Washington's Christmas crossing of Delaware saved by skilled students

Because of recent low water levels in the Delaware River, it looked as though Monday’s planned re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing from Pennsylvania to New Jersey was going to be canceled.

But as of early Monday the event still had the green light – thanks to some boats made by Philadelphia schoolkids.

Philadelphia Waterborne, a nonprofit that teaches boat-building skills to middle- and high-school students, is lending the event’s organizers six handmade, 12-foot rowboats.

The boats only draw about six inches of water, meaning they can get across the river under current conditions.

The river’s water level needs to be at least 9 feet above sea level to use the usual Durham boats, and recent water levels have been around 8.3 feet. Organizers had said a “pretty significant amount” of precipitation would be needed to raise the river’s water levels in time for the event.

Highlight event

The crossing — which was the trek that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War — is the highlight of the annual event that draws thousands of people to the banks of the river in Washington Crossing, Pa., and Titusville, N.J. It also features Washington rallying the troops and other historical speeches and processions

Boats ferried 2,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 18 cannons across the river during the original crossing. Washington’s troops marched eight miles downriver before battling Hessian mercenaries in the streets of Trenton.

"This is just great, so perfect for the students. As part of this program, I wanted them to build something real and to see they could build things that were valuable to the community, which is why being part of this Washington crossing event is so wonderful. Their work will be on display.”

- Nicholas Pagon, founder and managing director, Philadelphia Waterborne

Thirty Hessians were killed, and two Continental soldiers froze to death on the march.

Organizers note there’s plenty of historical authenticity to this unique reenactment. They note that while Durham boats were used in the original 1776 crossing, historians agree that Washington probably used various river craft to make his daring crossing.

Nicholas Pagon, founder and managing director of the Philadelphia Waterborne program, said the agreement “suddenly came together.” He said people in the crossing event were aware of his program and asked if they had boats that could be used.

“This is just great, so perfect for the students,” Pagon said Friday. “As part of this program, I wanted them to build something real and to see they could build things that were valuable to the community, which is why being part of this Washington crossing event is so wonderful. Their work will be on display.”

Spreading the word

Roughly 75 students in Philadelphia are now involved in the program, and more than 200 have taken part overall since it began four years ago. Pagon said he plans to attend the crossing on Christmas Day, and is spreading the word to students in the program so they can also watch.

Those involved believe that students learn best by doing. They use project-based, immersive and experiential programs — primarily small boat-building, environmental education, and maritime history — as a means to engage students more fully in certain core school curricula.

Small groups of students in the program meet weekly in their own schools to build small wooden rowboats as a team. This allows them to consider design considerations and the cultural history of boats, along with the mathematics, physics and geometry needed for the project.

They eventually launch and row the completed boats on local rivers together.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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