New Jersey DEP Marks 100th Anniversary of Famous Poem
Washington Crossing State Park in Hopewell Township provides a relaxing setting for many thousands of people each year to learn about the American Revolution, take a hike, enjoy nature, or simply watch the passing flows of the Delaware River.
But few people gave much thought to preserving this important landscape which remained surprisingly anonymous for some 150 years after General George Washington and his army of 2,400 made their famous crossing from Pennsylvania and landed here on Christmas night in 1776 to launch their pivotal surprise attack on Hessian mercenaries massed for battle at Trenton.
In fact, the only memorial to the crossing in New Jersey for a century and a half was a simple “moss-clad stone” marker. That all changed beginning Jan. 25, 1912, a hundred years ago today, with the simple publication of a poem.
The poem, “Washington’s Crossing,” written by Lambertville resident T.J. Walker, was published in the Trenton Evening Times that day, and its sentiments were adopted by readers. Walker’s words helped galvanize public and political opinion, resulting in the passage of legislation later in 1912 to buy the first parcels of land for eventual creation of the New Jersey state park that now honors Washington’s landmark military maneuver.
Today, Washington Crossing State Park, which was formally designated in 1927, is a 3,575-acre historical and recreational gem. It has expanded far beyond its original mission to honor Washington’s historic river crossing. It provides recreational opportunities, such as the open air theater, picnic and camp sites, trails, a nature center, observatory, museum, and the historic Johnson Ferry House, all of which draw many thousands of visitors each year.
But it took Walker’s poem, as Americans were embracing their young country’s past, to help spark the park’s creation.
“In 1912 America was in the midst of the Colonial Revival Movement, a time when Americans, including New Jerseyans, began to value their architecture and heritage,” said Dan Saunders, Administrator of the DEP’s State Historic Preservation Office. “The National Park Service was soon to be created in 1916. Nationally, the State Parks movement followed, gathering steam in the 1920’s. Walker’s poem came at just the right time.”
On Dec. 25, 1776, the icy waters of the Delaware River provided the setting for one of the pivotal events of the American Revolution. The Continental Army had little to celebrate that Christmas and seemed beat by hunger and cold.
After crossing the rough winter river at night, General George Washington and his troops landed at Johnson’s Ferry in Titusville. At 4 a.m., they began their march to Trenton where they defeated Hessian mercenaries in an unexpected attack that led to a much-needed victory. This battle was quickly followed by the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, and the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777 – military encounters that began to turn the tide of the war for American independence.
That Christmas Night river crossing is now part of American lore, heralded in famous paintings and written accounts. But the process to create a New Jersey park a century ago to honor Washington and his soldiers was a long and arduous one that repeatedly stalled for lack of interest and/or money — until Walker and his poem strategically entered the fray in 1912 just as the New Jersey State Legislature sought to appropriate money to purchase the first parcel of land for the proposed state park.
Walker, in his poem, lamented that the scene of the epic crossing had not been acquired and the country had not officially recognized the site as one of national importance:
By T.J. Walker
Why leave unmarked the famous place
Where Washington once led
His little band of valiant men,
Unclothed, unshod, unfed,
To brave the river’s icy snares
That this great nation live;
And yet in memory of the deed,
No meed or honor give?
Save for the name, a moss-clad stone,
No shaft, nor columns rise;
And yet no spot in our far land
Is more immortalized!
Is not the greatness of the past,
The Crossing’s cherished fame,
Enough to build a monument
All worthy of the name?
Our country’s mighty wealth grows on,
The millions mount apace;
Yet not a copper, not a flag,
To designate the place.
Oh, countrymen this long neglect
Is dead, I hope for aye.
Buy up the land, lay out the walks,
Our country’s own alway.
The poem caught the public’s attention, with a big boost from the Patriot Order Sons of America, which had several thousand copies printed and distributed, including to all state legislators.
Several weeks later legislation was passed and signed by Gov. Woodrow Wilson, and the first land acquisition for Washington Crossing State Park was made late in 1912.
N.K Halteman, recording secretary for the Patriot Order Sons of America, credited Walker’s poem with moving public sentiment in favor of creating this new park.
“The beautiful poem, ‘Washington’s Crossing,’ which appeared in the Trenton paper on or about Jan. 25, 1912, came, as it appears to me, like the triumphs of Washington (by divine guidance) … No one but a true, patriotic citizen, whose patriotism has been wounded by the long neglect of his countrymen, could have expressed such noble sentiments,” Halteman wrote in a 1912 letter to Walker.
To see a copy of Walker’s poem, and learn more about Washington’s historic crossing, plus details of the battles of Trenton and Princeton, visit the Washington Crossing State Park Visitors Center Museum, located at Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, New Jersey 08560. The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information on Washington Crossing State Park, visit: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html or call (609) 737-0623.