By Aliza Alperin-Sheriff
From the road, Mercer County’s Tulpehaking Nature Center blends into the residential neighborhood where it’s located. In the back, a driveway descends into Roebling Park, part of the Abbott Marshlands—3,000 acres of freshwater tidal wetlands.
But the new nature center, located behind Independence Plaza at 157 Westcott Avenue, is more than just a physical entryway into the marsh. It is also a metaphorical one, where visitors can find out all about the marsh’s ecological and archaeological significance.
The nature center, in a renovated home from the 1960s, will be a multipurpose educational hub, serving everyone from school children to adults. It will host classes, lectures, movies, art exhibits, nature walks and more.
“We have the opportunity to teach people living in the inner city, and provide them an outdoor classroom,” said Kelly Rypkema, the center’s manager.
The Abbott Marshlands, until recently known as the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh, is only three miles from downtown Trenton. It is the northernmost tidal marsh on the Delaware River.
County Executive Brian Hughes described the marsh as “one of the absolute wonders of New Jersey” and said that an urban tidal marshland is “unique, not just to this part of the country, but everywhere.”
The marsh is a waystation for migrating wildlife and is ecologically important for both its biodiversity and productivity.
“The marsh is a land of superlatives,” Rypkema said.
She noted that with bald eagles, migrating ducks and more, the marsh is a premier spot for birdwatching. The marsh is also a home to mammals like beavers and river otters.
“It’s a happening space if you’re a wild animal,” she said.
The main attraction of the marsh for this wildlife is the prodigious productivity of the marsh’s plants. According to Rypkema, wild rice seeds will sprout into plants as much as 14 feet long every growing season.
“Some of the estimates say that the marsh is as productive as a tropical rainforest,” said Mary Leck, an emeritus professor of biology at Rider University and a longtime member of Friends for the Abbott Marshlands, a group of volunteers working to preserve and protect the marsh.
In addition to this ecological richness, the marsh is also an important archaeological site and is believed to have been a major meeting place for American Indians. Some of the artifacts found in the area date back to as long as 13,000 years ago. The center’s name, Tulpehaking, is Lenape for “land of the turtle” and is a tribute to the Native Americans that once lived near the marsh.
The center, which celebrated its grand opening in October, has been planned for a long time. As far back as 1975, a report identified the need for an educational or nature center at the marsh, although, according to Hughes, specific plans for a nature center have only been in the works since 1999.
In the intervening years, groups like Friends for the Abbott Marshlands have sought to bring awareness to the marsh. The Friends try to maintain a presence in all of the different parks that make up the marsh, which include the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park and the Bordentown Bluffs in addition to Roebling Park. They bring school groups to visit and plan events like canoe and kayak trips, field trips to area historic sites, photography exhibits, trail maintenance days and trash pickups.
Leck has had an interest in the marsh since she started doing research there in the mid-1970s. She said that she realized how important an educational resource the marsh could be when she helped bring a group of students from the marching band at Trenton Central High School for a visit.
“They had come for a walk on a Saturday in May,” she said. “We had them in hip boots and everything. They said the experience changed their attitude about science. If we had gotten them earlier, who knows what would have happened?”
Ultimately, the creation of the Tulpehaking Nature Center is the result of a joint effort between several partners including Mercer County, the cities of Trenton and Bordentown, D&R Greenway Land Trust, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program, PSEG, Friends for the Abbott Marshlands and others.
The county and its partners purchased the house where the center stands in 2005. Hughes explained that one of the county’s priorities for the finished building was making sure that the building still fit into its surroundings.
“We didn’t make any huge structural changes to the front,” he said. “We wanted something the neighbors could see and understand.”
The main addition to the original three-bedroom ranch is a large, dividable classroom in the back of the building. It is equipped with a full AV system and will be the center’s main meeting space. The rest of the center contains exhibit space, demo space and lab space equipped with microscopes.
Additionally, a gazebo with rain buckets was built outside next to a garden filled with native marsh plants. Once the plants mature, the garden will create the feeling of walking through the marsh.
Because the property is in the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark, an area known for important archaeological findings, construction had to be handled very carefully.
“It took many years to get to the point where we actually had a design, it got approved and then the center was built accordingly,” said Lisa Fritzinger, a member of the county planning division and the project’s supervising planner.
Fritzinger said that before the building could be designed, the county had to conduct several archaeological studies. It then had to prepare a report for the state Historic Preservation Office in order to get approval for building on a historically important site. It also had to consult with members of the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs to discuss issues, such as what would happen if a burial site was encountered during the building process.
In order to accommodate the archaeological situation, the architect came up with a design that would limit disturbances to the soil. Instead of having a traditional foundation, the addition was built on pilings, which required digging several smaller holes instead of one big hole.
The holes for the pilings were dug by archaeologists so that if a burial site was encountered during the process the holes could be moved and if any artifacts were found during the process they could be taken out and saved. In the end, crews recovered 36 boxes of archaeologically significant items.
“It was a neat process,” Fritzinger said. “I learned a lot about Native American artifacts.”
And thanks to the Tulpehaking Nature Center, others will also have a chance to learn about the Abbott Marshlands and the artifacts that have been found there.
“This is an important environmental resource,” Rypkema said. “And there’s an important story to be told about the humans around the marsh, and how humans changed their use of the land over time.”
Everyone who has worked so hard to bring the nature center about is excited to see it up and running.
“We are looking forward to having the facility be used by school kids to make sure they really know what they’re going down to look at and why it’s important to maintain,” Hughes said.
Leck shared that sentiment.
“I think the county has done a really wonderful job with developing the nature center,” she said. “It’s really a wonderful addition to what’s going on at the marsh.”