Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Washington's Crossing: What if the Father of our Country had had E-ZPass?

After checking out Riverview Cemetery, we made a quick pit stop at the Trenton Visitors Center in the old Masonic Lodge House located on Barrack Street, not far from the State House and the War Memorial building. The small fieldstone building was erected in 1793 and has since been replaced by a grander structure just up the street, but according to the young woman staffing the visitors center, the Masons still occasionally hold meetings there. Interestingly, the first grandmaster Mason in the New World was a Trenton native, Daniel Coxe.

A short history of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton is prominently displayed in the main room, complete with strategic troop movement maps and an outline of events. Known to Revolutionary War buffs as the ten crucial days, this period in the winter of 1776-77 started with Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night, continued with valiant fighting in Trenton and ended with a decisive victory at Princeton ten days later. These battles were particularly important to the cause, as Washington's troops were dispirited from several previous losses, and weren't re-upping after their 30-day enlistments came to a close.  Winning in New Jersey gave the Continental Army a much needed shot in the arm and the encouragement to continue fighting for the cause of freedom.

The whole venture started with the transport of 2400 troops, sizeable quantities of artillery and horses across the river from Pennsylvania to a site about 10 miles north of Trenton. Both states maintain parks at the crossing, and while I'd been to the New Jersey side, I hadn't ventured to its Pennsy counterpart. In my mind, it doesn't matter so much where Washington left from, as much as it does where he landed. But, given it's a site so closely related to New Jersey history, I agreed with Ivan that it warranted a visit.

Unlike the larger toll bridges farther downstream, the span across the river to Washington's Crossing, PA is barely wide enough to accommodate two cars passing each other. Not surprising, since it was built sometime in the 1830s. As we crossed the Delaware, I resisted the urge to stick my head out of the sunroof and gaze forward determinedly as Washington did in the famous Leutze painting. It was enough of a challenge to nudge past oncoming cars without losing the side-view mirrors.

The bridge deposited us in a tidy little village of colonial vintage, aside from the construction office-type trailers being used as temporary quarters for the visitors' center. Unfortunately, the boat sheds were also closed; Ivan told me that the replica flat-bottom Durham boats were huge and deserved a good look, so that will have to be done on a future visit.

Combining history with a little birding, we took a stroll farther on to an open grove where Washington's troops apparently massed before the crossing. Here's what we found there:

I'll leave you to mull on that one, but I'll tell you that my mom always advised making a quick visit before heading out on a trip. Perhaps Washington did, too. We can safely assume he wasn't about to turn the boat around to accommodate someone's bathroom needs.

The birding was variable; the presence of bluebird boxes led us to try to find a few, without luck. We did spy a black vulture across a pond, plus some other random songbirds and such. And I was able to get a pretty neat shot of a couple of mallards taking a rest (plus a bonus turtle to the right).

If you happen to be in the area at Christmas, it's well worth a visit for the reenactment of the crossing. You can even participate if you register in advance and wear a period costume. Be warned, though: for several years, the troops took the bridge because the river wasn't high enough to support the passage of loaded boats. It makes one even more thankful that the weather was what it was when Washington brilliantly planned to surprise the Hessians at Trenton.

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