Saturday, June 27, 2009


Each summer, my Monmouth University colleague Rich Veit takes his a class of archeology students on a “dig” somewhere in New Jersey. I first visited one of his dig sites four years ago, at the Abraham Staats House (which will be featured here in the coming weeks).

For the past three summers, his students have been tearing up the turf at the site of the original Joseph Bonaparte House in Bordentown. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Joseph was Napolean’s elder brother and King of Naples and Spain, among other titles. However, when the “Little Corporal” was dethroned, Joseph went into exile in New Jersey. He bought some property at Point Breeze, overlooking the Crosswicks Creek, and built a grand home around 1817. It burned to the ground in a mysterious fire a couple of years later. Bonaparte built another home nearby where he lived for about 20 years before returning to Europe.

Rich’s team were digging on the original house’s site. On the day I visited, the dig had unearthed some delicate neoclassical pottery decorations. Even more interesting were the remnants of the tunnels leading from the house to the Delaware River – ostensibly for a quick escape should the British happen to show up. (The site is privately owned, so unfortunately not accessible to the public).

OK, I know the Bonaparte stuff is not Revolutionary War related. But it got me to Bordentown. So after visiting the dig, I decided to head downhill and explore the town first settled by Quakers from Burlington in the late 17th century.

Bordentown is a small, easily walkable, quiet town. It’s sort of been gentrified but not really. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, most everything was closed or privately owned. I spent most of my time peering in windows and taking pictures (which is why a police officer pulled over and asked me what I was up to – but he was very nice about it).

My first stop was the Friends Meeting House (1740). There’s a lot of Quaker influence in this part of the world and it’s great to see these places have been kept up and used throughout the past centuries. I decided to head up Crosswicks Road for a bit and then turned left on Second Street until it ended at Bank Street (nothing Revolutionary War here, but I appreciated the old town hall clock and some interesting residential architecture).

At this point, there’s a little park that overlooks the creek and an industrial building (but has some attractive late 19th century/early 20th century homes on the other side). You can also see the marina below Route 295 as it traverses Duck Island.

As I exited the park, I saw the back of a statue in the middle of the street. It turned out to be Thomas Paine! It seems the author of “Common Sense” lived in Bordentown for a while. In fact, it was the only place he ever owned property.

I continued down Farnsworth Street (the main drag) just a couple of blocks to the corner of Park, where a trio of Revolutionary War era houses sit. The most significant of these - in terms of the war - belonged to Francis Hopkinson, one of New Jersey’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and the designer of the Stars and Stripes. (Betsy Ross defenders beware – there is more evidence for the Hopkinson claim!) Generations of the Hopkinson family continued to live in Bordentown after the war, as I discovered when I explored Christ Church cemetary on Prince Street.

There is also a short hiking trail by an old mill run, which I happened to stumble on as I was leaving town (it’s at the bottom of a steep street that looks like a private road, but isn’t). There are also a few remains of the old rail terminal (which is down the tracks from the present station – at the back of the parking lot), which gives you an idea of what a hub this town must have been 150 years ago.

Bordentown has plenty of Revolutionary War history (e.g. 22 moored ships were destroyed by the British in a May 1778 raid). However, the history is not celebrated in quite the same way as downstream in Burlington City. This is probably because most of the 18th century properties here are privately owned. Still it is a very pleasant place to spend an hour or two walking around. It’s also a great place to park and take NJ Transit’s River Line train for an excursion through the Delaware river towns (which I have yet to do myself).

[You’ll note that I have finally remembered to take some pictures.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a resident of Bordentown, I have found your observations and explorations of this lovely and historical place very interesting. I knew most of the historical facts that you mentioned, but did not know that the British destroyed 22 moored ships in 1778. In general, it's hard to imagine that this quiet town was once such a hotbed of activity. Thanks for your post!

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