Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Phew! It's been a year!

New Jersey’s 350th anniversary year is coming to a close, and I'm constantly amazed by how many more topics, events, people, places and birds pop up, just waiting for us to research and share with you. Just when we think we've found about as much as we can possibly find, we stumble upon another hidden spot, a reader sends an intriguing lead, or research on another topic leads to a completely different story.

Here are just a few (well, more than a few...) of our favorites from 2014:

Our favorite inventor, Thomas Edison, continues to inspire, even though his Harrison lightbulb factory is long gone and the Portland cement factory in Stewartsville has been adapted for other purposes. While his Menlo Park workshop was long ago shipped to Michigan, the re-interpreted museum on his lab site off Lincoln Highway tells the story of his many inventions.

Liberty and Prosperity, baby!
Speaking of inventors, we met several this year, including a seemingly unlikely Episcopal priest-chemist who derived the formula for flexible photographic film and the irascible Trentonian who arguably was the first to develop the steamboat.

Industrial New Jersey New Jersey’s industrial history keeps popping up in the most interesting places, including a former nail factory grounds turned park in Bridgeton, a World War munitions plant turned Atlantic County park, and the one-time piano and organ capital of the world, disguised as a lovely Warren County town.

Our perpetual search for avian visitors brought us to the first New Jersey sighting of the Neotropic Cormorant and the third-ever sighting of the Whiskered Tern. And, of course, there’s the annual wild goose chase to find rarities among the herds of Canada Geese wandering open farm fields and corporate lawns.

A search for the rarely seen King Rail led me to discover other treasures in Bayonne, including a world-class links golf course and the distinctly agricultural heritage of what was once the world’s largest petroleum refineries. Earlier in the year nature had brought me to vestiges of the city’s contribution to the American war effort of the first half of the 20th century, the ELCO electric boat works that had built the iconic World War II PT boat.

During one of my Hidden New Jersey library appearances earlier this year, an attendee asked why I wasn’t talking more about roads themselves, rather than things we find on the side of the road. Good question, as we keep finding out interesting things about the thoroughfares we travel. Some take the path of the Revolutionary-era Washington-Rochambeau Route, while others are the vestiges of a highway envisioned to honor our 16th president. Then there's the pretty much inaccessible monument that honors a man who dedicated his career to the fight for good roads (boy, do we need him now!).

And while we’re talking about thoroughfares, I'm still absolutely gobsmacked about what we’ve learned about the Morris Canal. Between our engineering lesson at the Jim and Mary Lee Museum and our stop to visit a lightly-restored excavated inclined plane at Montville, I’ve got a newfound respect for this onetime express route through the hilliest part of the state. Wandering the now-quiet landlocked port towns of Port Colden and Port Murray opened my eyes to the canal’s impact on local commerce.

We found religion, too! Not really, but travels in the southern part of the state gave us an up-close look at how communities of faith have shared fellowship in more rural areas. A tiny shul in Cumberland County stands as a reminder of the vibrant Jewish agricultural community that once farmed the surrounding fields. The Methodist camp at Malaga is as observant today as it was at its founding, with cottage owners held to strict religious requirements.

And, as always, we found plenty to recommend New Jersey as the Crossroads of the American Revolution. Researching one of our favorite lighthouses led to a surprising story of Sandy Hook as a loyalist stronghold during the war, while travels in Passaic County led to the rarely-told stories of patriot mutinies during the darkest days of the war.

On the more positive side, we discovered the stories of some pretty kick-butt Revolutionary Neighbors, including a sculptress-turned-spy, a healer who became the defacto doctor for her community during the war, and a Newark farmer who took matters into her own hands when Hessians attempted to take over her homestead.

What’s in store for 2015? We’re still mulling over invading Delaware, but even if we don’t, we’re convinced it’ll be a busy year. Between chasing down rare birds, taking on speaking engagements and finding even more obscure New Jerseyana, we’re looking forward to learning right along with you!


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