Revolutionary Writer

“My heart and myself are three thousand miles apart; and I had rather see my horse, Button, eating the grass of Bordentown than see all the show and pomp of Europe.”

SUCH WERE Thomas Paine’s feelings when he wrote these words while living in France after the American Revolution. He had purchased a house in Bordentown, New Jersey at the corner of Farnsworth Avenue and Church Streets in 1783 and lived there off and on until his death in 1809. It was the only property he would ever own.

Born in England, Paine emigrated to Philadelphia at the urging of none other than Benjamin Franklin who wrote for him a letter of recommendation. Franklin’s suggestion turned out to be a good one, for shortly after his arrival in America, Paine authored one of the most incendiary works ever written: Common Sense. A pamphlet of just forty-seven pages and costing two shillings, it began to be sold on the streets of Philadelphia in January of 1776. Within three months 120,000 copies had been purchased and shared, sending an electric shock throughout the colonies. It bolstered the cause of the revolution, reinforcing the belief that freedom was the noblest of all things to fight for. John Adams declared, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Paine continued to write more inspirational works such as the Crisis Papers from which Washington read aloud to his troops: “These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Washington reading Thomas Paine to his troops

Washington reading Thomas Paine to his troops

Paine’s career continued not only as an author but as a military aide, statesman–negotiating France’s involvement with America; helping to organize the Bank of North America, and political activist in general. When the American Revolution was over, he moved to France and penned Rights of Man, another political tract encouraging the French in their own revolt. Paine was even an inventor, receiving a British patent for an iron bridge design, developed a smokeless candle, and worked with John Fitch in developing steam engines. Because of his intensely radical nature, which even deepened over time, Paine was not on everybody’s friendship list. While in France, he even attacked President George Washington as an incompetent commander and wrote to him personally: “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.” He returned to America to no great welcome and finally passed away in 1809. Only six mourners attended his funeral. His obituary read simply: “He lived long, did some good and much harm.” His house in Bordentown is now a dentist’s office.

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Canals

THE FIRST CANALS in North America connected the Great Lakes to Canadian cities and then the Great Lakes to the East Coast of the U.S. by way of the Erie Canal. Most all of them followed an existing river, to tap into a consistent water supply. The canal system along the Delaware was no different. The Delaware and Raritan Canal was begun the same day in 1830 that the Camden & Amboy Railroad went into business. A year later they merged. And in 1871 they were leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. The D & R canal was begun at  Bordentown, ran through Trenton and then abruptly turned northeast to connect with the Raritan River at New Brunswick. From there, transportation could continue by boat and barge to New York City. About 80% of the cargo transported was coal to supply the industrial revolution, now in full mode.

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There was a feeder canal for the D & R that began about 22 miles upstream at Bull’s Island and followed the Delaware down to Trenton where it supplied water to the main route. Hard to imagine today, but this whole canal system was dug mostly using hand tools by a large majority of Irish immigrants. When finally opened in 1834, the main line ran for 43 miles through 14 locks with a width of 75 feet and a depth of 7 feet. There were also pivot bridges, culverts and one aqueduct. The locks were operated manually by lock keepers, who lived with their families in houses next to the canal. A very few of these dwellings are still there today, quaint and picturesque, most of them of stone construction. Mules were originally used to haul the barges along the canal on a tow path until steam powered boats took over, steam also being used to operate the locks later on.

The canals proved an immediate success, and why not? They cut time, distance and provided controlled conditions unlike the adventures of river shipping. By the 1850s, the time of greatest prosperity, there were over 1400 barges working the canal carrying 1-2 million tons of freight per year. But while the canals were performing as well as expected, the railroads were doing it even better. The canal systems continued to operate well into the early twentieth century, but with steadily declining loads, and the D & R finally closed in 1932.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, the Delaware Canal ran from Easton south to Bristol. And again, the main cargo was coal, for which the country had developed an unquenchable desire. Begun in 1827, the State of Pennsylvania built the canal but because of poor design it leaked so badly that it was soon shut down. It was only through the intervention of Josiah White, co-founder of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company that it was able to be repaired. It reopened the same year as the D & R canal.

Both canals had access to each other at various crossing points along the river, as well as offshoots that would allow traffic to flow all the way to New York Harbor. In fact, much of the Northeast had a network of canals connecting cities as far flung as Evansville, Illinois and Albany, New York.

There are a few canals still in use today, but the D & R and Delaware Canals are not. Instead, they have become recreational parks where Adidas and Nikes now take the place of mule hooves. The rest of the Delaware Canal, nearly 60 miles long, is a National Heritage Hiking Trail. The trail runs just west of the lower portion of Washington’s Crossing State Park and continues north closer to the river through the upper portion of the park.

Bordentown Royalty

Here’s an excerpt from my book in progress “The Illustrated River” about Bordentown, NJs most illustrious resident.

There was another of Bordentown’s inhabitants who did not have a list of accomplishments like these other distinguished residents, but is perhaps better known—the King of Spain. I’m not kidding. Joseph Bonaparte, older brother of Napoleon, was actually the King of Spain and Naples & Sicily. Regardless that these were not titles he was born to, being the spoils of conquest, they were not merely transparent either. He truly was one of the crowned heads of Europe. Arriving in New York in 1815 under the assumed name “Count Survillier”, perhaps to distance himself from his not so popular brother, he made his way to Philadelphia, staying in center city and later in Fairmount Park. Bonaparte fled Spain after his brother’s defeat at Waterloo, bringing with him only a suitcase full of jewels. However he had the foresight to bury much more at a Swiss refuge.

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Joseph Bonaparte’s Monogram

A year later he moved to Bordentown at a spot that was known as Point Breeze, on a high bluff overlooking the Delaware and Crosswicks Creek. Originally consisting of a house and 200 acres of land, Bonaparte began building a new estate that would eventually take three years to finish and comprise over a thousand acres of sculpted landscape with winding carriage lanes and an artificial lake spanned by an arched stone bridge. Under the house, connecting to the river bank were a series of brick-lined tunnels perhaps built with the intention of an escape route should any of his European enemies come looking for him.

The next time you travel north on Route 295, as you approach Bordentown, look for a road sign announcing “Scenic Overlook”. On your right, above a small marina on Crosswicks Creek, you will see a hill with some Victorian era houses on it’s summit. It is on that hill, a little to the north that Bonaparte’s estate once stood.

Bonaparte received many guests at his newly constructed America estate including former guerilla leader General Mina who invited him to become King of Mexico. He declined.

His finances running low, Bonaparte enlisted his secretary Louis Maillard to return to Europe and retrieve the remainder of his fortune in Switzerland. Which he did after a harrowing journey that included being shipwrecked in Ireland. Maillard was also assigned to return with Joseph Bonaparte’s wife, Queen Julie from Belgium but she remanded under her doctor’s orders not to travel. But he did bring Zenaid and Charlotte, the Ex-King’s two daughters back to Bordentown to live with their father. With his fortune now intact, he completed his then unfinished estate and was said to be a very hospitable to his neighbors who would drop by to spend a quiet afternoon. He also received more distinguished visitors like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

In 1820, his newly completed mansion caught fire while Mr. Bonaparte was visiting in Philadelphia. He returned just in time to watch the roof collapse. And it seems many of his neighbors were there, bustling about, trying to save as much of his property as they could. Bonaparte even had to stop some of them as they were in danger of risking their own lives. He soon after wrote a letter to Wm. Snowden, Justice of the Peace of Bordentown in gratitude for all that his neighbors had done for him remarking: “I cannot omit on this occasion to repeat what I have said so often, that the Americans are the most happy people that I have known; still more happy, if they understand well their happiness.”

The estate was re-built, Bonaparte took at least one mistress named Annette Savage, fathered another daughter and returned to Europe in 1839 to be re-united with his wife and live out the rest of his days.

Apparently, he did not take all his belongings with him as various pieces show up from time to time at local antique auctions. A piece or two of Joseph’s furniture has even been featured on the PBS Television Series “Antique Roadshow”. There is also a collection of some of his items and furnishings on display at the James Fenimore Cooper House in Burlington. His second mansion was torn down and the only reminder of the Bonaparte estate is the building known as the gardener’s cottage, which also housed his secretary Louis Maillard. That building sits apart from the rest of the compound on the grounds of a Catholic missionary order. At some point in time, someone decided to tidy up the original plaster siding with a faux stone exterior. (Ugh).