In Where Washington Once Led, Peter Osborne uncovers the history of Washington Crossing State Park

It all started with a mysterious encounter.

Bill Farkas was taking a walk on the canal path in Titusville. As he approached the canal bridge, he looked across the road and noticed a hiker emerging from a wooded area onto Route 29.

The hidden trail intrigued him so much that he would one day write a book about what he found on the other side.

A few days later, he returned to the scene curious about what lay beyond the spot where the hiker had emerged. He found the trail head and entered.

“Imagine my amazement when I found myself in a lush, dense wood apparently far from civilization. I imagine how Alice felt when passing through the looking glass,” Farkas said.

It was Washington Crossing State Park. The discovery would inspire him to later publish the book Where Washington Once Led.

April 14, at a book party at the Titusville Presbyterian Church sponsored by the Hopewell Historical Society, Farkas described how he fell in love with the park at first sight.

“A vast new world had opened to me seemingly removed from the urban environment that I had been in only moments before. …. Over the years, I came to explore the trails and to know and love the park … I came to realize the historical significance of the park as well.”

Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, but the park had been dedicated in 1927. Farkas said he wondered why there was such a long delay in commemorating this event in American history.

“I asked many questions but found few answers,” Farkas said.

To satisfy his curiosity, Farkas, a retired steel company executive and resident of Yardley, decided to hire someone to research and write a book on the topic. In 2009 he met with park superintendent Dave Donnelly who responded enthusiastically and later introduced him to historian and author of four books on state parks Peter Osborne, the man who would become the writer of this book.

Where Washington Once Led takes readers on a journey through American history starting in 1850 with the dedication of Washington’s headquarters years before the park was established. Seven park staff members contributed personal essays including naturalist Wayne Henderek from Titusville, Historian Nancy Ceperley who is a re-enactor in housing on the park grounds, and Historian Mark Sirak who lived on the park grounds in the Blackwell house for over 16 years.

Other essayists include superintendants David Donnelly, James Apffel and James Wiles; Annelies van Dommelen, daughter of superintendent Dirk van Dommelen; and historian and Curator Clay Craighead.

The chapters provide a timetable of events from 1859 to the present day.

Calls for a Park: 1859-1920; and The Park’s Dedication: 1921-1929: In 1895, the Society of Cincinnati in New Jersey erected a monument commemorating the crossing. Years later in 1912, the “Trenton Evening Times” published a poem by a merchant from Lambertville, T.J. Walker entitled “Washington’s Crossing.” He lamented that the land had not been adequately recognized as a site of national importance. He asked, Why leave unmarked the famous place where Washington once led….

The poem was sent to the New Jersey senators and assemblymen and has been credited for helping to win approval of the initial plans to create the park March 8, 1912.

In 1922, farm owner Dr. Isidor Strittmatter negotiated his first land sale with the park. Strittmatter had envisioned a commemorative park for years, and this transaction marked the beginning of his dream come true.

On Jan. 12, 1927, the Washington Crossing Committee outlined a vision for the park that would serve as a guide for the park officials. The report was approved and opening ceremonies took place June 4.

In his essay “I get to tell this great story of hope and determination every day,” Mark Sirak talks about Washington’s decision to cross the Delaware: “This was the moment where the American psyche was born. … . Perseverance would become our ally.”

The Depression Years: 1930-1940: Much work was completed in this area, thanks to the Department of Conservation and Development and Works Progress/Project Administration. Among other accomplishments, the George Washington Memorial Arboretum was dedicated in 1932.

The Quiet Years: 1941-1957: In this period, the park’s acquisition of new land and buildings slowed down, but the park made at least one important purchase, the remaining acres of the Niederer farm.

Although called the quiet years, the events calendar was anything but. In January of 1947, 40 Rider College students crossed the river in four rowboats. The crossing was covered by local media and Life Magazine.

In 1953, founder of the Bucks County Playhouse St. John Terrell assumed the role of General Washington and made the first serious effort to historically recreate the Crossing. On the Pennsylvania side, the famous Leutze painting of the Crossing arrived on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1952.

The Bicentennial: 1958-1976: During this period, the park expanded, thanks to the passage of the Green Acres Open Space and Land Conservation program.

There were several bicentennial celebrations. New offerings for visitors included the Open Air Theater, the Flag Museum the new Nature Education Center, the Visitor Center, and the pedestrian walkway across Route 29.

In her essay, “Remembrances of Washington Crossing State Park,” Nancy Ceperley who has spent years participating in reenactment events and studying revolutionary period history says that she can see the landscape and people in her mind’s eye.

“These are some of the sights and sounds of the mid-eighteenth century, faint echoes of a nation’s past and sometimes more real to me than the constant roar of quarry trucks and motorcycles on Route 29. It comes with knowing the territory, and knowing its story.”

Enhancing the Visitor Experience: 1977-2002: Enhancements included an astronomy observatory, Days of the Past fair, and a partnership with the Washington’s Crossing Radio Control Flyers Association. The Swan Collection of the American Revolution was moved to the Visitor’s Center.

The Park’s Centennial: 2003-2012; and The Greater Park: These chapters discuss other properties the NJ State Park Service agency has been acquiring. A partial list includes both the Trenton and Princeton Battle Monuments; the Princeton Battlefield State Park; Morven; Drumthwacket; and the Goat Hill overlook.

Today there is a long-term plan to create a greenway which would connect the park proper to the Princeton Battlefield to the south and to Lambertville to the north.

In his essay, “Why a nature center, “naturalist Wayne Henderek from Titusville writes: “Why does history take place on natural landscapes at all? …. Where else would it take place? …. It is notable that nature and history alike are driven by cause and effect.

“The fields, forests, streams and hills that make up Washington Crossing State Park today, are rife with a history that is informed by nature and nature that is informed by history.”