Living right in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region is a pretty fortunate situation for a travel blogger. There are so many interesting and historic areas to visit that sometimes it can be easy to overlook wonderful options that lie right under your nose. My latest family-friendly discovery is Bucks County Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia.
How I have managed to live for nearly fifteen years in Delaware without making it to this charming region that’s only an hour and half from my doorstep is beyond me, but it’s a mistake I’m happy to have rectified over Labor Day weekend. We only got a taste of it over two days, but are already planning a return visit. A huge thanks to Visit Bucks County first off for contacting me and suggesting that we visit and then hosting us on our stay and covering many of our expenses.
Please click on the photos to see full-sized versions.
Our first stop in Bucks County was along the banks of the Delaware River at Washington Crossing Historic Park, site of one of the most iconic scenes from American history. You may have seen it yourself – George Washington, standing up in a boat, sword at his side, gazing boldly into the future, or, if you’re being historically accurate, into a whole lot of sleet falling on New Jersey. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We started our visit at the park’s temporary Visitors Center (a new, state-of-the art building is due for completion in late 2012) where a brief video shows a reenactment of Washington’s crossing and what ensued in Trenton. The video is a bit corny but it does provide the essential story of the place: How by the end of 1776, things weren’t looking good for George Washington and his demoralized army. The campaign in New York hadn’t gone well, and many of the soldiers’ conscriptions were up at the end of the year. In a last-ditch effort to turn the tide Washington planned an assault on the British at Trenton. The plan included bringing three divisions of soldiers across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey on Christmas Day. A sudden winter storm meant that only one division, the one led by Washington personally, made it across. Washington and his 2400 soldiers successfully marched nine miles to Trenton and overcame the Hessians (German mercenaries in the pay of the British) who were caught by surprise because the weather was so bad. This victory is now commonly viewed as a major turning point in the Revolutionary War.
Armed with a full understanding of the site’s significance, we met our tour guide Tom. His knowledge of everything that happened both before and after the crossing and his enthusiasm for sharing that knowledge meant that he was able to tell a pretty gripping yarn. Standing there on the banks of the sleepy river on a humid September afternoon, he made it possible to imagine what it felt like to be a shoeless soldier who couldn’t swim. That soldier would have to board one of the ferries or cargo boats that Washington had commandeered from up and down the Pennsylvania side of the river and row through ice floes and the strong current in the pitch-black, stormy night. On the other side, that same soldier would then have to march for eight hours through the frigid December morning on the other side to reach Trenton and hope that the surprise attack on the Hessians would be enough to gain the upper hand.
Another fact about Tom? His intimacy with the site didn’t just come from study of the facts but through a visceral relationship with the place. He grew up in a house that used to be on the park’s property. That means his childhood was spent prowling these banks and waterskiing in the river. He clearly knew every inch of the park.
And finally, Tom had a funny habit of offering the boys quarters for each question they answered correctly. This kept them attentive throughout, even once he ran out of change. (We immediately donated their earnings back to the park by purchasing candy in the gift shop – win-win!)
Many of the soldiers crossed the river in what were called Durham boats, large flat-bottomed, and designed for moving cargo not people. As he did throughout the tour, Tom asked the boys to use their imaginations and think about what it would feel like to sit inside the boat as it rocked its way across the cold dark water. He hoisted Teddy up by the arms so that he could see the inside. And he showed us the long oars and explained that many of them were manned by sailors from Marblehead, Massachusetts, whom Washington had recruited to help his efforts.
Eighteen canons were also transported in these boats, and Tom enthusiastically mimed all the steps in loading and shooting them.
After we had checked out the boats we made our way over to the McConkey Ferry Inn, the point from which Washington and his men are actually believed to have started their crossing. Inside, we were treated not only to a chance to explore some 18th-century tavern games (and pitchers made of leather, which I had never seen before) but yet another chance to imagine Washington. This time we were told to think of him writing a letter to his fellow patriots explaining his intention to cross the Delaware and attack the British in Trenton. A copy of that letter, believed to have been written in the very room we ourselves stood in, was available for the boys to hold and read.
After we said good-bye to Tom, we headed a few miles north along the river to the other portion of the park where we climbed to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower, which was built as a memorial to Washington and his troops during the Colonial Revival fever of the early twentieth century. While the view from the top is impressive – and my boys always like to climb things – I think that parents with young kids might choose to give this attraction a miss (although should you want to visit, you can bring the stroller – there is an elevator).
Instead, I’d recommend you spend your time just a bit further north at the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a peaceful warren of nature trails, streams, and ponds that was founded on a portion of the Washington Crossing Historic Park around the same time that the tower was built.
Although the preserve was originally created as a living memorial to Washington and his fellow patriots it is now also an important plant sanctuary where you can see many native and endangered species.
The paths have names like “Marshmarigold” and “Gentian” after the wild plants that grow along them. We especially enjoyed the “ROT Plot” (ROT stands for Recycling Our Trees) where children are invited to hunt for decomposers like slugs, beetles, and mushrooms.
We also enjoyed our stroll up to a small pond on the Fern path. We were unsuccessful in our frog hunt, but on a sunny morning I bet you can see lots of them sunning themselves among the plants.
You could easily plan an entire day in Washington Crossing Historic Park. Our visit to the wildflower preserve was cut short because we needed to catch a train in nearby New Hope. This also meant that we missed a tour of the Thompson-Neely House, which is across the street from the preserve and which promises still more 18th-century history.
George Washington is hardly a character who requires any additional mythmaking, but I have to say that a visit to this park does much to show just why we Americans should be thankful that he was in charge at that point in the war. And any family visiting Bucks County will find it worth the time to learn about this critical moment in American history at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
- I definitely recommend starting your visit to the park with the guided tour of the crossing site. Tours last about 45 minutes.
- Buy a Washington Crossing Park combination ticket ($9 for adults, $5 for kids) and you’ll get a tour of the crossing site, entry to Bowman’s Hill Tower, and admission to the Thompson-Neely House. The Bowman’s Hill Wildlife Preserve requires a separate admission; tickets are $5 for adults and $2 for kids.
- Every year, a dedicated corps of volunteers reenacts Washington’s crossing on Christmas Day. If you’ve got other plans, you might check out the dress rehearsal earlier in the month; in 2012 it’s scheduled for December 9. While the crossing itself will take place at 1 p.m., reenactors offer demonstrations of crafts, cooking, and weaponry from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tickets for the dress rehearsal are $8 for adults, and $4 for children ages 5 to 11 – all funds raised go toward supporting future reenactments.
- Bring your bikes if you’d like – a portion of the 60-mile long Delaware Canal towpath connects the two parts of the park and you can easily ride between the two.
- Stop for lunch at Bowman’s Tavern, which sits between the crossing site and the other half of the park at the base of the road that goes up to Bowman’s Tower. Matt and I especially enjoyed the Tavern Mushrooms appetizer. Be warned, however, that their burgers are not plain ground beef but are seasoned in a way that makes them taste more like meatloaf. They are delicious, but our younger child was not pleased.
- The town of New Hope is five minutes from the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve and about ten from the crossing site. With loads of restaurants, shops, and inns, it makes a great base of operations from which to visit Bucks County.