Geek Out on Hamilton History (And Much More) in Trenton

New Jersey's capital city offers the kind of deep-dish American history you can only find in a few U.S. cities. (And don't forget about its thin-crust pizza!)

Trenton's capitol building amid fall foliage
Trenton is well worth a visit this autumn. Photo: Shutterstock/Henryk Sadura

Now in its sixth year on Broadway, Hamilton has drawn more than 2.6 million people and set off an unlikely new wave of public interest in the Revolutionary War and America’s founding fathers.

But it’s a good bet that most people who have thrilled to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical don’t know that Alexander Hamilton’s legend was born on the (cobblestone) streets of Trenton.

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There, around eight o’clock on the morning of December 26, 1776, 21-year-old artillery captain Hamilton unlimbered a battery of cannons at the head of George Washington’s Continental Army and unloaded multiple rounds of grapeshot and cast iron cannon balls on ranks of stunned Hessians.

Today, at Pennington Road and Route 206, you can stand pretty much at the exact spot where Hamilton and his gunnery mates opened fire in the battle that might have saved the American Revolution.

If you’re thinking about visiting Trenton, just do it. Block for block, New Jersey’s capital city offers the kind of deep-dish American history you can only find in places like Boston Harbor, lower Manhattan or the lanes of Philadelphia’s Old City.

History is only one reason to visit. Everyone’s heard about the city’s thin-crust pizza, known to all as Trenton pie. But the city and its environs also boast a handful of traditional Italian restaurants like Revere and Marsilio’s Kitchen that still attract lobbyists looking for authentic red gravy.

There are hidden gems like Cadwalader Park, 110 acres of specimen trees and rolling hills designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York City’s Central Park.

At the New Jersey State Police Museum and Learning Center, you can examine fingerprints under a microscope and learn how forensic investigators break down a murder scene. Visitors can also see artifacts from the Lindbergh kidnapping case, including the ransom note and a rickety wooden ladder Bruno Richard Hauptmann used to snatch the sleeping baby Lindbergh.

But the centerpiece of any trip to Trenton is the area of roughly 10 square blocks where George Washington and some 2,400 exhausted Continental troops executed a risky attack on the day after Christmas to turn the war’s tide.

The initial focus of Washington’s surprise thrust into Trenton was the Old Barracks, a garrison that had been built to house British troops during the French and Indian War.

Today, the restored barracks is a museum that houses a unique collection of Revolutionary War artifacts and other material.

After defeating the Hessians, Washington and his men withdrew across the Delaware, but in a week they were back in Trenton. This time, he was facing a large force of British regulars from Princeton, led by General Charles Cornwallis. The redcoats, 7,000 strong, were bent on revenge and appeared unstoppable.

But once again, Washington manufactured a miracle. With a large contingent of his troops under heavy assault, he withdrew to higher ground over a small stone bridge on the Assunpink Creek. Atop his horse beside the span, Washington was a human beacon for his retreating troops. With daylight waning, the British charged the bridge three times and were repelled in some of the most terrifying moments of the war.

Today, the Assunpink Creek bridge carries traffic over South Broad Street. From the banks of the Assunpink, as it cuts through Mine Hill Park, it is not hard to envision the mounted Washington urging his troops to safety amid the furious British assault.

That night, as the British regrouped across the creek, Washington and his men slipped behind the enemy line and went on to win the Battle of Princeton the next day. Twelve years later, president-elect Washington, riding through Trenton en route to his inauguration in New York, stopped at the Assunpink bridge to commemorate his triumph.

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