Tiff over crossing bridged Park officials and reenactors of George Washington's Christmas Day feat predict smooth sailing.

Posted: December 23, 2004

The last two holiday reenactments of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware were clouded with conflict long before being canceled due to stormy weather.

Harsh words between some reenactors and the director of Washington Crossing Historic Park in Upper Makefield threatened the event, which usually draws thousands to the park on Christmas Day.

This year, although weather forecasters predict cold temperatures and a chance of rain, the outlook among crossing participants is sunny. At a dress-rehearsal Dec. 12, the sky turned dark and the river ran high, but tempers remained cool and calm. Both sides say they've made up and, weather and river conditions permitting, are looking forward to a smooth ride across the Delaware on Saturday.

"We found common ground," Joseph Majdan, president of the Washington Crossing Reenactors Society, said earlier this month. "We are cautiously optimistic that we are going to move ahead."

Powerful words from a man who two years ago called park adminstrator Michael Bertheaud "a tyrant."

The dispute began in July 2002, after Bertheaud asserted more control over the reenactment of arguably the most important battle of the American Revolution. The war turned around that day in 1776, when Washington and 2,400 troops, bedraggled and losing, crossed the Delaware to successfully attack the Hessians in Trenton.

To encourage more equitable participation, Bertheaud changed the rules about who would accompany Washington in the lead, 60-foot replica Durham boat.

Reenactors - who had put on the show since 1952, poured much of their own money into boats and costumes, and were used to picking the boat crews themselves - felt shut out.

"We were a part of that place and worked hand-in-hand with them," Majdan said. "The problem was, the park administrator changed that all around."

In November 2002, the reenactors society took the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to court to regain control.

When the judge ruled against the society, a few members descended into very un-holiday-like name-calling and threats of a boycott. In the end, the reenactors grumpily showed up in full regalia for the Christmas show. The crossing was ultimately called off that year and last year due to bad weather.

As in years past, Bertheaud deferred comment about the conflict to commission officials.

Executive director Barbara Franco, who joined the commission in February, said she is trying to build a relationship with the reenactors that "is more productive than name-calling."

"I have certainly made myself totally available to the reenactors," Franco said. "If they have any problems, they can certainly come to me."

In a meeting this summer, the two groups agreed to work together to improve costumes and recruit the next generation of reenactors.

About 40 troops and 36 boatmen in three boats are expected to participate in the event this year.

"I think she listened very intently" to the reenactors' concerns, said State Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks), who helped broker the meeting after hearing about the tiff from Majdan, his neighbor.

"Now, I think Barbara and the reenactors feel comfortable enough to pick up the phone and talk to each other directly," he said.

"Most of it, quite frankly, is trying to heal old wounds," Petri said. "It doesn't come quickly, but we're trying to make that happen."

And it will happen, Majdan said, because everyone involved wants to keep remembering that pivotal day in American history.

"We are going to work with them to preserve that moment," Majdan said. "What these men sacrificed must not be forgotten."

Contact staff writer Leslie A. Pappas at 215-702-7822 or lpappas@phillynews.com.

If You Go

The 52nd annual Christmas Day reenactment of George Washington Crossing the Delaware will be held Saturday at Washington Crossing Historic Park, on Route 32 just north of Route 532 in Upper Makefield. Festivities begin at 11 a.m. The crossing will be at 1 p.m., weather and river permitting. Admission and parking are free.

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