Thursday, June 18, 2009

Burlington City

Before we get to the historic stuff, I have to say that Burlington City should be nominated as one of the friendliest towns in New Jersey. I spent an entire afternoon walking nearly every street of this Delaware River town's compact historic core. Everyone I encountered, without exception, heatily greeted me and some even started a friendly conversation.

At one point, I spotted a punky looking teenager approaching me on the sidewalk. You know the type -- slouched shoulders, baggy low-hanging pants, oversized baseball cap covering his eyebrows, fuzzy facial hair. I thought confidently to myself that this one would definitely break the streak. But as he closed to within a few feet of me, he opened his mouth: "Hello, sir. How are you today?". Huh?

As I said, put Burlington City on the Garden State Welcome list.

And its historic sites definitely make Burlington a worthy destination for a day out. Much of the downtown area retains it's colonial character. It's kind of like Alexandria, Virginia, but without the pretension.

As a town, Burlington is probably not too much bigger than it was in 1776, so it's fairly easy to imagine what this important 18th century port looked like in both size and style.

For those in the know, New Jersey was originally split into two political entities -- East and West Jersey. Burlington was the capital of West Jersey. A highlight of the town is the Council of West Jersey Proprietors' records office.

Walking into the town Library was a real trip, with portraits of prominent residents through the ages hanging over the iron railings. But what's really great about the place is the room in back, where I saw a bunch of middle-schoolers working (?) on computer terminals. This building has been continuously helping generations of local students for 220 years!

A meaningful highlight for me was the Boudinot-Bradford House on the southern edge of the historic district. The house itself is not much to look at (it's privately owned, I believe), but it has a connection to one of the more compassionate, and rarely told, stories of the Revolutionary War.

I have been reading Forgotton Patriots by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edwin Burrows. It details the squalid conditions experienced by American prisoners of war (mainly in New York), at least 10,000 of whom died in captivity. The Continental Congress appointed a very reluctant Elias Boudinot to be Commissary of Prisoners. His job was to negotiate with the British on treatment of prisoners and to get extra provisions to the captured. When Congress would not appropriate enough money for the task, Boudinot raised the funds from friends and mainly his own resources. Within a year, he was bankrupt. In the book, Burrows calls Boudinot "a saint." Boudinot went on to become President of the Coninental Congress and director of the Mint. It's a reminder that there are New Jersey politicians who do the right thing. He is buried in the nearby St. Mary's churchyard.

Other sites worth seeing (and this is just scratching the surface):
--the house where, supposedly, a teen-age Ben Franklin bought gingerbread before hopping a ferry to Philadelphia and fame.
--while not necessarily Revolutionary War, the home Ulysses S. Grant rented for his family during the Civil War (and where he was headed the night Lincoln was shot, after refusing an invitation to join the Lincolns at Ford's Theater).
--the preserved bar from the old railroad hotel.
--and, perhaps most fascinating of all, a number of sites associated with the Underground Railroad.

I happened to be in Burlington today for a Crossroads of the American Revolution Association meeting at the old Friends Meeting House, which is still used for occasional Quaker services. We got a private tour from Carol Strawson, the director, before heading for lunch at the Birches Restaurant (in an old bank building decorated with fake Birch trees -- there's even a table for two in the old bank vault).

After lunch, I decided to wander the streets on my own (fortunately, I was able to get hold of this essential map). As it was a Thursday afternoon when I visited, many of the sites were closed. Even still, I was able to spend nearly three hours walking the streets and not see everything. I'll definitely be back with my family to take one of the guided walking tours offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

This place is definitely worth the drive (or take NJ Transit's River Line right to downtown). Burlington City is not so much a trip back in time, as it is a trip that connects time.

No comments:

Post a Comment