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.