TRENTON, N.J. - Although many East Coast historic sites spuriously claim the honor, George Washington really did sleep here. More important, he and his men fought in Trenton, N.J., after a daring - and now famous - crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas night 1776. Washington's victory at Trenton marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War. It also marked this beautiful stretch of the Delaware Valley as a prime destination for travelers interested in U.S. history. But history is just the beginning of the charms to be found along the Delaware River Scenic Byway, a 30-mile drive that connects Trenton with lovely river towns such as Lambertville and Frenchtown, N.J., and New Hope, Pa.
TRENTON, N.J. — Although many East Coast historic sites spuriously claim the honor, George Washington really did sleep here. More important, he and his men fought in Trenton, N.J., after a daring — and now famous — crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas night 1776.
Washington’s victory at Trenton marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War.
It also marked this beautiful stretch of the Delaware Valley as a prime destination for travelers interested in U.S. history. But history is just the beginning of the charms to be found along the Delaware River Scenic Byway, a 30-mile drive that connects Trenton with lovely river towns such as Lambertville and Frenchtown, N.J., and New Hope, Pa.
Trenton is a great first stop of any tour of the byway. History buffs will want to visit the 1719 Trent House, where Trenton’s namesake, Scottish immigrant William Trent, built his estate and laid out the streets for what would eventually become the capital of New Jersey.
Trenton’s Old Barracks Museum served as a British garrison post beginning in the French and Indian War and continuing through the Revolutionary War. Today, it’s one of the best-preserved historic structures remaining from the period. Visitors can tour troop and officer quarters appointed as they would have been in Revolutionary times.
About 7 miles north of Trenton is the site of Washington’s Crossing, where the general stealthily lead artillery, horses and more than 2,000 soldiers across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey by ferryboat. At Trenton, the Continental Army took a contingent of Hessian troops by surprise and soundly defeated them — Washington’s first major victory of the war.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey have state parks on opposite banks of the river commemorating Washington’s feat. The Pennsylvania side boasts a new $5 million visitors center, although state budget cuts have reduced park hours and delayed new exhibits.
The New Jersey visitors center is older and more modest, but it houses a larger collection of mementos and memorabilia.
Both parks offer screenings of informative documentaries about Washington, the Battle of Trenton and the importance of the crossing and battle to the eventual victory over the British.
On the Pennsylvania side, visitors can also tour several buildings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the McConkey Ferry Inn, which, according to tradition, is where Washington and his aides ate Christmas dinner just before crossing the river. (It’s also one place where Washington probably did sleep.)
Three miles north of the crossing site is another unit of the Pennsylvania park, where Bowman’s Hill Tower rises 125 feet above the crest of the hill. The structure was built in 1931 of fieldstone, some of it gathered from local fences, and the venerable old tower is almost — but not quite — as gorgeous and magnificent as the view of the Delaware Valley from its top. (Today’s visitors will be happy to learn that an elevator was installed in the 1980s.)
Nearby is Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, which offers guided walks daily except Mondays through October. The 134-acre preserve celebrates the diversity of native eastern Pennsylvania plants. Nature lovers will adore the preserve’s woodland paths and sunny glades along scenic Pidcock Creek.
Visitors who are ready to put history in the past will find that the twin river towns of Lambertville, N.J., and New Hope, Pa., would make the area worth exploring even if Washington had turned around and gone back to Valley Forge.
The two towns are connected across the Delaware by a bridge with a walking/bicycle lane that is separated from the vehicular traffic.
Both towns are chock-full of tourist-friendly boutiques, galleries and historic sites.
They also contain far too many interesting restaurants to explore in just a short visit. I sampled Cuban, steakhouse, Italian, tapas bar and locally sourced fare, and could have spent another week trying all the restaurants that made my mouth water.
Just as each state has its own Washington Crossing park, each also has its own historic canal. Restored sections of New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal, and Pennsylvania’s Delaware Canal, run through Lambertville and New Hope, respectively. Multipurpose trails run along the old towpath of each. Visitors to New Hope will also find a restored canal lock and lockkeepers house at Delaware Canal State Park just a few blocks from the town center.
During my stay, I lodged at the wonderful Lambertville House, a marvelously restored AAA four-diamond historic inn built a few blocks from the river in 1812, which was, alas, 13 years after Washington’s death. Lambertville and New Hope also offer plenty of other intriguing and historic inns where I would one day love to sleep — even if Washington didn’t .