Living History at Washington’s Crossing

By Doug Wallack

Photos Courtesy of Friends of Washington Crossing Park

On a chilly Christmas Day in 1953, a crowd of about 700 gathered on the banks of the Delaware River as a crew of six men rowed across from Pennsylvania in commemoration of George Washington’s iconic 1776 crossing—a grueling feat of logistical prowess and grit that enabled the Continental Army to defeat the Hessian mercenaries encamped at Trenton, and the British at Princeton just over a week later. The crossing marked the beginning of what historians call the “Ten Crucial Days” that restored the morale of the American troops, who had before then been flailing badly.

The 1953 event was the first of the modern-day reenactments of Washington’s Crossing—and almost purely by accident. St. John “Sinjin” Terrell, who portrayed Washington that day, had conceived of the event as a one-off publicity stunt for the Lambertville Music Circus, an organization he’d founded four years before. But the event proved so popular that Terrell revived his role for the next 24 years, and the tradition has continued every since.

These days, the operation is somewhat more involved. Now, 200-250 reenactors cross in four replica Durham boats. Ten fire and police departments from Pennsylvania and New Jersey stand by. A small army of volunteers makes sure the event runs smoothly for the participants and the audience, which in recent years has numbered 8000-10,000. People come from near and far to watch. (Anita Cooke, a reenactor and head of artillery for the event, notes that, every year, “you’ll hear four, five, six foreign languages.”) But it’s as a local phenomenon that the annual crossing reenactment really has a strong hold. For many families in the area, watching the event is an annual practice as deeply ingrained as any other holiday tradition. For the reenactors themselves, some of whom are third generation participants, things only get more involved.

Photo Credit: Jimmy Kastner

“Reenacting is a progressive disease,” says Frank Lyons. A retired United Airlines pilot, Lyons is a longtime resident of Yardley, Pennsylvania and proprietor of the Continental Tavern. He had watched the reenactment many times and twelve years ago spoke with one of the boat captains about how to get involved. Reenactors tend to indulge their passion for history by joining regiments corresponding to actual historical military units, so Lyons recruited a couple friends, joined the 14th Continental, and found himself rowing the next year. Now, he is vice-president of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park, the organization that puts on the crossing. While some reenactors only take part in the crossing, Frank participates in about 15 events each year with his regiment, and his level of engagement is not unusual.

Paul Beck, who in the twenty-first century works as a research chemist, is an oarsman for the annual crossing and the chief caretaker for the Durham boats that belong to Washington Crossing Park. Each of the boats, replicas of the flat-bottomed cargo boats Washington and his troops used in 1776, costs $125,000, and Beck estimates he spends a hundred hours each year maintaining them. “They’re sort of like a Stradivarius violin when I look at them,” he says, adding, “I don’t start crying though.”

The boatmen need upkeep as well as the boats. The boats are not nimble crafts, each weighing in at 4600 pounds empty, and it takes each considerable practice for each crew of twelve to learn how to guide them through the running waters of the Delaware. On a recent Sunday, the boatmen spent the entire morning training on Lake Luxembourg, in nearby Core Creek Park, improving their stroke, reviewing safety procedures, and planning for contingencies such as the Delaware River’s high discharge rate (the volume of water flowing by per second) and winds that could threaten to sweep them off course on the day of the event. Asked about the experience of actually rowing one of the boats, Beck is blunt: “It’s strenuous.” Even with a partner on his oar, he says he tends to keep his head down and put his back into the work, only noticing they’ve finished once they’ve arrived on the opposite shore—before turning the boat around to fetch more troops.

As a group, reenactors tend to value an attention to detail that can border on obsession. I spent an afternoon drilling and marching around Washington’s Crossing Park with 18-year-old Joe Roth. It was a mild day by September standards, but for Roth, portraying a young Major James Monroe in full uniform, the weather was sweltering. Still, as we marched well away from the park and any onlookers, he insisted on donning his leather gloves: “They’re authentic, so I’m going to wear them.”

John Godzieba, a lieutenant with the Bristol Township Police who has portrayed George Washington for the annual crossing since 2010, says he puts in the time to do careful research for his part because he feels the little details humanize his portrayal and make it relatable to a modern-day audience. He likes to be able to tell people what Washington did at home, what bothered him, the names of his English foxhounds (Truman, Bluelips, Drunkard). People don’t always ask, but it’s best to be prepared.

The day I spoke with Kathy Pasko, she had spent the morning researching buttons at The David Library of the American Revolution on behalf of the 6th Pennsylvania. Reenactors tend to make or buy their own uniforms, or ‘kits’, and a high quality one can easily cost over $1000, so Pasko wanted to ensure that hers would be as accurate as possible. The discussions can become dizzyingly granular. Pasko recalled a recent hour-long button debate in her regiment: Which buttons were appropriate for their unit, a conglomerate regiment formed part way through the war? If they found the right buttons, would it be realistic for a coat to have all five, or should some be missing to reflect the wear and tear of service in the Continental Army? If there are missing ones, what would replace them?

But for all the emphasis on a faithful interpretation, not everything about reenactors’ impressions is one hundred percent accurate. In Pasko’s case, the most salient exception is that, as a bow poleman, she is portraying a role that would have been strictly reserved for men during the Revolution. Spectators often suspect as much, but Pasko relishes their questions, saying that it “opens up a dialogue” and allows her to teach them about the roles women played in the war—primarily as camp followers, doing the crucial but humble work of feeding and caring for the troops, and on rare occasions as soldiers themselves, disguised as men under the penalty of expulsion. “Remember the ladies,” Pasko advises, quoting Abigail Adam’s famous wartime exhortation to her husband John Adams. Even in the current reenactments, it’s still often the case that the ladies do much of the essential but unglamorous work for the crossing, Pasko says, citing the women who run the registration for the big day, as well as the women camp followers who spend the duration of the event away from the drama of the boats and artillery. And there’s the work of volunteers like Mary Ryan, who with a few friends and coworkers, started up the monthly sewing circle at Washington Crossing Park in order to provide exactingly researched and hand-stitched period garb for volunteers just getting started and not yet ready to invest in a full kit.

The group behind the annual crossing encompasses a wide range of ages, professions, and talents. Some come to the event secure in their devotion to American colonial history and drawn to one of its great pilgrimages, others come casually and get swept up in the excitement.

What seems to unite so many of them is a spirit of sharing, both with each other—through the friendships forged by “times that try men’s souls”—and with the public. Many participants use the term “living history” in lieu of “reenactment,” which Godzieba says may better capture the vitality of the event. It’s not a static portrayal in the pages of a textbook; for spectators and participants both, the senses are fully engaged and the history of the Revolutionary War becomes real and felt. “We’re living it too,” Godzieba says.