Tour of "Bridge that saved the Nation"
By Howard Prosnitz, Staff Writer
Teaneck Suburbanite, April 22, 2009, p. 3
If British General Lord Cornwallis had heeded the warning of one of the German mercenaries in his service and fortified New Bridge Landing, the American Revolution would have been stopped in its tracks: America would have remained a crown colony and we might all be British subjects to this day.
Captain Elwad, a German serving in the advance guard of the British troops, reported to Cornwallis that Washington's army was scalling the Palisades and scattered throughout today's Fort Lee.
Cornwallis's response was basically to let them go.
"For Cornwallis the revolution was over." said historian Kevin Wright "He saw the rebels not as an army any longer, but as a disorganized rabble."
Cornwallis was also motivated by financial concerns. A battle would have meant mercenaries being killed, and the British were obligated to indemnify the German princes for every dead Germany mercenary.
Wright, former president of the Bergen County Historical Society, explained the history of the new Bridge landing on Sunday on a tour of the area sponsored by the Friends of the Hackensack River Greenway.
"When you turn your televisions on tonight and you see news of all the imperfect democracies in the world, including our own, keep in mind they all descended from the march over the bridge at New Bridge landing," Wright explained.
New Bridge's history
Not only New Jersey, but Bergen County was also the crossroads of the revolution. The old portoon bridge, which was located where the present bridge is, has been called the "Bridge that Saved the Nation."
The narrows at New Bridge was the only crossing over the Hackensack River at the time. Washington and his 6,000 men made their way across the bridge on Nov. 20, 1776.
The British arrived at New Bridge the following night and a battle ensued, but rebel snipers were positioned in houses on both sides of the road and delayed the British pursuit. The British army crossed the bridge the following day, but the rebel army was already on its way to the Passaic River.
Had the army been stopped on Nov. 21, 1776 the revolution would have ended.
Beginning his tour with a discussion of the geographical history of the area, Wright explained that only 17,000 years ago the entire area was under deep ice.
On the Teaneck side of the river are the remnants of the beaches of former glacial Lake Hackensack which once covered the entire meadowlands area. Wright noted that a former resident of River Road, who had observed development of the area, is quoted as saying that "the River road and surrounding area had been a huge sand dune."
"We are standing in the bed of glacial Lake Hackensack," said Wright. "If the glacier had not come, and in melting away, dumped tons of clay we would be standing underwater in one of the deepest inlets along the atlantic coast." The clay continues down 200 feet before hitting bedrock, he said.
Until the 1920s new Bridge was a white sand beach. Benson's Campground, a summer resort for New Yorkers, was located along the river in today's lower Brett Park. Foundations of some of the cabins are still visible in the park.
Over time the Hackensack River became polluted, not by the creation of the Oradell reservior, as is sometimes supposed, said Wright, but by dumping of raw sewerage into the river as the area was developed.
In 1921 the City of Hackensack outlawed swimming in the river after children became sick.
The Hackensack has become dramatically cleaner the mid 1980s when New York City built a water treatment center along the Henry Hudson Parkway.
Previously New York City had been one of the great exceptions to the Clean Water Act, said Wright, dumping more than 400 million gallons of raw sewage daily into the Hudson, which connects with the Hackensack River at Newark Bay and the New York Harber.
Until about 1905 commercial fishing of shad, herring and smelt prospered in the Hackensack. But these species disappeared as the river sewer trunk lines were built into the river.
Wright, the former curator of the Zabriskie/Von Steuben house on the River Edge side of the New Bridge Landing, lived in the house for 15 years. His forthcoming book, "1509," is about Henry Hudson's visit to the New World. The year 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Hudson's voyage.
Wright noted that the cove in Brett Park, known as the Old River, once extended to the New Bridge Road.
A large sycamore tree near the cove is said to have been the dooryard tree that provided shade and cooling for the home of Abraham Von Buskirk, a colonial physician and one of the leading Tories in Bergen County. After the Revolution, Von Buskirk fled to Nova Scotia. He was joined by hundreds of African American, former slaves who had been promised their freedom by the British for fighting on the crown side.
The British relocated the former slaves to towns in Nova Scotia, where their decedents live today.
Although Dutch was the spoken colonial language, less than a quarter of the inhabitants of 17 century Bergen County were of Dutch origin, Wright said.
The second largest group was African Americans, most of whom were slaves.