You have to hand it to New Jersey — dreaming up and launching our light rail, the River Line, back in 2004. This rail line travels from Trenton to Camden, also connecting passengers with Philadelphia and Manhattan, with impeccable efficiency and considerable beauty. Before the need for mass transit became urgent, let alone chic, ridership projections were met. In fact, they were met during the rail line’s very first year.

The River Line’s blue-and-gold-accented blindingly white cars connect the river towns formerly linked by ships under full sail, in the days when the Delaware was more important than any roadway. A brilliant compromise made this form of transportation possible. The River Line runs during the day, and its tracks are then turned back over to freight trains at night. The River Line is a solution that’s working right now.

People take this train for eminently practical reasons. And its practicality is visibly growing. I’ve watched the river towns it passes through awake from post-Industrial-Revolution slumber and energetically transform handsome town centers. At the end of 2008, between gas price sticker shock and global warming imperatives, full parking lots have become the norm. In past years I could get any seat that I wanted, but now I’m having new challenges in finding seats that face “the right way.” This is all to the good, as the central and southern sections of New Jersey take the River Line to heart.

Each of the River Line’s trains consists of two Swiss-made, vividly painted, gleaming diesel/electric cars — one facing north, one south. They stand to become new icons for the Garden State.

Most riders use this route to get to and from work — quickly, silently, and at a reasonable cost. “A ticket to ride” buys time, not destination. It allows a rider the right to travel for two hours. Since tickets have nothing to do with destination, there is no such thing as a round trip. Swift automatic ticket dispensers offer $1.35 regular fare — or a mere $.60 for the unfortunately named “Disabled/Senior.” The savvy validate tickets only as their train pulls in, to get the full two hours’ worth. Transfer tickets are available to buses or to other trains, all explained on the ticket machines’ LED display and online. Schedules: www.RiverLine.com/geninfo_sched.php

As in Europe, passengers hop off at any of 20 stops, go straight to their jobs, or wander around. Leisure travelers check out the river, stop for historic pilgrimages, foods of many nations, art or antiques — paying a new fare when the first expires. One keeps the ticket handy, as it must still be valid when leaving. Policemen do sometimes check tickets of departing passengers.

A recent full day of exploration along the Delaware River cost this senior all of $1.80.

At Riverton’s track-side pastry shop, open from 6 a.m., we were told that people breakfast there before River-LINing it to Manhattan — via Trenton, of course. In a recent article on Roebling, I discovered that single women with Philadelphia jobs now commute to this safe and sturdy town that was built for the workers of the man who brought us the Brooklyn Bridge.

The River Line keeps increasing its usefulness — in scheduling and connections. Proud of its links to “NJ TRANSIT trains, AMTRAK, SEPTA and PATCO,” its promoters point out that: “It’s easier than ever to get to Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Newark Airport, and New York.”

Settle near the driver/engineer (“DO NOT DISTRACT!”), so you’re facing the right way. To enjoy the Delaware and other waterways, be on the right going south; left returning north. Be sure to check departure times when you get off, so you have an idea when to return. The trains are always exactly 30 minutes apart.

The River Line’s avant-garde streamlined cars seem jarring in the riverside, often agrarian south Jersey landscape. Views out the sparkling windows are endlessly compelling. The train’s haunting horn blows at crossroads, triggering inexplicable nostalgia. Significant eras flash past, a living PowerPoint presentation of New Jersey history — from regions vital to the peaceful nomadic Lenni Lenapes through our state’s industrial landmarks. Someone esthetically aware arranged for lampposts of yesterday to light each station, and cast evocative daytime shadows.

A mosaic of handsome stylized tiles, announcing that region’s specialties, enhances every stop: catfish south, shad north, golden bees, fat ears of corn. Campbell’s canning images adorn Camden. Herons vie with egrets, sailboats with sailors’ knots. The state bird gives way to lighthouses. A collaborative art installation, the striking designs enrich pillars and railings of the 20 station stops. Artists Katherine Hackl, Hiroshi Murata, and Marilyn Keating were selected in 1997 by a committee established by the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, NJTransit, DMJM Engineering, and local arts organizations. They formed a partnership, KHMK LLC, to design and fabricate all artwork for the light rail. Child passengers especially look forward to spotting new images, as the train’s soft-voiced public address system announces the approaching station.

Tracks run right through the heart of once pivotal towns. Each River Line journey reveals new nearby buildings spawned by the light rail system, as well as freshly restored old ones. One disembarks among dazzling red Knockout roses, which have grown to a height of more than five feet since the train started to run. There’s no wrong side of the tracks along this route. Approaching each town, a riverine Renaissance is palpable. New law offices abut new real estate establishments. River Line Realty signs dot tended lawns before quirky Riverton houses. Every excursion reveals new restaurants, and additions to existing restaurants. Riverside’s Madison Pub, which has operated since before the Civil War, has recently been expanded.

Aboard the River Line, and wandering its storied towns, one steps out of everyday frenzy into tranquility. I haven’t known this level of release and relief since boarding the S.S. France, the Mary, or the Elizabeth in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s impossible to choose which towns to explore.

But I will hazard this personal recipe for your first trip: Start at Bordentown, 15 miles from Princeton, remembering that Napoleon ordered his brother Joseph, King of Spain and of Naples, to buy land on the Bluffs. Then Bordentown was easily equidistant from bustling Philadelphia and up-and-coming Manhattan under sail. So Joseph and his nephew/son-in-law Charles Lucien could regularly entertain political, scientific, and artistic movers-and-shakers of the mid-1800s. Purchasing our tickets at Bordentown beneath ex-King Joseph’s and ornithologist Charles Lucien’s Point Breeze land, we were treated to a fat mockingbird, several ruddy robins, a ravening fish crow, and appropriate kinglets.

I propose Riverton for your first river walk, with a return to Burlington after lunch for your afternoon’s promenade.

I-95 leads south to Bordentown’s Route 130 exit. Left onto Farnsworth Avenue, then almost to the river, and finally a sharp left into the now crowded, but bucolic and free parking lot. You can check schedules online beforehand, but it really doesn’t matter, since trains run every half hour. Trenton lies north, through the marsh. All the other river towns beckon to the south. It’s no longer a world of revolutionaries, brigands, Underground Railway fugitives, authors or heads of state. But you can feel them.

After Cinnaminson, be ready to disembark at Riverton, where the Victorian era is alive and well and they have the gas lamps to prove it. Head west on any street toward the river. Most days, she winks peacefully, even hypnotically at the nearby horizon. Stroll along a treasure trove of captains’ houses along Riverton’s esplanade. Photograph the intricate Burlington-Bristol Bridge or a cluster of wild ducks afloat as you maneuver among trees too thick for three people to encircle.

Riverton’s 1865 yacht club presides like a dowager out on a pier. A busy place, boats were coming out of the water for winter during our late October visit. Nautical equipment and evocative phrases, such as “Chart Room,” wafted us to other settings, other centuries. Riverton’s charm lies in the breadth, depth, and originality of its architecture. There may be no more enticing public library than its little yellow cottage. Yards are colorful, restrained, and tended. Some sidewalks exhibit luxurious bluestone, and many proudly bear raised bronze signs announcing those who crafted them. Silence is the norm. Passersby smile and say hello.

We generally eat at Riverton’s Zena’s Patisserie, right across from the tracks. The interior could be old Vienna, hidden Paris, or New York’s Village. Expect delicious homemade soups and savory breads. The patisserie is known for pannini and signature sandwiches, with an eye toward health and sustainability. Locals call in their pick-up orders, struggling over the rich array of choices. Both the delicate cream puffs and the supersize eclairs — made the old-fashioned way with real ingredients, without intrusive preservatives — bring back the innocence of childhood. They are worth the journey. The River Line offers a 10 percent discount for Zena’s, any time from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. The eatery is closed on Mondays.

If you’re in an Italian mood, Riverton’s Milanese Pizza (www.milanesepizza.net) is impeccable and welcoming. A hand-lettered sign promises homemade soups proudly created by a man I’d choose for my grandfather, as well as memorable dishes not limited to the eponymous pizza. This establishment has been serving river towns since 1987, before the River Line was a gleam in anyone’s eyes, but this new location mentions the light rail as the deciding factor in its siting. Either way, eating is timeless here — if you miss one train, another will be right along.

Now head north to Burlington. Notice signs welcoming you to London, as you exit the River Line. They name the oldest neighborhoods here — keep an eye out for others with a British bent. Burlington’s website, I just discovered, welcomes viewers to “Time Travel.” Exactly! “Where the past, since 1677, is our present to you.”

This increasingly happening town is about to locate its tourism bureau in a solid building about 12 steps north of the River Line Burlington Center stop. Even the commercial heart of the town, named to the National Register of Historic Places, fittingly boasts of dappled streets and brick-cobbled sidewalks, which change in design every few yards. Gas lamps have probably been electrified, but many look to be otherwise original. My traveling companion, Anne Zeman, captured a plein-air painter busily immortalizing one of the town’s most venerable churches and graveyards, St. Mary’s Episcopal, 1703.

The oldest Episcopal Church in New Jersey owns a silver communion service, a gift of Queen Anne made before 1713. During the American Revolution, this church was the focal point of activities for American Loyalists. The nearby Revell home, 1685, is the oldest standing home in Burlington County.

Lenni Lenapes first chose Burlington’s stunning riverside site, at the confluence of Assunpink Creek and the Delaware River, only to find themselves in conflict with Europeans in the 1600s. Burlington was a buzzing center of activity when we were the Jerseys. The Surveyor General’s Office sits across Broad Street from the River Line Burlington Center stop. In this humble building are maintained the records of the Council of West Jersey Proprietors, appropriate, as Burlington was West Jersey’s capital. My favorite walk begins there, at Wood Street by the St. Mary’s Episcopal church, heading west toward the river. Wind alongside intriguing secret gardens and under venerable trees, heading ultimately toward the broadness of Waterfront Park, where a gazebo holds summer band concerts.

The Burlington County Historical Society at 451 High Street (609-386-4773) maintains a complex of buildings old and new. Its curator guided us from Lenape artifacts past samplers and quilts, to stunning pieces of furniture used by Joseph Bonaparte, Charles Lucien and Zenaide at Point Breeze in Bordentown.

In a shadowy attic room, afternoon light illuminated a reupholstered Empire bed, chair, commode and secretary that transported me right back to a trip to Fontainebleau and Malmaison in France. All I had wanted to find was the mantle from Joseph’s first house, which I had learned about during a symposium at Point Breeze last month, where the opening speaker was the French Ambassador to America, Pierre Vimont. But Burlington’s gold and white Empire mantle proved to be only the beginning of our Bonaparte surprises. Back outside, intricate red and black patterns in brick historic structures reveal Quaker origins. So it is no surprise to discover that the Underground Railroad was very active in this town.

Burlington’s famous former residents include Benjamin Franklin and his son William, the state’s last Royal Governor, and Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in pivotal 1783. Ulysses S. Grant waited for the end of the Civil War in a house on Wood Street. Burlington was also the home of Captain James “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” Lawrence, after whom Lawrenceville was named. His motto became the motto of Commodore Perry, who avenged Lawrence’s defeat and death with a stirring victory over the British in Lake Erie. It then became the motto of the United States Navy.

We were taken inside Lawrence’s home, then into the birthplace of author James Fenimore Cooper. His “The Last of the Mohicans” may have had greater impact on European readers and writers than on residents of this country. Cooper was a frequent visitor at Point Breeze. Lucien Bonaparte, the first descriptive ornithologist, might have named the Cooper’s hawk, discovered in the marsh, after this writer. Or, according to our history guide from the Burlington Historical Society, “after a ferryman named Cooper, or a nearby family who were coopers (makers of barrels for ships’ stores).”

Presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln had his campaign headquarters at the Blue Anchor Inn, at the southwest corner of Broad and High streets, traversed today by the tracks of River Line trains.

Directly across from James Fenimore’s home is the Historic Burlington Antiques & Art Emporium, the largest in South Jersey. More than 60 astute purveyors display beauties of other times, under the capacious roof of this former ships’ repair center. I can testify to extraordinary variety, sensible prices, and authentic Navajo and Hopi silver work among these souvenirs.

Lunch or dinner at the Cafe Gallery, 219 High Street, provides river views in all seasons, and river breezes by the fountain in the outdoor patio in warmer times. The restaurant’s imaginative, sensitively prepared food competes for attention with the Delaware River itself, reminding us that there was a long time in New Jersey when rivers were more important than roads. One can re-experience this life when the A. J. Meerwald oyster schooner sets sail from Burlington, or upon the city’s new blue and white very Southern dinner boat, moored across from the Gallery.

I’ve come to see the River Line as a traveling community. Even though passengers don’t know each other’s names, smiles and voices express delight in encountering familiar faces. Bicyclists bounce aboard and hang bikes from sturdy, shiny hooks. A woman in medical garb travels from Camden to Trenton, intensely studying for a major exam. A father tends his sleeping child inside a covered stroller.

Most passengers are self-absorbed, even dozing. Some read. Few except obvious tourists like us examine the outdoors. A boy with a cast on one foot travels to Rutgers Camden for third-year classes. The train stops right on campus.

A man brags to my friend, Anne Zeman, describing the Riverside building she had just photographed: “Those historical people, you know, they won’t let us tear it down.”

Many choose the River Line to reach Camden’s Aquarium — not only because the stop couldn’t be more convenient, but because this saves extortionate parking fees.

Also convenient to River Line travelers is the Walt Whitman house. I’ve made many a one-block pilgrimage from Camden’s ultimate train stop to the stark grey house of our “good grey poet,” Walt Whitman. He eagerly chose this setting for his final years. It now faces a grim prison — appropriate. Walt would have tended to the inmates as he looked after wounded Civil War soldiers in Washington.

I’m always shepherding others on this journey. Architecture buffs eagerly name every period represented in dwellings and businesses still extant, still utilized, alongside the tended tracks. On the day of a serious flood, I nevertheless accompanied an artist to Camden to begin learning a new medium. Several times, I join a friend, Sandra Lisnak, whose online vintage jewelry business, Foxfire Vintage Jewelry, is regularly nourished at the Antiques Emporium in Burlington.

The least successful River Line trip involved three psychologists, who discussed dysfunction all the way down and back, and barely noticed their food. Happiest are historians. Photographers are electrified by the passing scene — natural, esthetic, historic, industrial, riverine — most of which sights none had previously experienced. Most cannot wait to repeat the trip. We’re going back as soon as the leaves are down, so we can really see the marsh.

My favorite beginning or end of a River Line day is to return to Bordentown without getting off (making sure tickets are valid). Head up to, then back from Trenton, through the Hamilton/Trenton/Bordentown Marsh. This week’s marsh excursion provided a great blue heron, menacing fish crows, V’s of soundless geese, two red-tailed hawks, and a bald eagle. Birds from before history, all spotted from New Jersey 21st century’s light rail line.

I’m always expecting a glimpse of submerged Revolutionary war boats, only uncovered at lowest tide, a Lenni Lenape canoe or two, or Joseph Bonaparte walking with his mistress on his Bluffs high above our final River Line stop.

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