The countdown clock in the lobby of the Cradle of Aviation Museum showed 43 days to July 20, the 50th anniversary of the first man to walk on the moon, on the night of the museum’s grand gala at which seven former astronauts and flight directors were feted – Walt Cunningham (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 7), Rusty Schweickart(Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 9), Fred Haise(Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 13). Charlie Duke (Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 16), Harrison Schmitt(Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 17) and Apollo Flight Directors, Gerry Griffin and Milt Windler – along with Grumman employees who built the lunar module and the equipment which put them there.
Throughout this year, the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Uniondale, Long Island, not far from where the lunar module was designed and built by Grumman engineers in Bethpage and a stone’s throw from Roosevelt Field where Charles Lindbergh took off for his historic transatlantic flight to Paris, has been hosting special events to mark the anniversary, use it for STEM education and inspire a new generation eager to reach for the stars.
The events climax on July 20, when at the exact same moment as Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind”, a replica lunar module will descend from the ceiling. Museum goers also can see an actual lunar module, one of the six that Grumman built (three are still on the moon, and the other three are in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and here at the Cradle of Aviation Museum).
One of the extraordinary exhibits on view at the museum now is“Space: A Journey to Our Future,” which is on view through August 18, 2019, an absolutely thrilling, immersive exhibit which takes you from the dawn of man’s earliest visions of space exploration to the heroic achievements of the past, the unfolding discoveries of today, and the frontiers of the universe that lie ahead. You get to touch actual rocks from the lunar surface and the red planet, explore a futuristic Lunar Base Camp while walking through a full-size space habitat and work pod, get an up-close look at a wide range of artifacts from the space program and experience the past, present and future of space through these and dozens of other displays, interactive (try your hand at landing the space shuttle!) and experiences.
Also, as part of this special celebration, the museumis showing Todd Douglas Miller’s new documentary film, “Apollo 11: First Steps Edition,” a special giant-screen edition created exclusively for science centers and museum theaters, like Cradle’s Dome Theater. With a newly-discovered trove of never-before-seen 70mm footage and audio recordings, APOLLO 11: First Steps Edition joins Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Mission Control team and millions of spectators around the world, during those momentous days and hours in 1969 when humankind took a giant leap into the future.
at 50: Moon Fest,” on July 20 will be a family festival (9:30-5 pm, with
activities 12-4pm) with visits from Long Island Space Shuttle Astronauts
including Bill Shepherd (Babylon) and Charlie Carmada (Ozone Park). All day
activities include virtual reality experiences, model rocket launches, and a countdown
at 4:18 pm to collectively watch, re-experience, and honor as a community, the
historic “The Eagle has Landed” Lunar Module landing on the moon. As a special
bonus, all museum attendees will get a free showing of the new highly-acclaimed
documentary, Apollo 11 First Steps Edition in the immersive
Dome Theater. (Tickets: $20)
Then, in the evening, there will be a Countdown Celebration, a lively dinner and champagne toast with 1960s music and dancing, as the community watches and re-experiences the unforgettable first steps on the moon at 10:56 pm with a special moon landing viewing and countdown. There will also be photo opportunities in a re-created 1969 living room. (The dinner event ticket includes admission to Apollo Moon Fest events during the day; tickets: $125).
Island: The Nation’s Cradle of Aviation
Cradle of Aviation Museum and Education Center is home to over 75 planes and
spacecraft representing over 100 years
of aviation history, from hot air balloons to the lunar module, in eight
galleries, a planetarium and Long Island’s only Giant Screen Dome Theater.
The Cradle of Aviation Museum commemorates and
celebrates Long Island’s part in the history of aviation and space
exploration. It is set on land once part of Mitchel Air Force
Base which, together with nearby Roosevelt Field and other
airfields on the Hempstead Plains, was the site of many historic flights.
In fact, so many seminal flights occurred in the area, that by the mid-1920s
the cluster of airfields was already dubbed the “Cradle of Aviation”, the
origin of the museum’s name. The Museum was recently recognized and listed on New
York State’s National Register of Historic Places as a significant part of
The museum originally opened with just a handful of aircraft
in the un-restored hangars in 1980. A major renovation and expansion program in
the late 1990s allowed the museum to re-open in a state-of-the-art facility in
2002. The museum is undergoing a major fund-raising campaign for a future
It is remarkable to
contemplate that within a century, aviation went from the Wright Brothers to
the moon, from a dangerous sport to mass transportation and commercial
enterprise, and Long Island played a significant part.
It starts with Long Island’s geography: a natural airfield,
on the eastern edge of the United States, the western edge of the Atlantic
Ocean, adjacent to a major population center, and Hempstead Plains, the only
natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains, writes Joshua Stoff, Curator,
Cradle of Aviation Museum.
We trace flying back to the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, NC
in 1903, lasting 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet but Stoff notes that the
first recorded aircraft flight took place on Long Island, in 1896 when a
Lilienthal-type glider was flown from the bluffs along Nassau County’s north
shore. By 1902 gasoline-powered airships were flown over Brooklyn (why doesn’t
Long Island get more credit?). By 1910, there were three airfields operating on
the Hempstead Plains, Long Islanders were building their own planes, and there
were several flying schools and aircraft factories that made Long Island “the
center of the aviation world.” Exhibits show artifacts of these early pursuits.
Belmont Park hosted the 1910 International Aviation Meet of
the greatest aviators from America and Europe.
“The period between 1918
and 1939 is considered the ‘Golden Age of Aviation’ when flying went from being
a dangerous sport to a major commercial industry,” Stoff writes. Most famous of
all was Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight, from Roosevelt
Field to Paris, in 1927. “This single event revolutionized aviation as nothing
else before or since…
“By the early 1930s Roosevelt Field was the largest and
busiest civilian airfield in America with over 150 aviation businesses and 450
planes based there. In 1937 the first regular commercial transatlantic airline
service in America was begun at Port Washington as huge Pan American Martin and
Boeing flying boats departed and arrived regularly at Manhasset Bay.”
World War II sparked aviation and demand for aircraft. The two
biggest aircraft companies, Grumman, was founded in Long island in 1930;
Republic in 1931. They produced most of the military aircraft; other companies,
Sperry, Brewster, Ranger, and Columbia, also contributed to the war effort. By
1945, 100,000 Long Islanders were employed in the aircraft industry.
Though aircraft are no longer manufactured on Long Island
(the Grumman plant in Bethpage is now a movie and television studio), it is
surprising to realize that there are still 240 Long Island producing parts for
virtually every American aircraft that flies.
Long Island’s important
contribution to aviation is brilliant displayed in exhibits throughout the
Long Island in Space
Thomas J. Kelly, of
Cutchogue, retired president of the Grumman Space Station Integration Division
and formerly lunar module engineering director, writes that there is still some
Long Island left on the moon – six spacecraft built on Long Island remain on
Designing and building those craft, as part of the greater
challenge of beating the Russians to the moon by 1969, was a monumental
endeavor. Writing on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the
moon landing, Kelly reflected, “For some 7,000 Grumman employees, however, it
was far more intimate than an issue of national prestige. We felt personally
empowered to put Americans at the edge of a frontier that even today seems
incomprehensible. Yet not only did we succeed in meeting the mission; the
efforts of our nation’s commitment to lunar exploration also inspired people
around the world and showed the finest possibilities of human achievement and
of creating technology that now helps to power our society…
“Nobody at Grumman who worked on the LM will ever forget it.
Even the 12-and 14-hour weekdays, the frustrating paperwork and the sheer
complexity of designing, building and testing the module could not dim our
dedication. From the sweeper to the chief engineer, we all knew that we were
part of a majestic endeavor, that we were making history happen.”
At the gala, I meet Richard A. Hoffman sitting in front of the museum’s own actual lunar module, built by Grumman in Bethpage. He was a metallurgist who determined what the different parts should be made of aluminum for the struts, titanium for the propellant tanks, stainless steel propellant lines, high output silver and silver oxide batteries. He had to figure the pyrotechnics that would cause the four bolts that secured the module on the descent, to burst at just the right time with guillotine cutters for lift off from the moon. Hoffman told me he came to Grumman in the summer of 1963, and got a job there right after graduating Brooklyn Polytech in 1964. He was in just the right place at the right time, when Grumman started working on the Apollo program and he was transferred to engineering.
At the start of Leg 6, in Amman Jordan, only four of the
original 10 teams competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt are still in
contention to win, many of the teams can now join together, use their cell
phones for planning and booking, get help from the concierge.
But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges
pose a difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one
that proves problematic is requiring to go one way to or from Petra along the
ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take
that route, the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the
two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.
All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have
chosen different means to get there. I find myself on the Jett Express Bus,
departing 6:35 am, with three of the teams including one that is in second
place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Another 5
of us hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and
Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and son Luka are traveling
separately. Each of us left at a different time by a different conveyance. But
what a surprise! we all wind up at the same mid-way trading post at the same time.
Hugs all around.
Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra,
and then by hearing at a New York Times Travel Show talk about Petra at night,
I have decided to arrange my own overnight stay. I learn that the Petra at
night is only offered twice/weekly and am lucky enough to be there for
Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none available under
$200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a hostel, really –
at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance to Petra. “Only
one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of the hotels were
booked, I take the leap and book it. The concierge has reserved the seats on
the Jett bus for the morning, with the return the next day (only one departure
each way/daily), at 5 pm.
While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, knowing I will return the next day. The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus – arrives at around 11 am. I use our Jordan Pass (which gives pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).
I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view that comes into focus as you walk through caverns with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then come upon the teaser of The Treasury through the opening, is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra was a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much in the Roman era had been built (The Great Temple, the colonnade). All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance (it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury). It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable. Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking place – you can take trails that bring you up to amazing views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again.
I decide to reserve that for the next day.
The “park” closes at about 6 and reopens for the 8:30-10:30
night program at 8 pm (it is operated separately and privately from Petra) – I
still have to get my pack, which I have left at the Exchange ($5 tip), and get
to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (.7 mile), but
turns out to be totally up hill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate).
My el cheapo-supremo hotel turns out to be exactly that –
the nicest part os the name and front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I
thought the fellow made a mistake and brought me to a room under construction
(or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet,
rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that was falling apart,
only a bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that
were too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall,
clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night (considering I had left behind
in Amman the five-star, ultra-hip and luxurious W Hotel).
I head out just after 8 pm, walking down the hill into the
park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the stony
path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how
dramatic and wonderful.
After 45 minutes, arrive at The Treasury where there are
perhaps 1000 people sitting on carpets. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had
seen of the event. The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There
is some traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and
then garish neon-colored lights are shown on The Treasury, completely
destroying the mood. And then it is over. 9:30 pm (not 10:30 pm). People start
leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so leave also. I hike up the hill to the
My adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to
return to Petra as early as 6 am. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast
in a baggie in the refrigerator. When I arrive, who should I come upon at 6:14
am but the last team (Lawyers Without Borders). What are the odds!
Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite
scenes) is unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some
points. There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards
of people stopping for selfies and posing. And once inside, there was perfect
peace also at The Treasury – the camels posing just perfectly.
A word about the guides – I didn’t use one and they try to
convince you that they will take you places you couldn’t go yourself – but what
I observed was that they were very knowledgeable, very considerate of their
guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you have to take a test,
be accepted, and then trained). The people who provided the camels, the horses,
the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work
exceptionally hard (the animals work even harder). And all through are the
souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize, Petra was a
trading center, a stop along the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely
what the scene would have looked like even then.
One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to
the overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100% and
hope I will be able to do the Monastery trail.
I go through the park again, this time to the Monastery
trail – get some scouting information and begin the ascent. It is a very
interesting hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors,
and the views back down, but because of the stands set up along the way.
And the Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually
bigger than The Treasury – the largest structure carved out of a rock face (if
I have that right). So worth it.
But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before
the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive after the 8 pm deadline but have
informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 pm, and I won’t
miss a flight, will I?)
I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at
the entrance to the Monastery Trail, where I sit outside under trees and have
refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At this point, I
realize what a phenomenal experience I had in the early morning – some 2,000
passengers off the MSC cruise ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC cruise ship,
and hundreds more off a Celebrity ship look like invaders – led by a guide with
a number (50) for their group.
My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is
located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend
for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early
morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate prie).
I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum,
sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers
an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – that
explains extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to
power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering, then the main
trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts
including art as wlel as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age, are on
display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and
I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to
foreign tourists) for the 3 hour trip back. The driver is excellent, but
apparently, a taxi driver has accused him of knicking his cab and the entire
bus has to go to the police station. Surprisingly, this is handled within 20
minutes and we are on our way.
The bus station is not even a mile from the W Hotel (15
minute walk versus 5 minutes by cab) and I considered getting an Uber (much,
much cheaper than a taxi), but started walking instead. I am trying to get my
bearings when a taxi driver who solicited my business at the bus station pulls
up. I reluctantly agree – we settle the price and set out – in the wrong
direction. What should have b een 5 minutes, I see on my GPS is taking me 8 km
away from the hotel. The driver drives frantically, going the wrong way down
one-way streets, zipping here and there but essentially driving in circles that
go further away from the hotel. I show him the card, show him my GPS with the
hotel address. Finally, in frustration I think, he tries to dump me at another
hotel, saying, “W.” Perhaps he thought I
hadn’t been there yet and would be convinced this imposter was my hotel. I tell
him he is going the wrong way, the wrong hotel. Finally he sets out again, and
what should have taken 5 minutes, has taken 30.
I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next
stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt. My teammate has texted the answer: Athens.
In the Throes of
It is so amazing to listen to everyone’s separate adventures
and experiences – even those who aren’t competing any more still pick up on
Bill’s challenges because they invariably lead us to wondrous and fascinating
things that we may not have considered, or some experience at a highlight that
we might not have considered. And since the competition is intended to crown
“World’s Best Traveler” it is designed to challenge one’s ability for
Lawyers Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey
Littlepage, of Houston, has now done this trip more than a dozen times, in
addition to being well-traveled adventure travelers on their own. But
appreciate the difference in traveling this way – first as a mystery tour, so
you have no ability to research or plan in advance what you will see or do at a
destination; second, the challenges force you to experience things or see
things from a different point of view.
The Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no surprise).
Rainey explains that a lot is luck, but I think it is more art and willingness
to embrace challenge as opportunity. And an ability to plan so effectively you
can accomplish more scavenges, higher-point scavenges, and simply amass points.
The problem is, if you fail to achieve any of the “mandatory” challenges, you
don’t get any points at all for that leg.
“It’s different than regular travel. Play t”he game. The
sheet gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot,” Rainey
says. “It’s a brilliant way to see things. .. You decide how many to do, but
you turn to look and find another. How
between trains you might have an hour, and get 3 scavenges done. It’s an
experience to get it done. I feel pity for those who are just there – no
Innocuous things bring a sense of accomplishment (like
identifying local fish at the market). “How you solve. I love the game. We have
been lucky this year,” he says, pointing to how one of the mandatory challenges
in Jordan was to be at the Citadel in Amman at sunset – no mean feat since they
had to get there from Petra. The sunset was at 7 and they arrived at 6:15 only
to discover the Citadel closes at 6 pm. It was cash, not luck, that got them
in: they paid the guard $5 to let them in to get the photos they needed as
proof at sunset. “We would have lost the whole competition if he didn’t let us
At the Dead Sea, where the mandatory challenge was to swim,
it was nighttime when they arrived, but found someone (the kindness of
strangers, is a theme of the Global Scavenger Hunt), to let them take the
At Wadi Rum, where they stayed in a tented camp, another
mandatory was to be on a camel wearing headdress. But it was night and camel
rides were no longer available. They found somebody to provide the camel and
even let him put on his headdress. They then paid a guy with a pick up truck to
bring them fro the tented camp to a taxi at 3:40 am to get to Petra by 6:15 am
(when I met them). They completed the challenge of making it all the way
through Petra, hiking up the Monastery Trail (about 8 miles altogether) by 9:15
am when they dashed off to Jerash (by 2:30 pm), accomplishing in three hours
what it takes most 4-5 hours.
They had to sit through an hour-long church service before
the required element would appear, took a Turkish bath, went to a café to smoke
a hooka, ate falafel at a particular place, sent a stamped postcard from Petra
to Petra (Bill and Pam’s daughter who couldn’t come), and for the “beastie”
challenge, pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he said.
But here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake
in Myanmar, Zoe has her plane ticket but not Rainey (again, they had to be back
in time for the 6 pm deadline). Rainey was 30 on the waitlist, when a man
offered his place on the plane. “I had to run to an ATM down the street to get
the cash to give him.”
Think of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook which ended with a “leap of faith.”
We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery
4th Slow Folk with 15
scavenges 3 bonus, 1150 points
3rd Order & Chaos
with 25 scavenges 8 bonus, 1860 points
2nd Lazy Monday with 25
scavenges, 9 bonus, 2045 points
1st Lawyers Without
Borders with 22 scavenges, 12 bonus, 2190 points
So the standings in the Global
Scavenger Hunt so far (where like golf, the low score wins):
1 Lawyers Without Borders 25
2 Lazy Monday
3 Order & Chaos 57
4 Slow Folk 66
Still 4 legs, 6 countries to go
“You all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things,
trust strangers, found balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace
that,” Bill Chalmers, our Chief Executive Officer and ringmaster of the Global
Scavenger Hunt says.
This spring, the New-York Historical
Society presents Hudson Rising, a unique exhibition that explores
200 years of ecological change and environmental activism along “the most
interesting river in America” through artifacts, media, and celebrated Hudson
River School paintings.
On view March 1 – August 4, Hudson
Rising reflects on how human activity has impacted the river and, in
turn, how the river environment has shaped industrial development, commerce,
tourism, and environmental awareness. The exhibition also explores how experts
in various fields are currently creating ways to restore and re-engineer areas
of the river in response to climate change.
Indeed, we tend to think of the environmental movement as
originating with Yellowstone and the national parks, but it is fascinating to
realize that the beginning of environmental activism – and the techniques –
began here. Citizens rallied to oppose the construction of a Con Ed plant on
Storm King Mountain; one of the new organizations, Scenic Hudson, sued; the
case, in 1965 set a precedent beyond the Hudson, establishing that citizens
have standing to sue on behalf of conservation, even when they do not have a
direct economic interest, that beauty
and history also merit protection – the forerunner of the Environmental
Protection Act. Later, a “viewshed,” modeled on the concept of a watershed, in
connection with landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana, also warranted
The Hudson River raised consciousness of the importance of
environmental protection. the exhibit opens with paintings from Thomas Cole,
the founder of the Hudson River School art movement (America’s first
native-grown art movement), who worried even then about the encroachment of
development. His paintings depict an idyllic landscape, but also the
destruction of the forest to lumbering.
Much more than a body of water, the Hudson
and its surroundings have been the home for humans and hundreds of species of
fish, birds, and plants; offered an escape for city-dwellers; and witnessed
battles over the uses of the river valley and its resources. For over 200
years, writers and artists have captured the river in paintings, drawings,
literature, and photographs, and surveyors and scientists have mapped and
measured its every parcel.
has always encapsulated the tension between development and conservation. But
it was more than about aesthetics, and the need for urbanites to be able to
seek respite in the countryside: an early environmental scientist realized that
logging in the Adirondacks, which was discovered to be the source of the
Hudson, was jeopardizing the watershed supplying New York City.
Scientists at the same time discovered the critical link between
forests and the health of rivers. They realized the Adirondack forest supported
the Hudson River and aquatic animals. That begins the movement to save the
Adirondacks, including the forests. Ultimately, it leads to New York State’s
“Forever Wild” amendment to the state constitution, in 1894.
“This path-breaking exhibition explores
ideas about the environment that developed in the context of the Hudson,
examining how we became aware, as New Yorkers and as Americans, of the role
that humans played in the river’s ecological degradation,” said Dr. Louise
Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “The exhibit also looks at
the strategies we devised to address it. Spanning the entire industrial
era, Hudson Rising presents a compelling account of how the
Hudson has been an incubator for our ideas about the environment and our
relationships to the natural world for two centuries-plus.”
Indeed, we learn that Theodore Roosevelt,
before creating the first national park as president, innovated environmental
protection as Governor of New York State, working with New Jersey, to protect
the Palisades as a “park for the people” (hugely popular with immigrants who
crammed into cities, the park had 2 million visitors in 1920, many who came by
a free ferry); similarly Franklin Roosevelt, when he was New York State
governor, created what would become the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps
when he was president.
Curated by Marci Reaven, New-York Historical’s vice president of history exhibitions, and Jeanne Haffner, associate curator, Hudson Rising begins with a prelude featuring artist Thomas Cole’s panoramic five-part Course of Empire series (1834-36), a treasure of New-York Historical’s collection that depicts the transformation of a pristine landscape into a thriving city, then its dramatic decline, and the fall of civilization.
Cole railed against “human hubris” and the exploitation of nature. “The ranges of the ax are daily and increasing,” Cole said. “Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it?” he wrote in his “Essay on American Scenery” (1836). Cole’s poetic questioning of the social costs of what was seen in his time as progress, serves as a prelude to the exhibition narrative, which begins with the industrial age and continues into the present day. The Hudson River, we learn, was the incubator for the environmental movement.
The exhibition is organized chronologically
and geographically into five sections that highlight significant places and
events in the environmental history of the river: Journeys Upriver:
The 1800s, The Adirondacks: 1870s-1890s, The Palisades: 1890s-1950s, The Hudson
Highlands: 1960s-1980s, and A Rising Tide: Today.
The exhibit is designed to meander, like the river itself, and uses actual artifacts – there is even the smell of freshly cut wood from the Adirondacks – that bring you, as much as possible to the Hudson: bricks from Haberstraw; rocks from the Palisades; iron from Cold Spring Foundry across from West Point; wood from Catskills; hemlock (used for tanning), even a fish tank with striped bath (blue eels will be added later). “The layout is a metaphor for the river,” said Ken Nintzel, the designer.
There are historical maps – one of the most impressive is a panorama map from 1847 that stretches the length of a wall, that tourists would use, “one of the great maps of American history”- photos, paintings, news clips that trace the battle to reclaim the Hudson from industrial pollution. A map from 1890s shows how the Hudson was “redesigned” to make it more navigable for shipping, changing the way the river ran, but in the process, did away with the shallows that hosted aquatic life and mitigated flooding. Another map documents how plentiful oysters used to be – New York city used to be the primary exporter of oysters and clams – until sewage in the Hudson killed off the oysters.
The painting by Thomas Cole of the Catskill Mountain House reminds
that American tourism began here in the Hudson – today, you can hike up to
where the hotel used to be and gaze out over the Hudson.
exhibits surround you, and there are various interactive elements.
Journeys Upriver: The 1800s starts with a steamboat journey up the Hudson River from
the New York City harbor to Albany, inspired by one of the great tourist guides
of Hudson River history, the Panorama of the Hudson (1847).
The detailed rendering of the river landscape led steamboat and armchair
travelers from New York City to the last navigable point of the river near
Troy, pointing out natural wonders, Hudson Valley industries, notable
individuals, and Revolutionary War sites along the way. Also on view are
paintings, industrial objects, and an important Army Corps of Engineers map
that shows how the Corps engineered the river to be a more navigable and
predictable shipping channel. Hudson River School art on display include Robert
Havell Jr.’s View of Hudson River from near Sing Sing, New York (ca.
1850) and George Henry Boughton’s Hudson River Valley from Fort
Putnam, West Point (1855), both depicting tourists enjoying the
The Adirondacks: 1870s-1890s examines the creation of Adirondack Park, established
to save the source of the river and combat deforestation in order to protect
the viability of the entire Hudson watershed. Advocates for the area included
surveyor Verplanck Colvin, who mapped the area’s peaks and lakes as
superintendent of the State Adirondack Survey and identified the source of the
river at Lake Tear of the Clouds, and Seneca Ray Stoddard, a photographer whose
images of deforestation made a case for forest conservation. On view in this
section is one of Asher B. Durand’s majestic depictions of the Adirondack wilderness, Adirondack
Mountains, New York (ca. 1870).
The Palisades: 1890s-1950s traces the protection of the forests and cliffs of
the Palisades to maintain the health of the river and preserve a place for
beauty and nature. In the late 1800s, the Palisades cliffs were being blasted
to bits by road builders who prized their rock. Citizen activists, such as the
New Jersey chapter of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the American
Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, fought back and helped create
Palisades Park in 1909. Residents of New York and New Jersey thronged to the
park, arriving by foot, ferry, train, and car, with over two million people
visiting in 1920 alone, most of them from Manhattan. The exhibition features a
selection of tourist brochures from that era, including one with a trio of
women posed on the cliff edge, above the river.
The Hudson Highlands: 1960s-1980s explores how activism along the river helped spark
the modern American environmental movement. By the early 1960s, untreated
sewage and industrial pollutants were poisoning the river. Increasing numbers
of power plants were also rising along the Hudson, whose operations were
killing millions of fish, and whose monumental structures were intruding upon
the most treasured vistas. When Con Edison announced plans to build a plant on
Storm King Mountain, citizen activists fought back and prevented its
construction. By the 1980s, citizens could legally intervene to stop
development that put treasured natural resources at risk. On view is an
aquarium featuring striped bass and other fish native to the Hudson River,
which now thrive due to activists’ efforts to save them. Displays of
artifacts, images, and media from the environmental campaigns of the era
include a 1983 photograph featuring John Cronin, river patroller for the Hudson
River Fisherman’s Association (now called Riverkeeper) on his first day on the
job, confronting an Exxon tanker discharging polluted water into the river.
The final section, A Rising
Tide: Today, discusses the process of reimagining and reclaiming the
Hudson River in the 21st century, as experts in many fields explore ways to
restore and re-engineer areas of the river in response to climate change. The
exhibition showcases innovative projects addressing these concerns, such as a
system of “living breakwaters,” reef-like structures designed to restore
diverse aquatic habitats, lessen wave impacts, and restore the shoreline,
implemented by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and landscape architecture
“We hope Hudson Rising will inspire visitors to
see the river differently, and how movements like environmental activism get
born,” Dr. Mirrer said.
“It’s not a new story, but this is the first exhibit that presents
such a comprehensive look at the Hudson River as an incubator of the
As part of New-York Historical’s What the
History programs, a suite of interactive talks, history classes, art-making
workshops, and social evenings for a young professional audience illuminates
the environmental history of New York, the lasting impact of the Hudson River
School painters on the American imagination, and how contemporary design and
ideas are engaging with the threats climate change pose to the city.
Visiting families can enjoy a special guide
featuring suggested exhibition highlights to view as a family, discussion
questions, and gallery-based activities. During the April School Vacation Week
(April 19-28), Museum’s family programs explore environmental activism,
including art making using recycled materials in Museum galleries. On the
weekends (April 20-21 and April 27-28) visiting families can interact with
Living Historians portraying famous and unsung activists of American history.
On April 16, architectural historian Barry
Lewis discusses how the Victorians “greened” their homes and cities, bringing
nature into city greenbelts and private home design. On May 22, Douglas
Brinkley, New-York Historical’s presidential historian, explores how presidents
like Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed the protection
of the nation’s natural treasures and established a sprawling network of state
parks and scenic roadways, respectively. On June 9, author Leslie Day leads a
tour along the Hudson River exploring its rich geological and human history and
its diverse ecosystems.
exhibit is particularly timely: years of exploitation and pollution have
resulted in the entire Hudson River, from the Battery to Hudson Falls, some 200
miles, designated a superfund site by EPA. Mandated clean-up by industrial
polluters including General Electric, have significantly improved conditions.
But the Trump Administration’s EPA is moving to issue a Certificate of
Completion which would end GE’s responsibility for cleaning up the Superfund
site, despite the state’s research that shows high levels of PCBs remaining in
Cuomo issued a statement ahead of Administrator Wheeler’s visit to New York:
“In New York, we
are leading the fight to protect our environment with the most ambitious
environmental agenda in the nation. Administrator Wheeler, while you are in New
York, I urge you to visit the Hudson River, one of this country’s natural
treasures that is also one of the most pressing Superfund sites in the country.
New York has fought to restore this vital resource but the ball is now in the
EPA’s court. The EPA can either do the right thing and continue to hold GE
accountable for continued clean up, or they can side with big polluters and let
GE off the hook for its responsibility to clean up PCBs in the river.
“We refused to allow PCB
contamination to continue to jeopardize the health and safety of our
communities for generations to come. We hope and expect that the EPA will join
us in ensuring the full completion of the cleanup.”
I suggested Wheeler visit “Hudson Rising”.
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical’s mission is to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. New-York Historical is also home to the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, one of the oldest, most distinguished libraries in the nation—and one of only 20 in the United States qualified to be a member of the Independent Research Libraries Association—which contains more than three million books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings.
for Yourself: Hike the Hudson River School Art Trail
Walk in the footsteps of the Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, Jasper
Cropsey, Sanford Gifford and other pioneering American landscape artists,
literally walking into their paintings, and appreciating their work in an
entirely new way.
See what inspired Thomas Cole, his art and his passion to save the Hudson Valley environment, when you visit his home and art studio. Visit Frederic Edwin Church’s magnificent Olana, walk the gorgeous trails and see the very first protected “viewshed” (Olana State Historic Site, 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534, 518-828-0135, olana.org.) Hike the trails that take you up to where the Catskill Mountain House would have stood, to Sunset Rock, to Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, just as the Hudson River School painters did, often with markers that show the paintings that were created from that very same vantage point.
“The Hudson River School painters
believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation. In
large-scale canvases of dramatic vistas with atmospheric lighting, they sought
to capture a sense of the divine, envisioning the pristine American landscape
as a new Garden of Eden. Their work created not only an American art genre
but also a deeper appreciation for the nation’s natural wonders, laying the
groundwork for the environmental conservation movement and National Park
abounds throughout Old Bethpage Village Restoration, the evening warmed by the orange-red
glow of candlelight, fireplace embers, a bonfire. The
annual Candlelight Evenings at Old Bethpage Restoration, a living history
museum on Long Island, is one of my favorite holiday events.
The most wonderful thing about the candlelight evenings
at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, is yes, the sense of
stepping back into time, into an idyllic peacefulness that makes you feel as if
you have just fallen into a Christmas card. But what I love best are the
serendipitous moments when you engage the reenactors in conversation- the
questions that arise just because you are immersed in that experience.
Each year, I add to the stories, my understanding of
history and our community’s heritage.
Just leaving the visitors center is an experience. Just
before you exit the center, inside, a group of Santas in modern dress are
singing but as you walk down the ramp into the darkness, leaving pavement and electric
lights behind, carolers are singing in a shadow. I meet up with them again in
The village is actually a created place, assembled from
historic homes from across Nassau County (it was Queens County when they were
built), except for the Powell Farm, which is the only original homestead here
and dates from 1855. Many of the homes were built by people whose names are
well known to Long Islanders: Hewlett, Searing, Schenck, Cooper (built in 1815
for the famous inventor, Peter Cooper, in Hempstead). Most were built in the
1800s, but the Schenck House, the oldest, was built around 1765 for a Dutch
landowner, Minne Schenck, who had 300 acres in Manhasset (manpower was provided
by African slaves and servants).
Walking along the pebbled path, lighted only with flames, I come upon a brass band outside the Conklin House, built in 1853 by Joseph H. Conklin, a bayman, in the Village of the Branch.
The centerpiece of the Village is the Layton General Store and House, built by John M. Layton, a storekeeper, around 1866 in East Norwich. Though the house seems very fine – with large rooms and tall ceilings, I am told that he was middle class. Here, in the parlor, I meet Santa Claus who seems to be making out his list and checking it twice. In the next room is the Layton General Store – the Walmart of its day – where you can purchase candy and dolls that are made by one of the interpreters.
The next important house is the Noon Inn is appropriately just across from the general store, where when you climb the stairs, you find Max L. Rowland regaling an audience with his banjo, reconstructed to its period of the early 19th century (no frets, gut strings, deeper tone), and a concertina. If you ask, he will tell you about the instruments: in the mid-1800s, the concertina was the most popular instrument around – because it was relatively inexpensive (costing less than a violin), and compact, easy to carry and capable of such rich sound and complexity. It was extremely popular with sailors, who could tuck it away in their gear. Rowland can testify to it: this particular concertina has crossed the sea three times with Rowland, who lives on a boat.
Downstairs at the Noon Inn, which dates from 1850 and was owned John H. Noon, innkeeper, in East Meadow, you can get hot mulled cider and cookies, while outside, there are carolers singing beneath a lamplight. I catch up with them again later singing at the bonfire. It is magical.
Queens District No. 6 School House, which dates from c. 1845 in Manhasset, there
is traditional fiddle music, played on a period instrument, a 150-year old
violin that had been made in Prague, that has no chin rest or frets. We learn
about the Manhasset School house – children attended the one-room school house
six days a week – attendance wasn’t compulsory and kids came sporadically.
Music would have been widespread but there were no real professional musicians
in Long Island. The school house would have been the venue for music,
entertainment (like the Magic Lantern shows, the movies of their day), and
various gatherings in the evening. He tells me that all of Nassau County used
to be part of Queens County, until the residents wanted to separate from New
York City. One of the songs he plays is the Fireman’s Quick Step, written in
1822 by Francis Frank Johnson,
an African American composer, for the Philadelphia Fireman’s Cotillion fundraiser.
Music was so important to the people of the mid-19th century, the period which Old Bethpage reconstructs. When you think about it, people could only appreciate music live, in the moment.
the Hewlett House, a grand home high on the hill, built by the founder for
which the town of Hewlett is named, a fellow plays a series of flutes and a
violin, while popcorn is popping in the kitchen fireplace in the next room
At the beautiful Manetto Hill Church, 1857, a Methodist church that originally was located in Plainview, there is singing and storytelling – the origin of holly (representing male), ivy (representing female), so the two entwined are a symbol of marriage; mistletoe (which, rather than a romantic prompt for kissing, was used to make peace between quarreling individuals) and poinsettias. We sing carols and learn that “Jingle Bells” was written by a Sunday School teacher for a Thanksgiving pageant(New Englanders didn’t celebrate Christmas), and Silent Night was a poem written in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria by Father Joseph Mohr in 1818 (his organist Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the music), desperate for Christmas music when the church organ broke.
At the Luyster Store, which dates from c. 1840 and was built by John B. Luyster, a storekeeper in East Norwich, you see the rare craft of broom making (and can purchase the brooms that are made here). Tim works on a machine from 1840 which was in the museum’s collection, and you can see how much physical effort goes into it. He says he and his brother, Chris, are two of only three broommakers left on Long Island (the third is their mentor). He explains that a home would have had 2 brooms per room, or 18-20 per household, so not to transfer dirt from one room to the next. Brooms were actually expensive: an ordinary broom might have cost 24 cents – but that was equivalent to half-day’s wages in the 1840s, when the Great Recession was worse than even the Great Depression and the average man took home 48 cents a day; that means a broom would cost about $50 today (so his price of $20 for a fancy broom decorated for the holidays with fancy ribbons, holly and weaving, is a bargain).
This was an enterprise that farmers would do in winter to make extra money, and they would allocate an acre of land to cultivate the special wheat sorghum (called “corn” but not corn) for that purpose. A father would teach his child the craft. An interesting artifact in the store is the massive safe. The building itself was once a hardware store that was the only one within 10 miles of Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, so it may well be that Roosevelt would have stopped by. There is also an interesting Harrison for Reform banner, referring to William Henry Harrison, the shortest-lived president (he died of pneumonia after one month in office).
The Benjamin House, dating from 1829, was built for William Benjamin, a minister and farmer in Northville, where there a husband and wife play holiday melodies that would have been popular at the time on a gigantic bass fiddle (it seems to fill the room) and a violin, like “Deck the Halls,” which was a Welsh melody dating back to the 1600s. We discuss Christmas traditions of the time (gift-giving wasn’t yet a tradition, but Queen Victoria had popularized table-top Christmas trees as a loving gesture to Prince Albert).
I stop into the Conklin House, a house that dates from 1853 and was built by Joseph H. Conklin, a bayman in the village of Branch. Last year, there was a demonstration of spinning being done in front of the fireplace, but this year, two ladies relax over a cup of tea after demonstrating how they bake ginger snaps.
The tiny Searing House (this is the first time that I can remember it being open for Candlelight Evening), was Dr. James Searing’s office, a Hempstead physician, built in 1815 – where the doctor would have prepared his medicines before going out by buggy to visit patients – and here, we are treated to freshly roasted chestnuts.
usually save the Schenck House for last because each year, because it is here
that I come upon the most unexpected encounters and
find it the most illuminating. Instead of interpreting the holiday traditions
of the mid 1800s, the Huntington Militia re-create a Colonial Christmas in the
The Schenck House dates from 1765, owned by a Dutch farmer. Here, our
presenters speak in the style of the time, and celebrate Christmas of 1775,
just two months after Martin Schenck, who inherited the house from his
father, had been one of the leaders of
the committee of Patriots that decided to break from Loyalist Hempstead, and form
North Hempstead. I learn that the south shore of Long Island was a occupied by
the British from 1776-1783, the entire duration of the Revolutionary War, while
the north shore was a stronghold for Patriots, many of them the Dutch families
who had no great affinity for the British monarch. The Schencks came to the New
World when New Amsterdam was a Dutch colony; the British took it over in 1754.
I am swept into its history. I am transfixed talking with “Ambrose Everyman,” a fellow from 1775, an American of English descent really troubled by North Hempstead’s succession from the Town of Hempstead over the issue of rebellion against the King and Crown. His loyalties are clear. He raises the question over how the colonists are made so dissatisfied with the King – and questions the veracity of the crimes and accusations designed to foment rebellion. He notes that since the first Continental Congress, the Massachusetts faction of the Patriots have banned women from going to the tavern, banned theatrical entertainment – in effect, installed the Puritan societal structure on the colonies. And because of the “attack against one of the colonies is an attack against us all,” he questions whether the attacks in Lexington and Concord, portrayed as a British massacre, really happened that way. “How do we really know?” he tells me (the original “fake news”?). Mr. Everyman was upset with the upstarts in Massachusetts who caused so much trouble, who dared to pretend to be Indians and toss tea into the sea. He called them cowards for hiding behind their disguise. He said he knew war – had fought in the French and Indian War – but was too old to fight again. If there was a break with England, he says, his business of building and repairing houses, would be destroyed.
But, he says, he cannot express his feelings: the local Committee is strictly enforcing its ban on English tea and though it had no force of law, someone who broke faith would be shamed in the Gazetteer as “an Enemy of American Liberty,” would no longer get business, and ultimately be forced out of the community. So he keeps his views to himself. Taxes? What difference does it make to pay taxes to England or taxes to the Congress, he says. And doesn’t England deserve to get repayment for the expense of fighting for the colonies? How would those who would break from England confront the greatest army on earth? Would they get aid from foreign powers like France, when France would want to take over the colonies for itself?
gives me the sense of what a difficult dilemma this was – the prospect of confronting
the most powerful nation the world had never known, the superpower of its time
– and how while there had never been consensus (New York patriots fled to
Philadelphia), the forcefulness with which the revolutionaries pressed their
cause, the violence, a literal civil war within communities.
goes on to show the group of Candlelight visitors that has gathered how the
owner of the House, Martin Schenck, would have celebrated St. Nicholas Day
(Dec. 6), when the children put out wooden shoes, filled with a carrot to draw
the horse that St. Nicholas rides through the sky on, and leaves them treats –
an orange that would have been an expensive treat having been imported from
Jamaica, and skates for the young girl,
a pull-toy for the baby.
Then, at The Barn on the Long Island Fairgrounds- a reconstruction of the Queens county Agricultural Society Fairgrounds that was built in Mineola, 1866-1884, there is the model train show, crafts fair, contra dancing, a brass ensemble and a delightful performance of “Scrooge’s Dream” (a condensed version of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”).
year, the Old Bethpage Candlelight Evenings are only five nights, Dec. 22, 23,
27, 28 and 29, 5-9:30 pm. Old Bethpage Village
Restoration, 1303 Round Swamp Road (Exit 48 of the Long Island Expressway),
516-572-8401; Adults/$10, children 5-12/$7 (under 5 are free); and $7 for
seniors and volunteer firefighters.
Many complain that the true spirit of the holidays have been corrupted by crass materialism. But there are ways to be less material and incorporate values – family values, social values, environmental values, global values – into your gift giving. Think travel.
The gift of travel is the gift of together, of time, of memory, of experience that is life-changing or life-enhancing, of new perspectives and new awareness – of self, of others, of our place in the world and time itself.
But it is also possible that we can use gift-giving to support or help sustain heritage, culture, environment.
Many of the great museums and institutions of the world offer some of the most interesting, innovative and creative items in their gift shops and you can support their endeavor by shopping online or through catalogs: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org), the Art Institute of Chicago (855-301-9612), Smithsonian (Smithsonianmag.com), the Nassau County Museum of Art, which usually have special items oriented around major exhibitions, and you wouldn’t believe the great Harry Potter items you can get at the New-York Historical Society, in conjunction with its “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit (www.nyhistory.org), to list just a few.
Zoos and aquariums and special attractions are fantastic to shop at, especially for kids: The Palm Beach Zoo (www.palmbeachzoo.org), for example, has eco-friendly items. There are also Adopt-an-Animal programs. The Bronx Zoo has similar programs and an online store (www.bronxzoostore.com). And you don’t have to visit the Kennedy Space Center, to get space-related items (www.thespaceshop.com), though visiting offers incomparable experiences.
Another gift idea is to purchase family memberships in these entities, which gives a sense of “ownership” and encourages multiple visits as well as giving access to benefits.
Just call or go online to your favorite museum, zoo, aquarium, preserve, historic site or attraction and you will likely find a store or various ways to support the organization with your gift.
You can give a donation that preserves the planet and good social purpose, often getting something material in the bargain. In recent years, I have “purchased” an acre for preservation and sent a furry animal and booklet to my niece and nephew through the Nature Conservancy (nature.org/gifts and there is an actual catalog); became a member of the Smithsonian Institution and received not only a subscription to the outstanding Smithsonian Magazine for myself, but a free subscription/membership to give as a gift, not to mention the incredible journeys offered through the Smithsonian (www.smithsonianmag.com); enrolled my loved one as a member of the National Parks Conservation Association so they received a fleece blanket plus the NPCA magazine; made donations on behalf of my loved ones to National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service which earned gifts as well as membership benefits. A gift membership to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, for example, gives access to online guides to bike trails and often some giveaway like a hat (www.railstotrails.org).
You can give a gift that supports important organizations which protect destinations, historic or cultural sites, or the mission of exploration, like National Wildlife Federation (my nieces enjoy their holiday subscriptions to Ranger Rick magazines I’ve gifted them for years, nwf.org). Also on my holiday list: Audubon Society(www.audubon.org), the Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org/store), the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org); and World Wildlife Fund (wwfus.org).
Many worthy organizations are also supported by purchases: the National Park Foundation, which supports national parks, gets support from Subaru of America through its annual Subaru Share the Love Event, now through January 2; over the past decade, the event has raised over $7 million for national parks. Earthwatch Institute, which offers “civilians” the opportunity to join real scientific research expeditions (earthwatch.org) is supported by purchases made through AmazonSmile (https://smile.amazon.com). When you buy travel insurance through World Nomads, you can make microdonations to support local communities (the site also steers people to responsible travel, https://www.worldnomads.com/make-a-difference/responsible-travel/).
Consider these organizations for support on Giving Tuesday.
Trips That Make a Difference
The very act of traveling benefits communities by spurring an economy that sustains culture, heritage, the environment, community, and forges a mutual understanding that can translate into foreign policy.
But for those who want to go even beyond to improve conditions for people, there is a category of travel, Voluntourism, that organizes travel to a destination to volunteer for good purpose – whether it is participating in scientific research, working to save a species from extinction or save the planet, or helping disadvantaged communities, or rebuilding after some disaster, as in Puerto Rico.
andBeyond has launched philanthropic-focused itineraries in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa to give guests a first-hand look at its core ethos of caring for the land, wildlife, and people. The activities range from adopting an elephant at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya to participating in local school conservation lessons in Tanzania to visiting the Grootbos Green Futures College in Cape Town, an organization that provides educational training to unemployed young adults in the city (www.andBeyond.com)
Earthwatch Expeditions enable you to join scientists in the field as they research urgent environmental issues, in places that would otherwise be closed to visitors. Expeditions address wildlife and ecosystems, climate change, archaeology and culture, and ocean health, for example, researching lions and their prey in Kenya, rewilding the Scottish Highlands and studying orcas in Iceland. (800-776-0188, 978-461-0081, www.earthwatch.org),
Sierra Club arranges around 90 affordable volunteer trips each year through its Sierra Club Volunteer Vacations to engage in hands-on conservation work like building and maintaining trails, removing invasive plants and assisting on archaeological digs. For example: park maintenance in Hells Canyon, Idaho (with transportation by jet-boat up the Snake River Canyon), forestry service at the New York Botanical Garden (a 50-acre urban old-growth forest) and native-bird habitat restoration on the Big Island of Hawaii (with hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park).
Adventure Life, a tour operator, incorporates voluntourism into some of its trips. For example, on its trip to Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano, travelers lend a hand with reforestation efforts, painting interpretive signs and performing trail maintenance; a trip to Costa Rica’s Pacuare Reserve for whitewater rafting also includes two nights with biologists for research at an important nesting ground for leatherback turtles; a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula enables travelers to take part in citizen science projects aboard the ship (www.adventure-life.com).
Village Experience expanded upon its fair-trade retail shop (which supports local craftsmen) to create an ambitious program that brings travelers into their villages, creating another stream of revenue (www.experiencethevillage.com).
WorldVentures Foundation offers 42 VolunTours in 12 countries — professionally planned and guided trips where volunteers spend time beautifying communities, building infrastructure and brightening the lives of local children – reported that its 2017 programs impacted the lives of more than 50,000 children around the globe with over 50,000 volunteer hours (worldventures.com).
But don’t expect that because you are volunteering your services the trips are cheap, sometimes you pay for the privilege of doing good and your fees help support the mission.
There is a whole category of experiential trips that not only enrich and inspire and make the world a better place, but support important institutions like National Geographic, the Smithsonian (which also offer student and family programs); Outward Bound, Road Scholar, Sierra Club (sierraclub.org), just as examples.
National Geographic is offering up to $1000 off each child under 18 who travels with you on its family-friendly National Geographic-Lindblad expeditions to Alaska and Galapagos (booked by Dec. 31). Through the National Geographic Global Explorers Program, kids and teens learn to develop the skills and curiosity of an explorer while working alongside our certified field instructors -observing the behavior of blue-footed boobies, painting watercolors using glacier ice, or filling a field journal with wildlife sketches of all kinds (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/). Traveling with National Geographic helps further the work of its scientists, explorers, and educators around the world (natgeo.com/giveback).
Often, just showing up is a way of sustaining, revitalizing communities with tourism supplanting obsolete extractive and exploitive economic pursuits. Also, some travel companies donate a portion of their guest fees to local community, in addition to doing their best to purchase locally, hire locals, and help sustain communities. For example:
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which is part of Boston-based Grand Circle Corporation’s family of travel companies, supports the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation established in 1992 by owners Alan and Harriet Lewis to support communities in which Grand Circle works and travels, including some 300 humanitarian, cultural, and educational endeavors worldwide, among them, 100 schools in 50 countries. The Foundation is an entity of the Lewis Family Foundation, which has pledged or donated more than $169 million since 1981 (www.oattravel.com).
World Bike Relief has partnered with tour operator Tourissimo to present a week-long mountain biking tour in the Apennine Mountains of Italy led by World Champion Rebecca Rusch. Funds raised through this trip will help empower students, healthcare workers, and entrepreneurs in rural Zambia and give them access to reliable transportation. Tourissimo is also donating two Buffalo bikes per rider. https://www.tourissimo.travel/appenninica2018.
There is a whole category of “sustainable travel” companies and projects that not only structure their travel programs with social responsibility in mind, but leverage the power of travel and tourism to improve the lives of people and their environment (see sustainabletravel.org).
Travel Gift Card, Registry Programs
Black Friday, Cyber Monday kick off the holiday shopping season. But gifts don’t have to come in a box. You can also gift the experience of travel and all the life-enhancing, even life-changing benefits that travel affords, from creating the opportunities for family bonding, to enriched learning, to broadening perspectives and world-view, to laying the values for social consciousness by seeing other cultures and habitats.
Many travel entities – hotels and resorts, cruiselines, tour companies – have gift card programs – spas (Spafinder.com), ski resorts, cruiselines. Some have registries.
Many of the grandest Historic Hotels of America members – each one distinct, and most often grand, historic and luxurious – offer gift cards – like Wentworth by the Sea, NH; Omni Grove Park Inn, Mission Inn & Spa (the list goes on and on) – just inquire. To see members, visit historichotels.org and its European counterpart, Historic Hotels of Europe, www.historichotelsofeurope.com.
The key here is that if there is a destination, a cruise, a resort you want to “gift” to your loved one, just ask if a program is available. Check on expiration dates and how the gift card can be used.
And how much better to let someone special know you care by gifting them the fulfillment of a fantasy? There are Fantasy Camps for just about every interest. For example: Broadway Fantasy Camp, geared to adults of all ages and levels of experience, immerses you in the world of performing and creating live theatre, working closely with theater pros – veteran stage directors, choreographers, and musical directors – who guide you through the process (www.broadwayfancamp.com, 212-713-0366). Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp, based in Las Vegas, offers a variety of music, as well as Songwriting Fantasy Camp and Vocalist camp (check their site for calendar and events, www.rockcamp.com, 888-762-2263).
And if you are struggling for that special gift for the hard-to-please teen, consider an Outward Bound expedition: Sailing on the rugged and beautiful Maine Coast; Sea kayaking through the Outer Banks; Dog sledding on the frozen Boundary Waters of Minnesota; Mountaineering in the Colorado Rockies, High Sierra or Pacific Northwest; and many more choices to fit students’ interests, schedules and locations. The company makes it easy to purchase a Gift Certificate (outwardbound.org, 866-828-1195).
The holidays are a great time to check off items from that bucket list.
Black Friday, Cyber Monday
The travel industry makes it easy: gift cards and certificates, some offer registries. Many have Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, holiday discounts and sales – just google sites to find them. This is the time to indulge that bucket list or fantasy.
Just a few to recommend:
For example, on Black Friday, Perillo Tours, is offering $500 off per couple ($250 per person) on all 2019 Italy and Hawaii escorted tours. The offer is valid on new bookings only for travel January 1 – December 31, 2019. The 24-hour Black Friday sale is bookable online, via phone or email from 12:01am to 11:59 pm on November 23, 2018 (must use booking code: BlackFri18).
On Cyber Monday, November 26, the Divi & Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusives offering a discount of 50% off hotel stays between April 21 – December 22, 2019. Plus, one lucky winner who books the Cyber Monday deal will be selected to receive their stay free (www.diviaruba.com orwww.tamarijnaruba.com)
Save up to 40% off bookings at the historic The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA. Rates for winter and spring travel start at $99 per night; summer dates start at $179 per night for bookings online on Monday, November 26 and can be booked online at: https://www.redlioninn.com/getaway-deals/.
Glamping Hub, an online booking platform with 35,000 tree houses, tipis, yurts, safari tents, airstreams, cabins – accommodations that are unique and secluded in nature – is participating in its first-ever Cyber Monday sale, adding 20% to each gift card purchased on Monday, Nov. 26. Visit https://glampinghub.com/.
Travel Related Gifts
Still wedded to the idea of a material gift? There are umptium possibilities for the travel-bound, especially where some special-interest or activity that requires special gear or equipment is involved like skiing, biking, hiking is involved.
Cameras are big on the list for travelers, with size and functionality among the key criteria. Some of the new smaller cameras have almost as much functionality as the larger digital SLR, but are compact, light, easily carried and in most cases even have quality video. (For really important trips, good to have a DSLR as well as a smaller, versatile point-and-shoot.) Look for a wide-range digital zoom, ISO range, image stabilization, video capability, battery life, how fast the camera focuses and shoots and WiFi capability).
After consulting with experts at this year’s PhotoPlus Expo, I have a list of cameras for when I don’t want to pack my DSLR that fulfill my criteria – that is, what can I wear around my neck, shoot with one hand while riding a bicycle that gives excellent quality images, image stabilization, decent zoom lens, auto focus, is fast and responsive on/off/shoot, and is reasonably priced. Here’s my list Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS100 (which I use), Panasonic Lumix DMC AZ200, Canon G9X, Canon G7X, Sony RX100V.
Drones and GoPro-style cameras are also popular, as well as new accessories that enhance the photo capability of smartphones.
Consider getting your traveler a waterproof camera for those adventures into the rainforest, snorkeling, whitewater rafting and such; for the astrophotographer, the astronomer, the birder, the survivalist, the underwater photographer, the adrenalin junky.
Take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and holiday savings deals at major camera stores and online sellers like B&H, www.bandh.com, 212-465-4018, 877-865-9088 and Adorama, www.adorama.com, 800-223-2500.
On the fifth and last day of our 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, the 37-mile bike ride back to the Hugh Moore Park in Easton along the Pennsylvania side of the river, is absolutely beautiful.
After spending our layover day exploring Washington Crossing State Park, our last night together was a true banquet (grilled steaks! beer!) served under a gorgeous pavilion at Bowman Hill, followed by a talent show by some of the more intrepid Sojourners which is surprisingly great in addition to being pure fun.
Biking back along the Delaware Canal State Park section of the D&L Trail, with its historic locks and bridges, I savor these views of bucolic villages and landscape.
On Day 3 of our Sojourn, we also got to experience part of another of my favorite greenways, the Delaware-Raritan Canal trail on the New Jersey side. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailNation website offers an itinerary, but you can do a fabulous daytrip, starting on the trail just across from Princeton University, and biking north. You can ride 20 miles to the end, at Edison, NJ (or turn back when you feel you want to). I find this portion of the trail, which follows the canal, to be the most picturesque, particularly in fall. There are also places to rent a kayak or a canoe and you may even see the university crew team.
This Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh is a sentimental favorite for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy – returning to the trail that was the focus of the very first Sojourn, in 2002.
For the past 12 years, the annual Sojourn has been RTC’s way of celebrating accomplishments in repurposing disused rail lines and canal towpaths for biking, walking and recreation, as well as to showcase gaps in trails that its advocacy works to fill. This year’s Sojourn was a major celebration of the opening of a new bridge across the river at the village of Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania, helping to complete the 160-mile long along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail.
“Way back in 2002, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy helped draw attention to our burgeoning efforts to build the D&L Trail from Wilkes Barre to Bristol, Pennsylvania. Today, as we welcome Sojourners back, the D&L Trail is about 92 percent complete and we hope to be fully connected by 2022,” Elissa Garofalo, the executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, wrote the Sojourners.
“While we are still a work in progress, the route of the D&L is one that celebrates the legacy of innovation, risk, resilience and beauty of America’s 19th century Industrial Revolution. As you travel our mine-to-market path, I hope you will revel in the wonders that my co-workers and I are fortunate to help celebrate, preserve and inspire connections every day.” (http://delawareandlehigh.org/).
But the 300 Sojourners – so many who have done multiple trips (I’ve done three, including two on the Great Allegheny Gap) – were disheartened to learn this year’s fully supported five-day bike/camping tour was Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s last, at least for now. (It is hoped local trail groups or biketour companies would host similar annual supported tours). The reason? So the nonprofit organization can concentrate/focus on advocacy of preserving and repurposing trails – TrailNation –some 10,000 miles of multi-use trails, already. (You can find these trails on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s site, traillink.com.)
The urgency has come because the Trump Administration has pulled funding that had been available for more than a decade to help communities take back these resources for their own benefit – including local economic revitalization as well as improving the quality of life and healthful outdoor recreation – and changed regulations to make it harder for communities to take back these trails.
For example, an important tool for advocates seeking to acquire and repurpose abandoned rail corridors has been Railbanking, a federal statute which provided the mechanism for communities across the country to convert former railways into thriving rail-trails that boost local economies and create healthier, more vibrant communities while protecting rail corridors for generations to come. The process requires complicated agreements between the railroad owners of the corridor and local trail managers and necessitates multiple extensions beyond the six-month period provided in the law. Now the Trump Administration’s Surface Transportation Board (STB) is proposing to significantly restrict the timeframe for these negotiations.
Rails to Trails Conservancy has its work cut out for it – no wonder the non-profit organization, advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, is focusing on advocacy and activism. The Trump Administration has done everything possible to reverse course on repurposing obsolete railways and canalways to multi-purposed trails that provide alternatives to climate-choking cars and already strapped public transportation (largely in response to donors with a stake in fossil fuels like the Kochs who are spending their lobbying dollars to kill transit projects, see New York Times).
It is ironic because, as we see as we bike, these communities were originally built in the service of a fossil-fueled economy and have collapsed largely because of changing technology. The Trump Administration is desperately trying to rekindle that economy and quite literally, force society back a century instead of propel us forward into the 21st century.
But as Rails-to-Trails Conservancy points out, promoting biking and walking infrastructure can be an answer to so many of the ills facing communities today. According to the Rails-to-Trails’ website:
Traffic Congestion: Biking and walking infrastructure can be a solution to local traffic congestion. Pilot studies have proven that people will choose biking and walking over driving for daily trips if the infrastructure is in place. In Minneapolis, Minn., for example, 28% of all trips don’t rely on a car (Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program: 2014 Report).
Building more highways and roads has failed to stem the rise in congestion. Between 1982 and 2011, the number of hours of vehicle delay in urban areas rose 360%, even as the number of highway and road miles increased by 61% (Texas A & M’s Annual Urban Mobility Report).
Economic Development: Trails boost the desirability and value of the homes and neighborhoods they connect to. Prospective homebuyers in Ohio, for example, were willing to pay an additional $9,000 to be located 1,000 feet closer to a trail, according to 2012 study by University of Cincinnati School of Planning.
Trails and pathways have been proven to increase activity in downtown business areas by making it easier for people to get to stores without having to worry about parking and traffic. A study found the business occupancy rate in downtown Dunedin, Fla. increased from 30% to 95% with the opening of the nearby Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. (Investing in Trails).
Transportation Patterns: Americans are already beginning to shift away from cars for daily transportation in favor of biking, walking and transit systems. This generation of young Americans is the first since the invention of the automobile to be less likely to get a driver’s license than their parents. (See: Transportation and the New Generation, 2012).
More than one-quarter of all trips we make are less than a mile—an easy walking distance—and nearly one-half are within three miles—an easy biking distance. Trail networks create the infrastructure that encourage and enable people to walk and bike as part of their daily lives.
Biking and walking is not just “an urban trend.” RTC’s 2012 report, Beyond Urban Centers showed that the share of work trips made by bicycle in small towns is nearly double that of urban centers.
Social Equity: Comprehensive trail systems can bridge gaps within and between communities, creating new access to jobs, physical activity and outdoor recreation-offering connected active transportation options to the more than 90 million Americans without a car.
Health: Obesity is the most pressing public health crisis of our age, particularly among children. Obesity costs America more than $190 billion in reactive healthcare spending each year. Making walking and biking a regular part of daily activities by providing convenient pathways is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat physical inactivity – something we cyclists on the Sojourns saw constantly.
When people have safe places to walk within 10 minutes of their home, they are one and a half times more likely to meet recommended activity levels than those who don’t. Comprehensive trail systems can give people new access to outdoor recreation opportunities.
Protecting the Environment: The environmental benefits of green infrastructure are strongest when open spaces are connected. Trail networks contribute to a healthy environment by protecting precious open space while encouraging active modes of transportation that reduce air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change.
The Beauty of Bike Tours
Bike tours are my favorite way to travel these days.
There are private bike tour companies that service many of these trails apart from these organized rides, notably Wilderness Voyageurs (which operated Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns in the past, and is offering five-day trips on the Erie Canal and offers trips on the Katy Trail in Missouri, www.wilderness-voyageurs.com) that offer these itineraries as supported rides, most typically with inn-to-inn accommodations. Road Scholar offers all-inclusive bike trips geared to seniors (www.roadscholar.org)
There are also outfitters, like Pocono Bike, that provide shuttle service to take you back to a starting point for hub-and-spoke kind of itineraries (which works well at Washington’s Crossing and the Jim Thorpe, where there are lovely inns in a most charming town). Pocono Bike offers full day, half-day, as well an overnight stay in historic downtown Jim Thorpe. Convenient access points allow for one way rides up to 36 miles, while two and four day overnight getaways feature up to 138 miles of trail through the D&L National Heritage Corridor (stunning in the fall foliage). (A four-day inn-to-inn bike trip goes from Jim Thorpe to Washington’s Crossing; the company also offers whitewater rafting trips and “pedal & paddle” trips. https://poconobiking.com/the-trail/ 800-whitewater.)
But these large-scale programs, organized around groups like Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Parks & Trails NY, which bring together hundreds of people from all over the country, even the world, add a new and marvelous dimension to the experience – a sense of community, especially because of the opportunity to do supported camping. And these group programs are also organized with so many other features – special activities like entertainment and tours, museums and attractions stay open for us, put on special guides, and whole communities who come out onto the trail to welcome us. Not to mention putting the trip in reach of many more people because they tend to have a modest per diem cost (about $125 per day including most meals).
Rails to Trails Conservancy is holding out the possibility that the local trail alliances will host their own trips, either as day trips, hub-and-spoke or multi-day. Indeed, there are organizations that do annual cross-state itineraries (not necessarily on trails but on roads): in Maine (Bike Maine is taking reservations for its Sept . 7-14, 2019 ride, 207-623-4511, email@example.com, ride.bikemaine.org), or agencies such as Missouri State Parks which offers an annual supported ride along the Katy Trail. New York State’s Parks & Trails NY (518-434-1583, www.ptny.org) does the sensational eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany, which to my mind, offers the best panorama to tell the story of how America came to be (“400 miles and 400 years of history”).
Giving up operating the annual Sojourn, however, will allow Rails-to-Trails to concentrate on its TrailNation work so that many more communities have access to trails. These TrailNation projects take an innovative approach to how trails and active transportation systems are built—from concept to implementation— by demonstrating the power of trails to create healthy, thriving communities. Rails-to-Trails works with local advocacy groups, offering political, financial and technical expertise. For example (from RTC’s website):
Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition: A game-changing urban trail network that will link three existing Baltimore City trails to form a 35-mile loop connecting the city’s diverse neighborhoods and natural features with the downtown core. When complete, this project—a partnership between RTC and Bikemore—will transform the public realm by opening up bike and pedestrian access to major civic institutions and destinations around the city, and provide equitable, low-stress access to open space, transportation and recreation. Only 10 additional miles are needed to close critical gaps (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/baltimore-greenway-trails-coalition/).
Capital Trails Coalition is working to create a 676-mile network of multiuse trails throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. RTC is a founding partner in this coalition which was initiated by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/capital-trails-coalition/)
The Circuit Trails: An innovative, regional urban trail network that is connecting people of all ages to jobs, communities and parks in the nine-county Greater Philadelphia-Camden, NJ, region will encompass 800 miles of trails on both sides of the Delaware River by the time of the project’s completion in 2040, and more than 50 percent of the region’s population—over 3.1 million people—will live within a mile of the trail network.
Route of the Badger, a partnership of RTC and the Wisconsin Bike Fed, is envisioned to be a world-class, 500-plus-mile regional trail system that connects people towns and counties, providing opportunities for physical activity, tourism, connections to nature, recreation and stronger businesses along the route (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/route-of-the-badger/)
Empire State Trail: Notably, Parks & Trails NY, another organization which is committed to developing multi-purpose trails, has been active over the years in completing the 353-mile Erie Canalway. Now New York State is taking that initiative even further, spending $200 million to develop and connect 750 miles of multi-purpose trails (including 350 miles of new trails) of the east-west Erie Canalway Trail and the north-south Hudson River Valley Greenway. The Empire State Trail will enable someone to bike from the tip of lower Manhattan up to the Canadian border, and across the state, from Buffalo to Albany; it is targeted for completion in 2020 (https://www.ny.gov/programs/empire-state-trail)
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.
Being here at Washington Crossing State Park on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River, hearing the story of General George Washington crossing icy water on that fateful Christmas night, I realize that all I knew of that scene was the image from the painting so indelibly impressed on every school child’s brain. The actual events are much, much more dramatic, as the 300 Sojourners, cyclists who have come down the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, learn on our guided tour.
This opportunity to tour Washington Crossing Historical Park is built into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn, one of several options for our layover day on the fourth day of the five-day biking-and-camping trip.
The Sojourn rides- usually five or six days of supported camping and biking – are typically constructed with a layover day where you get to choose from activities and excursions that exemplify the area or just hang out on your own. Other options include a kayak tour on the Delaware Canal; a visit to the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a tour of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, or just exploring New Hope, PA on our own to take in attractions, dining and art galleries.
I realize I had no clue of just how heroic, indeed, how much of a Mission Impossible this feat was, and how many were involved, nor how significant this relatively small battle of was for the ultimate success of the revolution that founded our nation.
The visit to the Washington Crossing Historical Park starts with an excellent 14-minute video introduction that lays out why Washington said of this desperate mission ““Dire necessity will, nay must, justify the attack.”
It was winter of 1776. The Continental Army had suffered terrible defeats on Long Island and New York. Washington was forced to retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania on December 7 and 8.
The British were on the march to Philadelphia, plundering and ravishing homesteads as they went. They were waiting for the Delaware River to freeze so they could march across. That gave Washington some time to regroup.
Morale of the American troops was low. The soldiers lacked food and warm clothing, even boots. Washington watched his army shrink due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Now, more than ever, a victory was desperately needed.
Washington hatched a daring plan to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness, march to Trenton and unleash a surprise attack on the Hessian outposts in and around Trenton.
He ordered every boat that could be found to be at the ready. Among the various types of boats gathered, most notable were the large, heavy Durham boats that were used to carry pig iron down the Delaware.
His plan was for a Pincer-style attack, with two divisions attacking from the south of Trenton.
We walk into a historic village – and come to McConkey’s Ferry Inn, which was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing – the other buildings were constructed 40 years or more after.
Walking through it, it is an amazing feeling to sense Washington sitting here, plotting what could have been a suicide mission, making such decisions.
The inn was built on the major thoroughfare between Philadelphia and New York City to accommodate the ferry, one of many along the river.
We go into the boathouse – which was built in 1977 to house re-creations of the Durham boats that Washington would have used.
These are all re-creations, and smaller (40 feet long) and lighter and more nimble than the ones Washington would have used. By the 1830s, these boats, built to carry cargo, were obsolete – indeed, even in their day, they were often used for one-way trips and discarded.
Washington’s boats were 65 feet long, weighing 7,000 pounds, 50 percent heavier that these re-creation. As it is, it takes a day to put four boats in the water for the annual Christmas re-enactment.
In Washington’s time, the boats would have been kept in the water, not a boat barn, which was built in the 1950s when they started doing the reenactments.
There were no seats in the boats – everyone stood up, but no one was as high up as Washington is depicted in the famous painting.
The painting shows 13 people – 12 in the boat and one standing up; for the reenactments, they use 11 crew, four oars each 15 feet long and 50 lbs, with two people per oar at shoulder level. One of the oars is 22 ft, weighing 100 lb,that is used like a rudder to steer the boat.
“We do it in one hour. It took 11 hours to transport Washington’s troops during the night, going back and forth.” Once, he recalled, it was snowing heavily during reenactment which was most like the actual conditions.
Each boat made five trips both ways, carrying 45 soldiers plus the boat crew (imagine what that would have been like for the boat crews). It took a half-hour or longer for each trip. One man fell off the boat, but was saved.
The river was fast, but 45 feet wider than normal, and with ice blocks as big as six feet wide, would come suddenly with speed, joggle the boat and knock it off course. It was difficult to see.
Over the course of the 11 hours, Washington’s 2,400 soldiers were shuttled across. But then, these soldiers, some of whom were dressed in rags and barely had shoes, had to wait for hours as they were pounded by a Nor’easter that set in at 11 pm, for the rest to arrive, and then march 9 miles over mud paths to fight the same Hessian troops who had beaten them five times before.
“The odds were not in their favor. It shows the fortitude of the men.”
Because surprise was his key weapon, Washington kept the mission a secret until the last minute.
“Washington didn’t tell the men the attack was underway until 1 pm. That was not enough time for the men to prepare supplies and march. So a lot of the men were late,” he tells us, standing in front of a map that illustrates the battle plan.
Washington assembled his own troops near McConkey’s Ferry in preparation for the crossing. By 6 pm, 2,400 troops had begun crossing the ice-choked river. The operation was slow and difficult due to the condition of the river. There was an abrupt change in the weather forcing the men to fight their way through sleet and a blinding snowstorm. These obstacles proved to be too much for the supporting divisions led by colonels Cadwalader and Ewing, ultimately preventing their crossing at southern points along the Delaware.
Washington had planned for a Pincer-style attack. He had them synchronize their watches. He had already started sending the men across when he learned that the other two generals were not able to send their men. He decided to continue anyway.
In this ferry building, Washington writes to Colonel Cadwalader, “’Dear Sir. Notwithstanding the discouraging accounts I have received from Colonel Reed of what might be expected from the operations below, I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the river and make the attack upon Trenton in the morning. If you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible. I am, Sir, your most obedient servant.’”.
“Now the weather works to the Americans’ advantage,” our guide relates, standing in front of a battlefield map. “Hessian guards (pickets) are in houses. Washington sneaks through perimeter undetected. But one rogue group launches a raid, which undermines the crucial element of surprise. The Hessian guards run into city to warn the commander, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Riall, but Riall thinks it is just a raid. He musters half to guard two main roads, but doesn’t meet Washington head on. Washington tries to retain initiative.”
The First Battle of Trenton takes only an hour. Of the 1,500 Hessians, 100 killed or wounded. Rall is fatally wounded.
Washington informed Congress of victory but neglected to mention how many men were lost (the Hessians lost about 100).
It was a relatively small battle but the victory elevated the American cause in eye of world. Then, within 10 days, Washington chalked up victories at Trenton and Princeton.
There were still 5 more years of war, until 1781, to come, but this was the turning point in revolution.
“The 3 victories are huge for Continental Army. France and Spain began to pay attention. If Washington had lost, Continental army would have disbanded.”
The Hessian prisoners were paraded through Philadelphia to Lancaster where they worked on farms, were paid and given free room and board. A quarter of the Hessian prisoners wound up staying or returning to the area after the war (the Pennsylvania Dutch were already here.) But American prisoners were badly treated.
The single biggest fact we don’t know about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware? Who crossed.
Each December, thousands of people gather on the banks of the Delaware River to watch the reenactment of George Washington’s daring 1776 Christmas night river crossing. During the event, several hundred reenactors in Continental military dress row across the river in replica Durham boats.
This year, there are two opportunities to view the reenactment at Washington Crossing Historic Park, on December 9 (10 am to 4 pm, the crossing is at 1 pm, $8/adult, $4/child 5-11; in addition to the crossing reenactment, special colonial-era activities and demonstrations in the Historic Village will offer a full day of family fun and learning) and Christmas Day, December 25 (noon to 3 pm, crossing is at 1 pm; free. The event draws thousands of people; arrive well before 1 pm for a good place to view (see www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org).
The Historic Village
The McConkey Ferry Inn which we get to visit was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware; the other structures came later.
The first ferry building was built in 1752, but only the basement kitchen remains. The current inn was built in several stages; the west side, the one farthest from the river, was built around 1790 and includes the original basement. The building represents a typical country inn or tavern of the Revolutionary era and suggests the variety of amenities that would have been available to the traveler at that time.
Mahlon K. Taylor House: Born in 1791, Mahlon K. Taylor became the wealthiest and most influential member of the Taylor family, a fixture of Taylorsville’s commercial success until his death in 1870.The stately home, built 1816-17, illustrates Taylor’s successful career as a merchant and entrepreneur. The house is an example of the degree to which the fashions and refinement of upper-class Philadelphians were beginning to influence rural Pennsylvania.
Taylorsville Houses: These 19th century buildings were built by different members of the Taylor family as their own residences or to rent to trades and craftsmen. Many 19th-century country villages and towns also had general stores that sold a wide array of merchandise. Mahlon Taylor opened the Taylorsville store around 1828 shortly before the Delaware Canal was constructed, and served as postmaster there for 40 years.
Hibbs House: Built in 1828, this building was one of several tenant houses the Taylor family constructed to attract artisans to Taylorsville. It served as the home and workshop of a shoemaker, then a cooper, a wheelwright, and finally a carpenter, Abdon Hibbs. A typical two-room over two-room stone structure, it housed a worker, his family, and his apprentice, as well as his shop.
Frye House and Blacksmith Shop: Bernard Taylor built the Frye House in 1828 as a tenant property. It housed Taylorsville’s blacksmith and his family, as well as an apprentice. The blacksmith was indispensable, fashioned iron tools and implements essential to work and to family life in the preindustrial era. The current shop was built in 1990. Living-history demonstrations are conducted during special events.
Revolutionary War Memorial Cemetery
Our afternoon tour begins with a visit to a memorial cemetery where an unknown number of Continental soldiers who died during the December 1776 encampment in Bucks County are buried.
Although no Americans were killed during the Crossing and the First Battle of Trenton, these soldiers would have died due to exposure, disease or previous injuries. James Moore, a 24-year-old artillery captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company, is the only veteran buried in this plot whose identity is known.
I love visiting the Thompson-Neely House, on Bowman’s Hill, just across a road from where we camp at the Washington Crossing State Park, and on the other side of the canal.
The house is presently interpreted as it would have been when it served as a temporary regimental army hospital during Washington’s winter campaign of 1776/1777. Ill and injured soldiers were brought to this home of the Thompson and Neely families for medical treatment and recovery. A young officer from Virginia named James Monroe, who was seriously injured during the First Battle of Trenton, convalesced here. In 1817, he became the fifth president of the United States. William Washington, a distant cousin of the commander-in-chief, was also wounded and he too recovered. This is where Captain James Moore of the New York Artillery died of camp fever on Christmas day and is buried on the property (in what is now the Soldiers’ Graves area).
The Thompson-Neely House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an example of vernacular 18th-century architecture. Originally a low, one-room dwelling, it was expanded over time to a two-story, multi-roomed farmhouse reflecting the growth of colonial Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy and the prosperity of the Thompson family, who milled grain into flour for export.
Several hundred years ago, the area occupied by the Thompson-Neely House and Farmstead and the nearby mill were inhabited by natives of the Lenni Lenape village of Winnehawcnunick. Around 1684, a runaway indentured servant, John Pidcock, fled his master and took possession of the property, establishing a fur trading station there around 1701.
The next owner of the property, Quaker miller John Simpson, constructed the original central section of this house about 1740, as well as a gristmill along Pidcock Creek. At the time of his death in 1747, Simpson was a prosperous farmer with an interest in a sawmill besides his other holdings. His widow, Hannah, married Scots-Irish miller Robert Thompson in 1748, whose farming and milling businesses on the property made him one of the wealthiest men in Solebury Township by 1761.
In 1757, owner Robert Thompson built a two-story addition on the west end (away from the river) of the house.
Nine years later, Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth, married her father’s apprentice William Neely, an Irish immigrant, and Thompson added a second story above the old first section.
Neely, who was in the militia in 1775 with Washington’s troops. Neely brought the army here to camp out. There would have been some 500 Continental army troops camped here (7400 in the area), among them James Monroe (the future president), and William Washington, a cousin to General Washington.
Robert Thompson enlarged the house once again by constructing the two-story east wing in 1788 to accommodate the Neely’s growing family. Taller ceilings gave this newest portion a higher roofline than the existing structure.
When he died in 1804, Robert Thompson left his large estate to his grandson, Robert Thompson Neely, including the main farmhouse with outbuildings, two mills, a cooper’s shop, and a distillery. Although Robert Thompson Neely continued to expand his family business and real estate holdings, he died in debt in 1848. Succeeding generations of the Neely family continued to own the farmhouse. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired it in 1926, the building had been little changed since the early 19th -century.
Once the centerpiece of a working farm and milling complex, the Thompson-Neely House is surrounded by the numerous outbuildings needed for farmlife in the 18th-century, such as the restored smokehouse, chicken coop and privy. Washington Crossing Historic Park’s flock of sheep may be visited at the restored barn.
Thompson-Neely Grist Mill
The Thompson-Neely grist mill, built in 1875, is actually the third grist mill to be built on the property.
The grist mill figured into the prosperity of the families who lived here, first Englishman John Simpson who acquired the property around 1740 and built the first grist and saw mill. After he died, in 1747, the mill passed to his journeyman, Robert Thompson, who married Simpson’s widow, Hannah. The couple farmed and ran the mill at a time when Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America and had a thriving flour market, exporting five million pounds in 1771. By 1782, Thompson had become one of the wealthier men in Solebury Township.
William Neely, Thompson’s apprentice, married Thompson’s daughter in 1766, and ran the mill for more than 40 years before his death in 1804. Thompson’s daughter and grandson, Robert T. Neely, inherited the mill.
The Thompsons and the Neelys built up an estate that included the grist mill, a saw mill, cooper’s shop, distillery, store, sawyer’s house, miller’s house, and assorted barns and outbuildings on 500 acres of land.
The Second Mill, 1829-1873: The Pennsylvania Canal Commission built the Delaware Canal through Neely’s property, along the original creek bed that powered the mill’s water wheel which put Neely’s mill out of business. He received $8,000 from the state for damages and built a new mill further upstream on the site of the present grist mill.
The Third Mill, 1875-1910: Robert’s Neely’s son John owned the mill when it caught fire in August 1873. The mill was rebuilt in the same place and reopened in 1875 and operated until 1910, after being purchased by the State of Pennsylvania.
The mill was closed for 50 years, until the state renewed interest in it as a historical site.
Restoration: During the 1970s, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission carried out archaeological research and restoration of the site. A new water wheel was installed in its original location, and the mill was restored to a state resembling that of a grist mill of the late 1820s. But the mill was again shuttered 20 years later.
Restoration work began in late 2016. And after two decades shuttered to the public, the Thompson-Neely Grist Mill’s doors reopened on March 17, 2018, just a couple of months before we Sojourners arrive. In-depth programming including live demonstrations of the milling process, field trips for area students and a special program for children during the park’s annual Sheep-to-Shawl Day are planned.
Bowman’s Hill Tower
Bowman’s Hill Tower, we discover on the tour the Sojourn has arranged for us, is just about the only place in Bucks County to get an above-the-trees, bird’s-eye view of the surrounding countryside and Delaware River. The Tower, which was built between 1929-31 as a Depression-era project, rises 125 feet high atop Bowman’s Hill; on a clear day, you can see 14 miles away.
We hike up the 124 steps (an elevator installed during the 1980s restoration can take you up three-quarters of the way, to the last 23 narrow steps).
Soon after the tower’s construction, workers planted 28,300 seedlings in the area to reforest the hill like people thought it would have been in Washington’s time. Some of those seedlings have become today’s towering trees on Bowman’s Hill.
Walking up from the Thompson-Neely House, passed the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (so many wonderful, themed trails to explore! Next time!), proves to be quite a hike, because it is about 1.5 miles up on a winding road before you even get to the staircase.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.
This wonderful celebration, led by the local bike club, gets the 300 Sojourners in gear for our longest ride, 48 miles, of our five-day, 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail through the picturesque Pennsylvania wilderness to Hugh Moore Park in Easton where we will camp for the night.
We follow after the Jim Thorpe Bike Club as the first across the bridge, an achievement 25 years in the making.
Around midday, we navigate a complex gap in the D&L Trail onto city streets. Indeed, drawing attention to such gaps, and the coalition working to improve them, has been one of the objectives of these annual Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn supported biketours. To date, an impressive 92 percent of the D&L Trail has been built—most of which we ride during this Sojourn—and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022.
The trail condition has been surprisingly good considering yesterday’s drenching rain and even yesterday, the trail had enough hard-pack that our tires didn’t sink into mud.
Yesterday, as we rode downhill from the highest point, deep in Pennsylvania’s coal mining country, the beauty of the wilderness section of the trail was hard to appreciate through the rain (though nothing could mar the exquisite beauty of Buttermilk Falls).
But on this June day, the weather is sunny with a cool breeze, just perfect for biking.
We get to see just how beautiful the trail is – much of it following a narrow canal on one side or the other. The trail is built on the original towpath, which is essentially a built-up berm. We see rock walls, lily pads. The scenery and joy of biking produce a feeling of euphoria.
We come to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, which is like an oasis to us. The center is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)
Just beyond, we Sojourners are treated to a catered lunch in a park, where we can sit comfortably under a pavilion.
Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.
Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s.
At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, and I am delighted to find the site manned by interpreters in period dress. I ask if the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.
Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)
This proves a warm-up for what we will see during our overnight stay at the Hugh Moore Park and its major attractions, the National Canal Museum and the ride on a mule-drawn canal boat that has been arranged for us.
National Canal Museum, Hugh Moore Park.
Our 48-mile ride today ends at the home base in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park, where we began and will end. With the Lehigh River, Lehigh Canal, the old Lehigh Valley Railroad, National Canal Museum, remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, the park offers a microcosm of the D&L story, and an absolutely delightful place for our second-night campout.
The Sojourn planners have specially arranged for us to have free cruise on the historic Josiah White II canal boat, all the more exciting because it is pulled by two mules and manned by a crew in period dress along this portion of the restored canal. You really get to appreciate what it was like for these families who operated the canal boats that carried the anthracite coal from the mountains to Philadelphia. At one time mules pulling canal boats on narrow towpaths would have been a common sight in much of the United States east of the Mississippi River.
We board the Josiah White II canal boat to cruise on the restored Section 8 of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation canal. Captain Susan is at the tiller. The boat is 50 feet long – when it turns, it has mere inches to spare.
Two mules, Hank and George, pull the boat, led by Steve and Doug. You would think it is a strain, but the boat slides easily. “Benjamin Franklin worked out the mathematics, that two mules can pull 235 tons on water. He saw the method in Europe and Britain. George Washington also was a proponent of canals. – though neither one lived to see beginning of canal era.”
Captain Susan is just finishing saying how Hank and George are the luckiest mules in the land, when they both bolt and start running toward the campsite, chased by Steve and Doug who bring them back.
The boats were designed to carry 80 to 90 tons of coal, which meant the canal had to have six feet of draft.
They needed eight feet high walls – so they dug out four feet by hand and piled on the four-feet of soil to create the eight-foot high walls.
They knew the limestone couldn’t contain the water, so they lined the canal with clay, using the same method of road building in Ireland – sheep tamp down the bottom and the clay is left to dry in the sun. (The clay enclosure is why you can’t have any sharp implements on the boats).
It took 2 ½ years to build the canal which extends 46 miles from Jim Thorpe and consists of 9 dams and 51 locks. It cost $1 million (actually under budget). These canals were the first million dollar civil projects in the United States, she says.
When they started to mine the anthracite coal, this whole region of northeast Pennsylvania was uninhabited. To make money, they had to move the coal to the population center in Philadelphia. The Lehigh River was not suitable for transportation – it was too shallow, rocky.
The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (we saw their building in Jim Thorpe) owned the river, built the canal, and furnace and brought an iron maker from Wales who knew how to make iron with anthracite coal (the secret was high-pressure blast of air).
Pennsylvania is one of the few places where anthracite – hard coal – is known to exist. It was discovered sporadically during the 18th century, when people would literally stumble on it on the surface. “No one cared. It looked like stone. You couldn’t light it.”
What is more, there were still trees to provide fuel. But by the early 1800s, the mid-Atlantic was virtually clear cut of wood sparking an energy crisis.
They experimented with soft coal, but the supply was cut off in 1812 by blockade during the War with Britain.
Around then, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, who manufactured wire and nails from iron, needed coal.
They learned of the success of a Welshman who developed hot-blast iron making. They traveled to Wales to sign David Thomas to a five-year contract, and brought him to Pennsylvania to oversee the construction of an anthracite furnace.
In 1818, they bought the Summit Hill quarry. But the problem still was how to get the coal to market.
They founded the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and created one of America’s first industrial and transportation networks, which led to an industrial boom across Pennsylvania and the Northeastern United States.
We see a lock tender’s house that was built in 1928 to replace one that burned – the new house was the only lock tender’s house with indoor plumbing and electricity.
This lock had a new gear system that even a young person could operate, so the father (who would have earned $8/month, low even for those times) could take a cash job in one of the many mills or furnaces in the area. The lock had to be manned from 3 am to 11 pm, so this was a family enterprise. The mother could sell or barter with the canal boat families – at this lock, known as a “laundry lock” the woman would do the canal boat family’s laundry. She would also keep chickens and vegetables.
“There was an economy of people who lived and worked on the canal, separate from anthracite. Boats were crewed by families.
“Sailors had poor reputation and White was Quaker and wanted ethical people, sober and honest. So he recruited married men. They didn’t want to be away from their families from March to November, so they brought them on the boat. Whether provided own or leased from Lehigh Coal & Navigation – were families.
“The father of the family (the only one who legally could sign a lease) was the captain, kept records, leased the boat, bought the mules ($20) on time; the wife helped with steering and homemaking. Kids as young as six would be responsible for caring for the mules. Younger children were tied to the boat so they couldn’t fall over.”
She demonstrates how they would blow a conch shell to alert the lockmaster, who would have been on duty 18 hours a day.
“It’s easy to romanticize life on the canals, but it was difficult, uncomfortable.”
This canal was operated until 1942; the Delaware until 1932; there were sons, grandsons and great grandsons of canal boat captains.
“It was a way of life. People stuck with it.”
Here at Hugh Moore Park was the site of an industrial furnace. By the time of the Civil War, half of iron in the United States came from Lehigh Valley.
Hugh Moore made his fortune manufacturing Dixie Cups. He bought this property and found out it came with the disused canal.
I get to tour the National Canal Museum, which has stayed open late for us.
The National Canal Museum was originally housed in a Crayola factory building; it was relocated to the Hugh Moore Park in 2006 with a National Science Foundation mission to provide a STEM curriculum to school children – the museum is loaded with interactive exhibits and experiments.
“Canals are perfect for these lessons – it’s the last transportation system using simple machines and human and animal power (mules).”
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. The National Canal Museum is open seasonally, from June until October. Hands-on exhibits highlight 19th century canal life and technology. During our visit, we saw its special exhibition, Powering America: Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Railroads.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)
Day 3: To New Hope
As spartan as our first night’s campsite was on a baseball field in Jim Thorpe, Hugh Moore Park in contrast feels luxurious, especially with access to the facilities in the museum (in addition to actual bathroom rooms) and one of the workers, has offered to stay inside and open it up for us during the night .
We also have a delicious catered dinner and breakfast around the museum before setting out on our third day’s ride, which will take us 38 miles but 242 years back in time to Washington Crossing State Park, where we will camp for two nights, and find ourselves immersed in the story of the American Revolution.
Just before we cross the Delaware to Frenchtown on the New Jersey side, we see a picturesque red wooden bridge over the canal. Frenchtown, where they have arranged for a bike corral while we enjoy the restaurants and shops, is very charming. I munch on the artisanal cheese and bread I purchased beside the water before setting out for the rest of the ride.
This part of the ride is along the sensational Delaware-Raritan Canal trail (one of my favorite trails, a particularly gorgeous section is from Princeton University north). We cross back to Pennsylvania at Lambertville into New Hope, another picturesque village. We are on our own for dinner tonight and many will bike back into New Hope from our campground at Washington State Crossing Park.
During the ride, I rehash what I learned at the National Canal Museum and wonder, “What did these families do for the rest of the year when the canals were closed? It bothers me that these families made so little money ($8/month) for such long days, they had to work extra jobs, even after all the members of the family also worked, when owners became richest people in the world.
How did Benjamin Franklin calculate that mules could pull a floating barge carrying 235 tons? How did they calculate the 6 foot draft for the canal boats to carry 90 tons? By formula or by trial & error? What if a boat had different dimensions? I wonder if the STEM curriculum at the National Canal Museum would answer these questions.
Here’s another important lesson from our immersion into this National Heritage Corridor: The change in ecology necessitated changes in the economy and technology (an example of how history matters.) Americans were always moving, migrating to take advantage of new industry, new technology, new economy, new opportunities, sometimes forced by changes in the environment. These canal towns, factory towns, mill towns arose because of coal and steel and many were ruined with the change in fortunes. Today, climate change, global warming is changing ecology again, forcing new changes in the economy, in technology, in society and in where and how we organize our communities. It’s very much how the canal towpath, originally devised to transport the coal which replaced wood, is repurposed for recreation and wellness, revitalizing the local economy.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.
Nantucket, a porkchop-shaped island just 14 by 3½-miles with just a few thousand inhabitants, hangs 30 miles out to sea off Massachusetts’ mainland. That creates a special kind of isolation and 350 years ago, made for a special incubator for culture and industry.
“Nantucket has been a microcosm of America for 350 years, a magnet and unique laboratory for some of our most powerful impulses…People around the globe knew of Nantucket whalers,” says the narrator of a documentary, “Nantucket” by Ric Burns. Nantucket, he says, has a history of reinventing itself.
“Nantucket was created by sea. In as little as 400 years, it will be taken by the sea. We are on borrowed time.”
That alone sets up the drama before our visit to Nantucket. The documentary is an evening’s activity aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe, and now, we sail into Nantucket’s harbor in a dense fog, on the last day of our week-long voyage that has taken us to the New England islands.
This tiny place, we learn, became a global powerhouse because of whaling, which itself required technological innovations and produced a revolution in the way people lived: “Nantucket was the first global economic engine America would know.”
Indeed, here in Nantucket, we realize how revolutionary candlelight was, extending people’s days into the darkness of night. “Nantucket sperm oil made the Industrial Revolution happen.”
It also proves to be a lesson in the importance of globalization and immigration.
“In 1820, Nantucket entered its golden age. The entire Pacific its backyard, America as world power.” The square-rigged whaling ships we think of as quaint today “were state of art, decades into development, a perfect factory ship to render oil. They could go anywhere, withstand horrible conditions, serve as the home for dozens of men for three to four years at a time. They were vessels of exploration, the space ships of their day, they could travel to unknown worlds…Nantucketers were astronauts of their day.”
But here on Nantucket, we are introduced to another aspect of the story: Quakerism and feminism.
Whaling, it turns out, became a thriving industry because of the Quakers who settled Nantucket, peacefully coexisting with the Wampanoags who had lived here for thousands of years (their numbers were decimated, though, by the diseases the Europeans brought). The Wampanoags knew how to harpoon whales that were beached and introduced the English to whaling.
But it was the Quakers’ open-mindedness, their values of modest living, hard work and practice of reinvesting money into the industry rather than on lavish living that produced the innovations. Even more significantly, Nantucket could become so successful in whaling because of the Quaker sense of egalitarianism, seeing women as having equal ability. How else could Nantucket men go off for years at a time, leaving their home, business and community to be run by the women they left behind (one street is known as Petticoat Row because of all the women-owned businesses)? Quaker women, including Lucretia Coffin Mott (who was from Nantucket) became leaders of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.
So it is no wonder that Nantucket enabled a woman, Maria Mitchell, to thrive.
Born in 1818 on Nantucket, Maria Mitchell became America’s first woman astronomer (famous for discovering a comet in 1847, which was named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”), the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850). She was Vassar’s first professor of astronomy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and active in the Women’s Suffrage movement.
We first are introduced to her on “Gail’s Tours” of the island, then when we visit the Whaling Museum which has a whole gallery devoted to her, and after, I am so fascinated with her, I follow a self-guided “Walking in the Footsteps of Maria Mitchell” which takes me to the Quaker Meeting House. (Ironically, Mitchell was too skeptical and outspoken for the Quakers and “written out” so she joined the Unitarian Church instead, which today shares its building with the Congregation Shirat Ha Yam, “a pluralistic Jewish congregation”).
Nantucket has a land area of about 45 square miles (about half the size of Martha’s Vineyard), yet seems larger, somehow, to get around. The best way to experience Nantucket when you only have a day and when mobility may be somewhat limited, is to take an island tour.
So we take the launch boat into Straight Wharf (this is the only stop on the New England Islands cruise where we anchor instead of dock), and walk along the cobblestone streets about half-mile to where Gail Nickerson Johnson has her van parked in front of the Visitor Center.
The first impression of Nantucket is how much it looks like a movie set with its quaint shops and cobblestone streets. Indeed, the one square-mile National Historic District is the largest concentration of antebellum structures in the United States. I take note of a mural on the side of a building that shows how many miles from places like Iceland, Pitcairn and Cape Town are from Nantucket, as if the center of the world.
We have been recommended to Gail’s Tours, and what a find this is. Gail, it turns out, is a 6th generation Nantucket native, descended from the Nickersons (her family line includes the Gardners, Coffins, Foulgers), was raised here, and knows just about everybody and every house we pass. She took over the tour business from her mother, who, she says, used to summer here before marrying her father. Her mother used to take visiting friends and relatives around in a woodie, and then got the idea to turn it into a tourist business, which she ran for 40 years.
Gail points out all the local sights:” I remember when….” “We used to ….,” “When we were kids….” “That used to be ….”
She notes that some 10,000 to 15,000 people live on Nantucket year-round, quite a jump from the 3,000 people who lived here year-round when she was growing up.
Gail jokes that Nantucket is on shaky ground – it is predicted to be under water in 400 years time. “In 300, I’m outta here.”
We pass all the important sights: the island’s oldest house, built as a wedding present for Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner Coffin in 1686. It has been restored after lightening struck the house, splitting it in two; the Old Windmill (1746); the Quaker cemetery where there some 5,000 people are buried but few headstones, so it looks more like a rolling field; the Maria Mitchell Observatory; cranberry bogs; the Life Saving Museum.
She points to the house that Frank Bunker Gilbreth owned – the efficiency expert depicted in his son’s book, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” “They found among his papers Morse code for how to take bath in 1 ½ minutes.” The family still owns the house. She points to where Peter Benchley (“Jaws”) lived, the house where John Steinbeck stayed when he wrote “East of Eden.”
We stop at Sankaty Head Lighthouse so we can get out for a closer look. The 70-foot tall lighthouse was built of brick in 1850 and automated in 1965; its beacon can be seen 26 miles away. It had to be moved and was re-lighted in its new location, just next to the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course in November 2007.
The tour finishes just around the corner from the Nantucket Whaling Museum. We pick up phenomenal sandwiches from Walter’s, have lunch on benches outside the museum.
We had been to the excellent New Bedford Whaling Museum and now come to the renowned Nantucket Whaling Museum. Interestingly, the presentations and focus are very different – so the two are like bookends that add to the telling of this dramatic story.
We arrive as a historian is describing the hunt for whales, and then join the docent-led highlights tour, which is sensational.
The sperm whale oil, she says, “is a light source, power source and lubricant and could be used in winter. Artificial light in winter revolutionized life for 3 to 4 months of the year. It was used throughout the United States and Europe, prized the world over.”
The earliest whaling industry was created by Quakers, who were austere, not vain, and reinvested income into growing the industry. Portraits were not permitted (the portraits that decorate the entire wall are made later), but by the 19th century, they were not practicing Quakerism. She points to one of the earliest portraits which, without a tradition of art education in colonial America, was probably made by a housepainter, and probably an authentic representation of her likeness without artifice. She has one blue and one brown eye, which was a genetic trait among some of the earliest Nantucket settlers.
She points to a portrait of Susan Veeder, one of the women who accompanied their husbands on a whaling voyage. She kept records of the day-to-day life. “Her journals are anthropological, whereas the men’s journals were mainly about weather, tides and number of whales caught. She is the reason we know so much about life on whaling ship.” The docent adds that Veeder delivered a baby daughter while on board, but it died. “While British whalers had to have a surgeon on board, American whalers were not required to. The ship had a medical kit with numbered vials and instructions. But if they ran out of #11 vial, a captain might just add #5 and #6 together.”
Another painting shows a wife standing beside her husband seated at a desk. “It’s a rare image. Women had roles in Nantucket – they ran the town, home and business. Her husband was a whaling captain who brought back artifacts; she set up a display in house and charged admission fee and told stories. This was the first museum on the island. The contents went to the Atheneum and now are part of the Historical society collection.”
She points to a jaw bone that is the height of the room. It would have come from 80-ft whale such as rammed the Essex (the event that inspired the story of “Moby Dick”).”For people of Nantucket (most of whom had never seen a whale) would have been seen as a sea monster. For the captain to make the decision to keep this onboard for two years or so of the journey, taking up precious space on ship, speaks to how important it was.”
We go into the part of the museum that was originally a candle factory, built by the Mitchell family immediately following the Great Fire of 1846, where there is the only surviving spermaceti lever press left in the world.
She explains, “When the ship returned to Nantucket harbor, filled with as many as 2000 barrels of oil, each holding 31.5 gallons apiece, the oil would be put in storage.
“They would wait for winter to begin processing because only highest quality oil would remain liquid in winter; then process the lowest quality in spring and summer. They kept the lowest quality in Nantucket and sold first and second pressings.
“The best oil was used for lighthouses. What was left was used for spermaceti candles.These were the best candles – they burned with no odor, no smoke, no drip. They were prized throughout US and Europe. They changed the quality of life because of having a reliable light source.”
At its height, there were 36 candle factories in Nantucket.
You become aware of hearing sea chanties in the background.
She leads us up to the second-floor Scrimshaw gallery (those who have difficulty with steps can ask to use an elevator). “It was a way for captains to keep their sailors entertained and occupied (so they didn’t get into fights). They would soak whale teeth, burnish with shark skin (like sandpaper); sharks would be attracted to ship when processed whale – and they would kill sharks for food and use the skin.
“Sailors may be illiterate. They would trace designs from newspaper images and advertising. Victorian woman a common subject for scrimshaw because they were commonly used in fashion ads they traced.”
Some scrimshaw was functional – like pie crimpers. The men would fashion corset stays as tokens of love (they were worn close to heart). Only captains would have the space to make swifts – tools to wind skein of yarn.
Today, she says, the scrimshaw is priceless.
She notes that the Essex was not the only ship that was sunk by a whale: the Ann Alexander also was sunk by whale, but the sailors were rescued the next day and returned home.
“Another ship in the Pacific found a whale with a harpoon from the Ann Alexander in it – killed the whale and made scrimshaw out of its teeth, known as the Ann Alexander teeth” that we see here in the gallery.
There is a small room devoted to Essex story, and we come upon a storyteller retelling the story of the Essex, sunk by a whale – the event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” – from the point of view of the actual events as documented in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea” which ended with the men so desperate, they committed cannibalism.
The cabin boy on the Essex who 30 years later wrote his memoir, was Thomas Nickerson (one of Gail’s ancestors? I wonder).
This was the first known incident of an unprovoked whale ramming a ship. But, he says, they now believe that it was hammering to quickly repair one of the chase boats used when they go after the whale, that caused the whale to charge.
Melville, it turns out, only visited Nantucket for the first time in 1852, after he wrote Moby Dick.
Most interesting is the room devoted to Maria Mitchell’s Legacy, where we are introduced to her biography and achievements.
The Nantucket Historical Association which operates the museum also operates several other attractions which are included on an “all access ticket”($20/adult, $18/senior/student, $5/youth 6-17): the Oldest House & Kitchen Garden (the 1686 Coffin House); the 1746 Old Mill (you go inside and meet the miller); the Old Gaol (1806), the Quaker Meeting House (1836), the Fire Hose Cart House (1886, the last remaining 19th century fire hose cart on the island); and Greater Light.
Nantucket is dramatic, of course, because of the whaling industry – an invention that revolutionized life by bringing light into winter’s darkness and what the oil meant to enabling the Industrial Revolution.
But for me, the most fascinating thing is being introduced to Maria Mitchell – we are shown important sites associated with her on the island tour and at the museum. I am so inspired that I follow a self-guided walking tour that is delightful to give structure to exploring the town.
I meet her again in a storefront display dedicated to her, and then follow the Maria Mitchell Foundation sites: the Nantucket Atheneum (she became the first librarian, at age 18); the Pacific Bank where her father was president; the Unitarian Universalist Church which she joined after leaving the Quakers; Mitchell’s House where she was born, the Observatory built after her death in 1908 and the natural history museum operated by the Maria Mitchell Foundation (mariamitchell.org).
This leads me to the Quaker Meeting House where I have a most unexpected – and fascinating – discussion of Quaker religion sitting in a pew.
“Quakers were the social cement of the community.” You couldn’t do business without being Quaker, but you could pretend to be Quaker.
“Quakers were seen as activists, the hippies of their day,” because they were free thinking and were egalitarian in their treatment of women and people of other races.
The Quakers were considered heretics and banned by the Puritans because they believed in an “inner light”. They refused to pay taxes to the church or accept authority, or take oaths (for this reason, they couldn’t become doctors or lawyers). It went counter to the control mandated by the Puritans, Anglicans.
“They would show up naked at an Anglican Church,” she tells me which sparks a thought: why isn’t Quakerism being revived today? It seems more consistent with modern-day approaches to organized religion.
Most heretical of all: they did not require those they sought to convert to accept Jesus. “They did not require personal knowledge or acceptance of Jesus, just to find God through Inner Light.”
“The Quakers were hanged, branded, their noses split.”
But they found safe haven in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, because in 1661, Charles II ordered that all trials of Quakers had to take place in England. “They were safe in America since they wouldn’t be shipped back to England.”
And over time, the Quakers toned down the “dangerous” rhetoric.
“They were excellent businessmen. They valued education (to this day): boys were educated to 13 or 14 when they were expected to join the whaling ships; but girls were educated to 17 or 18, so they had more formalized education than men.”
The women, therefore, were left in charge of home, businesses and community when the men left for their whaling voyages. Centre Street was nicknamed Petticoat Row because women owned all the businesses.
On the other hand, Maria Mitchell must have stepped over the line, because in 1843, even though her father was an elder, her “skepticism and outspokenness resulted in her leaving Quaker Meeting and being ‘written out’ by the Society.”
The decline of Quakers in Nantucket followed the decline of the whaling business. A great fire in 1846 destroyed much of Nantucket’s infrastructure and the livelihoods of 8 out of 10 Nantucketers. When gold was found in California, in 1849, scores of whaling ships sailed for San Francisco and were sunk in the harbor there rather than return; when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859 as a cheaper, easier fuel, scores of Nantucketers went there. The ships, which had to be built bigger and bigger for the longer journeys, had trouble coming into Nantucket’s harbor because of a build-up of silt. Then the Civil War came – more than 300 Nantucket men joined the Union and 73 were killed; the whaling ships were easy targets for the Confederates. The last whaling ship sailed from Nantucket in 1869.
“By that point, Nantucket well out of picture,” the “Nantucket” documentary notes. “The city in the middle of the ocean was evacuated. It went from a population of 10,000 to 3000 in a matter of decades, like a sleeping beauty castle, waiting 100 years with only the memories of whaling.”
Now, the docent says, there is only one full-time Nantucket resident who is Quaker. “We get 5 to 8 people for Sunday meeting.” During that time, people sit and meditate; they do not even read a Bible.
I stop in at the Research Library where there is a stunning exhibition of needlepoint on display.
There is so much more to see; I make notes for my return visit:
Cisco Brewers (5 Bartlett Farm Road, 508-325-5929, http://ciscobrewers.com/ . The brewery operates its own free shuttle, noon to 6:30 pm daily on the half-hour, from Visitor Services at 25 Federal Street downtown.)
Bartlett’s Farm (33 Bartlett’s Farm Road, 508-228-9403, https://bartlettsfarm.com/; located about 10-minute walk from Cisco Brewers.)
The ever-shifting sandbars lurking beneath the waters around Nantucket have caused between 700 and 800 shipwrecks, making lighthouses necessary navigational aids. Besides the Sankaty Head Lighthouse which we have seen there are two others that are worthwhile visiting:
Brant Point Lighthouse, standing at the entrance to Nantucket harbor, is the second oldest lighthouse in North America, first built in 1746 (the oldest is Boston Harbor Light c. 1716). Over the years, it has been moved and rebuilt more times than any other lighthouse in the country. The present lighthouse is the ninth one built on Brant Point. It is 26 feet tall wooden tower topped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that was built in 1901. Still in active use, it is owned by the US Coast Guard and closed to the public, but you can visit the grounds (www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime).
Great Point Lighthouse (also called Nantucket Lighthouse), New England’s most powerful lighthouse, sits at the extreme northeast end of the island. A wooden tower was quickly built and the station with a light was activated in October 1784 (and destroyed by fire in 1816). The following year a stone tower was erected which stood until toppled in a storm in March 1984. The Lighthouse was rebuilt again in 1986, the stone tower was built to replicate the old one, and still remains in operation today. Modern additions include solar panels to recharge the light’s batteries, and a sheet pile foundation and 5-foot thick concrete mat to help withstand erosion.
Nantucket also offers miles upon miles of beach open to all. And thanks in large part to the early efforts of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, nearly half of the island’s 30,000 acres are protected. A network of beautiful cycling paths wind through the island.
Contact the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, Zero Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554, 508-228-3643.
Now it is time to return to the Grand Caribe. (they make it very easy to step from the launch boat onto the stern of the ship through an open bay).
I’m back in time for the farewell cocktail reception, an open bar with delicious hors d’oeuvres. Dinner is lobster tail or prime rib (both fantastic); vanilla gelato or crème brule.
We are eating dinner when the fog starts rolling in most dramatically. Within minutes, it is difficult to see even the boats anchored nearby. The foghorn blasts every few minutes – which is funny as we sit in the lounge watching the movie, “Overboard,” when the blasts seem coordinated. (Jasmine, the cruise director, has opted for this romantic comedy instead of the movie “Perfect Storm.”)
It will be a nine-hour sail back to Warren, Rhode Island where the Blount Small Ship Adventures is based. Captain Patrick Moynihan tells us to anticipate three to four foot seats for about an hour when we reach Rhode Island waters.
Each time I visit Newport, Rhode Island, the guided tours of these Gilded Age mansions get better and better, more immersive into the lives upstairs and downstairs, more intriguing, and the relevance to society today more apparent. The gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this great since Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his palatial summer “cottage,” The Breakers.
Newport is still a playground for the rich – it is the reason it is the home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and considered the sailing capital of the country, why it is so associated with classic cars – but the interesting thing is you don’t have to be rich to play, too.
This most recent visit to Newport comes as a port of call on the second day of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long voyage to New England islands. We have a full day to explore, and sailing in gives a very different perspective.
We also are able to experience Newport from the perspective of how well the destination accommodates visitors with mobility issues.
Our ship, Grand Caribe, docks at Fort Adams State Park, “America’s largest coastal fortification,” a short stroll to a launch or a water taxi to the “downtown”.
Many of our fellow passengers are taking the island tour that the ship offers, which will include a stop at The Breakers, and the cruiseline had also arranged a 2-hour sail aboard an America’s Cup classic yacht (which had to be canceled because of weather). But I have some particular goals for our day in Newport.
We are met by Andrea McHugh from Discover Newport who has organized an itinerary to maximize our time gives us our own island tour (as well as the gossip of which tech billionaire has just bought which house, and how Jay Leno, who visited and attended events at the new Audrain Automobile Museum (which we will visit), passed an oceanfront mansion he liked and bought it on the spot, and now is seen regularly tooling around).
We drive along the magnificent 10-mile long Ocean Drive with its scenic views and rocky shore, and pass the driveway into Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss estate where Jackie married John Kennedy. It used to be open to the public with a fantastic exhibit of the Kennedys but was acquired by Peter Kiernan (notable for the Robin Hood Foundation, funded by John Jr.), and is no longer open.
We pass Beechwood, a mansion once owned by the Astors and for many years, where actors played their parts in period dress. It is now owned by Larry Elllison (Oracle), who, we are told, is planning to open part of the mansion as an art museum.
We pass Belcourt, once owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont (who became the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt), which was purchased in 2012, by Carolyn Rafaelian, who has spent a considerable sum on a multi-year restoration and has reopened it for public tours.
We arrive at The Breakers, probably the most famous (and emblematic) of the Newport Gilded Age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. It has a new visitor center which is really well done – barely visible from the street, it blends in wonderfully architecturally while affording a very comfortable (air conditioned) place to pick up tickets (take advantage of the multi-ticket options offered by The Preservation Society, which operates 10 of these glittering Newport Mansions, each with special exhibitions and presentations (see NewportMansions.org), refresh at a delightful café (sandwiches, $9.95), and utilize accessible restrooms (before, it was difficult for people with mobility issues to access a bathroom on property).
Each time I visit, I find new things to appreciate and understand– audio-guides, for example, which replace the scheduled docent-led tours so let you tour at your own pace, are endlessly fascinating with opportunities to click on specialized topics. (A free app, Newport Mansions, let you download the commentary on a smart phone even when you aren’t touring the property.)
(The audio-guide lets you know that people who can’t climb the stairs can ask a docent to escort them upstairs in an elevator.)
Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (the grandson of “The Commodore,” the founder of the fortune, who turned a ferry boat into a shipping empire into a railroad empire), this breathtakingly grand, eye-popping, 70-room Italian Renaissance “cottage,” designed by Richard Morris Hunt, replaced a wooden structure that burned down. This was 1895, and the United States was jockeying for a position as an industrial power on the global stage. Hunt, the commentary relates, had a vision for an architecture expressing an American Renaissance, one that was classic, grand in scale, but that which reflected the hope and optimism of America.
It is mind-boggling to recall when you see the gilding, the carefully carved wood, the marble, the artwork, that this palace (they called it a “cottage”) was only used about eight weeks of the year, during “the season.” The Breakers would have had 40 staff in summer (Newport had 2,000 servants, mostly immigrants).
The Breakers is as much an architectural and artistic treasure as a touchstone to social, cultural and political currents of the Gilded Age.
We learn about the family and the social structure of Newport: Mrs. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bedroom, for example, also functioned as an office from which she ran the home.
Newport was actually run by women, we learn. These grand homes were designed to present their wealthy daughters (heiresses) to be snapped up for a favorable marriage.
Dressing was important. Women would have to change something like seven times a day (a riding habit, tea gown, bathing outfit, tennis, golf, sailing). Newport was the first place women played outdoor sports; whole new fashions were created.
The Breakers had 15 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms (we see one bathtub, carved from a single block of marble that was so cold, it had to be fully filled and drained several times before it would be warm enough to bathe in.)
We see the servants corridors, hidden closets and back stairs. “Female servants were invisible.”
When we arrive in daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom, we learn that she was upset to learn she was an heiress. She preferred to be an artist, and became a sculptor, an art collector and patron and, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum. (Here, I click the audio guide for more detail on specific things: Gertrude was on the forefront of the New Woman, an educated girl. The idea to become an artist came to her in a dream.)
We come to the mezzanine overlooking the grand staircase. (People who cannot climb stairs can ask to be escorted to an elevator.) “Gilded Age Newport was built, managed, and maintained by women. It was the backdrop for the presentation of women” at a time when a woman’s fortune depended upon making a favorable marriage.
We learn that the grand staircase stairs were built (and even rebuilt) to be two inches shorter, so the young debutantes could be presented in their gowns without fear of tripping.
At this portion of the tour, you can click on the audio guide to hear more detail about how the Vanderbilt’s attained such wealth and privilege (but it is really, really hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard – so many have the same name like British royalty).
The Commodore left the vast majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt (“Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it,” Cornelius Vanderbilt said.) Though he outlived his father by just eight years, in that time William doubled the Vanderbilt wealth from $100 million to $200 million.
In the oddest quote on the audio-guide, William Henry Vanderbilt explains why he sold controlling stock of the Vanderbilt empire to a syndicate headed by JP Morgan: “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden.” The commentary adds, “Without a single visionary leader like the Commodore, there was no one to invest in the next new technology. Automobiles and airplanes replaced the railroads, the once vast fortune was split and shared among generations of descendants.”
When we visit the kitchen, we get to appreciate some of the modern innovations of the house. The first Breakers burned down so when Cornelius II rebuilt it, he had the kitchen separated from house and no burners. Zinc, the stainless steel of its day, covered the worktable. There was a separate, smaller room which could be kept cool, for preparing pastry.
It is worthwhile to appreciate that as we see the trappings of obscene wealth, privilege and power, we also get to appreciate that the servants – who were mainly immigrants – saw their position in these mansions as improvements, and many were able to embrace the American Dream and move up in station and class. The Breakers’ chef, we learn, started as a kitchen boy and became known as the Omelette King.
The Butler’s pantry, a two-story affair, had a safe for the butler to lock the silver away. The butler, we are told, was like the captain of ship.
Leaving The Breakers, we walk down to the Cliff Walk, the most visited attraction in Rhode Island, and for good reason. This is a delightful walkway along the cliffs (mostly paved and accessible for someone who uses a cane or, as I urge instead, hiking sticks), behind the grand mansions such as The Breakers, and free to enjoy. It extends 3.5 miles all the way to Doris Duke’s Rough Point (where the walkway becomes more scrappy). Today, we only get a taste of it, in order to conserve time and energy.
If The Breakers is about patriarchal wealth, power and privilege, Marble House, built before The Breakers by Cornelius II’s sister-in-law, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, tells the story of burgeoning feminism and what happens when a smart, ambitious woman has few outlets for her vast talents beyond making an advantageous marriage.
Marble House (which we reach by hopping Newport’s delightful trolley-style bus) was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed The Breakers). Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House was built between 1888-1892 at a cost of $11 million of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. When it was finished, William Kissam Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s grandson, gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.
Alva built Marble House to be “a cottage like nothing Newport had ever seen.” As it turns out, Alva Vanderbilt was also like nothing Newport had never seen.
The Gothic Room featured an important Gothic collection from Europe, which Alva purchased “en bloc” – the whole caboodle. “She considered herself equal to European collectors but didn’t want to collect over generations.” The room was designed and executed in Paris – then reassembled here piece by piece.
At a time before there were public museums, this room became a private museum.
The most revealing room into Alva’s soul is the library (the “morning room”), where you see photos of Alva’s children and a portrait of Harold, born when her oldest, Consuelo was 7, who came back one day to find she had a baby brother and was told “God had sent him to us.”
The room is Alva’s feminist declaration, decorated with images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power. She wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.
“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”
She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”
Her bedroom also was a display of the power she coveted – a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.
Consuelo seems to have been Alva’s obsessive focus. You hear how she was groomed to be married off to European royalty – from childhood forced to wear a steel rod from her neck to waist with a strap around her shoulders, to force her to sit up straight.
From her quotes, Consuelo seems to be fully aware of how she was being dominated by her mother, yet was a dutiful daughter, very close to her mother and understanding. We visit her austere room decorated by her mother which, she says, “reflected in my mother’s love of me.”
We see the guest room – the only one in this fabulous mansion – decorated in rose silk, with an 18th century bed. The most famous guest was, of course, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo’s intended. We learn there is only one guest room in the house because people who would visit the house either had their own “cottage,” rented for the season or stayed in a hotel. “Marble House is built for the family.”
Consuelo “reluctantly accepted a proposal from the Duke of Marlborough.” She was one of the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who married foreign royalty.”Consuelo Vanderbilt not the first or the last, but she was the best known.”
These marriages, “were a melding of the old world and the new world. They enabled royalty to maintain property and palaces for another generation.”
Indeed, the Gilded Salon – literally painted in 22 carat gold, the very epitome of Gilded Age – had a featured role in Duke’s marriage proposal.
But after Consuelo was married off to British royalty, Alva acted for herself, divorcing William K in 1895.
My favorite quote from the audio guide, “I was the first of my set to marry a Vanderbilt and the first to get divorced – but not the last.” Alva Erskine Smith of Alabama felt herself a pioneer for her class, a female knight reassuring others. “Mine was the first, but the first of many.”
She ditched William K. Vanderbilt to marry her husband’s best friend, Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt.
After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs. She became active and a major donor to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, holding rallies in 1909 at Marble House.
She raised money for the cause by opening Marble House to the public: “Shop girls could mingle with socialites” for the price of a $5 ticket (which would have been equivalent to $500 in today’s money).
Alva insisted, “Women shouldn’t marry until we get vote,” a pronouncement considered hypocritical for a twice-married woman.
Following her mother’s example, after 26 years as Duchess of Marlborough living in Blenheim Palace, Consuelo ended her loveless marriage in 1921, giving him $2.5 million a year, and married “for love” a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. (More about these personal relationships in a fantastic photo gallery in the basement.)
In stark contrast to the grand (albeit austere) bedroom that Consuelo occupied, her brothers’ rooms were tiny and spartan; Willy K Jr.’s room was occupied by Marble House superintendent, William Gilmour, who joined the household when he was 16 to be Willy K’s companion.
We visit a trophy room (that had been converted from two dressing rooms that were between Alva’s bedroom and Consuelo’s), that recognizes sons William K., Jr.’s role in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America (he created the Vanderbilt Cup auto races and built the Vanderbilt Parkway which starts across from where he had a home in Lake Success); and Harold Stirling, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times and invented the game of contract bridge. Notably, as chairman of the board of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Harold supported integration.”He wanted to be associated with positive, progressive thinking.”
In the basement kitchen (capable of feeding 100), we see yet another side of Alva in a quoted segment complaining “how the rich are exploited. When a shopkeeper learned my address, he said he made mistake of the price and added 50%.” This at a time when she paid a French chef (after all, you had to have a French chef), the massive sum of $10,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today).
We see in the cupboard silver trays etched with the children’s names and china made with “Vote for Women.”
In Marble House, too, people who have difficulty climbing stairs can ask to use an elevator, and the docents will find a place to sit and rest, as necessary.
In summer, the Preservation Society has 10 properties open, all with distinctive presentations and exhibits.
Rosecliff, the 1902 “fantasy in terra-cotta”, is presenting “Bohemian Beauty” celebrating the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, personified by Oscar Wilde who visited Newport twice, with furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and clothing (thru Nov 4).
In addition, there are the homes and heritage sites operated by Newport Restoration Foundation including Rough Point and Whitehorne Museum (51 Touro St., Newport, RI 02840, 401–849–7300, newportrestoration.org).
Tennis, Classic Cars
Between The Breakers and Marble House, we take in some of Newport’s other distinctive attractions:
The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which features the original grass court where American tennis began. The museum features 2,000 artifacts spanning hundreds of years of tennis history (such as the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874), displayed in redesigned galleries with some interactive exhibits. One of the newest, most novel exhibits features a hologram of tennis legend Roger Federer who offers the top 10 reason why he loves tennis. The Hall of Fame honors hundreds of the most accomplished champions, inducted since 1954. After touring the museum, you can explore the seven-acre historic grounds of what the Vanderbilts’ would have known as the Newport Casino (the Tiffany clocktower and Shingle style building was originally developed by architects McKim, Mead & White in 1880), grass courts of the Bill Talbert Stadium and newly built indoor courts (you can even rent time to play on its grass courts). Here, too, we are able to request the use of an elevator to get up to the exhibits on the second floor. (194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com).
Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars (every one in working condition), from 1899 to modern day, as well as special events. Ever changing exhibits display 15 to 20 cars at a time around a theme. We had just missed the “Muscle Car Madness” exhibit featuring cars of the 1950s and 1970s, accompanied with surf boards and original art.) On view now are some intriguing cars I had never seen before: Messerschmidt, which after World War II when Germans were no longer allowed to build airplanes, used airplane parts to create a micro-car that basically looks like a cockpit with wheels. A French version is also on view. “They aren’t great to drive,” says the young docent who drove it and says all the cars on display have to be in working condition. (Audrain Automobile Museum, 222 Bellevue Avenue, 401-856-4420, audrainautomuseum.org)
We enjoy a marvelous lunch at Annie’s bistro café (176 Bellevue Ave., anniesnewport.com) – elegant dining in a casual atmosphere and the best New England clam chowder anywhere –before hopping a trolley-style bus for a short ride to Marble House (you can see the schedule on googlemaps.com on your smartphone).
Andrea returns us to the Grande Caribe, where it is too late to explore inside the fort, but I walk along the Bay Walk (a 2.5 mile loop with gorgeous views of Narrangansett Bay and Newport Harbor) before returning to the ship for the cocktail hour and dinner. (Blount Small Ship Adventures, 800-556-7450, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).
This was what you could do with one full day in Newport. There is so much more to do, and so deserving of a return multi-day visit. Top on my list: Doris Duke’s Rough Point (newportrestoration.org); Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors Center (tourosynagogue.org), Redwood Library and Athenaeum (opened in 1750 and has a collection of more than 200,000 titles, www.redwoodlibrary.org), and The National Museum of American Illustration (americanillustration.org), to list but a few.
See more and plan your visit: Discover Newport, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-326-6030, 401-849-8048, www.discovernewport.org.