Archive for June, 2006

Baltimore, Md.
Visited: June 3, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 298 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Hampton MansionWHAT IS IT?
Sprawling plantation residence that includes a Georgian mansion that was, upon completion in 1790, the largest house in the United States. The Site chronicles seven generations of Maryland life; from Governors to indentured servants to skilled craftsmen to slaves to farmers.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The acreage of the Ridgely Plantation has been seriously diminished over the past 200 years. Even though suburban homes have replaced the endless farmlands, the land still seems isolated and a far cry from Baltimore’s port-town industry.

The elegant three-story Georgian mansion sparkles with its pastel yellow exterior, its symmetry and its graceful cupola. Sure, the paint is chipping off a bit and the vultures have made a home of the flat roof but we do not care. The bottom-of-the-hill farmhouse lacks grandeur but aces the livability test. At least one generation of Ridgelys even decided to live here instead of the mansion. For heating bills sake, we are guessing.

The farm area includes lots of white picket fences, old stone buildings and warehouse, and well-maintained (mowed) grassy spaces. Michael blathered endlessly about how idyllic the grounds were to both Gab and the Ranger. He must have said “it’s so beautiful here” a dozen times. Sure, the Site is pretty, but Michael must have taken some sort of happy pill.

Hampton NHS was the first National Park Unit established for historical rather than historic reasons. Meaning, nothing particularly eventful ever occurred here. Instead, Hampton NHS history is representative of an era and sheds an illuminating perspective on generations of Maryland life.

The Site surely captures a feudal feel. The large house sits on the hill. Its former resident(s) owned all the surrounding land, employed, enslaved or indentured all the area’s people. Industry of all sorts occurred on the plantation – iron production, tobacco farming, horse breeding – all of which were largely autonomous. The Park literature quotes a historian who states that the “plantation was probably the most self-sufficient large economic unit in America.”

Bending Fence
CROWDS (5/10)
We were the only people there despite the charms of a mild spring Saturday morning. Our Ranger’s effusive hospitality felt so desperate; would we be his only visitors? The draw of Hampton NHS is surely its Georgian mansion. The mansion is currently closed due to large-scale interior renovations. Perhaps the closure which will last “until further notice” is keeping people away.

The Park Entrance is less than a mile from I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway) Exit 27-B. Plenty of signs point you off the ramp, down Hampton Road, through a pleasant neighborhood and to the Site. The Beltway forms the Park’s and the estate’s current southern boundary. What was once a stately country mansion with an Italianate garden and elegant grounds is now serenaded all day, every day by the din of 18-wheelers, commuting sedans and motorcycles.

The bookstore is tucked in a small side room in the old farmhouse. The room’s brick and wooden walls are exposed, presumably for archeological reasons. An industrial carpet covers the floor while a dehumidifier and its plug block the path to a teetering bookshelf. Upon first glance, these two shelves fail to impress, what with unopened boxes of merchandise cluttering its space.

Further inspection reveals an admirable selection of books examining the Maryland slave trade and coffee table tomes looking at Maryland history. Also for sale are Hampton NHS Christmas Tree ornaments and a box containing an 1840’s-era children’s game called Jack Straws (not to be confused with Britain’s one-time Foreign Secretary).

COSTS (4/5)
It was free, but then again, the mansion interior is inaccessible. Perhaps when its refurbishing is completed there will be a charge.

The one Ranger on duty showered (some might say smothered) us, the only visitors, with attention. We were appreciative but wanted our freedom. It’s not you Mr. Ranger, it’s us. We’re just not ready for that level of commitment.

Tobacco WarehouseTOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
That being said, a private hour-long tour of the farm’s grounds and its various buildings was nothing to sneeze at. Our intrepid Ranger was lots of fun despite tending towards rambling non sequiturs and outlandish conclusions. We barraged him with countless questions which he handled with answers; not necessarily answers to our specific questions but answers nonetheless.

After our private tour, we sat down to watch the dated introduction film. To our surprise, we had already learned the facts glowing from the Soviet Union-style (and era) VCR-TV combo screen. Our Ranger had done an excellent job teaching us about this sprawling Plantation. So we left the room as the video droned on and made our way southward to the Inner Harbor and a Yankees-Orioles game.

FUN (5/10)
Hampton NHS was just one of our day’s destinations (see above referenced Yankees-Orioles game) so we were already quite cheerful. The Site’s easy accessibility and hospitable Ranger kept us smiling. After we had our fill of farm buildings, we took his advice and made the short drive across the street to the mansion proper. Its innards were beyond our reach but we could still wander the terraced garden and get a closer look at its oversized cupola. We imagined what this massive mansion was like bustling with the amount of servants and/or slaves it must have taken to keep it functioning.

Before you leave Hampton NHS, seek out the large estate map that shares the farmhouse room with the introductory video. It illustrated the reach of the Plantation’s previous borders in a way that the Ranger could not. While you are in that room, have a look at an example of the real estate brochures that one of the last Ridgely owners distributed as he began to parcel off his ancestors’ land as suburban lots. Those heating bills must have been something.

A Tree Grows in Baltimore
What makes mansion tours and plantation visits such attractions in the Old South (like Natchez NHP and the plantation trail in Louisiana) but an afterthought in the Baltimore suburbs? Perhaps the fact that the Hampton NHS’s mansion tour is not currently happening. Other than that, the two cannot be that much different.

Once the Ridgely home (known to 19th-century locals as Ridgely’s Folly) opens again to traffic, we suspect there will be quite a lot to see. You easterners have an excuse not to travel the whole way to southern Mississippi to get your dose of gardens and grandeur.

TOTAL 46/80


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New Geneva, Pa.
Visited: June 1, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 296 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Gab at Friendship HillWHAT IS IT?
Longtime home of founding father Albert Gallatin, a Swiss émigré who, along with his rival Alexander Hamilton, helped to create, design and oversee the federal monetary system and economic philosophy of the young United States of America.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Albert Gallatin never actually spent much time at his western PA home. His numerous vocations, politician, economist, diplomat and Treasury Secretary, kept him away. In 1823, the House underwent a large scale remodeling overseen by Gallatin’s son with Old Albert giving instructions from Paris. Upon his return and the remodeling completion, Albert declared the House too ugly for words and vowed never to live in it again.

The House was sold a few months later. Who are we to argue with Mr. Gallatin’s aesthetic tastes? Friendship Hill’s grounds do afford pleasant views of the northward-flowing Monongahela River and the tree-lined dirt/gravel entryway adds a stately air to your trip. And the house, while no stunner, is not a completely revolting architectural nightmare.

Little occurred at Friendship Hill or New Geneva, the town Gallatin built around it; they serve as conduits to reintroduce a nearly forgotten man. Unlike Thomas Stone, Gallatin did more than share the air with famous men; he advised them, guided them, influenced their thinking and ultimately gave up his dream home and vision of an industrial town in Fayette County to join them in constructing a new nation.

Albert Gallatin served almost thirteen years as Secretary of the Treasury, the longest tenure for that office. As a Cabinet member under Jefferson and Madison, Gallatin financed the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition and reduced the national debt, only to see his savings consumed by the War of 1812 and the construction of the outdated-before-they-were-opened series of coastal defense forts.

Before rising in the national political sphere, Gallatin gained respect as a mediator, attempting to resolve the disagreement between local farmers and the federal government which culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion; he sided with his neighbors.

Gallatin’s DeskCROWDS (6/10)
A few other southwestern Pennsylvania wanderers found their way to Friendship Hill. We doubt the crowds could ever reach a level here that would make you feel crowded.

Friendship Hill NHS is located in the nether regions of southwestern Pennsylvania. Two hours from Pittsburgh, an hour plus from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and at least 30 twisting miles north of Morgantown, W.Va. and Interstate 68.

Here are the multiple directions from the Park’s website. The NPS has thankfully posted incredibly helpful brown signs at every conceivable intersection on the way to Friendship Hill. The signs tell you which way to go while they taunt you with the miles-to-go info. It is no wonder that society lady Mrs. Gallatin felt Friendship Hill was too rural and interminably delayed her returns here from New York City, Paris and London.

Friendship Hill NHS’s book selection is paltry at best. Sure, there hasn’t been much written about good old Gallatin but the Site only stocked one book revolving around its honoree, the strangely titled To Live and Die in the Monongahela Hills. And that book was published by Eastern National, the outsourced company that runs most of the National Park Sites east of the Mississippi. Gallatin’s involvement in so many other historical and oft-written about events calls for a more substantial selection than what is here.

COSTS (4/5)
Entry is free.

One lone Ranger welcomed us to the Site but was unable to answer many of our questions about Gallatin. No fault of hers, she is actually a Ranger at Fort Necessity filling in for the regular staff. She was lovely to talk to, eager to turn on the film and happy to pull out whatever resources she could find to answer our questions that she could not.

Gallatin’s Severed HeadTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Site boasts two unorthodox but effective exhibits. The first is a bizarre introductory video. In it Gallatin’s severed head tells viewers his life story, Swiss accent and all. The video used to be stranger. Mr. Gallatin was once a full bodied hologram projected onto the Visitor Center floor a la Princess Leia (Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi you’re my only hope) in “Star Wars”. If you look closely at his DVD head, you can still see a radiant sheen.

The Site’s other teaching tool is a tiny typed timeline of Gallatin’s life glued on multiple poster boards and scattered throughout the house. The timeline looks more like a middle school science project than a polished National Park Site display. But like Gallatin’s hologram, the pastiche timeline does a successful job of explaining their complex and influential subject.

We read every timeline entry and hung on every one of the disembodied Gallatin’s words. We knew nothing of the man before coming to Friendship Hill and left with admiration, understanding and a desire to learn more.

FUN (6/10)
Fort Necessity Rangers were pretty sure that we would have time to see both sites in the same day and recommended that we spend the bulk of our time with them at the Fort. That left us to believe there was not much to see at Friendship Hill. Minimal expectations gave way to pleasant strolls around the grounds, relaxed conversations with the Ranger and undivided attention to all that the Site had to offer.

The Stately Way InWe did have time to see both Sites in one day, but our time at Friendship Hill was much more fulfilling than anticipated. Wonderful weather and a clearly marked drive to the Site added to our good moods. But along that drive we did have a shocking revelation.

Friendship Hill is in Pennsylvania and the surrounding houses fly West Virginia University flags! That is blasphemy to us Penn State diehards. University of Pittsburgh, we understand, but not West Virginia!

A trip to Friendship Hill? Probably not. Only if you happen to be en route to a WVU Mountaineer’s football game. Mrs. Gallatin’s protestations about being in the middle of nowhere weren’t without merit.

However, Albert Gallatin is certainly a man worth knowing more about. Given the absence of biographies and History Channel mentions, an American history scholar is left with no choice but to come to Friendship Hill to hear about Gallatin’s contributions to the development, exploration and expansion of the United States.

TOTAL 43/80

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Farmington, Pa.
Visited: June 1, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 295 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Fort Necessity

Site of the July 3, 1754 battle between British Colonial troops, led by a young George Washington, and a cunning band of Frenchmen led by a revenge seeking Captain whose brother had been killed by the British in a May 1754 skirmish known as the Jumonville Affair.

The Battle at Fort Necessity was the first battle in the Seven Years War, of whose North American theater is commonly known as the French and Indian War. The chronologically challenged War was fought from 1754-1763, involved all the major European powers, took place on four continents and was, in practice, the first world war.

The Site also commemorates the 1804-1818 construction of The National Road, the first terrestrial highway in the United States built with federal funds. The Road was our first Interstate. Today, US Route 40 follows a nearly identical route.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The Fort sits in a clearing among typical western PA forested foothills, the same foothills that host two Frank Lloyd Wright homes and perennial white water rafters’ favorite, the Youghiogheny (yuck-kah-GEY-nee) River. Woodlands encroach the Fort less now than in Washington’s time. Well-placed signs indicate to the visitor where the original Fort’s manicured lawn used to end.

The Fort itself is reconstructed and smaller than we imagined. Spiked wooden stakes form a perfect circle around a small cabin inside. Not much room to maneuver while staving off the French and their temporary allies, the American Indians.

In 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was famously murdered in the streets of Sarajevo, thus igniting the powder keg of Europe and plunging the world into The Great War.

One hundred sixty years earlier, a similarly fateful spark lit in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania where an expeditionary force of British troops clashed with French troops, beginning the Seven Years War. When fighting ended in 1763, France ceded control of its North American colonies and the subcontinent of India to Great Britain.

Within the FortIn 1754, the lands around Fort Necessity marked a territorial overlap claimed by Great Britain, France and tribes allied with the Iroquois nation. The first battle came in May, when a chance firefight ended in the death of French commander, Joseph de Coulon Jumonville. No one knows exactly what happened.

The French claimed that Jumonville had been insidiously murdered after being taken prisoner by British commander George Washington. The British insisted that the Battle had been fought honorably and no such “assassinations” occurred. Tensions mounted and a large-scale battle was inevitable.

The ensuing July 3, 1754 fight proved anticlimactic. George Washington built Fort Necessity too close to the surrounding forest and on the tactically-poor low land. The Fort was quickly overwhelmed by the French and Washington was forced to surrender.

The terms of surrender proved more interesting than the fight itself. The document, written in French, included an admission of Jumonville’s “assassination”. Washington, who could not read French, signed the document without an understanding of its terms. This was not a shining moment in George’s career. The Jumonville incident, the fight and the surrender terms quickly became sensational international news, giving a concrete reason for these rival nations to begin the Seven Years’ War.

CROWDS (7/10)
A brand new Visitor Center (opened October 2005) easily handles the hundreds of school kids that pass through its doors each year. The building was designed to facilitate heavy traffic with minimal impact on other visitors, something we appreciate. As do the Rangers, who rolled their eyes and shuddered at the thought of the claustrophobic former VC. It seems like we came at a good time.

Fort Necessity is located along U.S. Route 40, the National Road, about 10 miles southeast of Uniontown, Pa. Modern-day Interstates, I-68, I-70, I-76 and I-79 all pass within 50 miles of the Site. I-68 is the closest, passing 15 miles to the south. If your trip involves connecting two of these roads then a rural detour to Fort Necessity could make a nice respite from the 18-wheeler convoys that characterize those highways.

Fort Necessity NB’s bookstore was pretty good. Center bins were filled with inexpensive stuffs that school kids and Gab tend towards – tin whistles, puzzles with twisted iron pieces and those cuddly George Washington dolls. Michael found titles on regional tourism, the War of 1812 and probably the best selection of George Washington books we have seen. A Ranger was kind enough to recommend a few titles which gave a more global perspective on the Battle at Fort Necessity and the rest of the American skirmishes which fueled the fire of the Seven Years War.

We also caught our first glimpse of the garishly enormous Explorer Edition of the National Parks Passport Book, which is, in effect, a binder not a book. Ooof. We can’t imagine hauling that around.

Washington’s MenCOSTS (2/5)
A $5 entrance fee is good for 7 days. Entrance fees are waived for large groups on educational visits. We were relieved that although the VC, exhibits and film are all new, that Fort Necessity NB is not going the way of other national battlefields and charging “user fees.” Your National Parks Pass will work here.

Rangers manned the front desk alongside Eastern National employees, guided the school groups and prepared themselves for a special costumed tour for an individual with medical issues while we were there. Two young seasonal Rangers in training shadowed the volunteer who gave the 2 p.m. Tavern tour. There were Rangers everywhere!

We were probably among the last visitors to view the illustrated-slides-transferred-to-DVD version of the Battle at Fort Necessity. While the film wasn’t bad, it wasn’t nearly as animated as the 10-minute “visit Laurel Highlands” promo that followed it. We missed the debut of the new Battle at Fort Necessity video, filmed the previous year entirely on location, by half a day.

We don’t know what the former exhibits looked like, but the new ones are excellent. Bright, easy to read timelines and maps cover the walls and explain a multi-faceted global event in digestible segments without ever dumbing down the content. We appreciated that the Site tried to give a context for the events at the Great Meadow and explored consequences beyond the North American continent.

Short film clips, timelines and memorabilia illustrate the construction of, and then cycles of heydeys, neglect and revivals of the National Road. Exhibits at Fort Necessity NB present the National Road as a physical manifestation of the state vs. federal responsibility and rights debate and offer a window into a young nation’s growing pains.

The 2 p.m. tour of Mount Washington Tavern didn’t add much to what we had already learned at the VC. The tour guide began by saying that the Tavern really had nothing to do with the Site and had no real historical relevance other than its position along the National Road. It didn’t take us long to slip away to take a self-guided tour of the Meadow and reconstructed Fort.

Come On In!FUN (8/10)
A very pleasant afternoon was had at Fort Necessity NB. We chatted with Rangers, dodged school kids, watched reënactors set up for their weekend programs, wandered the grounds and strolled through the still-new smelling VC. We don’t know what a visit to Fort Necessity pre-October 2005 was like; the Park seems to have spent their money wisely.

Had we planned a little better, we could have chosen a course to the Site that would have taken us through the Ohiopyle SP and past at least one of the Frank Lloyd Wright homes. But our drive was scenic nonetheless.

While Fort Necessity is a recommended destination in its own right, it also benefits from its location in Fayette County and the Laurel Highlands region. Wright’s Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater and camping and rafting at the Ohiopyle State Park are all within short drives from the Site. Friendship Hill NHS is about an hour away. Historic sites, architectural landmarks and nature – there should be something there to suit all your traveling companions’ needs.

TOTAL 56/80

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Sharpsburg, Md.
Visited: June 2, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 297 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Antietam Panorama

Site of a September 17, 1862 Civil War Battle; the bloodiest single day battle in United States history. The North referred to the battle as Antietam, the creek that runs through the grounds, while the South referred to the fight as Sharpsburg, the nearest town.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Gab insists that the hazy, anonymous, rolling farmland terrain of Maryland is her least favorite genre of American scenery. Amid the panoramic nothingness, Antietam NB does have it hidden charms.

The land sinks into unexpected gullies and rises to form deceptively steep hills. These shifts are unseen from the wide angle where everything looks flat. The terrain’s disguised whimsy defined the battle’s shape. The fight most famed locale’s name, the Sunken Road, attests to this mystery.

The Battle of Antietam is a tragic American story. Over 20,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured here in the course of a few hours. The slaughtering grounds of the Sunken Road, the Cornfield and the Burnside Bridge remain. Our Ranger talk told us that the Battle was a draw. No gains and no progress made towards the War’s end. Just tens of thousands of tortured souls.

History tells us that the Union won a slight tactical victory here, their first of the war. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln’s two sweeping Antietam inspired actions trumped any importance achieved by the quickly gained and quickly abandoned Maryland farmland.

Burnside BridgeThese two actions were: 1) the removal of the incompetent George McClellan from command of the Union Army and 2) movement towards issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam brought the Decision 1 because McClellan’s ridiculous insubordination to Lincoln and cowardly slow command reached an apex at Sharpsburg. Had McClellan been even the slightest bit aggressive, the War might have ended that September.

Decision 2’s relevance to Antietam is slightly more specious even though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued just five days after the battle. History will forever speculate on Lincoln’s motivations and reasoning. But Antietam revealed to Lincoln that he had to do something. His Army could not rout the enemy’s and end the War, even with more men and countless other advantages.

Sharpsburg’s stalemate had delayed a rumored British entry into the war on the Confederate side. But John Bull’s pro-South leanings were real. The only way to sway their leaders against the Southern cause would be to issue the Proclamation. Antietam was a major Civil War turning point, its importance more intangible and speculative than most battles despite the massive carnage.

CROWDS (6/10)
Not to say that the place wasn’t crowded, but we expected a lot more people – Gettysburg-type numbers. There were no reënactors and to our snooping ears, it sounded like the crowds were a lot less Civil War-savvy that the average battlefield visitors.

Perpendicular ThreeEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
Antietam NB is located about 80 miles west of Baltimore, Md. or 80 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Interstate 70 and Hagerstown, Md. are located 10 miles north of the Park.

The easiest way to the Park is from the north via I-70, Exit 29A, and then south on Maryland Route 65. The Park entrance will be on your left, bordering Route 65. If you wish to weave your way from Frederick (the east) or Martinsburg, W.Va. (the west) to Antietam via backcountry roads just make sure you have a map.

The Battlefield itself is enclosed and separate from exterior traffic. You will only be driving with other Civil War enthusiasts. The one-ways could get confusing but no one is going to get mad at you for driving at a snail’s pace.

Antietam NB’s book selection was stellar but not up to par with most Civil War Battlefields. The souvenir selection ranged from the standard coffee mugs, T-shirts, maps and DVD’s to the downright macabre chintzy plastic toy soldier recreations of the Dunker Church and Burnside Bridge. Wave upon wave of Union soldiers died from sniper fire while trying to cross that fateful bridge. Let’s play again!

COSTS (3/5)
$4 per person, $6 per family, free with the National Parks Pass.

A good number of Rangers wandered the Visitor Center halls and were ready to answer questions.

Explosive SparrowTOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
We were lucky enough to arrive at the Park just as a Ranger was beginning her talk. Problem was, she was speeding through her discussion at an alarming rate, presumably so that she could finish before the intro film started. She should have slowed down, not just because slowness makes for better learning, but also because the film is not very good.

The tiny museum is big on artifacts, including George McClellan’s presentation sword (hardly unique) but small on information and historical explanations. We left the Visitor Center knowing less and feeling more confused than when we started. Regrettably, we failed to heed our on advice: Always bring a companion Civil War book when you travel to a battlefield. We really missed our Battle Cry of Freedom.

We skipped the newly opened Pry House Field Hospital Museum for fear that we would go queasy and pass out because that is what nearly happened at the Chimborazo Medical Museum in Richmond, Va. The Pry Field Hospital Museum is sponsored by and affiliated with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine located in nearby Frederick, Md.

FUN (3/10)
If we had to choose one word to describe our Antietam experience, it is Disappointing. All day, we had geared up for the big Park Experience we were expecting. We feared we wouldn’t have enough time to see and experience everything. We wondered if we should skip Antietam and dedicate an entire day just to this Site.

When it was all said and done, we spent a little more than an hour and a half here. That’s with the Ranger talk, the movie, a thorough review of the museum, the driving tour and a few short hikes, all less impressive than they should have been. We admit we left the movie early; there are only so many scenes of cannons firing, reënactors charging and dropping that we can take.

If you asked the average Joe to name at least two Civil War battles, Gettysburg and Antietam are probably the two that come to mind. The carnage that occurred at Antietam is legendary, its significance hard to dispute. Why then, did we walk away feeling none of that?

A trip to Gettysburg is almost overwhelming and that’s even before the additions of the renovated cyclorama and multi-million dollar Visitor Center. We were shocked when we realized Antietam’s museum extended no further than the four walls we were already viewing and had NO ELECTRIC MAP. Sad Michael.

What you do gain in your trip to Antietam is a better understanding of how the seemingly mundane terrain put the troops in such disarray. A few wrong turns gone right and the ending could have been different. We are not fans of speculation, but one can only imagine how moving Antietam could be if it were given the proper Park Service presentation.

TOTAL 42/80

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