Gettysburg and the Mid-Atlantic

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Saratoga NHP

This past winter, we had time for a short road trip from New England back home to Asheville, so we were able to go to a few National Park Sites during our journey. The first was Saratoga National Historical Park, which we visited on a very cold day. The road to drive around the park was closed due to snow and ice, but we were able to spend time in the visitors center, getting our stamps, watching the informative film, and talking to the rangers. We could still view the battlefield to some extent from the porch and out the windows. Documenting one of the most decisive victories of the American army during the Revolutionary War, Saratoga details the battle maneuvers and shares relics in its museum.

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Hopewell Furnace NHS

On our way south, we next stopped at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in rural Pennsylvania. Hopewell Furnace was a really engaging site. We learned a lot of really interesting facts about just how important ironworks were in the development of the new United States. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, America was creating one-seventh of the iron goods in the world – most of it in and around Hopewell Furnace. When we visited, we could walk into the building that housed the furnace, and see how the iron bars were poured, as well as examine the various farm buildings and the home still standing. Iron workers had risky, hot, tough jobs, but the skilled workers did pretty well for themselves. Idyllic farmland now surrounds the quiet furnace, and animals were basking in the last glow of sunset as we made our way back to our car.

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Gettysburg National Military Park

We next spent a full day at Gettysburg National Military Park. Gettysburg is an iconic battlefield, and made a popular tourist spot due to the strength of Abraham Lincoln’s infamous Gettysburg Address. As an English teacher, I have taught this speech for years, and written essays myself on its rhetoric, but I was less familiar with the particulars of the actual battle. We began our visit in the Cyclorama, which I always thought was one of a kind. But I learned that there were actually many similar displays before film was popularized. If you’ve never experienced a cyclorama, it is a 3D experience, during which you stand in the middle of a painting that surrounds you on circular walls. As the story of the battle is narrated, different parts of the canvas light up. We also drove the battlefield, seeing famous spots like Little Round Top and where Pickett’s Charge happened. Gettysburg was a horrifically bloody and violent battle – more men fell here than in any other battle on American soil. Seeing the peaceful fields, with grass waving in the wind, it is hard to imagine the carnage that was laid over these fields after the battle ended, but it must have been terrible.

While at Gettysburg, we visited Eisenhower National Historic Site, which preserves Eisenhower’s retirement home. The Eisenhowers also used the house for diplomatic meetings while Eisenhower was still in the White House. After leaving the presidency, Ike and Mamie used the land for cattle farming, and Ike took up painting. An interesting family, the Eisenhower home is full of character. There is a very small museum at the visitors center, but they have a great film and lots of relics, especially from Ike’s campaign.

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Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Our final stop on our mini vacation was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Included in this park site are four different battlegrounds – Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness. We went to each of these battlegrounds and drove by all of the famous locations – including the bloody angle and Chatham. Chatham was especially exciting for me because it is intimately tied to one of my favorite authors, Walt Whitman. Whitman spent time at Chatham after rushing to the side of his wounded brother. While there, he penned these lines about the catalpa trees outside the front door, “At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.” Referred to as “witness trees”, since they witnessed the atrocities of the temporary Civil War hospital, they were young when Whitman saw them. Now they are leaning, and the NPS has been working to support them so that visitors can still visit an iconic landmark. A horrible history, and humbling to stand in this same spot.

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Winter National Park Visits

Last winter we were able to sneak in a few NPS sites while traveling to visit family and friends over the holidays. One site that was surprising and entertaining in an unexpected way was Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park.  Only earning National Park status in 2014, previously the Blackstone River Valley was protected as a heritage corridor. Now, it encompasses several different sites and preserves the history of the Industrial Revolution in New England. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island we stopped to find a visitor center in an old train station. There were a couple of volunteers there who not only gave us information on the park, but told us that Hachi: A Dog’s Story was filmed there. Since Anthony and I went to Japan in 2009, we’ve both known the story of Hachiko, the dog who stands for loyalty and faithfulness in Tokyo. Hachiko waited for his owner every day at Shibuya Station, so that he could greet him and walk home with him after work. His owner died at work suddenly, and therefore did not return to the station. For over nine years, Hachiko continued to go to the train station every day, until his own death, to wait for his master. Now there is a statue of Hachiko at Shibuya Station that is a well known meeting spot. In Woonsocket, since an American version of Hachiko’s story was filmed there, a matching statue has been erected. The volunteers told us stories from the filming of the movie, which starred Richard Gere, and were more than happy to take our photo in front of the statue.

We also stopped in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to walk around the grounds of the Slater Mill, another piece of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. We were able to watch an introductory film and take a short walk through the textile mill and surrounding preserved buildings. There are several other areas that are part of the park that we will have to find time to explore more fully in the future.

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Vanderbilt Mansion NHP

Our next NPS stop on this trip was Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York. Representative of the Gilded Age, the Vanderbilt Mansion is just one of forty separate homes built by the family during this era. In Asheville, we have the Biltmore House, the largest private home in America, so we have a special attachment to the Vanderbilt family. The mansion is largely unchanged from the time the family used it as a summer and fall retreat. When Margaret Louise Van Alen inherited the estate, after the death of Frederick Vanderbilt in 1938, and couldn’t find buyers because of the Depression, she donated the property to the National Park Service. We were able to tour the grounds and the house. Interestingly enough, during the Gilded Age, guests were placed in bedrooms based on importance. So if you were put up in the bedroom closest to Louise and Frederick Vanderbilt, the primary residents of the mansion, that meant you were very important to them. If you were given a separate house elsewhere on the property, you were probably lower class. Old money social niceties of this time period are so fascinating!

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Big Cypress National Preserve

After spending time in the cold and snowy north, we headed down to south Florida to warm up. We were able to spend a day driving through Big Cypress National Preserve. Encompassing a large swath of land in south Florida, Big Cypress has tons of birds, alligators, and other animals. The Florida Trail also runs through this area. We hiked a couple of shorter trails, looking for alligators the whole time, while avoiding the mosquitos that are so prevalent in the steamy hot weather. The swamps hold a very different type of beauty from any other place I have been. Lush, green, damp, and resonant with the buzz of insects, Big Cypress is an engaging place, where it often feels like you can actually watch the greenery grow.

A varied trip, within a week span we visited areas preserved for industry, wealth, and wildlife.

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