This article was originally published in the December 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
On January 2, 1777, at the Second Battle of Trenton, George Washington and the Continental Army stopped the British in their tracks at the Assunpink Creek bridge. It was a sign that the War for Independence was very much alive.
Now in 2017 Hunter Research and the City of Trenton are helping visitors trek this and other city sites with colorful, information-rich interpretive signs that make the city’s history come alive.
“All through the year there are visitors from out of town as well as local workers and residents who want to know where the battles happened, what were the key sites,” says Richard Hunter, historian, archeologist, and founder of Hunter Research. “This signage is all part of making that apparent to people, so they can relate to it.”
Hunter will be one of many presenters during the annual Patriots Week events celebrating Washington’s victories, December 26 to 31. But new signage is celebrating these triumphs — and Trenton’s proud industrial and social history — year-round. Like docents who never sleep, the placards serve 24/7, preserving and revealing local history for passersby and destination tourists alike.
And with a forthcoming engineering project to reopen long-covered sections of the Assunpink by the end of 2018 comes the prospect of a greenway running from the train station through the downtown, where more signage will inform and memorialize.
Hunter Research is an award-winning consulting firm headquartered at 120 West State Street. It specializes in historical research, including archeology, architectural history, and preservation as well as exhibits and education.
With a staff of about a dozen, Hunter Research has had projects in New Jersey and from Washington, D.C., to New Hampshire, providing expertise not only in history but in documenting and preserving historic sites in compliance with appropriate federal, state, and municipal regulations. Richard Hunter is especially proud of the firm’s local work.
“Being a Trenton-based firm and doing what we do, we’ve always had a strong interest in encouraging what’s called ‘heritage tourism’ in the city,” Hunter says. “We’ve been very active in that area.”
A notable example of Hunter Research’s work in historic archeology and of the power of interpretive signage is found literally across West State Street from its offices at “Petty’s Run,” a Revolutionary War-era industrial site between where the Old Barracks and the State House are today. Named for a stream that once provided power to a foundry, Petty’s Run, says Hunter, is “one of the rare examples of a steel-making site in Colonial America.”
As documented now in a series of colorful, sturdy, and information-rich signs around a recessed and landscaped archaeological excavation, the foundry gave way to housing, and the stream was put underground to become a hidden part of the city’s water and discharge system. Today’s preserved and landscaped historic site was to be part of a new park around the state house. The larger plan was shelved by the Christie administration, but excavations of the old foundry were already underway. So this section of the plan was completed and is enjoyed by tourists and passerby today.
Patrick Harshbarger, the firm’s principal historian and vice president, is mainly responsible for the signage in Petty’s Run as well as Cadwalader Park and, most recently, Mill Hill Park. He works closely with graphic designers on text, picture, and map graphics, type fonts, and layout. “I come from a background in museum studies,” Harshbarger says. “So interpretative signage, labeling, transmitting information to the public in palpable ways is what I was trained in.”
Hunter Research was founded in Trenton in 1986. Its first locations were on East Hanover Street and then South Clinton before coming in 1997 to its present home at West State Street, across from the State House. “We interact a lot with state agencies and the city, so just being downtown on this particular block has worked out very well for us,” Hunter says.
Not surprisingly, the West State Street location has connections to Trenton’s proud history. Built about a century ago as a duplex, it originally housed two doctors’ offices and residences. “It’s a neat building. There’s cork floors here and wonderful wood trim and stained glass. It requires a lot of maintenance [but] it’s a fantastic location for what we do.”
Hunter was born in Cheshire, England, near Liverpool, and came to the United States in 1977. His father was an executive with Imperial Chemical Industries. His mother served during as a pilot transporting airplanes during World War II. He earned a B.A. in archaeology and geography at the University of Birmingham, England, an M.A. in archaeological science at the University of Bradford, England, and finally a Ph.D. in geography at Rutgers in New Brunswick. From 1983 to 1986 Hunter worked for prominent New Jersey-based architectural historian Connie Greiff before founding Hunter Research.
Harshbarger, who joined Hunter Research in 2010, was born in Milton, West Virginia, his father an attorney and judge, his mother a psychologist. He loved history but also pursued college studies in geology while earning his history B.A. at Brown. His academic credentials include a history master’s and certificate in museum studies from the University of Delaware. Harshbarger is also an expert on early American bridges and transportation corridors.
Most recently, Hunter Research has been involved with the renewal of Mill Hill Park as a significant historic site. In addition to Washington’s follow-up Trenton victory over the British, Mill Hill is extremely significant as an industrial site. Indeed, it wasn’t named for just one mill, as Hunter reveals: “Along that little stretch of the Assunpink there used to be in the early 19th century a whole series of textile mills, really Trenton’s first embrace of the Industrial Revolution, even before the iron mills and the ceramics industry. It’s the start of Trenton as an Industrial Revolution powerhouse.”
With the help of a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, the City of Trenton contracted Hunter Research to design and erect a three-sided signage kiosk in the northwest corner of the park near the intersections of South Broad and East Front streets, plus an additional sign at the Douglass House on the other end of the park. (The house, which originally stood on the other side of the creek, is reputed to be where Washington and his officers plotted their successful surprise attack at Princeton.)
Now the Army Corps of Engineers and the city are poised to reopen major culverted sections of the Assunpink, renewing it as a greenway with pedestrian sidewalks. It could be a win for Trenton and its history, one as satisfying and transformative as Washington’s victories. Hunter has been advocating for historic signage as part of its landscaping: “Our dream here is to get these signs all connected and integrated in a cohesive system of signage in the downtown of which there are parts at the moment.”
With Trenton’s resurgence and a growing realization that the downtown is a safe and interesting destination, the possibilities for attracting visitors (some of whom may wish to relocate here), residents, and work commuters are very real. “The downtown is actually quite small and has very walkable space,” Hunter points out. “That’s something you don’t have with many other cities. These sites are actually quite close together in easy walking distance.”
In addition to attracting tourists — not just during Patriots Week but year-round — the signage is already intriguing and educating viewers who happen upon it. Hunter recalls going with Harshbarger to see one of the newly installed signs in Mill Hill Park this past August prior to the office ribbon-cutting ceremony. They arrived to find a Mill Hill resident engrossed in it. The man enthused: “I think they just put this sign in today. I think I’m the first person to read it. This is very interesting. It’s very well done!”
“And,” Hunter smiles happily, “we just said, ‘Well, thank you!’”