“Village Might Appropriately Have been Called Riven Rock
Quarry Once Busy Place”
By Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published in the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, February 12, 1931
Note: This article was written by Egbert T. Bush, not by me. I have only added some footnotes for clarification and the photograph of Raven Rock Station, which was not part of the original article.
When going by rail up the Delaware some fine day, get off at Raven Rock.1 You may be wondering why that name was ever given. So do others. The “Rock” is easily understood, but why “Raven?” Nobody knows. The post office by that name was established here long before the station took the same name. It has been thought possible that, when application was made for the post office, careless chirography might easily have made “Riven Rock,” as possibly suggested, look more like “Raven Rock.” However that may be, it does seem that some mistake has been made somewhere.2
Riven Rock would certainly be appropriate—a name for the great rock which is the distinguishing figure of the village. Less than half a mile up the road you will come opposite to the bold face of a perpendicular rock which seems to become overhanging as you advance. There it stands from 90 to 100 feet high, with a dwelling house so close that it appears to be at its foot. You think half-unconsciously of the famous Tarpeian Rock from whose summit many a culprit was flung, to die a shapeless form at the foot. But this looks as if it might reverse the process, do the tumbling itself, and crush houses and people in one common mass.
Go past the rock and take a backward look. You will be startled to see a rift two or three feet wide, separating this great rock from the mass back of it. Did Nature start to pry it loose for the purpose of making a broader channel for the river, then change her mind and leave this opening for the river to take advantage of and do the rest herself? No matter, the river receded, and there stands the firm old rock, promising to defy time and storms for at least a few thousand years yet to come.
The old name for this village was “Bool’s Island,” the name of a famous long and narrow island opposite, which is said to have taken it’s name from one Bool, who owned the island and much land ashore.3 As Bool’s Island the name of the station persisted until in the ‘90s [that is, 1890s], when the island was fitted out as a place for picnics, under the name of “Elmaker Island,” and both station and village took the name of Raven Rock. But in very early days, the upper part, including the great rock and the old tavern, was known as “Saxtonville.”
April 6, 1808, Nathaniel Price, Sheriff, conveyed to Nathaniel Saxton, Esq., 30 acres on Bull’s Island—often so spelled—and 10 acres opposite, “adjoining lands of Robert Nailor and others, with grist mill and saw mill and two dwelling houses,” the mills being “turned by the waters of the Delaware.” This property was sold as the one-half interest of Robert Curry, the other half belonging to Mahlon Cooper.4 In 1814, George Holcombe conveyed to Nathaniel Saxton two lots for $1,000.5 At various other times he [that is, Nathaniel Saxton] purchased much property here and elsewhere. He was a prominent man about the county. We find him buying a grist mill, saw mill and fulling mill on the South Branch in 1804; living in Flemington in 1807; beginning his activities here [in Raven Rock] in 1808, and later purchasing land about Quakertown. Letters of administration on his estate were granted to Alexander V. Bonnell August 26, 1850.
Canal and Railroad
The digging of the canal soon after 1830, and the building of the railroad twenty years later, gave Bool’s Island impetus and newness of life. But, as we have seen, some of its industries far antedate both railroad and canal. In addition to the mills already mentioned, which evidently stood east of where the station now stands, there was a flax mill adjoining or near by. An oil mill stood between the station and the canal until some 40 years ago, but had not been operated for a long time.6
In the distant past, a distillery stood not far from the grist mill. Jackson Holt is given as the old-time distiller, but he does not appear to have owned the property.7 Soon after the canal came through, the Company tore down the old distillery and used the stone for purposes of the canal. Above the distillery, Joseph Rodman had a shop for repairing Durham boats; after him came William Britton to the same place and business.
This community was well supplied with taverns in the old days and somewhat later. Far up in old Saxtonville stands an interesting tavern house, with its four stone chimneys and low stone walls. It seems to be at least 150 years old, but has no date stone to prove its age. The builder is unknown, as are also the early keepers. It was no doubt built expressly for that purpose, everything about it seeming to spell tavern. This was evidently included among the Nathaniel Saxton properties.8 Bryan Rogan is known to have kept the old tavern 75 years ago. After him came one—Kiley, and then Austin Bray. Thomas McAlone bought the property later. It is now owned and occupied by his son Wallace W., teacher of the Sergeant’s School. No tavern has been kept here for about 60 years past.
A combination store and tavern was kept by Wesley Johnson on one of the Augustus B. Reading lots. This was later kept by Lorenzo Kerr until it burned down in 1876. The Reading bungalow now stands on the site of this building. Another public house, known as “Johnson’s Tavern,” stood in the lowlands a half mile below the station. This house was swept away by the great flood of 1841.9 A deed by the executors of Ambrose Barcroft to Aaron Barcroft, dated May 1, 1818, conveys a farm lying below and tells of a corner “in the road south of Johnson’s Tavern.”
Still another house rather famous in its day and a land mark ever since, was the “Stump Tavern,” a little over a mile northeast of the village, at the crossing of the roads, one leading down to Saxtonville and the other down “Federal Twist,” a great, winding hill, toward Rosemont. Joseph White owned the place for many years after the business was discontinued there. The old tavern house is still occupied, a snug little farm having been included in the property.10
The store now kept by Earl Kerr, postmaster, was previously kept by George W. Robinson, who purchased it of John McAlone in 1889, and carried on business there until his death in 1930, being also postmaster most of that time. George W. and his brother Samuel had been here in partnership earlier. They left, and kept the store at Headquarters for one year. Then the partnership was dissolved, George W. coming back to Bool’s Island, and Samuel going to Brookville (now part of Stockton), where he started a little store. The property had been conveyed by James Barcroft and Joseph Williamson, administrators of Aaron Barcroft, to John McAlone in 1882; by Charles Heath to Aaron Barcroft in 1867; by Elijah Heath to Charles Heath in 1857; by Peter Dilts to Elijah Heath in 1839, “being a part of the same lot that was conveyed to Peter Dilts by Nathaniel Saxton May 20, 1819.”
Augustus B. Reading bought two tracts of land here in 1876.11 He was a basketmaker by trade, and carried on the business here until his death Oct. 10, 1909. He worked in a little shop which is still standing, though fast going to wreck. Augustus had two sons, William and Robert, and a daughter Dora L., who was postmistress here for some years, then married Alexander Van Horn and removed to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She later became the owner of the three small lots in Raven Rock, which are now owned by her daughter, Olive Van Horn. William died in Wisconsin. Robert became a high-salaried salesman for the U.S. Steel Company, but quit and returned to Raven Rock, to take up the business of his father, which he carried on in the same shop until the time of his death about 5 years ago. All of the children of Augustus R. Reading died within a period of three years.12
George J. Reading (always “Jack”), father of the late Richard B., Horace M., George and Thomas, helped in the construction of the railroad, held important positions later, and in his last years was a track walker. In the performance of that duty, he was killed in November, 1885. He was coming down the road and a train was going up. Without looking around, he stepped from the main track to the switch at his side, down which another train was coming so near and so fast that escape was impossible.13
Family of Railroaders
All of Jackson Reading’s sons were railroaders. Thomas was killed in the serious wreck below Milford, October 4, 1877, a wreck in which several lives were lost. George became a conductor, and died in Philipsburg. Richard B. followed Mahlon Hoffman as station agent, telegraph operator and lock tender here, and held his position as agent until his death, though in his later years a resident of Lambertville. Col. Horace M. Reading spent most of his life as a resident of Stockton, though for many years located in Trenton, and for a long time before his death freight agent there.
Augustus Sine followed Richard B. Reading as agent at Raven Rock, but was soon followed by Robert Hartpence, who held the position to the time of his death a few years ago. The station now has no agent, and is managed by a clerk under control of the Lambertville station. We are told that for some time after the building of the tank in 1876, Richard B. Reading took charge of that too, as a part of his duties here. Plenty to do, one would think. And so the Company came to think later. George Arnwine came here in 1874, took charge of the tank somewhat later, served in that capacity 43 years, and is now living in retirement at his home in Raven Rock.
The house that was the home of George Jackson Reading and family stands at the foot of Riven Rock and was purchased of the heirs of James McVay, deceased, April 15, 1867. McVay is said to have built the house there, and to have been a foreman in the construction of the railroad.
James Colligan helped dig the canal and remained in the employ of the Company as long as he lived, dying in 1886 at the age of 70. He left four children, namely: John, Mary, Rose and Jane. Mary married John P. Roach, who now owns the Colligan home, and died there in 1929. Rose lived with the Roaches here, and is still living in the house in which she was born, being the only survivor of the four.
Mended Railroad Rails
James Opdyke was blacksmith here in the ’60s [1860s]. An important part of his work was mending broken railroad rails as they were brought in. Strange though this seems now, it appears to have been common then, when new rails were more of a consideration than now.
The Raven Rock quarry was opened by the Nolan Brothers in either 1873 or 1874, with Dennis McAvoy (or was it McVay?) as foreman, and John Steel as one of the first workmen. The Nolan dwelling was “blown away” as an encumbrance long ago. A gaping hole now takes its place, as well as the place of other dwellings along the road. And even the public road itself has been blasted away for the sake of the underlying stone. One lonely old dwelling remains, looking as if it would like to tumble in and be lost in the gaping hole. Vast quantities of stone have been taken from that quarry, furnishing much business for the railroad, as well as for local workers. It appears to be very quiet now.
William Williamson was shoemaker here in the ‘70s. His shop was where George Arnwine, the retired tank man, now lives. Williamson sold the property to George Sutton, a quarry boss, brother of the late Uriah Sutton of Locktown.
The Gun Club
From about 1885 to 1895, the “Raven Rock Gun Club” headed by Richard B. Reading as President, was a lively organization here. The Club house was near the upper end of Bool’s Island, and target practice was an interesting sport for members from various points up and down the road, as well as back in Pennsylvania. An amusing incident is related by one of the members: They were shooting so as to allow the spent force to drop the shot into the river. That happened to be directly toward Reading and Johnson’s coal yard in Lumberville. A Pennsylvania wag came up the island, watched them intently for considerable time, and then remarked: “I know now why Reading and Johnson’s coal always weighs so heavy.”
Being asked to explain, he replied: “You fellows are shooting so much lead into it.”
That was fun for the jolly club, as probably it was meant to be. But who would have thought that members would recall it forty years later?
We are told that after its President removed to Lambertville, the club gradually disintegrated.14 Like so many other things around Raven Rock, it is now only a memory. The mills are gone. Scarcely a vestige remains to tell where any of them were. The taverns are things of the past, to be sure, but they died long before the law killed such institutions. The distillery is almost forgotten—almost, if not entirely traditional. One store does all of the work and would be glad to do more. The basket industry is dead, the canal amounts to nothing and the railroad is dwindling in importance. But there stands the fine old Riven Rock, an emblem of stability for the admiration of all good citizens. And there may it stand until no eye is left to gaze admiringly upon its threatening proportions.
- This was something you could do back in 1931 when the train from Trenton to Belvidere was still running, and the train station at Raven Rock/Bull’s Island was still in operation. Those days are long gone. Today, you would be going by hiking path up the Delaware instead. One thing becomes clear from reading this article–while the train was running, Raven Rock residents were very much a part of its operation.↩
- It was no mistake. The area was called Raven Rock in the will of John Ladd, dated 1733. Ladd owned over 600 acres there jointly with Richard Bull the surveyor, after whom Bull’s Island is named. ↩
- The “Bool” that Mr. Bush refers to was Richard Bull, surveyor for the Province of West New Jersey. He surveyed many properties in Delaware Township, and although he did own a great amount of acreage here, he never actually lived here. As to why Mr. Bush thought the name was Bool rather than Bull, the explanation probably lies in the common pronunciation given it, which found its way into print at a very early date. ↩
- Mr. Bush seems to have missed the deed, dated May 1, 1808, in which Cooper’s share of the mill property was conveyed to George Holcombe. ↩
- That was Holcombe’s share in the 10-acre mill lot and the 30-acres which comprised the lower half of Bull’s Island. ↩
- That was the Baird Linseed Oil Mill. ↩
- Jackson Holt was the son of Samuel Q. Holt and Sophia Rittenhouse, and great-grandson of Isaiah Quinby. ↩
- He bought it from Moses Quinby, who probably built the first section of the house. ↩
- There is some dispute about whether this actually happened. It seems the tavern was offered for sale by the New Jersey Transportation Department in 1905 because of plans to widen State Highway 29. No one would buy and remove the house, so it was demolished. Perhaps it was greatly damaged by the freshet of 1841, but it was still standing 60 years later.↩
- Stump (Stompf) Tavern was probably owned by Jacob Kyple in the 1790s, near the corner of Strimples Mill Road and Federal Twist Rd. Surprising to learn that it was “rather famous in its day,” since I have found no record yet to support such a claim. ↩
- He was the son of William A. Reading (1793-1878) and Deborah Coryell (1804-1881) ↩
- How many steel company executives do you know who retired to take up basket making? The 1910 census shows that S. Robert Reading, age 43, was living in Solebury Township, across the river from Raven Rock. He was living with his widowed mother Elizabeth, age 76, and his occupation was basketmaker. Interesting that someone living in Solebury was considered by Bush as being part of the orbit of Raven Rock. ↩
- George ‘Jack’ Reading was the son of Elisha E. Reading (1776-1821) and Anna Reading (1785-1843), and the second cousin of Augustus B. Reading, above. ↩
- The 1900 census tells us that Richard B. Reading 55 was living in Lambertville and his occupation was railroad agent. The “B.” stands for Bennet. I rather suspect he was named after Richard Bennet who ran the Saxtonville Tavern from 1836 to 1848.↩