Trenton has a rich history but few tourists

New Jersey capital offers much to see and do, but visitors face many obstacles

Short Hop

October 27, 2002|By Randy Diamond | Randy Diamond,Knight Ridder / Tribune

It's considered one of the most important Revolutionary War memorials in the nation, where Gen. George Washington achieved his first major victory 226 years ago.

But only about 600 people a month visit the Trenton Battle Monument, in Trenton, N.J., and take the elevator up the 150-foot monument that towers over the historic battle site, now a vacant lot bordered by rowhouses and a health clinic.

Several blocks away at New Jersey's State House, the second oldest continuously operating state capitol in the nation (dating to 1792), many of the hourly tours end up being canceled because no one shows up.

Nobody expects families to plan their vacations around a visit to Trenton. New Jersey's capital city lacks the charm of Annapolis (which has the oldest state capitol still in use), the grandiosity of Albany and the tourist attractions of Harrisburg and its surroundings, such as Hershey Park.

What Trenton does have, say those who promote tourism in the city, is a rich history.

But at a time when heritage tourism is surging, Trenton has been unable to sell itself as a destination worth visiting. Subtract the busloads of school kids on class trips, and Trenton draws only a smattering of intrepid visitors on any given day.

City tourism boosters say Trenton has attractions that at the very least justify a day trip. In addition to the State House and Battle Monument, there's the State Museum and planetarium, the Old Barracks, the William Trent House and Ellarslie, the city museum.

But many of those sites are sadly neglected.

The state-run Battle Monu-ment is open only 2 1/2 days a week. There is no historian on duty to explain one of the pivotal events of the war: Washington's surprise attack on Hessian troops working for the British after the Con-tinental Army crossed the Delaware River from Pennsyl- vania on Christmas night.

There are no historical markers. Parking is not allowed because the streets and a small park by the monument are under renovation. There is not even a bathroom for tourists. And the backdrop for the monument is an area known more in modern times for its battles with crime and poverty.

"It's a shame," said Henry Williams, 71, the part-time elevator operator who takes visitors up the tower. "This is our heritage. We should be proud of it."

Tourists on their own

At the State House, visitors are greeted much of the time by an empty podium, the starting point of the State House tour. A security guard must call the capitol tour office to summon a tour guide. On a recent summer Saturday afternoon, a security guard told a visitor, there was no 3 p.m. tour, despite a sign announcing a tour at that hour. Visitors wishing to see the State House on Saturday morning or anytime Sunday are out of luck: The State House is closed.

Finding the capitol and other attractions like the State Museum can be an adventure in itself. Even basic signs pointing visitors to the capitol are so poorly placed that they are easy to miss. Outside the capitol there is not even a street sign directing visitors to Trenton's small tourist information center around the corner.

Carl and Kenny Nowling stopped in Trenton as part of a two-week ramble along the East Coast. The identical twins took a self-guided State House tour, but weren't sure where to go after that.

"Where do you get a tourist map?" Carl asked a State House guard. It was something the pair found easily in the 20 other state capitals they have toured.

The Trenton Parking Author-ity puts out a map highlighting the city's attractions, but it's not available in the State House or most of the other sites.

Rudy and Tania Germanding recently found out the hard way that you can't assume anything when it comes to being a tourist in Trenton.

The New Jersey couple brought their children Eric, 12, and Tara, 9, for a tour of Trenton attractions on a Monday. The road signs were confusing, they said. But worse, one of the key spots they planned to visit, the State Museum, was closed that day.

"We took the day off from work," Tania said. "We assumed the State Museum would be open."

A different experience

Other capitals in nearby states offer a different experience for tourists. Knowledgeable guides staff historic sites. The capitols are open for tours seven days a week. Easy-to-understand signs point tourists to key attractions.

In Annapolis, there are three tourist information centers. In Albany, visitors wait for their tour of the capitol in comfortable chairs or can browse an exhibit about Theodore Roosevelt, who served as governor of New York before becoming president.

In Harrisburg, Pa., a member of the State House visitors services office greets people at the front door. The staffers not only conduct State House tours, but as part of their training are required to visit Harrisburg's other attractions so they can help tourists.

Sally Lane, executive director of the Trenton Convention and Visitors Bureau, is keenly aware that Trenton is behind other capital cities.

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