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Day Tripper - Old Barracks Museum
06/29/2009 - By by Teja Anderson
Old Barracks Museum
Trenton, NJ 08608
If you’re looking for an easy day trip with a lot of American history that is also fun for the whole family, then The Old Barracks Museum is the perfect destination. This wonderful State and National Landmark, located in Trenton, is definitely worthy of a visit. Built in 1758 by the Colony of New Jersey during the French and Indian War, the Old Barracks was witness to the Battle of Trenton in 1776, which was considered to be the turning point of the American Revolution. Although the building later fell into disrepair, in 1902 it was purchased by a small group of patriotic women who founded the Old Barracks Association; they re-opened the building as the Old Barracks Museum in October of 1903. In 1914 the building was given to the State of New Jersey to maintain, and was supported by the Old Barracks Association and a unique combination of public, private, and personal funding. The building was fully restored from 1915–1916 and then again from 1995–1998.
Today, the Old Barracks Museum serves as an educational center for Colonial and American history, and stands as the last remaining structure of its kind. The knowledgeable staff at Old Barracks provides daily tours and interpretations of American colonial life, dressed in full costume and speaking in the dialect of the time. The building also houses artifacts and weapons, as well as a fully stocked gift shop. Nearly 20,000 school children and thousands more visitors from all over the world visit the Old Barracks every year, making it one of the most visited sites in New Jersey and one of the most important historic sites in the United States.
Interestingly, in 1758 the Barracks was the biggest building in Trenton. Approximately 300 British and Irish soldiers were the first to live there, including two companies of Irishmen; the Inniskillin’s (1758–1759); two companies of lowland Scots; the First Regiment of Foot (1759–1760); and two companies of British soldiers with Swiss officers – the Royal American (1761–1762). The building was made of stone and had dark red woodwork. There were about 20 soldiers’ rooms, each with two windows, a door, and a fireplace. Twelve soldiers were housed in each room, with two men sleeping in each wooden bunk. The soldiers received rations of food, firewood, candles, cider, salt, and vinegar. There was a kitchen in the cellar, but most soldiers cooked in their own rooms. In the center of the building was a little house with a staircase leading to the second floor and the balcony. Cows, pigs, chickens, and horses were kept outside in the yard. The Officers’ House was fancier and more comfortable.
Once the Revolutionary War started, the Barracks was used solely by American troops, although British prisoners of war from St. John and Chambly, Canada, were imprisoned in the Officers’ House, while four companies of the Second New Jersey Regiment of the Continental Line were trained there. In December 1776 British and Hessian troops occupied Trenton and some of them stayed in the Barracks. Colonists loyal to the English King also arrived so that they could be protected by the soldiers. During the First Battle of Trenton on December 26, in a miraculously successful morning raid, General Washington captured many of the Hessians. The Americans returned to Trenton and used the Barracks. In 1777 the Barracks became an army hospital under Dr. Bodo Otto. Many soldiers and supplies passed through Trenton until the end of the war. The last soldiers in the Barracks may have been the sick and wounded from the siege of Yorktown in 1781, although documentation has been sketchy.
During the summer of 1995, a major archaeological investigation of the Barracks’ grounds provided some much-sought details about the local landscape in the 18th century. The excavations were conducted in preparation for the restoration of the Old Barracks and its site, which was completed in 1998. A team of archaeologists, headed by Ian Burrow from the firm of Hunter Research, Inc. of Trenton, opened several exploratory trenches in the parade grounds and on the perimeter of the south and west of the building, looking for the original surface level of the parade grounds and evidence of the palisade or barracks fence that surrounded the structure during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
The team removed topsoil in selected areas and discovered the original parade grounds’ surface and post holes from the Barracks palisade fence. The foundations of 19th century buildings that faced Front Street and a roadway laid in 1792 that cut through the Barracks were uncovered, and it was determined that the Barracks once stood on a rather steep escarpment immediately above the Run – a creek that powered a local forge and plating mill. Portions of the palisade fence were unearthed in the 18th century layer at the bottom of this trench.
Also uncovered was a 200-year-old leather shoe (almost intact), a section of an adze-dressed post, and a number of barrel staves that were pulled from the mud that was once Petty’s Run. A shoe buckle turned up in the same test pit as one of the Barracks’ fence post holes on the south side of the building. The soil between the foundations of the 19th-century houses yielded evidence that pre-dated the Barracks, including pottery shards and a Lehigh broad spear point, evidence of Native American (Late Archaic/Early Woodland) occupation. Overall, the landscape is remarkably different since soldiers first slept in the Barracks in 1759.
Old Barracks Museum also offers a wonderful summer day camp program for children, ages 9–12, where pre-teens can pretend to assemble themselves into George Washington’s army! The camp provides children with a rich cultural experience, as well as lots of good old-fashioned fun; they’ll recreate camp life on the Old Barracks parade grounds used more than 200 years ago by British, Hessian, and American Soldiers. They’ll also cook in the 18th century manner, make their own 18th century gear, sing and dance to 18th century music, march to local historic sites, and drill according to Baron von Steuben’s Manual of Arms. In addition, kids will learn colonial crafts and create a memorable experience while enhancing their knowledge of social studies! The camp runs Monday through Friday in July and is reasonably priced. For more information call 609-396-1776 on weekdays or 609-777-3599 on weekends. You can also send an e-mail to Barracks@voicenet.com to reserve a spot.
The Old Barracks is open every day, providing tours for small groups and individuals. (For groups of more than 15, please call ahead.) Their award-winning staff will answer all your questions and introduce you to life as it was 200 years ago. Several specialized tours are offered for groups of all ages, such as “Meet the Past: Battle of Trenton” and “Meet the Past: New Jersey Divided.” There are several workshops to choose from as well: “Call to Arms” and “The Gallery” are two popular sessions. If you like, you can also attend one of the Colonial Times concerts, like the “Fifes and Drums.” At this concert, participants are authentically uniformed (in garb worn at the time by the musicians of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment – four of whose eight companies were raised in this very Barracks in Trenton in December of 1775) and they present as authentic a repertoire as possible, assembled from the most current, exhaustive research. Check out the museum’s website for upcoming events, concerts, programs, and lots more fun stuff!
Old Barracks Museum
Trenton, NJ 08608
10 am – 5 pm daily
(except Easter, Thanksgiving,
December 24–25, January 1)
Seniors and students $6 (ID required)
Children under 5 free
From the North
Take I-95 to Route 29 South to the Calhoun Street exit. At end of the ramp make a right at the traffic light onto West State Street. Make the first right onto Barrack Street. The Old Barracks is on your right. At the traffic light, just past the Barracks (Lafayette Street), make a right into the Capitol Complex Parking Area. Get a visitor’s pass at the guard's shack.
From the East:
Take I-295 (Exit 60) to I-195 West, which becomes Route 29 North. Follow the signs for 29 North. Go through the tunnel and exit at Calhoun Street. Follow directions above.
From the South:
Take the N.J. Turnpike to Exit 7A (Trenton/Shore Points) to Route I-195 West, which becomes Route 29 North. Follow directions above. If taking Route I-295 (Exit 60) or Route 130, follow signs to Route I-195 West. Follow directions above.
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