South Main

images from both sides of the black bridge

South Main in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, is a section of the eighteenth century New Brunswick-to-Easton Turnpike. It begins at what was known as Union Square, where a ferry and later a series of bridges brought people and goods over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The turnpike roughly paralleled the river for about a mile before turning east, but there was (and is) up to several hundred feet between the roadway and the river—enough for the Jersey Central to run its tracks,  a large roundhouse, and dozens of support buildings between the turnpike and the river. This portion of the turnpike was undoubtedly an old indian trail, for Phillipsburg is sited on a Lenne Lenape village, one noted by travelers and missionaries by the close of the seventeenth century. 

There are few records of buildings along this part of the turnpike  until the 1830s, when construction of the Morris Canal was expected to bring prosperity to the small village. On the left is a shot of the stone arch that served as the entrance to the Morris Canal. With a possible exception of a old stone distillery, the earliest buildings  remaining probably date to the first decades of the nineteenth century. Following arrival of the railroads in the 1850s, the town enjoyed substantial growth as a transportation and manufacturing center, and large stretches of South Main reflect the affluence enjoyed by residents,  businesses and professionals. Although much has been covered in aluminium siding, a glance upwards to the tops of the buildings reveals a variety of brackets and elaborate cornices that graced urban architecture from the 1860s to the 1890s. This website is not only about architecture or history, however, but about the everyday elements of domestic and commercial activity. I rarely photograph people, but there will be, eventually, some people shots here, too.

In many ways the railroad and the bridges define the city, much more than the river—at least the lower part of the city. Most of Phillipsburg sits atop a bluff and people who live there never see the gulls and the swifts that inhibit the river region.  Although located on  the Delaware, since the river is not navigable Phillipsburg has never been a river town. There is no park along the river (although there is a ramp where you can launch a boat or canoe), and few places where one can even get an unobstructed view ot it. When the river is high, the sandy flats along the river edge are under water, but in many places the embankment is steep, as in this photo looking north from the entrance of the Morris Canal. I'm a new resident (of two years) and a photographer, and this website is intended as a sketch to illustrate something of my new home. Most of my work has been done in black-and-white, and mostly of religious architecture, so this is a new departure for me. It is an attempt, I suppose, to learn to appreciate the cultures here as well as to document the physical environment, natural and built, of South Main. 

 The "black bridge" is a landmark, of sorts. It is a short (100') steel truss bridge on South Main. Beneath it runs a single rail line, now used only for freight. There is nothing unusual about its appearance or construction, but it defines two distinct cultures. Where you live relative to the black bridge defines who you are, at least for some of the people of Phillipsburg. I'm not yet convinced, although I live on the "right" side of the bridge, if that makes a difference to you.

Initially there will be little structure to the website—perhaps just a potpourri of images and impressions that give it a flavor. Over time, if I stay with it, I expect I will impose some order—geographic or topical—on what is here, but for now I'll put up stuff that interested me enough to photograph it.


— FLG, 20 April 2006

Phillipsburg and Easton, Pennsylvania are located where the Lehigh River joins the Delaware—long known as the Forks of the Delaware. It was the site where treaties with the Indians were negotiated and signed, and where General Sullivan set out from during the Revolutionary War on a punitive misssion to pacify (read, eliminate) the Indians . What were once rapids have been turned into a spillover— that's the Lehigh on the right. The Lehigh Canal brought anthracite coal from Scranton to this point, where the barges were guided across the Delaware to the Morris Canal, and then to the furnaces of Morris County.

 The short section of South Main from Union Square to the black bridge is characterized by substantial houses and multi-family dwellings, most of which date to the 1870s and 1880s. Many are occupied now by lawyers' offices, but a hundred and twenty years ago they were built by the grandees of the town. Less than a handful have been restored, but most are in reasonably good condition. The old Presbyterian manse still exists, although the church itself was torn down forty years ago to make way for a parking lot. Businesses open—and close—on the ground floors while tennants live above.  There is a delightful restaurant and patisserie that occupies an old bank building and seems to be thriving, but otherwise there is little reason for shoppers to come to this section of South Main.

One of the city's unofficial historians told me that "if it isn't shaped like a football, nobody in town gives a damn." The high school has been playing football for more than a hundred years now—the longest record in the state, I'm told. I attended last year's Phillipsburg-Easton game, held Thanksgiving morning following several early and enthusiastic "tailgate" parties held on the front lawns of the mansions on College Hill. Lafayette College sits on a bluff above most of Easton  and their stadium hosts  THE GAME.  It's a convival day with people from both camps mingling freely and recounting past games and heroics. There are other events in the two cities that draw crowds, but this one seems to be the only one that really matters. 

The town is trying to attract visitors as well as provide events and activities to maintain a focus on  the public parks and on South Main. There are parades, antique car shows, concerts in the park, and once a year  a multi-day festival in the park, capped by  an impressive fireworks display.












Although the town's architectural heritage  is rich, it  is not all upscale by any means. Sometimes the attempts to upgrade or maintain an old house results in  an unintended, almost Disneyesque character.

Aluminium siding salesmen must have made a bundle here. It appears that three-quarters of the buildings on the east side of the black bridge are sheathed in it, and almost all the residences on the streets north and south of Main have caught the fever. From a distance it looks better than deteriorating, flaking wood, I suppose, but something of the architectural details and authentic texture of the nineteenth century has been lost.

Not all the buildings are covered in aluminium, of course. The street has a number of architectural gems representing most of the major styles in American architecture since the 1850s or 60s. On the left is a late 19th century row house, of which there are many along South Main. On the right is one of the several lawyers offices that populate this few blocks between Union Square and the black bridge. The county courthouse is 20-some miles north in Belvidere, but this area has been home to many of the county's lawyers since the 1860s, at least.



That's a Mansard roof seen in the distance--a popular style in the 1880s. It often seems that half the buildings in Lambertville have Mansard roofs, but South Main invested heavily in the Italianate style. The view, incidentally, is from the front yard of the residence of the Catholic priest in town--the only sizeable bit of grass that can be seen along the street. Many backyards, and even a few sliver-size side yards have enough grass to mow regularly.


The image below is more typical of an urban cityscape, which P'burg certainly is. But if I had turned 180 degrees and taken a picture you would see an expanse of  lawn, a couple rows of grape vines and a small vegetable garden--all overlooking the river. I suspect that most people who live on the west side of the street never even get a glimpse of the river, which is a pity. I find it endlessly fascinating.