Will NJ’s historic sites be ready for nation’s big bash? (slideshow) (updated)

Kimberly Redmond//February 6, 2023

Will NJ’s historic sites be ready for nation’s big bash? (slideshow) (updated)

Kimberly Redmond//February 6, 2023

As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary, New Jersey is preparing to welcome visitors to the dozens of historic sites throughout the state that played a role in the nation’s founding. Unfortunately, its contributions aren’t as widely recognized as those of destinations such as Boston or Philadelphia, which are both hubs for sites and stories of the American Revolution.

But, with the right mix of restoration, program development, marketing, staffing and maintenance, New Jersey could claim its significant role in the birth of America, as well as reap the economic benefits of heritage tourism.

Though the historic milestone is still three years away, planning efforts have been underway for quite some time to ensure the Garden State can handle the expected influx of interest leading up to July 4, 2026, and beyond.

With nearly 300 significant military engagements – in addition to hundreds of lesser-known skirmishes during the Revolution, New Jersey was the most conflict-ridden colony of the war, according to the National Park Service.

Situated along the Atlantic Coast between the busy port cities of New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey was where Gen. George Washington spent more than one-quarter of his time as commander in chief and where he established dozens of headquarters here during the war.

In fact, the Garden State is home to 150 Revolutionary War historic sites, including major battlefields, monuments, houses, museums, civic structures, churches and graveyards, that are in a wide range of conditions, from boarded up with no visiting hours to operating smoothly with organized tours.

Although those sites lend themselves to being places for activities and tourism related to the American Revolution, New Jersey has lagged behind other states in making the spots more likely destinations for visitors interested in learning about the birth of our nation.

“I think there’s a few factors for that. First and foremost, we have the iconic Jersey Shore and that’s what people think of first when it comes to New Jersey,” said Jeff Vasser, executive director of the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism. “Perhaps over the years that has drowned out our ability to talk about other things,” he said.

During the bicentennial in 1976, Vasser said, “I think it’s fair to say we didn’t do as good as a job marketing New Jersey and creating that brand awareness of New Jersey as a heritage destination, so I think we missed an opportunity and there’s catching up to do.”

Designated as a National Heritage Area by Congress in 2006, the Crossroads of the American Revolution has a vast presence in New Jersey – a 2,155-square-mile-swath of 212 municipalities across 14 counties – and works in partnership with the National Parks Service on promotion and preservation.

The NHA – which includes Princeton Battlefield, Washington Crossing State Park and Fort Lee Historic Park – is managed by a dedicated nonprofit established by Congress that works in conjunction with the National Parks Service and often collaborates with historic sites, nonprofits, government, schools, libraries and museums to tell the story of New Jersey’s contributions to the Revolution.

The Old Barracks in Trenton, one of the colonial-era sites that state tourism officials hope will draw travelers to New Jersey during the Semiquincentennial.
The Old Barracks in Trenton is one of the colonial-era sites that state tourism officials hope will draw travelers to New Jersey during the Semiquincentennial. – NJ DIVISION OF TRAVEL & TOURISM


As the only NHA in New Jersey, Crossroads is uniquely positioned to promote the state’s rich Revolutionary history and has done so through partnerships, marketing efforts and various program initiatives that have helped attract heritage tourists and the associated economic benefits.

“One of our roles in planning for the commemoration is to ensure that New Jersey takes its rightful place for the crucial part it played in our nation’s founding,” said Carrie Fellows, executive director of Crossroads of the American Revolution, an organization helping spearhead efforts to ensure New Jersey’s Revolutionary locations are “visitor ready” for 2026.

“I think what many people don’t realize about New Jersey was that it was truly the crossroads of the American Revolution. Washington’s army and British forces were crossing and re-crossing the state over the course of the conflict,” said Fellows, adding, “People don’t necessarily think of the Revolutionary War as a civil war, but it really was. People who lived here, especially in New Jersey, had to choose sides, depending on which army occupied their area.”

As part of a state-funded project led by the New Jersey Historical Commission and Crossroads of the American Revolution, an assessment was made of the state’s 150 sites to determine each location’s readiness for tourists and provide estimated costs of physical upgrades, adding programs and training staff.

The report – which was published in 2020 – also analyzed those figures in terms of the importance of the site to the story of the Revolution in New Jersey, as well as the urgency of need.

Altogether, the total costs related to site and facility upgrades, programming improvements, marketing and training for staff and volunteers approaches $500 million, making it an undertaking that will require all levels of government, along with private partners such as foundations, corporations and individuals.

The estimate also includes the design and construction of a visitor experience center in Trenton where patrons can “get a full sense of the scope of New Jersey’s role in the nation’s founding.”

While there are a number of properties with well-developed visitors’ centers, such as Morristown, Red Bank Battlefield and Monmouth Battlefield, there is no central statewide location that can help visitors link the sites together in a broader context, Fellows said.

Since the assessment’s fieldwork was conducted in 2019, some of the needs have already been addressed, or have been appropriated funding to address.

Gov. Phil Murphy announces a $25 million investment for New Jersey's Revolutionary War historic sites on Nov. 29, 2022.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced a $25 million investment for New Jersey’s Revolutionary War historic sites on Nov. 29, 2022. – OFFICE OF THE NJ GOVERNOR

For instance, in November 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the state would allocate $25 million from federal American Rescue Plan funds to support the revitalization of 10 state-owned sites from the Revolutionary period: Washington Crossing State Park, Trenton’s Old Barracks, Battle Monument in Trenton, Princeton Battlefield State Park, Monmouth Battlefield State Park, Proprietary House in Perth Amboy, The Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield, Wallace House in Somerville, Boxwood Hall in Elizabeth and Rockingham in Kingston.

Fellows believes those core 10 state sites, along with a “fair number” of other historic locations, will be ready for the anniversary thanks to investments by the state and other funding sources, such as counties.

“If we’re not 100% ready, we’ll be close enough,” she said. “Part of the goal is not just being ready for that July 4, 2026, date but also about sustaining heritage tourism beyond that date.”

Tourist spending

Although the preliminary estimate of $500 million represents “a significant investment” on the part of municipalities, counties and the state, along with other sources, the assessment notes it will “have significant rewards in terms of bringing heritage tourism to visitors” who can “exponentially” increase spending at businesses, including hotels and restaurants.

According to Fellows, the state’s hospitality industry is excited for the Semiquincentennial. At the most recent New Jersey Conference on Tourism in Atlantic City, Fellows said “one of the pretty hot topics was the 250th and how that could potentially impact heritage tourism and the state.”

In 2019, heritage tourism in New Jersey generated $3.6 billion in total visitor spending, including $140.4 million in on-site spending and $3.5 billion in off-site spending. This spending generated $3.0 billion in total statewide GDP, added $357.5 million in state and local revenue, and supported approximately 50,000 total jobs throughout New Jersey in 2019, according to a report prepared for the New Jersey Historic Trust.

According to the New Jersey Division of Travel & Tourism, about 6% of all travelers to New Jersey engaged in some type of historic site activity in 2019. And though visits are still rebounding after plummeting to 1% during the pandemic, the state still has a long way to climb to reach the national average of visitation to historic sites (13%).

A reenactment of the American Revolution takes place in front of the George Washington Bridge at Fort Lee Historic Park.
A reenactment of the American Revolution takes place in front of the George Washington Bridge at Fort Lee Historic Park. – CROSSROADS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Vasser would like to see that heritage tourism market grow between 5% and 10% over the next few years. “The charge that I have and the historical commission has from our Secretary of State, Tanesha Way, is that she wants us to focus on heritage, culinary, arts and culture as components of tourism,” he explained. “She said to me ‘let’s make everything as iconic as the Jersey Shore.’”

Vasser admitted it’s a tall order, but he’s up for the challenge. “We have a great hook, which is the 250th anniversary, or as we affectionally call it, the semi-quin,” he said. “We’re going to be able to put a lot of effort into it and finally have money for the marketing to do that.”

Vasser added that the assessment produced by Crossroads and the New Jersey Historical Commission is a valuable resource, saying “We didn’t have this kind of study 50 years ago that pointed out what we need to do.”

“And there wasn’t a group like Crossroads that is taking the lead in making sure New Jersey is ready for this, part of it and not overlooked when people think of where they can go to enjoy Revolutionary War sites and New Jersey becomes top of mind. My role is to make sure we get that message out both domestically and internationally,” he said.

Part of that effort includes encouraging local destination marketing organizations to partner with nearby historic assets on campaigns that connect the landmarks with businesses, attractions or restaurants as a way to “create a synergy to keep people in an area for more than a couple of hours.”

“We’re going to have fun with this one over the next couple of years to come up with some really cool projects, marketing programs and packages we can create that will really trigger new visitors to come out and support it,” he said.

After helping compile the initial report on visitor readiness, Hargrove International Inc. followed up in 2021 with a post-pandemic look at the status of 64 sites, programming plans and interest in participating in Revolution NJ-related activities and in a “long-term” heritage tourism ecosystem.

Hargrove – which specializes in strategic planning, destination development and marketing – also reviewed the state’s current heritage tourism performance and market share, as well as opportunities and challenges for growth, consumer trends impacted by COVID-19 and social issues that could shape the industry.

For instance, the study recommended historic site managers partner with local tourism professionals to identify lodging, dining, retail and entertainment options within a 5-mile radius, calling it a “vital” component of a successful heritage tourism economy.

It also urged New Jersey to differentiate itself from other states and take its Revolutionary storyline beyond the battlefield and its generals. While military heritage may attract many visitors, the casual traveler who is in town visiting loved ones or on other business could find more diverse stories relatable.

Battle of Monmouth Park reenactment in Manalapan, Ocean Shore Region.
Battle of Monmouth re-enactment in Manalapan, Ocean Shore Region. – NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF TRAVEL & TOURISM

The analysis found that more sites are beginning to “investigate different, yet inclusive, storylines” and focusing on what happened during conflicts to free Blacks, women, children, immigrants and religious congregations as a way to connect the past to present and “vital to telling the full story of the Revolution.”

“The stories can be further broadened to share the impact on commerce, landscape, farms and businesses,” the study said. “These research-based interpretative themes help expand the opportunity to attract new and diverse audiences to New Jersey heritage experiences.”

Another way to engage 21st century travelers is through developing and delivering “diverse and inclusive experiences,” the study said, noting that New Jersey “has a rare opportunity to present a host of different Revolutionary Era stories from multiple perspectives” given the conflict’s impact on much of the state. And a growing number of sites have plans to add new amenities over the next five years, such as interactive displays, building restoration to increase capacity for small group programming, new visitor centers, updated parking areas, temporary exhibits, new pathways and online ticket sales.

“New Jersey deserves to be internationally recognized for its important contributions to our country’s founding,” the report said. “Sharing the stories with visitors is a key strategy for economic growth through heritage tourism. However, in order to increase national/international brand awareness and also attract visitors to experience the state’s 18th Century history, sites must be open and offer compelling, contemporary and relevant interpretation. Diverse and inclusive stories, on and beyond the battlefields, are required to fully deliver the robust educational experiences desired by travelers.”

“If the state, especially its signature collection of state parks, cannot fully embrace the responsibilities of hosting visitors, the outlook for growing heritage tourism in New Jersey is dire,” the report concluded.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8 a.m. Feb. 13 to remove the word “park” from the Battle of Monmouth reenactment photo captions.