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Thursday, July 31, 2014


Canal in Yardley, PA
Neil Plakcy is the author of more than two dozen novels and short story collections. He’s here today to tell us about his home county of Bucks County, PA where his Golden Retriever Mysteries are set. Learn more about Neil and his books at his website. 

The River Towns of Bucks County, PA
When I first began thinking about the book that would become In Dog We Trust, the first of my Golden Retriever Mysteries, I wanted to set it in a small town where my hero could run into people he had known growing up. So I turned to my own hometown of Yardley, Pennsylvania as a model. However, my canvas has since spread to encompass a large part of Bucks County.

When I was growing up, Yardley was a small town surrounded by farmlands. Nestled along the banks of the Delaware River, its commercial days were long past. When I-95 came through, it became more easily commutable to Philadelphia and New York, and the area boomed.

Bristol is today a town of mansard roofs and gingerbread Victorians. Lions’ Park, at the foot of Mill Street, is a good place to consider the area’s commercial past. Sit on a bench at the water’s edge behind the stone riprap, and watch the tugboats, barges and container ships as well as powerboats and sailboats. Listen to The Bristol Stomp by the Dovells on your iPod, and practice your moves underneath the imitation covered bridge.

Yardley Friends' Meeting House
In Whom Dog Hath Joined, the most recent in the series, I send my human hero Steve Levitan and his cop pal Rick Stemper to Bristol to interview an elderly Quaker who was active in the anti-war protests of the 1960s. The area’s Quaker heritage is visible in the many Friends’ Meeting Houses.

From Bristol, follow the navy and orange signs, the color of Pennsylvania license plates, along Radcliffe Street to Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s home. The Manor offers guided tours and special events. My personal favorite is Sheepshearing Day in May.

Stroll through the house and the thirty acres of landscaped grounds, and travel back in time to the 17th century when most commercial traffic in this area was focused on the Delaware. The three-story brick manor house was rebuilt in 1939 to Penn’s specifications, and represents his lifestyle, which was more elaborate than the traditional unornamented style of Quakers of his time.

From Pennsbury Manor continue north, following signs to Route 13, and then Route 1 north. Veer off to the left to Route 32 north to Morrisville, which was almost the capital of the United States, due to the influence of financier Robert Morris.

If you look behind the 7-11 at the Mill Pond Shopping Center, you’ll find the old Delaware Canal, which once transported coal from the state’s mines by mule-drawn barge. Park there and walk down the towpath for awhile. Despite the highway nearby, the area is wild and quiet.

Continue north on Route 32, turning left and following River Road through Morrisville. Here the canal begins to run alongside the river, and across the Delaware you can see the gold-domed capitol and the skyline of Trenton, New Jersey.

The land is so low here and the river is so close you can almost reach out and touch it. Steve lives within walking distance of the Delaware, and often takes his golden retriever Rochester out there for walks. The narrow road and non-existent sidewalks inspired a couple of motor vehicle accidents in the books.

Main Street, Yardley, PA
Up ahead is Yardley, a small town of Victorian gingerbread and native brownstone, where I use many of the town’s landmarks in my fictional town of Stewart’s Crossing. There is only one traffic light in town, at the corner of Main and Afton. Stop for a beer at the Continental Tavern, which has been serving thirsty travellers at this intersection since 1863. I’ve recreated this bar as The Drunken Hessian in my books.

Lake Afton
The quaint Victorian library on Lake Afton, a mill pond just behind the pharmacy, was built by local residents in 1878; now children and adults use the library steps to change into their skates for a quick turn on the ice in the winter.

Old Yardley Library
Continue north on Route 32, River Road, which is overhung with oaks, maples and elms and is lined with purple and white phlox on long stems and the tiny pansies called Johnny jump-ups. My town of Stewart’s Crossing, like Brigadoon, hides there, just on the far side of the Scudder Falls Bridge.

At Washington’s Crossing, George’s hazardous trip is reenacted every year on Christmas Day, in similar flat Durham boats. Washington Crossing State Park contains a number of Revolutionary War era buildings, including restored homes, an inn, and a blacksmith’s shop.

Bowman’s Hill Tower, just inland from the river, was built of local stone in 1930 and now stands over a nice park with barbecues and picnic pavilions named for Revolutionary War heroes. The picnic grounds are green and rolling, and the slope is just right for little kids to roll down. Steve and Rick like to take their dogs to the park to run around and have fun.

The tower is open from April to November, and is the centerpiece of a 100-acre wildflower preserve. Drive up a curving road, or hike the trail up to the tower through woods that seem untouched since Washington’s day. Once you’ve reached the summit, take the elevator up inside the tower and climb the last 21 steps, through a narrow, curving passageway more reminiscent of medieval Europe than depression-era Pennsylvania, to the observation platform, 110 feet up.

On a clear day, you can see 60 miles in any direction, and you’ll understand why Washington sent his scouts to the top of this hill to watch for redcoats. The vista is of farms and fields, but increasingly you’ll see renovated half-million-dollar farmhouses and fake-colonial suburbs.

A few miles farther north, the canal passes over Jericho Creek in an aqueduct, one of nine along the 60 miles of canal. The canal is on your right now, and it’ll be there until you get into New Hope, where the only toll station regulated the flow of anthracite coal from northern mines to southern ports. Check into the Logan, a colonial inn on Main Street, established in 1727, and one of the five oldest continuously run inns in the US.

A restored grist mill in New Hope is the site of the Bucks County Playhouse. Composer Moss Hart was one of a group of investors who renovated the old mill and began putting on shows there. Actors such as Paul Newman, Larry Hagman, Grace Kelly, and Walter Matthau have appeared there.

The area around New Hope is honeycombed with country roads and antique shops. Spend a few hours exploring back roads from Lahaska to Lambertville, NJ, or just browse through New Hope’s peculiar blend of the touristy, the off-beat and the historic.

Afterwards, walk halfway across the bridge to Lambertville, and stop and look below at the eddies and swirls of the river current, which is fast and deep here. A powerboat towing a water skier is sure to pass, leaving a v-shaped wake, while you stand on the wooden walkway and feel the metal bridge reverberate with passing cars and trucks. You can see Bowman’s Hill Tower downriver—wave to the people standing on top. Maybe they’ll see you and wave back.

Whom Dog Hath Joined
Reformed computer hacker Steve Levitan still gets a thrill from snooping into places online where he shouldn’t be. When his golden retriever Rochester discovers a human bone at the Friends Meeting during the Harvest Days festival, these two unlikely sleuths are plunged into another investigation.

They will uncover uncomfortable secrets about their small town’s past as they dig deep into the Vietnam War era, when local Quakers helped draft resisters move through Stewart’s Crossing on their way to Canada. Does that bone Rochester found belong to one of those young men fleeing conscription? Or to someone who knew the secrets that lurked behind those whitewashed walls?

Whether the death was due to natural causes, or murder, someone in the present wants to keep those secrets hidden. And Steve and Rochester may end up in the crosshairs of a very antique rifle if they can’t dig up the clues quickly enough.

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E. Ayers said...

What a trip down memory lane! I can remember "rafting" on the canal with my friends through New Hope and beyond. They say I wouldn't recognize much of it anymore.

Neil Plakcy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Plakcy said...

I've never been rafting, but I'll bet that a lot of the riverbank looks the same through a screen of trees -- though there's probably a great deal of development just beyond.

Gloria Alden said...

Neil, I've been to Bucks County and through those little towns. I loved it and would like to go back someday. I take it that you have a golden retriever. They're lovely dogs.

Angela Adams said...

Bucks County is in my neck of the woods...it's a beautiful area, especially in the Fall.

Sheila Boneham said...

Great post, Neil. Bucks Co. is beautiful. I look forward to reading the new book!