Few towns in Northern New Jersey can boast of the historical significance of a Revolutionary War battleground in their backyard, but if things continue as they have, River Edge may be facing the loss of the Von Steuben House.
"I'm very aware of the importance that New Bridge Landing could be to River Edge," Mary Donohue, Vice Chairwoman and River Edge representative of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission said. "I say could be because at the present time it is in a terrible state of neglect, an almost willful deterioration that is taking place there; not on the part of the Commission or Bergen County Historical Society, but on the state of New Jersey."
New Bridge Landing is a historic site in portions of New Milford, River Edge, Hackensack and Teaneck and includes the , the and Demarest House Museum, both of New Milford, the Westervelt-Thomas Barn from Washington Township, and a constructed working out-kitchen.
Of the 9-acre property, only the one-acre around the Steuben House is owned by the state when it was purchased in 1939 and placed under the supervision of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission. In 1944, the Historical Society picked up the land between the Steuben House and north of Main Street to buffer and protect the Steuben House from the 1930s auto parts junkyard. The junkyard was removed in 2000 when the Commission secured a $1.1 million Federal grant to buy and clean the junkyard through Sen. Torrecelli.
According to Kevin Wright, the Society donated a little more than half an acre to the County of Bergen in 1953 for the right-of-way to extend Hackensack Avenue northeast to a junction with New Bridge Road, thus allowing a new highway bridge to be constructed north of the Steuben House, rather than immediately south of the landmark residence, thus preserving its historic setting. The Society also donated a third of an acre to the State of NJ in 1959 to allow for construction of the first parking lot adjacent to the house.
Following the April 2007 Nor'easter, legislation was approved in 2009 to transfer administration of the Steuben House and surrounding parkland from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Commission once a . The master plan was adopted in September 2010.
Years later and the , even though the Commission for the reopening of the Steuben House for school groups and the public in general.
"New Bridge Landing could be a great economic engine in town, as a matter of fact the southern end of town is designated as the New Bridge Center," Donohue said. "We envision this downtown area as a little Williamsburg. More of the Revolutionary WAr took place in New Jersey than any other states, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachussetts combined. With the neglect taking place at this time, it will all be gone in a couple years."
According to a 2011 report in the Record, Assistant DEP Commissioner Amy Cradic wrote that the DEP and Attorney General's Office agree that without an appropriation of state funds to the DEP or the Division of Parks and Forestry that is specifically for the administration of the Steuben House and the parkland, the department is not required to turn over any money to the commission.
"In the stalemate we're in I would consider this an insult to River Edge," Kevin Wright, Secretary of the Commission said. "Recently a complete record of the Council of War held by Washington in the Steuben House with all of his major and brigidier generals was found. That Council of War was to essentially collect opinions on what to do with the recently landed French army in Rhdoe Island. These events occurred in River Edge and we need to break the stalemate."
Currently the Commission is working to set up meetings with Senators Gerald Cardinale, Loretta Weinberg and Robert Gordon to have a line item set up in the DEP funding for New Bridge Landing so that funding can officially be transferred to the Commission.
"If you watch TV and see commercials for Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania, these peopple know how to make money from far less history than we have," Wright said. "Am sure we're all acutely aware that when you drive up and down Main Street there are empty store fronts and vacant offices and I would never claim that New Bridge is the engine that will drive River Edge's economy but I think it would play a significant role. Two-thirds of the Revolutionary War took place in River Edge, it was seven years that Americans fought and died down there. It's Gettysburg, Yorktown, all those things in our midst. Imagine if you could open this on a steady basis to the public."
The group along with the Bergen County Historical Society is also working to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate museum building and library where the former junkyard was located. So far, approximately $97,000 was raised this past year.
Representatives from the Commission and Historical Society stated they will meet with the New Milford and Teaneck governing bodies in the near future as well.