Category Archives: Trip Report

Acadia Part II – Going Beyond the Park Loop Road

The Toothy T-Rex and the Little Stegosaurus explore a tide pool on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The Toothy T-Rex and the Little Stegosaurus explore a tide pool on the Schoodic Peninsula.

Acadia National Park has far more to offer than just the Park Loop Road, which I covered in Part I of my Trip Report.  Mount Desert Island is divided into two lobes by the deep waters of Somes Sound, with Bar Harbor and the Park Loop Road located on the eastern lobe.  Acadia National Park also includes the western half of Mount Deseret Island, as well as a number other outlying islands, and also the Schoodic Peninsula, which is located across Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor.

The Passport cancellations for these areas include:

  • Seawall Campground
  • Schoodic Peninsula
  • Schoodic Woods Campground
  • Isleford Historical Museum
  • Isle au Haut

If you plan your own visit to Acadia National Park, the Parkasaurus family would certainly recommend staying on the west side of the Mount Deseret Island, which is far removed from the crowds of Bar Habor and the iconic destinations of the Park Loop Road.   If you are inclined to camp, the Seawall Campground places you very near some of the less-visited ocean beaches in the Park.

For our trip, which included both grandparents and two little children, we went with a house rental in the town of Southwest Harbor.  This provided us with the perfect “home base” from which we could spend the rest of the week exploring the park.

Southwest Harbor is also known as the home of the famous Beal’s Lobster Pier restaurant, which as the name suggests, is literally located on a pier overlooking the ocean.  For many visitors, it is simply the place to enjoy a fresh Maine lobster as part of their visit.   If you are in Southwest Habor in the morning, however, be sure to check out the Common Good Cafe.  This unique establishment serves a simple menu of oatmeal with all the fixings and fresh Maine popovers, straight out of the oven, served with jam.  Only a free will offering is asked for as payment, and all proceeds go to benefit the operations of a soup kitchen during the winter months after most of the tourists have gone away.

Sunset at the Wonderland area on the less-visited west side of Mount Desert Island.
Sunset at the Wonderland area on the less-visited west side of Mount Desert Island.

Of course, our little ones were not terribly interested in tasting lobster or trying the popovers.  What got them excited, above all things, was exploring the tide pools to look for sea snails and barnacles.   Fortunately, the west side of the park was exactly the place to be for that sort of thing, with four separate areas to explore the Maine coastline.  These areas are the Seawall picnic area, the Wonderland trail, the Ship Harbor trail, and Bass Harbor Head trail.   The first of these is directly accessible from Route 102A, whereas the other three all require a short easy hike  of a half mile or less in each case to reach the ocean.   We happened to spend a good amount of time tidepooling at both the Seawall and Wonderland areas on our trip, and we particularly enjoyed our evening at the Wonderland area, which is featured in the sunset photo above.

In addition, it is worth noting that the Bass Harbor Head area is also a must-stop destination for visitors to Acadia.  The lighthouse there has become perhaps the iconic symbol of the Maine North Atlantic Coast in general, and of Acadia National Park in particular.   This lighthouse is still actively operated by the US Coast Guard,  so the interior is not open to the public, but it is still worth seeing this iconic structure in person.

The iconic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was featured on the 2001 National Parks Pass.  The National Parks Pass was the precursor of the present-day America the Beautiful Pass.

There are a number of other notable places on the west side of Mount Desert Island.   Acadia National Park maintains a sand beach on Echo Lake, which provides a much more comfortable swim than the frigid ocean waters of the north Atlantic.   Located just across Route 102 from the Echo Lake Beach is the Carroll Homestead site, with a few interpretive exhibits on the life of early settlers in the area.

Additionally, although there are no carriage roads on the west side of the Park, but there are plenty of hiking trails.  To the west of Echo Lake are several  hiking trails, including one to the Beech Mountain Fire Tower.  The Fire Tower is periodically open to visitation, check at the park visitor center for details.  To the east of Echo Lake Beach, across Route 102, there are also  a number of hiking trails.   We took a short loop hiking trail up the relatively small Flying Mountain – just 284 feet in elevation.   There are a few bare patches at the top which provide some nice views across Somes Sound to the eastern part of Acadia National Park and the small village of Northeast Harbor.

Standing atop Flying Mountain, I was able to catch this view of the NPS concessionaire tour boat that takes visitors to Islesford and up Somes Sound.
Standing atop Flying Mountain, I was able to catch this view of the NPS concessionaire tour boat that takes visitors to Islesford and up Somes Sound.

If you take Route 102 north to the top of Somes Sound, you can connect to Route 198 and then take Route 233 to  head towards the main part of the Park and Bar Harbor.  Route 233 will take you past the Park Headquarters, which doubles as the Park’s winter season visitor center when the other park facilities are closed.   It is also provides the closest access to the carriage road system for anyone coming from the west side of the Island.

I was able to take two short bicycle trips on the carriage roads during my visit, both departing from the parking area near the Park Headquarters and the northern end of Eagle Lake.   The first was a bicycle ride to the north up to the Breakneck Ponds.  This was an easy, relatively flat bike ride that would be suitable for almost any skill level.  The Breakneck Ponds have several beaver dams in them, and if you are lucky, maybe you can spot one!   The only caveat to this trip is that the carriage roads are paved with fine gravel, rather than hard asphalt, which may give some bike riders trouble.

My second bike trip was a loop trip to the south around Eagle Lake.  It should be noted that this loop trip includes an elevation gain of several hundred feet, so is moderately physically exerting.  The highlight of this loop, however, is that it provides access to the short hiking trail to the top of Connors Nubble, on the southwest corner of Eagle Lake.  At 588 feet, Connors Nubble is one of the smaller peaks in the park, but its location right on the edge of Eagle Lake provides some sweeping views from the top.   Despite its short length, the trail is moderately difficult, and includes some rock scrambles.  However, the view at the top was worth it.   As an added bonus, even though I visited on a beautiful midweek summer day, I had the top all to myself.

The view from the top of Connors Nubble is best accessed by a bike trip down the carriage roads.
The view from the top of Connors Nubble is best accessed by a bike trip down the carriage roads.

Besides Acadia National Park’s hiking trails, another way to escape the crowds of the Park Loop Road is to visit the Schoodic Peninsula.   The Schoodic Peninsula is located across Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor, and was originally set aside to protect the scenic views across the Bay from Mount Desert Island.   It takes a little over an hour to drive around the north end of Frenchman Bay to reach the Schoodic Peninsula, or you can take a ferry  from Bar Harbor across the Bay to the town of Winter Harbor , and then use a special Island Explorer Bus Route to travel around the Peninsula.

Up until 2002 the U.S. Navy operated a radio communications station on the Schoodic Peninsula.   The National Park Service has now repurposed this facility as the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC).  In addition to long-term research and education programs, a number of interpretive ranger programs for park visitors are held there as well.  One of the buildings houses a small touch tank, and the Ranger Program there was a big hit for the Parkasaurus family kids, who were aged 4 and 22 months at the time of our visit.  Also worth a visit is the newly-rennovated Rockefeller Hall,  which is now the welcome center for the SERC.   When the U.S. Navy was operating here, it was surely one of the most architecturally-impressive buildings on any military base in the country.

Magnificent Rockefeller Hall is the starting point for visitors to the NPS' Schoodic Education and Research Center
Magnificent Rockefeller Hall is the starting point for visitors to the NPS’ Schoodic Education and Research Center

The real joy for us on the Schoodic Peninsula, however, was enjoying the scenery of the Maine coastline  and taking an empty stretch of that coastline for ourselves to spend more time looking for sea snails and barnacles in the tidepools.   Of course, it also helped that our day on the Schoodic Peninsula also brought some of the sunniest and warmest weather of our entire trip, but the relative quiet and emptiness certainly helped the experience as well.

Finally, Acadia National Park also includes some island locations that are only accessible by boat.  The National Park includes a number of hiking trails on Isle au Haut, which is located well to the south of Mount Desert Island.  Access to Isle au Haut is by a passenger ferry from Stonington, ME, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive to the south from Bar Harbor.  Unfortunately, given its remoteness, we didn’t have an opportunity to visit Isle au Haut on this trip, so we’ll have to save a spot in our Passport Books for Isle au Haut on our next trip.

The Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of lobstering on the Cranberry Islands, right off the coast of Acadia.
The Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of lobstering on the Cranberry Islands, right off the coast of Acadia.

Also part of the park is the Islesford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry Island.   A number of boats operate from Mount Desert Island to Little Cranberry Island, including a tour guided by a National Park Service Ranger that operates out of the town of Northeast Harbor.   A visit to the Islesford Historical Museum adds a dash of history and culture to any visit to Acadia National Park, which is ordinarily dominated by the spectacular scenery.  Both Little Cranberry Island and nearby Great Cranberry Island maintain a year-round population of lobster fishermen.  The Islesford Historical Museum tells the story of lobstering on the Cranberry Islands, which is a story that I’m not sure can be found anywhere else in the National Park System.  In addition, if you take the NPS Ranger guided tour you may have the opportunity to see a seal colony, as we did, and we also get a guided tour up Somes Sound between the two lobes of Mount Desert Island.

Well, after seven days in Acadia National Park we had certainly found plenty to see and places to explore, from sunset at the top of Cadillac Mountain to the tidepools of the Schoodic Peninsula.  Even as we packed up to leave Acadia, we knew that there were still many more places to explore.   Acadia is far enough away from our home in the Mid-Atlantic that we know that we can’t easily predict when we’ll be able to come back – but whenever that trip comes, we are already looking forward to it.

“Daddy, can we go look for sea snails and barnacles again?”

Yes, we #FoundOurPark in Acadia.

Final Shot: Sunset from the Wonderland area.
Final Shot: Sunset from the Wonderland area.
Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Acadia Trip Report Part I – Around the Park Loop Road

The rock coastline and tidepools are just some of the many attractions at Acadia National Park.
The rock coastline and tidepools are just some of the many attractions at Acadia National Park.

“Daddy, can we go look for sea snails and barnacles again?”

After just one day in Acadia National Park, those were the words of my four-year-old, the Toothy T-Rex, which I would hear often during the rest of our week there.    Acadia National Park is a great family-friendly National Park for families with young children, and even after one week there in July 2015, we left already thinking about when we would be able to return.

The heart of Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island, which many locals pronounce Mount Des-er-et, in eastern Maine.  Its about a 3.5 hour drive from the New Hampshire border, or a little over an hour south from the Bangor, Maine airport.   The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and the national park itself only has about half the land on the island – as well as some land on a few surrounding islands and the Schoodic Peninsula.

For those collecting Passport cancellations, the addition of a new stamp in Setember 2015 means that Acadia National Park now offers 13 cancellation locations.  Of those, 8 are located along or around the Park’s loop road, which takes visitors around the eastern half of Mount Desert island and represents the core of the park:

  • Thompson Island
  • Bar Harbor, ME
  • Village Green
  • Sieur du Monts Nature Center
  • Thunder Hole
  • Blackwoods Campground
  • Jordan Pond
  • Cadillac Mountain

I’ll talk about the other locations in Part II.

The first three locations are all places to plan your trip to Acadia.  The Thompson Island information station is located right on Highway 3 as you cross the bridge over the Mount Desert Narrows from the mainland, and is the best place to stop if you are heading to the less-visited west side of the island.   Bar Harbor is the famous gateway community for Acadia, and is the original Passport stamp for this park going all the way back to 1986.  Ironically, this stamp is located at the park’s Hull’s Cove Visitor Center,  the main visitor center for the park, and which is located one town to the north of Bar Harbor in Hull’s Cove.   Finally, the Village Green stamp can be found at the small National Park Service information station located right on the Village Green in the center of downtown Bar Harbor, and is also the convenient terminus for the free Island Explorer shuttle buses that can take you just about anywhere on Mount Desert Island.   The buses are a great option for planning one-way hiking or biking trips, or simply to avoid the cost and hassle of finding parking in the hustle and bustle of Bar Harbor.

At low tide, you can walk on the ocean floor on the sand bar that gives Bar Habor its name.
At low tide, you can walk on the ocean floor on the sand bar that gives Bar Habor its name.

The town of Bar Harbor takes its name from the large sand bar that connects the town to Bar Island at low tide.   Thus, one of the real highlights of any visit to Acadia is a sand bar walk out to Bar Island.   The sandbar becomes walkable around 1.5-2 hours before low tide,and remains passable until 1.5-2 hours after low tide.   The National Park Service Information Station at the Villlage Green will contain the latest advisories on when to plan your walk – and most importantly, when to plan your return, lest you be stuck on Bar Island until the next low tide.

As it turns out, Bar Island is owned by the National Park Service, and so is part of the National Park itself.  On the island, there is a short one mile hiking trail to the highest point of the island, which provides views looking back on the town of Bar Harbor and the rest of Mount Desert Island.  Or, if you are travelling with young children, you can just spent your time on the sand bar and on Bar Island looking for sea snails and barnacles, as we did.

The Sieur du Mont Spring in the foreground and the Spring House in the background is referred as the "heart of Acadia" by the National Park Service.
The Sieur du Mont Spring in the foreground and the Spring House in the background is referred as the “heart of Acadia” by the National Park Service.

Just south of Bar Harbor on Highway 3 is the Sieur deMonts Nature Center.  Like most nature centers, this stop is primarily geared towards kids – with exhibits on the flora and fauna of the park.   For adults, however, two highlights are to see the natural freshwater spring and the nearby spring house structure.  The spring house was built in 1909 by George Dorr, who would go on to became Acadia National Park’s first superintendent when the park was established in 1916.  Because of the role Dorr and other Mount Desert Island landowners played in getting Acadia established as the first U.S. national park east of the Great Lakes (*), the National Park Service calls the area around the Sieur de Monts spring the “heart of Acadia.”

Continuing south on the Loop Road is the very popular Precipice Trail – a short, but challenging climb up Champlain Mountain using chains, iron hand-holds, and ladders.   At less than one mile in length, it is one of the shorter trails in the park, but is certainly not for the faint of heart!  Unfortunately, during our visit, the trail was closed due to nesting Peregrine Falcons, which is often the case for a good portion of the summer.  However, when the trail is closed, National Park Service Rangers provide a spotting scope for viewing the nesting Falcons, making the location worth a stop regardless.

Next up is the Sand Beach – one of the few sandy beaches available on the island.  Sand Beach is also the northern end of the 1.6 mile Ocean Trail.  This is a good place to get out of the car and explore the tide pools, although on our trip we preferred to explore tide pools at some of the more out-of-the-way beaches away from the crowds on the Park Loop Road.

The area around Thunder Hole on a foggy day. Come a few hours before high tide to hear the water "thunder."
The area around Thunder Hole on a foggy day. Come a few hours before high tide to hear the water “thunder.”

The next stop around the Park Loop Road is the location known as Thunder Hole, where the waves associated with an incoming tide can produce a loud sound.  According to the National Park Service, the best time to hear the “thunder” is about two hours prior to high tide.  Unfortunately, we did not time out trip so precisely, so only encountered a little gurgling of water.  The location is so iconic, however, that on a summer day, you can expect to find a decent crowd here at  any tide level.

The Park Loop Road begins to turn to the west once you reach Otter Point.  This is also the southern end of the Ocean Trail, which will take you back to Sand Beach.   Additionally, if you are a completist in pursuing the Passport cancellations, you can exit the Park Loop Road here to reach the Blackwoods Campground.  The Blackwoods Campground is the most-popular campground in the Park as it places you close to all the activity of Bar Harbor, as well the Park Loop Road.  However, the Blackwoods Campground is not directly accessible from the Park Loop Road, you can only reach it from Route 3 south of the Sieur de Monts Nature Center, from the Otter Cliff Road at Otter Point, or from Route 3 heading west from the village of Seal Harbor.

The Park Loop Road continues west from Otter Point and passes just north of Seal Harbor.  Here you can access the Wildwood Stables, which is the only authorized vendor of carriage rides within Acadia National Park.   The carriage roads are perhaps Acadia National Park’s most-unique feature.   Park benefactor John D. Rockefeller, Jr. envisioned carriage rides as an ideal form of outdoor recreation.   Thus, he supervised the construction of carriage roads, with no motorized vehicle traffic allowed, between 1913 and 1940, and then donated them to the federal government for inclusion in Acadia National Park.

Our horses, Blossom & Thumper, for our carriage ride.
The Parkasaurus family with our horses, Blossom & Thumper, for our carriage ride.  The Toothy T-Rex is wearing his pony shirt from Assateague Island National Seashore.

In the present day, however, you’ll see far more bicycles on most of the carriage roads than actual carriages.   However, in the vicinity of Seal Harbor, where the Rockefeller Estate is located, there is still a section of carriage roads that remains outside the National Park boundaries, and which are reserved for the exclusive use of horse-drawn carriages – no bicycles allowed!

Just as iconic as the carriage roads is Acadia’s beautiful Jordan Pond, and the nearby Jordan Pond House restaurant.   The small pond and the nearby “North Bubble” and “South Bubble” that so strikingly accent the scenery are both legacies of the sculpting power of glaciers on the landscape during the last ice age.   During our week in Acadia  we did not find a prettier scene than standing on the south shores of Jordan Pond on a sunny day.   In fact it was remarkable how on some days, even when the coast was wrapped in a layer of scenery-killing fog, the air was nonetheless bright and sunny just a short ways inland at Jordan Pond.

The Toothy T-Trex exploring the rocks around Jordan Pond. (Note: wading is not permitted in Jordan Pond, as it is part of the water supply for Seal Harbor.) The North Bubble and South Bubble are in the background.
The Toothy T-Trex exploring the rocks around Jordan Pond. (Note: wading is not permitted in Jordan Pond, as it is part of the water supply for Seal Harbor.) The North Bubble and South Bubble are in the back left.

The food at the Jordan Pond House is almost just as much part of the experience as the stunning views.   The current structure dates back to 1982, after the original Jordan Pond House was destroyed in a fire in 1979 – but travelers have been served here going back all the way to 1896.  In particular, the signature item here is a local treat called the “popover.”  Popovers are a puffed pastry, with about the consistency of a croissant, that are best served straight out of the oven and with a side of jam.   As you might image, Jordan Pond House can be extremely popular, especially during meal times on warm sunny days.   However, a good option for getting the Jordan Pond House experience outside of traditional meal times is to visit for “afternoon tea,” where they will serve you a personal pot of tea and a pair of popovers.

The final stop of the Park Loop Road tour is Cadillac Mountain, which includes a spur road that takes your car all the way to the top.  At just 1,500 feet above sea level it is in some respects barely even a mountain at all.   Nonetheless, it is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast, and thanks to a quirk of ecology that has left the summit large tree-free, it is able to provide breath-taking views in nearly every direction.   Additionally, thanks to the 3.5 mile summit road, some of the best times to visit are either just before sunset, or better yet, just before sunrise – one of the first sunrise visible in the United States.   As we were travelling with two young children, we opted for a sunset view, but even still we were not disappointed.

A sunset view from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a great cap to any day in Acadia National Park.
A sunset view from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a great cap to any day in Acadia National Park.

Continue the Adventure in Part II: Visiting sites further afield in Acadia National Park.

(*) – Update 30 January 2016 – This post originally stated that Acadia National Park was the first national park east of the Mississippi.  An alert reader correctly pointed out that several Canadian national parks were established between Yellowstone in 1872 and 1916.  Additionally, Mackinac Island in Michigan was briefly a U.S. national park between 1875 and 1895 and Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucy was actually established as Abraham Lincoln National Park just one month before Acadia on July 17, 1916.   It wouldn’t lose the “national park” designation until 1939 when it went through the first of three name changes, before reaching its current name in 2009.  The post has been updated to reflect this. 

Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Valley of the Hohokam Part II – Hohokam Pima National Monument

The Huhugam Heritage Center is operated by the Gila River Indian Community.
The Huhugam Heritage Center is operated by the Gila River Indian Community.

In Part I of my Valley of the Hohokam Trip Report, I described how the National Park Service is responsible for two national monuments in southern Arizona.   The first visit was to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, which is famous for its Great House.   The Great House has been a landmark for visitors to central Arizona since the earliest Spanish contacts.  The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition to San Francisco passed through this area in 1775, and de Anza himself took a side trip to visit the Casa Grande.  His trip was a follow-up to the reports of Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kindo, who noted the Casa Grande in an expedition to the area all the way back in 1694.

(As an interesting side note, six years after visiting Casa Grande, Father Kino would found the mission Church of San Jose de Tumacacori south of present-day Tucson, Arizona, and which today is preserved by the National Park Service as Tumacacori National Historical Park. )

If we imagine taking a virtual time machine backwards from the days of Father Kino in 1694, we know that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was built in the early 1300’s, and was used for a period of 50-75 years.  By the year 1450, the distinctive cultural identifiers of the people who lived at Casa Grande Ruins, such as pottery patterns and the settlement pattern around irrigation canals, no longer appear in the archeological record.   Thus, archeologists date the end of the “Hohokam culture” to that date.

Going back even earlier, we know that sometime in the 900’s, the structure referred to as a ball court  was built at Casa Grande Ruins.   There is some debate as to whether this ball court was used for the ball game that was played a thousand miles to the south, in southern Mexico, or was actually used for ceremonial dances.    The first permanent settlement at what we now call Casa Grande Ruins probably dates from around this time, or a little before.

Our time machine would have to go back much further to reach the origins of Hohokam Pima National Monument, however, which is located about 25 miles to the north and west of Casa Grande Ruins.   This national monument preserves a site that archeologists call Snaketown.  That site dates back as far as 300 B.C., and it is likely that it was inhabitated continuously through the year 1200.   That would have been long enough for many of the inhabitants of Snaketown to have been contemporaries with the first permanent settlements at Casa Grande Ruins.   Although the people who lived at Snaketown would not have seen the construction of the Great House, maybe its possible that they would have attended games or dances at the ball court there.

Fast forward to the present-day, however, and almost everything about Hohokam Pima National Monument is an anomaly – starting with its name.  As mention in my last post, the word Hohokam comes from a mistransliteration of the word Huhugam from the language of the O’odhom people; Huhugam can probably best be translated as “our ancestors who have perished.”  The word Pima, ironcially appears to be an even worse linguistic crime by the first Spanish-speakers to encounter the O’odhom people, as it appears to have originated from the O’odhom phrase for “I don’t know.”  As we might imagine, the phrase “I don’t know” was surely used a lot during the first contact between two peoples from opposite sides of the world. Nevertheless, when this national monument was established by Congres in 1972, this is the name that was chosen.  I would imagine that if this site were being designated for protection today, its likely that another name would have been selected instead – perhaps something along the lines of Huhugam O’odham National Monument.

An example of how the Great House is being held together.
Exposure to the elements can damage archeological ruins, this picture shows some of the efforts that the National Park Service has taken to protect and stabilize the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

This monument is also unique because the decision has been made to rebury the excavated ruins of Snaketown.   By itself, this decision is not that unusual.  Exposure to the elements is typically not going for archeological resources, which is why a protective shelter was built for the Great House at nearby Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.   Thus, archeologists frequently make the decision to rebury resources in order to preserve them for a future generation of archeologists, who may have investigative techniques that we can’t even imagine yet.   Additionally, this site is located entirely on land owned by the Gila River Indian Community of the O’odham people, who consider the site to be the sacred land of the ancestors.  I would imagine there is also some resentment of the Federal government asserting some control over this site as well.

In any event, what is unusual is that these ruins were reburied in a National Park site that is dedicated to preserving them.  A major reason for that is surely the simple fact that in 1972, when Congress established this national monument, all national monuments were turned over to the National Park Service for management.   It wasn’t until 1978 when Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska were established on US Forest Service Lands, and left under the US Forest Service for management, that national monuments would be managed by an agency other than the National Park Service.   Were this site to be established today, I would also imagine that it would possibly be given to another Federal agency to manage, or else would simply be designated as an extension of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and so not given status as its own national park.

Although Hohokam Pima National Monument is closed to the public - you can see the landscape of the national monument from the observation deck of the Huhugam Heritage Center.
Although Hohokam Pima National Monument is closed to the public – you can see the landscape of the national monument from the observation deck of the Huhugam Heritage Center.  As you can see there’s not a lot to visit.

Nevertheless, Hohokam Pima National Monument poses a dilmma for anyone trying to visit all of the national parks in the U.S. National Park System, as it remains the only national park site that is closed the public – with no plans to ever open it to visitation.   So not only is there nothing to see there, as the archeological ruins have been completely and thoroughly reburied, but attempting to visit Hohokam Pima National Monument directly is also trespassing.   Yes, as it turns out, Interstate 10 technically takes you through the boundaries of this national monument right around mile 170 (and where Goodyear Road crosses the Interstate) – but most people would hardly consider that to be a meaningful visit (and stopping on the side of the road of the Interstate would not only also be illegal, but also not safe).

Nevertheless, to the extent that anyone would want to “count a visit” to a national park that is closed to the public, a visit the Gila River Indian Community’s Huhugam Heritage Center arguably checks all the boxes.  The Huhugam Heritage Center has no affiliation with the National Park Service, so there’s no passport stamp or any of the other usual accountrements of a national park visitor center, but it actually fulfills most everything else that anyone would want out of a visit.

The highlight of the Huhugam Heritage Center is that the University of Arizona returned much of it Snaketown collection to the Gila River Indian Community a few years ago, and some of the most-spectactular artifiacts from that collection are now on display in the Huhugam Heritage Center.  Included in the display are a number of very-large and perfectly-intact pots and jars that were excavataed at Snaketown.  Seeing these artifacts in-person really gives a sense for the impressive accomplishments of these people.  Unfortunately, the Center does not permit photography of the exhibit, and the Center does not have photographs online.  The best photo I could find online of the pottery is included in this nice interactive multimedia program on Snaketown that was produced by the East Valley Tribune.  Click on the link for “Crafts and Trade” in the presentaiton to see an example of the type of pottery on display.  You can also find five photos of pottery excavated at Snaketown at this site from the Arizona State Museum.

The Huhugam Heritage Center also includes a central plaza modeled after the "ball courts" found at Snaketown and Casa Grande Ruins. Tribal tradition, however, holds that these plazas were used for ceremonial dances rather than athletic competitions.
The Huhugam Heritage Center also includes a central plaza modeled after a “ball court.”

Additionally, on the roof of the Huhugam Heritage Center is an observation deck.  From this deck, it is quite possible to view and appreciate the desert landscape where the ruins of Snaketown are now reburied, and where the people who built Snaketown once had a thriving community more tha 700 years ago.   The Center also includes a central plaza modeled after the ball courts found at Snaketown and Casa Grande Ruins.

Overall, a visit the Huhugam Heritage Center is fairly satifying for anyone interested in visiting the national parks.  The artifacts on display in the Center have plenty of “wow” factor to illustrate why Snaketown is so archeologically significant.  Moreover, the exhibits also connect the people who first made the desert bloom with their crops to the people of Gila River Indian Community who are still living there today.   And you can get a good view of what the landscape looks like today.

If you do plan to visit, be sure to call ahead for the latest hours.  As of this writing,their hours are Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 4pm.  they currently have special extended hours on the first Friday of the month when they have a special heritage market.   Our schedule did not align with the heritage market on our visit, but that would surely make for an interesting enhancement to any visit.

Taken together, both Hohokam Pima National Monument and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument remind us that we are not the first people to settle in the valleys of the Gila and Salt Rivers in Central Arizona.

Check out Part I of my trip report on “Valley of the Hohokam” from Casa Grande Ruins National Monument here.

IMG_1560
An example of an interpretive display at the Huhugam Heritage Center on the rooftop observation deck.  The picture at lower left is of the original shelter at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument; the illustration at upper right also depicts Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (with the modern shelter).

Update: This post originally stated that Hohokam Pima National Monument was located along Interstate 5.  It is, of course, located, along Interstate 10 and has been corrected.

Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Valley of the Hohokam Part I – Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects probably the most-famous ruins of the Hohokam Culture in Arizona.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects probably the most-famous ruins of the Hohokam Culture, just south of Phoenix, Arizona.  The National Park Service added the roof to protect the “Great House” from further erosion and decay.

 

Many people think of the Phoenix, Arizona metopolitan area as a place that only became habitable to human beings after the invention of air conditioning in the early 20th Century.   In truth, however, there is a story of human habitation in the valley of the Salt and Gila Rivers that stretches back more than 2,000 years.

The National Park Service manages two National Monuments in this area that preserves the legacy of the first settlers here, a people that archeologists call the Hohokam.   Other than that, however, that is where the similarities end, as the two national monuments could not be more different.  Casa Grande Ruins National Monument showcases excavated ruins from the period just before European contact that have been attracting visitors for hundreds of years.  By contrast, the ruins at Hohokam Pima National Monument  ruins date from a much earlier period of settlement, have been reburied for their own protection,  and the whole area remains completely closed to the public – but more on that in Part II.

The word Hohokom is actually a mistransliteration of the O’odham word  Huhugam, which is generally translated as “those who are gone” or “those who have come before.”  In the bookstore of Casa Grande Ruins, they helpfully sell copies of the Fall 2009 special issue of Archeology Southwest, which was dedicated to topics relating to Casa Grande Ruins.   This issue contained a helpful essay by Barnaby V. Lewis, one of the tribal elders of the Gila River Indian Community.  He describes the word Huhugam as more accurately meaning “those who have perished,” specifically in reference to those from whom one is descended.  This speaks to the connection that the O’odhom people, of which the Gila River Indian Community is one of four Federally-recognized tribal governments, feel to the people archeologists call the Hohokam, and who lived in the prehistoric communities that are now Hohokam Pima and Casa Grande Ruins National Monuments.

In many respects, the Hohokam are part of a much broader group of American Indians called the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi. The legacy of the Ancestral Puebloans are preserved in prehistoric pueblos all around the southwestern United States, most famously at Mesa Verde National Park.  The word Anasazi comes from the Navajo language, and is a word which can be translated as “ancestors of our enemies.”  Thus, the National Park Service prefers to use the more-cumbersome phrase Ancestral Puebloans to refer to these people, although many archeologists still use the term Anasazi.

Its worth remembering that the American Indians did not live in nation-states as we know them today, but rather in individual communities connected to other communities by things like a shared language, religious beliefs, cultural traditions, trading relationships, and ways of life.  Archeologists thus choose words like Hohokam or Mogollon (used for certain pueblo-dwelling prehistoric peoples in New Mexico) or Anasazi to try and describe some of the meaningful differences between peoples in different places, even though there were rarely bright-line differences separating one from the other.  Thus, archeologists will often disagree about where and how to draw the lines.  In fact, some scholars use the term oasisamerica to be inclusive of all of the pueblo-dwelling peoples of the arid southwestern United States, including the  Ancestral Puebloans of the Four Corners area, the Hohokam of Arizona, and the Mogollon of New Mexico, among others.  Although I must admit that I rarely see the term oasisamerica used by the National Park Service, it certainly is one that makes sense.  As one travels through the national park sites of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah the similarities are unmistakable.  These were clearly all peoples who had some sort of contact with each other, and who shared similarities in their way of life with each other, and in how they adapted to pre-European Contact life in the deserts of the American Southwest.

 

The "Great House" at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just part of a larger pueblo complex.  Photo from 2008.
The “Great House” at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just part of a larger pueblo complex. Photo from 2008.

The pueblo at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just one of numerous American Indian pubelos located in the valleys of the Salt and Gila Rivers in Central Arizona.   The Hohokom people who lived here constructed an extensive network of canals to grow crops in the desert, and they thrived in these valleys for hundreds of years.  No doubt these canals surely also helped link together their communities with one another, and those linkages may have been what made the settlement at Casa Grande Ruins so important.

Archeologists date the “Great House” at Casa Grande Ruins to around the year 1350.  The structure is four stories high, and contains 11 total rooms.  According to archeologists, there may well have been other “great houses” at other pueblos in central Arizona, although this has not been proven.  If so, its possible that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins survived because it was built a little sturdier or a little more robustly than the others. On the other hand, it just may have been lucky.   Or indeed, it is possible that it was unique.  Whatever the reason, the helpful guidebook to Casa Grande Ruins from the Western National Parks Association contains this description of the Great House from archeologist Cosmos Mindeleff, who surveyed the well-known site for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1890: “it is found easily by anyone looking for it.”   Indeed, there is no question that it rises startlingly above the nearly-flat desert landscape that surrounds it.

Of course, another important reason that Great House at Casa Grande Ruins has also survived to the present-day is thanks to the now more than 100-years worth of efforts to preserve and protect it.  Just two years after the above quote from Cosmos Mindeleff, President Benjamin Harrison set aside the Great House and 480 surrounding acres as an archeological preserve.  This prescient act of preservation in 1892 came nearly 25 years before the establishment of the National Park Service, and nearly 15 years before the Antiquities Act of 1906 would formally give Presidents the authority to set aside national monuments as protected areas on Federal lands.  In this way, just 20 years after Yellowstone became the United States’ (and the world’s) first national park, Casa Grande Ruins became this country’ first archeological preserve.

The Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was also used to make astronomical observations.
The Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was also used to make astronomical observations, including the hole at upper left which aligned with the moon every 18.5 years!

 

Archeologists still debate what the ultimate purpose of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was.  Clearly, the building was important to them.  Five different kinds of wood were used in its construction, including ponderosa pine and white fir.  That sort of timber could only have been obtained from mountains at least 50 miles away!  Moreover, the building also contains openings that carry astronomical significance.    Various openings align with the sun on the summer solstice and on the equinoxes.   Perhaps most fascinating to me, however, is that there is one opening aligned with the setting moon once every 18.5 years!   Considering that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins is believed by archeologists to only have been actively used for about 50-75 years (although the surrounding pueblo was inhabited for much longer than that), such alignment strikes me as being truly remarkable.

Putting the pieces together its clear that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was important.   It was bigger than any other structure in the village, was built with imported timbers, and was constructed with great care to align with the heavens.  Its easy to imagine that it provided some sort of religious or political center, possibly connected to the system of canals that was so vital to linking together these desert communities with that most-previous of all commodoties – water.  Beyond that, with now written records left to us by these people, it is hard to say.

On our visit to Casa Grande Ruins, we first spent about 30 minutes going through the exhibits in the visitor center.   The visitor center includes exhibits on the history of the place, what life would have been like for the Hohokom people who lived here, and a few artificats from the archeological excavations here.  A door out the back of the visitor center takes you to the Great House and the surrounding pueblo ruins.

After spending another 30-or-so minutes walking around the vicinity of the Great House, however, it is important not to overlook that another section of this park is open to the public on the far side of the visitor center parking lot.  There is a very short paved trail there that takes you to what many archeologists believe was a ball court.  The American Indian ball game originated among the predecessor civilizations of the Mayas and Aztecs in southern Mexico and central America.   If the ball game was played here in Arizona, it would indicate a cultural connection spanning nearly a thousand miles!

The Great House is not the only remarkable structure at Casa Grande Ruins, this depression in the ground is believed by most archeologists to be a "ball court" - the prehistoric equivalent of a sports arena.
The Great House is not the only remarkable structure at Casa Grande Ruins, this depression in the ground is believed by most archeologists to be a “ball court” – the prehistoric equivalent of a sports arena.

Visiting the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins today requires a bit of imagination.  If it was used for the mesoamerican ball gamearcheologists calcualte that the court could have accomodated some 500 spectators.  This would be truly remarkable when you consider that the entire settlement at Casa Grande Ruins probably only had around 1,500 residents at its peak.  Its possible to imagine people coming from surrounding pueblos on the system of irrigation canals coming to what we now call Casa Grande Ruins for important ball game matches.

It should be noted, however, that not all archeologists agree with this interpretation.  Moreover, the oral tradition of the Akimei O’odoham (Pima) people, is that these places were  in fact used for ceremonial dances.  There is also evidence from the “ball courts” at nearby pueblos that they were used for ceremonial feasting, based on the large number of hornos, or clay ovens, found near the “ball courts.”

My guess is that as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.  I suspect that the construction of ball courts in the pueblos of the Hohokam people almost certainly resulted from cultural contact across the Mexican desert.   On the other hand, it seems likely to me that across such great distances the actual ball game itself really didn’t take hold.  Thus, as fun as it would be to imagine the champion of a Hohokom division playing the champion of an Aztec division in a World Series of mesoamerican ball game – that almost surely did not happen.  Nevertheless, it seems quite possible that the structure itself was imported, and was then adapted into the culture of the Hohokam people.  Perhaps for games, perhaps for dancing, or perhaps even both.

Interestingly, the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins was likely built around the year 1050.   Its actually possible that, whatever its purpose, the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins was one of the last ball courts built by the Hohokom, as by the year 1100, no more ball courts were being constructed anywhere by the Hohokom.   Something had shifted or changed in the Hohokom culture, and the use of the ball court was fading in to history.  Indeed,  it is worth noting that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins would not be constructed until some 200 years later.

Thus, even though today we visit the Great House and the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and see them almost side-by-side with each other, the two structures actually represent centuries of habitation here by the Hohokam people.

In Part II of the Valley of the Hohokam Trip Report, I’ll delve a bit further into the history and present of the Hohokom people as I write about the experience of visiting Hohokam Pima National Monument, which preserves a settlement whose significance in many ways predates that of Casa Grande Ruins.

A parting shot of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, including the historic National Park Service sign.
A parting shot of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, including the historic National Park Service sign.

 

 

Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Petersburg: The Penultimate Act of the Civil War

 

Petersburg National Battlefield was the penultimate act for Robert E. Lee's Army of Norther Virginia before surrendiering at Appomattox Court House.
Petersburg National Battlefield was the ultimate siege campaign of the Civil War and the penultimate act for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before surrendering at Appomattox Court House.

I recent had occasion to visit Petersburg National Battlefield, the national park that commemorates the penultimate engagement of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and therefore, of the Civil War itself.  The siege here lasted for more than nine long months.   When Lee was finally defeated on April 2, 1865, he would retreat west towards the small village of Appomattox Court House, the place where he would surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War.

The City of Petersburg, located 26 miles to the south of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, was a strategic transportation hub, crucial for sustaining the Confederate defenses around their capitol.   In many ways, Richmond was the great white whale of the Union war efforts.  Early in the war, in 1862, Union General George McClellan had sailed his army down the Chesapeake Bay to the Virginia Tidewater area.  From there, he marched inland to make a direct assault on Richmond, and hopefully bring an early end to the war in what has become known as the Peninsula Campaign.  As it so happened, he was defeated in the Seven Day’s Battles on the outskirts of Richmond.  This forced him to retreat back north to Washington, setting up  the Second Battle of Manassas later that summer, which I covered in a previous Parkasaurus post.   In December of 1862 and again in May of 1863, the Union Amry of the Potomac towards Richmond under the commands of General Ambrose Burnside and General Joseph Hooker, respectively.  They would in turn both be defeated 60 miles of the north of Richmond, trying to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Finally, in 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant would again approach Richmond from the north, having succeeded in crossing the Rappahannock River by defeating Robert E. Lee in the Battle of the Wilderness (near Chancellorsville) and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, to the south of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, in May 1865.  (Today, all four battlefields, Fredericskburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House are preservered as part of the cumbersomely named Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park – the longest park name in the U.S. National Park System!)  Even the great General Grant, however, would at first be defeated in his attempt to directly take Richmond.   As he continued what is now known as the Overland Campaign south from Fredericksburg, he would commit the blunder of making a direct frontal assault on Robert E. Lee’s troops at Cold Harbor, just 12 miles outside of Richmond, which is now part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, along with several sites from McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign two years earlier..

Having failed to take Richmond by direct assault, Grant circled his troops around Richmond to the city of Petersburg to the south.  Petersburg was a key transportation hub with five railroad lines meeting there, crucial for resupplying the Confederate forces in Richmond.   If Grant could capture Petersburg, the Confederates would be unable to resupply Richmond, and thus would be forced to abandon their capitol.   Grant’s forces arrived in the vicinity of Petersburg in June 1864, and began to settle in for a long siege.

Appomattox Plantation served as the Quartermaster's Offices at Grant's Headquarters. Grant himself stayed in the same temporary cabins as his soldiers.
Appomattox Plantation was already 100 years old by the tim of the Civil War and it served as the Quartermaster’s Offices at Grant’s Headquarters.

Although the main visitor center for Petersburg is closer to town, the first stop on our visit was, appropriately enough, Grant’s Headqauraters at City Point.   City Point was a small village located where the Appomattox River meets the James River, and is roughly where the James River becomes significantly wider as it flows towards the Atlantic Ocean.  Richmond is located approximately 17 miles upstream on the James River to the northwest, and Petersburg is located approximately 8 miles upsteam on the Appomattox River to the southwest.  This strategic location would be the base from which Grant would conduct the siege of Petersburg for the next nine months.

The most-imposing remaining historic structure here is an old plantation house, the ironically named Appomattox Plantation.  Grant, however, opted not to use the large house for himself.  Instead, he actually stayed in the same tents as his soldiers, at least until a primitive cabin was built for him several months later as winter was approaching.   This left the Plantation House to be used by the quartermasters, who were responsible for coordinating the continual massive daily influx of all sorts of food and supplies to sustain the Union siege forces.

Grant's Cabin was built in November 1864 as preparations were made for the siege to continue through the winter.
Grant’s Cabin was built in November 1864 as preparations were made for the siege to continue through the winter.

Today the Plantation House serves as a mini Visitor Center for the Park.  There is a short movie about the Park and a few exhibits inside the building.  There are also a handful of wayside exhibits scattered around the property, which attempt to give some perspective to the absolutely massive logistical operations that occurred here during the siege.   In addition to serving as the Union’s logistics hub and the headquarters for its senior leadership, the City Point area also supported the primary hospital caring for the sick and wounded soldiers being brought in almost daily from the front lines of the siege.

From City Point, the next stop was the Eastern Front Visitor Center, which is really the main visitor center for the Park, and is located seven miles to the southwest on the outskirts of town.   This Visitor Center has the main Park movie, as well as some more extensive exhibits.  From here, a short loop trail of less than a mile takes you  to a replica of the cannon known as “The Dictator.”   The Dictator was a 13-inch mortar that was used by the Union in the siege of Petersburg, and was one of the largest of its kind.   Its not known what happened to the original, but it may not have survived.  Contemporary accounts indicate that The Dictator was a truly terrifying and powerful weapon.  The unusual profile of this cannon has since become one of the iconic images of Petersburg, and appears frequently in Petersburg National Battlefield’s promotional materials and merchandise.

 

The Dictator has become an iconic image of Petersburg National Battlefield. This replica has been placed at roughly the spot where the original was stationed to fire upon Petersburg during the siege.
The Dictator has become an iconic image of Petersburg National Battlefield. This replica has been placed at roughly the spot where the original was stationed to fire upon Petersburg during the siege.

From the Eastern Front Visitor Center a short driving tour takes you through seven additional stops in the main section of the Park.  The stops variously take you to the locations of additional preserved earthworks from the siege lines, and the sites of various engagements that occurred as part of the siege.   This area contains several miles of hiking trails, which connect to each of the stops, but these trails seem to primarily cater to locals from the city of Petersburg and from the nearby Fort Lee U.S. Army Base, rather than to national tourists.

In any event, the moral of the story from this driving tour is that from his headquarters and supply depot at City Point to the northwest, Grant was seeking to use his army to extend his siege lines and surround Petersburg to the south, and ultimately to the west.   By surrounding Petersburg to the south and west, Grant hoped to sever the railroads that were supplying Petersburg, and ultimately Richmond. This would be a long, methodical effort, which would consume the more than nine months that the siege lasted.

Proceeding through Eastern Front Driving Tour, its worth making particular note of Stop #5, Fort Stedman.   While much of the action on the Eastern Front takes place in June and July of 1864 while the siege is just beginning, Fort Stedman would rise to prominence in late March of  1865 as the siege was nearing its conclusion.  Here is the place where Lee would make one last attempt to break the Union’s siege lines, and in so doing, set into motion the closing act of the Civil War – but more on that at the end of this post.

The last stop of the Eastern Front driving tour takes you to the place for which the siege of Petersburg is the most famous – the site of the Battle of the Crater.  On July 30, 1864 the Union hatched a creative plan for breaking through the Confederate siegeworks, and hopefully bringing an early end to the siege.   In the early morning hours before dawn on July 30, 1864 a massive mine was detonated below the Confederate earthworks, instantly killing nearly 300 Confederates.   Left behind was a massive crater measuring nearly 170 feet long by 80 feet wide, and at least 30 feet deep.  Two Confederate cannons, each weighing more than 1,700 pounds, had been hurled completely into the air and out of the earthworks.

Despite that early success, and the sheer ingenuity of the plan, almost everything after that moment was a disaster for the Union Army.  The force of the explosion was so massive,  and so unprecedented, that forces on both sides were slow to react.  Contemporary accounts indicate that it took nearly 15 minutes both for the Confederates to return fire and for the Union forces to press their advantage.  At that point, whether due to poor planning by the immediate commanding Generals, or poor training, or both, thousands of Union forces rushed into the resulting crater.   However, instead of the crater being a defensive position from which to press their advantage against the Confederate forces on the surrounding remaining earthworks, the crater instead became a death trap.  Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone would call it a “turkey shoot,” and Grant would later write that “it was the saddest affair that I have witnessed in this war.”   At the end of the day, nearly 4,000 Union soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured against fewer than 1,500 Confederates.

150 years later, the remains of The Crater are still visible at Petersburg.
150 years later, the remains of The Crater are still visible at Petersburg.

After the war, the site of The Crater was naturally one of the first tourist attractions at the Petersburg Battlefield.   After 150 years of erosion, weathering, visitation, and growth in vegetation, it is admittedly no longer the site that left soldiers on both sides gawking in amazement.   Visiting the site today, however, one can still capture the sense of what truly close quarters these Civil War engagements were fought in.  In an era before aircraft, and before mechanized warfare, battles were truly intimate affairs, with soldiers in close quarters seeing those who would kill and be killed.  80 feet wide was surely a significant crater for those soldiers fighting on foot, but with thousands of Union soldiers pouring into that space, only to meet whithering Confederate fire from above the rim, it must have felt like very tight quarters indeed.

The Crater marks the end of the Eastern Front driving tour.   From there, a tour of the park takes you to the four-stop Western Front Driving Tour.  Unlike the Eastern Front, where the National Park Service manages a large contiguous parcel of land, the National Park Service only manages a few, small, disconnected parcels on the Western Front.  Nevertheless, the story here remains largely the same.  Grant is continuing to extend his siege lines around Petersburg to the south and to the west to encricle Petersburg and cut the supply routes into the city.  The Western Front driving tour takes you to several areas of preserved historic earthworks from the siege, and the sites of engagements that occurred during the siege.   These range from engagements fought in August 1864 in the aftermath of the Crater to the final push that occurred on April 2, 1865 which finally broke the siege – but again, more on that in a moment.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery is the centerpiece of the Western Front Driving Tour at Petersburg National Battlefield.Poplar Grove National Cemetery is the centerpiece of the Western Front Driving Tour at Petersburg National Battlefield.

The Western Front Driving Tour also includes Poplar Grove National Cemetery.  Poplar Grove was established in 1866 to provide a final resting place for around 5,000 of the Union soldiers that had been buried around Petersburg during the siege.  The National Park Service operates a small Visitor Contact Station here during the summer.  The grave stones here are all flat to the ground, but are clearly marked.

The National Park Service also encourages travelers to visit historic downtown Petersburg.  Although none of the historic properties in downtown Petersburg are actually managed as part of the national battlefield, there is apparently a whopping 64-stop auto tour available.  We were only making a day trip to the park so did not have time for this particular side-trip, but it is good to know that it is available.

Our visit to the National Park Service areas at Petersburg National Battlefield, however, concluded with a visit to the FIve Forks Unit, which is located approximately 15 miles to the west of Petersburg.   After Lee’s failed assault on Fort Stedman (back in the main portion of the Park) on March 25, 1865, Grant knew that he now had an opportunity to press his advantage.   He dispatched a mobile force under Major General Philip Sheriden out to the west to try and cut the last remaining railway line into Petersburg.   Lee dispatched General George Pickett (he of the famous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg) to try and hold the lines.   The two forces met on March 31st in the vicinity of Five Forks, an area where five roads come together just two miles south of the railroad line.  By the evening of April 1st, the Union forces had won the battlefield.   The next day, Sunday April 2nd, Grant ordered a number of assaults on the entrenched Confederate lines around Petersburg, and the nine month siege was over.  Lee’s forces were retreteating to the north and to the west towards Appomattox Court House, where the Civil War would effectively end one week later on April 9th.

As it so happens, April 9th was Palm Sunday that year, the day on which Christians all over the world simultaneously mark both the triumphant entrance of Jesus of Nazareth into Jersualem and his subsequent crucifxtion at the hands of the Romans, an act that Christians believe was in atonement for the sins of the world.   Just five days after that, Abraham Lincoln would be shot in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday.   Thus, the two climactic events of a war that Lincoln was already growing to understand in increasingly religious terms, as he had articulated just one month earlier, would occur on two massively symbolic religious anniversaries.

On a personal note, this visit to Petersburg National Battlefield also had symbolic importance to me.  This visit marked the 300th Unit of the U.S. National Park System that I have visited at least once.  It was also the last of the National Park Service Units primarily dedicated to the Civil War that I had not yet visited, and also the last National Park Service Unit in the Mid-Atlantic Region that I had not yet visited.  So this visit carried a sense of accomplishment in my personal travels as well.

Our visit also included all five of the Passport Cancellations currently available at Petersburg National Battlefield:

  • Grant’s Headquarters at City Point (in the Appomattox Plantation House)
  • Petersburg, VA (at the Easter Front (Main) Visitor Center)
  • Siege of Petersburg | 150th Anniversary of the Civil War (also at the Eastern Front (Main) Visitor Center)
  • Poplar Grove National Cemetery (at the Eastern Front Visitor Center in the winter when the Poplar Grove Contact Station is closed)
  • Five Forks, VA (at the Five Forks Contact Station)
The cannons are now silent at Petersburg National Battlefield.
The cannons are now silent at Petersburg National Battlefield.
Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Digging Deeper into Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park

IMG_0613
The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey are one of the newest units of the National Park System.

In the relatively few posts that I have made for this blog so far, readers may have noticed that I love new national parks.   A visit to a new national park is much different from a visit to an older national park, as it really takes a good 10 years for most of the trappings we come to expect out of a national park visit to be established.  That means the significance of visiting one of these new places may not always immediately jump out to you on your visit, and it may instead require a bit more digging to find the things that make the place one of the 400-or-so most-important places in the United States.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in the outer New York City suburb of Paterson, New Jersey.  Congress authorized establishment of this park in March 2009, and after more than a year and a half of negotiations on land acquisition, it finally came into being as the 397th national park in November 2011.

This hydroelectric plant was built in the early 20th century by the Society for the establishment of Useful Manufacturers (S.U.M.), a company that was originally founded by Alexander Hamilton.
This hydroelectric plant was built in the early 20th century by the Society for the establishment of Useful Manufacturers (S.U.M.), a company that was originally founded by Alexander Hamilton.

Now its worth noting that many advocates for the National Park System rolled their eyes when Paterson Great Falls NHP was established.   On one hand, it was pretty clear that the intent to use national park tourism as an engine for economic development was pretty clearly a driving force behind the effort.  Ever since Lowell National Historical Park successfully turned the old cotton mills in the Boston-area outer suburb of Lowell, Massachusetts into not just a national park, but a successful tourist attraction, many other declining factory towns throughout the northeastern United States have dreamed of duplicating the success.  Those dreams were pretty clearly part of the equation here.

For example, when reading about the importance of the new national park, the starting point is usually the Great Falls of the Passaic River themselves.   As you can see from the above photos, the falls are kind of nice, and perhaps a bit unusual in being located in such an urban setting, but are not quite at the level of becoming a natural wonder of the world of anything like that.

After the falls for themselves, descriptions of this park’s importance always include the role of Alexander Hamilton in this area.   As Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was concerned with establishing the economic independence of the fledgling United States, and in particlar, of reducing the reliance of the States on imported manufactured goods.  At that time, the United States were primarily exporting raw crops and natural resources back to Europe, and were importing almost all of its manufactured goods.   To that end, Hamilton established the Society for the establishment of Useful Manufactures, and selected the Great Falls of the Passaic River as the source of hydro-power that would underpin the manufacturing efforts.  The new town would be named after the then-governor of New Jersey, William Paterson, who would actually go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.   The designer of the new capitol city of Washington, DC, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, would even make a cameo appearance here – designing a series of canal raceways to carry the hydro-power of the falls to the mills located throughout the town.   The ruins of these old raceways are still visible in the town today.

Still, with all that being said, the history here still had a bit of an “Alexander Hamilton slept here” feel to it.   After all, there is already a national park devoted to the life of Alexander Hamilton at his former estate, the Hamilton Grange National Memorial,  located in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.  Additionally, despite Alexander Hamilton’s role in founding S.U.M., its not particularly clear, or at least was not from my visit, whether the manufacturing techniques developed in Paterson, New Jersey really had a larger effect on the Industrial Revolution throughout the United States as a whole.   For example, the recently-established Blackstone River Valley NHP (see Parkasaurus post here) includes the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  The Slater Mill was founded in 1793, just two years after S.U.M., and is credited with being the “birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.”

Its possible that this slogan simply reflects better marketing by the Old Slater Mill, but it seems that there is a decent argument that the development of factories in Pawtucket had a greater impact on the United States as a whole than-did the efforts of S.U.M. in Paterson.   On the other hand, it iss still early days at this new national park in Paterson, so it will be interesting to watch how that story is told in the years to come.

The Paterson Museum tells the story of Paterson's history, including the historical significance of this locomotive, located in front of the museum
The Paterson Museum tells the story of Paterson’s history, including the historical significance of this locomotive, located in front of the museum.

In order to dig deeper into the history of this place, however, the Paterson Museum, located in an old factory, is a must-stop location at this park.   Inside the Museum, there are a few exhibits on the history of Paterson, from the first American Indians all the way to the middle 20th Century.   There are some interesting historical footnotes about Paterson, including the fact that the engine of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was manufactured here, as were the first modern submarines.   Perhaps the most interesting footnote to me, however, was the information on the heavy-duty locomotives that were manufactured in Paterson.  This includes Engine 299, which is now located outside the museum, and which represents the heavy-duty locomotives that were used in the construction of the Panama Canal.

The construction of the Panama Canal is truly one of the great achievements in U.S. history, one that changed the course of history.  Although the Suez Canal was completed in 1869 at a length of around 120-or-so miles, the difficult terrain and climate in the Isthmus of Panama thwarted canal-building attempts for decades, despite being less than 50 miles in length.  Over the course of multiple attempts by first the French and then by the United States, tens of thousands of people would die in the construction, until finally the current canal was completed in 1914.  According to the Paterson Museum, the heavy locomotives built in Paterson were instrumental in the ultimate success of that effort.

Since the Canal Zone was returned to Panama in 1999, there are obviously no prospects of a U.S. national park located at the site of the canal itself.   Thus, if Paterson Great Falls NHP were to  become an unofficial “Panama Canal National Historical Park” in its development, and telling the broader story of the construction of Panama Canal, then that would certainly cement this park’s historical importance as of the nation’s 400-or-so most important places in the U.S. National Park System.

Hinclife Stadium was added to Paterson Great Falls NHP in December 2014, making it the first historic place related to professional sports in the U.S. National Park System.
Hinchlife Stadium was added to Paterson Great Falls NHP in December 2014, making it the first historic place related to professional sports in the U.S. National Park System.

Finally, there is one last historic story to mention at Paterson Great Falls NHP.  The Defense Authorization Act of 2015, in addition to creating a number of new national parks, it also expanded the boundaries of several others, including Paterson Great Falls NHP.   In this case, the boundaries of Paterson Great Falls NHP were expanded to include Hinchliffe Stadium, which is notable for the fact that it once played host to a significantnumber of Negro League Baseball games.

It will be interesting to see what the National Park Service is ultimately able to do with this property in terms of restoration and historical interpretation.   Professional sports have not really been a theme that the National Park Service has much experience in interpreting – except for maybe the occasional mention of a U.S. President being a sports fan at the National Historic Site devoted to that President.   Other than that, baseball gets a brief mention at Fort Pulaski National Monument – primarily because there is this photograph from 1862 (in the middle of the Civil War!), which is one of the earliest known photographs of a baseball game.   Of course, Negro League baseball is an important historical theme not just for the accomplishments of African-American ball-players on the field, but because of the imporThis addition will likely make Paterson Great Falls NHP an entry-point for telling the story of the 20th Century struggle for civil rights in the North.   In this case, it will compliment the stories already being told at several other national parks, but which are primarily located in Washington, DC and in states to the south.

If you go to visit Paterson Great Falls NHP, you may want to strongly consider downloading the Mill Mile App, which is available on both Itunes and Google Play.  The App will give you everything you need to plan your visit, and most importantly, an audio walking tour of the area.  The first half of the walking tour is even narrated by famous New Jerseyian Brian Williams – which I guess was more of a big deal just a few weeks ago than it is right now.  There is also one Passport stamp for the park, not surprisingly for “Paterson, NJ”, and its available at three locations, including the Paterson Museum and the NPS Offices.

Overall, these remain early days for the development of Paterson Great Falls NHP.  Digging deeper into this park, however, its easy to see the potential for this place to tell a number of important historical stories.

A detail from the outside of Hinchliffe Stadium.
A detail from the outside of Hinchliffe Stadium.

 

Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Big Thicket National Preserve

Big Thicket National Preserve protects the lowland habitats of east Texas.
Big Thicket National Preserve protects the lowland habitats of east Texas.

 

I’ve recently returned from a trip where I was able to visit two national parks for the first time, one of which was Big Thicket National Preserve, located north and west of Beaumonth in east Texas.

Big Thicket is an unusual park – its actually fairly sizable, with more than 108,000 acres in its boundaries.   However, this park could easily have been designated as a national river, rather than a national preserve,  as the core of the park is the Neches River and its main tributaries of Village Creek and Little Pine Island Bayou.  Its a good 50 miles from the southern tip of this park, where the Neches River flows past the eastern edge of urban Beaumont all the way to the northern tip where Town Bluff Dam forms B.A. Steinhagen Lake.      Its also a similar distance from the eastern edge on the north-south flowing Neches River all the way east to where Menard Creek, which is part of the Preserve, flows into the Trinity River.

So this park simply isn’t a big square on the map into which you can wonder and go get lost.   Instead it is a long set of corridors around creeks, bayous, and Neches River – with the occasionally slightly larger patch of park here and there throughout.

DSC06603
They don’t call this park Big Thicket for nothing…. best to stay on the established trails when visiting here.

 

Despite the large size, the park just has one Visitor Center, a relativey new-ish facility just outside the small town of Kountze, TX.  You can find the Park’s main Passport stamp there.   The rest of the Park though must be explored on your own.  I only had time for a short visit here, so I went with the popular Kirby Nature Trail, which is located just a minute or two by car from the Visitor Center.

The shortest hike on the Kirby Nature Trail is a 1.7 mile loop, but various extensions and side trails offer the opportunity to make your hike anywhere from a half-day to even much longer trips along the Turkey Creek Trail.     If you do have more time, a short 20 minute drive north of the visitor center will take you to the 1 mile Sundew Trail, which features carnivorous sundew and pitcher plants among other highlights.

DSC06593
A vine-covered tree along the Kirby Nature Trail.

 

Given the size of this park, this obviously much more to see that these easy hikes in the immediate vicinity of the visitor center.  Nevertheless, when speaking with the Rangers here, I asked them “why is this park important?”  No question, there is no Half Dome here, nor a Mammoth Hot Springs.  The Ranger I spoke to said that this park was set aside because of the “variety of different ecosystems” found here.  Indeed, the park brochure highlights nine different ecosystems – although the subtle distinctions between longleaf pine uplands and slope forest habitats or between cypress slough and bottomland floodplain habitats are probably lost on most visitors.  Not surprisingly, with many different habitats, I was often reminded of other national parks that I had visited, with experiences here reminiscent of Congaree National Park in South Carolina or Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida. 

Indeed, Big Cypress and Big Thicket were both established on the same day in 1974, both as the first two national preserves in the National Park System.  A national preserve seems to exist as kind of a middle ground in the system of Federal land protections, a place that doesn’t quite have the full-fledged visitor facilities of an out and out national park – but is nevertheless part of the U.S. National Park System (and not a National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)   As an in-between of the two worlds, its perhaps not surprising that there are only ten stand-alone national preserves natural areas among the 401 places in the U.S. National Park System.

So what are you really getting when you make a visit to Big Thicket National Preserve?   When you visit Big Thicket, you are getting a taste of the habitat that once stretched across much of east Texas, and is now largely gone.   Is it one of the 400-or-so places that a well-traveled American should visit before they die?   That case can probably be made.   Overall, I do think the National Park System is strong with Big Thicket included in it, than without it.

If your interests tend more towards the historical than the natural, then a visit to Big Thicket can also be paired with travel along the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historical Trail.    Although not one of th 401 national parks, this partnership of the National Park Service preserves the story of the Spanish “Royal Road to Texas” and old capital just outside of present-day Natchitoches, Louisiana.   While investigating the colonial history of the Spanish, French, and the Americans in this area along the trail, the Big Thicket National Preserve provides a taste of the natural environment these pioneers were encountering in their day.

DSC06596
The habitat of the real Texas – also along the Kirby Nature Trail.

For a particularly humours story about exploring Big Thicket National Preserve, check out this story from Jim Burnett over at the National Parks Traveler blog.

Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

More on Visiting Cabrillo National Monument

P1100543
The statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo overlooking San Diego.

I had such a good time researching my previous post on Cabrillo National Monument and the earliest date in the National Park System, that I never got around to writing much about the actual visitation experience to this park.

Naturally, you will want to see the Cabrillo statue, and also check out the exhibits and park film in the visitor center.   Its interesting to note that after the Monument was proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson there were two failed attempts to produce a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo before finally a statue orginally commissioned by the government of Portugal for an exhibition in San Francisco was found and transferred to San Diego to fill the purpose.

The other highlight is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.   As historic 19th century lighthouses go, this one isn’t particularly significant compared to any others, but it is nevertheless always interesting to tour the legacy of a way of life that no longer exists.

 

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is one of the things to see and do at Carbillo National Monument.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is one of the things to see and do at Carbillo National Monument.

Finally, the remaining highlight of Carbillo National Monument are the tidepools.   There is a roadway leading to the base of the cliffs, and the tide pools are a particularly popular attraction for the San Diego locals, as well as for any families visiting with children.  The tide pools are a great way to encounter marine life like starfish and shellfish.   Here is a fantastic trip report about visiting the tide pools as a family with young children.

Finally, its worth noting that there is just one passport stamp for Cabrillo National Monument:

  • San Diego, CA – available at the main visitor center
Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Managing Manassas

The Stone House is the iconic structure of Manassas NBP, it was used as a hospital in both battles, and is one of three Passport locations for the park.
The Stone House is the iconic structure of Manassas NBP, it was a landmark in both battles fought here, and is one of three Passport locations for the park.

I recenty had occasion to make a return visit to Manassas National Battlefield Park.  Manassas can be a somewhat daunting park for visitors, as not one, but two major Civil War battles were fought here.  If you are the type of person who isn’t that in to military history, and who finds the descriptions of various troop movements  blending together – those feelings can be compounded when there are two battles fought a little more than one year apart being described in the same national park.

Fortunately, it can be possible to keep the historical events straight, and develop an appreciation for why the fields of Manassas are some of America’s most hallowed ground.

The main visitor center for the park is the Henry Hill Visitor Center, and has the main passport stamp for the park.  Henry Hill is located at the center of the First Battle of Manassas, fought in July 1861.  The First Battle of Manassas was the first major engagement of the Civil War, coming just three months after South Carolina had fired on Fort Sumter (now Fort Sumter National Monument.)

The key things to know about the First Battle of Manassas are that both sides went into it thinking this would be a quick and glorious war.  By the end of it, 900 young men were dead, the Union Army was beating a hasty retreat, and Confederate General Thomas Jackson had a new nickname: “Stonewall.”

Also worth noting about this battle is that you may also have heard it called the “First Battle of Bull Run.”  Interestingly, the Confederates tended to name battles after towns, such as Manassas Junction, whereas the Union troops tended to name battles after bodies of water, such as Bull Run.  The National Park Service’s convention is to use the name preferred by the side that prevailed in the battle itself.  Thus, the National Park Service refers to these battles as the 1st and 2nd Battles of Manassas – the name preferred the Confederate forces that won each battle.

 

This statue marks the spot where Confederate General Thomas Jackson rallied his troops by standing "like a stone wall."   The name stuck.  Photo taken in 2011.
This statue marks the spot where Confederate General Thomas Jackson rallied his troops by standing “like a stone wall.” The name stuck. Photo taken in 2011.

 

To get a good sense of the story of the 1st Battle of Manassas, from the Henry Hill Visitor Center you’ll want to take the one mile self-guided walking tour.   Be forewarned that much of this trail is out in the open, so if you are visiting during a hot summer day, you’ll want to wear a hat and bring plenty of water.   On a crisp fall-like day, like I had on my recent visit last month, however, the trail is absolutely delightful.   The handfull of wayside exhibits along the trail will give you a good overview of the one-day battle of 1st Manassas, and take you past some of the Park’s historic structures.

 

A view of the one-mile self-guided walking tour for the battle of 1st Manassas, looking back at the Henry Hill Visitor Center in the distance.
A view of the one-mile self-guided walking tour for the battle of 1st Manassas, looking back at the Henry Hill Visitor Center in the distance.

The 2nd Battle of Manassas was a much larger, and longer (lasting three days this time), engagement – leaving 3,300 dead.   In early 1862, Union General George McClellan boldly sailed his army down the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe  (present-day Fort Monroe National Monument) to launch a direct assault on the Confederate Capital of Richmond.   The Union Army was defeated at the end of June in the Seven Days’ Battles (now part of present-day Richmond National Battlefield Park), and was withdrawn back to Washington, DC.   This would set the stage for a second engagement at Manassas Junction at the end of August.

The best way to get an overview of 2nd Manassas is to visit the Brawner Farm interpretive center on the western edge of this park, which is also the third Passport location for the park.   There is also a one-mile self-guided walking tour here.   If you have more time, you can actually easily spend a whole day continuing the walking trails throughout the whole park, including Stuart’s Hill to the south and all the way to Matthew’s Hill and the Stone Bridge in the east.   For shorter visits, however, the National Park Service has identied a 12-stop driving tour that hits some of the highlights of the 2nd Battle of Manassas.

The Brawner Farm Interpretive Center contains this model of the colorful uniforms worn by the 5th New York Regiment, known as the zouave's.
The Brawner Farm Interpretive Center contains this model of the colorful uniforms worn by the 5th New York Regiment, known as the zouave’s.

If you don’t have time for the whole driving tour, I definitely recommend making it out to stop #5, for Sudley United Methodist Church, at the north end of the park.    The tour stop is on the west side of Virginia-234, but follow the walking trail across the road to the east side where a wayside exhibit tells one of the more remarkable human-interest stories of the park.

Moreover, if you are the tip of person who prefers to learn about ecology and natural beauty in the national parks, rather than military history, then tour stop #12 for the iconic Stone Bridge on the east side of the park is well worth it.   This tour stops includes a 1.5 mile loop hiking trail with cell phone interpretation on the ecology of Manassas National Battlefield Park.   Each wayside on the loop contains two audio recordings (available by cell phone), one geared towards adults and one geared towards children.   The trail starts be heading across the iconic stone bridge, and then heading in a counter-clockwise direction around the loop.

Since this is the Parkasaurus blog, I definitely encourage you to head to the first cell phone stop past the stone bridge and to the right. The audio recording here explains the history of dinosaurs at Manassas National Battlefield Park.  True story!

One of the many surprises at Manassas National Battlefield Park is that you may learn about dinosaurs at this stop on the cell phone tour at the Stone Bridge.
One of the many surprises at Manassas National Battlefield Park is that you may learn about dinosaurs at this stop on the cell phone tour at the Stone Bridge.

Manassas National Battlefield Park has three Pasport cancellations to collect:

  • Manassas, VA – for the Henry Hil Visitory Center (the main VC for the park)
  • Brawner Farm – for the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center and the 2nd Battle of Manassas
  • Stone House – at the historic stone house, which was an icon in both battles.

Additionally, all three of these locations also have a second Passport cancellation for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area.

Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Riding the Rails at Steamtown National Historic Site

Steamtown NHS

I recently had the occasion to make a return visit to Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania.   It wasn’t a tough choice to add Steamtown as a side-trip on a recent family road-trip – as the proud parent of a three-year-old boy who absolutely loves trains (and an almost-one-year-old girl as well); Steamtown NHS was sure to be a hit.

There is a little irony to that, of course, as Steamtown NHS isn’t always looked upon fondly by fans of the U.S. National Parks.   In my recent post on the Pullman District, I alluded to the fact that sometimes the normal study process for a new national park is cut short in the rush to create a designation.  Steamtown NHS is a particular case where that process was almost completely side-stepped.  In the mid-1980’s, with the Steamtown tourist attraction in Scranton suffering from financial trouble, the local Congressional delegation pushed through a national park designation for the site to have the National Park Service take over the site and hopefully raise it to prominence.

On the other hand, it strikes me that there is no question that the story of steam railroading in the United States is a story that is well worth telling as part of the National Park System.  After all, there are at least a half-dozen national park sites devoted to telling the story of coastal fortifications and defenses in the U.S. (that’s a story for a future blog post) – so surely one would imagine that the economic engine of steam railroading would be a worthwhile story for inclusion in the National Park System.  The flip side to that, of course, is whether there is any one place that is more suitable for telling that story than any other – and in particular, whether Steamtown, in Scranton, is that place.

The primary claim to fame of Steamtown NHS is that it has preserved an old-fashioned railroad roundhouse, including the railroad turntable in the center.  According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 30 roundhouses left in the United States – which makes the turntable and roundhouse at Steamtown rare enough, if not exactly unique.  It possible that the ones here at Steamtown are in better condition than the others, or are otherwise somehow more significant than the others – but if so, that isn’t yet clear to me.

During the age of steam railroading, roundhouses were exactly as the name implies – round.   The buildings would almost completely surround the central turntable, and the turntable would allow the rail cars to be distributed into any of the bays in the roundhouse.    Today, Steamtown NHS preserves only a small portion of the original full-circle roundhouse, along with a slight larger section of the roundhouse, which has been rebuilt.  Together, the original and reconstructed roundhouses now contain the Park’s collection of historic locomotives.   This collection was largely inherited from the original owners, although the National Park Service has made various trades, sales, and purchases over the years to increase the historical quality of the collection.

This photo from 2006 shows the turntable and the historic section of the roundhouse at Steamtown NHS.   During the author's visit in 2014, the turntable was under repairs.
This photo from 2006 shows the turntable and the roundhouse at Steamtown NHS. During the author’s visit in 2014, the turntable was under repairs.

As steam locomotives were replaced by diesel locomotives in the 20th Century, roundhouses were eventually rendered obsolete.    This was due to the fact that diesel locomotives had much different maintenance requirements than their steam locomotive predecessors.   Intuitively, this makes sense, as a steam locomotive required maintaining a fire within it – and that surely imposed a lot of wear and tear on the equipment in a way in which a modern diesel engine did not.   Thus, as diesel replaced steam, roundhouses were generally replaced with more modern maintenance facilities.

At Steamtown NHS, the turntable is once-again surrounded by a full circle of buildings, as the National Park Service has constructed museum buildings where the rest of the roundhouse once would have stood.   When standing in the area of the central turntable, this at least gives some of the historical feel of what standing inside the original full circle roundhouse might have felt like.

When visiting Steamtown NHS, there is a ticket booth directly between the parking lot and the roundhouse/turntable where you pay your admission.   Head into the visitor center on the left for orientation exhibits on the park.  Heading in a clockwise direction through the complex will take you first to the Technology Museum, which provides a great overview of the evolution of railroad technology over the years.

Continuing in a clockwise direction will take you through both the restored and historic roundhouses, and the park’s collection of historic locomotives.   On our visit, we found this to be the quickest part of the park to go through.   The historic locomotives were nice and all – but, if you aren’t really in to the ins-and-outs of historic trains, we found these exhibits overall less meaningfull than the others in the park.

At the end of the locomotive exhibit you reach the History Museum.  The history here is largely told through the lens of the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, which originally constructed and operated the roundhouse where this national park now sits.   It doesn’t appear that the D, L, & W was a railroad that was necessarily particularly more notable than several others that operated in this area – but it does appear to at least be representative.    The History Museum tells the story of turn-of-century railroading through the people who would have used and worked on the railroad, and is an easy set of exhibits to get “lost in” if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The last part of the roundhouse is the theatre – however, since we were making this visit with young children, we ultimately decided to skip the movie.

A view out the window on the train excursion tour.
A view out the window on the Scranton Limited train excursion tour.

 

A trip to a place like Steamtown NHS, of course, would not be complete without a train ride.   The Scranton Limited is the most-frequently-offered excursion, and provides a short 30-minute round-trip through the rail yards, past some of the historic buildings in downtown Scranton, and back.  Despite the name of the park, the Scranton Limited tour is conducted using a historic diesel locomotive.    Still, if you are travelling with little ones, the trip is sure to meet with approval.

A satisfied customer dreaming of a train ride!
A satisfied customer dreaming of a train ride!

 

Throughout the year, other train excursions are offerred, such as to regional festivals, or to the nearby town of Moscow, PA.   Also offered with some regularity is a program offering a chance to operate a railroad hand-cart – which definitely seems like it would be a fun option for a return visit when our kids are older.

For fans of the Passport to Your National Parks program, this national park has a single major cancellation to collect:

    • Scranton, PA

The cancellation is available in three locations in the park, at the ticket booth by the entrance, and the Ranger desk in the visitor center, and at the sales counter in the Park Bookstore.

Overall, the turntable, roundhouse, historic locomotives, and train excursion tours of Steamtown NHS may not quite rise to the level of being “one of the 400 most-important places in the United States.”   On the other hand, you couldn’t tell the story of the United States without including the rise of railroading technology; so it seems to me that if there wasn’t a Steamtown National Historic Site already as a national park, then we would there to be some national park like it.   And of course, if you happen to love trains, or have little ones who love trains, then Steamtown NHS is a can’t miss destination.

I captured the reflection of my three-year-old Jr. Parkasaurus in the window gazing out on one one of the park's historic locomotives.
I captured the reflection of my three-year-old Jr. Parkasaurus in the window gazing out on one one of the park’s historic locomotives.
Share this Parkasaurus post: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail
Follow Parkasaurus: Facebooktwittergoogle_plus