The "Top Ten" of West Windsor History
Below are the most common/impactful themes of WW history, in chronological order. Click on images to enlarge them and click the green text for deeper learning. Enjoy!
Theme #1: Lëni Lënape
West Windsor was once home to an indigenous society called the Lëni Lënape, who had settled here long before European arrival. They established permanent trade-based relations with Dutch, Finnish, and Swedish settlers in NJ in the 1620s/30s and with the English in the 1660s. The Lenape were mostly driven out over the decades due to disease, crowding, and land disputes with Europeans, but not all are gone - two tribes still live elsewhere in NJ.
Theme #2: Colonial Settlement & Windsor Township
The earliest landowners acquired vast tracts of farmland in the 1690s, but it wasn't until the 1730s/40s that the first large wave of settlement occurred, when English and Dutch farming families founded some of West Windsor's oldest communities. Back then, this area was part of the much-larger Windsor Township. During the American Revolution, several locals fought in the war and an important interrogation of British troops prior to the Battle of Princeton (then in Windsor Township) took place here. So, too, did George Washington's march to Princeton, from Trenton, along Quakerbridge Road. In 1797, it split into East and West Windsor. WW retained all of Princeton up to Nassau St until the mid-1800s, when the border shifted to the D&R Canal.
Theme #3: Agriculture
European settlers cleared swaths of woodland and establish expansive farms. They produced an abundance of fruits, vegetables, grains, animals, and animal products. Most of West Windsor was historically farmland. However, in the second half of the 1900s, this gave way to suburbs and commercial development. Still, West Windsor retains much of its agricultural heritage - via preserved farmland, over one hundred old farmhouses, a "farmers market," and at the Schenck Farmstead - home to the West Windsor History Museum.
Theme #4: Historic Communities
Our town featured several dispersed neighborhoods, each with a distinct historic identity:
- Aqueduct Mills - in WW/Plainsboro; grew up around a 1740s-era mill on the Millstone River. Declined after the river's flooding in the early 1900s.
- Clarksville - in WW/Lawrence; settled in the 1700s but flourished around Quakerbridge Rd/Route 1 in the early 1800s as a stagecoach stop. Housed an an agricultural research facility from the mid-1900s onward. Has since been developed with malls and Route 1 but some farmland remains.
- Dutch Neck - settled c. 1737 as a farming community and often the seat of government. Features a cemetery, churches, several historic businesses/residences, and a school. Much farmland replaced by suburbs but historic character remains.
- Edinburg - grew up in the mid-1700s as a stagecoach stop with various businesses and a school. It was mostly farmland until relatively recently, when replaced by suburbs, parks, and schools/colleges. Still, Edinburg retains some 1700s and 1800s-era buildings.
- Grovers Mill - grew up around a mid-1700s mill and mill pond. The 1938 "War of the Worlds" alien invasion broadcast put it in the national spotlight. Farmland has since been converted to suburbs/parks, but several of the original 1700s/1800s buildings remain.
- Penns Neck - Settled c. 1737 but flourished as a stagecoach stop in the early 1800s around Route 1/Washington Rd. A 1700s-era cemetery and 1800s-era tavern and church were critical community icons that still stand. Expanded in the mid-1900s. Although much from the 1700s/1800s is gone, residents still cherishes its history.
- Port Mercer - arose in the mid-1800s as a canal/rail stop at Quakerbridge Road/the D&R Canal in WW/Princeton/Lawrence. Featured a hotel, bridge-tender house, train station, and other businesses/residences. Remained a thriving hamlet well into the 1900s and is still recognizable.
- Princeton Basin - Arose in the mid-1800s as a canal/rail stop at Alexander Road/the D&R Canal in WW/Princeton. Featured a hotel, bridge-tender house, train station, and other businesses/residences. It declined in the late 1800s/early 1900s and developed a bad reputation. Only some original buildings remain, alongside the canal.
- Princeton Junction - Grew as a business district in the 1860s around the train station. Further grew with the 1920s-era "Berrien City" community and a 1930s+ business district along Route 571. Suburbs/businesses/schools replaced farmland starting in the 1960s. PJ is one of West Windsor's busiest communities today.
Theme #5: Transportation
The indigenous Lënape used footpaths and waterways to travel. European settlers in the mid-1700s developed a colonial road system. In 1804, the "Brunswick Pike" (Route 1) was chartered, helping grow several West Windsor hamlets. The Delaware & Raritan Canal and Camden & Amboy Railroad cut through town in 1834/39 (respectively), spurring further growth. The railroad realigned to the present-day Northeast Corridor c. 1863, creating Princeton Junction. From 1902-1937, an intermunicipal trolley line ran through town. Around the same time, many of WW's roads were first paved. Many of WW's historic transportation arteries remain.
Theme #6: Education
In the mid-1700s, old school houses and a private education served WW students. In 1827/8, the West Windsor School District was founded. It initially had four sub-districts (Dutch Neck/Clarksville/Edinburg/Penns Neck) and 150 students. In 1917, the Dutch Neck School (and a long-gone twin, the Penns Neck School) were constructed. In 1964, Maurice Hawk was built and replaced Penns Neck School. In 1969, Plainsboro and West Windsor combined their school districts. Since then, WW-P has grown to include 10 schools, now serves ~10,000 students and is a point of pride for many.
Theme #7: War of the Worlds
On October 30, 1938, a radio star named Orson Welles led a reenactment of the sci-fi novel "War of the Worlds" - about an alien invasion of earth. Welles pinpointed the West Windsor community of Grovers Mill as the landing site and used a realistic "news bulletin" style. While many in the US were indeed convinced it was real, newspapers exaggerated the panic, partly due to competition with the radio. Welles' broadcast reminds us of the power media has to warp perceptions and create legends.
Theme #8: Knowledge & Research
West Windsor has long been home to sites of knowledge. Until mid-1800s border shifts, it hosted Princeton University. Starting in the 1940s, RCA Laboratories (later the Sarnoff Research Institute, now SRI International) led significant advances in medicine, long-distance communications, and satellite technology. The nearby Heyden Chemical Co furthered research in medicine, including penicilin. American Cyanamid in Clarksville researched and developed bioengineered animals and crops. And West Windsor still features a highly-educated brain pool and a variety of research centers.
Theme #9: Growth & Diversity
Beginning in the late 1950s, West Windsor's identity started to change as suburban housing developments began to replace historic farmland. This growth rapidly accelerated starting in the last quarter of the 20th century - also including commercial development (especially along Route 1) and the construction of many of our town's parks, recreational facilities, and preserved wildlife areas. Between 1950 and 2020, West Windsor grew from about 2,500 residents to 28,000. With this expansion came a diversification of West Windsor. Now, our town houses a unique and dynamic mix of racial, religious, political, ethnic, cultural, economic, and ideological identities.
Theme #10: Community Involvement
West Windsor has a history of community involvement. Back in 1857, one of the first organizations - the West Windsor Mutual Fire Insurance Company - was set up to protect locals from incendiary dangers. In the 1920s, both the West Windsor and Princeton Junction fire departments formed. First Aid Squads were set up in the 1940s alongside a WWII civil defense group. In 1968, part-time constables were replaced by the West Windsor Police Department. 1972, the Twin "W" First Aid Squad formed and was eventually supplemented and later replaced by municipal first-aid services. Over the decades, numerous municipal and noprofit community groups - for preserving land and history, promoting art and culture, tackling social challenges, providing food and housing to those and need, and much more - have continued a tradition of excellence that extends to this day.