River Road: Bristol to New Hope

 

 

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_2751Just 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.

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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.

IMG_2740Also 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.

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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.

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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.

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The Flying Machine

HOTCHKIN(1892) p008 On the Old York Road

In the early 1970s, Diane and I rented a house in New Hope with John and Barbara Paglione.  It was on a two block spur off route 202 on the edge of the borough — Old York Road.  We became friends with Rodney and Ragna Hamilton who lived across the street.  Sometimes they were our intro into New Hope society.

I remember Ragna introducing us to John Loeper, an educator, school administrator, and writer.  Among recent digging in my children’s book collection, I found and reread Loeper’s “The Flying Machine: a stagecoach journey in 1774.”   (It was published in 1976 in time for the bicentennial.).

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“The Flying Machine” is the story of the Swift-Sure Stagecoach line that traveled between Philadelphia and Elizabethtown, NJ.   In NJ, passengers could take a ferry to or from New York City.  The “Flying Machine” route was “the Old York Road.”

Loeper writes for middle school students.  I bought several of his books and at the time thought I could write books like this.  Of course, I didn’t.

But the reread was fun.  Local history; memories.  A young boy, David, takes the Swift-Sure stage coach to NY to visit family.  The coach connects the Barley Sheaf Tavern on Second  street with Elizabethtown, NJ.  From there a ferry took passengers to NYC.  The trip took two days.  I particularly like the local references.  “Down the streets of old Philadelphia they went, past Christ Church, Walnut Street, the High Street (today it’s Market).

There was a mid-day stop a Crossroads Inn, another at Bogart’s Tavern in Buckingham.  They passed through Lahaska and the Great Spring, called Aquetong, to Well’s Ferry (now, New Hope).  “John Watson (the driver) halted the Flying Machine before the Logan Inn. ”  William Penn’s secretary was James Logan.  A ferry ride across the Delaware river brought the traveler’s to Coryell’s  Ferry on the New Jersey side (now Lambertville).  For me these are all familiar locations.

Similarly in New Jersey the stage coach passed through Mount Airy, Ringoes, Pleasant Corners, Centerville (overnight stop), Bound Brook, and eventually the Indian Queen Tavern in Elizabethtown.  These NJ names are new for me.  In the story, David takes the ferry to NYC, “his journey on the York Road was over.”  My journey living on Old York Road lasted four years.

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I remembered and located a related book  “Along the Old York Road” (1965) by James and Margaret Cawley in my local history collection.  The couple has written several NJ local history books published by Rutgers University Press.  James Cawley recalls many personal experiences living close to the road.  The Cawley’s story leans heavy on colonial history and the use of the road by General Washington during the American Revolution.

They describe many field trips they take in the area.  One passes our New Hope house. “This part of the road retains some of the original stone and plaster buildings and, at the point were Sugan Road crosss our road, a left turn takes the traveler to and across Aquetong Creek, on the banks may be seen the ruins of an early mill, now being restored.  The mill was built by Richard Heath in 1702, and is believed to be the oldest one in Bucks County.”  When we lived there, the Jim Hamilton family lived in the Heath mill.

There are several Bucks County sites mentioned by the Cawley’s that I would like to visit.  Inghamdale and Rolling Green are houses outside of New Hope.  I could take a closer look at the Friends Meeting in Lahaska and General Greene Inn (Bogart’s Tavern) in Buckingham.  I need to check out Hartsville, the Log College, and Hatboro,  scene of the Battle of Crooked Billet.  In New Jersey there are many new sites to explore.

For me Old York Road carries so many personal memories.

 

 

 

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Going Native

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Several years ago we were having dinner at Hamilton’s Grill in Lambertville.  In conversation we learned that Jeff Hamilton, the owner’s son,  had committed suicide.  In the 1970s, we rented a house with John and Barbara Paglione on Old York Road, outside of downtown New Hope.  Around the corner on Sugan Road was the “ruins” or  “the old mill.”  Built in 1813 by William Maris, the cotton and weaving mill was/is a local landmark.  Hamiltons lived in  the mill.

We knew that Jim Hamilton, a NYC set designer, his French wife and children lived in the mill. There were annual gala parties at the mill but we were not quite part of that New Hope social scene. I think some of our friends/acquaintances were invited.    We were aware that there were Hamilton kids, a bit younger than us.   And we were interested when Jim opened Hamilton’s Grill in Lambertville.

 

The Grill has become one of our favorite restaurants.  We go there for anniversaries, special ocassions, and when the spirit strikes.  For  several years we have enjoyed their Jersey dinners and Oyster nights.  Several times we’ve gone to Jim’s “cooking classes” — usually demonstration dinners in an apartment studio near the restaurant.

 

We’ve bought several of Melissa Hamilton’s “Canal House” cookbooks — small and seasonal.  We’ve also followed the career of Gabrielle,  In the late 1990s, with no experience in the restaurant business, she opened “Prune” in the East Village.  In 2012 she published, “Blood, Bones, & Butter the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef.”

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There were some surprising admissions of drugs and thefts — but also the amazing rise of her career.  She is one of the most well know female chefs in the country. Two years ago with Paglions, we ate at Prune.  Not disappointed. Jen and Rob followed us, several months later and Jen got to meet Gabrielle.  In another small town event, our former Tinicum friends, David and Judy hosted Melissa and her partner, Christopher Hirscheimer for dinner.

But back to Jeff Hamilton.  When he was nineteen, Jeff went to Zaire to live with the Mbuti pygmies.  He had become interested in anthropology finding arrowheads on the Banks of the Delaware river.  In the prologue of “Going Native” his account of his adventures in Africa he wrote, “I began to wonder so intensely about what the life of the people who’d chipped these beautiful stone objects had been like, that I fell happy and melancholic at the same time. . . I dreamt then of the day I would live with people who are still living in remote areas of the world by hunting and gathering.”

While taking courses at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1975, Jeff met Colin Turnbull, a British anthropologist, known for his books “The Forest People” and “The Mountain People.” Turnbull had lived with pygmies in the Ituri forest then in the Belgium Congo, later Zaire.  Jeff would follow in his footsteps.

Like Jeff I found arrowheads along the Banks of the Delaware.  We both lived in river side small towns — New Hope and Bristol.  We both attended prep schools — Solebury for Jeff; Holy Ghost Prep for  me.  I may have even read “The Forest People” (1961) in college. I dreamed of traveling in Africa.  When Diane and I signed up in the Peace Corps in 1969 we were interested in sub-Saharan Africa. We were offered Arab Libya in North Africa instead.  Seven years later Jeff was living with the forest people; I was teaching, driven partially by the draft exemption.  I’m intrigued. Jeff had the independence, risk taking, sense of adventure spirit, to go to Africa alone.  That was not me.  I suspect family backgrounds had an influence.  The sub title for “Going Native” is “A young man’s  quest for his identity leads him to an African forest and it’s people.”  It was published in 1989, ten year after the experience under the name J.J. Bones.

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“Going Native” was particularly interesting because of the Hamilton connection. It’s not particularly well written, and often repetitive.  Jeff lives in a village much of the time but eventually gets permission to live in the forest with the pygmies.  No photographs were allowed; although someone eventually takes a few.  He is presumably doing research for college but is usually consumed with daily life, little time is spent writing research notes.

In both village and forest, he feels the people are always taking advantage of him.  Hands always looking for a gift; sometimes stealing.  Jeff is constantly plagued with medical issues, malaria, awful skin diseases, parasites.  Not pleasant.  Life is slow; he writes a lot about boredom.  Local men spending much time sitting around, smoking, sometimes marijuana, drinking palm wine from the raffia tree.  And there are other forms of local alcohol. Jeff seems to adapt to a lot of strange foods — from termites and grubs to antelope and elephant.  At times his diet is very vegetarian; other times there is a fair amount of game available.

There are missionaries in the village but Jeff wants limited contact with them.  He also becomes annoyed with a few white tourists who passing through, stop and stay with him.  He develops a few relationships, at times has a woman cook and clean, but frequently seems lonely.  His doubts about his produtivity and the value of his research are constant.  He thinks about leaving several times but sticks it out for about 2 years.

In a strange way I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau spending two years, basically alone, in solitude, finding himself on Walden Pond.   So different but maybe not.

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff returned to New Hope become another town character.  After his death a friend wrote of him as the Marquis of Debris.  He cleaned out houses, saving treasures in an old barn until his annual auction.  Jim Hamilton, said, “I spent $80,000 on his education.  What does he do?  Collects junk.”

Jeff’s story intrigues me.  How we become who we are.  The influences on our lives.  Where we live.  Our family.  Our education.  Travel and othe special experiences. People we meet.   Why some of us become home bodies; others world adventurers and risk takers.

Our youth; our old age; our continual search for identity.

 

 

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