By Kevin Wright©2011
Sometimes a simple question has a simple answer: What heritage tourist attraction—other than the Baron von Steuben House at Historic New Bridge Landing—holds even equal potential to put River Edge, New Milford, Teaneck and Hackensack on the map and to attract a steady flow of local, regional, national and international visitors, not only to the site itself, but to local businesses? If I owned a fine or fast food restaurant, a shop or gas station, or even property within easy traveling distance of New Bridge, I’d be shouting for its success.
Ever been to Pennsylvania Dutch country and purchased something under that well-established brand? Historic New Bridge Landing preserves and interprets a scenic fragment of the Jersey Dutch countryside, strategically situated at the narrows of the Hackensack River and famed for its compelling role in the Revolutionary War. Lying so close to Manhattan, the principal base of British operations throughout the war, New Bridge served as a battleground, encampment ground, military headquarters and intelligence gathering post throughout the war. The Zabriskie-Steuben House is the only extant house along the route of the British invasion and Washington’s Retreat through Bergen County in November 1776. General Washington established headquarters in the Zabriskie-Steuben House when the Continental Army encamped between Van Saun Park and Soldiers Hill road in Oradell in September 1780.
Historic New Bridge Landing also tells the story of our multicultural origins. Through a process of conflict and accommodation, the Bergen Dutch blended significant contributions from the indigenous Lenape, Netherlanders, Africans, English, Germans, French Huguenots, Scots, Scots-Irish, Scandinavians, Polish Silesians, and others, into a distinct regional folk culture. The process of “creolization” is evident in the development of a Jersey Dutch dialect, folk architecture and material culture, including distinctive styles and traditions of furniture, tools, utensils, and decorative objects. The much admired examples of Jersey Dutch sandstone architecture at Historic New Bridge Landing, augmented by extensive artifact and archival collections of the Bergen County Historical Society and the Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation, tell the compelling story of New Jersey’s pivotal role in American history, progressing from the most culturally diverse colony to the most densely populated State. Yet, frustrated by the absence of bureaucratic imagination and interest, most of the remarkable artifacts that tell this story lay packed away in storage boxes.
Few sites in New Jersey are as well situated for a heritage destination. Historic New Bridge Landing Park is centrally located within Bergen County with its largely suburban population of 895,250 (2009 estimate) residents. It is also centrally situated within the Greater New York Metropolitan Area, the nation’s most populous, which stretches from northeastern Pennsylvania to western Connecticut, encompassing a population of over 20 million people. Located only nine miles from the George Washington Bridge, it is convenient to most major arteries of travel, including State Routes 4 and 17, Interstate 80, the Palisades Interstate Parkway, the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. The historic park is only two blocks distant from major rail and bus lines. Travel time to Liberty/Newark Airport is about 45 minutes. Hotels, restaurants, a shopping mall, and other visitor amenities are literally within walking distance. While the sky seems to be the limit on public funding we are willing to pour into such regional attractions as Xanadu/American Dream, we seem unable to make the comparatively small investment necessary to successfully open and market Bergen County’s remarkable historical heritage.
As if you didn't lready know, Bergen County is New Jersey’s most populous county. It is also the nation’s most “boroughized” county, boasting 70 municipalities within a land area of only 234 square miles. Consequently there are 275 public and private schools within its territory. New Bridge Landing is well placed to serve this large school population as a unique educational resource.
Furthermore, the County’s population density of 3,775 residents per square mile is thrice the State average of 1,134 persons per square mile. Historic New Bridge Landing Park spans four adjacent municipalities having a total population of 109,283 residents within 14.4 square miles and an average population density of 7,589 residents per square mile. These statistics exceed the criteria for “Densely Populated Municipalities” in the 2001 Parks for People initiative. Equally important when considering the potential for heritage tourism, only Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset and Sussex Counties surpass Bergen County’s median family income of $65,241. This means that Bergen County sends the largest amount of tax revenues to Trenton. As you are well aware, Bergen County also spans six of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts. Given its location, ease of access, and significant resources appealing to heritage and ecological tourists, Historic New Bridge Landing holds great audience potential.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines heritage tourism as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.” According to Cheryl M. Hargrove, the Trust’s first heritage-tourism director, it is “one of the fastest growing niche market segments in the travel industry.” A 1996 U. S. Travel Data Center survey shows 45% of American adults who planned a pleasure trip said that they intended to visit a historic site while on vacation; 41% of leisure travelers also planned to visit a cultural site. Museum Facts, published by the American Association of Museums, include the following visitor data: (1) A 1996 survey shows that museums rank in the top three family vacation destinations; (2) A 1999 study shows Americans from all income and education ranges visit and value museums; (3) Tourists who visit museums spend nearly twice as much on their travel as those who do not; and (4) For every 50 cents of public money invested, museums generate $1 in private support. So what are we waiting for?
Studying the economic impacts of heritage tourism in partnership with the New Jersey Historic Trust and the Center for Urban Policy Research, the Task Force on New Jersey History found that just under five million heritage day-trippers visited New Jersey annually between 1993 and 1995, spending $56 per adult on average. This group alone accounted for an annual expenditure of about $276,600,000. The Task Force also reported that about 658,000 overnight heritage tourists visited annually between 1993 and 1995, spending on average $101 per adult. This contributed over $66 million annually to the State’s economy. Visitors to historic sites tend to stay longer and to travel in larger groups than other overnight tourists. They also are more likely to be repeat visitors. According to Task Force surveys, 68% of historic-site administrators named motor-coach travelers, primarily 65 years of age or older, as their primary growth market. About 50% identified school groups as a primary growth market; 46% identified family groups; and 45% named senior citizens.
As Cheryl Hargrove pointed out, “The American heritage traveler is older, better educated, and more affluent than other tourists.” Baby Boomers particularly like to “experience history through travel.” Professor David Listokin, of the Center for Urban Policy Research, concurs, noting aging Baby Boomers “have a greater interest than their parents in things historic and in preservation.” They also have greater financial resources and therefore opportunities for leisure activities. One in three international visitors can also be expected to visit a historic attraction.
To promote growth in all sectors of the tourist economy, the New Jersey Tourism Master Plan (August 1997) called for a commitment to providing a quality visitor experience; for a concerted effort to strengthen the State’s image and leverage unique assets, which competitors cannot offer, by promoting an appreciation for what is uniquely New Jersey; and to build an industry which effectively pools resources for collaborative promotion while also providing choices and value for the consumer. Studies show tourists universally demand a “quality experience” and are willing to pay for it.
Historic New Bridge Landing promotes “what is uniquely New Jersey.” And we have been in the business of heritage tourism long before it became fashionable. In 1888, two elderly women rode their carriage to the old Zabriskie mansion at New Bridge and asked to see the stone vault where their grandfather, Hackensack tavernkeeper Archibald Campbell, had hidden during a cold March night in March 1780 to escape his British captors. They were the first trickle in a steady and growing stream of visitors attracted to the storied landscape that is New Bridge.
The vision and goals for Historic New Bridge Landing have not substantially changed over the past 65 years since the Bergen County Historical Society acquired eight acres on Main Street, River Edge, in 1944 to facilitate the relocation of a proposed County highway bridge to be built adjacent to the south gable end of the landmark Steuben House. With the Society's inspiration, investment and encouragement, this significant remnant of the Jersey Dutch countryside, a Revolutionary battleground and one of the last unspoiled vistas of the Hackensack River in its central valley, was preserved for future generations. At that time, as Hackensack Avenue was extended beyond Main Street to a new conjunction with New Bridge Road, plans were made to save not only the 1889 swing bridge, but also the historic Demarest House in New Milford and the Westervelt-Thomas Barn in Washington Township through their relocation to the newly acquired lands. Most importantly, plans were made to build a Hall of History at New Bridge to house the outstanding collection of Jersey Dutch and Bergen County artifacts, displayed in the Steuben House since 1939—these museum collections, accumulated by the Bergen County Historical Society since its founding in 1902, once made the Steuben House the best attended State Historic Site in New Jersey.
Since the State of New Jersey only acquired the Steuben House on a postage-stamp parcel of land in 1928, the Bergen County Historical Society donated land, immediately south of the house, in 1959 to allow for construction of a public parking lot to accommodate visitors. The Township of Teaneck foresightedly acquired the former Rekow Farm and Bensen's Campground through Green Acres purchase in 1968-69, creating Clarence Brett Park. This not only preserves vital wetlands and a scenic and historical view shed of the river, but also a Native American site and a significant piece of the Revolutionary War battleground. In 1977, the Historical Society offered the County of Bergen a 50-year ground lease to move the Campbell-Christie House from New Milford onto its lands on condition that the Historical Society not only have occupancy of the structure in keeping with its mission, but also the exclusive right to determine its use and historic restoration; in exchange, the County of Bergen agreed to pay utilities and to maintain the house and its mechanical systems in sound condition.
The Bergen County Historical Society revived comprehensive planning for the site in 1984, first suggesting restoration of the name "Historic New Bridge Landing" to brand and market the entire site and its popular menu of programs. This branding has been highly successful. Through bipartisan efforts, the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission was established by law in 1995 to "coordinate and implement federal, State, county, municipal, and private development policies and other activities relating to the historic preservation and recreational use of the property under the commission's jurisdiction." The commission successfully generated a general management plan, a comprehensive interpretive plan and an implementation plan. Based upon the common and clearly articulated goals and objectives set forth therein, the Commission acquired through Green Acres purchase the Pizza Town lot and the adjacent Sutton & Lys property on Hackensack Avenue for parking as well as the former Saw Shop property at the eastern approach to the historic swing bridge. Through former US Senator Robert Torricelli, the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission received a $1.1 million Federal grant in January 2001 to purchase and remediate the former BAPCO property. Removal of the former auto salvage yard and its enclosing fence now reveals Historic New Bridge Landing to 40,000 passing motorists daily. New signage, freely and professionally designed by Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commissioners Ann Subrizi and Deborah Powell, has been installed to capture an ever-expanding interest in what is destined to become a major heritage destination. While Governor McGreevey officially designated Historic New Bridge Landing as one of three new Urban State Parks on October 21, 2004—the others being Trenton and the Great Falls in Paterson—no benefits ever accrued to the site by this action and all moneys were instead spent at the other locations.
While the Steuben House has been subject to supernormal tides over the centuries, a northeaster in April 2007 proved the perfect storm. Despite considerable experience in protecting the artifact collections displayed in the Steuben House over the previous 70 years and despite a timely warning and offer of volunteer assistance, the museum collections suffered $170,000 in flood-related damages (since repaired). Consequently the powers and jurisdictional boundaries of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission were expanded through new legislation in 2009, transferring administration of the state owned lands and buildings (and any State funding used for their maintenance and operations) to the Commission. The bill unanimously passed both houses of the legislature, indicating bipartisan support for this model public/private partnership in preserving and promoting a cynosure of New Jersey's rich historical identity. The Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation recently completed a $60,000 restoration of the Demarest House at Historic New Bridge Landing and the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, provides all programming without any governmental support. The County Historical Society has over 600 members and remains the largest landowner at Historic New Bridge.
We already know Historic New Bridge Landing has much to recommend it to a wide audience: interesting associations with historic persons and events, especially with the Revolutionary War; a treasury of historic artifacts and architecture evident of vanished folkways; scenic river views and open space amidst suburban congestion. With a great story to tell, there is obviously a great opportunity at hand to leverage what should become the premier heritage destination in Bergen County.
Am I alone in believing Bergen County needs and deserves a premier historic park of National significance and interest to claim and to honor its unique cultural identity and to serve as a catalytic attraction for a whole host of other worthy and diverse tourist destinations? We have already succeeded in our efforts at branding: both the postal substation and former “North Hackensack” train station were re-named New Bridge Landing, literally putting us on the map. But our greatest challenge remains a lack of tourist infrastructure to accommodate visitors. Limits on staffing, operational funding, infrastructure, and publicity over many years have kept Historic New Bridge Landing one of New Jersey’s “hidden gems” or “best kept secrets.” But few historic “pocket” parks are more historically deserving, more scenically endowed, or better positioned in a heavily populated metropolitan area, to provide a range of meaningful visitor experiences. In this regard, we are hobbled by a bureaucratic mindset that neither serves the public interest nor the protection of our unique and irreplaceable historic resources Even after 83 years as a state-owned and operated Historic Site, the Zabriskie-Steuben House lacks public restrooms or any full time professional staff to sustain a destination of such great potential.
For this and various other good reasons, the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission is working on a plan to drive revenues to help sustain our operations and serve the public. There is a great opportunity right under our noses and all it would take little in the way of resources to make it worthwhile for neighbors and long-distance travelers to come and spend the day. I think it is past time to change the way we "do business" and to begin building an economic engine that will benefit us all in many important ways.
Ask yourself—Just how valuable are the lessons of history? If you enjoyed this article, then please consider joining the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, founded in 1902. We are dedicated to preserving important evidence of the past and promoting historical literacy through interesting programs and publications.
We don't receive public operating support or grants the way other groups do, but rely entirely upon private donations, membership dues and volunteer contributions of time and talent. We are presently trying to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate historical museum building and library for Bergen County on the Society’s property at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661. For further information or membership application, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org