The crossing of the Delaware River is probably the Revolutionary War story we cherish the most, or maybe a close second behind Paul Revere’s ride. Since I’m spending the month within walking distance of the site where it went down, I had to head over and check it out for myself.
Perhaps I should say the sites where it happened, because Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have a historic park on their respective banks of the Delaware devoted to Washington’s crossing. Here’s the view from Washington Crossing Historic Park in the Keystone State.
Washington’s army made it across without mishap. I haven’t been so lucky. A couple of days ago I drove over to New Jersey for some groceries, and I got so caught up in the historic view from the bridge that I forgot how doggone narrow it is. There went my passenger side mirror. Looks like I’ll be visiting an auto shop when I get home.
Washington himself stands atop a column near the visitor center, wrapped in his cloak and gazing across the water toward Trenton and the Hessian garrison.
Closer to the riverbank, near the spot where the troops likely embarked, is a more modest monument.
WCHP’s visitor center boasts a relic of the Franco-American alliance.
If you take the tour, you’ll get an up-close look at the Durham boats the reenactors use for the annual commemorative crossing. They seemed larger in person than I was expecting.
If you peer inside, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of seats. Leutze was quite right to paint Washington standing. It’s all those guys sitting around him that make the painting inaccurate. (Well, that and the sunlight.)
The first time I drove into town, I freaked out when I spotted the McConkey Ferry Inn. I don’t remember where it was—I think it was that A&E movie with Jeff Daniels—but somewhere I’ve seen a depiction of the crossing where Washington sets up his headquarters here. It was the one thing at WCHP I was most excited to see. Turns out it wasn’t Washington’s HQ after all; in fact, it wasn’t even there in 1776. The oldest parts of the current building date from 1790. Samuel McConkey was operating a ferry from this spot that Christmas night, but nothing remains of the Rev War-era structure except the basement. Still, this is a nicely restored building, and well worth a visit.
A few miles down River Road from the McConkey inn and the visitor center is the park’s upper section. Tradition holds that American troops monitored enemy activity from atop Bowman’s Hill. There’s little evidence they did so, but at least we got an impressive tower out of the story. Built during the Great Depression, it commemorates the Continental occupation of the area during the winter of ’76/77.
An ascent to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower gives you a nice view of the region the Americans and Hessians were contending over.
This structure was there during the time of the crossing: the Thompson-Neely House. Home to a prosperous milling family, it became a hospital for sick and wounded Continentals when the army moved in. William Washington, who went on to dramatic exploits in the Southern Campaign, spent time here. So did James Monroe, another Virginia officer who had quite a career ahead of him.
Washington and Monroe made it through that winter alive, but for James Moore, a New York captain of artillery, the Thompson-Neely property was the last stop. He’s buried not far from the house…
…alongside comrades whose names are unknown. Moore’s original gravestone is on display in the visitor center.
The graves face the Delaware Canal, which dates to the 1830s. Ever wonder how the Pennsylvania coal that powered the Industrial Revolution’s factories got from point A to point B? Here’s your answer. Boats laden with anthracite were hitched to mules, and the mules walked along the canal bank, pulling the cargo behind through the water. The advent of steam engines marked a revolution in manufacturing, but it took old-fashioned animal power to keep the machines going.
Over on the New Jersey side of the river is Washington Crossing State Park. If you’re an artifact aficionado, don’t miss seeing Harry Kels Swan’s exceptional collection of Rev War objects in the museum. The exhibit cases are packed to bursting with muskets, bayonets, swords, personal items, and documents signed by a who’s who of Revolutionary luminaries. The officer’s model Ferguson rifle is especially nifty. (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so no eye candy here.)
While McConkey handled ferry traffic from the Pennsylvania side, Garret Johnson operated the ferry from Jersey. The Johnson Ferry House is still there, and since it’s just uphill from the riverbank, there’s a good chance Washington and the other high-ranking officers spent time inside, cursing the awful weather and anxiously awaiting the end of the operation.
Here’s the view from the Jersey side, looking back toward Pennsylvania.
While Durham boats carried the troops, the artillery and horses crossed over on flat-bottomed ferry boats like the one you can still see at the New Jersey landing site.
The Garden State has its share of monuments devoted to the crossing, too.
Finally, this trail past the Johnson Ferry House follows the same road the soldiers took to their victory at Trenton—a victory born of equal parts audacity and desperation.