When Is a National Park Not a National Park?

The National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park is part of a national park that isn't a national park.  Photo from 2010.
The National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park is part of a national park that isn’t a national park. Photo from 2010.

This is Part 3 in a series on Counting the Parks, click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

One of the more unusual oddities about the 401 U.S. National Parks  is that some of them are national parks without being national parks.   What do I mean?

Just take a look at the names of the of the following parks, all of which count towards the total of 401 U.S. National Parks:

You may notice that all of these parks are missing the word national.   They are simply parks, not national parks, even though all of them are run by the National Park Service.   All of the above are within day-trip distance of Washington, DC – and so all seem to owe their designation in some way to the special history and relationship of our Federal government to the Nation’s Capital.   Here’s a bit more-detailed run-down of each of these six.  I will have to do a follow-up post on two other parks that also included in this group:

Catoctin Mountain Park is easily the most-scenic out of these six.  Located on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, it protects from development the area immediately surrounding the Camp David Presidential Retreat.   Recreational opportunities include several hiking trails and campgrounds, including several cabins and lodges.

Chimney Rock is one of several scenic spots in Catoctin Mountain Park.  Credit: Alicia Lafever, nps.gov
Chimney Rock is one of several scenic spots in Catoctin Mountain Park. Credit: Alicia Lafever, nps.gov

Fort Washington Park is perhaps surprisingly included in this category, rather than being designated a national monument or a national historic site.   This is one of at least a half-dozen national park sites that preserves the story of coastal defenses in the United States during the 19th Century (coastal defense forts were built to last – so they tend to make good historic sites.)   Fort Washington is located in Maryland, just downstream of Washington, DC on the Potomac River.   Today in addition to historical programs, it is a very popular picnic site for the local community.

Greenbelt Park is located in the planned community and Washington, DC suburb of Greenbelt, MD.   Greenbelt is one of three planned communities that arose out of the Great Depression, the others being Greenhils, OH near Cincinnati and Greendale, WI near Milwaukee.  I’ve often thought that it would be interesting for Greenbelt Park to develop a visitor center and exhibits dedicated to the history of urban planning in this country – but for now it is primarily a recreational park of mostly local interest.   If you are planning to visit the Nation’s Capital and would prefer to camp, rather than get a hotel room, then Greenbelt Park is the place to go – as it is a very short drive from the Greenbelt Metro Station.

Piscataway Park is located not that far from Fort Washington Park in southern Maryland.   It was originally set aside to preserve the natural view from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.  (Interestingly, Mount Vernon would rank near the top of any list of “most famous places in the U.S. that are not national parks” – but that’s a topic for anotherpost.)   In addition to preserving the sightlines for moder-day visitors to Mount Vernon, Piscataway Park also hosts the National Colonial Farm – a living history park of Colonial Farming practices.   This makes it one of at least three living history colonial farms in the National Park System, along with the Claude Moore Colonial Farm on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Northern Virginia and the farm at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana.

Prince Wiliam Forest Park is very similar to Greenbelt Park in primarily a recreational park primarily of local interest near Quanitco Marine Corps Base,  a little more than an hour south of Washington, DC in northern Virginia.  There are several hiking trails in the park,  including the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, as well as a large campground, and the park loop road is very popular with joggers and bicyclists.  There are also a number of interpretive displays here on the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in building this park during the Great Depression.   This park also has more than a few hidden gems, including a historic pyrite mine and a tree stump from a petrified forest.

This petrified tree stump is one of the surprising hidden gems to be found at Prince William Forest Park.


Finally, Rock Creek Park is located right within Washington, DC itself.   Its interesting to note that it was established by Congress all the way back in 1890, four days before Yosemite National Park was established – making it one of the oldest parks in the U.S. National Park System.  Although it is more than twice as large as New York’s Central Park – it is largely managed as wild area, rather than as manicured landscape.  Among the recreational highlights of the park are a Planitarium at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, as well as horse stables.

All told, none of these six parks would be at the top of one’s list if you were visiting the United States from another country, or even if you were visiting the east coast from the other side of the country.   With that being said, all of them have their highlights and interesting bits of history to investigate, particularly if you are attempting to be a “park completist.”

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More on Visiting Cabrillo National Monument

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
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Celebrating Cabrillo

This statue of the Portugese explorer Juan Rodriguez Explorer Cabrillo is the iconic centerpiece of Carbillo National Monument in San Diego. Picture is from the author’s visit in 2012.

Next weekend, September 27th-28th, 2014, Cabrillo National Monument will be joining in San Diego’s 51st Annual Cabrillo Festival.   The Festival commemorates the explorer’s arrival in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542 – just 50 years after Christopher Columbus’ first arrival in the “New World.”

Cabrillo National Monument is one of three units of the National Park System that is dedicated by name to European exploration of the Americas.   The Coronado National Memorial on the Arizona-Mexico border commemorates the 1540 arrival of Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado – an expedition that would reach as far north and east as Kansas, before returning to Mexico.   The De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida commemorates the 1539 arrival of the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto – an expedition that would reach as far north and west as the Mississippi River before returning to Mexico.

From a “counting the parks” perspective, its interesting to note that the Cabrillo site is designated a National Monument, whereas the other two are National Memorials.    This is because the Cabrillo site was originally established via a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 under the Antiquities Act, and all sites designated under the Antiquities Act are established as national monuments.  By contrast, Congress authorized establishment of the Coronado National Memorial in 1941, and the De Soto National Memorial was authorized by Congress in 1948.  As near as I can tell, there hasn’t been any movement to normalize Cabrillo’s designation by redesignating it as a national memorial.   Then again, maybe I’m one of the few people who worry about such things…

This festival caught my attention because it made me wonder if this might not be the earliest date that is marked annually by the National Park Service.  I know that’s kind of an interesting concept to think about.   None of the American Indians in the present-day United States, so far as I know, left us with a written calendar that could correspond to an actual date.  Thus, the “earliest date” marked in the National Park System, would have to date back to the age of European exploration of the Americas.

Right now, I am not aware of any similar “arrival day” celebrations at Coronado or De Soto.  By contrast, the British wouldn’t arrive at Jamestown, which is now part of Colonial National Historical Park, until May 4, 1607.  Three years before that, in 1604, the French attempted to establish a colony on the present-day border of Maine and New Brunswick, at what is now Saint Croix Island International Historic Site.   Even earlier than that was the famous “lost colony” of Roanoke, established by the British in North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1586.  That site is now Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – but that is still 42 years later after these expeditions by the Spanish explorers.

It turns out, though, that to find the earliest candidate date in the National Park System, you have to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands.  There, Salt River Bay Ecological & Historical Preserve marks the spot where Christopher Columbus himself landed on his second voyage to the Western Hemispher, on  November 14, 1493.   So there you have it, as near as I can tell, this is the earliest date marked in the National Park System.

As a postscript to this story, its interesting to note that of the three early Spanish conquistadors/explorers comemorated in the National Park System, 1542 was a rough year.   Hernando de Soto would die of a fever somewhere near the Mississippi River in Arkansas or Louisiana on May 21, 1542.  Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo would shatter one of his legs on sharp rocks later that year in November, and he would pass away on January 3, 1543.  Only Francisco Vasquez de Coronado would safely return to Mexico from his expedition, and he would ultimately live until 1554, when he would die at the age of 43 or 44.  Ironically, this was roughly the age of De Soto and Carbrillo when they met their demises as well.

Mama, don’t let your kids grow up to be conquistadors…..




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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.

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New Video on Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park

The Temple of the Patriarchs is one of the iconic landmarks of Zion National Park.
The Court of the Patriarchs is one of the iconic landmarks of Zion National Park.


Thanks to the Undiscovered America Podcast, I recently discovered the Unboring Exploring YouTube video series – which are a set of videos designed to encourage people to explore the outdoors.   The latest episode of Unboring Exploring is on the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion National Park, and its a real gem.

Angel’s Landing has a reputation as being one of the most-spectacular and also one of the scariest trails in the national park system.   People can and do fall from this trail – but that is surprisingly also true for a great many other trails that are not as famously-vertigo-inducing.

Anyhow, if you are unable to make the trip out to Zion, or if like me, you decide that your natural fear of heights recommends taking some of the other amazing trails in the park, then Unboring Exploring’s video is a great way to experience some of what you miss on the Angel’s Landing trail:

As I mentioned, on my own trip to Zion National Park in 2006, I opted for a hike with a slightly wider trail to it than Angel’s Landing.   If you do choose to pass up the crowds on the Angel’s Landing Trail, then the Echo Canyon Trail is a great choice.   The walk up Echo Canyon provides some nice respite from the heat, and the views of Zion Valley at the top are also spectacular.   Here’s my picture from the top, you can see Angel’s Landing in the center of the valley directly behind and to the right of my left elbow.  You can also get a good view of the narrow path up to the “top” (the trail continues past this point as the East Rim Trail, but many day-hikers turn back from this point, as I did.)

The view from the overlook at the top of the Echo Canyon trail gives you a chance to gaze back on Angel's Landing

The view from the overlook at the top of the Echo Canyon trail gives you a chance to gaze back on Angel’s Landing.


As you can see from the video and these pictures, the scenery in Zion National Park will never fail to impress.

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Vote for Parkasaurus, Win a Free Trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton!

The Parkasaurus Blog is honored to be a finalist in the National Park Foundation’s Summer Scrapbook contest in the Learning & Discovery category with the following photograph:

Vote for this picture and you could win!
Vote for this picture and you could win!

This picture dates from my epic 2004 trip following the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.   You can read more about it on the National Park Foundation’s contest page.

The way the contest works is that there are 10 finalists in each of 8 categories.  Definitely take the time to read through some of the entries (especially in the other categories, of course!), as there are some great stories in there.   You can vote for one finalist in each category each day – and voting lasts through September 29th.  Each time you vote, you will be entered into a drawing for a trip to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

So please, vote early and vote often!

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A Star-Spangled 200th Anniversary at Ft. McHenry National Monument

Photo Credit: NPS.gov
Photo Credit: NPS.gov

This weekend  (September 13-14, 2014) will be a big one at Ft. McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, as they celebrate the 200th anniversary of the bombing of Ft. McHenry by British troops during the War of 1812.   This is the event, of course, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write his epic poem, The Defense of Ft. McHenry.   This poem was later set to a drinking song, To Anacreaon in Heaven, and was renamed The Star-Spangled Banner.

The festivities are off to a great start, however, with this fantastic aerial photo of a “living” Star-Spangled Banner on the grounds of the national park:

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Carter Woodson Home Set to Finally Open in August 2015


One of the newest national parks is the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, located in Washington, DC’s historically African-American Shaw Neighborhood.   Carter Woodson is the founder of Negro History Week, which today we celebrate as African-American History Month.

Of course, it is one thing to establish a national park, it is another thing to make it open to the public.   The house was in pretty bad shape when the National Park Service acquired it and saved it from the wrecking ball.   This close up shot of the front door is illustrative of the general condition of things:


Thus, even though  Carter G. Woodson Home NHS became the 390th Unit of the National Park System back in February 2006*, it has pretty much been closed to visitation ever since.  That has made the claim of “visiting” this national park something of a philosophical question ever since then.  For many, the most that could be reasonably expected for a visit has been simply standing on the front stoop, and checking out the small exhibit on Carter Woodson at the nearby Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.   Beyond that, another option is that with a little planning ahead, the National Park Service has begun offering some very interesting walking tours of the neighborhood.

I was actually lucky enough, however, to get a relatively rare “sneak peak” inside the home before the National Park Service had had any opportunity to do any restoration work.   Suffice to say, it wasn’t much to look at:



…and then there is this look down the main hallway – where the ceiling was literally falling in!



Anyhow, the good news to come out this past week is that Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is the District of Columbia’s non-voting representative in Congress, and who led the charge for establishing this national park, has announced that the park will be ready to open in August 2015.   The opening of the park will include the house itself, as well as the two homes immediately adjacent to the historic home, which are being converted by the National Park Service into a full-fledged visitor center for the park.    The opening will also be a fitting way to mark the centennial of Dr. Woodson founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915.

Although I’m not actually aware of any plans in this regard, that may actually open an opportunity for this site to also serve as the visitor center for the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, which is only a few blocks away.  Right now, visitor services for that site are crammed into a downstairs room within the house itself.   Indeed, given that Carter Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune were contemporaries of each other in the greater Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, it might be intriguing for Congress to consider down the road merging the two national park sites into a single “Washington African-American Heritage National Historical Park” that would tell the broader story of the path to civil rights for African-Americans living in the nation’s capitol in the earlier 20th Century.

At any rate, this is certainly good news for anyone trying to offficially visit all of the national parks.   I’ll have to consider writing a future post on national parks that are closed to the public.   In the meantime, hopefully this announcement means that signs like this will be soon be a thing of the past:



* – As an interesting historical footnote, the very day that the NPS acquired the Carter Woodson Home, thus making it an “official” national park (albeit not open to the public), President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act to establish the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City as the 391st national park on the same day.  The significance of the “lost history” of the African Burial Ground in colonial New York City becoming a national park on the same day as a national park dedicated to the founder of African-American History Month was established was certainly in the front of everyone’s minds who were involved in that designation.

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New Passport Stamps for September 2014

In addition to trying to visit all the U.S. National Parks, I’m also a big fan of the Passport to Your National Parks program.   In fact, I am not entirely sure which idea came to my first – trying to visit all the U.S. National Parks or trying to collect all the cancellations in the Passport Program.  The two goals, at least back when I started, really seemed to go hand-in-hand… by trying to collect all the passport cancellations, I would naturally visit all the national parks in the process, and vice-versa.

The Passport Program is sponsored by Eastern National, Inc. – which is the non-profit cooperating association that operates the bookstores for many of the national park sites in the eastern United States.   Since many of the national parks in the eastern U.S. lack the publicity of a Yellowstone or a Grand Canyon, the passport program was initially conceived as a way to promote visitation to all of the national parks, both large and small, both famous and off-the-beaten-path.

Each month, Eastern National releases the list of new Passport Cancellations.   This month there are four of them:

    • Cape Lookout National Seashore | Beaufort, NC
    • Independence NHP | Franklin Court Printing Office
    • Erie Canalway National Heritage Area | H.  Lee White Marine Museum
    • Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom | New Castle Court House Museum

By my count that brings the total number of passport cancellations in the program to approximately 1,929 active major cancellations.   Obviously, with only 401 national parks, that works out to many more than one cancellation per national park!   That’s in part because larger parks may have multiple cancellations for different locations throughout the park, and other parks may have special cancellations available for a specific anniversary celebration, such as the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

For example, this new cancellation brings Independence National Historical Park up to 8 available active cancellations.  7 of them are in downtown Philadelphia:

    • Philadelphia, PA (at the main visitor center)
    • Liberty Bell
    • Franklin Court (where a museum stands on the location of Ben Franklin’s former house)
    • Benjamin Franklin Museum
    • Franklin Court Printing Office (where the National Park Service has restored Ben Franklin’s print shop for working demonstrations)
    • Declaration House (where Thomas Jefferson did most of the writing for the Declaration of Independence)
    • Old City Hall (which was used by the U.S. Supreme Court from 1791-1800 while the U.S. Capitol was in Philadelphia

The eighth is for the Germantown White House, which is a house in what was in the 18th century then-suburban Germantown.  President Washington stayed there to escape a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia during Philadelphia’s time is the national capital.

While Independence National Historical Park includes dozens of other buildings in downtown Philadelphia, perhaps the most-notable thing about this list of passport cancellations is that there are now three stamps for Benjamin Franklin, as well as a stamp for the Liberty Bell, but no specific stamp for visiting Independence Hall – the iconic centerpiece of the park itself.   Go figure!

The new stamp for Cape Lookout National Seashore is not surprising as they just opened a new visitor information center in the Beaufort, NC Town Hall, which was the former site of the post office there. This cancellation gives Cape Lookout four active cancellations:

    • Beaufort, NC – as mentioned above
    • Harker’s Island, NC – the park headquarters, main visitor center, and primary ferry departure point to Cape Lookout itself are all here
    • Light Station Visitor Center – this is the main visitor center on Cape Lookout itself, it is only accessible by ferry
    • Portsmouth Village – it actually takes two ferries to reach this remote location, a place that is legendary for the epic number of mosquitoes on the island!

The other thing which boosts the total number of cancellations is that the National Park Service does much more than simply manage the U.S. National Park System.   In particular, it operates a number of partnership programs, including National Heritage Areas, which opens the Passport Program to other sites that aren’t themselves national parks..

The new location for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Area gives that program 27 total cancellations.   Of those, four are located at national parks located within the Erie Canalway National Heritage Area.  The other 23, like the H. Lee White Marine Museum, in Oswego, NY are other historic sites that are not Federally-run, but participate in the Passport Program through the National Heritage Area partnership program with the National Park Service.

Finally, the Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom is yet another partnership program.  In this case, special Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom passport stamps are given to any of the 401 national park sites that tells the story of slavery or emancipation in some way, shape, or form.  This site is going to the New Castle, Delaware Old Court House Museum, which is part of First State National Monument.  The Old Court House was the site of a famous trial of Thomas Garrett and John Hunn, who were convicted of working as stationmasters on the Underground Railroad in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act.    This cancellation brings the number of active and available Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom cancellations to 26.

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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.
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