Saturday, December 31, 2011

Patriots’ Week 2011 – Spanning 235 Years

Every year, the Downtown Trenton Association organizes Patriots’ Week. A week of activities in New Jersey’s capital city to commemorate the monumental events that took place there. The week is timed to coincide with the actual dates of the events from Washington’s Crossing to the Battle of Princeton. Because this year marks the 235th anniversary, there was a special march that followed the Continental Army’s route from the crossing to Trenton.

What was fascinating about this year’s reenactment is how it linked what happened 235 years ago to what America is today. There are few places you can do that. The Battle of Trenton reenactment, which started at the Battle Monument at the top of Board and Warren Streets, followed the same city streets to the Hessian’s barracks that the original battle took.

One priceless memory for me was when a group of women who came out of the beauty shop - their hair in curlers - to investigate the commotion. But it was also poignant. 235 years ago on that very spot, some frightened Trenton family may have been taking cover to avoid getting caught in the conflict.

This was made even more poignant by reports I heard later day that an actual criminal shooting occurred not far from the neighborhood where the reenactment took place. Who we are as a country today is intrinsically tied to our nation’s founding. Yet we still have some way to go to secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.

I’m not a battle reenactment aficionado. And I know that many prefer to experience reenactments in a historically accurate landscape. But I found having a recreation of this pivotal event in our nation’s founding played out against the backdrop of who we are today to be much more thought-provoking than any reenactment I have seen before.

A list of the 2011 Patriots’ Week events can be found here. If you are looking for something to do between Christmas and New Year’s Day next year, this is well worth it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Joshua Huddy Park (Toms River)

Joshua Huddy was a privateer, one of a number of mariners who harassed British supply lines along the New Jersey coast. He was eventually captured by Loyalist forces at the end of the Revolutionary War and hanged. He commanded a small fort (blockade) in Toms River built to protect the local salt works. A replica of the blockade stands near the spot today.

It’s a pleasant spot, probably more so in the summer than it was on this November day. It’s next to a maritime museum, which I did not visit, as I was just passing by on the Parkway and only had a short amount of time to spend. You can also head up the street to the municipal building to find the marker where the original blockhouse actually stood.

Not a spot to go for its own sake, but if there is an outdoor concert scheduled or you are passing by on your way down the shore, it’s worth a detour. It's easy to find, right in the center of downtown Toms River. It would be nice to link this site as part of a coastal itinerary with other privateer-related sites (such as Chestnut Neck) and the site of Huddy's hanging in Monmouth County's Navesink Highlands.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Morven and Princeton Cemetery

I’ve been to Morven a few times over the past few years, but have not written about it because none of those visits were typical experiences. It was always for some special event or another. However, I really shouldn’t neglect this site. It is one of the premier house museums in the state (Revolutionary War era or otherwise).

For our purposes, its significance comes from its first owner, Richard Stockton, one of New Jersey’s signatories to the Declaration of Independence. It was deeded to the State of New Jersey in 1954 and served as the official Governor’s Residence until 1981. Morven was then renovated and opened to the public in 2004. There are plenty of displays about the Stockton family that owned and occupied the house. When I last visited there was an interesting display of parade flags. They also host a number of interesting special events.

There is little outside the house that directly pertains to the Revolutionary War era. (The recently renovated Bauhaus style pool house is very cool, though.) There are a number of informative signs around the property and a restored garden based on what one of the later owners imagined the 18th century garden looked like. However, just north of the property is the Princeton Battle Monument – a hulking structure with a relief of Washington on horseback and plenty of intriguing scavenger hunt-type details.

Princeton is overflowing with Revolutionary War heritage. I covered the battleground in an earlier post. There’s also Nassau Hall, where, legend has it, an American cannonball entered the building and “decapitated” a portrait of King George III. The original frame now holds the famous Charles Willson Peale painting of “Washington at the Battle of Princeton.” Take a Princeton University tour to catch a glimpse.

And speaking of the university, I decided to head over to Princeton Cemetery, which is located just a few blocks west of Nassau Street. It is known as “America’s Westminster Abbey” because of the number of notables who are buried here, many of them former Princeton University presidents.

I was a bit perplexed, though, that Declaration signer Rev. John Witherspoon had a much smaller and less detailed marker than Aaron Burr. There are also many Stocktons buried here, but the signer himself is in an unmarked grave at the Quaker Meeting House. This is a pleasant diversion if you like wandering through graveyards (the cemetery provides a map with the approximate location of notable graves).

Bottom line: Put Morven - and the whole of Princeton - on your New Jersey American Revolution must-see list.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From Elizabethtown to Springfield

I had a day off to spend with my daughter and decided to take in a few Union County sights linked to the Battles of Springfield and Connecticut Farms. We started at Boxwood Hall in Elizabeth, followed by Liberty Hall, the Cannonball House and Hobart’s Gap – an easy 8 mile tour.

Some background information: The two battles were fought in June 1780 and were the British army’s final attempt to oust General Washington from his stronghold on the other side of the Watchung Mountains. One very important, but less known fact, about the war is that New Jersey’s topography provided Washington the security needed to protect his forces while keeping a close eye on British movements out of New York.

The first battle was on June 7th, as British forces landed in Elizabeth with the intent of taking control of Hobart’s Gap – the narrow passage through the Watchungs – and forcing Washington into the open. They only got as far as Connecticut Farms (present day Union Township) before being turned back by heavy militia resistance. On June 23rd, the British made another attempt, this time getting as far as Springfield. But again, they were forced to retreat before attaining their objective. This was the last major engagement of the war to take place on New Jersey soil.

Our modern day tour started at Boxwood Hall, a state run historic site. It is open from Monday to Friday (but not at lunch time) and Saturdays in summer (no Sundays). In other words, you have to be willing to take time off from work if you want to visit.

It is worth a visit because of the importance of its former occupants, although the building could use some historically sensitive refurbishment. In a very urban setting, with a colorfully painted “hotel” on one side, this is just the kind of place that can and should be used to foster an appreciation of the American Revolution in New Jersey’s urban communities.

The City of Elizabeth has done a good job of placing attractive and informative signs outside their own historic sites (including the Belcher-Ogden Mansion across the street and Bonnell House on the corner). Union County has also published a booklet “Elizabeth at the Crossroads,” which provides an easy walking tour of interesting sites.

Here you can find the graves of Washington’s Chaplain Reverend James Caldwell and his wife Hanna. Hanna’s death at the hands of a nervous British soldier on June 7th rallied the locals to take up arms and push back the invading troops.

It’s a great little booklet, with more than just Revolutionary War era sites. More needs to be done in Elizabeth to increase its tourism potential (such as cleaning up the parking lot across from Boxwood), but this can serve as a model on how to market the interesting historical attractions and locations that still exist in our cities.

Back to Boxwood. This was home to Elias Boudinot, Commissary of prisoners during the war (a heartbreaking task – read Forgotten Patriots for more about the plight of captured Americans during the war) and later president of the Continental Congress. The young Alexander Hamilton stayed here while attending school and George Washington stopped here in 1789 on his way to be inaugurated as the nation’s first President.

Our tour was led by Katherine Craig, who is caretaker of Boxwood and also the author of the aforementioned walking tour booklet. [And also the person who answered the phone the night before when I called to confirm the hours and expected to get a recording. I almost hung up when she answered because she just said “Hello.” She lives on site and I gather shares the phone number with her residence. A dedicated phone line for Boxwood would be a good idea, as would an actual website page!!!]

The tour was informative and Katherine tried to engage a very shy 8 year old. Not too much really stands out in my memory about the house itself other than the former occupants (I’m writing this months later). However, the major standout of this tour was how Katherine encouraged us to visit a wide range of attractions in the area. It was here that we were given the walking tour brochure, restaurant guide to Elizabeth and information on a variety of other attractions she thought we might find interesting.

After leaving Elizabeth, we headed west on Morris Avenue (Route 82) to the campus of Kean University, where Liberty Hall Museum is located. Liberty Hall was the home of New Jersey’s first elected governor, William Livingston, and hosted George and Marsha Washington as well as Alexander Hamilton. It was passed down through the Livingston and Kean families before being deeded to the university and opened as a museum.

This is one of the state’s premier tourism sites, a true top-notch, must-see attraction. My daughter loved it. The tour is ready made for a young girl (from the dollhouse to the fashion collection – sorry, but my daughter loves that stuff). She wasn’t as impressed by the farm equipment and the restored fire engines, but I’m sure other kids are. And children of all ages will be drawn in from the start when asked to find the seven “eagles” in the front room of the main house.

The tour was a good mix of historical significance and daily life of the upper classes. (unfortunately, I have forgotten our tour guide’s name). My one suggestion is that they need to come up with some patter during the walk through the garden from the visitor center to the house. [After the house tour, we went back to the garden so my daughter could run through the hedge labyrinth.]

Liberty Hall is open from 10am to 4pm Monday to Saturday (but not on Sunday!) and also hosts special events, like Afternoon Teas. The cost is reasonable – $10 for adults and $6 for children.

From there, we continued up Morris Avenue to Springfield. Little remains from the battle because the British burned the town during their retreat. The main attractions here are the Presbyterian Church (from which hymn books were taken to use as wadding for American guns) and the Cannonball House. While the house is operated by the Springfield Historical Society, it is only open on special occasions. The namesake cannonball hangs outside the wall where it struck during the battle. There is a small plaque outside denoting that. This would be a great place for much more interpretive information about the battle and the significance of Hobart’s Gap.

We also wandered around the church cemetery for a bit, but it was a pretty quick stop since nothing was open to visit. We then continued up Morris Turnpike (Route 124) to Hobart’s Gap Road, i.e. the strategic narrowing point that the British hoped to control. The modern day highway Route 24 now runs through here, so it is difficult to get a sense of its strategic importance in the 18th century. And it’s not clearly marked. However, you can end your day by relaxing for a moment or two at the Reeves-Reed Arboretum (which we found out about because of a brochure provided by Katherine at Boxwood).

This is a great itinerary and there are plenty of places to stop for lunch along the way. In both houses, we were the only visitors on our particular tours – being a weekday during working hours (i.e. the time when these places are open for visitors). I wish we had started our day earlier so that we could have taken in some more of the Elizabeth walking tour.

Now, all we need is a series of Crossroads of the American Revolution tour itineraries for people like Katherine to have available at their locations that show the connections between all these historic resources and encourages cross-visitation of these sites.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chestnut Neck (Port Republic)

Blink and you might miss it. The Chestnut Neck Battle Monument is located right next to Route 9 before it merges with the Garden State Parkway north of Atlantic City. This tall column, surmounted by a statue of a Minute Man, commemorates the events of October 6, 1778.

Located at a bend in the Egg Harbor River, Chestnut Neck was an important trading center and base for privateers who disrupted the British supply lines up and down the Jersey coast. The British eventually sent a fleet of ships up the river and burned the entire town.

Chestnut Neck was never rebuilt. Today, there are a few contemporary houses and a marina sits on the approximate site of the original storehouses. The sight of the town’s fort is off-limits as part of a nature reserve. However, you can still walk around the area and picture the British ships across the flat salt marshes, making their way along the winding river. Imagine the terror of the residents as they watched the enemy’s slow arrival, knowing that General Pulaski’s reinforcements were still a day or two away.

After the town’s destruction, the survivors moved inland to settle Port Republic. A cemetery there contains the graves of many Revolutionary War soldiers. Each grave is marked with a flag, which - according to the staff at the nearby municipal building - the mayor organizes the Boy Scouts to replace periodically.

This is real small-town America. I took a walk along the two or three block main drag and drove through most of the rest of town. If you approach the town from the south, you’ll cross the Mill Pond and pass the 1750’s era Franklin Inn (a private residence today). From Port Republic, head east on Chestnut Neck Road to the monument. Continue up the side road past the monument to reach the site of the original settlement.

While there are no visitor sites or amenities in Port Republic or Chestnut Neck, it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour. If you want some local flavor, do what I did and pop into the cozy municipal building.

By the way, the British continued inland and eventually confronted and defeated Pulaski, killing most of his troops. There’s a park and marker just across the river in Little Egg Harbor. While it’s only worth a stop for die-hards, it’s interesting to note that all the local streets here are named after Polish contributors to American independence.

After a day at the roulette wheel, it’s worth taking the small detour to Chestnut Neck to get a flavor for one of the least known aspects of New Jersey’s contribution to American Independence – the privateer war. It’s also darn pretty countryside, too.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Trenton - Patriot's Week

This post is a bit of a bummer, really. Every Christmas, I've had to miss Patriots' Week in Trenton because we visit relatives out of state. But this year would be different! We were staying home for the holiday and I had my Patriots' Week itinerary all planned out. But it was not to be.
The December 26 blizzard threw a monkey wrench in my plans. No Trenton battle reenactments for me.

And even though, the Trenton Battlefield walk went on as scheduled, those of us in Somerset County were still socked in with the snow. Imagine walking through the current streets of Trenton along the same paths as the Continental and Hessian forces! Well, that's what I would have to do. Just imagine it.

I was able to get down to Trenton one day, though, and took a behind-the scenes tour of the New Jersey State House, parts of which date to 1792. Well worth it is you get the chance. If you ever wondered what the big state seal over the State House entrance looks like from the inside, check out the pictures.

Exterior (over door)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fort Lee

Here’s where it all began. New Jersey’s status as the Crossroads of the American Revolution began in the early dawn hours 234 years ago today. There were certainly skirmishes and other activity in the state prior to that, but the fall of Fort Lee marked the state’s first major engagement and the commencement of a five year period where Washington and his troops would spend more time on the soil of New Jersey than any other state.

The fort was named after General Charles Lee as the twin bastion to Fort Washington across the Hudson River. The naming of these forts indicates the high regard in which both generals were held and underscores just how momentous Lee’s court martial would be after the Battle of Monmouth.

General Washington watched the British take his namesake fort from this spot on November 16, 1776. Four days later he would lead his depleted army on a harrowing “Retreat Across the Jerseys “ keeping one step ahead of the British and saving his troops to fight decisive battles just one month later in Trenton and Princeton.

View from Fort Lee
What is fascinating about this spot is that you can stand where Washington stood and look across to upper Manhattan. But instead of the British looting Fort Washington you see skyscrapers and the George Washington Bridge. To my mind, it is one of the most evocative Revolutionary War spots in all of New Jersey.

While places like Monmouth Battlefield have gone to great pains to preserve an accurate 18th century landscape, that is simply not possible here. Fort Lee is a place where the past and present collide. It forces you to think about what the American Revolution means to us today: how we went from a rag tag band of rebels with little hope for success to arguably the most powerful nation in the world. It makes you consider how the ideals of independence and freedom play out in our society today.

Now, as to the visitor experience – which is the reason for this blog to begin with – it is difficult for me to assess. As you may have noticed from the date of this blog entry, I visited on the anniversary of the fall of Fort Lee. So, the day was not a typical one – lots of re-enactors and other great activity.

There is a decent visitor center with a number of displays about the battle for control of the Hudson River that helps put the fort in context. Some of the interactive displays were not working on my visit, but I was told that they are going to renovate the exhibits soon. I’ll have to check back. [Fort Lee Historic Park is part of the Palisades Interstate Park. Their website has information about the park and history, but it could use an overhaul to make it better organized and easier to find information.]

The main fortress was located across the street from the current park – down a hill and up another hill. It is now a mixed commercial/residential neighborhood. It is difficult to place the fort, but there are maps in the park to help you. The town has also created Monument Park on part of the original site as “the only park in the United States that is dedicated to the soldiers of the American Revolution.” There’s an interesting statue there, as well.

In addition to the fort itself, you’ll want to drive along the river (Henry Hudson Drive) to get a view of the Palisades as the British would have seen it when they approached the fort. The Kearney House (circa 1761) makes a good stop, although it is infrequently open (even today when there was all the activity at the fort). Nearby is a sign marking the path the British took to climb the Palisades after they landed on shore (although the actual site of the landing and the climb is in dispute).

All in all, Fort Lee is a fascinating place to visit with quite a bit to see and do. Most importantly, it is an essential stop as the first “route marker” of the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dey Mansion (Wayne)

I had to go up to Paterson today for work. I wasn't going to make it back to the office at any reasonable time, so I planned on spending the latter half of the afternoon hiking the Long Pond Ironworks. Alas, I threw shorts and a t-shirt in my car, but forgot walking shoes. Wingtips weren't going to cut it. So, I called an audible and decided to head out to Dey Manson in Wayne.

The drive out through Totowa was interesting, as I passed a couple of 18th century buildings slotted into the tightly packed mid-20th century housing developments (see photo at right).

Dey Mansion's claim to fame is that General Washington used it as his headquarters for a few months in the summer and fall of 1780.

He moved his operations here shortly after the Battle of Springfield to keep a closer eye on the British. The bulk of British army had moved into New York after their last failed attempt to break through Hobart's Gap and take out Washington in Morristown.

The house itself is fairly interesting architecturally,grand Georgian with some Dutch touches. It has some interesting pieces evocative of Washington's time here. My tour guide was a little obsessed with Winston Churchill, for some reason (there is some loose connection to the house).

The real fun part of the house is the attic. It's set up as a home museum, with a little of this and a little of that. Reminds me of the "displays" we would set up as kids. It was neat to be able to wander around the attic.

Main issue for the first time visitor is that there is only one tour guide -- and if she is on an upper floor, she can't hear you at the door, which is locked. I almost left, assuming it was closed. However, I decided to wander the grounds for a bit since I had nowhere in particular to be. After a while the front door opened with visitors leaving the house. Like most things in my travels, this could be easily remedied by putting a sign on the door letting visitors know that a tour is in progress.

[Note: I'm writing this months after the fact, so I don't recall too many specifics about the tour itself, other than the multiple references to Winston Churchill.]

On a side note, I also had a chance to visit Lambert Castle in Paterson. No Rev War connections - it's from the Gilded Age - but if you are anywhere near Paterson, this and the Great Falls are must-see places.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sunday: No Visitors Wanted

I woke up on a rainy Sunday morning and wondered what I could do. Hmm let's go online and see what's open.

How about Liberty Hall, home of New Jersey’s first elected governor and signer of the Constitution, William Livingston? Nope, closed on Sunday.

Boxwood Hall, home of Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress? Closed on Sunday.

And the list went on and on.

So what did I do on a wet summer Sunday?

Not visit any of New Jersey's Revolutionary War sites, that's what.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Van Veghten House

I had to take some old computer equipment to the Somerset Country recycling center, and the Van Veghten House just down the road happened to be open this afternoon. So my daughter and I hopped on down.

I mentioned the house in my Middlebrook post last year as one of the five homes that served as headquarters for Washington and his generals in the winter of 1778-79. This one was used by Quartermaster Nathanael Greene.

There really isn't much to see in the house. It's mainly used as a library and offices for the Somerset County Historical Society. As I wrote last year, one of its compelling features is the nearly pristine view of the meandering Raritan River (just shutter your eyes to the surrounding industrial park.

Inside the house, the highlight is the main parlor that hosted a dance for General Washington and local dignitaries. General Greene wrote in a letter that his wife danced with Washington "upwards of three hours without seting [sic] down". A copy of that letter hangs on the wall. It's a fascinating read.

This is not really a visitor-ready site (my daughter showed more interest in the recycling center). However, if the Historical Society ever wants to make this a destination, they could build the whole experience around that one letter.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Old Barracks and Princeton

[Nota bene: This post covers one of the best tours of a Rev War-era site, not just in New Jersey, but in the entire country!]

Happy Birthday America!

What better way to celebrate 234 years of independence than by visiting the sites where American fortunes turned for the better. We had friends from upstate New York staying for the weekend and so I asked if they’d be interested in visiting some of the places that made this holiday possible. Their seven-year old daughter had just read a book on Washington crossing the Delaware, so the timing was perfect.

The period from December 25, 1776 to January 3, 1777 has been called the 10 Crucial Days because of the pivotal role the Battles of Trenton and Princeton played in securing our nation’s independence.

After the British took control of New York City in the fall of 1776, it looked like the high hopes of July would come to an unhappy end. The Continental forces had dwindled from more than 20,000 troops to the few thousand who retreated their way across New Jersey that November.

The soldiers’ enlistments expired on December 31. The army had suffered one humiliating defeat after another since Washington took command and the general was rightly worried that few would reenlist. If they didn’t, the Americans might lose the war simply by forfeit.

So Washington devised a plan. He would take his troops, now safely ensconced in Pennsylvania, back across the Delaware River on Christmas night and launch a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton. It would be one last attempt to score a victory and raise morale. The rest, as they say, is history.

We actually did the 10 Crucial Days tour in reverse (it was easier for us to start in Princeton because of the events scheduled there).

Our first stop was Princeton Battlefield state park. This is a really nice open park with tree-lined walking trails. The centerpieces are a memorial on the western side and the Thomas Clarke farmhouse on the eastern side. The Clarke house stood witness to the initial engagement in the Battle of Princeton on January 3rd, 1777. Being the Fourth, the park had camp re-enactors, a cannon demonstration, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Huzzah!

The house was open to the public. The museum part of the building focuses on the martial aspects of the battle (e.g. a lot of guns and musket balls), but the restored living quarters are well worth a look.

As an added bonus, the Quaker Meeting House was open today. The building served as a hospital during the battle and is still in use by an active congregation of Friends. It’s a three-minute walk from the Clarke House through a wooded path. Members of the congregation were very gracious and informative. Even if the building is not open to the public when you visit, it’s worth taking a stroll back there to see the building and get a sense of the landscape.

From Princeton, we made our way to Trenton following Quaker Road. That’s the secret back road that Washington’s troops took after the second Trenton battle, at Assunpink Creek. Look for a concrete marker in a farm field – one of twelve erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution to commemorate Washington’s route from Trenton to Princeton.

We took the Perry Street exit from Route 1 past the Trenton firehouse and turned right onto Broad Street to the Trenton Battle Monument - the site of the American artillery placement. You can actually go up to the top of the monument (a tall column) to get a better view of the terrain.

Running downhill from the monument are Warren and Broad streets, then known as King and Queen streets. The Continental forces lined up behind and between the houses and fired at the Hessians as they hastily ran up the street to engage the Americans. (St. Michael’s Church on Warren Street is one remaining witness to this scene).

We then headed downhill to Lafayette Street for the highlight of the day, the Old Barracks Museum. Built to house British forces during the French & Indian War, this is where the Hessians were quartered when the alarm was sounded that the Americans were in town.

The one-hour tour here is top-notch! Tours usually start on the hour, so plan accordingly. To bide your time, there is a nice gift shop, a TV running the NJN documentary on the 10 Crucial Days, and a somewhat random exhibit on New Jersey in the French & Indian War.

Typically, the tour involves three staff members in period costume each playing a specific 18th century role. One “musters” the group in the courtyard and takes you through the officers’ house. Another describes the role of the soldier in a typical bunkroom. Finally, you are taken to the hospital for a fascinating description of 18th century medicine. [Little known fact: the Barracks was central to Washington’s plans to inoculate the entire army against smallpox.]

I’ve taken this tour before, and it is definitely first-rate. However, since today was a holiday, the staff was limited. Instead of the typical tour, we had one staff member in contemporary clothing take us through the entire facility.

While this could have been disappointing, the fact that our tour guide was Bob Butera – in a rather natty flag tie – more than made up for the difference. He brought the history to life, marrying descriptions of the building and its surroundings to the lives of those who passed through. More importantly, he did so in a way that appealed to both the 7 year olds and the 70 year olds in our group.

Short of being able to clone him, every historic interpreter in the state should take a tour with Bob to see how it should be done!

For the final scheduled stop of the day, we headed a few miles up the Delaware River to the place where it all started, Washington Crossing – which I’ve discussed in a prior post. We spent some time on the Pennsylvania side, which has a nice map (which shows another planned crossing south of Trenton that was aborted because of ice in the river) and replicas of the Durham boats which made the crossing.

When you examine all these sites as a group, you can’t help but consider the role of providence in the American cause. Like the fact that the Hessians decided not to send out their typical scouting party that morning.

Our day out and about left us no time for the traditional July 4th barbecue, so we headed back to Princeton for dinner. On the way, we passed Morven – home to Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence. They also had activities today, but time did not permit us to stop there.

I’ve visited Morven before and it is well worth a stop, as it usually hosts an interesting exhibit in addition to the restored house itself. Hopefully, they will be able to remain open after losing their state funding during the recent budget cuts. [A fate which the Barracks was thankfully spared as lawmakers recognized that the site is integral to New Jersey’s legacy and image.]

We also passed Nassua Hall, Princeton’s University’s main building, where the British holed up under a siege from American cannon fire. One cannonball reportedly flew into a window and “beheaded” the portrait of King George. A good way to get a sense of 18th century Princeton is to take the Princeton Tour Company’s Revolutionary walking tour. I highly recommend their other tours as well. Mimi is a real pip!

After dinner, we headed up Nassau Street through the village of Kingston, passing the site of the "conference on horseback.” This is where Washington and his generals decided to head to Morristown for the winter rather than pursue the British to New Brunswick. There’s a DAR marker here too.

I decided to turn left on Church Street to follow Washington’s route for a bit. I figured it would make a nice cap to our day, since it is a pleasant drive along the tree-lined D & R Canal with preserved farmland all around.

But it was when we passed Rockingham that the magnitude of what we saw today really hit me. I’ve always “known” about the wealth of New Jersey’s Revolutionary War legacy. But it wasn’t until I was pointing it out to visitors – being able to identify a notable location on nearly every mile of our journey today – that I was actually overwhelmed by it. This state is something special.

As night fell, one of our friends said this was the most memorable Fourth of July she has ever celebrated. That’s because we actually celebrated the memory of the Fourth - in a way that is only possible in New Jersey.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New Jersey's Revolutionary War Heritage Important to State Residents

My day job requires me to keep my finger on the pulse of what the public thinks of important events of the day. Most times this involves the world of politics and policy. But it also involves issues related to quality of life and identity.

So, I was more than happy to assist the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association with establishing some benchmark measures of the importance of New Jersey's Revolutionary War heritage to residents of the state.

The full results of the poll can be found here, but some of the key findings are listed below.

• Three-in-four New Jerseyans (77%) feel it is important to preserve and promote the state’s Revolutionary War heritage, including 4-in-10 who say this is very important to them personally.

• One-in-six New Jerseyans (17%) say their home state is the first one that comes to mind when thinking of the American Revolution. This is about the same number who name either Virginia (18%), Pennsylvania (15%), or Massachusetts (14%).

• Four-in-ten New Jerseyans (41%) feel their state was one of the more important states in the Revolutionary War effort.

• Most, but not all, New Jerseyans (58%) say they are aware of at least one Revolutionary War site in the state. Just over 1-in-4 residents (28%) say they have visited one of these sites in the past five years.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Monmouth Battlefield

Monmouth Courthouse, June 1778. The site of the largest and longest land artillery battle of the Revolutionary War. And the first time the Continental forces – newly trained by Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge – stood toe-to-toe against the full might of the British army.

This weekend marked the annual reenactment of that seminal event. I’m not much of a battle reenactment aficionado. I prefer the daily life stories of both soldiers and civilians. But it is one of the hallmark Revolutionary War visitor experiences in New Jersey, and so off I went to Monmouth Battlefield State Park.

[I had another reason for heading there. The Crossroads of the American Revolution Association has hired a film crew to produce short video segments about New Jersey’s role in the fight for American Independence. They were shooting at Monmouth this weekend and I was curious to see how that was going. Hopefully, these video "ads" will help spark greater interest and awareness in this incredible part of New Jersey's heritage.]

I decided to take a somewhat “scenic” route – County Road 527 from Old Bridge through Englishtown. When I reached Route 33, I looked for the big banners advertising the reenactment.

And I looked. And looked. And looked.

No banners. In fact, if I didn’t already know where I was going, I probably would have missed the sign pointing to the exit for the park (it's on Business Route 33). Another missed opportunity. In fact, why doesn’t the state (when it has some money) invest in Diamond-vision screens for the Turnpike and the Parkway to highlight places and events in New Jersey? Talk about a captive audience!

Now, I’ve been to the park before. They have a decent visitor center (but they are in need of a good interpretive video). The building does block part of the view coming over the hill, but they are in the process of building a new visitor center that is friendlier to the landscape. So I look forward to that.

I parked by the “Continental camp.” As I walked through the rows and rows of tents, I tried to imagine what these soldiers and the family members who marched with them went through. It reached 90 degrees today – which was about 10 degrees cooler than the temperature on the day of the actual battle! The camp was even hotter than that, because the cooking fires were stoked and as part of the preparations for the oncoming battle. Walking amongst the reenactors, I caught snippets of conversation. Most of which centered on how to improve the authenticity of a uniform or replicate 18th century battlefield maneuvers.

Oddly, it put me in mind of a wedding I passed the day before. A sparkling white vintage car was parked at the church entrance. A small stand with a bottle of chilled champagne awaited the newly married couple emerging from the ceremony. I thought of how much of a “show” a wedding can be and how everyone involved worries that every detail is “exactly right” or the wedding will be ruined.

Reenactors are similar in their concern that everything has to be “just so.” However, in the latter case, they are trying to bring history to life and not just trying to fabricate a “moment.” The battle reenactment took place on just a small part of the actual battlefield, so you get some of the flavor, but it’s difficult to comprehend the full scope of that day.

The real beauty of the park is how much of the landscape’s 18th century contours are preserved. The park has many trails leading across a large section of the battlefield. (They were closed off today because of the reenactment, but I’ve visited the park before). The trails have wayside markers, including a fairly recent one I haven't seen yet that marks the site of Molly Pitcher’s cannon. The walk across the rolling hills is very enjoyable on a pleasant day (not so much when it’s 90 degrees).

There are a few 18th century buildings in and around the park – notably Old Tennent Church just outside the northwest corner of the park boundary – but most are not open to the public. However, there are working farms in the park, including one that does pick-your-own fruits during the summer and fall.

Also it’s worth taking a trip along route 522 (which cuts through the northern end of the park) to get a better sense of the troop movements from Englishtown. And speaking of which, on my drive down to the park, I passed through Englishtown and noticed that the Village Inn was open. (Wisely, they had also placed signs in the park advertising the fact). So on my way home, I stopped by.

The Village Inn is located on the intersection of routes 527 and 522 (Main and Water streets). The original 1726 structure was being used as an inn by 1766. It was enlarged a number of times in subsequent centuries, but has now been restored to its 1815 configuration.

The interior has been nicely furnished to represent an inn of both the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you visit the Indian Queen or Indian King Taverns, much of this will be familiar to you.

The volunteers are very enthusiastic and rightfully proud of their work. However, like most places, there are few resources for staff and marketing, so the Inn is only open on special occasions (such as during battlefield events) or by appointment.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Washington Crossing (and John Hart)

I was attending a meeting at the Old Barracks in Trenton today when Dennis Davidson asked if anyone wanted to visit Goat Hill Overlook. It’s a spot just south of Lambertville where George Washington made sure all boats were hidden from the British before his famous Christmas Night crossing. Goat Hill, you say?

Now, you don’t need any special permission to visit Goat Hill as the state acquired the land and opened it to the public last year. However, you do need a little guidance to find your way there. And since Dennis – who was formerly with New Jersey’s Green Acres program and a co-founder of the D&R Greenway Land Trust – was instrumental in preserving this important landscape, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity for a guided tour. [Dennis has also done his part as a private citizen to preserve our Revolutionary War-era heritage.]

So I followed Dennis north from Trenton, to a parking area off George Washington Road. A five minute walk later and we were standing on a 400 foot high hill overlooking the Delaware River towards Lambertville and New Hope. It’s fairly easy to imagine the view General Washington would have had of the activity below. Dennis feels we should rename the site in recognition of Washington's presence here, but Goat Hill is apparently what it was known as in the 18th century. As such, I'm agnostic about the name.

Since I was out and about, I decided to make a larger tour of the crossing area. I returned south along the river to Washington Crossing State Park. Now, I’ve been to the Pennsylvania side a number of times. That park is easy to access (right on the river) and has replicas of the Durham boats used to transport the Continental troops. The New Jersey park, on the other hand, is mainly separated from the river by a road and canal (so you have to really look for the official entrance).

The New Jersey park is another example of unrealized potential. The historical highlight is the Johnson Ferry House – a very nicely restored ferry/farmhouse that played a role in the crossing. If you've every driven up Route 29, you've seen this house right along the road (and like me, wondered what, if anything, it was). Well, this is worth detouring off to Pennington Road to get into the park. There is generally a knowledgeable docent on the premises (I found the emphasis on the Great Awakening intriguing, but a bit tenuous in relation to the house and its 18th century occupants).

The park also has a visitor center with display cases and a video on the “10 Crucial Days” from the crossing to the battles of Trenton and Princeton. The visitor center experience is like taking a step back in time. Unfortunately, it is to 1976 rather than 1776. Let’s just say that the visitor center needs a bit of updating (the displays are rather crammed and the video is shown on a small screen TV). I've heard good things about the staff here. However, there was no one to be found when I was there (perhaps a result of state park understaffing).

Also, it’s a little tricky getting to the Johnson Ferry House if you stop at the visitor center first. The park road loop forces you to backtrack to the entrance and then U-turn to go past the visitor center again to get to the house.

Another feature of the park is the Continental Trail, which traces the path from the riverbank to the road to Trenton. Upon leaving the park, I decided to follow that route, which is now Bear Tavern Road. Unfortunately, I didn’t get far before being stopped by a bridge closure at Jacobs Creek. There’s currently a big battle over rebuilding this bridge pitting the county's assessment of transportation needs against the preservation of a landscape that stills retains much of its 18th century character.

If you follow the detour, you can rejoin the route to the point where the army split, with General Sullivan leading a column toward the river (now Sullivan Way in Trenton) and General Greene taking a parallel route (now Parkway Avenue to Pennington Avenue).

Instead, I decided to head north to wander through some of the beautiful countryside in western Mercer County. I stuck mainly to back roads, passing Howell Living History Farm, before eventually winding up in Hopewell. [I highly recommend getting maps of Mercer and Hunterdon counties and making a day out of driving only back roads.]

I remembered that Hopewell was the home of John Hart, one of New Jersey’s five signers of the Declaration of Independence. My wife's grandmother claims a family connection to Hart, so I've become more than a bit intrigued by his life.

There is a lot of legend surrounding "Honest John," including that he lost his family in the War and died a pauper. But the evidence doesn’t support it. According to reports, he allowed Continental troops to camp on his farmland and his homestead still stands (on Hart Avenue, naturally). It's in private hands today, but a marker by the road makes it worth a drive-by.

Hart's grave lies in the yard of the First Baptist Church in Hopewell. I didn’t know what it looked like, so I was searching for an eroded 18th century stone marker. I found plenty of those – and many were fascinating in their own right – but no John Hart. Then I went back onto the main street and noticed this monstrous plinth next to the church. Oh! I had passed it the few times I’ve driven through Hopewell before and never realized what I’d been looking at!

It’s just further proof that New Jersey is probably the only state where you can go five miles in any direction and cross paths with the American Revolution. You just have to look for it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Winter Note (and a semi-retraction)

Well, I'm not getting to as many places as I had hoped when I started this project. But I will forge ahead. The fact that few sites are open during the winter months (or hours are curtailed) combined with my last experience has dampened the fire somewhat.

However, I wanted to just post a quick note amending some prior posts. I had given very good reviews to the Middlesex County properties -- Cornelius Low House and East Jersey Olde Towne, based on personal visits there with my daughter and extended family.

Coincidentally, all the first grade classes in my daughter's school took a field trip to both sites in the late autumn. My wife accompanied our daughter's class there. Based on our prior visits, expectations were high.

Unfortunately, they were not met. It appears that the staff use basically the same tour content for all groups regardless of age or interest. After standing outside in the cold and damp for 20 minutes to hear some history of the property, they were finally escorted inside the Low house.

Apparently, the tour guide in the house was not the most child-friendly. My daughter told me afterward that "She looked like she wanted us to get out of her house."

At Olde Towne, the children were led through a few of the buildings. I was told that the person who showed them the Tavern did a pretty good job. However, the 19th century schoolhouse was a snooze according to multiple sources.

It's a schoolhouse! How hard is it to make this interesting for 7 year olds? This is where you should have a pretty good program that gets the kids to imagine what it would have been like to go to school then. Teach them a sample lesson perhaps?

This is the first time our school scheduled a trip there. Based on feedback from the teachers, I wouldn't be surprised if it was also the last. What a shame.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wyckoff-Garretson House (Franklin Twp)

Writing this post actually upsets me. But I took on this endeavor with the intent to record an honest account of the typical visitor experience at historic sites across New Jersey. And unfortunately, this one got off on the wrong foot.

The Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission organized a Weekend Journey through the Past. Working together with local historic sites – many of whom hosted special events for the weekend – they devised three driving tours of the county (which are still worth noting if you live nearby and want to visit these sites at another time).

We decided to start the weekend at the Wyckoff-Garretson House in Franklin Township. Unfortunately, this was also where our weekend ended.

The Wyckoff-Garretson House is part of the Meadows Foundation, a privately owned and managed collection of historic – mainly Dutch colonial – buildings in Franklin Township. If it weren’t for the Foundation’s valiant efforts over the past 30 years, many, if not all, of these structures would have been demolished. And that is why it pains me to relay what was a needlessly negative visitor experience.

The Meadows folks were hosting a Living History weekend in conjunction with the Colonial Living History Alliance. This involved a number of re-enactors, including a small artillery regiment, open hearth cooking and 18th century music. Just the kind of thing to keep both a historically agnostic spouse and a 6 year old first-grader interested, right?

And so it seemed when we pulled into the parking lot to see groups of re-enactors mulling around the grounds. We went up to the information table and were told that the house tour would start in a minute. “OK,” I thought, “this should be a short overview of the property and its significance in early colonial life before we get to interact with the re-enactors.”

As soon as our guide, the Meadows’ executive director Mark Else, started talking – and we spent nearly 15 minutes outside the house before going in – I knew I was sadly mistaken. The “tour” turned out to be a blow-by-blow description of the architectural restoration of the house, right down to the nail heads.

Again, I have to point out how distressing it is for me to write this. Mr. Else is very passionate about the painstaking detail that went into the restoration, and rightfully so. It’s a handsome property. However, this is not the right subject matter for a general public tour, especially one with children (although even if I was on my own, I would have been bored – and I generally don’t get bored by architectural detail).

More importantly, history “works” best if you connect people to people. For example, Else pointed out the exposed “wattle and daub” material in the wall of one room and gave some basic description of how that was used in domestic construction of the time. But it took the master carpenter, who happened to be in the room, to convey how 18th century homeowners would tell their neighbors where they could find a good deposit of clay for this purpose – and then pointed in the direction of a creek a few hundred yards away. Aha! A tangible connection between 1701 and 2009!

By the time we got into the second room and the tour was already well over 30 minutes, my daughter had been squirming and was getting visibly cranky. Here she is listening to stuff which means absolutely nothing to her while she can see actual activity going on in the other rooms. My wife not so discreetly asked “What’s wrong?” a few times, but the hint was not taken. Finally, I stopped Mr. Else as he was talking about fireplace construction and pointed out that we had a six year old who was really more interested in seeing what the re-enactors were up to. And thus, I ended the tour. [My wife later told me that I had saved our marriage by doing it!]

Look. If you want to highlight the restoration, pick just a few items that spark interest (e.g. digging the dirt away from the front of the house to reveal the foot-print for the front stoop, taking off the outer cedar shakes and finding the outline for a porch bench, flipping the inner staircase over to change direction).

But here’s the larger problem. My daughter was now cranky and I had to try to reel her interest back in. She enjoyed going into the kitchen (for a bit). And she sat still for 20 minutes to listen to a really great harpsichord/violin duo play period music (I suggest you find these two recent college grads and have them at your site!!). But she never really recovered her good humor. She was ready to go.

We didn’t visit any of the other Somerset County sites that day. And when I suggested on Sunday that we visit a different site that advertised 18th century children’s games, both my wife and daughter looked at me as if I suggested we sit through a six hour German opera.

Part of the Meadows mission is “encouraging public appreciation for local heritage and vernacular architecture.” Unfortunately, my family didn’t leave there feeling “encouraged.” And this is not an uncommon occurrence, especially with privately managed sites where resources for the development of appropriate interpretive strategies and training of staff – usually volunteer – are limited or non-existent.

I tell this story because I am concerned this type of experience happens too often. Not only is my family predisposed against re-visiting this particular site, but they have developed a negative reaction toward any site. The bad experience at one site has a negative impact on every historic site. My family will be back on the history trail because I will make them. But what of others who only have a passing interest in history? Perhaps they would simply decide to spend their next free weekend at the mall or the shore.

If you run a visitor site or other historical organization, you really should think of yourself as an Ambassador for History. How you interact with the public reflects not only on your own site, but on all historical sites. And just like diplomatic ambassadors, while it’s important to know all the details of your home site, it’s even more important to understand and speak the language of your audience.

The overall mission as caretakers of our history is to get the public to place value on site preservation and truly appreciate our shared history. But the first step in this processs is to have visitors leave each site with a desire to return and recommend it to their family and friends. If you falter at the first step, you’ll never reach the ultimate goal.

Friday, September 18, 2009

William Trent House

I had a meeting in Trenton today, so I decided to stop by the 1719 William Trent House before heading home. I have never been here before (unlike the Old Trenton Barracks – which is a must-see site that I’ve promised myself to revisit sometime this year to blog on).

The Trent House is kind of a peculiar addition to this blog. While the building is most certainly coincidental with the Revolutionary War period, the interpretive strategy focuses more on illustrating early 18th century domestic life rather than any role it played during the war. It is basically the birthplace of Trenton, so you’ve got to take a look.

Let me start by saying that I found the focus on this as an exemplar of 18th century a bit amusing. William Trent was a very wealthy Philadelphia merchant who was looking for a place to build his country home. Imagine this huge Georgian house going up in the middle of nowhere, basically 100 years after New Jersey was first being settled. Then building a village (“Trent’s Town”) around it to serve the needs of the inhabitants.

Now, imagine 300 years from now, people going on tours of Donald Trump’s Manhattan Penthouse to show them what life was like in the early 21st century. That’s what I was picturing as I toured the Trent House.

A recent college grad named Diedre gave me the full tour even though I was the sole visitor on this Friday afternoon. Like the Donald, William Trent had unfashionable taste in furniture. He favored the chunky, overbearing Jacobean style for his tables and chairs – not exactly au courant in 1719. However, the house itself is light and airy, with high ceilings on both floors and lots of “wasted” space on the landings (nice if you could afford it).

Look for the floorboard that is about twice as wide as the others. It’s called the “King’s Board.” Supposedly, this board came directly from the King of England’s personal forest and was an obvious sign that the homeowner was tight with the royal clan. Either that, or the board was contraband and the owner was simply rich enough to pay off the tax inspector. Either way, old Bill Trent clearly wasn’t hurting.

The house tour is really set up to accommodate school groups. There are 18th century games and toys that visitors can play with in the children’s bedroom. And there is an archeological “dig” activity in the cellar. So, this is a decent place to take the kids.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Summer Recap

Labor Day seems as good a time as any to recap where I’ve been so far. While all the sites I visited this summer are intriguing and worthwhile in their own right, a few really stand out in terms of their appeal for the casual historical tourist. These include:
-- East Jersey Olde Towne and the Cornelius Low House, just across the river from New Brunswick with its own Revolutionary War connections (not to mention bevy of great restaurants); and
-- the City of Burlington, which offers a veritable smorgasbord of historical sites spanning both the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Proprietary House in Perth Amboy and the Wallace House in Somerville are also worth a visit when they are open, as the cities in which they are located offer other attractions as well.

Some of the other sites may only be worth a visit if you are in the area and can verify they are open when you plan to go. However, I’d also like to see more visitor information available for places that are infrequently open – please see my Middlebrook entry for more on this. I think simply providing better, or indeed any, exterior interpretive signage can greatly enhance the experience of the serendipitous tourist, and thereby increase their desire to return again to the site.

OK, so I didn’t get to as many sites as I had hoped this summer. But if the Continental Army could hunker down in New Jersey for the harshest winter it experienced, I can certainly forge ahead with my own travels during the oncoming cooler seasons. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Indian King Tavern (Haddonfield) Plus One

I squeezed in a two-fer on this trip. In addition to the main attraction – the Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield – I also stopped by Gabriel Davies Tavern in Glendora.

My wife and daughter were attending a bridal shower nearby today, so I agreed to drive them down and then set off on my own. I headed a few miles up the Kings Highway and I was soon at the Indian King Tavern.

The Tavern, built in 1750, was designated a state historic site in 1903, New Jersey’s first! This was also where the New Jersey legislature met in 1777 and declared the Colony to be a State. They also adopted New Jersey’s Great Seal while they were at it. The town of Haddonfield was also occupied by both British and Continental troops around the time of the Battle of Red Bank in late 1777. The British made their last pass through here after they evacuated Philadelphia in 1778.

I once visited the tavern as a school boy. At that time, the rooms were sparsely furnished and the highlight was the vast and spooky cellar. Today, you can no longer visit the cellar. However, the rooms are well-recreated as a typical up-scale 18th century tavern. An old tavern bench was found on site and has been reproduced with authentic booths to equip the main eating room. Those booth set-ups reminded me of the quintessential Garden State eating establishment. Had I stumbled upon New Jersey’s first diner?

While the on-site interpretation is not as detailed as the Indian Queen Tavern in East Jersey Olde Towne, it’s well worth a visit if you’re in South Jersey. Haddonfield is a pleasant town and the tavern is located on the main shopping and dining strip. You may notice a seemingly incongruous bronze dinosaur amid the shops. It’s the Hadrosaurus, New Jersey’s state dinosaur, whose skeleton was unearthed just a few blocks from the Indian King. There’s a small park at the discovery site, but there’s not much to see, as it’s difficult to get down into the small quarry where the remains were found.

After my Haddonfield excursion, I decided to make a quick stop off at the Gabriel Davies Tavern, not far from where I grew up. This house was built in 1756 – the date is clearly marked out in brickwork design on the side of the house. When I was growing up, the home was privately owned. As pre-teen boys, my friends and I prowled the wooded trails near Timber Creek, but we made sure to give “Shooky’s place” a wide berth. Legend had it that the old man who lived there would sit in his attic with a shotgun ready to take out any trespassers.

I was fascinated by the place, knowing that its history coincided with the Revolutionary War. I had heard it referred to as Hillman’s Hospital, being that George Washington designated it for potential use as a Continental Army field hospital, if needed. The house may have even cared for some of the injured from the Battle of Red Bank – there are claims of blood stains on the attic floor.

I actually never heard the name “Gabriel Davies” attached to the house until Gloucester Township opened it as a museum after the owner, William Schuck, died in 1976 and left the property to the town. I wish I had overcome my unfounded fear as a kid and actually knocked on the door while Mr. Schuck was still alive. By the time I actually stepped foot inside, the interior had been restored to resemble an 18th century home. The house is usually open every other Sunday afternoon, but I couldn’t find a good web site to help the potential visitor. [Interesting coincidence: A colleague of mine at Monmouth University recently told me that he laid out the curbstones there as his Eagle Scout project about 10 years ago.]

I wanted to mention the house here because it holds a very prominent place in my childhood. It was my daily reminder that “history” need not be a static museum experience, but a continual connection between our own era and the past. And it’s one of the main reasons why this blog exists today.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wallace House (Somerville)

Well, they say the third time’s the charm.

I had made two previous attempts to visit the Wallace House in Somerville, which George Washington used as his headquarters in 1779. The first was on a Friday afternoon, when I decided to head over after a meeting I had in town. It was about 20 minutes before they were scheduled to close and no one was there. OK. Maybe they closed up shop early.

The second attempt was during my Middlebrook Encampment mini-tour (see my July 19 entry). I had actually called the phone number that morning to check and got a recording that gave the normal operating hours and a warning to call ahead in case the site may be closed. Uh-oh! I did call ahead, but no one answered the phone. Maybe they were giving a tour? Is it closed? Is it open? I was heading out anyway and decided to risk it. Alas, it was closed!

At any rate, my wife and daughter were heading to Somerville today to shop and wanted me to come along. I agreed, under the condition that we make one more attempt to visit the Wallace House. My hopes weren’t high as we pulled into the empty parking lot. However, I was pleasantly surprised as we walked down the path to find Jim Kurzenberger, the site’s interpreter, standing outside ready to greet us.

I mentioned my previous attempts and Jim sincerely apologized. I understand that, as a state historic site, it is severely underfunded and understaffed. Basically, if Jim is absent or at a meeting, the site is closed. I don’t want to use this blog to get into a debate over funding priorities. I’ll only suggest that perhaps setting an alternate voice mail greeting for such occasions could be looked into.

Enough about my tribulations. On to the house tour. John Wallace was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who sensed the oncoming war and wanted to build a country house away from potential action. He got that wrong!

Wallace bought land from the Hardenbergh family who lived at the nearby Dutch Parsonage. This house is also part of this state historic site, but has been closed for renovation – so we didn’t get a chance to visit it.

Wallace’s house was the biggest home built in New Jersey during the war, so naturally it was chosen as the site for Washington’s headquarters. Unfortunately, the Wallaces were only willing to allow him to use half the house, so it wasn’t quite as roomy as he had hoped for, I’m sure.

This is one of the most impressive and intriguing 18th century homes I’ve visited. The woodwork detail in the central hall is fantastic. This is one house where you don’t feel like you are walking into a furnished museum, but an actual home where the residents have just stepped out. (It was fairly hot the day we visited, so I think the stuffiness may have added to the aura of authenticity).

Jim is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and did a great job with the tour. I’d say the Wallace House is well worth a special trip to Somerville to see it (and there are truly great restaurants in town and a few worthy antique galleries as well). But call ahead and schedule an appointment before you go, so you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Twin-Lights of Navesink

My brother-in-law’s family rented a house in Sea Bright this week. So while the kids played, I decided to take a quick ride across the bridge to the Twin-Lights in Highlands, NJ – another site I have passed by innumerable times, but never stopped in.

While the current lighthouse (circa 1862) is not Revolutionary War era, the spot on which it stands was an important vantage point during the war. At 200 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point along the United States’ eastern coast. There was some sort of beacon on this site at the time and it’s likely that the hill was fortified by whichever forces controlled the area. In fact, a 17th century Dutch cannon was found on the grounds during work on the buildings.

From the top of the lighthouse, you can see over to Sandy Hook, and on a clear day all the way to Manhattan. In early July of 1778, sentinels on this spot would have watched Sir Henry Clinton lead his forces onto the Hook after the Battle of Monmouth to board boats back to New York. Look at the photo above (block out the houses) and try to imagine about 10,000 British soldiers plus cooks and wives as well as horses and artillery all making their way along the narrow path up the inlet. Part of the path had actually been washed over by a strong storm and so a makeshift "floating bridge" of small boats was strung together to allow the army's passage.

Today, the light house is a fun place to visit with school-age kids. There is a small museum and plenty of picnic tables on the grounds. But make sure you pick a sunny day for your visit. When I arrived, there was thunder in the air and access to the tower was closed as a precaution. Fortunately, the storm passed and I was able to go up to the top.

The Twin-Lights also boasted the largest-ever Fresnel lens, which is on display. The light was so bright that it kept local residents awake at night and eventually the west-facing windows of the lighthouse had to be covered.

In case you are wondering, there are twin lights so that approaching ships could distinguish it from the light on Sandy Hook a few miles to the north. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse actually dates to the colonial era and is open to visitors. But since the Hook was packed with beach-goers today, I decided to leave that trip for the off-season –yet another place where I’ve been on the grounds, but never inside the building.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rockingham (Rocky Hill)

Today didn’t start out as another installment of my Garden State Revolutionary War travels. Since it was such a nice day, we decided to head to Somerset County’s Colonial Park to see the award-winning rose and herb garden in bloom. This is something we usually do at least once a summer. But when we got there the garden was locked – they had closed it the week before for renovations!

So, to make something of our day we decided to take River Road down the Millstone River to Rockingham, which was General Washington’s last war-time headquarters (and where he wrote his farewell orders to the army in 1783).

I knew the tours began on the hour and we still had some time before the last tour, so we made a quick stop at the Franklin Inn not far from the park. Colonial Park itself saw some action during the war when the British used it as a staging area for their attack on the village of Somerset Court House (now the borough of Millstone). British commander, Lord Cornwallis, occupied the Franklin Inn, then known as Annie Van Liew’s house – it wouldn’t become an inn until after the D & R Canal was built – for five days in 1777.

In 1992, the private owners of the house gave their permission to a non-profit group to run a used bookstore in the building with the intention of eventually buying it. Seventeen years later, Franklin Township decided to step in and negotiating with the owners to preserve it. As a preliminary measure, the township hired an architectural firm to study the structure. A few days after our visit, I read a newspaper report that the bookstore has been shut down. Apparently, the study found that the weight of the books was undermining the house’s structural integrity. So, for the time being you can only view it from the outside.

After spending $2.25 on a couple of books, we headed south along the D & R Canal along tree-lined River Road on its eastern bank. This is a really pleasant drive as you pass the villages of Blackwell Mills and Griggstown – each with a stop for its own historical treasure trove (look for the old terra cotta factory on your left just south of Griggstown).

We reached Rockingham about 2:40, 20 minutes before the last tour of the day. There were already six people waiting outside the door with the notice that said to “wait here.” So my daughter and I wandered through the kitchen garden, most noteworthy for its cabbages. By the time the tour guide came out take the last tour, there were now 18 people waiting.

The guide announced that the tour was limited to ten people, and as this was the last tour of the day, 8 people would have to come back another day. The last two families to arrive, one of whom had just got there and another which had been there for about 10 minutes, were left out in the cold (or heat, as it were). The tour guide encouraged them to come back another day and remarked that the maximum tour size was indicated on the website. The problem is, it wasn’t indicated on the property itself.

Would those other families come back another day? I’m not sure.

I tell this story because it was yet another instance where an incredibly simple communication (i.e. a piece of paper on the door indicating the maximum tour size) could have improved the visitor experience by at least lessening, if not eliminating, the disappointment of those (and other) late arrivers. Considering the amount of public support our historical sites could use, I don’t think risking resentment on the part of the public is a good strategy.

As to the tour itself, it was definitely worth the trip, even though not much of import really happened during those final days of the war – just a lot of parties, from what I could tell. My six-year old daughter was most impressed with the life-sized mannequin of George Washington in one of the rooms.

Rockingham is located north of Princeton, so it could be built into a day trip to that town. The grounds also have a walking trail leading down to the canal.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Middlebrook" (Somerset County)

Many people don't know that the Continental Army hunkered down in Somerset County (twice!). Even if you heard of the "Middlebrook" encampment, you might not realize it was in New Jersey, since there is no such place name today.

I did a "tour" of important sites from the Middlebrook encampment over two days this weekend, although you can easily do it in one. I have to be honest. This tour should have been one of the highlights of my adventure across New Jersey, but it left me disappointed because of the unrealized potential (more on that below).

In April 1777, General Cornwallis marched British and Hessian troops from New Brunswick to South Bound Brook, basically along what is now Easton Avenue. Their goal was to attack the American garrison in Bound Brook, which they did successfully. There is a terrific interpretive sign about the Battle of Bound Brook on the south side of the Queen's Bridge (right by the D&R Canal towpath - park in South Bound Brook and walk to the bridge).

For whatever reason, Cornwallis decided not to fortify his position in Bound Brook and withdrew to New Brunswick. Washington took this opportunity to move his troops from Morristown to Middlebrook (which to the best of my understanding is now the Martinsville section of Bridgewater - there's little easily accessible information that tells you where it is). He used this strategic location to keep an eye on the British in New Brunswick.

One of his key look-out posts is now a state park, Washington Rock. (The park is located just north of Route 22 in Dunellen and includes interpretive signage.) From this vantage point, Washington's troops had a great panoramic view from New York City to beyond New Brunswick. Unfortunately, if his troops were there today, they'd have to cut down the invasive species of trees that have been allowed to grow unabated over the past 20 years or so and now block much of the view. Umm, Boy Scout project?

From this point, I embarked on a tour of the second Middlebrook encampment (some call it "cantonment" - that distinction is for the historians to hash out). The Continental Army returned there for the winter of 1778-1779. The various generals would need headquarters, so scouts fanned out across the area to find local residents willing to let out their homes.

The artillery section of the army was sent north of the main encampment to Pluckemin. Its commander, General Henry Knox, was housed at the Jacobus Vanderveer House, just off Route 206 (it's easy to miss). If you go, there is a metal footbridge in the park just south of the house that takes you back across Route 206 and onto a walking trail along the Raritan River. Head left/north for Bedminster; after the paved trail veers from the river turn right onto the dirt trail that sticks by the river and imagine you're foraging for food for the troops. (By the way, there were two Vanderveer residences on this property at the time - the other one is now in East Jersey Olde Towne, see my last entry)

From there, I headed south on 206 to Somerville, to the headquarters of the big Kahuna himself, George Washington. That would be the Wallace House, on the south side of the railroad tracks. This is a good place to stop for lunch, as Somerville has some incredible restaurants.

I made a little side trip here into the borough of Raritan. There's a really cool bridge there (Nevius) and a nice canal park with an interesting history itself. Of interest to the colonial era- buff is that the Old Yorke Road passes through town. This was an important thoroughfare during the movement of the army across New Jersey and there is a memorial to the Naraticong peoples, who developed this road.

The next stop was the Van Veghten House, where Gen. Nathanial Greene, the quartermaster general set up shop. Despite its improbable location in the middle of an industrial park, this is probably the one spot on the tour where can you can still see the 18th century landscape. Just put your hands up on either side of your eyes to block out the warehouses and you are looking at the Raritan River marshland much as it looked 230 years ago.

A short hop north and east and I arrived at the Somerset Patriots' field (which, by the way, is a fun place to take kids for a baseball game). A game was about to start, but my interest lay across the street, with the Van Horne House, where General William Alexander, better known as Lord Stirling, was stationed.

I then headed east to Bound Brook and turned right to back across the Queen's bridge and made my final stop at the Abraham Staats House in South Bound Brook (basically making a complete circuit on my tour). This home was headquarters to Baron Von Steuben, who can take credit for turning Washington's rag-tag troops into a well-disciplined army. And there ended my tour.

Readers may notice that I've said nothing at all about the houses themselves. That's because none of them were open. The Staats house is open by appointment only (although I had the opportunity to tour the interior when my colleague Rich Veit was doing an archeological dig there a few years ago - see my Bordentown entry). The Vanderveer house is open only occasionally and the Van Veghten house is undergoing renovations. The Van Horne house is open during weekday business hours only as it is used as office space (there is a small museum inside). The Wallace house was supposed to be open, but wasn't (more on that in a later post).

Each house is actually operated by a different entity (state, county, or private), so I understand the resources needed to provide ready access are not available. The disappointment for me was not that these houses were closed, but that there was no information about their history at the site itself. The casual visitor who may have spotted a sign for the house from the main road would have come across no more than a locked building. And the chances are they would not be coming back.

The Somerset County Historical Commission actually sponsored a "5 Generals" bus tour in February. They also published a brochure so you can do the tour on your own. Terrific idea. The problem is you can only find this brochure at one of the sites!

This could be a great experience for the casual history buff and/or tourist, even without the homes being accessible. Here are some ideas:

1. Each site should have a big interpretive sign on its grounds explaining both the history of the house itself and how it fits into the larger history of the area, particularly the Revolutionary War. The signs should have a common look and logo, a timeline, and an area map.

2. Each house should post its public hours and contact information (phone and website) on the OUTSIDE of the building (Not one of these five houses posted this crucial information).

3. Each house should have a small literature rack, so visitors can pick up maps and the Middlebrook brochure. While this may be more difficult to maintain, parks are able to do it with their trail maps.

4. The state should fund, or at least allow some other entity to place, wayfinding signs throughout the area (e.g. along routes 28, 206 and 22, and major county roads) identifying it as the "Middlebrook Encampment" and identifying turn-offs for important sites. In fact, there should be signs throughout the state (all with a common look and logo) identifying important New Jersey sites as part of the Crossroads of the American Revolution.

This is a great opportunity for increasing tourism and Jersey pride that's sitting unrealized on our doorstep. It reminds me of the musical 1776 when John Adams sang, "Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?" Well, I do, and I know I'm not alone.