Researcher seeks to display Trenton ruins

Remains of steel furnace foundry, bridge buried on Statehouse grounds

January 12, 2003|By Tom Hester | Tom Hester,NEWARK STAR-LEDGER

TRENTON, N.J. - It's not hard to find history when strolling through downtown Trenton. The New Jersey Statehouse, where Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1861, is the second-oldest in the nation. Just a stone's throw away sits the Old Barracks Museum, which housed the Hessian soldiers who would lose a big battle to troops led by George Washington in 1776.

But beneath the sloping parklike grounds between the Statehouse and the Old Barracks Museum lie long-forgotten remnants of New Jersey's Colonial past, decades before Washington's triumph.

Hidden underground are the foundations of a steel furnace, a foundry and a bridge. There is also a water tunnel that resembles the Phantom of the Opera's sewers of Paris and still carries an active stream, Petty's Run, under the streets of Trenton to the Delaware River. They all sit 3 to 20 feet below the surface of the Statehouse grounds.

These were part of a Trenton that fewer than 1,000 people called home, before the American Revolution made the city famous. The tunnel was also the stuff of legend, since-debunked: From generation to generation, word was passed that an "Indian attack escape tunnel" had been constructed beneath the Statehouse, leading to the river.

Archaeologist and historical geographer Richard Hunter, one of the few who knows firsthand what lies beneath, says it's time to unearth these pieces of history. He wants them displayed for the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists who visit the Statehouse each year.

Hunter proposes they be unearthed and covered with a glass surface so visitors can look down at them while walking by.

`A tremendous site'

"This is a tremendous site for 18th-century iron and steel technology, one of the very few sites intact," Hunter said. "Nothing else in this region compares. If something like this was opened and interpreted the right way, it would be a very useful educational tool - tangible history that would show people how iron and steel was made when a rushing stream provided water power."

Petty's Run drops steeply as it flows beneath the Statehouse grounds; the creek's bed and banks were encased in stone to channel the rushing water and power Isaac Harrow's plating mill, which dated to the 1730s. There, ax heads, shovel heads, frying pans and musket barrels were made. The foundation of Harrow's Mill probably survives in its entirety, Hunter said.

The remains of Benjamin Yard's furnace, which dates to the 1740s and was used to make steel, are buried at the bottom of the slope. The mill and furnace were in use until about 1790, several years before the construction of the Statehouse, Hunter said.

The stone-and-brick tunnel is large enough to stand in. The stone and brick abutments and arched span are the remains of a bridge that carried West Front Street over Petty's Run. By the mid-19th century, when tenements bordered the Statehouse, Petty's Run had become a polluted health hazard, and the city ordered it hidden in a brick-roofed culvert.

Built in 1792 to provide access to the new Statehouse, the bridge and street went out of use early in the 20th century and, like the mill and furnace, disappeared beneath the fill.

Since then, officials would catch glimpses of the site only when renovations were being made to the Statehouse or nearby buildings.

Hunter was one of the last people to enter the tunnel, visiting it one day in the late 1980s. Accompanying him wasFeather O'Connor Houstoun, then the state treasurer.

Hunter remembers the "spectacular culverted channel" containing the creek bed, and traces of the foundations.

Houstoun, now the secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, recalls: "We had hard hats. It was like walking along an alley. It was not filthy.

"It would be very interesting to see it unearthed and glassed over so that visitors could look down into the foundation."

In 2000, Hunter proposed to the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, the panel that oversees the Statehouse complex, that Petty's Run be lighted and opened to visitors who would enter through a manhole. The commission turned him down, saying the tunnel, in its present form, would be dangerous and open the state to injury lawsuits.

Now Hunter instead would like to see the foundations and tunnel unearthed so they can be displayed under glass for tourists.

15-year effort

This job would be part of the final piece of a 15-year effort to restore and expand the Statehouse complex and restore Stacy Park, once a great expanse of greenery that stretched to the Delaware River until it was lost to a parking lot in the post-World War II years.

But the park and ruins restoration cannot begin until the 153-year-old front section of the Statehouse is renovated. Officials figure that work is at least four years away. Gov. James E. McGreevey does not want to move his office out of the Statehouse for the renovation. And the $80 million needed to fund the project was one of the first casualties of this year's budget crunch.

"I will follow this wherever it goes," Hunter said. "It is a tremendously important site. It is a heritage tourism site waiting to be opened to the public.

"It really requires the state government to pick up the ball and run with it. It's the back yard of the Statehouse, for heaven's sake."

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