Thursday, August 29, 2013

Birding with the spirit of Bonaparte: our visit to Point Breeze

New Jersey has long attracted birders both professional and avocational, all seeking views of the broad variety of our avian residents and visitors. Due to our strategic position on the Atlantic flyway, the state's airspace is a virtual superhighway for hundreds of species of birds as they migrate between their summer and winter habitats. While the names of many of the early ornithologists aren't well known outside of birding circles, you might recognize those like John James Audubon and Charles Bonaparte, both of whom lived in the Garden State for a time in the early 1800s.

Long-time readers might remember our story on Bonaparte's discovery of the female Cape May warbler. We'd originally found the site of his home, Point Breeze, on our visit to Bordentown last summer, though we didn't venture onto the property. Now the home of Divine Word Missionaries' East Coast facility, access to the acreage is restricted to residents and guests who've arranged permission in advance.

Enter noted birder and Hidden New Jersey friend Rick Wright, who invited us to scout out the property with him and his wife Alison. Believe it or not, fall migration is already underway, and what better place to bid warblers a bon voyage than the former home of a man who shaped birding history? Naturally, I was also intrigued by the property's connection to Napoleon's family and their European exile, so I didn't need to be asked twice. Rick had already gained permission from Divine Word; we were set to go.

The weather was overcast and humid on our arrival; we hoped we wouldn't be rained on, at least until we'd had a chance to explore a bit.

The Divine Word grounds are well-manicured, with broad expanses of grass around the few 1950s-era buildings and a driveway. There's only one building left from the 1800s -- a small stone house built for one of Joseph Bonaparte's advisors next to the area which once held a formal garden. Hearing very little in the way of birds, we decided to check out the trees at the perimeter of the property and explore from there.

Hidden NJ, Point Breeze, Bonaparte, Bordentown NJ
The view from the Point Breeze property.
Those trees blocked what must have been an extraordinary view at one time. Point Breeze was named for its place on a bluff high above Crosswicks Creek, which we could see in spots through the thick foliage. Fortunately we found a wider view on the southern edge of the manicured area, where trees gave way to lower brush on a steep slope that led down to a marshy valley of sorts. According to the 160 year-old surveyors map Rick had found, that expanse had been the site of a small lake created when the Bonapartes dammed Thornton Creek. The vantage point gave us what would often be an ideal view of a nice resting spot for migrants, but the pickings were rather slim. Alison spotted a distant kingfisher perched above a small expanse of water, and a couple of cormorants were visible in the creek beyond.

"Maybe we should try channeling the spirit of Bonaparte," I suggested to the chuckles of my companions. Who knows? Perhaps he'd take pity on us and help some fellow birders find a productive patch on the property.

Hoping for more success in the woods, we found a barely-noticeable break in some nearby underbrush and headed in. Again, but for the constant whirring of the usual annual cicadas, we were hearing virtually nothing but the occasional mewing of random catbirds or a complaining blue jay.

While I was jazzed about birding in the footsteps of a great ornithologist, my real interest in the woods was the potential for finding evidence of Bonaparte's presence there. Much has been made in certain circles of a tunnel system extending from the family mansion's basement to the creekside, but I was interested in finding other structures. Would we find a brick-paved path or perhaps a well?

Point Breeze, Bonaparte, Hidden NJ, Bordentown NJ
This arch probably supported a carriage path through the
woods; it appears that a stream flowed beneath it.
Our path turned into a sandy wash, clearly the route taken by runoff from the higher elevation property. Looking for a vantage point, Ivan scrambled up an embankment that appeared too uniform not to be manmade, and noted that there might have been a path of some sort there. Sure enough, as the rest of us walked further down the wash, we found a brick arch that was built to support what must have been a carriage path.

A look toward the creek exposed some possible aquatic life, but beyond the catbirds, nuthatches and a wren or two, we weren't hearing or seeing much else at all. The day may have been a bust birding-wise, but it was a great scouting expedition and a view into a truly hidden aspect of New Jersey history. Given more favorable conditions, it definitely would be a wonderful place to find a wide variety of songbirds in migration.

And while he apparently couldn't influence the migration, maybe Bonaparte helped us out, after all. Not two minutes after we got into the car to leave, raindrops started falling on the windshield, the start of what became a persistent storm.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Menlo Park Ink? Edison's hidden link to body art.

What does Thomas Edison have in common with L.A. Ink's Kat Von D, a gazillion bikers and legions of hipster Brooklynites?

If you guessed they all have tattoos, you'd be close. Edison most likely didn't sport ink (I could be wrong), but he invented the electric pen, which was later adapted into the precursor of the instrument used to apply permanent skin artwork today.

Born in Edison's Newark lab in 1876 and patented after his move to Menlo Park, the electric pen was conceived with business uses in mind. His invention was actually a stencil maker, a battery-operated pen whose tip had a stylus that rapidly perforated the paper as the user wrote. The finished document would then be run through a press that forced ink through the perforations onto another piece of paper, printing an exact duplicate of the original document.

Edison believed that document-dependent businesses like banks, law firms and insurance companies would be quick to grasp the time- and labor-saving benefits of his invention, and many did, despite the challenges presented by the device's sometimes temperamental battery arrangement. Not surprisingly, enthusiasm was a bit more muted from clerks whose work was being severely curtailed as a result of the machine's prodigious output. The business soon expanded worldwide.

Other manufacturers soon devised ways around the battery issues, and Edison lost his dominant share in the electric pen market. He sold the patent to Western Electric, then reacquired it and sold it to A.B. Dick, who reverently proclaimed Edison the "father of mimeography." Eventually the whole industry declined with the increasing use of typewriters, though A.B. Dick profitably adapted the printing concept into the mimeograph press many of us recall from the 60's and 70's. (Remember those blue 'ditto' sheets and the chemical smell when they were fresh off the press?)

What does this have to do with tattoos? In 1891 a New York tattoo artist named Samuel O'Reilly realized that with the addition of tubing and an ink reservoir, Edison's pen could quickly and efficiently deposit ink into the skin, saving both time for the artist and probably a lot of pain for the recipient. Other artists later experimented with electromagnetic motors, reducing the pen's weight and allowing for greater dexterity.

Regardless, Edison had inadvertently spurred innovation in a field in which he likely had absolutely no interest. I do wonder, though: if he had gotten a tattoo, what would it be of?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Creativity in the Palisades: the Art Colony of Ridgefield

Not far from the early 20th century film studios of Fort Lee was once a thriving artists' colony named Grantwood, nestled in the Palisades in the town of Ridgefield. Drive around town today, and you might see last vestiges of the community in street names like Studio Road and Art Lane, or a few remaining homes of the era.

The first community of artists arrived in Ridgefield in the 1890s, with illustrators James Maxfield and Van Dearing Perrine in the vanguard. Capitalizing on the then-bucolic setting to sketch directly from nature, they soon brought other artists to the New Jersey side, bolstering Perrine's Country Sketch Club and widening the range of media being practiced in the community. The club arranged shows of members' works at the National Academy of Design and Art Institute of Chicago, raising the art community's awareness of the enclave in the Palisades while raising funds to construct a clubhouse where its members could work and gather.

Starting in 1912, a second wave of artists and writers brought a decidedly modernist dimension to Grantwood. In some ways, this new generation followed the common mantra we still hear today about those who cross the river from New York: they sought someplace much quieter and less expensive than New York, with the proximity to maintain ties to the thriving art communities of Greenwich Village. Man Ray, in particular, saw Ridgefield as his Walden Pond, a place where, like Thoreau, he could escape civilization and cultivate his artistic being. Writer Alfred Kreymborg, another arrival, blissfully described "the view of the Jersey Meadows, striped and streaked with the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, lazily rolling away to the horizon."

Just as Maxfield and Perrine had spirited their colleagues across the river, Man Ray attracted progressive thinkers to Grantwood, envisioning "an advanced cultural center embracing all the arts" among the hillside shacks and cottages they built for shelter. Fellow Surrealist and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp lived in the colony for a time, and poet Marianne Moore visited periodically with other like-minded city artists. The resulting group became better known in the greater arts world as "The Others."

Among the writers who flocked to Grantwood (albeit from within the state) was poet William Carlos Williams, who also practiced medicine in Rutherford as his artistic acclaim grew. In his later years, Williams mentored Beat movement poets, most notably Paterson's Allen Ginsberg, whose letters he included in his own epic poem, Paterson. More notoriously, Grantwood earned a reputation for radicalism in some circles, no doubt due to the presence of noted anarchist Emma Goldman in 1910.

Encroaching industry and suburbanization eventually erased the idyllic scenery and peace that had drawn and enraptured so many creative souls and free thinkers, and the colony faded with it. If you look carefully, though, you'll still find a few vantage points where Ridgefield's hills and the meadows below reveal a little of what attracted Maxfield, Perrine, Man Ray and those who followed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cadwalader crossing the Delaware: hidden Revolutionary history

Everyone knows about Washington's legendary crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776. This bold move enabled Continental troops to surprise Hessian troops at Trenton, starting a chain of events that reversed the tide of the Revolutionary War.

What's not discussed very often is Washington's plan for a southern landing at an additional location about 20 miles south of Trenton at Dunk's Ferry. About 1500 men under the command of General John Calawalder took to the freezing waters of the Delaware with the goal of attacking the Hessians stationed in Burlington County. Their assault, it was thought, would divert attention from the Trenton invasion, busying Hessian troops who otherwise might be called north for fortification.

The site of Dunk's Ferry is now a park in Beverly, NJ.
Accounts of ice floes and bitter winds at Washington's crossing are echoed in the recollections of soldiers who attempted to reach the Burlington landing site, but what they found closer to the New Jersey shoreline was even more challenging than what their counterparts were experiencing to the north. A solid 150 yard wide sheet of ice prevented the boats from landing on the proper shore, and those carrying the troops' artillery were carried further downstream, mired among floating ice.

At that point, the surprise invasion became a case of "hurry up and wait." The 600 or so troops that had made it as far as the ice sheet were ordered to wait for further orders as Cadwalader contemplated his options. Would it be prudent to follow through on Washington's orders without the benefit of supporting artillery?

After three hours of waiting in the bitter, wind-driven cold, the troops received their orders: retreat to their point of origin at Bristol, Pennsylvania. Many of the troops felt that their efforts to reach the shore should not be wasted, and some even considered moving forward without Cadwalader. However, wiser heads prevailed, noting that they would be able to continue to support the patriot movement if Washington's plan proved unsuccessful. That, fortunately, wasn't an issue, but the ten days to follow were to be among the most crucial to the future of the young nation. Cadwalader and his men eventually made their way to New Jersey and northward, supporting Washington at the Battle of Princeton.

Today, Dunk's Ferry is better known as the town of Beverly, and the only visible sign of the planned landing site is a memorial erected by the town for the Bicentennial in 1776. Even that marker avoids mentioning the aborted landing, mentioning only that Washington and his troops used the site.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

When is a harbor not a harbor? When it's Egg Harbor City.

After a recent trip to Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, we turned westward on county roads in the hopes of finding something interesting. We soon noticed a prevalence of street signs with German names: Bremen, Cologne, Frankfurt and more, plus Havana thrown in for some reason.

We'd stumbled upon Egg Harbor City, a harbor city that lacks a waterway. Not to be confused with Egg Harbor Township a few miles to the southeast, this community owes its existence to two signature mid-19th century trends: railroad expansion and nativism.

Chartered in 1852, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad had been built from Philadelphia to the coast to transport visitors to the planned resort destination of Atlantic City. The new railroad's board, however, realized that traffic on the new route would be highly seasonal, as there wasn't much else on the shore to attract city dwellers, or anyone else, for that matter. Between the terminal points of the railroad were wide expanses of sparsely-populated land that wouldn't yield passengers, either.

At the same time, German immigrants were facing mounting discrimination, personified by rapidly growing nativist organizations like the Know-Nothing Party. Subject to random and increasing violence in cities around the country, many sought places where they could live peacefully and live the American dream so many of them had traveled here to enjoy. They'd escaped tyranny in their home country only to find further oppression when they arrived here.

Several wealthy German-Americans were on the first train sent from Philadelphia to Atlantic City on the Camden and Atlantic, and the trip through virtually untouched woods and countryside must have inspired them. They soon formed the Gloucester Town and Farm Association to purchase almost 40,000 acres of the land they'd traveled across. First planning two cities, they eventually settled on building one community consisting of an urban core surrounded by farmland.

Marketing the new town nationwide but only through German language publications and agents within predominantly German communities, the Association sold shares which represented rights to 20 acres of farmland and a building lot within the designated downtown area. A widely distributed brochure promised "a new German home in America. A refuge for all German countrymen who want to combine and enjoy American freedom with German Gemutlichkeit, sociability and happiness." (Gemutlichkeit is one of those words that doesn't really translate well; it basically means contentment and cheerfulness.) When settlers arrived, they found what must have seemed like heaven on earth: a welcoming community where they could live and raise their families in peace.

That explains the German names, but what about the harbor? Present day maps of the city give you a pretty good idea of how the best laid plans can be diverted by reality. While the founders may have envisioned that burgeoning industry would prompt the city to grow more densely outward toward its border against the Mullica River, the land between downtown and the anticipated harbor was better suited for other uses. John C. Wild soon discovered that the soil was ideal for growing grapes, attracting a host of other Germans, Italians and French immigrants experienced in wine making. In 1864, Egg Harbor City became home to Renault Winery, ushering New Jersey into a new industry which persists today. It doesn't seem likely that the bustling harbor will ever be built.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ambush at River Vale: the Baylor massacre

After an impromptu trip to Lake Tappan, Ivan and I found ourselves wandering just north of the state border in New York, looking for the site where British intelligence officer Major John Andre was hanged during the Revolutionary War. The town of Tappan has done a lovely job of retaining a historical air, and we couldn't help but do some light exploring around the yard of the Reformed Church. Among the aged and faded Colonial-era markers, we found something a bit more modern, with a New Jersey connection.

This was one I hadn't heard about, so I took a quick photo and made a note to look it up once we returned to Hidden New Jersey HQ. Might this ambush be something like the Hancock's Bridge massacre that had taken place in Salem County in March 1778? With so little data, all we could do was conjecture as we headed back home through the back roads of upper Bergen County.

The Baylor Massacre memorial and grave site.
As the Hidden New Jersey fates seem to determine sometimes, it wasn't long before we found ourselves passing a sign saying "Baylor Massacre burial site" and pointing to a park in River Vale. This coincidence was too, well, coincidental for us not to stop and investigate. What we found was a wooded park with memorials and a series of interpretive signs that tell the story of the area in Colonial times, the personalities involved, the massacre itself, and the archaeological work that's been done on site. We quickly found ourselves engrossed in an event which, while small in the overall scope of the Revolution, brings the horror of war home, to suburbia.

The Third Continental Light Dragoons hailed from Virginia and were led by 26 year-old Colonel George Baylor, a former aide-de-camp of General George Washington. They had little if any battle experience, being used primarily for reconnaissance and escort. In fact, Baylor's regiment was known as Lady Washington's guards in recognition to their service to the future first lady. As such, they were also lightly armed with sabers and a few pistols.

During the summer of 1778, the Third Dragoons were stationed in Paramus while Baylor's second in command, Major Alexander Clough, worked the area for intelligence and to recruit spies. When the British began to forage the area for food and supplies in late September, Washington ordered Continental troops to protect the area in an arc reaching from Newark into New York State. Baylor took quarter in a home on the main road through what's now River Vale, and his men took shelter in barns and other structures nearby.

From all appearances, they had no knowledge that British General Lord Cornwallis was planning to lure Washington and his troops into a battle. On the evening of September 28, 1778, Baylor's 104 enlisted men were fast asleep in several barns when they were ambushed by troops led by Major General Charles Grey. The attackers struck by surprise, and few if any dragoons in one barn could hear disturbances from another under siege, since Grey had instructed his troops to use bayonets rather than firing their flint-lock muskets.

The British acted with malicious savagery, spurred on by their commander's reputation for cruelty. Many dragoons were said to have been bayoneted repeatedly despite their cries of surrender, and Congressional investigation later determined that 11 were killed on the spot while 37 others managed to escape. The officers met a similar fate. Discovered in the house where they were staying, one was slashed to death while Baylor himself sustained injuries that continued to manifest until his death at the age of 32, six years later. Those troops who survived the night were brought to a makeshift hospital and prison within the church at Tappan, the site where Ivan and I originally discovered the story.

Originally the site of a tannery, the property apparently had eventually lain fallow for nearly 200 years, its history forgotten once a commemorative marker and the mill stone were removed. The remains of some of the murdered dragoons were said to have been entombed in tanning vats on the property, but their exact location was unknown. It was an unfortunate end for patriots who'd given their lives for our young country, but at least their final resting place was a placid one, near the meandering Hackensack River.

Their peace was threatened in the late 1960s, when a builder made plans to subdivide the tract for a housing development. Local citizens raised the alarm, and the county hired three college students to research the claims, interview older residents who remembered accounts of the massacre, and dig within the site for any evidence that would support the assertion that soldiers were buried there. The team ultimately found six skeletons, a belt buckle and other artifacts, confirming the importance of the site.

While the names of the found six dragoons are lost to history, their resting spot and story thankfully are not. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a commemorative marker to mark the spot where the soldiers' remains were reinterred, and the original tannery mill wheel was returned to the location, as well. And, of course, the acreage remains wooded and quiet, destined to never be marred by a developer's backhoe.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Choo choo... moo moo: the railroad at Becker Farm

A few weeks ago we were knocking around Phillipsburg when we came upon the curious sight of several weathered old train cars sitting along what looked to be an old railroad siding. We'd come upon the property of the Phillipsburg Railroad Historians, who have been working for more than 20 years to establish a rail museum for the state on land that had once been owned by the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

Tiny tracks, as laid out
in Phillipsburg
Among the rolling stock, we noticed a curious thing -- very narrow gauge track, some of which had been laid down, other portions of which were stacked neatly. The whole thing reminded me of the old Lionel track lengths I used in my dad's model railroad layout as a kid, only there were no rail cars of proper size to run on it.

As I later discovered, this was a case where not just a few cars, but an entire railroad is in the process of being relocated, to be enjoyed by a whole new generation. We'd found vestiges of the Centerville and Southwestern Railroad, the line that once operated on Becker Farm in Roseland.

Say "Becker Farm" to many North Jersey residents, and it conjures the image of an office park where scores of Newark businesses settled after leaving the city for suburbia. Close by Route 280, the land is home to law firms, accounting offices and other white collar businesses. You could say that cubicle farms now stand where cows once grazed.

And on that dairy farm, it seems, was a real, operating train, not for transporting freight but for fun. Farmer Eugene Becker apparently was a bit of a rail fan, and starting in 1938, he built his own miniature railroad, fashioning it after the Sussex branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad on which his farm's creamery was located. He even nicknamed it "the Fresh Milk Line" and crafted a logo featuring a cow.

From 1940 until 1972, visitors to the farm could enjoy a ride on the C&S RR on weekends from early May until late October. This wasn't just a toy, though: Becker strove for authenticity, running the railroad as reliably as any full-sized operation. According to a brochure published by the family in 1955:

The C & S isn't as wide; nor as long; nor is it narrow gauge: It is a true miniature railroad, and as such, of necessity, it is operated in the same manner, as are its full size brothers. It is thought to be the only miniature railroad in the country that operates on a strict schedule; goes somewhere and comes back - not just around a loop; and runs through natural scenery, such as a trip on a full sized railroad would take you.

Visiting school groups could top off a farm tour with a ride on the railroad, and perhaps also stop by the farm stand for a cool glass of chocolate milk. Though the route was only about 7000 feet long, it had to be a real treat for rail fans, children and adults alike. Hills, curves and signalled intersections were all part of the ride, making real the fantasies of any kid who ever operated a model train set.

Like so many other great things in New Jersey, the C&S met its end with the planning of a highway. The state Department of Transportation took a large part of the Becker Farm in the construction of Route 280, denying the Beckers' request to run the Fresh Milk Line beneath the highway. Forced to reroute the track, the Beckers continued to run the railroad until 1972, when the local government changed the property's zoning from farming to commercial. Another New Jersey farm had perished, and along with it, a unique aspect of the state's railroad heritage.

Eugene Becker reportedly found a home for the railroad at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, but it fell into private hands ten years later, when curators decided it didn't fit the museum's mission. And, of course, we saw vestiges of it in Phillipsburg, where 1500 feet of miniature track has been laid. Unfortunately, plans for a more extensive layout were halted when the land was taken for other uses. Even if the Railroad Historians had been successful in laying a complete track bed, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the Becker Farm experience, bringing riders through pasture and countryside.

However, I'm told, if you look carefully around the Becker Farm corporate campus, you might find small remnants of the Centerville and Southwestern. A few bridges and cement abutments bear the railroad's insignia, a small reminder for those in the know that the once abundant New Jersey farms were both sources of fresh food and places for memorable experiences.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Exploring the Everglades of the North: ecocruising with the Hackensack Riverkeeper

On our birding ventures, both Ivan and I generally keep lists of the species we see. Invariably, the "day list" begins with the classics: house sparrow, Canada goose and American crow, with the European starling added for good measure. They're pretty much everywhere and very easily identifiable. If we were doing a count of how many of each species we saw in a given day, these few would probably be among the greatest in volume.

The other evening, in the heart of Secaucus, our first few included Forster's tern, peregrine falcon and bald eagle. Yeah, that's right: as you're riding over the Hackensack River on Route 3, you're sharing space with an astounding array of bird species, some even endangered and protected, but all there to live and eat. And they've got a bounty of food because the river is cleaner than it has been in decades. Native fish, crabs and the creatures that eat them have made their home in the Meadowlands again.

The improved condition of the river, its tributaries and the surrounding watershed is due in no small part to the work of Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan and the not-for-profit organization he leads. Through advocacy, cleanups and their fair share of lawsuits, Captain Bill and crew have led the charge in improving the river both as a source of drinking water for one of the most densely-populated areas of the country, and as a place for people to enjoy. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ivan serves on the organization's board and I've done some volunteer work for them.)

You can't see 'em, but there are two eagles in this tree.
One of Riverkeeper's top priorities is to get people out on the river, and we did just that the other day, on one of the organization's two pontoon boats. Leaving from a dock behind the Red Roof Inn on Meadowlands Parkway, we were soon motoring beneath the bridges that carry Route 3 over the Hackensack. As we passed one of the pilings supporting the westbound traffic, we saw a peregrine falcon perched in a nesting box that had been placed there by the state Department of Transportation. This endangered species appeared fully comfortable with his manmade home, yet another example of nature adapting.

When you're actually IN the Meadowlands, on the water and among the marsh grass, you're taken by how peaceful it is, as opposed to the stress of driving on the roads. Gulls and terns flew noisily overhead, putting one in the mind of boating through the back channels of the marshes down the shore. As we headed farther upriver, past the sports complex, we could see the Turnpike at ground level, the Vince Lombardi Service Area appearing like some bizarre rest stop in the middle of the Everglades.

At points, the trip even seemed to be turning into some sort of Disney World ride, with marquee birds making their appearances at strategic moments. An approaching riverside tree yielded two mature bald eagles, perched within full view as if they were waiting for us. Several osprey, still on the state's threatened species list, were perched on railroad and Turnpike bridges overhead. When we made a side trip into Mill Creek, a host of yellow- and black-crowned night herons accommodated us by taking wing and alighting onto convenient branches. Yellow-crowneds have proved particularly difficult for me to spot in my birding adventures, but I easily counted five of them foraging through the river's marshy banks and spartina grass as dusk darkened. That's a pretty big deal, and I was especially tickled to note that I saw them well before we spotted our first Canada geese for the evening. It's not surprising, actually, as the night herons have developed a rookery (nursery) near Harmon Cove in recent years.

Sunset on the Hackensack. Who'da thunk?
We weren't the only humans on the river, either. A jet skier zipped past us early in the trip, and we met up with a friendly kayaker just after we saw all the night herons. On the banks of the river at Laurel Hill Park, a father and his toddler son were enjoying the peaceful view of the sunset over the marsh. Another boat larger than ours waited patiently for a New Jersey Transit train to pass before the drawbridge could be lifted to allow both of us to motor back upriver. I couldn't help but be reminded of the long-ago days when the Hackensack was a major thoroughfare for schooners transporting raw materials and finished goods to dockside factories and merchants.

While the river has made remarkable progress in the past two decades, it's far from pristine. Crabbing is prohibited due to hazardous pollutants in the river sediment, and despite clean water regulations, outdated municipal sewerage systems continue to drain untreated wastewater (yes, that stuff) into the river after storms when their treatment facilities are overwhelmed. You're not going to get sick from boating or canoeing on the Hackensack, but it'll be some time before you can swim there on a daily basis. The Riverkeeper's work is far from done.

That, however, shouldn't keep you from checking it out for yourself. Hackensack Riverkeeper runs a full range of offerings to get you out onto the river, including canoe rentals at Laurel Hill Park and Overpeck Creek. You can even book passage to take the same sunset cruise we did. It's your river -- check it out. I guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you see.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Eloping? Give Gloucester City a try.

Add another one to the roster of people coming to New Jersey to do things that society - or their families - frowned on.

You'll remember that Alexander Hamilton and his son both crossed the Hudson to defend their respective honor due to New York's strict enforcement of 19th century dueling laws. Both ultimately met their demise at Weehawken by their opponents' fire.

Betsy Ross, Gloucester City, New Jersey Hidden New JerseyNow comes the news that another early American notable crossed the river, this time the Delaware, to avoid public disapproval. This instance, however, was for a much happier occasion.

On November 4, 1773, a 21 year old upholsterer's apprentice named Elizabeth Griscom took the ferry from Philadelphia to Gloucester City with a fellow trainee, John Ross. Hugg's Tavern was their destination, and they were crossing the Delaware to marry, defying the wishes of Elizabeth's parents. Her family were strict Quakers and strongly disapproved of John because he was Anglican, but it's said that young Betsy had a mind of her own and a liveliness that wouldn't be doused by the opinions of others.

It makes sense, in a way, that the couple would have traveled to New Jersey to get married. Though Betsy herself was born in Philadelphia, she had roots east of the Delaware, as her great grandfather emigrated to West Jersey from England in the 1680s. In any case, they returned to Philadelphia after the ceremony, and Betsy may have been expelled from the Quakers as a result of her elopement. The Rosses seem to have managed, however; they started their own upholstering business along with their new life together.

Unfortunately the marriage was to be a short one. In the war for independence, John joined the local militia and died in a gunpowder explosion in 1776. Betsy carried on her own work for the patriot cause, providing sewing services for the Continental Army.

Of course, the legend goes that Betsy's most notable contribution to the cause for independence was the creation of the American flag. Allegedly, George Washington himself asked her to sew the Stars and Stripes, though Bordentown's own Francis Hopkinson is credited by others for having determined the design. The flag seems to have been born of many parents, evolving over the years in which the Revolution took place.

In any case, all that remains of Hugg's Tavern is a small stone monument made from remnants of the old building. It was torn down in the late 1920s to make room for a playground and pool within what's now Proprietor's Park.