Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Washington back across the Delaware? Piecing out a mosaic in Titusville.

Every once in a while, we get an interesting story by means of our readers. This is one of them. It gets a little convoluted, so stick with me.

In the midst of telling the story of the first Civil War re-enactment at a recent speaking engagement, I mentioned one of the key attendees, Major General Dan Sickles. He wasn't a New Jerseyan, but his reputation as a colorful character only proved the point that the organizer of the reenactment, Sussex County's own Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, threw one heck of a party. To illustrate Sickles' general attitude toward life, I mentioned that when his leg was amputated after an injury sustained during battle, he donated it to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC and would visit it on the anniversary of its removal.

A few of the program attendees chuckled knowingly, so I figured we had a few Civil War buffs in the audience. Nope -- even better, as I discovered when they came up to chat after the program was over. They didn't just know about Dan Sickles; they were related to him. We had a few laughs over some of the stories, and the fact that they'd admit being related to such a scamp. One thing was clear: they had a real interest in the ways that good stories become history.

Hours later, they reached out to me with a lead on a historic marker in Titusville that seems to carry a bit of mystery on its own.

Now, there's no lack of historic markers in Titusville, given the location's status as the site where George Washington and his troops landed after they crossed the Delaware in 1776. If you leave the community's boundaries without understanding how crucial the spot is in the story of our nation, there's no way you can pin blame on the locals. However, the marker the Sickles descendants mentioned doesn't explicitly mention Washington's crossing. Rather, it's a large stone with two elements: a brass plaque dedicated to the members of the Union Fire Company and Rescue Squad, dated 1976, and a colorful stone mosaic of someone we're assuming is supposed to be George Washington.

Here it is. You be the judge:

To make matters even more interesting, it stands not on the road for all to see as they drive down Route 29, but in the parking lot behind the Union Fire Company building. The artwork isn't dated, but it appears to have been completed long before 1976, and certainly well before the newish firehouse was erected. It clearly was moved from another site.

According to the Sickles descendants, that's exactly what happened. The mosaic had originally stood in front of the old Washington Hotel on Route 29, which was a resort of sorts for visitors who came by way of the Delaware-Belvidere Railroad to enjoy a few days in the countryside along the historic river. Apparently created by an experienced German-born tile maker who lived in the community, the mosaic might have been commissioned by the hotel to further honor the hero the inn owners had named their establishment for.

As the story goes, the stone and mosaic stood proudly in front of the hotel until World War I, when anti-German sentiment prompted vandals to push it off its base and roll it across the road and into the Delaware and Raritan Canal. There it sat until the 1970's, when it was fished out by firefighters and again given a place of honor.

Now, consider the ironies: honoring the memory of Continental troops crossing the Delaware to take on the Hessians in Trenton, a hotel in Titusville commissions a German American to create a likeness of General Washington. Years later, presumably patriotic Americans express their anger in war by figuratively giving the likeness the old heave-ho into the nearest approximation of the Delaware. And I hear about this from folks whose military forebear was known for his own special brand of mischief.

Whether Washington or Sickles would appreciate the story is up for conjecture, but I think we can all feel better knowing that the Father of our Country wasn't sent totally back across the Delaware out of anger against a distant enemy. One trip was enough.

Thanks to Cathy (Sickels) Fortenbaugh and Peter McGrath for the lead!


  1. I suspect these tiles were made by Herman Carl Mueller's Mueller Mosaic Tile Co of Trenton NJ.

    1. You're onto something there, BungaloBILL. I checked with Michael Padwee, a decorative arts expert who writes a blog called tilesinnewyork.blogspot.com , and he mentioned that Mueller had a summer home in Titusville. He agrees that the General Washington mosaic is likely of Mueller tile.

  2. There's also a portrait of Washington made of tiles inset on the front of the Union Fire Company. Have you heard anything about it?


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