Archive for April, 2006

Harpers Ferry, Iowa
Visited: Sometime Soon
NPS Site Visited: Not There Yet
NPS Website

Iowa isn’t exactly known as a hot summer vacation destination. But that’s where we’ll be headed once the weather warms. Effigy Mounds NM preserves over two hundred American Indian mounds, many in the shape of animals and birds. This sacred site is located in the northeast corner of Iowa, a place that didn’t intersect with any of our drives back and forth across the country. We’ll make one more round this spring and Effigy Mounds is among the must-see destinations. We won’t miss it this time around.


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Gettysburg, Pa.
Visited: April 9, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 283 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Steadfast SoldierSite of the most famous battle fought on United States soil. The dramatic Civil War fight occurred from July 1-3, 1863 and took more than 50,000 casualties.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Over the last fifteen years, groups like the Friends of the National Park at Gettysburg in accordance with the NPS have slowly but surely worked to bring the battlefield back to its 1863 appearance and feel. The most famous two removals were the Stuckey’s Restaurant that once sat in the middle of Pickett’s Charge’s route and the 307-foot monstrosity known as the Gettysburg National Tower that disturbed horizons in all directions.

Currently, there is nothing to upset the views of the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside other than 1,300 granite monuments and 400+ cannons. The biggest and the best Civil War memorials are here at Gettysburg. Do not let the Chickamauga or Vicksburg people tell you otherwise. The best of the best is, of course, the towering ivory white Pennsylvania Memorial, which sort of looks like the arc de triomphe topped with a dome upon which stands Nike, the winged goddess of victory.

Throughout his schooling, Michael never understood the oft-quoted metaphor of Gettysburg being the high tide of the Confederacy. His teachers would point to the ground where Pickett’s charge ended and say, “Look, right here is the high tide.” He gets it now, sees the powerful imagery but only grudgingly agrees with this eastern-theater-centric vision of the Civil War.

The historical strength of Gettysburg lies in metaphor and symbolic imagery. The ebbs and flows of the battle itself encapsulate the tidal patterns of the war as a whole. The battle was fought over three scorching hot days and saw the most casualties of any fight in American history. Once battle ended, the skies emptied and it rained a deluge. It was July 4th, the day of American Independence.

Four months later, on November 19, Abraham Lincoln came to the former battleground to dedicate the National Cemetery. His speech, the Gettysburg Address, is known to all Americans and memorized by most middle school students.

Virginia MonumentCROWDS (3/10)
An early April Sunday morning, 9:30 a.m. to be exact. We thought we would elude the crowds. No siree Bob. Busload after busload of people were being dropped off and parking spaces around the Visitor Center were hard to find. What summer must bring!

The battlefield auto tour was thick with bumper-to-bumper traffic. We should have walked.

The current Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center is located just south of downtown Gettysburg along Pa. Route 134 (Taneytown Road), a few miles from U.S. Route 15. If you do not have a map, the easiest entry is from the south. The Pa. Route 134 exit will take you directly north for about 2 miles. The VC is on your left.

Gettysburg, Pa. is located along U.S. Route 15, a pleasant 90 minute drive north of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. The nearest beautiful metropolis is Harrisburg, a quick 40 mile jaunt to the northeast. So if your coming to Gettysburg, also make the trip to Harrisburg. Give us a call and we will show you the ins and outs of our fair city.

The Gettysburg Battlefield is comparatively easy to maneuver. The fighting took place over three days, but much of it was isolated within a three-mile radius. You will not be driving to the ends of the earth like at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Richmond and Petersburg.

What if they built a bookstore, stocked it with every imaginable Civil War book and frequently brought in authors to sign and discuss their works. Doesn’t that sound great? Now, what if they stuffed said bookstore with triple the room’s capacity making it impossible to walk around the store and browse the collection. Well, that is Gettysburg.

Existentially, do the books even exist if you can’t get to them?

Explosive BeautyCOSTS (2/5)
The website boasts that entry into the Gettysburg NMP is “free of charge”. True, but the electric map costs $4 per person. The Gettysburg NMP is the only battlefield in the NPS that charges for its electric map presentation, which is easily the worst electric map we have ever seen. Couldn’t they have replaced the burnt-out bulbs?

“Licensed Battlefield Guide” tours run anywhere from $45-$135 depending on the number of people in your party. We did not begin to research this option. There are no free guided Ranger tours at Gettysburg. Guided auto-tour cassette tapes cost between $10 and $15. If you intend to learn anything at the Park, it could get expensive.

The day after our visit, April 9, 2006, the local newspaper, the Gettysburg Times, wrote that federal budget cuts to the National Park Service would mean probable job losses for at least three Park Rangers. In the past ten years, federal budget cuts have forced Gettysburg NMP to fire 12 full-time staff members and 24 part-timers. In those same ten years, the Park has seen nearly 20 million visitors. The visitation rate has not declined. These stories regarding Gettysburg NMP has become so commonplace that the Harrisburg paper does not cover them any longer.

While federal NPS jobs are being cut, a much needed new $100M Museum and Visitor Center is being built less than a half-mile from the current location. “How could this be?” we wondered. Like Mount Rushmore N MEM’s new VC construction, the building is being built entirely through private funds. Private funding, private building initiatives and self-guided learning are the future of the National Park Service. Educational Park Rangers are a thing of the past.

Luckily, we did find one Ranger lurking among the help desk with dozens of volunteers. He answered a few of our questions about the new Museum before having to stop because of a barrage of other tourists’ questions. They all wanted to know where they could get something to eat.

Admittedly, one person per every group touring the Battlefield carries himself like an expert. Hands pointing, pompous posture and a know-it-all gleam. It is almost like being at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. So if you do have a Civil War question, just cozy on up to the tourists next to you and ask them. There is a high probability that one of them is dressed as a Civil War soldier. We are sure they would be pleased to answer your question.

The best part about the tours/classes at Gettysburg NMP is that a new Museum will be opening up in the near future.

In the mean time, buy one of the 18 million books written about July 1-3, 1863.

What Are You Looking At?FUN (6/10)

The great thing about Gettysburg NMP is that it is possible to walk much of the battlefield in one day’s time. About three years ago, we walked down the third day Union line, across the field where Pickett’s charge occurred, down the Confederate line, through the Peach Orchard, Devils Den and the Wheatfield, up Big Round Top and Little Round Top and back to the Visitor Center. That is everything right there.

This year we drove the same area; felt rushed, crowded and did not enjoy our trip nearly as much. If you have the time and the stamina, we suggest walking. You won’t shed the crowds physically but you may be able to separate yourself from them mentally. Your concentration can focus on the battle, the troop movements and the historical impact rather than worrying about finding a parking space and the slow driver in front of you.

The Gettysburg NMP is an iconic American destination and the crowds are commensurately large. Sadly, the current infrastructure matches neither the area’s historical prominence nor its 2M people per year tourist influx. The new $100M VC set to open in 2007-08 should fix the situation. We say wait until then to come.

Right now, the museum is bad, the cyclorama is closed for renovations, the crowds are thick and the Ranger help is small. And who knows, perhaps by 2008 there will have been a decision made regarding the proposed Gettysburg casino. Video poker, slot machines, old town Gettysburg, Abe Lincoln, brother fighting brother and the turning point in the Civil War = fun for all.

TOTAL 48/80

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Saint Michael, Pa.
Visited: April 1, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 281 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Old Dam AbutmentsWHAT IS IT?
Site memorializing the victims of the May 31, 1889 flood that killed over 2,000 Johnstown, Pa. residents.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Park Site vistas overlook what was once Lake Conemaugh and is now (again, post-broken dam), just the Conemaugh River. The former South Fork Dam remains, its center remains torn through, powerful visceral evidence of that fateful 1889 day.

The whole panorama still screams of tragedy, aided by the Site’s horror-filled style of education. The western Pennsylvania hillsides, bared by strip-mines and deforestation do not make the situation cheerier. But it is only when you drive the 10-mile steady downhill slope towards center city Johnstown that the sickening ambiance of the flood’s menace fully seeps in.

For years, residents fear a poorly built water control system, so much so that the city’s possible destruction by flood becomes a running joke. Destruction of the environment is so wide spread that the land’s natural protections are gone. During the rainy season, floods are so common that the citizenry becomes lackadaisical about the waters’ power. In said year of heavy rain, mild floods occur but the people refuse to believe that the shoddily constructed dam will break.

10 inches of rain fall in one 24-hour period and the dam does break. Thousands die in apocalypse-level destruction while the rich are spared because they live on the high ground. Post-flood examinations reveal that the wealthy knew of the impending dangers, were warned numerous times of the eventual danger and did nothing. Sound familiar? Well, this “natural disaster” occurred in Johnstown, Pa. in May of 1889.

The broken dam had held back Lake Conemaugh, a recreational lake used solely by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose members included the Gilded Age luminaries Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. Did the Johnstown Flood affect any change in national opinion or policy change towards this era of unabashed ecological damage and lawless capitalism? Nope.

Capitalist reform would soon come, but the Great Flood was not a causal factor; it was just a horrible disaster that claimed too many lives.

Hang in ThereCROWDS (5/10)
The good-sized crowds touring the Park were all a little shell-shocked from the dour heaviness of the Site’s message. Ashen faces, no eye contact and a funereal-esque pall.

The Memorial is located about 12 miles east of downtown Johnstown, near the town of South Fork and just off U.S. Route 219. Clear signage from U.S. 219 will point you towards the Site.

From the west, the Site is about 30 miles north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Exit 110 (Somerset) straight up U.S. Route 219. From the east, and Turnpike Exit 146 (Bedford) the Site is a more circuitous 45 miles via I-99 to Pa. Route 52 to U.S. Route 99.

A modest selection of books, including about a dozen specific to the flood itself.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $4 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. Your admission also covers entry into three nearby NPS sites: the Allegheny Portage NHS, Fort Necessity NB and Friendship Hill NHS.

Entry to the see the unaffiliated Johnstown Flood Museum, located in downtown Johnstown, runs $6 per person.

We spent a nice time with a volunteer eager to point out all the relevant Great Flood-event locations on the horizons. Our numerous questions to the on-duty Ranger, however, were met with lackadaisical disdain. So we just moved on.

The door into the Site’s theater warns that some of the film’s images may be unsuitable to children. They are not kidding.

The 35-minute Black Friday is a disconcerting black-and-white film, categorized better as a horror film than an educational historic documentary. The film begins with still shots of unmarked gravestones and ends with an image of a maniacal grim reaper and the audible reading (by the death-obsessed narrator, no less) of the list of the victims and the horrific way in which their bodies were found.

What is in between are non-stop grainy pseudo footage of floodwaters, screaming children, collapsing houses, burning buildings and lots of tombstones. It is all a little much.

We were hoping for more background on the natural destruction that caused the flood, something about the effect the flood had on our country as a whole, and just a tad bit of commentary on the cleanup effort and rebuilding of the town; no such luck with either the film or the exhibits. We later learned, through independent reading, that Clara Barton’s efforts during the Flood’s cleanup were the touchstone event that brought the American Red Cross into our national consciousness.

Perhaps the independently run Johnstown Flood Museum with its 1989 Academy Award winning film for Short Form Documentary does a better job. However, after Black Friday, we were in no mood to continue our learning. At the NPS Site, the education is entirely visceral.

Looking Through the Old South Fork DamFUN (2/10)
Victim-based museums do not have to be death-obsessed orgies. They can be celebrations of lives well led (like the Oklahoma City N MEM), explanations of regrettable historical circumstances enhanced by the triumphant stories of its victims (Manzanar NHS) or just honorable remembrances (like the nearby Flight 93 N MEM). The Johnstown Flood N MEM is none of those things; instead, it chooses to focus only on the flood’s 45 minutes of annihilation, its immediate pain, madness and devastation.

Not unless you are a lustful masochist eager to find superficial pleasure in an over-the-top rendering of extreme violence and destruction…and happen to be traveling near Johnstown, Pa.

TOTAL 31/80

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Cresson, Pa.
Visited: April 1, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 280 of 353
NPS Website; Horseshoe Curve Website

The Path InsideWHAT IS IT?
The site of a short-lived, 1834-54, series of incline planes that pulled canal boats up and down the Allegheny Mountains.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS sits along the Allegheny Mountain ridgeline. Strangely enough, its location does not equate to panoramic vistas of the surrounding countryside. Trees block one’s views in all directions. A nearby road and a distant aluminum-sided warehouse are the only things visible from the Site.

The incline plane rails are, of course, no more. About one hundred yards of re-laid rails travel into a reconstructed engine room in one direction and into grassy nothingness in the other. The Lemon House, a stone masonry tavern and inn built in 1832, is the only remnant of the past still standing. The Lemon House looks just like thousands of other constructions of its era that remain throughout Pennsylvania.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began construction on the Allegheny Portage in 1831 in order to connect Philadelphia to Pittsburgh via canal. Our fine state had been losing its commercial traffic to the completed canals to the north (the Erie Canal) and the south (the C&O Canal). A stench of desperation hangs over this historical situation.

The far-flung engineering solution for the canal’s completion was a set of 10 incline planes designed to pull the boats for nearly 50 miles up and down the steep Allegheny Mountains. The vertical ascent from the east reached a staggering 1,400 feet. The incline planes worked well but were fraught with numerous fatal accidents and never surpassed the Erie Canal’s traffic workload.

The Canal TrainAfter just twenty years in existence, the incline planes were scrapped, making room for the far more successful railroad, and its own engineering marvel, the Horseshoe Curve. The Curve is still in use and remains a world famous destination spot for train enthusiasts.

CROWDS (6/10)
Few people braved the cold April weather. Summer, however, brings heavy traffic to the Horseshoe Curve site; we are sure that some of those visitors must also filter here.

Two Pennsylvania Turnpike Exits (110 and 146) service the Altoona-Johnstown area. The Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS is about 50 miles from both exits, located on U.S. Route 22, near Cresson, along the ridgeline of the Alleghenies.

Temperatures are much colder here than the surrounding areas below. We prepared for a nice early spring day and arrived to 40 degrees, windy and cold.


The Lemon HouseThe Portage Railroad NHS has more than a few interesting and unique titles, like The Alcoholic Republic, which examines America’s gargantuan drinking appetite in the early 19th century, and Killing Time: Leisure and Culture in Southwestern Pennsylvania 1800-1850.

But what are books about Admiral Robert Peary’s trip to the North Pole doing here? Well, the daring explorer was born right here in Cresson, Pennsylvania. Who knew?

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $4 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. Your admission also covers entry into three nearby NPS sites: the Johnstown Flood N MEM, Fort Necessity NB and Friendship Hill NHS.

Entry to the see the nearby, but unaffiliated, Horseshoe Curve and Railroaders Memorial Museum is $7.50.

Two Rangers were posted in two different buildings. They were both very helpful.

We were won over by the Site’s charming film told from the perspective of a nostalgic 19th-century jack-of-all-trades. The film put us in a good mood, taught us the basics about the local history and prepped us for exploration.

The newly remodeled Visitor Center is gorgeous and encases a number of interesting exhibits, many with a focus on moving parts. We especially enjoyed the dioramic representation of the incline planes made whole by a turning engine room and climbing canal boats.

More exhibits awaited us in both the Engine Room and in the Lemon House. The Engine Room exhibits detail the technical aspects of the Portage, while the Lemon House recounts the social history.

FUN (6/10)
We had a fun time once we steeled our short-sleeve wearing selves and acclimated to the much colder than expected weather. You are not going to see the incline planes (progress took them away over 100 years ago) but you will see a reconstruction of the impressively large steam engine that provided the awesome power of the past. We really enjoyed the hands-on displays located in the engine house exhibit building.

DisentanglementWe also had a great time with the 19th-century children’s toys housed on a windowsill in the Lemon House. The games, while simple, are not easy. We toiled for at least ten minutes with a cast iron disentanglement toy and had more fun than allowed with the ball-tied-to-a-cup toy.

The Site gave us reassurance that high priced large-scale transportation projects financed by the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that contribute dubious public gain are not just a modern-day phenomenon. Sure, that link was unfair, but aptly ironic since a plaque at the Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS thanks Mr. Murtha for the funding that made its new Visitor Center possible.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS possesses none of the romance, historic significance or attraction enjoyed by its working iron neighbor. Altoona’s minor league baseball team is nicknamed the Curve and not the Portages, you know. But if you are an itinerate train spotter, you should accompany your visit to the Curve to see its less famous ancestor, the canal portage. This Site will put into perspective American transportation and commercial history with interesting hands-on exhibits and smaller crowds.

TOTAL 45/80

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