Corrections or additions?
This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the November 24,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Burlington City Rediscovered
It used to be easy to miss Burlington City. If you whizzed by too fast
on Route 130, it was behind you in a blink. But now that’s all
changed. With the advent of the New Jersey Transit’s RiverLine, and
its two stops in this little city on the Delaware River, Burlington is
being rediscovered for its character, its charm, and its history. And
yes, it’s also the place where the vast empire now known as the
Burlington Coat Factory actually started.
In the holiday season, this Burlington County town pulls out all the
stops and celebrates its friendly neighborhoods with a Georgetown look
and feel. If you’ve never visited the place that claims James Fenimore
Cooper as a native son, and that attracted a 17-year-old Ben Franklin
as he passed through on his way from Boston to Philadelphia, now’s the
time to mend your ways.
"Burlington was settled in the 17th century by English Quakers fleeing
religious persecution, and the city has preserved much of its Colonial
charm and beauty," says James Seitter, director of product development
for the South Jersey Tourism Corporation, an agency determined to
share the tourism riches of the state’s southern counties with locals
and out-of-town visitors alike.
"Burlington’s streets actually echo the history of the nation," says
Seitter, who points to buildings like the Revell House, built by a
Quaker distiller in 1685, and the Captain James Lawrence House, the
boyhood home of the distinguished naval captain who died in the War of
1812 – but not before uttering those immortal words "Don’t Give Up The
Ship!" A flag with those words flies on Burlington’s lovely riverfront
promenade in his honor.
Then there’s the little-known fact – except to Civil War buffs – that
toward the end of that war, in 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant,
concerned for the safety of his wife and children, brought his family
to Burlington. They lived in a house at 309 Wood Street, a beautifully
leafy side street.
Grant returned there to visit his family prior to the Battles of the
Wilderness, and actually declined an invitation to go to the theater
with President and Mrs. Lincoln on that fateful April night in 1865 in
order to spend more time with his family. Shortly after the Civil War
ended, Grant and his family left Burlington and returned to their
permanent home. The house the Grant family occupied is now a private
residence bearing an historic marker and brief history.
So yes, history abounds here, whether in lovely old St. Mary’s
Hall/Doane Academy School, located on the riverbank and once an
exclusive private girls boarding school, or the Birch-Bloomfield
Mansion on Burlington’s High Street, constructed about 1750. Occupied
in the late 18th century by politician Joseph Bloomfield and his
family, the stately Federal style building was later occupied by
industrialist and arts patron James Birch and his family. Birch’s most
notable accomplishment: manufacturing rickshaws in downtown
Burlington. Today, the mansion is a private law office.
Burlington also boasts the second oldest public library in New Jersey,
and the seventh oldest in the nation. It has operated continuously
since 1758, when it was chartered by King George II of England. The
collection was originally housed in the parlor of a resident. It moved
several times before ending at its current location, a large stone
building at 23 West Union Street built in 1864.
But it’s not just history that makes Burlington City a delightful
destination. After periods of unfortunate decline, the city is
experiencing a renaissance. Mayor Darlene Scocca reports that
commercial districts are thriving and property values are rising.
"Burlington is a city with pocket neighborhoods that honor the city’s
unique history," says Scocca, who is working with the South Jersey
Tourism Corporation to promote the city as a visitor-friendly place.
That effort extends to other towns in the region, and according to
Judi London, president of the South Jersey Tourism Corporation, the
time is right for encouraging active tourism in places like Burlington
City. "South Jersey has it all – arts and culture, eco-tourism,
agri-tourism, attractions, shopping, and a wealth of heritage sites,"
Shopping, Burlington City style, includes the opportunity to browse on
the city’s main thoroughfare, High Street. Art studios, antique shops,
a large antique indoor emporium, and the famous Ummm Ice Cream shop,
which boasts homemade ice cream year-round, are all part of the
Skeptics were stunned when Thommy G’s, a decidedly sophisticated and
upscale restaurant, took over an old bank building on High Street and
began featuring Italian and New Orleans-style cuisine. Named for
Thomas Geneviva, the celebrated Bucks County chef who continues to
preside over the restaurant’s critically-acclaimed kitchen, the
restaurant is attracting hordes of visitors from Philadelphia, Bucks
County, and far more distant locations.
Just down the street is the elegant Cafe Gallery, a restaurant and art
gallery overlooking the Delaware River, where French and new American
cuisine reign. Owned by two local couples, the restaurant operates on
two levels, and in warmer weather, uses its beautifully landscaped
lawns for outdoor dining.
Small cafes and coffee shops are also sprouting up around town, a
testament to Burlington’s ongoing renaissance.
Nancy and Bill McLaughlin, residents of Haddon Heights, recently
joined a tour of Burlington organized by the Alternative Tour Company
in Cherry Hill. "We’ve always lived in this area, but we’d never
really explored Burlington. And we just loved it!" says Nancy
McLaughlin, who traveled with the tour group on the RiverLINE, then
toured historic sites with an actor dressed as James Fenimore Cooper.
McLaughlin loved everything from the smooth ride on the futuristic new
train to the sundae desserts at Ummm. "I’ve been selling the state for
22 years," says Marian Deal Smith, president of Alternative Tours,
"but Burlington really was a terrific find. It’s got so much history
and so much charm that I see it as a cornerstone of local tourism."
– Sally Friedman
For the holidays, Burlington City is preparing special events that
focus on bringing still more visitors to the town. The events include:
Tree Lighting. Friday, November 26, at 7 p.m. White lights will be lit
along the main streets of town and storytellers in period costumes
will be strolling High Street. Store windows will compete for the
best-decorated window contest. Parking and admission are free.
Holiday Parade. Saturday, December 4, at 3 p.m. High school bands,
string bands, and antique cars. Parking and admission are free.
Holiday House Tour. Sunday, December 12, from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. Twenty
private homes and historic sites, all decked out for the holiday
season, will participate in the tour. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12
on tour day/night. Call 609-386-7125 or 609-386-0586.
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