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RELIVE HISTORY AT WASHINGTON'S CROSSING

If you visit Washington Crossing Historic Park, you may become convinced that the military action initiated here was as significant in determining the future of our nation as what happened at Gettysburg, as important as Valley Forge.

Having learned that, you may leave here feeling vaguely troubled. If this is indeed a national shrine, you may wonder if U.S. history is being shortchanged.Dec. 25 is the biggest day of the year at the park. Depending on the weather, as many as 10,000 spectators line both banks of the Delaware River to watch the annual re-enactment of George Washington's famous Christmas crossing during the Revolutionary War.

Dutifully, the media shows up to record the re-enactment, which features at least 120 people in Colonial garb, including "soldiers" crossing the river in four black Durham boats.

Despite the popularity of the re-enactment and a copy of the famous painting of Washington standing in a boat that hangs in the park visitors center, how much do people really care about what happened here on a cold Christmas night 218 years ago?

The 77-year-old park doesn't look shabby, at least not around the visitors center. But there are some troubling symptoms:

- The visitors center is large, but lacks a decent museum. Its only exhibits are a couple of cases of weapons, banners and other artifacts, plus information placards.

- Narrated by the late Chet Huntley, the grainy film telling what happened here is more than 30 years old, and looks it.

- A bridge leading to graves of unknown Revolutionary War soldiers was wiped out by ice last winter and hasn't been replaced. No one knows when it will be.

- Staffers complain openly that people aren't being replaced when they leave or retire. "We desperately need staff," said Helen Mahnke, museum educator. "We are down to a skeleton staff."

"Our staffing is quite low," agreed Eric Castle, the park's administrator. "There used to be 38 people working at the site. Now we're down to a dozen."

Because of the small staff, Castle said the park "has been pretty run down."

Castle said money must be raised to replace the bridge over Pidcock Creek. He's requesting funds for new exhibits. Producers are being interviewed to make a new film.

Because the area has changed so much since Washington's army passed through, visitors won't see any evidence of what happened.

The river is the park's most compelling symbol, especially in winter. A painfully cold wind blows off the gray water, which looks deep, swift and menacing, even without ice floes in it.

Tour guides do a good job describing what it must have been like to stand here, waiting to cross in the middle of the night during a snow and sleet storm.

It required great courage, since Washington's army had just been driven out of New Jersey by the pursuing British, after repeatedly being defeated in New York.

Although it never became a national park like Gettysburg or Valley Forge, Washington Crossing is among Pennsylvania's most legendary historic attractions.

The park has more than 500 acres and 54 buildings in two sections along the river, separated by 5 miles.

The northern section is where Washington's troops camped, many without tents, along Pidcock Creek before their attack on Trenton, N.J. They marched to the lower section, then called McConkey's Ferry, for the river crossing.

McConkey's Ferry Inn is the most significant building shown on guided tours, because it's the only one standing since 1776. Its size has doubled since Washington and his officers gathered in it before the crossing.

In addition to historic sites, the park has recreational areas, an observation tower and the Bowman's Hill State Wildflower Preserve.

Staffers said the park needs more interpreters, to bring its history to life - including guides trained to give living history presentations inside houses, and Revolutionary War "soldiers" on the grounds, at least on weekends.

In the visitors center's surprisingly large, 400-seat auditorium is "the only exact copy" of Emanual Leutze's painting of Washington's crossing.

In addition to the McConkey's Ferry Inn, visitors also can tour the Mahlon K. Taylor House, built around 1817, and Hibb's House, built around 1830. Across from the inn is Taylorsville Store. Built in 1828, it now is a gift shop and snack bar.

A granite stone, which looks like it belongs in a cemetery, was erected in 1895 to mark the spot where the crossing took place.

On a pedestal behind the visitors center is a sculpture of a grim-faced Washington, wrapped in a cloak and looking toward the river.

If you go

TRAVEL TIPS: Washington Crossing Historic Park is open noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. (Grounds are open 8 a.m. till sunset.)

The historical film is shown at the visitors center at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Sundays.

Forty-five minute house tours begin after the film.

COST: House tour admission is $2.50, $2 for seniors 60 and older, $1 for children 6 to 18. There's no charge to walk around or to see the film and painting in the visitors center. Parking is free at the visitors center, but costs $1 a car at three recreation areas.

NEARBY: The 80-acre Bowman's Hill State Wildflower Preserve, open year-round in the park's northern section, preserves native Pennsylvania plants.

The park's 110-foot-tall Bowman's Hill observation tower, on one of the highest points along the river, is closed till April 1 because ice often makes the steep road up to it unsafe.

For more information, call (215) 862-2924.

Across the bridge, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, is Washington Crossing State Park. Many people also gather there to watch the reenactment.

That park emphasizes what happened after Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware. A highlight is the visitors center's museum, which has more than 900 Revolutionary War artifacts.

The visitors center is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. The ferry house is open 10 a.m. till noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. The nature center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays.

Admission is free in winter, $3 a car on summer weekends and some holidays. For more information, call (609) 737-0623.

The Old Barracks Museum in Trenton is a state museum of the Revolution and life in colonial New Jersey. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $2, $1 for seniors and students, 50 cents for children under 13. A $5 family rate is available.

For more information, call (609) 396-1776.

Princeton Battlefield State Park, where Washington enjoyed another victory soon after defeating the enemy in Trenton, is in Princeton, about 10 miles from Washington Crossing. The 80-acre park is open daily. Thomas Clarke House is open 10 a.m. till noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call (609) 921-0074.

INFORMATION: Write: Washington Crossing Historic Park, Box 103, Washington Crossing, Pa. 18977. Or call (215) 493-4076.