New Jersey to rebury colonial treasures

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Archeologists who have uncovered the ruins of an important colonial site in New Jersey’s capital Trenton will have to rebury them soon because the state doesn’t have the money to finish the project.

Petty’s Run, an iron and steel forge dating from about 1730, has yielded fragments of guns and pottery, cups, coins and other items from before and after the American Revolution, during a year-long dig next to the State House.

With the artifacts removed, the ruins are now scheduled to be reburied in the spring of 2011 because officials in the cash-strapped state say they can’t afford to build a visitor center, or find any other way of making the site safe for the public.

The state has spent $891,000 so far to unearth walls, floors and artifacts from the buildings that stood on the site. It will cost another $400,000 to cover it all over in a way that preserves the site so that it could be dug up again if state finances ever allow it.

“With the current economy, this just isn’t going to work this year,” said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which recommended halting the project.

The recommendation was approved in early December by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, chaired by Rich Bagger, chief of staff for Republican Governor Chris Christie.

Christie, who came to office in January, has cut hundreds of state programs to close a record $11 billion budget deficit in the current fiscal year.

Petty’s Run is part of an ambitious $87 million park project approved by former Democratic Governor Jon Corzine but scrapped by Christie as part of a wide-ranging move to curb spending.

He canceled in October the construction of a commuter-rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York, saying the state could not afford billions of dollars in likely cost overruns.

Ron Emrich, executive director of Preservation New Jersey, a private non-profit, said the decision to rebury Petty’s Run had been made hastily and without detailed cost estimates.

Burying the structures would block access for historians and the public to the only known iron and steel forge from the colonial period, he said. While four or five such forges are known from historical records to have existed in the colonies, only the Trenton location has been discovered.

“It has been recognized by experts as an internationally significant site,” Emrich said.

The site produced armaments first for British troops and then for colonial forces during the Revolutionary War.

The artifacts recovered will be exhibited in the state museum, said Ragonese. The decision to rebury the site is final, he added.

Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman attacked the decision, saying it would block public access to an important historic site, and would lose a chance to boost tourism.

“It’s ludicrous to cover over history,” she said. “This is a short-sighted decision.”

Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Jerry Norton