George Washington will have a tourist along for the ride on Christmas Day this year.
Home builder Thomas Fischer won a fundraiser auction for the right to don period garb and take a seat in the lead boat for the annual re-enactment of Washington's 1776 crossing of the Delaware River, the trek that turned the tide of the Revolutionary war.
"I'm thrilled. I'm very excited to be going," said Fischer, 54, of Newtown, who is paying $3,500 for the berth. "I've told a couple of friends, if they take any pictures, 'The guy sitting next to George is me.'"
The fundraiser is part of a campaign by the new nonprofit Friends of Washington Crossing to ensure that the annual re-enactment survives state budget cuts that have closed Washington Crossing Historic Park visitor center on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
"It's a family tradition," said Michelle Greco of the Bucks County Conference & Visitors Bureau, which formed the nonprofit. "People come from all over, and it says a lot about how important this is to the community, but it's also an important part of our nation's history."
Thousands of spectators turn out each year to hear Washington's stand-in (John Godzieba this year) deliver stirring words to the troops and watch three boats make the crossing from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
Officials, businesses and residents have been scrambling since they found out that state budget cuts imperiled the annual event, said Bill Haas, who heads the nonprofit.
Drenching downpours did not deter more than 400 residents from showing up for a dress rehearsal for the 57th annual event. A hastily arranged $100-per-ticket fundraiser Sunday night drew 200 people and raised an estimated $25,000, including the auction of the re-enactment berth and other prizes.
The goal, Haas said, is to put the event and the nonprofit on sound financial ground "so we can ultimately reopen the park and staff it with interpretive tours and have it available for schoolchildren to tour again, like they have for many, many years."
During the crossing 233 years ago, boatmen ferried some 2,400 soldiers, 200 horses, and 18 cannons across the river, and the troops marched eight miles downriver and fell on Hessian mercenaries in the streets of Trenton. Thirty Hessians were killed and two Continental soldiers froze to death on the march but none died in the battle. The victory electrified the struggling nation and led to further military successes in Trenton and Princeton.
Fischer said he has been to the re-enactment many times, and going along on the crossing will be a real treat.
"I've fished in that river right there at that spot, I swim in the river at that spot, I take my golden retriever there. ... I was born and raised here, and I have been down at that spot my whole life," he said. "This is how it should be _ 'Local boy crosses with George.'"
On the Net:
Friends of Washington Crossing Park: http://www.friendsofwashingtoncrossingpark
Washington Crossing Historic Park: http://www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing/