I thought I knew the story here: the house was once owned by loyalists named Zabriskie, and after the war, it was given to Major General Baron von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental Army. That's all correct, but this is much more than a colonial house site. If you're to believe the signage that's gone up since my lunching visits, New Bridge Landing is the site of the real George Washington Bridge.
Today, the Hackensack barely flows past the Steuben house, having been impounded a few miles upstream to feed the Oradell Reservoir. At the time of the Revolution, though, the old Hacky was deep enough to supply a gristmill on site, supplemented by a nearby pool to make up for the effects of the river's tides. A wooden bridge there was the southernmost point at which the river could be crossed by man-made span, and commercial traffic took full advantage of the opportunity. The land surrounding the river farther downstream was even marshier than it is today, making it nearly impossible to build useful roads. If the muck didn't get you, the mosquitoes would.
|This steel swing bridge replaced the "Washington" bridge |
in 1888 and is the oldest span of its type in New Jersey.
Washington was already in the town of Hackensack and met his troops as they neared the crossing. Uncontested by the British, the men made it across the river, marched toward Hackensack and eventually made their way to Newark to recoup. It wasn't until the following day that Cornwallis' troops moved to capture the bridge, which they did successfully despite the efforts of the Continentals' rear guard.
Writer Thomas Paine was an eyewitness to the crossing and related the news in his tract The American Crisis, published about a month later. The decisive battles of Trenton and Princeton were yet to occur, and Paine was pretty much an embedded reporter in current day parlance. His opening words, "These are the times that try mens' souls" were written in New Jersey and still stir passion in the hearts of American patriots today.
Things are a lot more peaceful at New Bridge Landing now. Even though Route 4 and busy Hackensack Avenue aren't far away, you can conjure your own little calm by standing on the bridge and looking south. When we were there, the tide was out and Ivan noted that the mudflats would be great for shorebirds. We didn't see too much avian action but heard quite a bit of spring song in the air. A passive recreation park and greenway on the eastern side of the bridge offers even more opportunity to relax and get back to nature, even with houses across the quiet street.
The Bergen County Historical Society manages the Steuben House but hasn't held regular hours there since the property was flooded during a nor'easter in 2007. Their website has an exhaustive history of the property, along with relevant text from Paine's work.