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The chance encounter was born of the American revolution. In early 1780 young Elizabeth Schuyler was visiting her uncle, Dr. John Cochran in Morristown, New Jersey when she met a dapper young army officer serving as General Washington's aide-de-camp. By April she and Alexander Hamilton were engaged and the couple became an integral part of the Revolution and founding of our nation.
'It was a match made in Morristown', said Leslie Bensley an amateur historian and head of the Morris County Tourism Bureau. Fortunately for our nation another crucial meeting also happened in the same new Jersey town. On May 10, 1790, Marquis de LaFayette galloped in to tell George Washington that the French would help the struggling colonies defeat the English Army.
Although not well known outside New Jersey Morristown and surrounding New Jersey played key roles in the Revolutionary War.
'New Jersey is like a barrel with a tap on each end. Although it's a populated state it has no big well-known cities and is sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia', said Bensley.
The Continental and British armies kept crisscrossing New Jersey, and skirmished at least 250 times.
Today, Morristown is a vibrant small city 30 miles west of Manhattan. It, and surrounding Morris County, teems with history, but visitors also discover fascinating architecture, diverse cultures and food, botanical gardens, natural areas large enough to support black bears, long rugged hiking trails and much more.
Morristown entered the history books shortly after George Washington led his troops across the Delaware River to defeat the Hessians on the morning of December 26, 1776. Eight days later his troops met the English Army on the campus of Princeton University and trounced it. The twin victories boosted American morale and spurred enlistments.
In those days armies didn't fight in winter, and after Princeton both British and American generals led their troops to winter quarters. Washington chose to winter in nearby Morristown. It was a good choice. Local residents largely supported the Revolution and welcomed troops to stay in their homes. Tories were scarce. A high ridge, known as Fort Nonsense, provided a clear view toward the wintering English Army in nearby New York City. Morristown's roads enabled supplies and messengers to come and go yet two natural barriers, the Watchung Mountains, a series of three rocky parallel ridges, and the Great Swamp sheltered the Americans from a surprise attack.
With warmer weather. the Army departed Morristown in early 1777 and spent the next winter in better known Valley Forge. Washington preferred wintering close to the English Army so he could keep an eye on it and that winter the Redcoats quartered in Philadelphia.
During the winter of 1779-1780, Washington returned to Morristown with 10,000 troops. He and his officers moved into the elegant large home of Theodosia Ford, while his troops constructed over 1000 huts in nearby Jockey Hollow. This was the winter when Betsey Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton met and the troops suffered through 28 snowstorms and frigid temperatures. Soldiers had little to eat, wore threadbare clothing, and were crammed into tiny drafty huts. One soldier remarked he had nothing to eat for four days. Many drifted away as their enlistments expired.
It's a tribute to George Washington's leadership and the soldier's patriotism that the Army endured its second Morristown winter. Lafayette's news of French help inspired soldiers and led to the eventual surrender of the English Army at Yorktown.
Unlike American soldiers who endured terrible living conditions in Morristown, modern visitors enjoy comfortable hotels, diverse restaurants, abundant natural areas, gardens and a diversity of historic places to tour.
Iowans driving to New York City might consider staying in Morristown instead of the big city. Hotels are much less expensive than those in Manhattan. The Hyatt Regency, for example, is located on the Historic Morristown Green and is in easy walking distance of restaurants, historic sites, and the New Jersey Transit train station. Trains depart about hourly for New York's Penn Station where subways, buses, and taxis transport visitors to destinations. Staying in the Morristown area allows drivers to avoid New York's formidable traffic, tolls, and parking fees.
The 2.6 acre Morristown Green is at city center and is interspersed with statues honoring Revolutionary War heroes and other notables. One statue is of Morris Frank and his dog, Buddy. Frank founded The Seeing Eye, America's first guide dog school. Morristown pedestrians often encounter service dog training in the downtown area. Each year the Seeing Eye matches about 260 students from the United States and Canada with guide dogs on an intensive 25 day training program. Visitors interested in visiting the Seeing Eye should contact the organization in advance.
George Washington's headquarters during his first Morristown winter was at Arnold's Tavern on the Green and modern visitors can stroll past it and walk along Schuyler Place, named for General Philip Schuyler and his daughter Betsey. Near the Green is the Presbyterian Church cemetery were 138 soldiers and townspeople were buried during the Revolution. Most died of smallpox. Within walking distance is the Schuyler-Hamilton House Museum where the couple courted and Villa Fontana, the former home of Thomas Nast of political cartoon fame. It was in this home that he created images of Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, and the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey.
A prime destination is Morristown National Historical Park, created by President Hoover in 1933 as the first of many national historical parks. It offers visitors three fascinating places to explore. First is the Ford Mansion, where Washington, Hamilton, LaFayette and many other notables stayed during the winter of 1779-80. It's a doable walk from downtown Morristown. A must see is Jockey Hollow, about five miles from town. It's where 10,000 troops endured the bitter winter. The National Park Service Visitor Center offers an excellent introduction film of its history. Hiking trails radiate outward and a pleasant driving tour loops through the park. We stopped and walked to several restored soldier huts. Twelve soldiers shivered in each tiny structure through the cruel winter but brought us the freedom we enjoy today.
THE ROLE OF IMMIGRANTS
Immigrants played a key role in the Continental Army, especially at Morristown. It's estimated that one quarter of all soldiers were Irish and seven of 11 brigades wintering at Morristown were commanded by generals either born in Ireland or the sons of Irish immigrants. So appreciative of the Irish was George Washington that the only holiday he granted his troops that winter was St. Patrick's Day. He instructed his officers that all Sons of St. Patrick were to be given the day off.
A fascinating part of the Park is Fort Nonsense, built on high ground overlooking Morristown. Its name came after the war when many people believed that Washington ordered its construction more to keep bored troops busy than for military need. That may or may not be true but there's no doubt it was an important lookout where troops could keep an eye on the English Army. Visitors to Fort Nonsense today can see Manhattan's skyscrapers in the distance.
In the Revolution's time of of primitive communications patriots needed to warn citizens when the English Army went on the prowl. They prepared beacon fires on the tops of ridges. If a lookout spotted the English moving he would light the bonfire that could be seen by lookouts on ridges further west. Each would light his bonfire and soon Americans as far west as Pennsylvania were alerted of the threat. Rapid Communication was by bonfire in the late 1700's but that was soon to change. Only a few miles from Morristown is Historic Speedwell National Landmark. At this iron works Alfred Vail teamed up with Samuel F. B. Morse, of Morse code fame, to demonstrate the perfected electromagnetic telegraph that initiated the era of instant modern communication.
Morris County is only about 2/3rds the size of Iowa's Linn County yet has more than double the human population. Although located close to Manhattan it has an abundance of public land. The Morris County Park Commission has 20,000 acres of open space that includes woodlands, golf courses, arboretums, a skating rink, ball fields, campgrounds and many more amenities. The 7768 acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge includes a 3660 acre wilderness area ... only 26 miles from Times Square. Morris County offers plenty of room to hike and explore. Rich Patterson is a Morris County native. His favorite hike is to little known but impressive Hog Pen Rock. It is in Jonathan's Woods County park in the town of Denville a few miles from Morristown. A trail leads to a magnificent natural bowl between two basalt outcroppings. In between the towering rock faces are stone walls. Legend has it that area farmers feared starving soldiers would steal their livestock, so they hid them deep in the woods amid the rocks.
Near Jonathan's woods is the Tourne County Park in historic Boonton. A hike to its crest yields an outstanding view of the New York skyline, and walks in any of Morris County's parks could give a glimpse of one of many wild black bears that live in the shadow of Manhattan.
Most of Morris County's museums are open year round, although some close in mid winter. Ideal months to visit are April and May when botanical gardens and many arboretums feature a diversity of flowering plants. At any season it's impossible to walk through the Morristown Green and not feel the presence of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Betsey Schuyler and the thousands of soldiers who lived here while making the founding of our nation possible.
Morristown is located on Interstate 287 about six miles south of Interstate 80 and 1000 miles east of Cedar Rapids.
Morris County Tourism Bureau: morristourism.org
Morris County Park Commission: morrisparks.net (Includes information on Historic Speedwell and Jonathan's Woods)
Morristown National Historic Park: nps.gov/morr
The Seeing Eye: www.SeeingEye.org