Recently, my brother came home for a week, and for the first time, brought his girlfriend.
They both live in California now, and she, a native westerner, had never been to New Jersey. As such, they had plenty of items on their to-do list while here. They visited New York City and Philadelphia. They walked around Princeton. They sampled Trenton tomato pies. After five jam-packed days, they looked like they were ready for a vacation from their vacation.
But fearing I had failed as a good and generous ambassador, I asked my brother if there was anything else they wanted to do. He said, yes, he wanted to bring his girlfriend on a tour of Hamilton.
This seemed like an odd thing to do—I imagined a tourism campaign highlighting our dozens of baseball fields. But after some reflection, I came around to the idea. Even more, I found myself taking ownership of it. I figured if it were to fall to anyone to derive a tour of Hamilton for a visitor, there would be no one better suited than me. After all, who else can boast to have been subject to two such sightseeing ventures courtesy of our very own mayor?
Bolstered by this realization, I rounded up my tour group, guided them into the car, and set out on what surely would be an adventure of a lifetime.
We started off on a controversial note when our tour of Hamilton began in Not Hamilton. Instead, it commenced from a pocked parking lot in Robbinsville. Here, outside Papa’s Tomato Pies, I offered a history of Chambersburg and the Trenton tomato pie so dense that it left no one hungry for actual pie.
We moved on to Route 130. There, we glimpsed two mainstays: the Hamilton Marketplace and perhaps our town’s greatest claim to infamy, “the anthrax post office.” I took the opportunity to over-explain the anthrax attacks of Fall 2001.(My verbosity would become a common theme on the tour.) I talked about how the national media descended upon our town, with then-Mayor Glen Gilmore holding court across the street from the post office. How the post office had the equivalent of a giant Hefty garbage bag placed over it. How, for weeks, we received our mail in sealed plastic. There’s no chance I did the time justice for someone with little knowledge of it, and it still seems disorienting that what’s to me a vivid memory is now a footnote of something learned about in a history book.
With the lesson about our town’s role in domestic terrorism completed, we needed a change of pace. So, we detoured through Crosswicks and Yardville. There, we marveled at how the fertile soil has allowed McMansions to grow as plentifully as soybeans and corn. We journeyed on to Veterans Park, which, I boasted, contained Mercer County’s second largest collection of decommissioned war machines. We continued to the municipal complex, where we saw the police station, the library, the golf center and the highlight of our tour, the ecological center.
Here, at the sight lovingly known in my family as “the dump,” I pulled over for the tour’s one and only photo op. I positioned the excited tour-goers in front of a brown and yellow sign at the entrance that read “Welcome to the Finest Ecological Facility in New Jersey.” The backdrop of an empty lot and some abandoned trailers and dumpsters adequately captured the moment’s mood. I snapped a photo knowing it surely will stoke fits of jealousy in all my brother’s friends back in California.
To calm my charges after that life-altering experience, I set course for sights of actual import: Homestead Inn, Kuser Mansion and Hamilton’s municipal building. We drove by Grounds For Sculpture, which due to its international acclaim, did not warrant more than passing mention on this tour: “Important art over there. Oh, and peacocks.”
We continued to the train station, Congoleum—likely future site of a hybrid fulfillment warehouse-Wawa-Walmart-senior housing-self-storage facility—and on to Quakerbridge Road. There, I showed off how we have taken many years and dollars and much pain developing around a tree under which George Washington might have once slumbered.
I pointed out—to the best of my ability, without crashing into the aforementioned tree in the center of the road—an obelisk standing in the island. I recalled it was part of a series of obelisks devoted to Revolutionary War history, but on the spot, I blanked on the specifics.
Later, I did some research, and the reality is way cooler than I realized. The obelisk on Quakerbridge Road is one of 12 between Trenton and Princeton that mark the trail Washington and his troops took from the Second Battle of Trenton to the Battle of Princeton in 1777. The markers were built more than a century ago, with six of them in Hamilton Township. Unfortunately, they all but blend in with their surroundings now, and you’d have a heck of time finding them on your own. (There is a good guide with photos of all 12 online at revolutionarywarnewjersey.com, if you click on “Mercer County” and then “Trenton”.)
It occurs to me now that we as a county do a very bad job marketing the very important history that happened here nearly 250 years ago. (One week in winter isn’t enough, historically accurate timing be damned.) But, on the day of the tour, I could only think of the fact that I had not known vital information, and therefore had failed as a tour guide. This caused me to go into lockdown, and forget my even more important role as tour driver. When I snapped out of my stupor, I immediately realized I had wandered too far. We were now in Lawrence Township—otherwise known as Also Not Hamilton.
I quickly rectified the situation, finding our way to Interstate 295 and back within our town’s friendly borders. I knew I needed to end the tour with a flourish, something that would speak for itself and wouldn’t need another overly complex description from me. I needed something that would leave the first-time visitor in my car knowing she had been some place worth being.
I brought her to Martel’s Christmas Wonderland.
It was well after Christmas, and the middle of daylight hours, and the people on the street stood on their porches staring at us with the unmistakable look of people who had just endured weeks of rude strangers encroaching on their property and privacy. But we persevered. The sight of thousands of lights and inflatables and other holiday potpourri covering a single-family home had its desired effect (I think), as my brother’s girlfriend sat in stunned silence. I took particular satisfaction from this because our visitor grew up near Las Vegas, a city which is essentially 136 square miles of Martel’s Christmas Wonderland.
Driving back home, I couldn’t help but realize the tour had its effects on me, too. I had been paying more attention to my surroundings, looking for things to point out. The result was I had registered what had been nothing more than scenery to me for years.
Above all, I couldn’t help but notice how many houses and apartments there are in Hamilton. A lot of people live here—we’re one of New Jersey’s largest towns after all—which is all well and good on paper but takes another meaning when you actually think about it.
If Hamilton weren’t a fine place to live, why would so many people have invested in this town, built their lives here over the years? The nearly 90,000 people (and growing) who live here couldn’t be wrong, after all, could they?
I had started this whole tour as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exercise, but I wound up getting more from it than a couple of laughs. No, we aren’t Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York or even Princeton. We might never be a hub for tourism. But to a lot of people, Hamilton’s much more than that. It’s home.