It’s just something folks in Hamilton Township in Atlantic County have learned to live with: the periodic confusion of their hometown with the Hamilton Township in Mercer County, close to the state capital of Trenton.
There are 565 municipalities in the state of New Jersey — and far, far more historic community names that have lingered for villages, communities and hamlets that remain part of a larger municipality.
With all those names comes a baffling amount of overlap — many towns share similar or identical monikers.
Cumberland and Mercer counties each have their own Hopewell Township, while Warren County has a Hope Township.
There are two Monroe townships, one in Gloucester County, the other in Middlesex.
The Strathmere section of Upper Township, a sleepy seaside town between Sea Isle City and Ocean City, is a long drive up the Garden State Parkway from the Strathmore section of Aberdeen Township in Monmouth County.
There aren’t any state rules on local place names, said Joseph Klett, the executive director for the New Jersey State Archives. Names in New Jersey come from a wide variety of sources, he said, but the most common were names European Colonists picked up from the Indians — Weehawken, Manasquan and Tuckahoe; transplanted Old World names, primarily from England; and places named for heroes of the American Revolution.
It seems clear that America’s Founding Fathers were popular inspirations when naming New Jersey locales.
There are four Franklin townships — one each in Hunterdon, Gloucester, Warren and Somerset counties — and a borough of Franklin Lakes in Bergen County. The latter is not named after Ben Franklin, but his estranged and illegitimate son, the British loyalist William Franklin, who served as New Jersey’s final Colonial governor before the Revolution.
That makes George Washington the clear winner in the number of New Jersey place names; six different communities serve as namesakes for the first American president.
Historian Klett said the Founding Fathers were so revered and beloved in early America that it was natural for many towns to look to them when they needed a new name.
When things get confusing
In Warren County’s Washington Township, longtime municipal administrator Peter H. deBoer Jr. said the staff are used to getting calls for other Washington townships, particularly the one in Morris County. They have that number memorized, he said. The township also gets bills for other townships, including from some of the Washington townships in Pennsylvania.
The Washington Township in Warren County completely surrounds a separate municipality, Washington Borough, which has its own mayor and government.
“There aren’t that many doughnut communities,” deBoer said.
A few years ago, the township and the borough entered a shared-services agreement, so now the township provides police services to the borough.
In New Jersey, a “township” is one of the five types of municipalities, along with towns, cities, boroughs and villages. Every part of the state is in a single municipality – there is no overlap or any unincorporated area. But townships are typically large areas that include several distinct communities. For instance, Washington Township in Warren County encompasses the historic communities of Bowertown, Changewater, Brass Castle, Imlaydale and others with roots going back to the 18th century.
New Jersey goes town crazy
In the late 1800s, a change in state law led to a flurry of new municipalities, according to Klett, mostly carved out of existing townships. In the case of many of the barrier islands along the Shore, some were deliberately created as resort communities. Many of the boroughs in Bergen County grew out of a tension between new suburban residents who commuted by rail to New York City and wanted more services and the families who lived in the formerly rural areas who didn’t like higher taxes.
Some on each side realized they could opt out by creating a borough.
“It used to be the creation of a municipality required an act of the Legislature,” Klett said. That changed in the mid-1800s. “You had very little activity until that time. Then there was this huge explosion of municipalities.”
“An act allowed a certain part of a municipality to become a borough if the residents wanted to. That’s when you see all these boroughs forming, because the law allowed for it at that time,” he said. It took a referendum of local residents to split off from the larger township.
The creation of new municipalities continued for years, said Klett, and became known as “boroughitis.” From 1894 to 1895, 40 new municipalities were born, mostly in Bergen County. The state tightened the rules after that, but the process continued into the 20th century.
During this entire era of balkanizing existing townships, nothing prevented a new municipality from taking a name that was already used elsewhere.
In the Colonial period, there was far less communication from one end of the state to the other — so there was little concern with a community in Gloucester County and another in Warren County each taking the name Greenwich.
Where we are now
New towns are rare and much more difficult to incorporate. But New Jersey’s map has changed a little. One of the Washington townships became Robbinsville Township, while Princeton Township and Princeton Borough merged in 2013.
Some community advocates have called for more consolidation. In the beach resort of Wildwood, for instance, five separate municipalities are crowded on one barrier island roughly the size of Ocean City. The towns share some services and a single public high school. But with a combined year-round population smaller than most towns, Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and West Wildwood each has its own mayor, police department and government. (A small portion of the southern tip of the island known as Diamond Beach remains part of Lower Township.)
In most towns, locals are loath to give up any portion of local control in this home-rule state, and efforts through several administrations in Trenton have failed to generate many successful consolidations. According to some reports, the Princeton consolidation took almost 60 years, and four attempts.
We leave you with a list of some of the commonly confused place names.
Cape May Point
Egg Harbor City
Franklin Borough (Sussex)
Franklin Township (Gloucester)
Franklin Township (Hunterdon)
Franklin Township (Somerset)
Franklin Township (Warren)
Franklin Lakes Borough (Bergen)
Hamilton Township (Atlantic)
Hamilton Township (Mercer)
Hopewell Borough (Mercer)
Hopewell Township (Mercer)
Hopewell Township (Cumberland)
* Hopewell in Sussex is community within Sparta township
Middle (Cape May)
Point Pleasant Beach
Spring Lake Boro
Spring Lake Heights
Washington Borough (Warren)
Washington Township (Bergen)
Washington Township (Burlington)
Washington Township (Gloucester)
Washington Township (Morris)
Washington Township (Warren)