Somerville History

Somerville History

This history page was developed by the Historic Advisory Committee as part of its mission to inform the public about the history and resources in and around our borough.

Somerville Chronology

Somerville Borough was settled in 1683, and finally incorporated in 1909. It was the center of the Middlebrook Revolutionary War encampment of 1778-79 and became the seat of Somerset County in 1799. The town was first officially charted and governed by a Board of Commissioners in the 1860’s. It was the educational and cultural center of the county during the Victorian and Pre-World War II eras, and is still the heart of regional center of Somerset County. Since World War II it has been the home of the Kugler-Anderson memorial tour of Somerville, the largest bicycle-racing event in America, a Memorial Day event.

Borough History Links

The following websites have more specific information about the borough’s history:

Local Groups with Information on Local History

Somerville is home to other organizations and groups that have information about local history. If your organization is not listed and would like to be, e-mail us at historicadvisory@somervillenj.org.

Special Interest Groups & History Projects

Somerville’s Historic Advisory Committee would to link up with people who would enjoy researching the history and architecture of their Somerville home and help us develop a database on Somerville’s rich and varied architectural history. If you have questions or contributions, please feel free to contact the Chair by email at historicadvisory@somervillenj.org.

We also are looking for members to serve on the committee or who would be interested in volunteering from time to time when we hold special events. If you would like to learn more about the committee, e-mail us at historicadvisory@somervillenj.org.

National Register Properties in Somerville

Only 2 square miles, Somerville has a significant number of National Register and Register-Eligible properties representing various eras. The National Register properties are:

  • Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage
  • Robert Mansion (Somerville Municipal Building)
  • J. Harper Smith Estate and Carriage House
  • Somerville Fire Museum
  • Victorian Train Station
  • 1909 Historic Courthouse and Green (located at Grove and Main)
  • Saint John's Episcopal Church and Rectory
  • Historic Somerville Main Street District - Register Eligible

Revolutionary War Sites in Somerville

The Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage (view virtual tour) are historic house museums dating from the 18th century. They are owned and administered by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry/ DEP. The Friends of the Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage are a non-profit support group for these sites. Located on Washington Place in Somerville, both sites are open to the public. For Visitors' Information, please call (908) 725-1015.

The Wallace House was built about 1776 and served as the headquarters of General Washington during the Middlebrook encampment of 1778-79 in Somerset County. The Wallace House is restored and interpreted as the home of an upper-middle class family returning to normal life after the departure of Washington and his entourage. Other sites associated with the encampment are located in the neighboring towns of Bridgewaters, South Bound Brook and Bedminster. For information on these contact the Somerset County Historical Society or the Heritage Trail Association.

The Old Dutch Parsonage was the home of the minister of the first Dutch Reformed congregation in the Somerville/ Raritan area. It is the ancestral home of the Frelinghuysens, a famous New Jersey family that has contributed ministers, patriots, and statesmen to state and national history. The Parsonage is also associated with the founding of Rutgers University and the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Jacob Hardenburgh, second minister to occupy the parsonage, was one of the founders of Old Queens College (1766) and later served as its first president.

Annual events co-sponsored by the Friends of the Wallace House and Old Dutch parsonage, and the Park Service, include George Washington's Birthday Celebration and an Eighteenth Century Holiday Celebration.

The Wallace House became a museum in 1897, and both the Wallace House and the Old Dutch Parsonage became state sites in 1947. In 1997, the sites celebrated a triple anniversary: the 100th anniversary of the preservation of the Wallace House and the fiftieth museum anniversary of both historic homes.

Victorian Somerville

The Robert Mansion was listed on the Register in time for the 100th Anniversary of the Borough’s incorporation. Constructed in 1888, this Gothic-revival “castle” is a faithful copy of an award-winning design by Alexander Jackson Davis. The mansion served as the Lodge of the Somerville Elks from 1923 to 1959. Today it serves as Somerville's Borough Hall and Public Library. A booklet on the history of Borough Hall and/or tours of the former mansion may be obtained by contacting the Borough Administrator at Borough Hall, 25 West Main Street, Somerville, NJ, 08876.

Somerville Public Library, located in the former Elks Ballroom has its own New Jersey Room with many historic and rare volumes on state and local history, as well as vintage photographs of Somerville (go to the library catalog). The library maintains a vertical file as a local history resource, as well. Contact the Reference Librarian at 725-1336. For information on Somerville items for sale, visit the Friends of the Library website.

The Fireman's Museum, located on N. Doughty Street in a vintage Victorian-era firehouse, is owned by the Borough and operated by members of the Somerville Exempt Firemen’s Association, retired members of our volunteer fire department. The mission of the museum is to preserve the history of the local department, its records and accomplishments, and to archive memorabilia and to house the Borough’s antique fire-fighting equipment. The museum also is serves to educate children and the public about fire prevention. Full exterior restoration was recently completed with grants from the NJ State Historic Trust and from Somerset County Historic Trust.

The James Harper Smith Estate is one of Somerville's most remarkable Victorians. The former home of “Super Smith”,  the wealthy manager of the Raritan Woolen Mills, it is a one-of-a-kind Victorian chateaux and a private residence.

Two of Somerville’s beautiful stone churches, constructed in the late Victorian era, are on the national and state historic registers. First Church, which serves the County as the Jury Assembly Room, is part of the Historic Courthouse Green. St. John’s Episcopal on High Street, with its matching Parsonage and parish house, evokes mighty fortresses of old.

Other historic churches in Somerville include the Baptist Church, also on High Street, United Reform on Main Street, St. Thomas AME on Davenport Street, all dating from the late 1800s. United Methodist on High Street was rebuilt early in the 1900s. A remnant of the original Immaculate Conception Church, destroyed by fire, remains in the former brick rectory on High Street, now adapted for modern use. The new church on Mountain Ave., is of mid-20th century construction. The neighboring parish center on Mountain Ave is located in one of Somerville’s early brownstone mansions.

Somerville’s downtown area, including Main, Division, High, and parts of Bridge and Doughty Streets, is part of a proposed Somerville Historic District as it includes many beautiful examples of late Victorian and early 20th century town architecture.

Somerville's Victorian train station, now office space, has been declared eligible by the NJ Historic Preservation Office for listing. It is privately owned and operated.

Guided walking tours through beautiful Victorian residential neighborhoods (Victorian Walking Tour) and Somerville's classic Main Street (Second Story Somerville) are available through the Heritage Trail Association. The tours focus on the unique architecture and history of these areas of the town.

Historic Courthouse & Green

Somerset County’s Historic 1909 white marble, domed courthouse, designed by J. Gordon Riley, underwent major restoration in the 1990s. The main courtroom in the structure was the scene of the infamous Hall-Mills murder trial.

The green includes the historic First Dutch Reformed Church, now used as the Jury Assembly area, and The Lord Memorial Fountain. For information about these properties and their availability for tours, contact the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission.

Other Historic Resources in the Borough

Somerville boasts three historic cemeteries. Hamilton Street is the site of a small colonial era cemetery, the Tunison Family Burial Ground, where a number of Somerset County's first settlers are buried. It is maintained by Somerville Borough.

Old Raritan Cemetery, located on South Bridge Street, contains graves of prominent individuals in the town and county through the late 1800's. Veterans of the American Revolution, War of 1812, and the Civil War are buried there, including an eyewitness to President Lincoln's assassination (John Suydam Knox) and Arabella W. Griffith Barlow, nurse and wife of General Barlow.

New Cemetery, located directly across the street, is a still active garden cemetery of mid-19th century design, but featuring funerary sculpture and local history from about 1860 through the present. The cemetery also incorporates the old local "colored" cemetery, where many African American veterans of the Civil War, members of the first organized U.S. colored troops, are buried.Numerous state and county political figures are buried in the two cemeteries, Somerville’s own “political graveyard."

Inquiries regarding access to these cemeteries may be made by calling the Somerville Cemetery Association or emailing the Superintendent at aadair6661@aol.com.

Paul Robeson Boulevard is a locally-designated historic street associated with the boyhood years of one of America's most controversial labor and civil rights activists of the 1950s. Along this block-long street of vintage turn-of-the 20th century homes can be found St Thomas AME Church, one of the original African-American Christian Churches in this county, an Underground Railroad site, and where Robeson's father, a former slave, preached in the early 20th century. A bronze plaque on the wall of Somerville Middle School Gym near the corner of Cliff Street marks the site of Robeson's home, the original AME parsonage.

Further up the block, Somerville Board of Education Headquarters occupies Somerville's first high-school building. Robeson graduated from this school in 1915, one of the few integrated high schools in the state at that time. For more information on Paul Robeson in Somerville, contact the St. Thomas AME Church Historical Society.

Other Nearby Attractions

There are a number of other interesting places to see and visit near Somerville. Contact the Somerset County Business Partnership/Chamber of Commerce  at (908) 218-4300 or visit Somerset County Tourism

A 10-minute drive will bring you to:

A 30 minute drive will bring you to: