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Reliving Washington's Crossing of the Delaware

December 25, 1988|Frank Riley | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

WASHINGTON CROSSING, Pa. — This afternoon, in a re-enactment, Gen. George Washington will cross the Delaware River, commemorating the historic event on Christmas Day, 1776, when Washington led his troops in small boats across the river and won battles at Trenton and Princeton.

About 10,000 spectators will view this 36th annual re-enactment of the crossing. The event will herald 1989, a year in which more than 500,000 people are expected to visit Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, a 500-acre historic site. The year also marks the 200th anniversary of the drafting of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The re-enactment of Gen. Washington's crossing of the Delaware has been a tradition since 1953. A crew of five made the first re-enactment. Today, the leader and 200 soldiers will make the crossing in four, 40-foot, wooden Durham boats from the Pennsylvania river bank to the New Jersey landing.

James W. Gallagher, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Washington Crossing Foundation, will play the part of Gen. Washington.

The general and his men have been outfitted as those in "Washington Crossing the Delaware," an 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The boats are stored beside the river at the Durham Boat House and are refurbished each year by volunteers. At 1:30 p.m., Washington assembles his soldiers and marches along the river bank to the original embarkation point near McConkey's Ferry Inn.

There, Gen. Washington speaks to his men about the challenge of these times "that try men's souls." The crossing begins at 2 p.m.

Boats are rowed and poled across the river, as they were on the first crossing when the target of the attack was the Hessian mercenary garrison, which had been expecting a quiet winter in the town of Trenton, about nine miles from the landing on the New Jersey bank of the Delaware.

At each re-enactment, the mayor of Trenton waits at New Jersey's own Washington Crossing State Park to greet Washington and his troops, who then march back across the bridge to the Pennsylvania shore.

With favorable weather, the re-enactment takes about an hour. Only once in 35 years was the river so frozen that the troops had to march over the bridge to New Jersey instead of crossing by boat.

Last week, the air temperature dropped to 25 degrees, though the river was still flowing. Last Christmas, the crossing was made in the relative comfort of 50-degree weather, but soon afterward the Delaware began to freeze.

During the original crossing, when boats began to carry Washington and his men across the river at about 4 p.m., there was a blinding snowstorm and the waters were choked with ice. The crossing fell far behind Washington's planned schedule, and it was after midnight before he could lead the march through nine miles of sleet and snow to Trenton.

The plan had called for two other Revolutionary forces to make crossings from points on the Delaware and attack Trenton with Washington's men in a three-way pincer movement. But the storm prevented their crossing and Washington led the only attack at about 8 a.m. Most of the 1,586 Hessians were still asleep. They tried to rally but soon surrendered.

Throughout the year, a 28-minute "Washington Crossing the Delaware" film is shown several times daily in the auditorium of the Memorial Building and Visitor's Center in the park. The Washington Crossing Library of the American Revolution in the Memorial Building has a large To the north of the Memorial Building is a statue of George Washington and a pool surrounded by the flags of the 13 original states, plus the Betsy Ross flag.

McConkey's Ferry Inn has been restored around much of the original paneling and woodwork. It served as Washington's headquarters on the night of the crossing. He and his aides had dinner there before embarking. The inn and other historic houses are open to visitors.

After the Christmas crossing, the next major event at the park is the annual celebration of Gen. Washington's real birthday on Feb. 22.

The park is divided into two sections, separated by about five miles. The McConkey's Ferry Inn southern section has picnic areas, a lagoon for ice skating in winter and a bird sanctuary in summer. Demonstrations of crafts of the Revolutionary era are given on weekends throughout the summer. In the northern section, the Thompson-Neely House was an important headquarters for Washington and his officers. There are candlelight tours of the House and other historic homes around Taylorsville.

Bowman's Hill Tower was used as a lookout point by Washington, and troops camped at what is now 100 acres of the Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve. Along the river are summertime canoe rentals.

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