By: Lauren Rossi
Flowing for twenty-two miles in areas of Mercer and Monmouth County, the Assunpink Creek has been home to Native Americans, and part of the industrial center of New Jersey. The name Assunpink is translated from the language of the indigenous Lenape tribes as ‘stony watery place’. In the early 1960’s, the creek became the focus of an environmental project to develop dams and recreational spots. The dams were a necessary addition because of the intense flooding the Assunpink experienced during periods of rainfall, and the damage that ensued for nearby agricultural and residential areas. Discussions for how to handle the creek gradually came together over a five-year period, and by 1964 a general plan was developed for creating a watershed. The watershed would address the flooding problem by having the creek separate and flow into different reservoirs of water, rather than move altogether. This large scale plan would require the cooperation of both federal, state, and local agencies.
While still determining aspects of the watershed plan, the Reservoir Salvage Act came into effect in 1960, and transformed the project from one of strictly construction to now include archaeology. The act’s purpose was to have the examination of potential impacts on archaeological sites be part of the process for building dams. This was significant because it was attempting to decrease the number of sites that were being destroyed due to federal dam and reservoir projects. As a result of this new legislation, the area along the Assunpink was investigated in order to salvage any information that could be gleaned from archaeological excavations.
The first step archaeologists had to take was to survey the land. Doing so would provide them with a general idea of where archaeological resources were located on the landscape. Next, they had to prioritize the archaeological sites based on their positioning in relation to the building operations, as well as the potential information that could be gleaned through the recovery of artifacts. The most efficient way to do so was by focusing on the sites directly impacted by the construction of the dams. This would serve the interests of both the Soil Conservation Services, who wanted the dams to be built in order to prevent further soil erosion, as well as the National Park Service and Historic Preservation officers who were concerned about losing valuable cultural information with the destruction of archaeological sites. Once these decisions were made, then excavations began. A major part of the excavation planning process was compromising on issues, and developing an agreement that would set up the rest of the project.
Once all of the groups reached a final decision for the plan of action, archaeologists began surveying the Assunpink’s landscape. The area itself had been a part of important New Jersey history as the location for the second Battle of Trenton, New Jersey’s largest 18th century gristmill, and factories prominent during the Industrial Revolution. Yet, 1974 was the first time it was being looked at from an archaeological perspective. The initial survey of Dam Site 20 was done by Dr. Janet Pollack, a professor at Rutgers University, who determined which areas contained potentially important data. Other individuals involved in the excavation process were Bert Salwen, an anthropology professor at New York University, students and faculty from Temple University, and archaeologists from the New Jersey State Museum, who would later maintain and display the artifact collection.
A total of fifty archaeological sites were identified in the area of Dam Site 20. Aside from sites directly in the path of construction, many others were likely to face adverse effects from the amount of activity taking place on the land. Full excavations of these sites were not done, instead they were sampled through surface testing and test pits.
Notably, even though archaeology can help obtain information and objects related to history, it is not completely harmless. Archaeology itself, is a destructive process. By digging and removing artifacts, archaeologists themselves are destroying the site. This is why they take meticulous notes on every artifact recovered.
However, in cases of salvage archaeology such as this one, the artifacts and data would be at risk for destruction or alteration anyway, so the excavation acts as a way to gather the information while it is still possible and the original landscape is still intact.
Prior to European contact, Native Americans lived along the Assunpink creek at Dam Site 20 for thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, a majority of the artifacts recovered from the region date back to this time period. This is reflected by the types of objects found such as stone chips, stone tools, and fragments of pottery. These items show some of the resources and materials available during that time, and how Native Americans used them for daily tasks. In addition to the objects themselves, the physical characteristics of some artifacts can often indicate the time period from which they were used. Based on what was uncovered, archaeologists concluded that the land around the Assunpink was occupied from 8000 B.C.E to 1600 C.E. This range in time includes a variety of artifacts that portray the changes in house structures, culture, and social activities of the Native Americans near the Assunpink.
Archaeologists also got a closer look at the way of life for the first European settlers of the area. Euro-American ceramics of whiteware with blue floral prints and creamware were uncovered, as well as more prominent features like residences and farmhouses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the homes were still occupied by families at the time of the excavations, and archaeologists had the chance to conduct oral interviews and photograph the buildings.
It was discovered through this research that some families had lived in the area of Dam Site 20 for over a century, and multiple generations had occupied the same residence. These types of surveys are important because they add personal elements to the history of site itself and the objects found there. Archaeologists were able to attach names and real people to what they were finding—the Tindall family as an occupant of one of the homes since 1695, and the Hughes since the early 18th century. People who lived on the site could also provide memories and stories associated with the area that are not expressed through the objects left behind. Past tenants offered insight into the region’s past, and recalled how a one-track trolley, the ‘Trenton-Newark Fast Line,’ would pass through and make a single stop in that area. Overall, the collection of objects and data surrounding the people and activities of the Assunpink over time provides a more detailed image of the region, and offers a closer look at the individuals who lived before us.
Although the land may have been altered through the construction of the watershed, it also opened up the area to public use, improved the health of surrounding soil, and prevented future flooding. However, these positive outcomes of the project did not come easily. The developments to the land required large amounts of money, time, and construction, not only because of the sheer size of the Assunpink itself, but because of how much the groups involved wanted to get accomplished. In the 1964 agreement between the federal and local agencies, it was laid out that a total of ten dams, a wildlife management area, and park were to be built along the Assunpink creek. To accomplish this goal took over ten years and almost eight million dollars for the 58,300 acres to be transformed.
The changes to the landscape were substantial, and played a major role in getting people more involved with the natural environment of their counties. One of the highlights of the watershed project is Mercy County Park, created by Dam 20. The 2,500 acres span of land hosts recreation activities such as boating, hiking, and fishing along with many others. Another important aspect is that the tributary system allowed the surrounding land and soil to heal from the years of flooding and damage. This emphasis on restoration did not stop at the end of dam construction either—to this day alterations are being made to improve the Assunpink’s qualities.
The lower portion of the creek, in the city of Trenton, has now become the focus for renovations under a project to daylight the water. In an effort to improve the conditions of the creek and the surrounding area, people have started to plan for the removal of a broken culvert from the waterway. By doing this, the water and wildlife of the creek will be exposed to sunlight rather than blocked from it. The daylight will act as an aid for fish that migrate to fresh water to reproduce, as dark conditions can disorient them while making the transition. Not only will this improve the quality of life for these types of fish, but it will also allow for a fence currently blocking off the area to be removed; thus, opening up the land and a view of the creek to the public.
With this new found space, Assunpink Greenway Park will be developed in place of the previously fenced off area. It will occupy 99 acres of land running alongside the creek in downtown Trenton, and be in range of Capital Complex. The park will be the home to new recreation fields, picnicking areas, and swimming facilities. In this way, the Assunpink continues to be a part New Jersey culture and life through its recreation and environmental aspects, but at the same time, will never lose it roots or history because of the archaeology that allows its past stories to be told.
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