Similar to other areas near rivers and the bay, this area was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. At the time of European contact, Lenni-Lenape Native Americans lived in the area, following a seasonal pattern of cultivation and hunting and fishing. The state-recognized Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey maintain a cultural center here, serving a community of 12,000 in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.
The first recorded European settlement in what is now Bridgeton was made by 1686 when Richard Hancock established a sawmill here. Settlers established a pioneer iron-works in 1814. Bridgeton was incorporated as a township by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 3, 1845, from portions of Deerfield Township. Bridgeton city was incorporated on March 1, 1865, replacing both Bridgeton Township and Cohansey Township. After the American Civil War, Bridgeton's industrial prowess and commercial centrality in this area of high agricultural production, along with its high profile as an educational center (it was home to the South Jersey Institute, the West Jersey Academy, and two notable academies for women), made it the most prosperous town in the state. Bridgeton was home to glass factories, sewing factories, metal and machine works and other manufacturers. The most notable of these was the Ferracute Machine Works, founded and operated by Oberlin Smith, an inventive genius and philanthropist credited with inventing the first device for magnetic recording, and now in the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.
Bridgeton Historic District — which covers a quarter of the city — includes more than 2,000 properties, ranging from the early Federal architecture to the 1920s, including many structures eligible for individual listing and some documented by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) during the 1930s, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is the largest such district of any municipality in New Jersey. Although it is visually dominated by large Victorian homes and a downtown area constructed from the 1880s to the 1920s, the district, besides many neighborhoods of ginger breaded "doubles" that were essentially working-class housing, includes several notable structures dating from the 18th century and early Federal period. These include: Potter's Tavern, said to have been built in the 1750s, but restored to its appearance in 1776 when it was home to The Plain Dealer, considered New Jersey's first newspaper; Brearley (Masonic) Lodge, founded by General James Giles in 1795, and still active; the so-called "Nail House" (c. 1815; second build c. 1855), administrative home of the Cumberland Nail & Iron Works that established Bridgeton's industrial prowess in the early nineteenth century; the first Cumberland National Bank building (1816), only the second bank chartered in New Jersey (now part of the Bridgeton Library); and the David Sheppard House (1791), recently restored with assistance from the Garden State Historic Trust and home to the Cousteau Coastal Center of Rutgers University since 2008.
Bridgeton straddles the tidal Cohansey River and is located near the center of the Delaware Bay lowlands. It derives its name from the original movable bridge that offered the option of regular overland travel on the "King's Highway" across the Cohansey watershed region for the first time in 1716. It is said that its name went from Bridge-towne to Bridgeton in 1816-1817 owing to a printing error on documents published by the Cumberland Bank.
Bridgeton is home to numerous large municipal parks. The largest of these, consisting of pinelands, wetlands and lakes, as well as the original raceway system that provided waterpower to the mills, was formed out of the property owned and managed by the Cumberland Nail & Iron Works until 1899. Long considered a recreational area for the region even under ownership by the Iron Works, the property was finally purchased in 1902-3 by the City and preserved in perpetuity as the Bridgeton City Park. It includes three major lakes: Mary Elmer Lake, Sunset Lake, and East Lake. Bridgeton Park encompasses about 1,100 acres (6.1 km2). It now includes the Cohanzick Zoo, New Jersey's oldest zoo, which is free to the public.
The city suffered an economic downturn in the 1980s with the loss of its remaining manufacturing sector jobs in glass and textiles. Agricultural employment, however, has continued to attract immigrant workers largely from Mexico, creating new challenges and opportunities for revitalization. A significant minority of Bridgeton residents speak Zapoteco. Immigrants work primarily in nurseries and in agricultural processing occupations near the city, which are among some of the most productive in New Jersey. The downtown has been made more lively by Mexican-American businesses, as well as other businesses, such as a coffee shop/arts venue, a vintage clothing boutique, an arts gallery, and others. With the collaboration of the Bridgeton Main Street Association (the oldest Main Street Association in the state, founded 1990) the City recently declared its downtown a Culinary Arts district and is highlighting downtown economic redevelopment through the food and cooking-related retail sector.
In 2008, Rutgers opened the Cousteau Coastal Center of its Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences in the former David Sheppard House, a base from which it coordinates cutting-edge ecological research and develops modules for environmental learning at all educational levels from elementary school upward. South Woods State Prison, opened near Bridgeton in 1997, is the largest state prison in New Jersey and provides a range of employment.