National Park, New Jersey, Reached for the Gold Ring

The Whitall House in National Park, New Jersey, is a house museum associated with Red Bank Battlefield Park. Photo by Sites of NJ via Flickr.

National Park, New Jersey is not a national park, nor is it even associated with one. This little town on the Delaware River got its interesting name because its founding fathers dreamed of bigger things.

Back in 1895 the Methodist Episcopal Church established a religious resort on the Delaware River in Gloucester County, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. The little community, which was originally meant to function as a retreat site and meeting place for church members, was named National Park on the Delaware.

When the New Jersey legislature chartered the town (borough, that is) in 1905, the name was shortened to National Park. It has remained National Park for 104 years, even though no national park has ever been established there.

Actually, there is no mystery to the name. The community was established at the site of historic Fort Mercer, and its founders believed that this historic site might someday be deemed important enough to be preserved as a national park. In hopes of generating buzz and speeding the process along, the founders of the town-to-be decided to incorporate National Park into the community’s name. Today we might say that this was a case of community boosterism on steroids.

Fort Mercer was one of two forts that the Continental Army built in 1777 on opposite sides of the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia to prevent the British from using that vital waterway to communicate with and reinforce the British troops that then occupied Philadelphia. Named in honor of Brig. General Hugh Mercer, who had been killed at the Battle of Princeton, little Fort Mercer gained instant glory on October 22, 1777, when its 400 defenders repelled and badly mauled a considerably larger British force (consisting mostly of Hessian mercenaries) that had been sent out from Philadelphia.

Alas, except for providing a badly-needed morale boost, this Continental victory (which came to be called the Battle of Red Bank) went pretty much for naught. The Continentals abandoned the fort without a flight less than a month later. This decision was actually a no-brainer. Fort Mifflin, Fort Mercer’s companion stronghold on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, had been lost after the British got smart and executed a much-better planned attack than the one they had launched at Fort Mercer. A strong British force had also landed at nearby Cooper’s Ferry and was getting ready to attack Fort Mercer.

Proposals to establish a national park focused on the Fort Mercer site never got any real traction. If you visit National Park today, you will find the site of historic Fort Mercer occupied only by the small (less than 50 acres) Red Bank Battlefield Park, a 75-foot monument erected over a century ago, and an historic house museum (the 18th-century James & Ann Whitall House). Though the park is federally owned, it is administered by the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The Whitall House is administered by Gloucester County, except for two rooms under the care of the Ann Whitall Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.

Postscript: Every once in a while, a cartographer making a map that shows parks, natural areas, and preserves will mistakenly put a national park symbol atop the location of National Park, New Jersey. If you look carefully at enough maps of this type, you’ll eventually spot one of these boo-boos yourself.