(Editor’s note: This column is part of an ongoing series on the history of Upper Township’s villages. The main sources for this piece was Jean Albrecht’s “A History of Upper Township and Its Villages” published in 1989 and H. Stanley Craig’s “The History of Petersburg,” published by Herald Press in Tuckahoe in 1913.)
On our journey through the villages of Upper Township, we are now at the center, in fact, some would say, the heart of the township. We have arrived at Petersburg, once known as Littleworth. Yes, you read it correctly, Littleworth.
Why Littleworth? Well, we’ll get to that shortly.
It seems fitting that since Petersburg is the heart of the township of the township, that the seat of its government, municipal court, the middle school and the county library branch are all located in Petersburg.
But, just what are the borders of the village of Petersburg? Petersburg is bordered on the east by the Cedar Swamp Creek, on the north by Middleton, then Tuckahoe, on the far west by Steelmantown, and on the south by Greenfield. Exact borders are difficult to determine, but roadways and waterways are certainly easier to distinguish.
Here are the earliest roads in this part of Upper Township as described by Joyce van Vorst, who wrote in “A History of Upper Township and Its Villages”:
The Dennisville-Petersburg Road, the first officially authorized and constructed road, was laid out by surveyors appointed by the Cape May County Court of Common Pleas in May of 1798 and was to run from Dennis Creek to Littleworth. This road was constructed two rods wide – about 33 feet at the time. (A rod is a surveyor’s tool, a unit of length equal to 5.5 yards, 16.5 feet, or one-fourth of a surveyor’s chain. An acre is 160 square rods.) The road was to open for public use on Dec. 1, 1798.
David Corson and James Townshend along with ten other inhabitants of the Upper Precinct petitioned the state Assembly for a road to be laid between the houses of Parmenas Corson in Seaville and Job Young, running north and west crossing over Cedar Swamp Creek to the county line. The Tuckahoe-Seaville Road was constructed 40 feet wide and was opened on or before Dec. 1, 1801.
Tyler Road was petitioned for by Joseph Corson and others. Surveying for the 40-foot wide road started on Nov. 17, 1818. It opened in August of 1818.
The Tuckahoe-Beesleys Point Road was laid out in 1820. The course was changed in 1857 and again in 1906 when it was widened.
Van Vorst said the village saw its first settlers along the Cedar Swamp Creek. This creek, which flowed into the Tuckahoe River and on to the Great Egg Harbor Bay, was much larger back in the 18th century. It offered easy access to the bays and oceans, woodland for the lumber needed to build homes and power to operate the saw and grist mills.
In the mid-eighteenth century, John and Abraham, the brothers Van Gilder, brought their families here by sloop from Long Island. Their father, Johannes Van Gilder, had settled in New Amsterdam, which later became New York.
After sailing down the coast to New Jersey, they entered the Great Egg Harbor Bay and sailed up the Tuckahoe River to Cedar Swamp Creek. It was here that the first Van Gilder was born in Cape May County.
At a place where the Upper Bridge would later be built, the family actually lived in caves until they could purchase land from the West Jersey Society. Van Vorst writes that it was Abraham Van Gilder who built a log house just west of their landing spot. He said “the land was of little worth,” thus naming the area “Littleworth.” The name remained for the next 100 years.
John Van Gilder built a log house close to his brother’s home and together they became large landowners.
Cornelius Corson, who was a private in the Cape May Militia, bought property from Jeremiah Van Gilder in 1787 and built a frame and brick house near the old Methodist Church. Sadly it was torn down in the 1930s.
Cornelius married Sarah Corson and one of their six sons, Peter, built the old brick house which stands across from the church. The village’s name was changed to Petersburg in his honor because of his involvement in the village. He was a renowned contractor, justice of the peace from 1831-1841, and postmaster (1849, 1853-1865).
In 1825, Thomas Van Gilder established a store at the intersection of the Petersburg/Dennisville Road and the Tuckahoe/Beesleys Point Road. It was in business until 1905. Some of the prices recorded in the store’s day book in 1822 were 50 cents per gallon of molasses; 12.5 cents per pound of raisins; 16 cents per quart of rum; 14 cents per pound of sugar; 37.5 cents per quart of wine; 12.5 cents for 50 cigars; $8 per barrel of wheat flour; 20 cents per pound of butter; $2 for a cord of oak wood, and $1.76 for a cord of pine; 10 cents for a pound of nails; 25 cents for a pound of chocolate; and $1.25 for a pound of tea.
It was in this store that the Post Office was located from 1862-1885 and from 1909 through at least 1913. According to “The History of Petersburg,” (Craig, 1913) the following landmarks were prominent in Littleworth/Petersburg:
The Lower Bridge (1762) was a toll bridge approved by the state Assembly. It was first a draw bridge and was later rebuilt without the draw. The rates of the toll at that time were 6 pence for a wagon or oxcart with team and driver; 2 pence for a passenger with horse, mare or gelding; 1 pence for a foot passenger; 1 pence for each cattle; 1 farthing for each sheep.
The Upper Bridge (1788) like the Lower Bridge was made so a section could be raised to let ships through.
The Old Landing was a wharf a mile above the Upper Bridge where schooners took on cedar “shooks” for making barrels. They were much thicker than a cedar shake for siding or roofing.
The Meadow Bank was an old tidal saw mill built on Mackey Place by John Mackey between 1740 and 1757.
Smith’s Mill was first used as a wheelwright (maker of wagon wheels) and paint shop. By 1890 basket making machinery was added to manufacture truck baskets. By 1892 it was restored as a saw mill.
Creamer’s Mill was first built in 1800 on 119 acres on Rigg’s Branch of Cedar Swamp Creek. It was repeatedly sold until 1874, when it was demolished. Jacob Creamer was a sawyer in this mill for 60 years.
California Mills (1846) was built by Peter Hoff for Thomas Van Gilder on the California Branch of Cedar Swamp Creek. It was used as both a grist and saw mill very successfully until houses and the mills were burned in an 1895 forest fire.
The Petersburg Post Office was established Feb. 8, 1849. Previously, Tuckahoe was the Post Office for the area. Peter Corson was the first postmaster in 1849, and it was at this time that the village became Petersburg.
Successive postmasters were: Stephen Young (1853-1856) –followed again by the first, Peter Corson; Thaddeus Van Gilder (1857-1881); his widow, Hannah Van Gilder who succeeded him; William Van Gilder (1882-1885); Harrison Corson (1885-1887); Lillian Young (1887-1908, resigned that year); James S. Smith, the assistant postmaster who took over; Eva S. Van Gilder (1909-?).
The Corner Store (1834) was first established by peter Corson and Harrison Westcott. It was located on the same location where the Philadelphia Store would be built.
The Philadelphia Store, built by Thaddeus Van Gilder, was first a millinery (ladies hats) store. Ladies hats were usually sold plain and then decorated as desired by the milliner. The old Lit Brothers store in Philadelphia, still has a sign outside that says, “Ladies hats trimmed for free.”
The store later became a grocery store occupied by James Homan, Cornelius Corson and Elizabeth Hess. In 1880, it was destroyed in a storm but then later rebuilt.
The Redman’s Lodge on Old Tuckahoe Road was a meeting place for men who belonged to the Improved Order of Red Men, The Wendagoes Tribe No. 91. The men first met in a house, then moved to the loft over the Van Gilder’s store until the lodge was later built. Members who attended from Tuckahoe separated from this tribe and formed their own tribe. Some later retuned when that tribe was dismantled.
This group must have been on the order of Elks and Moose Lodges which were popular “getaways” for the local men.
Robert Holden taught at the Ocean City Intermediate School for 31 years, retiring in 2006. He is now a senior adjunct professor of history at Atlantic Cape Community College, where he has focused on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has traveled to Holocaust sites in Europe, and in China to study “The Rape of Nanking” and Japanese aggression in the Pacific. In 2009, he received the Axelrod Award for years of teaching and giving presentations about the Holocaust. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Preservation Society of Upper Township and currently serves as the historian. He lives in Upper Township with his wife Janice Breckley Holden.