entertainment Center now the Tweeter Center (1 Harbour Blvd.; 856-365-1300), and the Stedman Art Gallery on the growing Camden campus of Rutgers University(Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. and two evenings each week, 856-225-2700). The USS New Jersey, a battleship built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and launched in 1942 that saw action in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Middle East has returned to the Camden waterfront as a museum (open Friday–Monday, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. It is best to call ahead, 866-877-6262).
While visiting Philadelphia for the annual meeting this January, one should not forget the historical connections between Philadelphia and Camden, and the vital changes that are occurring across the Delaware River, continuing the legacy of the "tale of two cities."
—Robert S. Eastwick is a member of the LAC who teaches history at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, and as an adjunct at Camden County College.