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.