Every Christmas day since 1953 hundreds of re-enactors and spectators have made their way to the sides of the Delaware river to watch the annual re-enactment of General George Washington and his army’s crossing on December 25, 1776.
Budget cuts at the park have been offset by the efforts of a volunteer group named The Friends of Washington Crossing Historical Park, who coordinate the annual reenactment and run educational programs at the park.
Bruce Cobb, a historical interpreter at the park, explains that the re-enactment was started by a local actor and a few of his colleagues. “He started out with four or five guys and a small boat and then it built from there. St. John Terrell was his name. He [played] George Washington from 1953 until 1977.”
Terell was also owner of the Lambertville Music Circus, and according to Terell’s October 1998 New York Times obituary by Robert McG. Thomas Jr., Chicago-born Terell was a founder of the Bucks County Playhouse back in 1939.
The past three years the role of Washington has has been played by John Godzieba, a Lieutenant in the Bristol Township, Pa. police department. Godzieba has participated in the re-enactment for 19 years. He says, “I always had a love of the eighteenth century period of history and joined a re-enactment group actually here at Washington Crossing Historic Park. My love of Revolutionary War history grew, and I got involved in the living history part of it and just kept going.”
In terms of how each person in the reenactment is selected for the honor, Godzieba says, “Well they always had to audition, and the audition would take place every so many years depending on how often the park wanted to change it. I auditioned twice before and didn’t make the cut. But in 2009 I was able to get the position as Washington.”
Ronald Rinaldi, a historian and adjunct professor from Branchburg, NJ who teaches history at Warren County and Union County College, says he has been participating in the re-enactment since 1976. Back then he was just a 14-year-old high school freshman and he landed only a minor role.
By 2011, Rinaldi was portraying General Nathanael Green. He is now joined by his two sons, who also participate. “My oldest one, Ronny, is 14 years old. He started with me eight years ago. This is going to be his eighth crossing. He’s playing a drummer boy and wearing my original uniform that I wore when I was his age. His other son, James (8), played the role of a runner.
Rinaldi explained that he was chosen to play Washington in 2007 and 2008, but he did not get to cross the river because river conditions were deemed unsafe. “The weather did not work well with us, but in a way it was a propos, because two other crossings that were supposed to be made Christmas eve of the original crossing didn’t cross [either]. There was supposed to be a crossing made at Trenton and one down below Trenton in conjunction with Washington’s crossing, however the river was so fast and filled with ice, the snowstorm actually prevented the soldiers from crossing. So the fact that you can’t get across this river [sometimes] is very true to form. It is historically actuate.”
Currently the park’s visitor center is closed for major renovations that are expected to be completed this summer. “That is a change that took a long time being planned, and we are very very happy that we’re finally getting it built,” said historical site administrator Joan D. Hauger who took over the park in October of 2010.
Currently the park’s administration and programs are being run out of temporary trailers. The new visitor center will bring changes. According to Hauger, “There will be a lovely new exhibition area…and we will also have a new Collections care and storage area…a wonderful gift to us from Lockheed Martin who gave us a nice grant to fit out that space.”
Lockheed Martin has made previous donations of time, labor and twenty five hundred tree seedlings that were planted in the lower park area. Other major corporations such as Comcast have also contributed volunteer partnerships to the park .
The completion date for construction is set for August 15.