Washington’s Crossing

Washington's Crossing

(Photo credit: PHMC sign, Washington Crossing Historic Park, Pennsylvania, courtesy John Vossburgh, Flickr Creative Commons)

If I had to name one historic site of truly national significance that should have been taken over by the National Park Service long ago but wasn’t, I’d have to plump for Washington’s Crossing. Right now the site is split between two states, neither of which seems willing to put in the resources a site like this deserves.

Every American schoolchild knows—or should know—the story of George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. It was a desperate last throw of the dice by Washington’s ragtag army, which was on the point of extinction in the face of repeated defeats at the hands of the British. Somehow, Washington succeeded in turning the tide when he successfully transported his men and equipment across the ice-clogged river and marched his weary force through a winter storm to nearby Trenton, where he surprised and defeated a Hessian force there before doing it all again a few days later with another military victory at Princeton. Washington’s actions here saved the Revolution. It’s that simple. Without the events that took place here, the British would almost certainly have succeeded in crushing the colonial rebellion, and American history would look quite different today.

Although the site as a whole is listed as a National Historic Landmark, operational control is divided between the two states that straddle the crossing, with Pennsylvania on one side and New Jersey on the other. On the west bank of the Delaware is Washington Crossing Historic Park. This park, run by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, lies in a very pretty part of upper Bucks County. In spite of its close proximity to Philadelphia the surrounding area remains mostly rural and boasts a number of original 18th century homes, allowing it to retain a bit of a colonial flavor.

However, the colonial aura of the park itself is spoiled somewhat by the modern, narrow truss bridge crossing to the New Jersey side just south of Washington’s crossing point. Visitors taking this bridge by car or on foot can head across to the Washington Crossing State Park, operated by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. Both parks remain completely separate from each other. Both contain original buildings from the Revolutionary era. Both have visitor centers. Both suffered heavy budget cuts after the 2008-09 recession and have never fully recovered. Pennsylvania’s situation has been the worse of the two.

The Pennsylvania park is itself split into two sections, the upper and lower. The lower park commemorates the location where the actual crossing took place, and it contains the visitor center and most of the historic buildings. There’s also a large boathouse here—not original—that contains five reproduction Durham boats. These are the types of vessel that Washington’s men used to cross the river. Named after the Durham Iron Works, where their function was to transport heavy loads by water. They were hardy, well-constructed boats, with high sides and shallow drafts, and they could be propelled across water with long poles. These characteristics proved useful for moving large numbers of men across an ice-laden river in relative safety. The five boats stored at this boathouse are used in the annual re-eanactment of the crossing, held every Christmas Day, weather permitting. If the weather does not permit a safe crossing, as is often the case, the re-eanctors still complete their ceremonial crossing in a slightly less dramatic way: by marching across that truss bridge to the New Jersey side.

The Garden State side of things is also worth visiting. The visitor center there has a quirky array of genuine Revolutionary War artifacts, and a decent enough interpretive film. Visitors to the center can work their way back to the riverbank point where Washington’s troops landed by following the same route taken by the Continental Army (going the other way, of course) on Christmas night, 1776. The most significant historic building on this side is the 1740 Johnson Ferry House, which is furnished with a mix of period pieces and recreations. The house likely was used by Washington for operational purposes when he arrived on the enemy side of the river. Outside the ferry house there is a quant 18th-century kitchen garden tended by volunteers, one of whom took a break from gardening the day I visited to give me a pretty good overview of the house, expounding on 18th century kitchens, Dutch-style versus English-style floor plans, the efficacy of gambrel roofs, and so on. For some reason 18th century kitchens are always fascinating, what with their massive open-hearth fireplaces, kitchen utensils, and beehive ovens. 

In terms of lack of adequate funding it’s the Pennsylvania side that most concerns me. I have visited the this side of the Washington Crossing site many times over the years, as it lies close to my wife’s family home. On holidays we’d often drive up the west bank of the Delaware to the artsy village of New Hope and stop off to take a look at the park along the way. On a Thanksgiving trip in 2009, however, our plans took a hit when I discovered that the park was being closed for the duration and its staff furloughed. The state was cutting back parks programs all across Pennsylvania, and Washington’s Crossing wasn’t to be spared. All visitor center activities, tours and talks were suspended. That Black Friday we decided to drive up to the park and have a look anyway. We were able to walk around without hindrance but found it eerily quiet for the time of year. The visitor center—which had already been in a state of disrepair—stood shuttered and empty. All of the park’s buildings were locked. It was sad to see such an important historic site reduced to this.

At the time state officials were reduced to pleading with citizen groups to band together and pursue voluntary options to keep the affected sites going. Incredibly, just such a group of local citizens responded to that call at Washington’s Crossing. Known as the Friends of Washington Crossing State Park, this 501(c)(3) non-profit managed to reopen the park in the spring of 2010, albeit initially with a shoestring operation. While the group would receive support from the state—including repair and maintenance operations—volunteers would have to run all the front-line operations, including visitor center activities, interpretive tours, even the shop. Fortunately the state, which is still responsible for the site, eventually found money to renovate the visitor center. It reopened in March 2013 after a break of more than three years.

On my last visit to Washington’s Crossing, over the 2012 Thanksgiving holiday, the visitor center renovation was still underway, and the volunteer staff was using a portakabin as a temporary focal point for the visitor experience. The volunteers, consisting mainly of retirees, had organized the center quite well and were doing a good job of orienting the high volume of visitors who had returned to the park. Another volunteer, a retired army colonel, gave us a guided tour of the area, including the inside of McConkey’s Ferry Inn, the tavern that Washington used before the crossing. This was actually my first organized tour of this historic site—I’d never been there when tours had been given by the park staff. I have to say our guide did a fine job, even though he confided in us that he was new at this and felt a little nervous and unprepared for taking on this sort of task.

I’m conflicted about what I see at the Pennsylvania side of Washington’s Crossing. On the one hand I’m really gratified to see what citizens’ groups have managed to do here. They have made a great effort in bringing back to life a historic site of national significance when the state has clearly fallen short in its obligations. On the other hand, I worry about leaving so much responsibility in the hands of volunteers. Volunteers move on. Volunteers lose interest. Volunteers get infirm and die (a very pertinent point considering the advanced age of so many of the fine people giving up their time at these places.) A site may have a fantastic core of volunteers for a year or two, yet just as quickly lose the core to a hundred factors that can’t be foreseen or controlled. Don’t get me wrong: Volunteers are brilliant. But you can’t rely on volunteers alone to keep a major site running indefinitely. You need a core of committed professionals who can keep operations in place over the long term.

That is why I wish that Washington Crossing—both sides—would be transferred to the National Park Service. Or rather I wish it had happened years ago, when the park service’s own financial situation wasn’t so grim. Apart from anything else, it doesn’t make sense for a singular historic site like this to be split into two administrative bodies, especially when these bodies aren’t able to fund the site to the required standard. Heaven knows, the park service doesn’t have lots of cash to spare, but even today it could still provide a more solid financial footing for Washington’s Crossing. Not that I expect to see any such transfer happen. As far as I know there’s no big push in either Pennsylvania of New Jersey to do anything like this, and there’s little appetite for National Park Service expansion in these cash-strapped times. Don’t hold your breath.

Sources:

Chris Carrolla (2009). Historic Sites In New York, Pennsylvania Fall Victim To Budget Cuts. Huffington Post, March 19. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/19/historic-sites-in-new-yor_n_506480.html

David Hackett Fischer (2004). Washington’s Crossing. Oxford University Press.

Chris English (2013). Washington Crossing visitor center reopening Sunday. Phillyburbs.com. Available at http://www.phillyburbs.com/news/local/courier_times_news/washington-crossing-visitors-center-reopening-sunday/article_f61caafb-561d-5127-a92d-af2b9272047c.html

Washington Crossing State Park. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/delaware/was.htm

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