WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Washington’s Crossing, Concentration Valley, PA

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

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“On Christmas night, 1776, General Washington and  2,400 soldiers crossed the Delaware to surprise the merry-making Hessian mercenaries. During a blinding snowstorm, the Continentals entered the roomy Durham boats for the perilous trip and [succeeded in capturing] Trenton.”

Pennsylvania Guide, p. 513

Concentration Valley, just east of New Hope, would be lovely on a warm day. But I chose to visit at dusk on a cold day in February to better experience as much as possible the perils of Washington’s troops as they rowed across the swiftly-flowing, icy Delaware River in cold and darkness.

The Guide’s brief description of Washington’s brave feat does not do it justice. In the fall of 1776, Washington had been defeated at the battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights and White Plains. He’d also lost control of New York City for what was to be the duration of the War.

The Continental Army had retreated to Pennsylvania. Food and clothing Supplies were low and the army’s tents gave no shelter from the cold. Scores of soldiers were unwilling to re-enlist and potential new recruits were not forthcoming.

The Hessians were occupying Trenton, New Jersey just across the Delaware. They greatly outnumbered Washington’s men.  The only possibility of a victory was a surprise attack.  Washington A few weeks before the raid, Washington’s soldiers began to collect local Durham boats—arge wooden, flat-bottomed, double-ended rowboats used on the Delaware to transport farm crops to mills in New Hope. They concealed the boats in a nearby barn, waiting for the order to cross.

The wait was agonizing. The weather that December was brutally cold. Dozens of the American soldiers died of cold and hunger while preparing for the raid.

On the night of the 25th, ice sheets prevented two-thirds of Washington’s troops from crossing the river, but, at Concentration Valley, 2400 soldiers managed to make it across. From there they marched nine miles south to Trenton. Not fearing Washington’s  army in its defeated and weakened state,  the Hessians had failed to post sentries or to send out patrols. Washington’s forces caught them off guard, and after a short resistance, most of the Hessians surrendered. Losses to the Continental Army were minimal and the victory revived the Americans’ spirits. Soldiers were inspired to re-enlist and new recruits joined the ranks.

Pennsylvania established Washington State Crossing Park, on the site of the crossing in 1917. It is a lovely and solemn site that honors not only the Crossing but also the men who died there, most of whose names remain unkown. In December each year, local folk re-enact Washington’s crossing in replicas of Durham Boats. I’d like to return next December to see the reenactment but my visit alone in winter, in snow and cold, amid the sound of rushing water, studded with ice floes, was truly evocative of one of our Nation’s pivotal, historic events.

February, 2022

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