Fifty years ago, on September 15, 1961, the “reconstructed” covered bridge was dedicated. An alert reporter at the Star Ledger, Mike Frassinelli, reminded me of this fact, and that inspired me to reprint an article I wrote for “The Bridge,” the newsletter for Delaware Township, back in 2001, and also in the Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, Fall 2003 issue.
Green Sergeant’s Covered Bridge
from The Bridge of Delaware Township, April 2001
The official seal of Delaware Township carries a picture of Green Sergeant’s Covered Bridge, the last remaining covered bridge in New Jersey. This drawing of the bridge was made by Delaware Township artist John Schoenherr several years ago.
At one time, there was nothing unusual about this bridge as “Hunterdon County was well-supplied with covered bridges” over its many creeks.1 Now they are all gone but this one. There had probably been a bridge over the Wickecheoke Creek at this site before the Revolution. In 1787, the freeholders met to discuss repairs to the bridge at the house of Samuel Opdycke who owned the mill near the bridge.2 It may have been his father, John Opdycke, who built the first bridge, as this sort of improvement was left to the property owners, and John Opdycke owned the land on either side of the Wickecheoke.
He was not the first landowner of the area under which the bridge was built. The land was originally surveyed in 1711 to Dorothy Medcalf, widow of Mathew Medcalf of Gloucester County. In the 1740’s, at least 100 acres was sold by the Medcalf estate to Edward Milner of Bucks Co., Pennsylvania. Milner was a Quaker and a miller, and probably built the first mill on the Wickecheoke Creek, although William or Peter Rittenhouse may have predated him with a mill further north on the same creek.
Following the Revolution, bridges in Hunterdon County were the responsibility of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, the governing body in the county. The minutes of their meetings in the 18th and 19th centuries show that most of their business involved the construction and repair of bridges.
In 1787, the Freeholders met at Samuel Opdycke’s house to see about repairing the bridge over the Wickecheoke “near Samuel Obdike’s mill.” It was ordered that the bridge be repaired “provided Samuel Obdike keeps the pillars and Buttment in good repair at his own expence for and during the Term of 50 Years from this date to come.” A bond of £500 given by ‘Sam’l Opdyck’ to guarantee that proper maintenance would be done. I imagine today’s Freeholders might sometimes wish they could delegate maintenance this way.
ADDENDUM: Opdycke’s bridge accommodated all kinds of traffic, There were horses and carriages and wagons, of course, but there were also livestock being herded to markets. It is difficult to imagine the smooth roads we are used to being one-lane dirt roads as they once were. Even more difficult to imagine is the sight of a hundred or so cattle or sheep being herded along those old roads to a place where they would be auctioned off. The livestock that crossed the old bridge were probably on their way to Sergeantsville where the hotel/tavern had 51 acres of land to accommodate them.
The Opdycke Bridge did its duty from 1787 to 1872. Besides the livestock, much of the traffic involved customers of first the Opdycke Mill and then the Sergeant Mills. Grain was ground, wood was sawn, and cloth was fulled in this location. All this activity required fairly heavy wagons, but the bridge held up.
Samuel Opdycke’s bridge was almost certainly not a covered bridge. Covered bridges were built in England during the 18th century, but the first one to be built in America was not put up until 1804. It went over the Schuylkill at Philadelphia. A covered wooden bridge was built from Trenton to Pennsylvania in 1806. Then in 1814, a covered bridge was built to connect Lambertville with New Hope and another one connected Stockton to Centre Bridge, Pa. There was also a covered bridge built in 1835 to connect Raven Rock with Lumberville.
The first known covered bridge on this site was erected in 1872-73 and named after Richard Green Sergeant, a farmer who operated the nearby Sergeant’s Mills. He was known locally as Green Sergeant. His father was Charles Sergeant, who bought the farm and mill from the heirs of Samuel Opdycke in 1805. Charles Sergeant was a veteran of the Revolution, and a successful miller and real estate speculator who died in 1833.
The Hunterdon County Freeholders met at the hotel of Jacob Wilson in the Village of Sergeantsville on September 16, 1872 “for the purpose of viewing the site on Witchley Oak stream near Sergeant’s Mills.”3 They voted during the afternoon session to build a bridge and that “all piers be removed, and a wooden bridge be erected with iron stringers.” The motion was offered (and defeated) to drop “the pier next to the hotel.” This is intriguing since there is no record of a hotel in that area; it may have referred to the side of the bridge nearest the Sergeantsville Hotel where the freeholders met. Another motion was made (and defeated) to include capping the truss work with pine boards.
The bridge would be as wide as the ‘present’ abutments would permit, which meant that the bridge built in 1872 was constructed on existing abutments. The timbers were to be of white oak or rock oak, but at the next meeting (on September 23, 1872) the Freeholders decided that the truss braces, head beams and side timbers would be made of pine. The building committee consisted of Freeholders Smith, Rittenhouse and Bird. When the Board of Chosen Freeholders reorganized the following year (May 14, 1873), the new committee for “the bridge in Delaware Township” was Smith, Hockenbury, and Bird.4
The clear span, from abutment to abutment was (and still is) 73 feet 8 inches long. The construction was supervised by freeholder Joseph Smith (1809-1877), the “Chosen freeholder” for Delaware Township from 1870 to 1875. “Uncle Joe” Smith, as he was widely known, was 63 years old in 1872. Despite his age, he would walk from the bridge site to Flemington at regular intervals to get funds to pay the workers. One time he was coming back from Flemington with the payroll when a companion joined him who acted suspiciously. Smith casually wandered off the road and got himself a solid stick which he waved about in a friendly manner. His companion immediately made himself scarce.5
Joe Smith and his wife Eleanor Stuart (left) lived on a farm on Sanford Road, Delaware Township. One of his descendants is Jeannette Smith of Delaware Township who shared these pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Tradition says that “Uncle Joe” was highly respected, but his stern face shows that he also must have been pretty tough.
The chief architect and builder was Charles Ogden Holcombe, bridge builder of Lambertville, who also is said to have built the bridge over the Lockatong Creek (built in 1878 by the Lambertville Iron Works Co.). Charles Holcombe was known as a very skilled carpenter who worked on other projects besides bridges, despite the fact that he needed to walk with two canes.6
One of the men who worked on the bridge was Peter Sibley, a ship’s carpenter from Vermont who lived about a mile south of the bridge along Lower Creek Road. Sibley, who was 72 years old in 1872, also needed to walk with a cane. That does not seem to have limited the work he did. Sibley was still around for the 1880 census. In almost all the previous census records he was called a ship’s carpenter, even while living in Delaware Township.
Masonry on the bridge was done by Ely Everitt and his brother Charles Everitt.7 Their work was confined to the existing abutments. The Everitts were well-known masons in the area who also built many of the stone houses in the township. They lived in one of the stone houses along Brookville-Hollow Road.
It must have been difficult work, building this bridge, as the summer of 1872 was reported to be the hottest in 29 years.8 The lumber used to build the bridge was probably milled at the Sergeants’ sawmill which was located along Lower Creek Road, between the road and the creek. Green Sergeant who owned the sawmill and a grist and flour mill, was born in 1795 and died in 1878. The Beers’ Atlas of 1873 shows “S. Mill”(sawmill) on Lower Creek Road, but strangely enough neglects to show any bridge over the Wickecheoke. It only shows the road passing across the creek. Apparently there was nothing very unusual about a covered bridge in 1873.
To build the bridge, stringers were laid (the iron beams that cross the stream) and supported by masonry abutments as referred to in the Freeholders’ minutes. The Green Sergeant bridge is unusual because it combines several different styles of truss bridge construction. One of the more interesting design elements is the iron verticals which replaced heavy wooden beams. The cost of construction was quite reasonable. In July 1872, Freeholder Joseph Smith reported spending $3,270.67 on bridges in the township. This was before construction of the Covered Bridge had begun. The following year he reported expenditures of $4,523.99, which suggests a mere $1300 or less was spent on this impressive structure.
There is more to the story of the Covered Bridge, which will appear in a future post.
ADDENDUM, 4/15/11: After posting this story, I thought more about Peter Sibley, the ship’s carpenter from Vermont. What would he be doing in Hunterdon County, I wondered. Then I remembered the information about him that had turned up in the census records. He was always identified as a ship’s carpenter from 1850 through 1870. His wife, Sarah Slack, was from a Hunterdon County family, and their only child, Charlotte Sibley was born in Pennsylvania in 1834. That, I realized, was the key to the puzzle. In 1834, the Delaware and Raritan Canal was opened for business. A canal needs canal boats. Sibley probably was drawn to Hunterdon for the work he could get building boats for the canal. He may have been working for a company on the Pennsylvania side of the river before moving to Delaware Township. I did not find him in the 1840 census for either New Jersey or Pennsylvania, but he may be there anyway. By 1872, Sibley was 72 years old. No wonder he needed a cane. He certainly didn’t do any heavy lifting, but Charles Ogden Holcombe, the man in charge of the timber construction probably knew Sibley to be a competent craftsman who could provide a lot of expertise. Nice to feel that I understand Peter Sibley better now.
- Egbert T. Bush, “Story of Green Sergeant’s Bridge And Its Builders,” Hunterdon Co. Democrat, 20 June 1935. ↩
- Minutes of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Hunterdon Co., NJ, 1787. ↩
- This is just one of many variations on the name Wickecheoke Creek. I suspect the clerk who wrote the freeholders’ minutes was not familiar with Delaware Twp. ↩
- Minutes of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Hunterdon Co., NJ, 1872. ↩
- Egbert T. Bush, ibid., 20 June 1935. ↩
- Born in Lambertville, March 21, 1813 to Emley Holcombe and Polly Skillman. He married first Rebecca Barber and had a daughter Mary; married second, Katherin Young. He died in Lambertville on Dec. 25, 1890, and was buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery. From Clint Wilson, “Charles Ogden Holcombe.” ↩
- E. T. Bush, Hunterdon Co. Democrat, 20 June 1935. ↩
- The Hunterdon Republican, July 11, 1872, Sept. 12, 1872 and July 24, 1873. No mention was made of the covered bridge in this newspaper during 1872 and 1873. ↩