by Leslie Mitchner // photography by Andrew Wilkinson
Seven miles north of New Hope on winding River Road in Bucks County, Lumberville is a small, out-of-the-way community by anyone’s reckoning. It is hard to imagine it being a tourist destination apart from the Black Bass Hotel, which is now a mecca for anyone interested in fine food, luxurious surroundings, glorious scenery, and American history. In fact, the town and the building are both on the National Register of Historic Places, Lumberville since 1984 and the hotel since 2009 after extensive renovations. Their joint story encompasses the American Revolution, the building of the Delaware and Raritan canal, life along the river, the industrial revolution, local writers and painters, unlikely partnerships, and a family that cares about its roots. The tale bridges the Atlantic, the centuries, and two states.
As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If you walk around the Black Bass Hotel with Grant Ross, the General Manager, he not only will make the building’s history come alive for you but will show you how its past has been carefully nurtured to bring it into the present. This renaissance would never have happened if the ailing hotel had not been purchased at auction in 2008 by businessman and philanthropist Jack Thompson, the owner of extensive car dealerships in Doylestown. The previous owner had died, the building had deteriorated and everything in it was to some extent “broken.” Rising waters had compromised all of it even if flooding was not the main cause of the Black Bass’s near demise. Thompson and Ross had bid against each other and then teamed up, along with Thompson’s daughter Laura Thompson-Barnes, to take everything apart in true Humpty Dumpty fashion, and then put it back together again far more successfully than the King’s Men ever could have done. It helped that Ross had been a proprietor himself in his native Scotland and that his own hotel near St. Andrews was even older than the Black Bass, which was built in the mid 1740s. Lumberville, a Tory stronghold during the Revolutionary War, did actually belong to the King’s Men; the Black Bass (although it had a different name) was a small tavern owned by a crown loyalist. At the time, and unlike today, all traffic was along the Delaware. The entrance was on the river side of the building and there was no canal, only a narrow road for men on horseback, wagons, and coach traffic. The original building and later extensions had been constructed on bedrock without foundation. The first order of business before renovations could begin was to lift the building four inches, create a massive stone and concrete wall to shore it up, and to construct floodgates beneath so waters could flow through those gates without impact. As Ross says, one had to become a “forensic surveyor” to plan for the building’s future and to ensure that millions of dollars invested by Thompson did not go to waste.
Walking around the premises today, Ross shows off the Lantern Lounge. An early addition to the core of the inn, the Lantern Lounge is home to punched tin lanterns (no two alike), hanging from stout wooden ceiling beams, a glowing fireplace, cozy wing chairs facing the blaze, and a barely visible pie stairway in the corner with narrow wedge steps that used to lead to the top floor. He relates that in those early days Lumberville was called Wall’s Landing after Revolutionary War hero Col. George Wall, Jr, who owned a gristmill, saw mills, and a general store. Ross’s excitement about this history is contagious and one can easily imagine men sitting in the Lantern Lounge centuries ago. He and Laura Thompson-Barnes have refurbished the paintings, the furniture and everything in this room for the comfort of guests who can luxuriate in the setting, imagining the past as they sip their coffee and nibble on desserts illuminated by those lanterns, which have now been wired for light. Everything in this room and virtually all of the furnishings and decorations of the establishment were cleaned, restored, reupholstered, relocated if necessary, and burnished under Thompson-Barnes’s supervision. On one wall of the Lantern Lounge, you will find an array of photographs of the hotel in its various incarnations from the middle of the nineteenth century until today. Every touch is perfect. Nothing is out of place. The past fills the room while the present is just what you would desire it to be—as if it had all been created solely for your appreciation and pleasure.
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For driving directions, menus, and additional information about the Black Bass Hotel, visit www.blackbasshotel.com.