For 10 years, I have been obsessed with US state capitol buildings. In fact, one of my earliest (and most popular) blog posts is about how to meet a governor in the state capitol. Perhaps it is the easy access to power. Perhaps it is the unique architecture. Perhaps it is because state capital cities showcase the great buffet that is the United States, from tiny remote towns to huge cities.
Most of the capitol buildings are easily accessible to the public. They are all open to the public during the workday Monday-Friday and most are also open on weekends. However, there is one notable exception: New Jersey. For some reason, New Jersey´s capitol is not open for the public to wander. Rather, one must go on a guided tour…and those guided tours only happen on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays at 10:00. I happened to have some free weekdays before stating my job and decided that this would be the opportune time to visit the capitol. To go on a tour, you must reserve a space by phone only! Walk-ins are not available. I called 2 weeks before my tour.
The capital city of New Jersey is Trenton, and it happens to be connected to New York City by an direct train that leaves from Penn Station which is just 2 blocks from my apartment.
October 4, 2021: Trenton
The train ride took 90 minutes and soon enough I was in Trenton.
The city of Trenton was founded in 1720. It is located along the Delaware River at a key location known as the Falls of the Delaware. This series of rapids historically stopped all boat traffic, forcing traders to unload the cargo and transfer it to either another boat or a different form of transit. Therefore, Trenton became a major trading center in Colonial America. The city was occupied by German Hessian troops who were hired as British mercenaries during the Revolutionary War. On Christmas Day 1776, George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River and soon after captured the city. A second battle of Trenton was fought a week later.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Trenton was one of the largest manufacturing centers in the US due to its advantageous geography and proximity to both New York and Philadelphia. A famous slogan from that era was “Trenton Makes, the World Takes”.
Many employers set up shop in the area including pharmaceutical giants Johnson & Johnson and Bristol Myers Squib.
Then…the city slowly lost its luster. The post-World War II dream of a suburban home paired with particularly violent riots/protests during the Civil Rights Movement pushed all the white people (and their money) out of the city and into the surrounding county. The county, by the way, remains one of the richest counties (by GDP per capita) in all of the United States
You wouldn´t know that the region is so wealthy when walking around the city of Trenton. The city is empty. The streets are devoid of people save for random (very friendly) black people hanging out on their porch enjoying the beautiful weather.
While most of the outskirts of Trenton are unremarkable, there is a historic neighborhood that dates back to the colonial era. Mill Hill has a few blocks of decently preserved homes from the 1700´s and the streetscape.
I then walked into the city center aka the government center. Nearly every building is occupied by a state department. The city was shockingly empty for a workday and completely devoid of life. Was it a bank holiday? Does the New Jersey government work?
Then I saw it, the state capitol, and its golden dome. Unfortunately, the building looked like a mess since half of it was under construction. After finding the entrance in the annex building, I walked through the metal detector and at 10, began my tour.
Big shocker, I got a private tour. My New Jersey Capitol guide is actually from Philadelphia, PENNSYLVANIA, and commutes in every day. He explained that the building used to be open to the public but after 9/11, they decided to take strict security precautions. The public is allowed to go to scheduled hearings and they can watch the legislature in session.
We saw a committee room that is very beautiful. Then we walked through an underground walkway into the capitol itself. The building was renovated so many times that it is a mishmash of architectural styles. Unfortunately, due to the renovations, the main rotunda and governor´s office are closed. In fact, the governor is temporarily in another building down the street!
The legislative chambers were open. New Jersey has a bicameral system that is unremarkable. While touring the chambers, my guide mentioned that there is a big divide between North Jersey which includes the suburbs of both New York City and Philadelphia and the rural South Jersey.
We ended the tour with a beautiful view of the Delaware River and Pennsylvania. A fun fact is that Trenton is the only state capitol building with views of another state.
Because I visited on a Monday, all the other museums in Trenton were closed. The only other thing to see that was open is a monument to the Battle of Trenton.
The Battle of Trenton took place on the streets of the town. George Washington stood on top of a hill commanding his cannons to fire and eventually leading the Continental Army to victory. The monument, a large obelisk-like structure topped with a statue of George stands on that very spot on top of the hill.
It was now lunchtime and I wanted to try some local food. Trenton is known for two types of food: the pork roll and the tomato pie (like a pizza). Unfortunately, there are no notable pork roll or tomato pie restaurants in the city center. They are all in the suburbs. The closest interesting restaurant was a 30-minute walk into Pennsylvania. So…. I went.
The walk took me through some ugly highwayscape before I crossed the Delaware River just like George Washington. Once in Pennsylvania, I walked through the pretty town of Morrisville to reach Ben´s Deli. Since I was now in Pennsylvania, I ordered a cheesesteak and walked back to Trenton. With nothing else to do, I took the train home.
Trenton is a sad victim of suburbanization. It has the history and the industry but has chosen to throw it away for the overrated dream of having a house in the suburbs. The white flight from 50 years ago has created a hollow shell of a city. While I certainly picked the worst day to visit since the museums (the state museum and the Hessian bunkhouse) were closed, I cannot recommend Trenton for anyone except those who really like visiting state capitols.
I have heard that there is a very nice sculpture garden in the suburbs too. So if you go, maybe go there and combine it with other places in the area.