“River road” — conjures up a shaded, tight two lane, winding road running parallel to a scenic River. There must be hundreds of river roads. Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, our River Road follows the Delaware River. Many associate it with Yardley or New Hope. I’ve actually followed the river from Philadelphia — past industrial buildings, parking lots, railroads, parallel to interstate 95 — Delaware Avenue, Tacony Street, then State Road to Croydon and Bristol.
I grew up on Mill Street in Bristol Borough about 70 miles from Delaware Bay, 22 miles from center city, Philadelphia. The river was our back yard. Let’s start our River Road tour in Bristol at Mill and Radcliffe, heading upriver. On our right is the King George, a colonial era inn and tavern. Yes, General George Washington was a guest, as well as Presidents John Adams, Madison, Tyler and Filmore. We’ve had many family dinners at the King George. The enclosed porches in the rear have great river views. Although I thought it overpriced for a few years, the current owners have restored the qualily at acceptable prices. During my high school years, the parents of a close friend managed the Inn (it was called the Delaware House for many years, Americans not wanting to hear “King George). The family lived in rooms on the second floor; an invitation to dinner and we were served by a waitress. John’s mom and dad were working, kitchen and bar. We liked playing pool in the historic bar. It was there that I last saw and talked my grandfather Profy. He was having lunch.
Next door to the King George is the Bristol Riverside Theatre. Growing up it was the Bristol movie theatre. I saw my first films there. By 1970 it had become an “adult” movie house catering to a gay audience. Diane and I home from the Peace Corps were living in the family apartment two blocks away. Weekends there were frequent disturbances between straights and gays. As I called the police I assurrred Diane, “it wasn’t like this when I was a kid.” The Grundy foundation bought the building in the 1980s and a great regional theatre was born drawing New York talent. I think the first production we saw was Pearl Bucks’s “The Good Earth.” More recently, “Lost in Yonkers” and “Workings” based on a Studs Terkel book. Anything we’ve seen has been a solid production.
Across the street is Annabella’s Italian Restaurant. It’s very good Classic Italian, recently featured in the “Main Street — Small Business Revolution” program. Another place for family celebrations; in fact the Profy’s are related to the owner, Robert.
In Bristol, river road is Radcliffe street. There is about a mile of historic houses. My first introduction to local history, was reading Doren Green’s “Old Homes on Radcliffe Street.” I knew families and had friends that lived in some of the homes. It’s a book I need to reread. One of the nicest homes is the Grundy mansion. Joseph Grundy was the owner of a large woolen mill in town (the distinctive clock tower, a Bristol logo) and a United States Senator. When he died in the 1960s, he established the Grundy Foundation which immediately built the Margaret R. Grundy Memorial Library. Situated next to the Grundy mansion on the river, the library is a fantastic community resource for the town and county. In addition to its collection of material, the library sponsors a variety of community programs.
Continuing up Radcliffe we pass St. Mark’s RC Church, established in 1846 I thought the oldest Catholic Church in the county but recently learned it’s the second; the first in Ottsville. Up the street, on the left is Cesare’s Restorante, a family classic Italian, another place where our family has had many gatherings. Pizza is fantastic but also check out the homemade biscotti. On the edge of the borough line at Green Lane is industrial property — ship building during WW I and airplane construction during WW I. Nestled in the complex is the Radcliffe Cafe, a classic local breakfast hangout.
Leaving the Borough we continue through Bristol township, the village of Tullytown into a desolate area at a bend in the river. US steel was located here in the 1950s; now its Waste Management with huge mounds of fermenting trash and garbage. It’s also the location of Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s country estate. As a kid we would visit the historic property but interpretation was extremely limited. I do remember that there was a brewery. Penn made beer. Today the State does a better job of interpretation; there are several “living history” events including Holly Nights in early December — with crackling fires, candles, carollers, and mulled cider.
There isn’t a road close to the river but it’s possible to continue north-west to Pennsylvania Avenue which goes into Morrisville Borough. The “Trenton Makes; the World Takes” bridge is on the right. Here Route 32 is truly River Road although the Road name will depend on the municipality. The next bridge is the 1884 Calhoun Street bridge construcked by the Phoenixville Bridge Company. It’s about five miles to the Yardley Inn on the corner of Afton Avenue and downtown Yardley.
Since 1977 we’ve lived on N. Delaware Avenue (River Road) several blocks above the Yardley inn. Founded in 1832 as the White Swan, the Inn is an award winning Bucks County restaurant; survivor of the historic floods including three in the early 2000s. In recent years, Chef Eban Copple has started a restaurant garden, foraged wild plants like ramps, and buys local when possible. We eat at the Inn several times a year.
In the block before the Inn is Charcoal BYOB ( formerly Charcoal Steaks and Things) the local hangout that has gotten solid reviews from the Inquirer food critic Craig LeBan. A detour on Afton to downtown Yardley is worth the trip. Enjoy Lake Afton, fishing and ice skating. The picturesque carpenter Gothic building is the “Old Library,” now the home of the Yardley Historical Association.
There are a number of downtown restaurants including the Continental Tavern and The Vault — a micro-brewery. The Continental offers decent pub food and a lot of local history. Possible a station on the Undergroun RR, Frank Lyons, the current owner has been conducting some pretty sophiscated archaeology. He’s unearthed a large hidden room filled with bottles (many from the prohibition era) and other artifacts. A serious historian, he displays many findings in the bar and restaurant.
Yardley is also a good place to start an explore of the Delaware Canal State Park. It began in Bristol and continues for sixty miles to Easton.
Back on River Road we’ll pass the Yardley boat ramp. At the next stop sign, we will be in Taylorsville, Washington Crossing Park. There is a visitor center with a replica of Emmenuel Leutze’s painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The original became controversial during WWII since Leutze was German and the river in the painting was the Rhine. Displayed for a few years in the park it was eventually returned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. A copy replaces the original. There are a number of historic buildings on the 500 acre State Park, opened for tours and special activities. Decades ago we had a colonial cooked dinner in McConkley’s Ferry Inn. Unfortunately the park service has been less ambitious in its offerings. The big event is the reenactment of Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas. We’ve attended several years. Weather and river permitting, reenactors cross the river in reproductions of the historic Durham boats that the Colonials used.
Just above the Park is David’s Library of the American Revolution. It was founded in 1959 by Sol Feinstone, an immigrant in love with the revolutionary freedom. The library is used by amateur and professional historians. I’ve had several interesting days with pencil and paper reading about the Revolution in Bucks County. They also present lectures and field trips. I took one following Washington’s route to the battle of Trenton. During our first year of retirement, Diane and I attended a workshop on using the library for genealogical research. Of equal interest was a presentation by the owner- founder of Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania’s s rye whispery distillery which is located in the old Grundy mill in Bristol. Fascinating history and tasty samples.
We cross a red camelback bridge over Jericho creek, the crossroads of Brownsburg and arrive at the upper end of Washington Crossing State Park. In the early 1900s there was a plan to create a greenway between the Crossing and Valley Forge. What a grand plan but it never happened. At this end of the Park is Bowman’s tower on a hill overlooking the river valley. Growing up we would picnic in this area, climb the hill and then climb steps to the top of the tower. Wow. The state closed the tower for years and when it finally reopened about a decade ago there was an elevator and admission fee. Some weekends in high school I drove an O’Boyles ice cream truck to the base of the tower and sold ice cream all day.
Also located in this section of the park is the Thompson Neely house, the house of decision where Washington made his decision for the Christmas crossing. On the creek is a small grist mill — opened in 1976 for the bi-Centennial, closed for decades and only recently reopened. Another great attraction at Bowman’s is the Wildflower Preserve, an interpretative center, trails, one of the best wild flower preserves in the country. Diane and I frequently go to their annual native plant sale.
Growing up my close friend’s father, Doctor Romano brought us to bird banding programs at a house on the park grounds. It was my first exposure to “birding.” Many years later walking in the park I saw this large, yes, “woody” woodpecker. My jaw dropped. A park employee identified the bird, ” oh, that’s our Piliated Woodpecker.” It’s my only sighting of one.
Recently we had lunch at Bowman’s Tavern at the base of the hill. It was a favorite in the 1990s (I was reintroduced to pork cooked on a wood fired oven after many vegetarian years) but as happens it changed hands and we stopped going. We had a great meal and put it back on our list of not far from home spots for lunch.
If we take a left on Aquetong Road at the edge of the park, we will pass the home and workshops of George Nakishima. During WWII, Nakishima, an architect, was in a concentration camp for Japanese. A Bucks County architect sponsored him and brought him to Bucks County where he opened a furniture workshop studio. He became one of the foremost furniture makers in the country. I discovered Nakishima in the 1970s and have visited his studio several times. I’ve seen one of his altars — a huge oak table — in Saint John the Divine in New York City. There is a studio in Old City Philadelphia that carries his work. Although he died years ago his style and tradition is carried on by his daughter. I am the proud owner of a Nakishima piece, an irregular polished piece of wood with holes for pens or pencils. It was a gift to our New Hope friend, Ragna Hamilton, that I inherited when she died.
We can continue on Aquetong Road and enter New Hope from the back or return to River Road and on the New Hope. The Aquetong route will take us past the old mill where Jim Hamilton lived in the 1970s. Jim, a former New York set designer and owner of Hamilton’s Grill in Lambertville died several weeks ago. For several years we rented a house nearby on Old York Road with John and Barbara Paglione. It was our back to the earth, intentional, communal living years. Hamilton’s Grill in recent years has been our go to restaurant for special ocassions.
There’s a lot in the New Hope area and up river. But we’ll end this explore here and return to this River Road trip another day.