The Camden County Historical Society (CCHS) completed the NJHT-funded Benjamin Cooper House Historic Preservation Plan for the adaptive reuse of the historic tavern at 75 Erie Street in North Camden in October 2021. CCHS intends to transform Camden’s most historic property into the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey in time for the America’s 250th celebrations on July 4, 2026. The site is on the list of American Battlefields and Historic Sites as recognized by the US Congress in 1993. The restoration of the Benjamin Cooper House and its adaptive reuse as the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey will benefit the State of New Jersey by attracting thousands of heritage tourism visitors, especially from Philadelphia during the years leading up to America’s 250th celebration in 2026. CCHS will restore this national treasure and dedicate it to the overlooked American Revolution history of Southern New Jersey. The project will also examine the promise of the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal”, as later codified in the US Constitution’s 14thAmendment (equal protection clause), and the struggle for equality to the present day. The project will improve New Jersey’s heritage tourism economy.
The restoration of the Benjamin Cooper House is also important because it will become the trailhead for the North Camden and Cramer Hill Waterfront Trails Project as part of the 33- mile bicycle and pedestrian Camden County Link Trail to Atlantic County. This project envisions the construction trails connecting North Camden/Cramer Hill with the larger region. As trailhead, the Benjamin Cooper Inn is envisioned as a key hub and welcome center on this trail, providing a nice synergy with the proposed museum/visitor center/community center uses.
William Cooper made one of the first European settlements in Camden, New Jersey. Weary of being persecuted for his Quaker religion and attracted by the opportunity to acquire low-cost land, Cooper emigrated to West Jersey in 1679 settling first in Burlington, then near the confluence of the Delaware and Cooper Rivers in 1682.
William retired in 1708 and gave “his house, land and farm called Cooper’s Point, where he lately dwelt” and a Delaware River ferry to his son Joseph.
Joseph’s son Benjamin obtained a license to operate a tavern at the Cooper’s Point ferry in 1727. He bought two hundred adjacent acres from his father in 1728 and built his house in 1734. He continued to operate the ferry and an inn and tavern in his house until retiring and moving to another house in 1761.
Benjamin arranged for Bradford Roberts to operate his ferry and tavern from 1762 to 1765. Roberts held auctions of enslaved people at the Benjamin Cooper House and Tavern, including one in 1762 when the slave schooner “Sally” delivered Africans from The Gambia to “Roberts’ Ferry.”
Benjamin also sold one hundred twenty-two acres, the bulk of his Cooper’s Point property, to his oldest son Joseph in 1762. Joseph also acquired much of Petty’s Island located across the New Jersey back channel of the Delaware River from Cooper’s Point and at the mouth of the Cooper River in the 1760s.
Benjamin’s son Samuel took over the ferry and tavern from Roberts in 1765 until he built a new ferry house and tavern closer to the ferry landing in 1770.
Samuel’s brother Joseph moved into the Benjamin Cooper House with his wife Elizabeth Haines after 1770. Joseph used his father’s house as a residence and discontinued using it as a tavern.
Joseph was a gentleman farmer who improved agriculture and operated a fishery along the Delaware River south and north of the Cooper River.
Joseph was elected to the New Jersey Assembly after the American Revolution and served as a member of the bi-state commission that determined which of the Delaware River islands would be governed by New Jersey and Pennsylvania. One of the commission’s major recommendations was that Pennsylvania assume authority over Windmill Island, which had historically been part of the Province of West Jersey, and that New Jersey assume authority of Petty’s Island, which William Penn had claimed were part of his land grant and whose prior land sales had all been recorded in Pennsylvania.
Joseph Wills Cooper (1799-1871) (“Joseph W.”) was the second son of Samuel’s son William (1766-1849) and Rebecca (Wills) Cooper. In 1818, Joseph W. inherited the Benjamin Cooper House from his uncle Joseph as well the land he received from Benjamin Cooper. Joseph W. continued to operate the farm and live in the 1734 house with his family and employees and added a rear addition between 1831 and 1843.
In 1852, Joseph W. began selling acreage in Cooper’s Point advertising land for residential, warehouses, shipyards, and manufacturing use. Joseph W. continued to operate the ferry service and leased land to Taylor and Brown to open the first shipyard near the Benjamin Cooper House.
In 1853, the Camden & Atlantic Railroad (C&A) purchased the Cooper’s Point Ferry from Joseph W. and established ferry service to and from Vine Street in Philadelphia. In 1855. Joseph W. bought the Cooper’s Point (also called the Vine Street) Ferry back from the C&A and moved his family into a mansion he had built on an entire block on State Street close by the railroad’s ferry terminal.
In 1856, Joseph W. incorporated the enterprise into the new “Cooper’s Point and Philadelphia Ferry Company.” Joseph W. recruited close friends and relatives as company directors and managed the ferry as President until he died in 1871.
Joseph W. and later his son Samuel Champion Cooper, who managed his Estate, leased the Benjamin Cooper House to Jacob Schellenger between 1855 and 1890 who operated the building as the Schellenger Hotel.
In 1886, Tilton’s Shipyard leased four acres adjacent to the Benjamin Cooper House bounded by Front, Point and Erie Streets. The shipyard was viewed as “the senior establishment of the kind in continuous existence in the city.” Tilton’s had three ship railways and three slips and built ships primarily for the coastal trade. Tilton employed about one hundred men. The Tilton Shipyard stood in front of the Benjamin Cooper House “hotel” in 1895 with the Morris & Mathis Shipyard on one side (the Philadelphia side) and the Rilatt Brothers Shipyard on the northeast side.
The Schellenger Hotel closed by 1891, and the Joseph W. Cooper Estate leased the Benjamin Cooper House to a boarding house operator who called it the “Tilton Boarding House” because it was adjacent to the Tilton’s Shipyard. The Cooper Estate sold the building to William and LeRoy Robinson in 1910.
In 1913, the John H. Mathis Shipbuilding Company owned the house and added a one-story brick addition in 1917 to serve as drafting room and office for engineers doing work for the United States Navy during World War I.
Mathis Shipbuilding Company was a significant contributor to the growth of the U.S. maritime fleet between 1900 and 1945. In its early years, the company said it specialized in “repairing Coastwise Schooners and the class of large Steam Vessels which ply along the Delaware River and has ample facilities for building vessels of larger dimensions.” It also assembled luxurious yachts.
Mathis built work boats and barges during World War I, and after the federal Emergency Fleet Corporation directed an accelerated shipbuilding program in Camden County, Mathis built fifteen sub-chasers and a variety of other vessels, including minesweepers, tugboats, and sea planes.
Mathis built the first hospital barge called the “St, John Guild Floating Hospital” in 1935.
During World War II, Mathis built mine sweepers, including the USS Sway, USS Swift, and USS Swerve, and eighteen oil barges.
From 1950 to 1956 Mathis built eleven vessels, the last being a ferry boat for Newport, VA. Mathis closed in 1956 and sold its facility to the West Jersey Development Company, Inc. in 1965. Four months later West Jersey sold the facility to Camden Ship Repair.
Camden Ship Repair sold the property to a construction company in 1989 which used the site for storage until 1992 after which it became vacant.
The Benjamin Cooper House was part of the maritime transportation and shipbuilding industry for over two hundred and fifty years. On Thanksgiving Day in 2012 the roof or the abandoned building caught fire. The Cooper Ferry Development Corporation repaired the major damage and installed and a temporary roof in 2016.
In 2019, a private developer, 75 Erie Street, LLC, purchased the Benjamin Cooper House and the seventeen-acre former Mathis Shipbuilding Company site.
On May 5, 2021, 75 Erie Street LLC signed a thirty-year lease with the Camden County Historical Society. The Society is in the process of carrying out a plan to repair and preserve the Benjamin Cooper House and transform it into the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey.