I seem to have a little bit of a river island fixation going on recently, first with Green River Island and now with Burlington Island. I think it’s probably just these two articles, a coincidence actually. Burlington doesn’t have quite the pedigree of a Supreme Court decision like Green River does, however it still packs quite a history in such a small area.
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Burlington Island cuts the main channel of the Delaware River, causing it to bulge like a python after a heavy meal. The nearby border places Burlington completely within New Jersey with Pennsylvania to the northwest. Its truly amazing to see a rural enclave of thick woodlands and a large pond within a highly suburban area only a few miles away from Philadelphia. That’s a bit deceiving though. It wasn’t always that way and the story could have turned out differently.
European explorers sailed the Atlantic coastline and up into the continent’s natural waterways draining the interior. England claimed the Delaware River watershed from its earliest days of exploration and even provided a name to honor Lord De La Warr, a Virginia governor circa 1610.
The Dutch claimed likewise based upon explorations undertaken during a similar period. They occupied what had been known to the local Native Americans as Matennecunk Island in 1624. A factorij (trading post) soon rose on the southern end of the island along with a protective fortification, Fort Wilhelmus, to deter any rival European troops who might dare to sail up the Delaware River. Thus, Burlington Island became one of the very first European settlements in what would later become New Jersey.
This strategic spots changed hands several more time during the Seventeenth Century. Swedish forces seized the island in 1656 as part of its short-lived New Sweden colony. England got the upper hand in 1664, then the Dutch again in 1673, and finally the English in 1677.
The English government ceded the island to one of its colonial towns on the adjacent New Jersey shore in 1682. The town was Burlington and the island adopted the same name. The act conveying title required all revenue derived from the island be used in support of education in Burlington. This created the oldest educational Trust in continuous existence in the United States, now in place for well over three hundred years. I know 12MC’s European audience will scoff, however this is ancient for the United States.
The Trust, overseen by the Board of Island Managers, gathered revenue primarily by renting the island as farmland during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Things began to change as the Twentieth Century dawned. Burlington Island was prime real estate in close proximity to a major urban core. An attraction called Island Beach Park replaced farm fields and crops. People rode a ferry to the island, relaxed on the beach, visited the picnic grounds, and rode on various amusement park rides. The entire facility burned to the ground in the 1930’s and that ended the amusement park period.
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Nothing remains of the old Burlington Island amusement park except for the carousel which can be visited at the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. It also continues to exist in vintage photography, some of which can be found on the Intertubes.
The large pond is a recent feature. Burlington Island took on a more industrial flair with the amusement park gone and few left to visit it. A sand and gravel company gained control of the southern half of the island where the amusement park used to be located and dredged it for sand in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The excavation site has since filled with water, creating a pond.
Burlington Island may still rise from the ashes. The Board of Island Managers controls the northern half of the island and the City of Burlington controls the southern. They have agreed to work cooperatively to see what they can do with their unused 300-acre gem in the middle of the Delaware River. They have been approached by a company with ambitious plans to lease the island. Its vision includes a recreation of a Native American village, an outdoor amphitheater, a museum and a marina. There appears to be some mixed thoughts that have spilled over to the Board of Island Managers. This will be interesting to watch. If done right, the ancient Trust may once again be able to collect significant revenue to benefit Burlington schoolchildren.