Living along the shore, with so much history within a few hours distance, it is sometimes easy to forget just how many monuments, memorials, and museums are in places further afield such as upstate New York or western Pennsylvania. Indeed, reading Carolyn Kitch’s Pennsylvania in Public Memory in my Intro to Public History grad class a couple years back (at the same time that I was taking Professor Kitch’s course on memory and the mass media) provided my first real insight into historic sites west of the Appalachian Trail, save for a couple teenage trips to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and the equally cool Farmers’ Museum. I also distinctly recall Professor Kitch discussing a research trip to the site of the Flight 93 tragedy of 9/11, in which she mentioned how the phenomena of spontaneous memorialization of the event impacted the surrounding community, a sequence that is also discussed by Erika Doss in Memorial Mania. By the mid-2000s, a few years after the tragedy, the story of the ordinary Americans who rose up to take down their terrorist captors (and died in the process) had already been made into a popular film when the National Park Service started the process of building a permanent memorial at the crash site. And while this process has been far from smooth, with public concern forcing a redesign of the site as well as a major fire that destroyed significant artifacts, the Flight 93 memorial has recently experienced a growing influx of visitors who need not travel very far off the interstate.
Visitors do, however, have to travel fairly far from the entrance of the site to park their cars and must walk much further to see the entire memorial. Along the way, drivers pass the new visitors center, still being built and set to open this fall, as well as a tree grove. Once on the grounds, tourists enter through a Visitor Shelter complete with interpretive panels describing the events of 9/11. After passing through a Memorial Plaza, visitors walk down a long dark-grey pathway that winds down towards a Wall of Names near the actual Impact Site. This pathway, wide enough for a service truck to drive down if no pedestrians were present, has a sloped side nearest the crash site which periodically includes an outline of airplane wings and contains several nooks for meaningful items to be left behind. Indeed, along with objects from the crash itself and the flag that flew over the capitol building during the tragedy, also lost in that fire were some of the treasure trove of objects that have been placed within these nooks since the opening of the memorial, nooks which were likely designed with the specific goal of allowing visitors to make offerings to the dead while still containing such offerings within a few defined areas instead of being forced to permit them throughout the site (which occurs at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, as Kristin Ann Hass describes in Carried to the Wall). Objects are also left at the Flight 93 Wall of Names, which has a wooden gate at the south end allowing for access to the crash site itself, while seeming the most meditative place at the memorial. Indeed, solemn is likely the best adjective to describe the site.
A mere twenty-five miles away sits the site of the worst man-made disaster in American history prior to 9/11, the Johnstown Flood National Memorial (ironically not actually in Johnstown, location of the Johnstown Flood Museum, but a few towns over). Excess rainfall was a necessary but not sufficient condition to cause the flood, which resulted from the breaking of a dam holding back a man-made lake that was effectively owned by Andrew Carnegie’s fishing club. Indeed, considerable wall text space at the memorial’s visitor center (overlooking the now-dry lakebed) is devoted to discussing the controversy over who really caused the deaths of more than 2,000 Johnstown area residents on May 31, 1889. This issue is also picked up at the site of the dam itself, several miles away, where additional text panels tell visitors that the installation of a metal grate to prevent the escape of bass imported a year earlier may well have contributed to the tragedy by clogging and preventing a spillway from working properly. This section of the site also allows visitors to hike down by the riverbed and see the remnants of the broken dam, further combining natural history with national history as park service sites often seem to do. Just across the road in St. Michael, as the voice on the NPS radio station that plays on a loop informs visitors, are several buildings that were once owned by members of Carnegie’s South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club (many of which include plaques demarcating their status and some of which clearly still remain privately owned). The recording, one of the few I’ve run into that still works but that is outdated in that it gives a lower entry fee for the site than is actually charged today, likely functions to insure that visitors don’t take the wrong highway exit (as I did), forcing them to drive up a mountain to arrive at the site.
This same voice recording suggests that visitors, while in the area, ought to stop at the nearby Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (as I decided to do). The site includes a few sections: an older interpretive center that explains the function of the railroad (to transport canal boats over the mountains) and houses a full-size engine as well as a number of interesting artifacts, an Engine House that also contains several exhibits focusing on track safety, and the so-called Lemon House which served as an inn in the early 19th century and which today includes a fascinating display on antebellum taverns. This site was also advertised at both the Flight 93 and Johnstown Flood memorials as one of five total ‘National Parks of Western Pennsylvania’ alongside two other sites in the southwest corner of the state. Indeed, though I wasn’t able to make it on this trip, I very much hope in the future to be able to visit the Friendship Hill National Historic Site (which tells the story of Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant and the Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson who made his political career in the House opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790s, and who lived at the site for decades) and the Fort Necessity National Battleground (location of a twenty-something year old George Washington’s failed first battle against the French and their Native-American allies in the mid-1750s). Indeed, one could travel back two-and-a-half centuries in a single day by starting at the National Memorials of western Pennsylvania.