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A Place Called New Hope

From Dicey to Pricey, a Pennsylvania River Town Just Keeps Rolling Along

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page C02

Twenty years ago, New Hope, Pa., was the antidote to the sameness of Philadelphia's suburbs.

With the architectural bones of an 18th-century shipping village, it had evolved in the 1960s and '70s into a small artists' colony with a countercultural feel. Tie-dye and suede-fringed moccasins were popular fashion among the locals, and commerce tended toward diners, biker bars (at least one with risque dispensers in the unisex bathroom) and shops that sold homemade candles, wood carvings, hand-woven textiles, used books and locally done oil paintings. The town had the musk of sandalwood, patchouli and the Delaware River.

A tour guide awaits the carriage trade in hippie-turned-trendy New Hope, Pa., near Philadelphia. (Jeff Gunton -- www.newhopepa.cpm)

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Since I hadn't really been back since high school, I persuaded a friend to come along and play tourist, the point being to see the old place through new eyes.

New Hope is probably one of the most popular destinations for antique fondlers and gallery browsers along the Delaware River, and it's an easy drive from I-95 up River Road. This time of year, it's actually good to begin a visit to New Hope with a stop just before you get there, at Washington Crossing, where George Washington's renowned trip across the Delaware turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. It's become a holiday tradition in this part of the world for a group of actors to replay that scene. They will do it again on Christmas day.

Along the banks of the Delaware one recent December morning, caretaker Casey Jones is using a long wooden oar to try to reposition three large boats sitting on the muddy riverbank.

The boats are replicas of the kind that Washington commandeered on Christmas night 1776 and rowed across the river for the battle at Trenton, N.J. On Christmas morning, actors will pile into the heavy wooden Durham cargo boats and make their way across the river. In years when rainfall leaves enough water for them to actually make the crossing, it's an amazing scene to watch the actors struggle with the several-ton boats. Gives one a real appreciation for what it took to make history, it does.

Jones has been the full-time caretaker of the replica boats for 10 years, and it's clear he's a junkie for Washington Crossing history. But since we catch him in the boathouse and not on official guide duty, he tells the stories the way he likes, which is like an old hippie history buff.

He ends up relating the tale of the extraordinary artistic license that German-born painter Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" took 75 years after the fact. (George probably hadn't been standing in the boat, lest he fall out; there were no women aboard; and the ice-clogged river was most likely a composite based on his homeland's Rhine River.)

The trip to New Hope from here is 10 minutes up the river, and along a way lined with Federal-style homes and country cottages.

New Hope is small, just a mile square, but it's elbow-to-elbow with small foursquare homes and houses made of river rock and shale from local quarries.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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