Saving Colonial History At Petty’s Run

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

An amazing piece of New Jersey’s colonial history was just saved by an agreement between the state Department of Environmental Protection and Mercer County. The Petty’s Run archeological site at the State House in Trenton will not be reburied, as was proposed, and will instead be interpreted for the public.

Remains of colonial-era buildings were discovered in 1996 when Thomas Edison State College was preparing to add a new wing to the rear of a building on West State Street. The site work included an archaeological dig, which uncovered the corner of a stone building – marking the beginning of many exciting discoveries.

In colonial days, Petty’s Run, a small creek, flowed to the Delaware River between the Old Barracks and the State House. It provided a steady source of power for a plating mill, a steel furnace and cotton and paper mills. Over time the stream grew so polluted with industrial waste that its stone-lined channel was capped with brick vaulting, burying Petty’s Run for more than 100 years.

Given the industrial history of Petty’s Run, archeologists first thought the new find was a corner of the Harrow/Yard metal plating mill, built in the early 1730s. But the stones of Petty’s Run had a more complicated story to tell.

A subsequent excavation unearthed an even older foundation, which archaeologists now believe is part of the Harrow/Yard mill. The other building appears to be the remains of one of Trenton’s first textile factories: Josiah Fithian’s cotton mill, which was established around 1814-15 and used for carding and spinning cotton.

In addition to these buildings and the Petty’s Run culvert, the dig yielded a rapidly-growing collection of artifacts, ranging from Native American stone tools to 18th- and 19th-century pottery sherds and glassware. But despite its historical significance, the site was considered too unstable and unsafe for public access.

Petty’s Run was slated to become part of the proposed Capital State Park, but funding for the project was eliminated due to severe budget constraints. The state decided to rebury the archaeological site.

Thankfully, Mercer County stepped in and offered to share the costs of stabilizing Petty’s Run and establishing an interpretive center for the public. This agreement will keep the remains of some of the mills open, and provide a fenced public walkway around the site at a higher ground level. Six interpretive panels will provide information on the site and its history.

Schoolchildren and other visitors will see an amazing piece of Garden State history. In a state so rich in colonial-era history, it’s a perfect addition to the State House complex… and a poignant reminder of the responsibility we have to future generations to preserve and understand our past.

To learn more about the Petty’s Run site, and see photos of the dig, go to And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at or contact me at .

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