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Where American history was born

A road trip along the Delaware River traces the route George Washington's army took at a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

June 19, 2005|Vani Rangachar | Times Staff Writer

Washington Crossing, Pa. — In New Jersey, where I grew up, names such as Washington, Monroe, Mercer, Knox, Stockton and Morris are commonplace, found on street signs, municipal halls, schools and liquor stores. When you live in one of the 13 original colonies, the Revolution is part of the landscape, but for countless schoolchildren it's otherwise insignificant.

Sometimes it takes the wisdom of age to appreciate history, to want to peer beyond the names to the events. After a trip early this month to visit my parents in their central New Jersey home, I drove in a convertible PT Cruiser on honeysuckle-scented country roads along the Delaware River. My goal was to trace, in part, the movements of Gen. George Washington's army late in 1776.

I meandered only about 100 miles, weaving back and forth across the river between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, much like Washington himself. I traveled in time not only to the American Revolution but also to the Industrial Revolution. Along the way I discovered places where the past is still palpable.

My starting point was Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania.

In the fall of 1776, after successive defeats by the British in New York, Washington led his ragged soldiers on a retreat southwest across New Jersey into eastern Pennsylvania. There, Washington put into motion a plot to cross the icy Delaware on the night of Dec. 25 and attack the Hessian mercenaries holding Trenton, N.J., seven miles southeast. It was the beginning of what historians call the 10 Crucial Days, when the ragged Continental Army won two battles at Trenton and another at Princeton, N.J., a turning point in the war.

At the time, Washington Crossing was called McConkey's Ferry; now it's a peaceful riverine swath with a handful of historic buildings and a steel bridge leading to New Jersey. I paid $4 for an hour with an informative and entertaining guide, who showed me replicas of the wide cargo-hauling Durham boats that Washington used to ferry his 2,400 soldiers and equipment across the river.

But the war really came alive for me in a small museum on the opposite shore, at New Jersey's Washington Crossing State Park visitor center. Display cases held letters, pages from a doctor's ledger describing treatment of a wounded soldier, prints, muskets, Hessian swords, centuries-old maps.

The Continental Army marched south to Trenton during a storm. I stayed on the Pennsylvania side of the river, motoring north in sunshine, top down, hair flying on tree-shaded Pennsylvania 32 to the village of Lumberville, where I would meet my friend, Donna Mancuso, for the night.

If you blinked you would miss Lumberville. When I arrived at the Black Bass Hotel, a hostelry dating to the 1740s, a staffer was standing outside, arms folded, "watching cars go by," she said.

From its royal-mania decor, it was clear the Black Bass was on the losing side of the Revolutionary War. Display cases in the dining room and elsewhere were crammed with commemorative mugs, plates and china of queens Victoria and Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Upstairs were nine guest rooms, with antique beds, dressers and nightstands. Donna and I had the Federal room, which had a slightly sloping balcony overlooking the river.

From it we could see the damage wrought by two successive floods in seven months. The latest, in April, caused more than $50 million in damage and destroyed parts of the canal systems that hug both banks. Trees lay strewn like matchsticks. Locks were choked with silt and debris.

Donna and I went for an hourlong walk along an intact section of the towpath, part of 60-mile-long Delaware Canal State Park. It led past backyard lawns posted with "no trespassing" signs, but wildlife was oblivious to the warnings. We spotted an owl splashing in the canal, Canada geese shepherding goslings and turtles napping.

For about a century -- until 1932 -- this canal and others like the Lehigh to the northwest and Delaware and Raritan on the New Jersey side were used to transport coal and timber to Philadelphia and New York.

We shared a hoagie, a.k.a. sub sandwich, at the Homestead General Store in Upper Black Eddy, a onetime rest stop for the men who floated timber down the river. Then we followed detour signs around a section of Pennsylvania 32, impassable because of the floods.

The weather was hot and oppressively humid, and as we browsed at Gristies Antiques Market in Kintersville, Pa., gathering thunderheads promised a cooling storm.

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