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Archive for July, 2006

Cambridge, Mass.
Visited: July 28, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 321 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

It Was All Yellow=WHAT IS IT?
The quintessential American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lived in this yellow Georgian mansion from 1837 to 1882. The house also served as temporary headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

BEAUTY (2/10)
In the 1800’s painting your house a blandish yellow equated to wealth and success. We are glad that went out of style.

The insides of Longfellow’s mansion represent the worst of Victorian-era excesses: unending clutter, elaborate showiness and more marble busts than we could keep track of. Each room we entered got progressively uglier. “It can’t get any worse than this one,” we kept thinking. Oh yes it can. Our tour guide’s insistence on the room’s absolute beauty only made the situation more comical.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poet, teacher and creator of American legends through his grand epics Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

Or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Glorified limerick writer, nostalgic, sentimental hack whose ridiculously dumb-downed themes and simplistic rhyme schemes are appropriately read primarily by first graders. We know which judgment we tend towards.

CROWDS (3/10)
Bad news all around. We missed the 11:30 a.m. House tour by 3 minutes and were not allowed to catch up meaning the next tour was at 1:00 p.m. We tried to piggy back onto a special college tour after an invitation from two considerate undergrads. No dice. Their leader ratted us out, told us to leave and we were left to wander the sweltering streets of Cambridge. Oh, if eyes could shoot daggers.

Washington Slept Here...No, ReallyEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is about a half-mile from the Harvard Square Red Line T (Subway) Station. So that’s where we went. We enjoyed our unexpected lunchtime break on the Harvard University’s library steps and in a few Cambridge book stores. Time well spent.

Park literature recommends the T because street parking can very very difficult and time limited. From the Harvard Square Stop, travel west on either Church and then right onto Brattle. The House is located at 105 Brattle; the pleasant walk will pass Radcliffe College.

The Site is open only Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. Six tours leave daily: at 10:30; 11:30; 1; 2; 3; and 4. Harsh Boston weather shuts the Park down from October through the end of May; the Polar Bears and Sabre-toothed Tigers migrate back to Canada around Mother’s Day.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Its literary merits aside, the title of Harold Bloom’s anthology Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (for sale here) captures the mood of the Longfellow NHS perfectly. Unbearably pompous, condescending and superior despite the fact that its subject matter is meant for children.

The historical fiction novel, The Dante Club, in which Longfellow is a character is on sale here in its best-selling glory as is the more intriguingly-titled Longfellow’s Tattoo’s which examines the body art and physical art Longfellow’s son’s collected while living in Japan in 1871.

COSTS (3/5)
Tours of the house run $3 per person, free with the National Parks Pass.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5)
Six Ranger-led tours a day with a max size of 15 is not bad. Unless you are the 16th and 17th persons that is. Walking around Cambridge at noon was nice, it really was.

TOURS/CLASSES (1/10)
We might have forgotten about our meandering time had the tour been worthwhile. But like the Victorian designs, our lessons got laughably worse as we moved from room to room. We were not the only disappointed ones; we think the husband who dragged his pregnant wife onto the tour is still repaying her for her visible anguish.

Did we learn nothing or was there just nothing to learn? The Site has no intro film and no museum to answer that question.

Side ViewFUN (1/10)
Longfellow NHS successfully completes the trifecta of un-fun Historic Sites: 1) Dubiously distinguished dude; 2) Dreadfully dull discourse; and 3) Disastrously disgusting decor.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (1/10)
The 1:00 p.m. tour was not the first time we had to return to the Longfellow NHS. We came here on a gorgeous April, 2004 afternoon only to find out the Site does not open until May. You, good tourist, don’t have to worry about when the Site is open or not open because there is no need to come here.

TOTAL 25/80

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Boston, Mass.
Visited: April 17, 2004
Second Visit: July 28, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 26 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Freedom Trail Foundation Website

Want More?

Click Here for Gab’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston
Click Here for Michael’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston

Ready for War...or a Parade

WHAT IS IT?
The 2½-mile Freedom Trail. Blazed in Boston’s streets is a redbrick pathway leading from the verdant Boston Common downtown to a 211 foot-high obelisk, the Bunker Hill Monument, in Charlestown. The helpful path guides you (and 1.5 million annually) to 16 sites critical to the birth and early life of our nation.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The redbrick historic structures that make up Boston’s Freedom Trail intermingle well with the surrounding modern buildings. The inner vistas provided by Boston Common’s expansiveness are breathtaking as is its welcoming verdant space.

Many of the historic buildings that skirt the Freedom Trail are archetypical examples of Georgian-style architecture, as in these buildings are the ones shown in textbooks as the most representative and the most beautiful. The State House is an exception as the most famous use of Federalist-style architecture.

No American city’s buildings garner more of a powerful historic sense than those in Boston, primarily because they remain vibrant, living among the skyscrapers of today. These structures never died. Most of them still serve the same purpose as they did in the 18th century.

The Site’s numerous graveyards hold their own macabre feeling of beauty. Many of the ancient tombstones hold fancy etched calligraphy and intricate, symbolic designs including sinister skulls, mourning angels and mirthful skeletons. These designs, while pleasantly normal in Puritan New England, would be out of place in a modern cemetery.

Midnight Ride ManHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
Downtown Boston and its famous portion of the Freedom Trail are the epitome of American history. It is our self-imagined vision of what American history is: Georgian-style, redbrick buildings; stern men with white wigs saying important things; men with tri-cornered hats on horseback; lots of talking and rabble rousing; serious churches and Revolutionary War success. Our history-deficient country takes history-themed vacations here where we “follow in the footsteps of history” and clamor to listen to high-priced tour guides recount facts we tried not to listen to in school.

What exactly happened along this part of the Freedom Trail? Well, from Stops 1-11 (the downtown section) there was a lot of talking and political planning and a lot of everyday boring activity that occurs in every large city. History remembers many of the important people buried in the cemeteries along the way.

Stops 12-14 (the North End section) are where the fun starts and where the legends were made. OK, stop 10 is the Boston Massacre site but if you blink you’ll miss it. Its only marked by a circle of cobblestones and is located next to a busy auto intersection. Where were we? Stop 12 is Paul Revere’s House, the oldest house in Boston and Stop 13 is the Old North Church of two lantern lighting fame. If you want the rest of the Patriot’s Day story go to Minute Man NHP. Stop 14 is another cemetery.

Stops 15-16 are located in Charlestown, a long walk (bridge crossing included) from downtown Boston. Stop 15 is the USS Constitution, our first and greatest warship and Stop 16 is Bunker Hill, site of the Revolutionary War’s first major battle. FYI, the Boston Tea Party ship is NOT a part of the Freedom Trail and the National Park Service but it is within walking distance of downtown and was the sight of a significant historic event.

CROWDS (8/10)
Downtown Boston is perpetually crowded with cars, tourists, workers and everything in between. In addition, Beantown’s streets are maddeningly circuitous, cross at weird angles and make it very easy to get lost. No worries, though, the redbricked and clearly painted Freedom Trail changes everything.

It’s OK to be a tourist and almost impossible to get lost once you get downtown and onto the Trail. You share the walk in this vibrant beautiful city with its citizens and the sightseers around you. There is so much to see and so much to take in. Time quickly becomes irrelevant and the crowds become a joy.

The First American SoldiersEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
First, the bad parts. Parking is a nightmare. We tried and it nearly reduced us to tears. We repeat, do not attempt to park on the streets. Parking garages are a pricey but do-able option; the garage under Boston Common runs $6 for the first hour, $18 for up to nine hours. Downtown Hotel self-parking runs about $25 per day. Boston traffic is notoriously bad. The Big Dig collapsing has made things worse.

The good parts. Well, once you get downtown you should have no worries. After testing the car option, we stayed on the outskirts of town, took the subway (the T) in and had no problems. Many Boston tourists choose one of the myriad guided tour trolleys that circumnavigate the historic areas. They allow you unlimited re-boarding privileges and take you to most tourist-friendly parts of town.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
The National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center bookstore stocks a half-hearted selection of Revolutionary War-era books. You are better off looking for that perfect title at one of the bookstores in the privately-run Freedom Trail sites. Remember, no admission price is necessary if you are just going to the bookstore.

Freedom Trail Stop 8 used to be the Old Corner Bookstore, once home to Ticknor and Fields the Boston publisher who brought the world Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, Alcott and Stowe, among others. As recently as our 2004 visit, the building housed the Globe Corner Bookstore. No longer. The current resident is the Chicago-based diamond retailing chain, Ultra Diamonds, who have 143 nationwide stores where “you should Never Pay Retail”. Why must one of them be in one of America’s most storied literary buildings and a part of the Freedom Trail?

The Globe Corner bookstore is now located across the Charles River in Cambridge. If books are your thing, you might as well go to Cambridge and browse its many clean and well lit bookshops.

Park Street Church COSTS (3/5)
The NPS portion of Boston NHP is free. However, the NPS maintains only a few of the Freedom Trail’s attractions. Still, only three of the 16 units charge an entrance fee: the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere House and the Old State House. Entry into the Trail’s three churches is free but a donation is suggested. The USS Constitution Museum, while free, also asks for donations.

Check the listings at the bottom of the review for the following information: Freedom Trail Site and Stop Number; whether the Site is free; if the Site offers free tours; if the Site has a Museum; and with whom the Site is affiliated.

Boston and the Freedom Trail can be as cheap or as expensive as you would like. Just be careful. Staying in the city, parking in the city, visiting all the Freedom Trail stops, taking a guided tour and riding a tourist trolley will make your costs skyrocket. If you stay outside the city, ride the subway in and around town, walk the Freedom Trail, visit only the free sites and take only the NPS, State House and USS Constitution tours your day could be surprisingly inexpensive but also long and tiring.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
The NPS presence at Boston NHP takes a back-seat to private and public entities who are, in turn, seen as Park affiliates, as well as the numerous for-hire tour services. There are Rangers here who give tours and talks but unless you are looking for them, as we were, you might not even realize that the Freedom Trail is a National Park Site.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Freedom Trail is easy to follow, stacked with informational help and sufficiently self-guided. We skipped the Ranger-led tour along the Freedom Trail but hit two other wonderful (and free) Ranger-led talks which included a humorous look at the history of Faneuil Hall, from inside the so-called “Cradle of Liberty”, and a terrific tour of the USS Constitution.


Our Guide
The tour of the 200 year-old Old Ironsides, still an active warship, is given by the U.S. Navy. Our guide was an active duty sailor. Despite the large group, 80 or so, he answered every question, cracked jokes, and explained everything we wanted to know about the ship. He was superb. Arrive early to ensure a spot on the Old Ironsides tour. There is limited access, security checkpoints can be an issue and the waiting queues sometimes grow out of control.

FUN (9/10)
Great free Ranger talks, sunny days, hours spent lounging and reading in Boston Common, easily followed tour paths, superb people watching and gorgeous views made our trips to Boston NHP unforgettable. There are also plenty of restaurants, shopping opportunities and taverns along the Freedom Trail in case you need a break from walking through history.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Of course. Walking the Freedom Trail will bring every American History test you have taken come to life. Seriously, though, Boston sits among the pantheon of American cities and the Freedom Trail is a perfectly created tourist center. We prefer the suburban Boston Minute Man NHP but you cannot go wrong in downtown. Just don’t forgot to visit the North End and Charlestown portions of the Freedom Trail; the Old North Church and the USS Constitution are Boston NHP’s shining gems.

TOTAL 61/80

Stop No.; Site; Cost; Free Tours?; Museum?; Administrator

1. Boston Common; FREE; NO; NO; City of Boston
2. The State House; FREE; YES; NO; Comm. of Mass.
3. Park Street Church; FREE; NO; NO; Self
4. Granary Burying Ground ; FREE; NO; NO; City of Boston
5. King’s Chapel; FREE; NO; NO; Self
Follow History's Footsteps6. First Public School; FREE; NO; NO; Old City Hall
7. Old South Meeting House; $5; NO; YES; Self
8. Old Corner Bookstore; FREE; NO; NO; Ultra Diamonds
9. Old State House ; $5; NO; YES; Bostonian Society
10. Boston Massacre Site; FREE; NO;NO; City of Boston
11. Faneuil Hall; FREE; YES; NO; NPS
12. Paul Revere House; $3; NO; YES; Self
13. Old North Church; FREE; NO;NO; Self
14. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground; FREE; NO; NO; City of Boston
15. USS Constitution; FREE; YES; YES; U.S. Navy
16. Bunker Hill Monument; FREE; YES; YES; NPS

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Lexington and Concord, Mass.
Visited: April 18, 2004
Second Visit: July 27, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 27 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Want More?

Click Here for Gab’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston
Click Here for Michael’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston

The Minute ManWHAT IS IT?
Battle Road, Hartwell Tavern, the North Bridge and other sights preserved to commemorate the events of April 19, 1775, Patriots Day. The day that the American Revolution began. Also included at Minute Man NHP is The Wayside, the Concord home of Louisa May Alcott, later purchased by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Minute Man NHP is situated along Boston’s outskirts, in between the city’s urban sprawl and the beginnings of the Massachusetts countryside. In fact, the Battle Road portion of the Site ends before it reaches Lexington because of U.S. Interstate 95, the road that is effectively Boston’s beltway. The Site itself is not particularly beautiful; it looks like a pleasant suburban park. The significance is historical, not natural, as are the visual draws: the Lexington and Concord Minute Man statues, the oft-rebuilt North Bridge and the period structures that still stand along the Battle Road.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
The place where the American Revolution began. That’s the popular, understood and correct contextualization of the events of that fateful April day. At the time, however, the event was purely a local phenomenon. A single national consciousness and determination began to form over a year later when the Declaration of Independence was signed. And even then the solidarity was dubious and pragmatic at best.

Bostonians wanted the British out of their backyard. Simple as that. At no time did these unruly and violent rebels see themselves as either a part of a greater national whole or catalysts for a world-quaking governmental revolution. Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, William Dawes and thousands of Bostonians probably never thought they were starting a War. The British only thought they were seizing contraband rifles.

The notion that the United States of America, in every sense, began and exists today due to a few Minute Man who fired back because they (mistakenly) believed the Redcoats were burning their rural town is overwhelming. We wonder if those Minute Man are the epitome of the American spirit: determined, hot-headed, reactionary, delusional, resourceful and stubbornly successful. They started it all, right?

If that is not enough, the Site also includes the house where much of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women” took place, perhaps America’s most beloved children’s novel.

Crowded StatueCROWDS (6/10)
Our first visit to Minute Man NHP came on Patriot’s Day, 2004. Understandably the crowds were large and the excitement was tangible. A whole lot of people were wearing three-cornered hats. If you can visit Boston during their Patriot’s Day holiday, do it.

Our next visit was a lot less hectic, although there were no open spaces in the Minute Man Visitor Center parking lot (too many bus spaces). On Patriot’s Day everyone parked on the grass. On a mid-summer weekday, however, the crowd tended more towards babysitters and their obligations, local joggers enjoying their park and (gasp) foreign, even British, tourists.

Most out-of-town Boston vacationers appear to stay downtown where they slog the Freedom Trail, relax at Boston Common and enjoy the city from their centralized hotel. Few venture out to the sticks to see where the Revolution began and that’s a shame. But who can blame them, Boston’s subway does not drop you off here and the traffic can be horrific.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site’s Minute Man VC is located right off U.S. Interstate 95, about 20 miles west of Boston. Take I-95, Exit 30 (Massachusetts Route 2A) and go west. The Minute Man VC will be on your right in about a quarter mile. The Site continues westward from the Minute Man VC along the Battle Road. A driving route parallels the Battle Road Trail for about four miles until you get to the town of Concord and the North Bridge Visitor Center.

There are five parking lots located along the Battle Road Trail if you wish to walk the historic trail. The trail itself consists of crushed stone and might be difficult in a wheelchair. Both the Hartwell Tavern, a restored tavern that sits along the Battle Road, and The Wayside are only open from May through October.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The Minute Man NHP Visitor Centers vend a good selection of Revolutionary War books as well as books by and about the Concord-area writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

COSTS (4/5)
Battle Road and all Minute Man related sections of the Park are free. There is a $5 per person charge (free with the National Parks Pass) for entry into The Wayside and the mandatory Ranger-led tour.

ReloadingRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
The Rangers were working hard on Patriots Day weekend. Most were dressed in period costume. Lectures were plentiful. We spoke to the musket-shooting Ranger about Revolutionary War-era Tavern culture and the events of April 19 for about 20 minutes. After his lecture, we saw him walking with about seven other people explaining incidents along the Trail. He was wonderful. He had a nose for people who wanted to ask questions.

Our second, less eventful visit, happily brought the same level of Ranger surplus and attentiveness. And a few were still dressed in period costume! They probably dress in modern clothing when off-duty. Then again, who knows?

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
We really enjoyed the multi-media Road to Revolution theater presentation shown at the Minute Man VC. The show, which combines electronic maps with set pieces, video screens and a moving clock, does a terrific job at establishing the complicated geography and time frame of the day’s events. Michael had been inculcated with the “one if by land, two if by sea” story since he could read but never fully grasped its complete topographic meaning before the multi-media presentation. Start your visit here.

The best part of the Site is that Minute Man NHP posts a few of its Rangers at the important Battle Road locations, instead of just at the Visitor Centers. We love this method and wish that more Parks would put there knowledgeable staff at the places where the questions are sparked. The Rangers at Minute Man NHP know their history and are immediately engaging. Our interactions delved into historical theory, legend creation and 18th-century tavern life. And yeah, they all shoot muskets too!

We were disappointed by the confusing, abstract designs of the Minute Man VC and in the lack of substantial learning opportunities at the North Bridge VC but the Rangers and the intro film more than made up for any static display shortcomings. The Wayside Tour was a little under whelming and very slow; perhaps the privately-run Concord area writers’ museums (Louisa May Alcott’s The Orchard House and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Old Manse) offer more engaging tours.

On the Road to FreedomFUN (9/10)
Pictures of the North Bridge and Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue are so ubiquitous in tourist photos and history text books that seeing them in person feels revelatory. The distant past, the reckless bravery, the fiery chase down the Battle Road, the manic urgency and the epic drama become inescapably real. The ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ is instantly imagined; this is a place where the World’s political path irrevocably changed, moving towards a system of representative government and away from the monarchy not because of political decisions, voting solutions or protracted thought but because an angry farmer fired a rifle.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
The Battle Road from Lexington to Concord, with its leafy shade, forested turns, restored buildings, oft-pictured statues and famous bridge, is the real Freedom Trail. Don’t be distracted by the moniker of downtown Boston’s wonderful tourist walk. No visit to New England is complete without a visit to Minute Man NHP and no place offers a better visceral understanding of the American Revolution and the American character.

TOTAL 62/80

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Stillwater, N.Y.
Visited: March 29, 2004
Second Visit: July 23, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 10 of 353

NPS Website; Local Website


Red
WHAT IS IT?

Site of two pivotal 1777 Revolutionary War battles.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Hills mixed with forested terrain and open fields characterize the main portion of Saratoga NHP, the approximately 3000-acre battlefield site. A 10-mile self-guided auto tour route scurries the visitor around the countryside to the time-honored places of interest with able battlefield park aplomb. Helpful red and blue stakes throughout the Site remind the visitor of the battle lines held by the British and American soldiers respectively in 1777.

Once you leave the pavement and set off on foot, the landscape’s historical power sinks in. The up-and-down hike from Chatfield Farm to the Balcarres Redoubt delves into the forest, crosses a mild ravine and eventually delivers you to the Barber Wheatfield, and open field where hours of fierce fighting occurred.

The path is the same trail that the American soldiers took over 225 years ago. When you edge out of the forest and see the cannons pointed toward you and the British fortification stakes it is not hard to be transported back in time.

The Schuyler House and the Saratoga Monument sit eight miles northeast of the Saratoga Battlefield grounds and share the small New York town ambiance of their host, Schuylersville. The Schuyler House, country home of General and patroon Philip Schuyler, is a typical two-story yellow Colonial Georgian design, fully restored and ready to tour. The 155-foot tall Saratoga Monument is a surprisingly ornate obelisk that offers spectacular views of the not so spectacular scenery.

Two PolesHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (9/10)

The National Parks Guidebook ranks the Battle at Saratoga as one of the 15 most decisive battles in World History. It was our nation’s first significant victory of the Revolution. A Park Brochure states that in 1999 the New York Times Magazine called it the “most crucial battle of the 1000 years.” We are not going to succumb to that kind of hyperbole.

Nevertheless, had we not won, the Britons would have effectively cut New England from the remainder of the breakaway nation, dooming our chances for success. From the victory came French support and perhaps most importantly an impetus to France to rekindle war efforts in Europe against England. No Saratoga victory, no United States.

CROWDS (8/10)

During our first visit, in March of 2004, we saw very few people, just locals walking their dogs and joggers enjoying their isolated park. In March, the auto tour road had not even opened for travel. You can use your car only from April through November.

In August, however, the Saratoga area becomes a tourist mecca with the beginning of Saratoga Spring’s racing season and jam-packed waters of nearby Lake George. Given the season, the Site’s crowds were still not as large as expected. We had the hikes and the auto tour road largely to ourselves.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Schuylerville, N.Y. is ten miles east of Saratoga Springs and I-87, Exit 14 via the winding New York Route 29. The Battlefield is a further eight miles south on U.S. Route 4. Once the auto tour road is opened, the Battlefield is very accessible. But during any time of the year you owe it to yourself to get out of the auto tour rut and walk. Short paved trails to and through the Redoubts make your excursion easy.


Ornate Obelisk
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
As would be imagined, the Store stocks a good selection of Revolutionary War texts. We bought a nice postcard of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the handsomest man of the War and designer of the Saratoga Battlefield’s redoubt defense system.

We are pretty sure no other National Park Site vends bottled Saratoga spring water outside its Visitor Center.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $5 per car into the Battlefield portion of the Park. Admission is free with the National Parks Pass and free from November through March (when the roads are closed).

The Schuylerville sites are both free. You can climb Saratoga Monument and tour the Schuyler House without spending one penny. What a bargain!

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
There are very helpful Rangers at the Battlefield Visitor Center. Once you get out on the auto tour, however, you are on your own.

It is a different story in Schuylerville where stellar, knowledgeable Rangers spew Revolutionary info at both its attractions.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)

The Saratoga NHP Visitor Center Museum has seen a flurry of recent additions. In 2002, a new film debuted while in 2005 the Museum welcomed a gargantuan fiber-optic map and new exhibit panels. We were not overly impressed by any of the improvements, especially the 15-minute+ electric map program, which would have been perfect with a good deal of editing.

Kosciuszko's OverlookThe Site’s educational forte is its Rangers. Their talks and understandings are indispensable. Our Ranger-led tour of the Schuyler House was one of the most skilled, subtle and perfect historical teaching talks of our entire trip. A different Ranger, posted at the Saratoga Monument, talked our socks off about Benedict Arnold, the Monument’s quirks, answered dozens of our questions and enchanted us with his vibrant personality.

FUN (8/10)
When we came through Saratoga NHP the first time, we thought a 5-mile hike through the battlefield was sufficient. We were wrong. While we may have gotten the gist of the battles, we missed out on a great house tour and an equally impressive monument, each with their own stories. We made the right choice stopping in Schuylerville this time around.

We toured the Schuylerville sites with wonderful fellow central Pennsylvania tourists and a set of friendly New York history buffs and golfing enthusiasts. Our conversations and laughter with our traveling cohorts were the highlights of our return visit and made us thankful that we had given this Site another chance.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Yes. It is such an important part of American history. If you are in the delightful and historic town Saratoga Springs for the races in August, definitely come. If not, Saratoga NHP deserves far more pilgrimages than it receives. At least as many people as the throngs that flock to Gettysburg.

TOTAL 58/80

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Scranton, Pa.
Visited: July 21, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 315 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Once Rolling StockWHAT IS IT?
Museum, large collection of steam locomotives, working turntable and roundhouse located on an old railroad yard near downtown Scranton, Pa. and The Mall at Steamtown.

BEAUTY (2/10)
Steamtown NHS’s official brochure includes no present-day pictures of the Site, only skillful pen and ink illustrations. Bad sign. Only the most eccentric trainspotter could find beauty at Steamtown.

Scores of freight cars, passenger cars, and steam locomotives sit on rows of train tracks which border the utilitarian rectangular architecture of The Mall at Steamtown and its parking garage. A long board-walked pedestrian ramp conveniently leads from the Mall’s Food Court to the Park. The Mall Ramp gives you a stellar close-up view of the rolling stock collection.

Perhaps too close. This intimate view fully reveals the cars’ dilapidated state. Generous amounts of rust, frayed wood and sympathy-inducing disrepair are the norm.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10)
The Steamtown NHS’s claim to historical significance is dubious at best: the yard may have been represented in George Inness’s classic American landscape painting “The Lackawanna Valley”.

Ironically, the painting’s juggernaut iron horse and indelible train tracks, themselves a symbol of the coming industrial revolution and unstoppable progress, had to be reintroduced to the Lackawanna Valley in 1985 by a US Congressman. The trains had been living in Vermont.

The Scranton Yard was never a particularly central or important cog in our nation’s railroad network. The Yard has probably seen more attention since becoming a Park Site. Sadly, its notoriety is linked to “pork barrel” politics. The Park is oft-cited as a dastardly example of federal tax dollars pouring into an economically depressed city for pie-in-the-sky urban renewal purposes.

The Site’s lack of tangible historical significance, Canadian engines and proximity to its namesake Mall do not garner a positive national public image.


Canadian National!!!
CROWDS (6/10)
The Site was not empty but also was not as crowded as The Mall at Steamtown. We saw our sentiments of why exactly are we here? echoed on the faces of a model railroading club’s members, here on a team vacation to Pennsylvania railroad sites; their route was listed on the back of their T-shirts, rock concert tour style. Steamtown seemed like their least-fun destination.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is located in downtown Scranton, a few miles from Interstate 81. Take Exit 185, the Central Scranton Expressway. Turn left at the first stoplight and follow this road, Lackawanna Avenue, past seven sets of traffic lights to Cliff Avenue. Turn left into the Site’s vast parking lot. There are lots of signs.

After spending the morning looking for the Scranton AAA, we followed the wrong signs: the ones pointing us towards The Mall at Steamtown rather than Steamtown NHS. We parked in the Mall’s garage and perused the shops before traveling down the Mall Ramp to the Park Site.

The Park’s two-story museum is located in a series of roundhouse buildings which circle the working turntable. We got disoriented going up and down various steps of stairs and into buildings and rail cars we were not sure we should have entered.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
Plaques, pins, posters and prints commemorating almost all the Mid Atlantic regional railroads in their various ages of mergers and rebirths are for sale here. And if we wanted to begin lives as trainspotters, the Steamtown bookstore offers what appear to be some good primer texts: Trainspotting Hot Spots, 2006 Tourist Trains, a Guide to North American Steam Locomotives and scores of color guides dedicated to the C&O, Lehigh and Hudson, Penn Central and Erie Lackawanna lines.

There is an entire aisle of children’s books and plenty of Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise for little ones. If you were looking for a wooden train whistle, you could pick one up at Steamtown. A nice museum store, but we were a little disappointed at the lack of authentic memorabilia and region-centric selection.

Mail Car GabCOSTS (2/5)
The Park Museum entry fee is $6 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. A short railroad trip around the Park’s grounds runs $3. Longer excursions to Moscow, Pa. and Tobyhanna, Pa run $21 and $31 respectively.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
A Ranger made a brief appearance in the VC vestibule to orient one of the recently arrived train enthusiast groups. We may have seen another Ranger boarding a train that was preparing to leave for an excursion. If we had questions that delved beyond the static displays, we would have been hard pressed to find someone to ask.

TOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
The exhibits were too basic for the train enthusiast but too esoteric, too wordy, too numerous and not interactive enough for the casual visitor. We were simultaneously bored and overwhelmed.

FUN (3/10)
We arrived at Steamtown NHS with peaking levels of cynicism and disdain. Naturally, Michael descended into a rambling self-righteous monologue. How dare the National Park Service sully its name with a pork barrel Site especially when an important railroading place like Golden Spike NHS gets so little Appropriations love?

Mostly though, we were both angry because our Fodor’s Official National Park Guide Book told us that our National Parks Pass would not be honored. But when the ticket collector told us our Pass was good and that we would not have to pay $12 we felt a lot better. Maybe this place is not so bad at all. Let’s give it a chance. And we did.

We even enjoyed ourselves. We hopped on train cars, watched the film, snapped some photos, read some panels and decided to have a great time. Gradually, the incredulity regarding the Park’s existence returned as we learned more about the Site’s history.

What do you mean all the working locomotives are Canadian!!! Really, all the trains were bought from a failing museum in Vermont and moved to Scranton in the early 80’s AND then failed in Scranton until the feds came in and made it a Park Site.

Shocking.


Full Circle
It could be worse, tax paying tsk tskers. Scranton could have had the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania buy it a $400M baseball stadium and then say that it cannot afford to buy new players and then trade Bobby Abreu for four minor leaguers.

Less tangentially, the Steamtown NHS Museum stopped gaining our interest because the exhibits were boring and generic. Only the Park’s infamous history grabbed for our attention. Our fun levels had fittingly come full circle at the Roundhouse-based Site.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
There are too many fun and interesting railroad excursions and/or museums in Pennsylvania to make Steamtown NHS your priority. The East Broad Top Railroad chugs up America’s oldest stretch of narrow gauge track near Mount Union, Pa., the elegant Horseshoe Curve amazes near Altoona and the Strasburg Railroad and Museum in Amish Country Lancaster houses an impressive collection of locomotives. You can even hop on a Strasburg train and take the beautiful Journey to Paradise, a much more desirable destination than Moscow, Pa. Sorry Aunt Helen.

TOTAL 31/80

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Washington, D.C.
Visited: July 14, 2006
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

Pre-Parks
WHAT IS IT?
Museum dedicated to the history of the United States Department of Interior, the Cabinet department responsible for the administration of the National Park Service.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The Museum lives on the first floor of a federal office building, not exactly a good aesthetic sign.

Once inside the automatic glass doors, the Museum is nicely laid out, with a lot of open space and room to move between dioramas and displays, many of which feature maps and kitschy artwork from the museum’s and the Department’s early days.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
Completed in 1936, the DOI building was the first building built by the FDR administration. From that point on, every National Parks and Department of Interior decision ostensibly occurred here. This may not be a particularly glamorous history, but the federal bureaucracy is what gets things done. Right?

Where’s Pennsylvania?CROWDS (6/10)
We were the only visitors to the Museum. Most likely a good thing since we vocalized our opinions about nearly every exhibit.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
The DOI Museum is located at the corner of 18th and C Streets NW, four blocks to the southwest of the White House or five blocks south of the Farragut West Metro station. Good luck trying to find parking within the restrictive metered mélange of 15-minute parking, diplomat-only parking and reserved for VIP parking. Spaces can be found, but good luck.

Getting into the Museum is a more arduous process than most D.C. landmarks. We waited for about 10 minutes to sign in at the front desk as an official visitor. After passing through the metal detectors, we had to wear an ID badge and restrict our movement to the bookstore and museum. None of this was unexpected or a problem; federal security restrictions are stringent nowadays.

FYI, if you want the NPS Passport stamp you either need an escort to travel to the 7th floor or (not sure how Gab pulled this off) need to have the 7th floor escort bring the stamp to the DOI entranceway where they will stamp your book. We never traveled up to the 7th floor which, we later read, holds copies of every single National Park Site brochure. Just thinking about that bounty elicits Pavlovian dog levels of drool.

The LocketCONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
Not many sites can boast a registered historic landmark as their bookstore. The Indian Craft Store lies just across the hall from the Museum and serves as the Site’s bookstore and showcase for Native American arts and crafts from across the nation. The shop has existed in this location since 1938 and owes its landmark status to wall murals painted by Native American artists Allan Houser and Gerald Nailor.

Its small size is deceiving. The Store’s phenomenal cache of books related to every Native American craft and its graceful Sculpture Garden (all works are for sale) are not immediately apparent. Every possible display space is used yet the Craft Store does not feel cramped.

If you need to take a crash course on artwork indigenous to North America, come here. And bring your wallet. We could not leave without buying at least a magnet.

COSTS (4/5)
Entrance to the Museum and Craft Store are free.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
Would you believe us if we told you we saw no Rangers at the Department of Interior? Of course, we didn’t venture up to the Park Headquarters on the 7th floor. Like we said, you need to request a personal escort for that. And we couldn’t decide what we would do once we got up there.

TOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
Guided tours of the Museum and other parts of the Department of Interior building are available by appointment (202-208-4743). But we found the Museum to be self-explanatory. This museum is dedicated to interpreting how the Department of Interior has interpreted its constantly changing role in the formation of America.

Most of the museum’s ten galleries offer modern presentations of the dated displays which hung in the museum when it opened in the 1930s: these are, essentially, museum exhibits explaining what the museum exhibited.

L’Enfant’s GiftThis blend of 1930’s style dioramas and dated data with changing modern exhibits is familiar to us; we have seen it in many of the NPS Visitor Centers that are in the process of updating their displays. This process is usually long and drawn out since it is dependent upon federal funding. The difference, however, is that once the VCs acquire the needed money, it is understood that the old stuff will probably end up in a closet somewhere, not part of the new exhibit.

Maps of western expansion, projected plans and blueprints for dams and mines and explanations of the evolving U.S. presence in territories like Guam and the Marshall Islands mesmerized us. Do you know into how many places the Department of Interior reaches its fingers? It is no accident it is called the “Mother of all Departments.”

FUN (8/10)
Gab could have spent several more hours in the Museum’s air-conditioned halls, but then again she reads much slower than Michael.

The Museum’s guest book documents the range of responses it elicits from its limited number of visitors: “Fascinating!” “boring!” “A hidden treasure!” “VERY boring.” Looks like not everyone finds it as interesting as we do.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
Only if you are captivated by the infrastructure of the federal government or are finishing a two-year journey of 380 National Park Sites under the purview of the Department of the Interior.

TOTAL 47/80

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Part of National Capital Parks – East
Washington, D.C.
Visited: July 14, 2006
NPS Site Visited: Not an Official Site
NPS Affiliate Site Visited: 15 of 26
Second Visit: November 10, 2006
Local Website

144 Constitution Avenue NE

WHAT IS IT?
The current home of the National Women’s Party and longtime home of its suffragist founder Alice Paul.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The House is a three-story redbrick Georgian-style concoction whose northwestern property lines are snugly bordered by the hulking Hart Senate Office Building, a modernist reinterpretation of its neo-classical office building neighbors. The Sewall-Belmont House feels like it wandered into the wrong part of town.

The House’s interior makes little sense. The Save America’s Treasures-sponsored restoration looks nice but has no apparent order. It is unclear which time period the house and/or each room is supposed to represent. Our guides were unable to tell us much about the furnishings, their origins or how they fit in historically with their surroundings.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
None of the pioneering 19th Amendment work and suffragist struggling happened here. How could that be? Well, the House didn’t become NWP headquarters until 1929, nine years after women’s constitutional right to vote was ratified. Alice Paul lived here from 1929 until 1972. During this time she authored the Equal Rights Amendment and steadfastly worked for its passage into law. The ERA remains three states short of ratification.

The best part of the tour was the House’s many original documents, photos and artwork. We especially enjoyed the hand-sewn NWP banner that screamed its message of voting rights for women outside the Woodrow Wilson White House.

Senatorial SqueezeCROWDS (6/10)
One other person joined us on our 2 p.m. house tour. The 1 p.m. tour also had 3 people. We doubt that the numbers could swell so dramatically as to negatively impact your visit.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
The Sewall-Belmont House is located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 2nd Avenue NE, just two blocks west of the U.S. Capitol, one block north of the U.S. Supreme Court and two blocks north of the Library of Congress. Strangely, Michael has never had trouble finding street parking in this part of town. This visit was no exception and we did not even utilize the block of 2nd Avenue street parking set aside for Sewall-Belmont visitors.

The nearest D.C. Metro (subway) stops are a deceptively long half-mile away. They are Union Station (on the Red Line) and Capitol South (on the Orange and Blue Lines).

You must visit the Site via guided tour. Tours leave Tuesday through Friday at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2. Saturday tours depart at noon, 1, 2 and 3. No tours on Sunday or Monday. Your window of touring opportunity is smaller than it may appear. If you are not at the front door as the previous tour ends and the next one begins, doors lock, gates close and you are left to entertain yourself for another hour.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The bookstore is the size of a large broom closet. In fact, Gab suspects that was the original function of the space. We didn’t have much time to browse since a guide plus one visitor challenged the room’s capacity. There were more commemorative plates than books. The books available were focused solely on women’s suffrage and did not expand further into other feminist topics. Gab walked away with a complimentary copy of Ms. Magazine which felt like a paradoxical prize after tolerating our tour. Of course, you can purchase your DVD copy of Iron Jawed Angels here.

COSTS (2/5)
$5 per person suggested donation.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
NPS affiliate sites utilize private docents rather than Park Service Rangers. The visitor rarely sees the benefit of this trade-off. Two young docents led us through the House with varying levels of educational success.

Ms. Alice PaulTOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
The Sewall-Belmont House, home of the National Women’s Party, was the last place we expected to see glaring examples of male dominance and female subservience.

Our tour was uncomfortably monopolized by our young male tour guide who consistently intimidated his female cohort, the better host and more knowledgeable historian, back into a secondary role.

Alice Paul would have started rolling in her grave had she not already been tossing and turning because of a traveling photography exhibit highlighting women in the U.S. Senate. Nearly all of the photographs depict our female senators in a less than powerful light. Is this the worst or is it this one?

We vocally wondered, “is this exhibit some kind of sick, subversive joke?” while both our guides offered effusive praise for the photographer and her show. Maybe our audible scoffing noises weren’t loud enough. We were repulsed. These women are United States Senators, the definition of power. There must be some shots that show them in control. It is unfair that these aggressively demeaning representations and power myths are perpetuated and allowed reinforcement in the 21st century. It is disheartening that they have a place at a site that honors the suffragist movement and supposedly celebrates how far women have come.

FUN (2/10)
Our Sewall-Belmont experience was so ridiculously farcical that we expected Gloria Steinem to mystically appear announcing, “smile, you’re on feminist candid camera. You saw the blatant inequality purveyed by a dominant ethos and did nothing. Let’s talk it out.”

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10)
Our hosts told us that visits and interest spiked after the HBO’s showing of Iron-Jawed Angels. We were no exception. Iron-Jawed Angels introduced us to the amazing National Women’s Party story and left us eager to learn more. It also had Gab frothing with riot grrrl feminist spirit for a good month.

Our Sewall-Belmont House tour got us worked up in a different way. Let’s just say we didn’t leave angry at Woodrow Wilson and historic inequalities. Put Iron-Jawed Angels on your netflix queue and skip the Capitol Hill visit. Shelter yourself from the post-feminist realities of the sexuality-as-power 21st century world and the cynical politics of Washington, D.C. The belief in the goodness of the 19th Amendment crusaders and the strength of women senators is much easier from home.

TOTAL 29/80

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