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.