As diversions go, taking a hike on a bridge across the Delaware River is easy, inexpensive, fun, and cool — in more ways than one.
As a young guy I often took walks on high bridges to gaze at the water or watch ships pass below the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia (where I was born) or the Bayonne Bridge in northern Jersey (where I lived while working in New York theaters). Such times walking in the air and over the moving waters gave me time to be alone, dream, and see the world anew.
Bridges also turned into occasional destinations after I moved to Trenton and was dating my future wife. We often took evening strolls across the Washington Crossing and Lambertville bridges and would watch lights and stars glitter on the water or sometimes take afternoon walks over the pedestrian bridge at Raven Rock. Then as a dad, I found that taking slow walks across various bridges in the region was a great way to get my son out of the house and into the region’s geology, nature, and history.
Recently I retraced my steps to invite readers to join in on these walks over the water and through the air. And while the bridge hikes can start anywhere one chooses, the design here is based on a grid created by the towpath trails and canals that line both sides of the Delaware from Trenton to Frenchtown — an approximately 31-mile stretch that provides additional opportunities for hiking, bicycling, and fishing.
So let’s get moving.
#b#Trenton Makes Bridge#/b#
The 1,022-foot-long Trenton Makes Bridge — formally named the Lower Bridge — connects Trenton and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. The towns’ names came from the 17th century Scottish merchant William Trent and the 18th century landowner, merchant, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Revolutionary War banker, Robert Morris.
In addition to it being the southernmost bridge on a grid created by canals and towpaths, near the start of Route 29, it makes sense to start here for another reason. The Lower Bridge is the site of the first bridge ever to span the Delaware River. The original opened in 1806 and over the next three decades was modified to resist floods. Then it became another first — the first in the nation to accommodate interstate railroad traffic.
Today’s manifestation was built in 1928 and stands on the original bridge’s stone support. It uses a metal Warren Truss design — Englishman James Warren’s 1848 innovation of using a metal arch frame with triangular shaped beams to support weight — and consists of two lanes and a walkway on the north side. There one can pause and watch water rush over rocks, seagulls roost, and large turtles sun.
On the south side are the famous 10-foot-tall letters that spell the slogan “Trenton Makes — The World Takes,” which the city adopted early in the 20th century when Trenton was a center for steel and pottery. The sign has continued as a logo of sorts for Trenton and has appeared on everything from the album cover for internationally known Trenton saxophonist Richie Cole’s “Trenton Makes,” films including John Sayles’ 1983 “Baby, It’s You” and the Janet Evanovich novel-inspired “One for the Money” in 2012, numerous postcards and posters, and even part of a mural in New York City’s Penn Station featuring a poem by nationally recognized and formerly Trenton-based poet Pablo Medina.
The sign lights were originally placed on the bridge in 1935, replaced in 2005, and now undergoing a remake. And while the best spot to see the bridge sign is from a train traveling across the railroad bridge to the south, an evening walk on the bridge will cast you in the sign’s red glow and take you into another realm.
That goes for the panorama of the city’s skyline. The New Jersey State House’s gold dome and buildings sketching the history of late 19th and 20th century architecture — from Victorian church tops to brutalist concrete structures — are interesting during the day, reflecting on the river. But watching the city slowly light up at night is a quiet enchantment.
The bridge is most accessible from the Morrisville side. Drive on Bridge Street over the bridge and immediately turn right onto Park Avenue, where there is parking.
#b#Calhoun Street Bridge#/b#
The Calhoun Street Bridge is less than a mile to the north from the Trenton Makes Bridge. It can be reached easily by walking along the raised towpath on the Morrisville side of the river, with an attractive and commanding view of the Trenton and the river as a bonus. Or one can drive back to Bridge Street, turn right, turn right onto Delmorr Avenue, and follow it straight. When you see the bridge clearly, get ready to park on the right.
The 1,274-foot Calhoun Street Bridge also connects Trenton and Morrisville and boasts its own claims to history. As the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC) notes, the original wood bridge — then called the City Bridge — was built in 1861 by the Trenton Bridge Company on a ferry site. After that bridge burned in a “spectacular” fire in 1884, it was replaced by a metal bridge built by the Phoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Today that bridge — standing on the original stone piers — is the only of the DRJTBC’s 20 bridges made of wrought iron and the oldest roadway structure in continuous use between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was also part of the original 3,389-mile-long Lincoln Highway — America’s first transcontinental roadway, connecting New York City with San Francisco. A Lincoln Highway sign with arrows indicating New York City and San Francisco can still be seen next to the active guard station near the Pennsylvania side.
The walkway on this bridge is also on the northern side and presents a view that belies the reality that you’re in the capital of the most densely populated state of the nation. Trees line both sides of the river, and in addition to being able to see turtles and large carp swimming below, there are even a few uninhabited islands to create a sense of being far away. (See related story, “An Island Adventure in New Jersey’s Capital,” in U.S. 1, July 5, 2017.)
If you want to start with this bridge, drive down Route 29 south and exit onto the Calhoun Street Bridge and pass into Morrisville. You can find parking on one of the side roads or even next to guard house. There’s an Italian restaurant near the bridge in Morrisville, and down the block there are a few places to grab a snack — and make the kids’ trip sweeter.
#b#Washington Crossing Bridge#/b#
The next walkable bridge is the Washington Crossing Bridge, 7.5 miles up the river. The 877-foot metal truss bridge was built in 1904 to fill the span where two former wooden bridges operated before being swept away in floods.
The bridge also stands in the place where Colonial-era ferries operated, including McKonkey’s Ferry. That line was commandeered by General George Washington for the famous Delaware River crossing to surprise the British forces in Trenton and Princeton and turn the tide of the American Revolution.
And that it is one of the magical parts of this bridge. Not only can one see tree-lined riversides and 18th and 19th-century buildings, but one can imagine the ragged Revolutionary forces mustering their strength and resolve to engage the most proficient military force known in the world in a fight for liberty.
The bridge not only connects two states, it also connects two state parks, both with exhibitions and restrooms. There are also restaurants on both sides of the bridges, though pizza and ice cream are just a quick ride on both sides too. Free parking is available in the state parks on both sides.
#b#New Hope-Lambertville Bridge#/b#
Continue 7 miles north on either side to the New Hope-Lambertville Bridge. Also built in 1904, the 1,053-foot truss bridge also replaced two wooden bridges and stands where the Coryell’s Ferry operated. The name New Hope is connected to the settlers’ optimism of rebuilding after several mills burned down in the 1700s. Lambertville is named in honor of early 19th-century U.S. senator and acting New Jersey governor, John Lambert.
While the view of the river and towns is splendid, this two-lane bridge is just part of a tale of two bustling towns. In fact DRJTBC information says more pedestrians use this bridge than any other span along the entire length of the Delaware River and its “walkway — which was widened in 2004 — can be especially crowded on pleasant summer evenings, with tourists, restaurant-goers, antique hunters, and local residents crossing between the two riverside communities. The Commission has recorded as many as 14,000 pedestrian crossings on the bridge on a single weekend day.”
Choosing an early weekday morning may be good way to cut down on the crowd and to find a parking space in the two towns that have limited metered or paid parking. Yet a visit most of the time will afford an opportunity to cross the water where ice cream and other snacks can be found. And for the romantic minded, an evening walk to watch the sun set, the stars sparkle, and the town light up is something that lifts the spirits.
The Centre Bridge about 4 miles north connects the northern portion of New Hope with the town of Stockton — named for the Princeton-born U.S. senator and president of the D&R Canal, Robert Field Stockton. The bridge owes its name to its proximity between Lambertville-New Hope and Lumberville bridges, and it shares a similar pedigree: a ferry in 1700 and then a wooden-covered bridge that withstood floods and water but succumbed to a terrible fire in 1923. The collapsing of the bridge with 15 firefighters inside was recorded in art by the established Bucks County impressionist artist Edward Willis Redfield.
The current 825-foot bridge — also a Warren Truss design — opened in 1927 and has a six-foot timber-plank pedestrian sidewalk on its southern side. It provides a pleasant downriver view of islands and leads to Dilly’s Corner, an eatery with picnic tables and ice cream cones — and a sweet treat at the end of a kid’s journey. The Pennsylvania side also provides a stairwell to the towpath along the river.
While the bridge’s past was recorded in a painting, it was also the inspiration for music by Princeton-based composer Frances White. Her 2001 “Centre Bridge (dark river)” was commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, and in a written statement, White reveals the source of the music and touches on the allure of bridge walking:
“I made recordings of the traffic on it, and then used what I heard to shape the pitches and timing of the music. In ‘Centre Bridge (dark river),’ I particularly wanted to address the transforming power of the bridge. When you’re walking across it, you really are transported to a different world: not on land, or in the air, on in the water, but a place suspended between all of these different realities. The bridge transforms the sound of traffic into a kind of music: into something beautiful and almost sentient. And when you are back on land, your hearing is changed: when cars pass by on the street, you still hear in their sounds the singing of the cars on the bridge.
“The ‘dark river’ of the title is, of course, the Delaware. When I went to make the recordings for this piece, it was just after a series of heavy rains. The river was very high and forceful, and this made it seem dark and even frightening. Still, to me, there is something in its presence that is always deeply comforting.” A recording of “Centre Bridge,” is available on YouTube.
To find safe parking, head into Stockton, turn onto Bridge Street, right across from the Stockton Inn (the actual “small hotel with a wishing well” in the famous Rogers and Hart song). If there’s no parking on Bridge Street, turn onto Mill Street or Railroad Avenue to see what’s available. It is not advisable to park on the main roads on the Pennsylvania side, but several hundred feet away there is a small lot that is part of the State Canal Park.
#b#Lumberville-Raven Rock Pedestrian Bridge#/b#
The Lumberville-Raven Rock Bridge is the next step — about 3 miles away. And while it has the distinction of being the only pedestrian-only bridge on the river, it wasn’t always one. The original vehicle wood bridge was constructed by the Lumberville Delaware River Bridge Company in 1856. It operated until 1903, when a portion was destroyed by a flood. A steel truss replacement was installed the following year, and the bridge continued to operate until 1944 when its timber portions were deemed unsafe.
The current 689-foot bridge started its life when the DRJTBC hired the Trenton-based John A. Roebling Company to design a pedestrian suspension bridge in 1947. Built on the original piers, the bridge is part of a heritage of Roebling bridge-building that includes the Brooklyn Bridge and the 1847 Delaware Aqueduct, the nation’s oldest suspension bridge connecting New York State and Pennsylvania.
The easiest access to the Lumberville-Raven Rock Bridge — which in 1993 underwent major rehabilitation — is by visiting Raven Rock, part of New Jersey’s Bull’s Island State Park. Once there, simply park and follow the road towards the bridge. Then there’s the leisurely and quiet stroll over the water that leads to two dining venues. The first is the historic Black Bass Hotel, where adults looking for a romantic getaway can spend time in the glass-walled riverside restaurant. The other is the quaint Lumberville General Store where families can find snacks and beverages. The name Lumberville connects the town’s sawmill past. Raven Rock is less clear and has been linked to a possible Leni Lenape name.
Parks on both sides of the river provide opportunities for picnics, hiking, fishing, and even boat launching. It is as close to one-stop summer fun as one can find.
The last bridge on the canal-towpath grid is the 95-foot Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge, 9 miles north, where Route 29 ends. The bridge’s legacy goes back to an original construction in 1841 — including the still-used piers and abutments. Another casualty of floods, the original bridge was compromised in 1903 and partially refitted with steel trusses in 1905. In order to accommodate automobiles and more traffic, the old structure was removed and replaced with Warren trusses in 1931. Additional work to address the road service was made in 1949. The last major structural and cosmetic rehabilitation efforts were undertaken in 2001 with the bridge getting new paint, a new sidewalk, lighting, guardrails, and new floor system.
The sidewalk on the northerly side provides an upriver view that invites one to linger and watch the water. And while the bridge journey to the town named after trade entrepreneur Michael Uhler leads only to a privately owned farm field and the very rural Route 32, a stroll around Frenchtown is more satisfying.
With approximately 1,400 residents, it is named after the French-speaking settlers who came to escape the French Revolution. And while it no longer serves as the trading and shipping center that the river — and later the railroad — created, it is now a destination for its shops, art galleries, and cafes — providing a sense of vacation without having to go too far.
Frenchtown has both metered and free parking, with the latter along River Road. The town also has a website to help visitors find parking, www.frenchtown.com/parking.html.
For more information on bridges across the Delaware River, visit the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission at www.drjtbc.org for updates and changes. There is also a book, “The Bridges of New jersey: Portraits of Garden State Crossings,” by Seven M. Richman, published in 2005 by Rutgers University Press.
But the best thing to do is just take a hike — in the air and over water.