Founded in 1677, the city of Burlington, NJ actually pre-dates Philadelphia. And, like Philadelphia, it has its own place in Ben Franklin lore. After his midnight escape from Boston, a young Franklin headed to New York City in search of employment. Finding no work there, he headed next to Philadelphia via ship to Perth Amboy, followed by a 50 mile walk across New Jersey to Burlington. Here, he got gingerbread and a meal of ox-cheek, plus advice from an elderly woman who lived (tradition holds) at the Revell house. The c.1685 house is the oldest building in Burlington County, moved from its original location on Pearl Street to its current location. It’s open to visitors once a year in the fall during the Wood Street Fair.
From Burlington Franklin joined a boat of people and helped paddle downstream to Philadelphia, where he made his mark. However, he did return to Burlington five years later for three months, when the printing company he managed was hired to print paper money for the colony of New Jersey. During this time, he made connections with many important NJ government officials, with whom he remained friendly throughout his life.
The Franklin connection to Burlington continued years later when, in 1763, Ben’s illegitimate son, William Franklin, was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey. During his first eleven years as Governor, William lived in a river-front manor house in Burlington (which was the western capital of the colony), called Green Bank. In 1774, as revolutionary tensions began to arise, he moved to Perth Amboy, the eastern capital of the colony. William remained firmly pro-British, causing an irrevocable separation with his father. In 1776, eleven days before independence was declared, William Franklin was arrested and taken back to Burlington for a hearing in front of New Jersey’s Provincial Congress. He rejected the authority of the Congress, telling them to “do as you please, and make the best of it.” Found guilty, he was held prisoner in Connecticut until 1778 when he was released in a prisoner exchange. He spent the rest of the war in British-occupied New York City, later moving to London. The Burlington house where he lived as Governor was torn down in the 1800’s, replaced today with a VFW.
Franklin is not the only famous Philadelphian associated with Burlington. Prior to his purchase of Philadelphia, Penn was involved in acquiring West Jersey (with Burlington as a main settlement) for the Quakers, purchasing the land from the local Lenape Nation. The current 1783 Quaker meeting house is the second built on the site, and its burial ground has been in use since the late 1700’s. It is the burial site of local Indian Chief Ockanickon.
Burlington has a lot more to offer than just its Franklin and Penn connections. In addition to the waterfront promenade:
the historic district contains block after block of historic houses, with a concentration of 19th century domestic and commercial buildings, including the 1731 building housing a pharmacy that’s the oldest in NJ and was once a stop on the Underground Railway.
Other historic buildings in town include Old St Mary’s Church. Begun in 1702, it was the first church in New Jersey built for Church of England worship. Several early graves are found in its adjacent cemetery.
The 1774 Isaac Collins house, owned by a former Royal printer.
The 1743 Bard-How House, owned by a 1775-6 delegate to the Provincial Congress of the United States.
The c.1740 Lawrence house, home to John Lawrence, a former mayor of Burlington, and birthplace of his son, Captain James Lawrence, of War of 1812 “Don’t give up the ship” fame (and now city motto).
Attached to the Lawrence house is the birthplace of James Fenimore Cooper:
These two houses, along with a purpose built museum, are part of the Historic Society of Burlington. Check hours before visiting. As of 3/2023 the museum was still closed post-Covid, but prior to the closure they offered interesting exhibits and activities for both children, adults, and school field trips.
The 1804 Boudinot-Bradford House, owned by Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, and his wife Hannah, sister of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, and their daughter Susan, widow of Revolutionary War officer William Bradford. All 3 are buried in St. Mary’s cemetery.
The 1757 Library Company of Burlington was chartered by King George II. It is the oldest library in continuous operation in New Jersey and the seventh oldest in the United States. The current building dates to 1864.
The 1856 house where General Grant’s wife and children lived in safety during the Civil War. Although Grant himself didn’t spend much time here, it is believed that the balcony out front is where he stood to announce the assassination of President Lincoln. Lincoln had actually invited Grant and his wife to Ford’s Theater that fateful night, but Grant opted to travel home to spend the evening with his children.
There are several antique shops and places to eat in town, including the new Evermore Coffee Roasters at 1 E. Pearl Street