The Lack of Heritage Tourism in New Jersey

Up to now, the major theme surrounding my blogs has been to emphasize the interconnectedness between environmental protection and historic preservation.  One blog focused strictly on how these two entities need to be combined in the public consciousness and in the realm of government policy, especially when it comes to financing and funding.  But I would like to expand the topic to include the issue commonly referred to as heritage tourism, with a specific focus on my home state, New Jersey.

Currently, I reside in Bergen County, not far from several significant sites of historical importance which occurred during the Revolutionary War.  One location is Ft. Lee, today a bustling community and home of the George Washington Bridge connecting Manhattan with northern Bergen County.  During the war, however, Ft. Lee was the site of the beginning of Washington’s perilous retreat across New Jersey in 1776 after the Continental Army’s defeat in defending Ft. Washington on the New York side of the Hudson.

New Bridge Historical Marker
The current swing bridge at New Bridge, New Jersey, pictured below, was constructed in 1888. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. (Photo by the author)

Several miles from Ft. Lee is the village of Hackensack, once a thriving agricultural community of Dutch origin that contained a significant Tory population during the war.  It was also the place where Washington and the Continental Army narrowly escaped entrapment by the British when retreating from Ft. Lee, known as New Bridge Landing.   It was here that Thomas Paine uttered the famous phrase that has echoed throughout American history, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  (In direct response to Paine’s words, Continental Army soldier and Connecticut native Joseph Plumb Martin wrote in his memoirs that it was more apropos to utter, “These are the times that try men’s bodies,” a cynical reference to the trials and tribulations of a Revolutionary War soldier which, Martin believed, most citizens failed to appreciate.)

And finally, there is the site of the so-called Baylor Massacre in River Vale, where British troops launched a surprise attack led by Colonel No-Flint Grey against American troops as they slept in barns.  Grey was nicknamed No-Flint because he relied on the bayonet as the element of surprise.  While this site is popular with the locals, it is has mainly been forgotten.

The one element which ties these sites together, along with other Revolutionary War sites throughout New Jersey, including Ft. Mercer which I examined and discussed in my last post, is the lack of heritage tourism.  Why is it that New Jersey has done an impressive job in preserving land for outdoor recreation but not nearly enough to promote its historical legacy during the Revolution?  This post will focus on the site of New Bridge Landing, the strategic bridge across the Hackensack River in River Edge, since it represents the greatest potential, according to some, as a leading heritage tourism site.

Kevin Wright, President of the Bergen County Historical Society, has been most outspoken and eloquent in promoting the cultural and economic benefits of New Bridge Landing and the adjacent Zabriskie-Steuben house, which Washington made his headquarters in September 1780 while his army encamped between present-day Van Saun Park and Soldier Hill Road in Oradell.  According to Mr. Wright, few sites are as well situated for historic destination as New Bridge.  Located centrally in Bergen County, the state’s most populous county, and in the Greater New York Metropolitan region, which stretches from northeastern Pennsylvania to eastern Connecticut and includes nearly 20 million people, it is only nine miles from the George Washington Bridge, and situated as well alongside public transportation lines such as commuter rail and bus.  It is easy to see that such a site holds enormous potential for a leading heritage tourism destination.

As to the economic benefits of heritage tourism, the Task Force on New Jersey History found that between 1993 and 1995, nearly 5 million day-trippers visited New Jersey’s historical sites and spent on average $56 per adult, accounting for an annual expenditure of $276,600,000.  The Task Force also discovered that 658,000 overnight tourists visited between the same two years, accounting for nearly $101 per adult and contributing over $66 million to the State’s coffers.

These figures, says Mr. Wright, could be revised significantly upward but the biggest challenge is the “lack of tourist infrastructure to accommodate visitors.”  Also, staff limitations, lack of adequate funding and mere publicity have kept New Bridge Landing as “one of New Jersey’s ‘hidden gems’ or ‘best kept secrets.’”  Wright laments that almost 85 years after New Bridge was designated as a state-owned and operated historic site, it still lacks public restrooms and full time staff “to sustain a destination of such great potential.

While Mr. Wright feels that “we are hobbled by a bureaucratic mindset that neither serves the public interest nor the protection of our unique and irreplaceable historic resources,” he and others are nevertheless hopeful that with the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission, created in 1995 to coordinate and implement federal, state, county and private development policies relating to the historic preservation and recreational use of the property, will raise enough revenue and attract enough publicity to render New Bridge Landing a worthwhile and lasting heritage tourism site.