Like others at this time of the year, I’m making a fresh resolution to get out and get healthy by resuming my habit of taking walks.
And while a stroll through the neighborhood is good, I prefer those walks that mix my interest in regional history.
That includes one of my regular walking spots, Roebling Park in Hamilton Township. It’s a tract of county-owned property on the rim of the Abbott Marshlands — formerly Trenton-Hamilton-Bordentown Marsh.
Though it is less than four miles from downtown Trenton and behind rows of suburban homes, the park is a landscape of marshes, streams, small lakes, woodlands, and wildlife. Except for some power lines through a meadow region, it is generally undeveloped.
The signs starting at the intersection of Broad (aka Route 206) and Park streets in Hamilton Township lead to a gravel road entrance and a stone house that happens to be the oldest building in the region, the Watson House.
Built from rocks found in the Delaware River in 1708 by one of the area’s early settlers, Isaac Watson, the house was owned by the family into the first part of the 20th century. A series of owners and renters led to the building’s abandonment and planned demolition. It was saved, however, by the Daughters of the American Revolution during the 1976 Bicentennial. Owned by the county yet maintained by the DAR, the building is open the second Sunday of the month from April through June, and September through November. It is as Colonial as one can get.
Yet as old and historic as the Watson House is, it is just a kid compared to what’s farther down the path, where there is a picnic grove with a small monument designating the area as the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark in Hamilton Township.
The National Park Service calls Abbott Farm “one of the country’s most famous archaeological sites.”
Gregory Lattanzi, an archaeologist and assistant curator in the New Jersey State Museum’s archaeology and ethnology bureau, says it “is probably the only site that had continuous native presence from about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago to contact period [when Europeans first arrived in North America]. While it is a national landmark, not too many people are aware of the significance of that site. It’s always outside of the radar. It’s like the best-kept secret in New Jersey.”
Abbott is Charles Conrad Abbott, a medical doctor and author who devoted himself to archaeology and natural science.
An abundance of Native American artifacts in the Trenton region fueled his interest, and in 1872 he wrote the article “The Stone Age in New Jersey” for the American Naturalist. A more developed article followed three years later in a Smithsonian Institution publication.
Abbott shared his ideas with other archaeologists and geologists, including the influential anthropologist Frederick Ward Putnam of the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Through Putnam, Abbott’s Trenton sites became the focus of a 20-year field research program, attracting leading American and European scientists.
Another archaeological research investigation began in the 1930s. It was led by the New Jersey State Museum’s Dorothy Cross, who wrote extensively about the site and collected artifacts on permanent exhibit at the State Museum — about a 15-minute drive from the site.
Another more obscure park entrance on Sewell Avenue connects visitors to history of a more recent vintage — evidenced by the magical presence of a grand beaux arts styled stairway leading from the brush on the bluff to the lot.
The reason is that in 1907 an amusement park opened in the area that is now known as Spring Lake. The area above the bluffs is residential now, but from Spring Lake, the ornate concrete staircase that once allowed park visitors to descend to the promenade around the lake can still be seen.
It is the remains of the entrance of a White City Amusement Park, built in 1907 by a trolley company that created picnic grounds and park as a profit-making venture — for admission and increased ridership. The area got its name because all of its buildings were painted white, following the fashion of the time.
Abandoned by 1930, traces of the park remain in a kiosk where there is a display with images showing women in long white dresses and men in suits walking near flume rides and boats. It also remains in the ruins appearing in the woods — most noticeable in the late fall and winter.
So where’s the Roebling connection? The Broad Street Civic Association, with assistance from the Roebling family, gradually acquired more than 300 acres of the land, including White City Park. When the BSCA sold the lands to the county for $1, the county named the park John A. Roebling Memorial Park. The sale also specified that the land would be a wildlife refuge designated for passive recreation.
Open all year Roebling Park generally provides a getaway from the everyday and is generally safe despite occasional encounters with individuals marching to a different drummer and even building structures across waterways. But the combination of deep history and observing wildlife is a winning one.
It was the church-white sign in the Princessville Cemetery on Princeton Pike that caught my eye: Brearley House. And while the sign is a respectable size, it can easily be missed while passing from Interstate 295 toward Princeton. But if you slow down and take the dirt road, you’ll find yourself on another path through history and nature.
Princessville owes its existence to the building of the Princeton Kingston Branch Turnpike. It was chartered in 1807 and connected Trenton to Kingston on what is now Princeton Pike. It was also part of a highway that connected New York City and Philadelphia. In 1808 a Princessville Inn was built to accommodate overnight travelers. A Methodist church stood just south of the Princessville Inn. In 1843 the inn’s owner, William Mershon, donated nearly an acre of property to the church to use as a cemetery.
“The first recorded burial dates to 1846,” states a history available on the Lawrence Township website. “The local African-American community received permission to utilize the cemetery for burials, some in unmarked graves, which continued into the 1920s. In 1890 the Chapel was moved and the African-American families living in the area built a small church (Mount Pisgah A.M.E.) of their own on Lewisville Road. The local African-American community received permission to utilize the cemetery for burials, some in unmarked graves, which continued into the 1920s.”
Today there are approximately 60 graves, including several black Civil War military veterans.
Follow the road by foot or vehicle for about a half-mile and you arrive at the Brearley House. The Georgian brick house was built in 1761 for James Brearley, a farmer and member of a prominent and politically engaged family that lived in the home until the early 20th century.
Eventually the house was abandoned and neglected and eventually became a target for development. However, the township secured the building, created a partnership with the New Jersey Historical Society and the Lawrence Historic Society, and launched a renovation project that brought the building’s interior and exterior back to how it looked when it was built.
The house is open with free tours on the third Sunday of every month, 2 to 4 p.m., and the first Saturday of the month, March to October, from 10 a.m. to noon. The grounds are open and there are picnic tables available. Free. www.thelhs.org/1761-brearley-house
At the rear entrance of the house there is a path that offers entry to the Lawrence Hopewell Trail. Turn right and you’ll follow past the office park clustered around Lenox Drive and then over Princeton Pike. But a turn to the left leads you into the woods. A sign there welcomes you to the Brearley-Great Meadows Trail, a one-third mile path that leads to the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park whose trail is part of the National Recreation Trail System.
The shaded and simple walk features a small bridge over a stream, a deck with benches to view the meadows, and a bench at the juncture where the trails meet to relax and gaze at the canal. Built in the 1830s, it is a 70-mile engineering marvel running from Bordentown to the Raritan River in New Brunswick (with a feeder canal starting near Stockton and running south to Trenton) that fuels the region.
You can also look at the dirt road without street lights or telephone wires and imagine being in the Colonial era. A turn to the right leads south toward the Route 1 overpass and then toward Trenton. A turn to the left leads to Port Mercer and Princeton. Since the right trail leads toward the highways, the leftward road tends to be quieter and takes more steps to return to the 21st century. In warm weather, fish and turtles are easily spotted. Deer and herons are more noticeable in cooler weather with deer sometime taking a swim across the canal.
And while it seems remote, it isn’t. During the week you meet daily walkers or joggers from the office park, bicyclists use it to ride from Lawrence to Princeton, and families, groups, and couples are often encountered. Yet it’s never crowded.
It is enjoyable, simple, and relaxing — like a small vacation.
Lambertville Canal and Wing Dam
Another favorite walk starts in Lambertville, heads south from the city along a strip of land along the canal, passes emblems of the past, slowly leaves civilization behind, and then offers one of the most spectacular views of the Delaware River.
The entrance is hidden in plain sight — right off Bridge Street by a small bridge over the canal. Okay, finding parking may be a problem, but there is a parking area behind the Lambertville Inn that connects to the towpath along the canal — where a vital train line that connected towns along the Delaware River once ran.
Some of the sites seen include the remains of a lock that let barges move between the canal and the Delaware River.
Also of interest are the abandoned passenger train cars, remains of the unsuccessful late-20th-century effort to restart train passage. While a few cars have been incorporated into the Lambertville Inn as restaurant spaces, two other decaying ones silently greet passersby along the walk — with one serving as the canvas for graffiti artists. Although that car’s entrance is chained to discourage visitors, it is easy to take a peek inside and imagine the ghosts of the many passengers who depended on the car to carry them through life.
Further up are the unglamorous but necessary Lambertville Sewage Buildings and a weir where the canal water roars through and leaves behind branches and logs.
After passing a series of old but functioning buildings that back onto the canal (and open to Route 29), the path becomes tree-lined, quiet, and less traveled, affording an opportunity to relax and slow down the pace.
Then about a half mile across from a bench on the right is a path leading down a bluff toward the river. Fraught with gnarled tree roots and rocks, it invites only the intrepid to enjoy its reward: the wing dam.
Built in the early 1800s to feed the canal and power Lambertville paper mills, it is now regulated by the Delaware River Basin Commission based in Trenton.
A combination of stone and concrete, the dam extends from both sides of the river in a chevron formation with an opening to let the water race through. Although often submerged after high waters resulting from heavy storms, the dam is usually slightly above the water line and provides visitors with the opportunity to walk close to the surface and into the center of the river.
There you can stand — or sit — with water running under foot and hear only the musical sound of the moving water. Look south and gaze at the white-capped water rushing over rocks and around small islands, then notice the river arching to the left and Bowman Tower on top of its mountain to the right.
Turn around and gaze at the silent traffic glittering in the sun as it travels across the Lambertville-New Hope Bridge and the 19th and early 20th century buildings of both towns seemingly out of a vintage Bucks County painting.
The experience — especially in the summer — is like walking into a postcard and then realizing the beauty and history under your feet.