Last summer I wrote a post for this blog about the National Memorials of Western Pennsylvania, which kicked off an interest in NPS history that I have since written about twice more in this space: this past fall I documented my insider’s tour of Morristown National Historical Park and last winter I covered Frederick Douglass National Historic Site as well as Booker T. Washington National Monument. Inspired by the upcoming NPS centennial, which President Obama discussed in his most recent weekly address, I have spent parts of this summer posting about my visits to midwestern memorials, parks, and sites run by the NPS from central Ohio to eastern Missouri through a blog I named the National Park History Tour. Of course, one need not travel outside the Mid-Atlantic to learn about the past from the NPS, in fact one can cover over a century of American history in a weekend in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Let’s start in Pennsylvania, as ever since my post last June I was eager to see Fort Necessity National Battlefield, which recalls the French and Indian War, and Friendship Hill National Historic Site, the home of Albert Gallatin.
Fort Necessity is the site of the opening battle of the global Seven Years War, a battle the British lost partly due to errors by a young George Washington. It has been administered by the NPS since 1933 after initially being run by the War Department. The Visitor Center opened in October 2005. The park also includes two other affiliated units, the grave site of British general Edward Braddock and Mount Washington Tavern, an inn built in the 1820s into that visitors can stroll unguided at any time during the day and that sits on land once owned by Washington. The tavern is a part of the park because it was a popular stopping point along the historic National Road, a topic also covered at the park Visitor Center. Indeed, while the section of the museum covering Fort Necessity delves into the “Colliding Cultures” of French settlers, British colonists, and Native Americans in the mid-eighteenth-century Ohio River Valley and links the 1754 battle to the genesis of the American Revolution two decades later, the section on the National Road begins with its construction in the 1810s and ends with the building of the auto friendly US Route 40 in 1926 and the start of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. In contrast, the Friendship Hill National Historic Site is quite singular in its thematic and temporal focus, exploring the life of Swiss immigrant and longest-serving treasury secretary Albert Gallatin as well as the home he built. Friendship Hill, which the NPS took over in 1979 and restored in the 1990s for $10 million, was constructed in stages starting in the 1780s. Today, it is a truly unique architectural tourism experience, giving visitors a sense of the way many homes evolved in the era before local zoning rules.
Just across the Mason-Dixon Line, which was surveyed following the French and Indian War, is a site interpreting another key early trade route, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The C & O became an NPS unit in 1961 when it was designated as a National Monument, and it stretches from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, the location of the Western Maryland Railway Station that is today the park Visitor Center, with a museum dedicated to the history of the canal from its 1831 opening. Rich with artifacts and laid out like a barge, a set up that reminds me a bit of structure of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, the C & O Visitor Center outlines the connections between coal mines and canal boats as well as the technology behind building, steering, and lowering barges through the use of a lock system. Just across the Potomac River, in what was then Virginia, is another NPS site layered with history, much of it still hotly contested, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which entered the NPS system in 1944 and is technically located in three states. While Harpers Ferry is best known for John Brown’s raid on the federal armory in 1859, the Lower Town section of the park is a veritable public history wonderland filled with displays on a range of topics, from community life in the antebellum years to the second conference of the Niagara Movement held in 1906 at Storer College. Although it is possible to drive to Lower Town, so long as you have a strong enough parking brake to survive the hills, the NPS recommends stopping at the Visitor Center and taking a shuttle down to town, as do I, since I have never overhead so many intergroup history conversations as I did on the ride back.
Two additional NPS sites in western Maryland offer an opportunity to explore Civil War history. The 1862 site of the deadliest single day of the Civil War, Antietam National Battlefield was established in 1890 under the control of the War Department and then transferred to the NPS in 1933. The Visitor Center, a prairie-style modern made up of grey rocks, opened in 1962 as part of the Mission 66 Plan and many of the displays within the museum mirror that older exhibit ethos, though there are some, such as a poster focused on archeology at the site, that reflect rising scholarly interest in objects since the 1970s. The Visitor Center also emphasizes the long history of educational battlefield tours, displaying an image of a US Army War College class from 1907. It also includes an observation room that orients visitors to the strategic location of Sharpsburg and makes for a smooth transition to outdoor sightseeing. Monocacy National Battlefield, which was authorized by a 1934 act of Congress but went unfunded for several decades, commemorates the 1864 battle that saved Washington, DC, from election year violence. A Visitor Center completed in 2007 includes information about both the battle itself and the later stages of the Civil War, while a recently launched ten-year planning effort aims to increase park accessibility. Monocacy also has one of the most extensive temporary exhibits on the NPS centennial of any park I visited.