Carter Woodson Home Set to Finally Open in August 2015

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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:

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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:

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

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Yikes!

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:

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* – 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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Two Great National Park Pictures

I’ve recently come across two absolutely amazing pictures from national parks, and both are very well worth checking out:

1) NASA’s long-running Astronomy Picture of the Day blog featured a new picture from Yellowstone National Park on August 27th.  This amazing shot, taken within the last month by professional photographer Dave Lane is a stunning composition of the Milky Way arching over multi-colored thermal hot springs.   Be sure to check it out!

2) The second is a stunning photo from Dan Robinson’s Storm Highway blog of lightning striking the Gateway Arch in St. Louis – which is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.    It turns out that lightning doesn’t strike the Gateway Arch quite as often as you might think.    You can check out his stunning photograph here, or watch the video here.

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A Pullman National Historical Park in Chicago?

One of my favorite topics is following possible new additions to the U.S. National Park System.

This week there has been quite a bit of news surrounding the possibility of a Pullman National Historical Park due to a visit by National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to a town hall meeting in Chicago on the topic.

The U.S. National Park System includes many historic places, but we don’t often think of our industrial heritage as being among those places.  The Pullman District of Chicago was a company town – founded by George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company.  Pullman Cars are, of course, nearly synonomous with “railroad sleeping cars,” in the way that a hundred years later “Xerox” would become nearly synonomus with “photocopu.”  The town of Pullman was also apparently the first industrial company town – which as near as I can tell is a distinction that excludes coal mining company towns, like Blue Heron in the Big South Fork NRRA.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was founded by George Pullman in 1867, shortly after the end of the civil war.  The business model of the company was to lease its rail cars to the railroads, and to provide the staffing for those cars at the same time – with many of those employees being recently-freed former slaves.   The town of Pullman, which was then separate from Chicago, was founded in 1880 out of a combination of the Pullman Palace Car Company’s need for a new factory, and George Pullman’s belief that the industrialists of the day should use their wealth for the betterment of their workers.

Nowadays, the idea of a “company town” seems like an almost completely foreign concept – well at odds with our modern conception of freedom.   In many ways, Pullman was a remarkable feat of central planning – with the size of your house determined by your rank within the company, and a prohibition on saloons within the town.

Now, industrial heritage isn’t always the first thing that we think of when we think of national parks – but there are a few examples.   Lowell National Historical Park is generally the prototypical example, where the old cotton mills are now a successful national park and tourist destination in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Other examples of industrial heritage-themed national parks include Thomas Edison’s laboratories at Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, and the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

Along those lines,  its interesting to note that even Jon Jarvis brings up the fact that adding the Pullman site to the Passport to Your National Parks Program as one of the attractions for designating it as a national park.   There’s no question that designation as a national park immediately adds a site to an awful lot of peoples’ bucket lists.

With that being said, the national significance of the Pullman District seems difficult to question.   The area was the site of a major strike, and so was instrumental in the development of labor unions in this country.  Moreover, the Pullman Company was also the first company to develop a predominantly African-American labor union.  With 90% of the historic buildings still in tact, there seems to be a strong case that the Pullman District would be an ideal place to tell the story of how the Industrial Revolution in this country transitioned into the pre-Great War Gilded Age.

If you want the full details, you can read more about the National Park Service’s initial assessment of the Pullman District as a candidate national park by checking out their Reconnaisance Survey.  As the survey makes clear, however, ideally the Reconnaisance Survey would just be a first step on the way to a complete Special Resource Study of the Pullman District that would fully evaluate the area against the four established criteria for establishing a new national park.   Although several recent national parks have been designated by the President under the Antiquities Act without waiting for the Special Resource Study to be completed (let alone waiting for Congress to take action by designating the park and also establishing a budget for the new park), I generally lean towards wanting to let the established process play out and letting the career professionals in the National Park Service do their job.   By all accounts, the Pullman District isn’t in immediate danger of decay or development, so it seems that there is plenty of time to allow that to happen.

On the other hand, the initial assessment seems to be pretty clearly pointing towards the Pullman District being a worthy addition to the U.S. National Park System.  Indeed, it seems kind of amazing that a storied city like Chicago does not yet have a single national park site of any kind within its boundaries.   Given those considerations, and reading between the lines of Director Jon Jarvis’ comments, it seems that the Pullman District will be taking its place in the U.S. National Park System sooner rather than later – my guess would be almost certainly before another famous Chicagoan moves on to other things in 2017.

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When Is a National Scenic Trail a National Park?

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The author on the Appalachian NST near Boiling Springs, PA. The Appalachian NST is one of three trails that are also counted as a national park as well.

One of the tricky aspects about visiting all of the U.S. National Parks is just identifying the list of what are the national parks in the first place.  In my first post, I mentioned that there are three National Scenic Trails in the U.S. National Park System, and I thought that I would write a little bit more about them. The list of U.S. National Parks includes three national scenic trails;

And yet, there are a total eleven national scenic trails in the United States.  So why does these three “count,” but not the other eight?   What makes these three so special?

Officially, the designation of a long-distance hiking route as a national scenic trail was established by the National Trails System Act of 1968.  Of course, the grand-daddy of them all, the Appalachian Trail was first conceived all the way back in the early 1920’s.   Not too long after that, the parallel concept of of a Pacific Crest Trail was proposed in the 1930’s, running along the Sierra Nevadas. Both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated the first two national scenic trails in 1968.  Confusingly, however, the Appalachian NST became a national park site, but the Pacific Crest NST did not.   In particularly, the National Park Service was authorized to purchase most of the right-of-way for the Appalachian Trail – in that respect, at least, making it a true national park.  The Pacific Crest NST, on the other hand, largely runs through existing national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management land, and existing state parks.

By 1980, three other national scenic trails were designated.  The Continental Divide NST would parallel the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails by running down the spine of the Rocky Mountains.   The North Country NST, on the other hand, would turn long-distance trails on their head by running mostly east-west from Lake Champlain in upstate New York to Lake Sakakawea in central North Dakota.    Finally, the Ice Age NST would become the first single-state national scenic trail, making a long loop connecting sites throughout the state of Wisconsin. None of trails, however, authorized the acquisition of land by the National Park Service, and so none of these three trails are officially listed as national parks -even though the National Park Service is the lead Federal liaison for both the North Country and Ice Age Trails.  (The US Forest Service, in the Department of Agriculture, is the lead Federal agency for the Continental Divide Trail.)

In 1983, however, three more national scenic trails would be designated.   The Florida NST runs from the end of the Florida Panhandle all the way down to Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Everglades National Park, and is not counted as a national park.  On the other hand, the Natchez Trace NST and the Potomac Heritage NST would both receive this distinction.  The Natchez Trace NST was designed to run alongside the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.  The Potomac Heritage NST was designated to run along the tow-path of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland and Washington, DC, with extensions eastward through Maryland and Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay, and an extension westwards to Pittsburgh.  In this respect, both the Natchez Trace NST and Potomac Heritage NST were unique in that although the National Park Service would not be acquiring additional Federal land for these trails (as was done for the Appalachian NST), these two new trails would be running in large part through existing Federal land – indeed through existing National Park Service land.

I actually had occasion to contact the National Park Service about this issue, and they indicated to me that shortly after these new trails were designated in the 1983, the legal department at the National Park Service Headquarters made the determination that these two new trails should be counted as national parks.   Although they did not cite the specific legal rationale that was made all those years ago, I almost have to believe that the fact that these trails were largely designated on National Park Service land must have played a role in the determination.   The irony, of course, is that since the Natchez Trace Parkway and C&O Canal NHP are both already national parks, in many cases these trails become places where you can “visit two parks at once!”   Go figure!

Anyhow, its worth noting that it would be 26 years before another national scenic trail would be designated.  In 2009, three new national scenic trails were created: the Arizona NST runs north-south through the State of Arizona, the New England NST runs from Long Island Sound in Connecticut to the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, and the Pacific Northwest NST runs from the Continental Divide NST in Montana to Olympic National Park in Washington State.  None of these three, however, are counted as national parks.

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The Best Places in Dinosaur National Monument

When starting a blog with a name like Parkasaurus, I immediately began thinking about at what point I would blog about Dinosaur National Monument – which is the only national park site dedicated to interpreting dinosaur fossils.   Fortunately, the folks over at the Destination Isolation Blog have just put up a great post on their Top 8 Sites in Dinosaur National Monument, and it is very much worth checking out.

The centerpiece of Dinosaur NM is the Carnegie Quarry Hall where around 1,500 dinosaur bones have been left in situ, in the rock, just where paleontologists would have found them. Destination Isolation’s post is a good reminder, however, that Dinosaur NM is about so much more than just gazing at dinosaur fossils and exhibits.  This park actually has more than 300 square miles to explore, including petroglyphs, desert peaks, and rafting on the Green and Yampa Rivers.   In fact, the #3 site on their list is the rock art at Echo Canyon, about which they write: “we have seen many rock art sites in our travels but this was our favorite. There are not many but they sure are unique.”   I have to agree, be sure to click on their post to see the photograph.   This will definitely be a site on my “to-do list” the next time I am able to make a return visit to northeast Utah and northwest Colorado.

For those of you in the Passport to Your National Parks program, Dinosaur National Monument has traditionally had two passport stamps to collect:

  • Jensen, UT – at the Quarry Visitor Center on the western side of the park, in Utah; and
  • Dinosaur, CO – at the Canyon Area Visitor Center on the eastern side of the park, in Colorado.

Ironically, despite the name of the town in Colorado, if you are primarily interested in seeing the dinosaur fossils, you need to go to the Utah side of the park at the Quarry Exhibit Hall.  After being closed for more than two years due to structural damage to the old Quarry Exhibit Hall, a brand new Exhibit Hall and brand new Quarry Visitor Center were opened in 2011.

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Harriet Tubman National Monument

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I recently had occasion to visit one of the newest national parks, the Harriet Tubman – Underground Railroad National Monument on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There’s very little doubt that Harriet Tubman’s profile in American History and in modern-day American imagination makes her worthy of being honored with a site in the U.S. National Park System.   There’s also no question that for years the absence of a national park site dedicated to the Underground Railroad was a surprising omission.    However, the simple truth is that when it comes to historical places,  time is not always kind.

Nevertheless, the significance of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is beyond dispute.  Moreover, the State of Maryland was particularly eager to establish this national park as a catalyst for tourism on the Eastern Shore, which culminated in President Obama using the Antiquities Act to proclaim the area as a National Monument and the 399th unit of the U.S. National Park System in March 2013.

There’s no question that visiting a brand-new national park is much different than visiting one that has been fully established.   You won’t see many NPS Rangers in their wide-brimmed hats for one.   In fact, there is not yet an official visitor center, no scheduled ranger programs, and in fact,  there is not yet much in the way of any interpretive materials.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a visit can’t be worthwhile.   If you are interested in the Passport Program, there are currently a whopping three different cancellations to collect:

  • Cambridge, MD – This is the main stamp for the Park, and is kept at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, as many of the main sites for this park are located within the Wildlife Refuge boundaries.
  • Harriet Tubman Organization – This is kept at the Harriet Tubman Museum in downtown Cambridge.   This site has very limited hours, mostly in the middle of the day, so be sure to check ahead.   There also isn’t really much a musuem just yet, but these are the offices for the non-profit association that will be helping this new national park get off the ground.
  • Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway – This is kept at the Dorchester County Visitor Center at Sailwinds Park, which is the main tourism visitor center for the area.

To visit this Park, definitely stop at the Dorchester County Visitor Center, regardless of whether you collect the stamps.  You can pick up the official NPS Unigrid Brochure for the park here, as well as two brochures on the Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway.  The Byway will take you past severl of the places that are part of the official National Monument, as well as beyond into the surrounding areas, as  you follow the story of Harriet Tubman’s life.

Better yet, before you go, be sure to download the Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway app for your smart phone.  You will want to make sure that you do the download before you go as it requires a download of extra data once you open the app for the first time, and you’ll want to use a wi-fi connection to do that.   The app really enhances the Harriet Tubman experience, though,  bringing her story to life with all the production values of an old-school radio play.

Although there is not much to see just yet, other than the landscape which in many places is little-changed from when Harriet Tubman lived here, it is still possible to bring this story to life.

Meanwhile, progress is being made – here is what the site of the future visitor center, to be operated by the Maryland State Park Service, currently looks like:

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Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area

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One of the joys of undertaking the journey to try and visit all the units in the US National Park System is coming across special places that few people on your block have ever heard of.   Unless you live in eastern Tennessee or southern Kentucky, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is probably just one of those areas.

A lot of factors probably contribute to the Big South Fork NRRA’s relative obscurity.  For one thing, its name, Big South Fork, consists of three adjectives desperately searching for a noun.   For another, despite my recent attempt to organize the classifications of the National Park System, this park somehow manages to be simultaneously both a national river andnational recreation area.  (For what its worth, the Big South Fork is usually included on the list of national recreation areas, and not on the list of national rivers.)  On top of all that, it is located just 100 miles away from that tourist-magnet, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is only the most-visited national park in the National Park System.

The Big South Fork NRRA is located in northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky, and preserves both the free-flowing character of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, as well as the surrounding gorges and plateaus.  Its not clear to me why “of the Cumberland River” got dropped from the official name of this park.  Then again, maybe I’m the only one who thinks that even if adding those words make the name longer, it would certainly give this relatively unknown park a stronger brand.

Anyhow, back in 2013 I was driving with my family from Mississippi back home to Maryland when we made the last-minute decision to add a swing past Big South Fork NRRA to our itinerary.  I had actually previously been to Big South Fork NRRA back in 2001,  but only for a short time to swim in the river in the southern portion of the park.  I had always regretted not having more time to explore this park, and so was excited to take this opportunity.

In one of those fortunate/unfortunate coincidences, we didn’t pay close attention to our GPS routing and found ourselves travelling northbound on Divide Road/Laurel Ridge Road, which forms much of the park’s western boundary.   Almost all of the park’s visitation facilities are in the eastern and southern portions of the park, so this was a side of the park that relatively few travellers get to see.  The western portion of the park includes a number of interesting trailheads, including the trail to Twin Arches – which is one of the top hikes in the park.  Also in the vicinity is the trail to the rustic cabins of the Charit Creek Lodge, one of the rare hike-in lodges in the US National Park System.

Our destination for this particular trip, however, was the Blue Heron Coal Mining Community.   The centerpiece of  Blue Heron is a preserved coal tippler.  Further exploration, however, will reveal that the National Park Service has created frame-reconstructions of the homes and buildings from Blue Heron’s hey-days.  The frame reconstructions show you the outlines of what the building would have looked like, only without walls and roofs.   The special treat, however, is that inside each building was an audio recording from the people who used to live here.   And because Blue Heron was an operating coal mine within living memory, the recordings were the voices of the people who actually lived here – telling the stories of growing up in a company-owned coal mining town in southeastern Kentucky in the early 20th Century.

The experience was totally enthralling.  I probably spent an hour listening to the recordings, and it wasn’t enough time to take them all in.   Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience like few others – and one that you really wouldn’t expect from a park with a name like Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Of course there is much more to explore in the Park, including whitewater rafting opportunities down the Big South Fork of the Cumberland, and an excursion sight-seeing train that runs on the weekends.    Even more unusually, it turns out that the Big South Fork NRRA is one of the few units in the National Park System that permits hog hunting!

The bottom line for this park is that although you can certainly get a taste of it in a half-day visit, if you truly want to experience all that this park has to offer, you should definitely plan at least a full day, if not a weekend-trip for visiting this park.

For those of you who are collectors in the Passport to Your National Parks program, the Big South Fork NRRA has traditionally had three stamp groups to collect:

  • Oneida, TN – for the Bandy Creek Visitor Center at the southern end of the park;
  • Stearns, KY – for the ranger station/visitor center at Stearns Depot on the northern end of the park; and
  • Blue Heron – for the preserved Blue Heron coal mining community, which is the interpretative highlight of the park.

In August 2014, Eastern National announced two additional stamp groups for this park:

  • Historic Rugby, TN – for the gateway community at the southern end of the park;
  • Crossville, TN – which appears to be located well to the south of the park.

You can read more by checking out Chance Finegan’s write-up of Big South Fork NRRA for the National Parks Traveler Blog.

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Just What Is a National Park Anyways? And How Do You Get 401 of Them?

Whenever I tell people that I’m trying to visit all of the U.S. National Parks at least once, one of the first questions that inevitably follows is: “How many national parks are there?”

When I answer that “there’s 401 of them,” their eyes often grow big, as many people have no idea there’s so many.  That reaction is then often followed by something along the lines of “Oh, so you mean that you are trying to visit not just national parks, but also all the national monuments, and national historic sites, right?”

Well, yes and no.   There are indeed only 59 places with the designation national park,  which are places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon, which most people think of when they hear the term national park.  However, there’s nothing simple or straightforward about what are the other kinds of designations that make up the U.S. National Park System.  Its pretty much the case that there’s a list, and you just simply have to know what’s on the list.  I’ll try and give a brief overview of what I mean here, and from time to time I’m planning to come back to this topic to explain more of the details.

So, without further ado, her are the designations that make up the National Park System:

National Parks – You can’t go wrong with this one.  There are 59 of these, and not surprisingly, all 59 count towards the list of national park sites.

National Historic Sites & National Historical Parks – There are 125 of these – the most of any type.  In theory, a national historical park is simply a larger, or more-expansive, national historic site.  In practice, I find there isn’t often a clear line of distinction between the two, (as with so many things!)  In any event, the vast majority of these areas count towards the list of national park sites, but there are a few exceptions, which I’ll discuss in a future post.  The 125 sites also includes one International Historic Site.

National Monuments – Just to make things confusing, would you believe thate the Washington Monument is notnational monument? There are 75 of these.  For the most part, a national monument is an outstanding natural area or historical/archaeological area that was protected by a Presidential proclamation – although there are exceptions to that too.  A great many national monuments are national parks, but a great many are not as well.  In fact,  there are no fewer than six different Federal agencies that manage national monuments.

National Memorials – Most of these are national park sites, and many of the 29 of those that are national park sites are in Washington, D.C.   The Lincoln Memorial is one, as is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and so is the Washington Monument.

National Battlefields & National Military Parks – Quick, think of the name of a famous Civil War or Revolutionary War Battlefield.  Odds are, the place you thought of is a national park site.  There are 25 of these.

National Recreation Areas – Just like national monuments, many of these are national park sites and many of them are not.  There are 18 of these that are national park sites, and they generally come in two varieties: many of them are reservoirs created by hydroelectric dams for water-based recreation, the others are scattered areas of urban parklands that were created to “bring the national park experience to the people.”

National Seashores & Lakeshores – There are 14 of these, and they are pretty much what the name says they are.   As near as I can tell, all of them are national park sites.

Parkways – The are actually four road-based national parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway probably being the most-famous (and also being one of my favorite national parks.)   The National Park Service actually operates several other parkways – but there’s only four that count as stand-alone national park sites.

National Scenic Trails – There are eleven long-distance national scenic trails out there, but only 3 of these that are national park sites, the most-famous of which is surely the Appalachian Trail.

National Rivers – If you thought this list was inconsistent up until now, the rivers in the National Park System only add to the confusion. This category includes some places designated as wild & scenic rivers, some as scenic & recreational rivers, some as wild rivers, and some as just plain national rivers.  Whatever their designations, all are considered part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System to protect their wild & scenic nature, or outstanding recreational opportunities.   Many of them are managed by the National Park Service, while many others are not.   Out of those managed by the NPS,  15 have risen to the status of being full-fledged national park sites.

National Preserves & National Reserves – Most of these, but not quite all, are national park sites, a total of 20 to be exact.  These are protected areas that generally allow a greater amount of human activity, such as hunting and trapping, that generally are not allowed in other national park sites.  Perhaps most-confusing is the fact that 9 out of the 20 of these are actually part of a bigger “national park & preserve” – which is a large national park that effectively “counts twice” towards the total of 401 national parks.

Odds & Ends – Finally, there are 11 national park sites that don’t fit into any of the above categories.  Some of them are just plain unique sites.  For example, did you know the White House is managed by the National Park Service?  Many of the others are parklands around the Greater Washington, DC Metropolitan Area that just happen to be managed by the National Park Service for historical reasons.

So there you have it!  That’s how you get to 401 national parks.

Thus, if you say that you are going to try and visit all 401 national parks, you can say that you will be visiting all the national parks,  as well as all the national seashores & lakeshores, and all the national battlefields & national military parks.  You can also say that you will be visiting most of the national historic sites & national historical parks, as well as most of the national memorials, and most of the national preserves  national reserves.   Beyond that, you can say that you will also be visiting many national monuments and many national memorials, as well as many other places that don’t fit nice and easy classifications.

What you can say, however, is that almost every visit to one of the 401 national park sites in this country will be special, and will reflect that National Park Service’s special commitment to visitation and interpretation of America’s most-important treasures.

 

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Visiting All 417 National Parks