"I think it gives people an exceptional experience of their heritage of an event that happened on Christmas Day,” says Nancy Ceperley of the annual Johnson Ferry House Lantern Tour, arguably one of the most American of holiday events in the region.
Set for 7 p.m. on Friday, December 21, at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, the tour coordinated by Ceperley for Washington Crossing State Park is an intimate walk that runs big with history. The event has been going on for more than a decade and, true to its name, requires that participants take lanterns and trace the grounds where the American Revolutionary forces marched on another December night 236 years ago.
Unlike other events designed for optimal weather conditions, this walk benefits from either fair or foul weather. A clear and starry night creates enchantment. A stormy night reminds the visitor of the scene that Washington and his men faced that fateful night.
“I thought it would be a cool idea,” says Ceperley, a state park employee who has been involved with the park for 50 years. “I thought that the sights of the park at night would be spectacular with the candle light and fire. I had taken my mother to Van Cortlandt Manor outside Terrytown, New York, for a candle light tour and found that it was a wonderful experience. So I thought it would be good here. We started with one small tour. Then over the years the tours became more popular, so now the historians from the park’s visitors center lead tours.”
The tour starts at the Nelson House, located near the banks of the Delaware River and across from the McConkey’s Ferry House in Pennsylvania, putting participants near the exact place of the famous crossing. House in the old sense of being an inn, the tour’s gathering place is actually the remaining kitchen and icehouse wing of the Alexander Nelson Hotel. Built in 1850, the hotel was a popular destination. In addition to being at a site to take in history, the hotel offered scenic views of both the river and the canal.
Contributing to the hotel’s success was the train line that stopped next to the building. However, that same benefit was also the end of the line for the hotel when a train derailed and pummeled into the building in the early 1930s. In 1937 a WPA project addressed the structure, and the remaining portion of the building was salvaged as a tourist attraction.
When Lantern Tour participants gather at the Nelson House, they find themselves thrust into the past: candles offer light, and burning logs in the fireplace provide heat and smoke. Then into the haze and faint light, historians in period garb appear to provide historical accounts and answer questions.
Soon lanterns are lit and handed out, and the group moves outdoors. As historians recount the Christmas crossing visitors gaze at the actual river and landing spot, making the story more tangible, more present.
The next stop is at the nearby replica of one of the Durham boats that ferried men across the river. The boats are named after Robert Durham, a Riegelsville, PA, engineer credited for designing the boat in the 1750s. Different from those boats depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1852 painting of Washington and the crossing, the 25-foot-long flat-bottomed Durham boats used to haul heavy and bulky materials were perfect vessels for transporting 2,400 soldiers, horses, and cannons across the river.
The tour then moves toward the park and onto the pedestrian bridge that passes over Route 29, where the pools of lantern light lead tour participants to a reconstructed barn with a stone exterior. Inside the shop, period-dressed craftsmen in candlelight greet visitors and discuss the building’s construction, demonstrate antique tools, and talk about colonial industries.
When the tour group leaves the barn, it then heads to the Johnson House. The building is the bright heart of the tour where visitors gather before a glowing hearth and enjoy pastries and beverages prepared 18th century-style.
Built circa 1740 by Dutch farmer Rutger Jansen on a tract of nearly 500 acres on the river, the Johnson house has a wooden frame, clapboard siding, and gambrel (or barn style) roof. Garrett Johnson inherited the house and established both a plantation and a ferry business.
In 1776 that ferry business, run by James Slack — along with the business owned in Pennsylvania by Samuel McConkey — provided the crafts for the Revolutionary Army to cross the river and put the Johnson house squarely in the eye of history.
“The lantern tour is one of the best ways to get a concentrated dose of this site and one of the most enjoyable ways of learning history,” says Ceperley. “You’re getting an experience of that time period because you are at the sites and you are experiencing them as they would have experienced it in the 18th century. It’s the primitive technology of the 18th century: fire, candles, and lanterns. You’re almost taken back to that time period, and you’re seeing people in the structures doing things as they would have done so in the second half of the 18th century.”
As Ceperley talks several other layers of history emerge, the house’s and her own.
The Johnson House continued as a farm after the revolution and until the state purchased it. Says Ceperley, “It was owned by the family of a well known Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Isadore Strittmater. He rented it to tenant farmers, the Peze Family. They were here to 1923 and had fruit trees and dairy cattle. The state bought the farm in 1919, but the Peze lease was not due until 1923, then the state took over. At first the state was going to raze the house and build a whole new structure. When they got into it they decided not to do that and did some pretty extensive renovation. For some reason the state changed its mind, but praise God that they did. The foundation and timber frame are all original.”
Nancy Ceperley was born in the mid-20th century in Trenton. Her father was the president of Cartrex, a Doylestown-based manufacturer of foam rubber and urethane, started by the guide’s grandfather. Her mother earned a degree in physics from Goucher College, raised children, and had a lot of different jobs, including a stint at Gallup Poll.
She was also an amateur historian and very involved in historic preservation. In the early 1960s Ceperley’s mother and father’s interests turned to Washington Crossing State Park. “Both my parents were very involved with the Washington Crossing Association. Both were presidents. Both were very involved and very involved with starting it. They were very much a father and mother of that group.”
Her family’s involvement was more than just attending meetings and not always safe. That includes a Christmas Day when Ceperley’s family history mixed with national history: the Christmas Crossing. That event does not use replicas of the ferries from the period, something that her father wanted to correct.
“My father actually built an 18th-century ferry replica in our driveway,” says Ceperley. “We couldn’t use the driveway for a year. He wanted to have the ferry cross during the bicentennial. Then my father was on the ferry dressed as James Slack and had a cannon.”
Instead of using ferry cables to guide the crafts through fast-moving currents, this crossing depended on Ceperley’s brothers using push poles to navigate. The pushers, however, lost control and the vessel started drifting down stream. Though the crew was able to catch a towline that was thrown to them, the line broke and some of the ferry passengers began panicking and screaming.
“My father had been a lieutenant in the Marine Corps in World War II and was good at yelling at people to do things, so he started yelling and somehow he got them to do the things that got them to the other shore. Both my brothers were exhausted when they got home and collapsed. One even caught pneumonia. That was the only time the re-enactment had a ferry boat,” says Ceperley.
Noting that she was often recruited to help with park events, especially with the open air theater, Ceperley sees a direct connection between what she does today to her family’s love of the park.
“I was taking a lot of it from osmosis from my parents. When I was in seventh grade at Council Rock School, my favorite subject was social studies. I excelled at it. I was pretty much the top student in my history class. It just came naturally to me to study.”
But history took a back seat for many years when Ceperley focused on obtaining an art degree from Temple University and a graduate degree in Biblical studies from Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairns University) and attempting to build a career in art.
“I was doing three or four other part time jobs. I was a starving artist trying to make ends meet. Art work: painting oils and acrylics, still life and landscapes. Once in a great while I did antique furniture decoration to keep myself fed. Then the Washington Crossing Association, probably through my mother, persuaded me to take a seasonal position at the Nelson House. I was the hostess, the docent, and at the time it had a gift shop. I was the interpreter, did school group tours, and sold gifts from May to November,” she says.
Now a state park historic interpreter, she coordinates tours and events at the Johnson House, which Washington most likely used during the crossing. “There is no documentation that he was in the house. The speculation is that it is most likely that he was in the house, for a number of reasons. It took 10 hours to make the crossing. One of his aides de camp was already in here. Generally the top staff would come together and meet. Because of the sleet storm the officers would have needed to meet inside. The only civilized and reasonable place to meet would have been this house. Officers were gentry and pretty much accustomed to taking over the most suitable accommodations for themselves. They had that privilege in 18th-century culture,” says Ceperley.
To strengthen her argument she says that ferry man Slack, who lived here at the time, was a patriot. “He was extremely cooperative. There is a good chance that he would have been honored to invite the officers into the house and use it.”
Of the historic event, she says, “It’s an amazing event. It’s very providential. The confluence of events to make it happen was nothing short of miraculous.”
Noticeably aware of the spirit of the event, Ceperley says that her favorite moment of the tour is when visitors arrive at the historic house. “When they come into the ferry house, they ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’ They’re all ears. They’re all impressed by the beauty of the place lit in candle light.”
Yet there are other factors that make the tour attractive. “First of all it is a lot less expensive. It’s actually a good deal. Many tours Williamsburg tours are between $15 and $25 and there are no refreshments. Yarns of historians and getting hearth-baked colonial refreshments for about half the price ($10, $5 children and seniors). The tour runs about an hour and half. Sometimes people linger. People can linger with the wassail and the Dutch donuts.”
And if that isn’t enough, Ceperley says, “It’s a unique experience. It’s connected with Christmas, but it’s more.”
Johnson Ferry House Lantern Tours, Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville. Friday, July 21, 7 and 7:30 p.m., $10 adults, $5 children and seniors.
Winter Foodways Class. Saturday, January 12, 10 a.m. $40.
Chocolate Workshops. Saturday, February 2. $40.
Washington’s Birthday Celebration. Sunday, February 17, 11 a.m Free. 609-737-2515.