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.