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Heritage tourism: NJ's hidden gem — and one of its least-promoted assets

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Visitors in the Revolutionary Room of the Runyon House in East Jersey Old Town Village in Piscataway.
Visitors in the Revolutionary Room of the Runyon House in East Jersey Old Town Village in Piscataway. - ()

Picture this family vacation in New Jersey:

You go on one of the New Jersey Revolutionary War Trail’s “sample tours,” as spelled out by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forest, and take the Central Jersey route called Ten Crucial Days.

The route is named after a particular episode during the Revolutionary War — 10 actual days between December 1776 and January 1777 during which George Washington famously crossed the icy Delaware River with 2,400 troops in tow to take control of Trenton from a garrison of 1,400 Hessian soldiers.

The route snakes through Mercer County to the Washington Crossing State Park in Hopewell, where Washington and his troops landed before making the 9-mile march north to Trenton.

It takes you to the Old Barracks in Trenton, overshadowed by the statehouse and the last of five barracks which housed troops in the mid-18th century. Then it’s up north to the Princeton Battlefield State Park, where an American victory at the Battle of Princeton helped take New Jersey from British control.

At Princeton, you might visit the art and history museums, take a stroll at the nearby Delaware & Raritan Canal Trail, walk around the Princeton University campus, window shop and eat out. Or you can grab a snack along the route from Hopewell to Trenton and Princeton.

All this and more make up the heritage tourism industry, and proponents argue it’s one of New Jersey’s least-promoted assets.

“Historic tourism brings a lot of money,” said Maxine Lurie, chair of the New Jersey Historical Commission and a professor emeritus at Seton Hall University. “It brings people, they stay longer, they stay obviously in hotels and other places, they go out to eat, they go to gift shops, they go to stores.”

Untapped possibilities

New Jersey has the potential to bring in a steady stream of tourism dollars from the heritage industry, Lurie said. Just look at nearby states as examples. Pennsylvania heavily markets its role in the American Revolution, while Virginia is known for its history sites from the Civil War.

A 2013 study by consultancy Tourism Economics commissioned by the New Jersey Historic Trust reported that in 2012, 11 million tourists visited New Jersey for its historic sites and spent over $2.8 billion, generating $335 million in state and local taxes and $380 million in federal taxes.

Ultimately, New Jersey becomes a “destination,” Lurie said.

But Dorothy Guzzo, executive director of the New Jersey Historic Trust, said the state’s heritage tourism industry leaves something to be desired, and it’s not necessarily any fault of its own.

Much of the focus of the tourism marketing goes toward the Jersey Shore and Atlantic City, she said.

“When you think of the Revolutionary War, most people don’t think of New Jersey, and yet we had more battles fought here than every other state,” Guzzo said. “We don’t capitalize on these type of things. We don’t put resources toward the historic sites in the state.”

Crossroads of a new industry

Interpreter David Niescior leads a tour of The Old Barracks in Trenton.
Interpreter David Niescior leads a tour of The Old Barracks in Trenton. - ()

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill Aug. 17 that’s meant to put New Jersey on a path to promoting its role in the American Revolution. This is in light of the approaching 250th anniversary of the establishment of the United States in 2026.

Under the new law, Assembly Bill 4194, the New Jersey Historical Commission will enter a public-private partnership to prepare for the state’s observance of the country’s semiquincentennial.

Guzzo and Leurs both said they see this as an entry point into vastly expanding New Jersey’s heritage tourism industry.

And to that end, each testified before the Senate Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee at the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton on July 26 to make the case for a brighter spotlight on history-based tourism in New Jersey.

“This is not just about a series of commemorations. This is really about building an infrastructure that can reap long-term economic benefits from these things,” said Patrick Murray, who sits on the board of the nonprofit Crossroads of the American Revolution Association and also testified before the committee.

And if done right, Murray suggested, the state can indeed become a destination for the heritage tourism industry.

“You’re not just visiting one site, you’re looking at a storyline and how do you tie a number of different places across the state together,” said Murray, who also heads the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “That becomes a tour, and visitors can have real, enjoyable and in-depth experiences.”

A4194 appropriates $500,000 to the historical commission annually between fiscal years 2019 and 2028.

Of that amount, $200,000 will go toward the New Jersey Historical Commission’s semiquincentennial programs and staffing. The other $300,000 will be earmarked for the private entity with which the commission partners to upgrade historical sites, staffing and other capital improvements, according to the legislation.

The historical commission by itself doesn’t have the capacity to undertake planning nor organize events or programs for the semiquincentennial, Murray said, hence the need for a partnership with a private organization.

Murray said his group is being eyed as a potential partner, given its fundraising capacities.

“Some of the money is for the nonprofit partner to do this kind of needs-assessment and lay the groundwork [and] realize how much money do we have to raise,” Murray said. “The historical commission is still the controlling entity of everything that’s happening.”

There would be a leadership council within the commission consisting of state, community and business leaders, according to Murray.

“It’s going to be a multimillion-dollar funding,” he said. “This is really a legacy project. This is not just holding some events in 2026.”

Revolutionary War uniforms on display at East Jersey Old Town Village in Piscataway.
Revolutionary War uniforms on display at East Jersey Old Town Village in Piscataway. - ()

As for infrastructure ideas, Murray suggested property repairs and better visitor centers. At spots where full-time staffing isn’t feasible, visitors could instead access virtual tours.

“We’ll need some sort of statewide visitor center where people can get their bearings and understanding where they are in the midst of things,” he said.

And according to Guzzo, the industry would benefit from marketing that’s specifically focused on New Jersey’s heritage tourism.

“What we’re providing is heritage experience. It’s that when you’re going in a historic site, you’re getting a historical experience,” she said. “We’re actually telling you what really happened, that this is authentic. Kids go to summer camp in the Old Barracks, they get something authentic, ‘here’s how soldiers lined up.’”

And places like Lambertville and Cape May have served as smaller-scale success stories for capitalizing on their heritages, Guzzo noted.

Cape May partners with the Mid-Atlantic Center for Arts and Culture to boost its local heritage tourism, Lurie said, adding it can serve as a model for the state as a whole.

“They run the lighthouse and the World War II memorial that’s in Cape May, so they try to organize these things,” she said.

There’s also the Cape May boardwalk, beach and downtown, as well as the sunken concrete battleship and the Cold Spring Village, which Lurie likened to a “little tiny Williamsburg.”

Added Guzzo: “For a place like Stockton or Lambertville or Cape May, you’re going out to dinner … walking the street, [taking in] its ambiance. You’re enjoying the historical backdrop.”

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Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel J. Munoz


Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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