Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The real George Washington Bridge... at New Bridge Landing

Totally exhausted from a long work week (Ivan) and a persistent head cold (me), we eschewed the usual wandering around this weekend for a more targeted trip. We'd driven through River Edge a few weeks ago, reminding me of New Bridge Landing and the Steuben House. I'd worked nearby for a stretch, and the small park there had been one of my favorite places to eat lunch on nice days. Besides the aforementioned house, a few other colonial-era buildings had been moved to the site on the banks of the Hackensack River, but I'd never been inside any of them. That was reason enough to check it out.

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.
Knowing the local terrain meant the difference between survival and surrender for Washington's troops during some of the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis' British and Hessian troops crossed the Hudson in the early hours of November 20, 1776, with the goal of capturing Fort Lee (that's the actual fort, not the town we know today) and the nearly 1000 Continental soldiers garrisoned there. If the troops didn't move fast, they'd be trapped on the narrow peninsula between the Hudson and the Hackensack. And if the British got to New Bridge first, they'd not only be able to capture the Continentals, they'd have a strategic path to penetrate New Jersey and move westward into Pennsylvania without hindrance from the patriots.

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.

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