Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It’s our last
day of the Wilderness Voyageurs six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike
tour of South Dakota, when we would have biked back a portion of the Mickelson
Trail that we cycled yesterday before visiting Mount Rushmore. But as luck
would have it (and it is actually lucky), it rains as we leave Deadwood. It is
lucky because the rest of our rides have been glorious and we did get to
complete the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, in addition to riding through
Badlands National Park and Custer State Park. Our guides, James Oerding and
John Buehlhorn, offer us alternatives: instead of doing the Mickelson 18 miles
from Dumont to Mystic (the same trail we did yesterday but downhill) we go
directly to Mount Rushmore and see if the weather dries out.
Rushmore is such a familiar American icon, it may be a cliché. But seeing it “in
person” makes you rethink what it is all about.
sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, wrote “Let us place
there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders,
their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a
prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall
wear them away.”
Borglum also wrote, “The purpose of
the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and
unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington,
Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”
National Park Service offers this about Mount Rushmore National Monument:
“Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt
and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South
Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of
this country. From the history of the first inhabitants to the diversity of
America today, Mount Rushmore brings visitors face to face with the rich
heritage we all share.”
The NPS posits that Borglum “selected these four presidents
because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the
history of the United States. Would another artist at that time, or perhaps a
modern artist choose differently? As you read more about Borglum’s choices,
think about what you might have done if the decision was up to you.”
I stumble upon a
15-minute Ranger talk in the Sculptor’s Studio about Gutzon Borglum,
the carving process and the lives of the workers – how they
dynamited away 90 percent of the stone, leaving just 3 to 6 inches of material
to chisel off by hand, how they hang a weight to where the nose should be and
create the facial features from that reference point.
stands in front of a model of how a completed Mount Rushmore was envisioned by
Borglum. Who knew there was more? I’ve always taken for granted that what we
see was all that was meant to be. The model shows that it would have had their
jackets down to their waist and hands.
see the scale of the sculpture, it is hard to contemplate the challenge of
blasting away all that rock and carving that stone. But we learn that getting
this project underway was a challenge unto itself.
South Dakota historian
Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the
likenesses of noted figures into the mountains of the Black Hills of South
Dakota in order to promote tourism in the region. But once Doane
Robinson and others had found a sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, they had to get
permission to do the carving. Senator Peter Norbeck (the man who created the
Needles Highway through Custer State Park) and Congressman William Williamson
were instrumental in getting the legislation passed to allow the carving. The
bill requesting permission to use federal land for the memorial easily passed
through Congress. But a bill sent to the South Dakota Legislature faced more
Robinson’s initial idea
was to feature heroes of the American West, such as Lewis and Clark, Oglala
Lakota chief Red cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. But Borglum wanted the sculpture to
have broader appeal, so chose the four presidents, who would each symbolize an
important aspect of American history. (That might be why Robinson was not
chosen for the 12-member commission to oversee the project.)
Early in the project, money was hard
to find, despite Borglum’s guarantee that eastern businessmen would gladly make
large donations. He also promised South Dakotans that they would not be
responsible for paying for any of the mountain carving. Borglum got Treasury
Secretary Andrew Mellon on board, but only asked for half of the funding he
needed, believing he would be able to match federal funding ($250,000) dollar
for dollar with private donations.
Borglum worked on the project from
1927, the presidents’ faces were carved from 1933-1939, with his son, Lincoln. Meanwhile,
in 1929, the stock market crashed; in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt placed
Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
In March, 1941, as a final dedication was being planned,
Gutzon Borglum died. This fact, along with the impending American involvement
in World War II, led to the end of further carving on the mountain. With the
money – and enthusiasm – running out, Congress refused to allocate any more
funding. On October 31, 1941, the last day of work, Mount Rushmore National
Memorial was declared a completed project.
explains that the death of the artist raised an ethical issue for anyone who
would take over the work. And, the Ranger said, “The country had moved on. They
were not as interested in presidents as they were in the 1930s; when Mount
Rushmore was a shrine to democracy. And what if the new artist made a mistake?”
I can see how
Mount Rushmore was a cautionary tale for the Crazy Horse Memorial and why
sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked on Mount Rushmore before being tasked
to do Crazy Horse, refused any federal funding, instead establishing a foundation
funded with private donations and admissions. Some 70 years after he began his
work, his grandchildren are involved in continuing to carve the memorial.
I walk the
Presidential Trail (just 0.6 miles long, 422 stairs, weather
permitting) to get up close and personal with the mountain
sculpture and perhaps glimpse some of the area wildlife.
million visitors come to Mount Rushmore each year.
Among the activities offered: the Junior
Ranger program (booklets are available at the information desks for ages
three to four, five to twelve and 13 and up), and the Carvers’ Café, Ice Cream Shop and Gift Shop.
Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore
the history of the Black Hills and the American Indian tribes who have
populated this land for thousands of years. Located next to the Borglum View
Terrace for 2019, this area highlights the customs and traditions of local
American Indian communities. Open 10:30 am to 3 pm, early June through mid-August, weather
Youth Exploration Area (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the natural, cultural and historical aspects of Mount Rushmore with interactive programs. Located at the Borglum View Terrace for 2019. Open early June through early August.
(30 – 120 mins; rental fee): Rent an
audio tour wand or multimedia device to hear the story of Mount
Rushmore through music, narration, interviews, historic recordings and sound
effects while walking a scenic route around the park. Available at the Audio
Tour Building across from the Information Center (rentals available inside the
Information Center during the winter months). The tour and accompanying
brochure are available in English, French, German, Lakota, and Spanish.
It had been gray
and drizzly when we first arrived making the monument look dull, but as we are
leaving, blue sky breaks through and for the first time, I realize that George
Washington has a jacket.
visit, the Visitor Center and amphitheater are closed for construction.)
(Just recently, the last living Mount
Rushmore construction worker, Donald ‘Nick” Clifford, who worked on the
monument from 1938-40, passed away at the age of 98.)
Even thought the weather has cleared up
just as we are leaving Mount Rushmore, because it is a getaway travel day, the
group decides not to bike (the trail James suggests is impractical because it
requires the guides to take off the roof racks in order to fit through the
tunnel). We decide instead, to go straight to Rapid City, our departure point,
for lunch before we all go our separate ways.
Our last lunch
together, in Rapid City, is at Tally’s Silver Spoon (best Reuben sandwich
outside of NYC!) – just across the street from the historic Alex Johnson Hotel,
where I began my South Dakota odyssey a week ago.
What I love best
about Wilderness Voyageurs’ “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour are the
varied experiences: Badlands – fossils – Circle View Guest Ranch – Black Hills
– Crazy Horse – Custer State Park – stone spires – wildlife – buffalo – Blue
Bell Lodge – Mount Rushmore – biking the 109-mile long Mickelson rail trail.
Guided bike trips are not cheap, but what I look for is value for money – my test is whether I could reproduce the trip for less out-of-pocket, to make up for the decided increase in convenience of having the itinerary already plotted out. I found Wilderness Voyageurs excellent value – in the services provided, wonderful accommodations (especially the guest ranch and the lodge), dining, creating an itinerary that was idyllic, entrances to attractions (Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore), and also considerate, superb guides, a relaxed, unpressured atmosphere (“You’re on vacation!”).
The destination, South Dakota, is quite sensational and unexpectedly varied – spectacular scenery, nature and wildlife, fossils (!), culture and history – a microcosm of North America, really. Indeed, it is an ideal destination for international visitors to plunge into the American frontier west mythology of the past, but more interestingly, to see the American West as it is today. And frankly, even if I rented a bike and paid for shuttle services, I couldn’t have duplicated the itinerary, or the camaraderie, or the expertise and care.
Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has
developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of
biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even
Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails
like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and
Katy Trail in Missouri.
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate,
My first look at
Badlands National Park is not anything I expected or visualized. The Pinnacles
entrance to the national park, where the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have taken
us for our first ride of the six-day “Badlands and Black Hills” bike tour of
South Dakota, is aptly named for the spires that form this otherworldly
Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded
buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in
the United States. The Badlands Wilderness Area covers 64,000 acres, where they
are reintroducing the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in
North America. Just beyond is The Stronghold Unit, co-managed with the Oglala
Sioux Tribe where there are sites of the 1890s Ghost Dances. But as I soon
learn, Badlands National Park contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch
fossil beds, dating 23 to 35 million years old, a period between dinosaurs and
The name “Badlands” was
intentional, for the earliest inhabitants and settlers found the extremes of
climate and landscape extremely harsh.
The American Lakota called this place “mako sica,” or “land bad” and early French
trappers called it “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” both meaning “badlands.”
Those very same French trappers would be the first of many Europeans who would,
in time, supplant the indigenous people, as they were soon followed by
soldiers, miners looking to strike it rich with gold, cattlemen, farmers, and
homesteaders recruited from as far away as Europe.
We get our bikes which
our guides –
James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – make sure are properly fitted, and outfit us with helmet, water
bottle, Garmin. They orient us to the day’s ride – essentially biking through
the national park on the road (“Don’t stop riding as you go over the cattle
guards”; when the van comes up
alongside, tap our helmet if we need help or give a thumbs up otherwise). We will meet up at the 8.2 mile mark where there is a nature walk and the van will
be set up for lunch.
And then we are off at
our own pace down an exquisite road (the cars are not a problem). That is a
mercy because the vistas are so breathtaking, I keep stopping for photos. And
then there are unexpected sightings – like bighorn sheep.
At the 8.2 mile mark,
we gather at the van where James has set out a gourmet lunch.
There is a boardwalk
nature trail (I note the sign that warns against rattlesnakes and wonder about
the kids who are climbing the mounds with abandon). I realize I am in time for
a talk with Ranger Mark Fadrowski, who has with him original fossils and casts of
fossils collected from the Badlands for us to look at and touch. We can see
more – and even scientists working at the Fossil Prep Lab – at the Visitor
Center further along our route.
no dinosaurs here,” Ranger Fadrowski explains. “This area was underwater when
dinosaurs lived.” But these fossils – gathered from 75 million years ago and
from through 34 to 37 million years ago (there is a 30-million year gap in the
fossil record), fill in an important fossil record between dinosaurs and
hominids (that is, early man). Teeth, we learn, provide important information
about the animal – what it ate, how it lived – and the environment of the time.
Shale, the oldest layer when this area was under a shallow sea, is yielding
fossils from 67-75 million years ago. He shows us a fossil of a Mosasaur, giant
marine lizards, an ancestor of the Komodo dragon, and one of the biggest sea
“We don’t have fossils from the 30-million
year gap – either the sediment was not deposited or it eroded.” Indeed, we
learn that these tall spires of rock with their gorgeous striations, are
eroding at the rate of one inch each year, and will be completely
gone in another 100,000 to 500,000 years. But the erosion also exposes the
environment changed from a sea to a swamp during the Chadron Formation, 34-37
million years ago. “That was caused when the Rocky Mountains formed, with a
shift in Teutonic plates. That pushed up and angled the surface so water
drained into the Gulf of Mexico.” It was formed by sediments carried by streams
and rivers flowing from the Black Hills, deposited in a hot and humid forest
lived during this time. The alligator fossils found here show that the animal
hasn’t changed in 30 million years. The alligators migrated when the
environment changed, so survived.
Brule Formation, 30-34 million years ago, this area was open woodlands, drier
and cooler than during the Chadron Formation; in some areas, water was hard to
find. Animals that lived here then include the Nimravid, called “a false cat”
because it seems to resemble a cat but is not related. The specimen he shows
was found by a 7-year old girl just 15 feet from the visitor center and is the
most complete skull found to date (imagine that!); there are two holes in the
skull that show it was killed by another Nimravid. Also a three-toed horse (now
extinct); and a dog.
In fact, it
turns out it is not at all unusual for visitors to the park to come upon
important fossils (there is a whole wall of photos of people and their finds
just from this year). In fact, one visitor, Jim Carney, a photographer from
Iowa, found two bones sticking up and reported the location. “They thought it
would be a single afternoon. It turned out to be a tennis-court sized field,
now known as the Pig Dig; the dig lasted 15 summers and yielded 19,000
specimens, including the “Big Pig.”
found at the beginning of the Brule Formation, when the area was drying out.
“We believe it was watering hole drying up. Animals caught in the mud were prey
for other animals.”
This is a
place of Archaeotherium, Oredonts, Mesohippus, Subhyracodon, Hoplophoneus,
Metamynodon, Cricid and Paleolagus.
Formation, 28-30 million years ago, is where they have found Oreodont fossils.
“The name means ‘mountain teeth’ because of the shape of its teeth, not the
environment.” Fossils are identified mostly because of teeth which are most
common to survive and reveal clues about behavior and what the animal ate,
which speaks to the environment.
He shows us
the fossil of an Oviodon. “It is weird, there isn’t anything alive like it. The
closest relative is camel – like the weird cousin that no one knows how related.
It is the most commonly found fossil – which means it was probably a herd
animal.” And a Merycoidodon (“ruminating teeth”), which he describes as “a
sheep camel pig deer”.
Badlands are eroding, so will reveal more fossils. Fossils are harder than
rock, so won’t erode as fast.” Interestingly, only 1% of all life is fossilized.
“We have to assume there are missing specimens.”
Badlands “is particularly lush for fossils – because of the types of sediment
that preserves them well.– 600,000 specimens have been collected from the
Badlands since paleontologists first started coming here in the 1840s. Just
about every major institution in the world has specimens that were originally found
here, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
provide clues to the “Golden Age of mammals – half-way between when dinosaurs
ended and today – horses, camels, deer.”
I had no
grateful that John (elected the sweeper for today’s ride) has not rushed me
away and, in fact, waited patiently without me even realizing he was there.
on, stopping often to take photos of the extraordinary landscape with its
shapes and textures and striations. I barely miss a dead rattlesnake on the
road (I think it was dead) and am too rattled to stop and take a photo.
I get to the
Visitor Center which has superb displays and an outstanding film (must see). Again,
no one is rushing me away, so I stay for the film, “The Land of Stone &
Americans have been in this area for 12,000 years; the Lakota came from the
east around 1701 following buffalo, their culture was so dependent on buffalo.
“They would pray for the buffalos’ well being” rather than their own.”
were signed that defined the borders, but they were broken. The white settlers
demanded more and more of the Indian land, especially after gold was discovered
in the Black Hills. (I later learn it was William Custer, the famous General of
Custer’s Last Stand, who discovered the gold.)
– so precious to the Lakota – were hunted nearly to extinction. The white men
put up fences for their ranches and farms, preventing the buffalo from migrating.
“What happens to the buffalo, happens to Lakota” – they were forced to cease
their traditional life, settle down and farm or ranch. Resistance led to
tragedy (Battle of Wounded Knee). (There is a photo of the Wounded Knee
Massacre at the Trading Post.)
By the turn
of the 20th century, the federal government was inviting
homesteaders to come out
and settle the West – they would get 160 acres if they could last five years on
the land. They advertised abroad, enticing immigrants to “the luscious plains
in the Dakotas.”
stone was rare in the Badlands, so the settlers built their shanties of sod,
hard; small-scale farming couldn’t succeed. They endured blistering summers,
cruel winters, extreme wind. Many left” especially in the Great Depression. I
think how ironic.
Lakota, before the dreams of homesteaders ended, paleontologists came here 150
years ago.” The layered landscape of the Badlands told the story of geologic
change, of climate change, that is still continuing. The Badlands are eroding
fast – at the rate of one inch per year, “so in 100,000 to 500,000 years, all
will be gone. The earth is a dynamic and changing system.”
is complex. This is a mixed grass prairie – it may look dry, but the tangled
roots store nutrients. Animals help sustain it –the bison churn up the soil, mixing
the moisture and scattering seeds; prairie dogs are critical to the ecosystem,
too – they also stir up the soil, and the burrows they dig are used by other
animals like owl and ground squirrel. The black footed ferret lives in
abandoned burrows and also eats prairie dogs.
attempt to eliminate prairie dogs resulted in the near-extinction of black-foot
ferret. They have been reintroduced; also swift fox, bighorn sheep.
mission of National Parks is to preserve and restore – but we can’t restore the
biggest animals that once were here – the prairie wolf and grizzly bear.”
to leave when I stumble upon the Paleontology Lab, which is open to the public,
where we can watch as two paleontologists painstakingly work to remove sediment
from bone – their efforts magnified on a TV screen.
working on a Merycoidodon, an oreodont, which is a group of hoofed mammals
native to North America,” the sign says in response to what must be the
zillionth time a visitor asks. “Although they have no living relatives in
modern times, oreodonts are related to another native North American mammal: the
camel. Oreodonts are sheep-sized and may have resembled pigs, but with a longer
body, short limbs and with teeth adapted for grinding tough vegetation. The
skulls of Merycoidon have pits in front of the eyes, similar to those found in
modern deer which contain scent glands used for marking territory. Oreodonts
lived in herds and may at one point have been as plentiful in South Dakota as
zebras are in the African Serengeti.”
paleontologists are happy to answer questions, too. One tells me she has part of an ear canal (very unusual) and ear bones.
“It’s unusual to have the upper teeth. This is a sub-adult –I can see wisdom
teeth and unerupted teeth.” She is working on a Leptomerycid – relative of
mouse deer – an animal the size of house cat.
taken her 170 hours to extract teeth from rock.
the second time anyone got an upper row of teeth for this species. It may
change scientists’ understanding. We’re not sure if it is a separate species –
it has a different type of tooth crown. But having a second fossil means we can
Just then, the
senior paleontologist, Ed Welch comes in and tells me that because teeth are used
to determine species, the work being done could prove or disprove whether this animal
is a separate species.
it so far looks like a species that was named in 2010 based on the lower teeth.
“Now we have upper teeth and part of the skull. The difference could be
variation by ecology (for example, what it ate). It was found at same site so
would have been contemporary. We looked at several hundred jaws. This one could
be an ‘ecomorph’ – just different because of what it ate.”
Badlands have some of the oldest dogs ever found, and the most diversity. In
the display case is one of only eight specimens ever found – the other seven
are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City but they are not
displayed; this is only specimen that can be viewed.“It is the oldest one of
its kind,” 33-32 million years old – and was found by a college student
He says the
seven-year old girl who found the saber cat fossil that the Ranger showed, came
back this year, now 16 years old.
visitors to leave the fossil where it is and report to us, give us photos, a
GPS, so we can locate. Some of the fossils were found right on the trail, not
even in remote areas.
the most famous – a hero around the lab – is photographer Jim
Carney of Iowa who found two bones that ended up being a big bone bed that
so far has yielded 19,000 specimens.
wall of photos of visitors and their finds just in 2019 it would seem that
people have great odds and probability of finding important fossil. Add fossil
hunting to the hiking or biking adventure.
collected here since the 1840s are in every major institution. While fossils of
dinosaurs and early man might get everyone excited, these fossils – the middle
of the Age of Mammals – are important to fill out that story of ecological and
is in the middle of the earth’s transition from Greenhouse to Ice House – and the
fossils found here show how animals responded to the ecological change: “adapt, migrate or go extinct.”
Welch made the decision to open the paleontology lab so people
can see scientists at work. “We decided to do more than a fishbowl, to make it
a great education tool.”
The Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is typically open from 9 am – 4:30 pm daily from the second week in June through the third week in September.
ride through the Badlands National Park, I spot the major animals that are
resident here: bighorn sheep; American bison, pronghorn (also called antelope),
mule deer and black-tail prairie dog. The one I miss is a coyote (yet to come).
We have 12
miles further to bike to our accommodation for the night, the Circle View Guest
Ranch, which proves to be an amazing experience in itself.
Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a
rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging
outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and
even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail
trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in
Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.
There are still a few spots left on
West Cuba Bike Tour departing onMarch 21.
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features
find myself mere feet from a swarm of buffalo (or more accurately, bison). I am
walking my bike and have wisely chosen to walk between two cars that are
essentially stopped as the herd crosses a road in Custer State Park, in the
Black Hills of South Dakota. From this vantage point, though, I can shoot
photos from the left hill and the right field and feel reasonably protected
even though there is really nothing between me and them.
is the second encounter today with this herd – the first came as our small
group biked from the enchanted Sylvan Lake to our lunch stop in Custer State
Park at the new Visitors Center. The herd had parked itself right on the field
outside the center, as if orchestrated by our tour operator, Wilderness
Voyageurs. (I am told this isn’t necessarily a regular thing, but was a
fortuitous occurrence on this day). It is only just one thrilling experience in
an incomparable day, in an incomparable six-days of biking through South
Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills.
the days before, we biked through Badlands National Park, completely surprised
and enthralled by the stark scenery – essentially an ocean floor that had risen
up as the Rocky Mountains formed. I had never realized that the Badlands is a
gold mine of fossils from about 65 million years ago and from 35 million years
ago (with a curious gap of 30 million years) – a transition period from
dinosaurs (which went extinct around 65 million years ago) and mammals. Some
600,000 specimens have already been excavated just from this area, supplying
every major museum and paleontology laboratory in the world. On this day, in the
Visitors Center, we walk into an astonishingly fine Paleontology lab to watch
two paleontologists painstakingly chipping away ever so carefully to release
fossilized bones from rock.
fossils are so plentiful – and more are being exposed with erosion – that
fossil-hunting should be added to the list of activities that visitors to the
Badlands National Park can enjoy. There is an entire “heroes” wall filled with
photos of visitors who have made their own fossil finds just this year alone,
alerting the paleontologists to their location. One of those visitors from
years ago – he is a legend – was a photographer who happened on a couple of
fossils; when the paleontologists came, thinking it was an afternoon’s worth of
digging, they found a tennis-court sized bone field that so far has yielded
19,000 specimens over 15 years of excavation.
day of biking through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, the
landscapes change so dramatically, along with such variety of visual and
experience, from nature and natural wonders to heritage to history.
Over the course of the six days of riding, we bike the entire 109-mile long Mickelson Rail Trail (one of Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s “Hall of Fame” award-winning trails), taking us through ranch land and towns, ending at the historic town of Deadwood (but not all at once – the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have broken up the rides so we get the best ride and the best itinerary); we ride through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park, with the stunning scenery of the Needles Highway, and ride the Wildlife Loop giving us close encounters with herds of buffalo (actually bison).
The lodgings are also distinctive: after the Badlands ride, we stay at a guest house on a ranch, and after our ride through Custer State Park, we overnight in luxurious log cabins at the Blue Bell Lodge. The attractions are epic: we hop off the Mickelson trail to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (who knew it wasn’t finished, but that decades after the death of sculptor Korczak Ziokowski who designed and carved the head, two more generations have worked on it and it will likely take decades more to finish); and finish our tour at Mount Rushmore National Monument (who knew that famous sculpture of the presidents Washington, Jefferson, TR Roosevelt and Lincoln also was not finished but never will be?).
love that the focus is not on racing from point A to B as fast as possible, but
that our bikes are our vehicles to explore, to discover, to immerse, to revel
in this glorious landscape and history – the bikes become an endorphin-making
machine, filling you with exultant feelings. “This is your vacation,” our
guide, James Oerding says more than once. I am so glad that most of the rides
do not depend upon us all ending up at the van for a shuttle ride, so I don’t have
that nagging feeling of holding up other people by stopping for photos or
listening to a ranger talk, watching a film or looking at an exhibit.
attitude, “This is your vacation,” follows into how they carefully the route is
constructed for the best possible ride and experience. So we don’t do the
Mickelson Trail end to end. We start in the middle and go in one direction,
then on another day, are shuttled back to that middle starting point to go in
the other direction.
group – small enough so we all fit in one van – is absolutely delightful. After
a dozen bike tours, I have found there is a certain self-selection process that
goes into choosing a bike tour – bikers (and especially bikers on trips that
involve camping) are welcoming, open, interested, congenial, love and respect
nature and heritage.
The six-day bike tour is spectacular in every way, and once again confirms why bike trips are my favorite form of travel: the pace you travel is ideal to really see things (even stop when you want to more closely observe or explore), but fast enough to provide unending interest. The scenery is certifiably spectacular – the idyllic setting on Sylvan Lake, the stone spires of the Needles, the tunnels cut through stone, the expanse of trees that become prairie. Then there is the wildlife – especially as you ride the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Plus there is that element of physical challenge that gets the endorphins going (not to mention the pure fresh air, scented with pine and the altitude).
Not to mention the delightful places Wilderness Voyageurs organizes for us to stay – Circle View Guest Ranch and the cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge were so fantastic (more on that later), the excellent food – breakfast at the lodgings, lunch as satisfying as any gourmet feast, usually served from the back of the van on a table under a lean-to, with ingredients fresh from the farmer’s market or store, wonderfully prepared sandwiches and wraps on request, and dinners at the guides’ favorite restaurants (they sure know how to pick ‘em).
guides on our trip – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – are not only
experienced and skilled, but take care of us like Father Hens (rescuing me on
that dark night at the lodge when a buffalo was on the path back from the
restaurant to my cabin). And then there are the companions you travel with – on
this trip, there were three couples and three single women from all over the
country, who contribute immeasurably to the pleasure of the experience.
Each day brings its own highlights and surprises – such variety and diversity in the experience and the visuals on top of the normal adventures of biking and travel. Biking is its own experience – you are in your own head, in control of your own transportation. Wilderness Voyageurs, a company I became familiar with as the tour operator for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns on the Great Allegheny Passage (the company is headquartered in Ohiopyle, PA, on the trail) operates the bike tour in an ideal way – we ride at our own pace; the second guide serves as “sweeper” hanging back with the last rider (most often me!). Neither John nor James ever push me along or discourage me from stopping, exploring, taking photos.
We have cue sheets and a Garmin that show us the route, and can download an app that talks the directions (though there aren’t a lot of turns – I still manage to go off route three times). (This style of guided bike tour is not always the case; I recently was on a bike tour with one guide who we had to follow, no cue sheets or directions and plenty of turns; we all had to ride together at the pace of the slowest rider, and if I wanted a photo, I had to ask for the whole group to stop).They also provide wonderful meals including a few dinners at restaurants where we order off the menu. Guided bike tours are not cheap, but there is excellent value in Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour price.
This is a part of the country I have never been before. And frankly, it is ideal for anyone – especially international visitors – who yearn to immerse themselves in America’s mythic Western past. The combination of nature, open country, historic and heritage attractions that go so deeply into America’s psyche, is unbeatable. And on top of that is the endorphin-rush you get from biking.
A key part of the tour is riding the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Also known as “The Big Mick,” The
George S. Mickelson Trail (originally named the Black Hills Burlington Northern
Heritage Trail), was dedicated in 1998 in memory of the late South Dakota
governor who acted in strong support of transforming the former rail line into
a multi-use trail.
The trail follows the historic
Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the
Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. After strong activism by locals and
Governor Mickelson, the first six miles of trail was opened in 1991. Another
decade under Governor Jacklow and the trail was completed in 1998 with the help
of the US Forest Service, SD Department of Transportation, SD Department of
Corrections, the National Guard, SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the
Friends of the Mickelson Trail and hundreds of volunteers.
is a strong link between the very existence of this trail and the railroads,
and the Crazy Horse Memorial which we will visit, which pays homage to the
indigenous peoples who lived here.
I am reminded that the railroads through these Black Hills can be traced back to 1874, when the infamous Lt. Colonel George A. Custer discovered gold as part of an exploration team. This discovery caused an explosion of miners hoping to strike it rich. Within a few years, many other towns were founded and quickly grew. But what led to the development of railroads, was not the need to transport the gold itself, but to move people and supplies.
Along the trail, we see some mining shafts and go through the towns that developed with the railroads, and will even stay in a casino hotel in Deadwood that was re-created from a slime plant (slime is the waste left when they use cyanide to decompose rock to release the gold), that was part of the Homestake Mine, the largest and deepest gold mine; it produced the most gold and was longest in operation, from 1885 to as recently as 2001.
The trail, largely crushed limestone and gravel and beautifully maintained with rest stops and water cisterns, offers wonderful diversity in landscapes as well as attractions. It travels along creeks, across open valleys, and through forests besides ranches; we ride over 100 bridges and through four tunnels. (See more at www.traillink.com/trail/george-s-mickelson-trail)
Over the course of our trip, we will
ride the full 109 miles of the trail, but Wilderness Voyageurs has broken it up
in such a way as to intersperse attractions and, in a word, make it easier.
Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands trip starts in Rapid City where I cleverly
organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex
Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it
played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an
autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).
Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel even provides a walking tour. (Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street,Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.)
next morning, our guides pick us up with the van at our hotels, and we drive 55
miles down the highway (following what seems like hundreds of Corvettes who
have gathered in Rapid City for a convention) to Badlands National Park, for
our first day’s ride and the start of our Badlands adventure. But first, we
stop at Wall, a literal hole-in-the-wall town that rose up to serve the
Westward-bound settlers. On this spot, a drug store opened – more of a general
store – and this quaint Western-looking town has become a must-see tourist
stop. Delightful. I keep seeing a sign for a museum but can’t find it before it
is time to get back to the group.
Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a
rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging
outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and
even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail
trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania,
and Katy Trail in Missouri.
There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.
It’s officially the start of the summer
family vacation season! Getting out and experiencing things first hand is the
best way to cultivate learning, open minds and hearts. Travel experiences
engage children, forge bonds and build lifelong memories. Here are some “get
out there and do it” summer family vacation ideas:
Looking for adventure, for
discovery, for immersion in culture, heritage or the natural world? Many of the
most respected ecotourism and adventure operators offer special itineraries
tailored for families:
Planet Adventures has family-focused departures in
Costa Rica, Africa, Borneo, Brazil, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Laos, Nepal,
Panama, Peru, Thailand and Zambia. “If your kid lives for
Animal Planet, then their eyes will light up when you bring them to visit the
same world famous Sloth Sanctuary they saw on the Discovery Channel, where baby
sloths are being fed with an eye-dropper at their breakfast table. They’ll go
crazy for our hands-on wildlife rescue center in Costa Rica, our treehouses,
ziplines, tiger sanctuary and floating aqua-lodge in Thailand, the penguins and
mating and courtship rituals of the wildlife in the Galapagos, and the cowboy
adventure activities in Brazil’s Pantanal, culminating with sightings of
jaguars. The mix of wildlife and cultural experiences in India is particularly
suited to parents who want to ignite their family’s passion to make a
difference in the world. It will instill a genuine sense of gratitude and
appreciation for life, for the opportunities we have, and for the things we
take for granted.” Wild Planet customizes family departures with a minimum of 4
travelers and often puts families with similar age kids together on the same
trip which means new friends for the kids.
Austin Adventures is offering 40 family adventures across the globe, among them itineraries to the most popular national parks including Grand Canyon, Alaska-Kenai Fjords National Park, Bryce & Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Glacier, the Black Hills of South Dakota (Mount Rushmore), and Banff to Jasper national parks (austinadventures.com, 800-575-1540). To assist in vacation planning, Austin Adventures also offers a free Insider’s Guide to Planning the Perfect Family Adventure (www.austinadventures.com/free-family-travel-guide/).
National Geographic Family Journeys, in partnership with G Adventures, is a new line of small-group trips designed for adventurous, multigenerational families in search of a meaningful way to discover the world together. Each itinerary features interactive activities inspired by National Geographic’s expertise in photography and storytelling, wildlife, culture, and history to encourage kids and adults alike to connect with the world around them. Among the destinations: Alaska, Costa Rica, National Parks, Japan, Southern Africa, Tanzania: A Serengeti Safari, France, Iceland, Italy, Morocco, Peru, Vietnam to Cambodia. (www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/trip-types/family-journeys)
Thomson Family Adventures, Watertown, MA, has new family itineraries in Iceland, Scotland, Morocco, Brazil, Egypt and Vietnam (familyadventures.com, 800-262-6255).
Adventures, Seattle, WA, offers specially
tailored family adventures to South America, Asia, Central America,
Mediterranean, North America, as well as Africa family safaris (www.wildland.com/travel-styles/family-travel, 800-345-4453)
Biketours.com, Chattanooga, TN which specializes in Europe, has recommended itineraries for families; I can personally recommend the Danube Bike Trail, Passau to Vienna, which I did with my sons – one of the best trips of my life. You can do it as a self-guided tour – it is very easy to follow, and that gives you more control over your schedule, as well as excellent value. BikeTours.com also offers an itinerary specially tailored for families with children (1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN 37377, 877-462-2423, 423-756-8907, email@example.com, www.biketours.com/family-friendly).
Trek Travel has family
itineraries that include biking, hiking, kayaking and ziplining in places like
Zion National Park, the San Juan Islands, Vermont and Prague-to-Vienna. (866.464.8735, https://trektravel.com/trip-type/family/)
have also recommended outstanding biketours close to home that do good
while giving everybody a fantastic experience: Parks & Trails NY offers its annual 8-day 400-mile Cycle the
Erie camping and biking adventure (400 miles and 400 years of history!) that
draws families of all configurations (grandparents with grandchildren,
multi-generations, father-daughter, mother-son) and ages, some with tiny tots
in tow, as well as self-pedalers as young as 10 years old. A major highlight is
camping out at Fort Stanwix, Rome NY, an 18th century living-history
experience. This year’s trip is July 7-14 (518-434-1583, www.ptny.org/cycle-the-erie-canal/annual-bike-tour)
Camping has really changed over time, frequently offering a range of experiences from rustic adventures to resort-style all in the same venue. Kampgrounds of America, with 485 locations in North America, makes it easy to find camping resorts by destination, amenities and programming (www.koa.com/Campgrounds). We have a personal favorite: the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA is a true camping resort, set along a creek (tubing, fishing) and close by the Erie Canal (cruises, biking), and most unique of all, a chance to mine for Herkimer diamonds! The Herkimer KOA offers unbelievably delightful themed cabins (would you believe a cabin with its own star observatory?), fabulous activities. Choose a cabin, cottage or RV or tent site. (Herkimer Diamond KOA, 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, 315-891-7355, www.herkimerdiamond.com.)
The most intriguing in my book is the full-service Lion Country Safari’s award winning KOA campground located adjacent to the 320 acre drive through wild animal preserve and theme park, yet secluded enough for a restful campout (though you are apt to hear the lions roaring), offering RV sites, tent sites and rustic cabins (www.lioncountrysafari.com/koa/, 561-793-1084).
One of the best family experiences (a nonstop giggle) is on a dude ranch. New York State actually has several of them, such as Rocking Horse Ranch Resort, Highland, Hudson Valley, (845-691-2927, www.rockinghorseranch.com), which has been delighting generations of families with its all-inclusive fun (meals, entertainment, activities and riding). Pine Ridge Dude Ranch (the new owners of the venerable Pinegrove Ranch), 30 Cherrytown Rd, Kerhonkson, NY 12446-2148, 866-600-0859, www.pineridgeduderanch.com). Ridin’ Hy, an absolutely delightful guest ranch in the Adirondack State Park, near Lake George, Warrensburg, NY, Warrensburg, NY 12885, 518-494-2742, www.ridinhy.com.
Check out the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association members (www.coloradoranch.com, 866-942-3472), like the luxurious C Lazy U Ranch which since 1919 has provided highest level of personalized service, professional horsemanship programs, first-class amenities, enriching children’s programs, gourmet meals and upscale accommodations; or the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch, which opened in 1912 and considered the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado, is also ideally located just southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park and nestled in a peaceful valley along the Colorado River.
with a Twist
Harbor Resort, Mid-Coast, Maine: This resort
(“Pure Maine”) manages to be a delightful cross between fine resort and a camp,
with plenty of opportunity to be outdoors, while still enjoying such
refinements as golf, full-service waterfront Fairwinds Spa, plus marvelous activities
like kayaking (do the moonlight kayak trip, it is beyond fabulous), boating.
Actually, you can imagine Sebasco being the kind of “camp” that the Gilded Age
moguls would have for one of their holiday homes. Nestled among whispering
pines on the rugged coast Sebasco spans 550 acres with breathtaking views and a
wealth of activities the entire family can enjoy. We stayed in the converted
Lighthouse for the most magical experience. Check out special deals. (Sebasco
Harbor Resort, 29 Kenyon Rd., Sebasco Estates, ME, 04565, 877-389-1161, www.sebasco.com).
Among our favorite grand, historic
resorts for families for facilities, activities programs, destination, sense of
heritage and “place,” and overall aahhh experience:
Harbor Club, Vergennes, Vermont on 700 acres of
Lake Champlain shoreline is about the best family-friendly luxury resort you
can imagine. Just about every activity you would want is on hand: golf, hiking,
biking, kayaking, cruises on Lake Champlain, fishing, watersports, tennis,
outdoor pool children’s activities program (4800 Basin Harbor Road Vergennes,
VT 05491 firstname.lastname@example.org, 800.622.4000 or 802.475.2311, www.basinharbor.com).
Top Inn & Resort, tucked in a Courier & Ives
landscape in Chittenden, Vermont, near Killington, has all the charm, the
warmth, the cozy, intimate hospitality of a country inn, and all the luxury,
amenities, activities and quality dining of a resort. It offers just about
every outdoors activity you can imagine, even an equestrian center, private
lakeside beach, children’s adventure camp, tennis, disc golf, clay-bird
shooting, and hiking, biking, golf nearby. (195 Mountain Top Road, Chittenden,
Vermont 05737, 802-483-2311, www.MountainTopInn.com)
A real novelty in historic hotels (and a fantastic city to visit) is the Choo Choo Train Hotel in Chattanooga, TN, where you actually stay in a historic train car (motel rooms also available), and the station is the restaurant and lobby. So fun! (1400 Market Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402, 423-266-5000, 800-Track29, choochoo.com)
Other favorites: Mohonk Mountain House (gorgeous setting, water sports, horseback riding, fantastic hiking, climbing, Victorian elegance); Equinox, Manchester, Vt. (all sports including falcon training, world-class spa,); The Sagamore, Bolton Landing on Lake George NY (Gilded Age ambiance); The Hotel Hershey, Hershey, Pennsylvania (added benefit: proximity to Hershey theme park); Cranwell Resorts, Spa and Golf Club, Lenox, MA (proximity to all the culture of Lenox, including Tanglewood, plus historic sites like Melville’s home, Arrowwood);The Boulders, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Skytop Lodge, Skytop, Pennsylvania. (Many more ideas at historichotels.org, 800-678-8946.)
Also, many of the mountain resorts known for skiing transform into summer destinations with mountain biking, hiking, ziplines, children’s activity programs and scores of outdoor pursuits, and significantly, typically offer great rates and package deals for summer: Smugglers Notch is renowned for having the best children and family activities program anywhere, smuggs.com); Stowe, Vt. (stowe.com), famous for its Topnotch Resort (find specials at www.topnotchresort.com/packages-specials); Hunter Mountain (huntermtn.com); the Vail resorts (www.snow.com/info/lodging-sale.aspx).
you lucky enough to be visiting Yosemite National Park? You couldn’t ask for a
more spectacular accommodation than Tenaya Lodge,
a full-service luxury resort hotel, closest to entrance to the park, now
offering guests to receive a
free 7-Day Yosemite Park Pass and up to 25% off select activities at the time
of booking. (My Yosemite Offer
valid through Sept. 21, 2019, based on
availability, 866-467-0874, use Promo
Code: MYYOSEMITE, TenayaLodge.com).
Cruising is always a great choice
for families – a way to see lots of different places with minimal hassle. Best
itineraries (and cruiselines that have best family programs) are to Alaska, the
Galapagos (really a favorite for grandparents to take their grandkids). I would
also suggest Bermuda as a fantastic cruising destination, easy to reach from
the New York metro area, that is so rich in culture, history and nature
(beaches!) (Royal Caribbean sails from Bayonne; Norwegian from New York)
For those who want a floating resort with rock walls, ropes course, ziplines, glitzy Broadway and Las Vegas-style entertainment and great supervised children’s activity programs, the most acclaimed lines are Royal Caribbean; Norwegian Cruise Line; Carnival Cruise Line; Disney Cruise Line and Princess Cruises. (See more at www.cruisecritic.com; booking help at cruisecompete.com).
But here is a novel choice: Maine Windjammer Cruises – these are
historic sailing vessels repurposed for passengers, that ply the waters around
Rockland and Camden, Maine in the Penobscot Bay. The experience is more rustic
(part of the fun!), where passengers can help raise and lower sails, even
steer, help serve and gather plates for meals served in the galley or on deck.
You can even choose to sleep out under the stars instead of in the cabin, which
is outfitted more like you would expect of summer camp, with bunk beds and
shared bathroom facilities (hot showers are available). All the cruises
typically include a lobster bake on a secluded beach.
Many of the cruises have
special-interest themes, and some are very dramatic that include a Schooner
Gam, where all the historic schooners gather in one place and tie up and
passengers can go and visit; there is also an annual Schooner Race which is
tremendous fun. Visit the Maine Windjammer Association for a list of the eight
ships in the fleet and description of age-appropriate sailings (usually 10
years old) and themed cruises (music, storytelling, whaling, wellness,
seamanship, among them). In the past, we have sailed on the Victory Chimes (the
largest in the fleet) and the American Eagle (www.sailmainecoast.com, 800-807-9463).
Another novel experience is renting a canalboat on the Erie Canal (like a floating RV), tying up where whimsy takes you and exploring the canaltowns on foot and by bike on the tow-path that has been turned into a bikeway. It’s an amazing way to immerse yourself in history, and terrific fun to go through the locks, and have the bridges lift just for you. Mid-Lakes Navigation, Skaneateles, has these specially designed Lockmaster canalboats that are easy to maneuver, very comfortable, and oh so charming. (800-545-4318, email@example.com, midlakesnav.com).
with Living History, Immersive Experiences
And what about immersing in today’s headlines? One of the best family destinations in the world is the nation’s capital, Washington DC, where you can visit the Capital, the National Archives, Museums of the Smithsonian Institution (19 of them) including the National Air & Space Museum, Museum of American History, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Portrait Gallery, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution Building (the castle), the National Zoological Park (National Zoo); as well as private museums including the Newseum and International Spy Museum. Plan a visit at Washington.org.
Fort Stanwix, in Rome, New York, is a revelation. Hardly anyone knows of it – it doesn’t even seem to merit a footnote in history – but it played a role in two incidents, one during French & Indian War and one during Revolutionary War, that proved pivotal for American history, like a tiny peg in the giant cogwheel of history.
A National Historic Site, Fort Stanwix also offers one of the best presentations of tribal Indians and European settlers in the colonial and Revolutionary War period. Indeed, the Erie Canal was built across what was the Oneida Carrying Place, vital to the earliest traders. This fort is where the British negotiated and signed the 1768 treaty with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. I suspect this area is also where Melinda Gage drew upon what she learned of the Oneida Indian women to form key planks of women’s rights movement.
The presentation here (in contrast to how pitiful the Womens Rights National Site in Seneca Falls is) is fantastic, both in the exhibits and the commentary. Engaging, informative, dramatic, thoughtful. Also, the park rangers are in period dress so you really feel as if you have stepped back in history. You wind up speaking to these people as if it was 250 years ago.
This part of the eight-day Cycle the Erie bike tour, 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany organized annually through Parks & Trails NY, takes us back to the very beginning of the United States, to its native American origins, European colonization and its emergence as an independent nation. It is 400 miles and 400 years of history.
At Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome (where the 750 of us actually camp out outside the fort, making it look like an army bivouac), we are put squarely into the drama of the American Revolution. Interpreters in period dress take on the roles of American soldiers and British prisoners in period dress – creating such realism that you appreciate so much more the context and the conditions. Most surprising, is that it also tells the story of the Native Peoples, almost entirely forgotten as having an equal stake in the Revolution. (It didn’t go well.)
The reconstruction of Fort Stanwix comes alive through the personal stories recounted inside the fort. You get to experience the American Revolution and the Siege of Fort Stanwix through the eyes of soldiers and their families, American Indians and traders. This is accomplished through the realistic recreations (especially of the fort), the costumed interpreters, outstanding markers, artifacts, the art, portraits and graphics, and superb videos. They create characters who are composites of actual people, and you hear their voices in a context.
It’s humbling to realize how little you actually know about Colonial America and the American Revolution.
The Fort puts the competing interests of the Patriots, Loyalists and Indian peoples into balance. You have empathy for each. (Especially the Native Americans, who were dragged into the fight, upsetting a long-standing peace among the Confederacy of Iroquois nations, found their whole society upended, and were literally screwed by every European and American they dealt with. George Washington, shockingly, even betrayed the Indians who were allied with the Patriots). But you also understand better the Loyalists, whose property was being seized by the Patriots, and the Patriots, who were not necessarily British subjects, but German and Dutch colonists – whose property was being burned by the Loyalists.
The National Park Service is keeping the fort open late for us and hosting tours, and is keeping the visitors center open all night (the indoor camping location, though, is off-site at a local YMCA).
We arrive at Fort Stanwix after biking 50 miles from Syracuse, a good chunk of our Day 5 ride in drenching rain. I set up my tent (fortunately, the rain stopped just as I came into Rome), grab a shower, and race over to the visitor center to join a guided tour. I am so lucky to attach myself to the same Park Ranger as I toured with two years ago, on my first Cycle the Erie tour.
Fort Stanwix as we see it today literally rose out of ash heap of history – reclaimed from earthly grave.
At one point, the fort was the reason Rome developed at all, but ultimately Rome grew up over its ruins, from fire and neglect. Then the city Rome went through a decline. But in 1960s, as part of urban renewal, planners wanted to redevelop the dilapidated downtown. A grassroots movement grew up to excavate the fort; meticulous archaeology unearthed some 400,000 artifacts. (Visitors can actually get a back-stage view of the archaeology being done during summer tours.)
The National Park Service was faced with a quandary – its mission at the time discouraged reproduction or re-creation of a historical site. But there were strong arguments in favor of reconstructing the fort: they found the original fireplace (the only part of the fort that remains of the original, which we get to see); had the original plans (obtained from British archives); plus papers and drawings so they could reproduce it accurately; and letters of soldiers so they had a better idea of what happened here.
The location of this fort is significant. It sits along “Six Miles that Changed the Course of America,” reads the National Park Service brochure. “For thousands of years, the ancient trail that connects the Mohawk River and Wood Creek served as a vital link for people traveling between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario. Travelers used this well-worn route through Oneida Indian territory to carry trade goods and news, as well as diseases, to others far away. When Europeans arrived, they called this trail the Oneida Carrying Place and inaugurated a significant period in American history – a period when nations fought for control of not only the Oneida Carrying Place, but the Mohawk Valley, the homelands of the Six Nations Confederacy and the rich resources of North America as well. In this struggle Fort Stanwix would play a vital role.”
The British built the fort in 1758 with the permission of the Oneida to protect their commerce, but abandoned it to cut back on spending after the French & Indian War (taxes imposed by Britain to recoup their expenditures is what incited the American Revolution).
The fort was never put to the test, because the French were defeated elsewhere. But though Fort Stanwix fell into decay, the site was still important for trade and relations with the Six Nations.
It is here at Fort Stanwix, in 1768, after the Europeans had spread into “empty” spaces and fought with the Indians, that Sir William Johnson, Indian Supervisor, negotiated a treaty with the Six Nations of the Confederacy, basically laying out the terms that everything east of the fort would be for Europeans, and everything west would be for Indians.
“Over 3,000 American Indians from the Six Nations, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo and other dependent tribes attended the treaty negotiations,” the notes read. “Ignoring British Crown instructions, Sir William Johnson encouraged the Six Nations to draw a new boundary line favorable to their mutual interests. Rather than settling tensions, frontier strife between colonists and American Indians increased.”
“I can never look upon that (Proclamation of 1763) in any other light… than as .. temporary expedient to quiet the mind of the Indians,” land speculator George Washington wrote to surveyor William Crawford, 1767. “Any person… who neglects the opportunity of hunting out good lands…for his own, in order to keep others from settling them, will never regain it.”
Meanwhile, British attempts to govern the growing colonies from afar and the associated costs led to strained relations. Hoping to defray the cost of colonial administration, the British parliament taxed many goods arriving in North America. But growing independence and identification as Americans caused many colonists to question British rule. Tensions steadily increased until American “Patriots” declared their independence in 1776.
The exhibit gives me a new perspective: a good number of colonists were not British – they came from Germany, Holland and other places. I realize that becoming a Patriot would not have been such a hard choice as for those with British ties.
“For colonists living on the frontier, the issues included British imposed restrictions on trade, limits on settlement, and continuing violence with American Indians. As war approached, many colonists had to choose between remaining loyal to the King or joining the movement to American independence.” Each side considered themselves “patriots”. But those who stayed loyal to the Crown became known as “Loyalists,” while those who sought independence called themselves “Patriots.”
In 1775, Patriots and Loyalists began struggling for control of the New York frontier. The British invaded the Mohawk Valley in 1777. Their strategy was to capture an important east-west supply route, deprive American soldiers of food grown in the valley, and strengthen Six Nation and Loyalist Alliances, and slice the colonies.
British General John Burgoyne led an invasion of New York from the north and west. His army advanced from Montreal towards Albany. A second force commanded by General Barry St. Leger invaded the Mohawk Valley. Strategically, St. Leger aimed to control the Oneida Carrying Place, create a diversion to split Patriot forces, and reinforce Burgoyne. Politically, he wanted to rally support among American Indian allies and Loyalists.
Patriots had taken over Fort Stanwix in 1777 and renamed it for General Schuyler. The fort was under the command of Col. Peter Gansvoort when it came under siege by the British. Some 2,000 British troops set up a blockade, helped by Indians allied with the British, which went on for months.
General Nicholas Herkimer assembled an 800-man militia to come to the fort’s aid, but was betrayed (by Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman allied with the British, and the second wife of Sir William Johnson). Herkimer’s militia was ambushed along the way at Oriskany. This became one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, in which 600 were killed in a matter of hours. General Herkimer, himself, was fatally wounded, dying 10 days later. (Later in our trip, we pass Herkimer Church where he died, and his home.)
But the Indians allied with the British, hearing that the Americans had plundered their encampments, left the fort to go to their families’ aid. Fearing that more American reenforcements were on the way, the British retreated, handing the Patriots their first victory (of sorts) of the Revolutionary War. This, critically, boosted the Americans’ morale, and helped set the stage for the Patriots’ victory at Saratoga (under General Benedict Arnold).
This, then, is what changed the course of the war. Because of the victory at Saratoga, which was the unanticipated consequence of what happened at Oriskany and Fort Stanwix, Americans won the critical support of France (long time enemy of Britain), without which, the Americans could not have defeated the British and the British were forced to fight a world war.
In 1778, the British again attempted a formal invasion of New York, planning to burn the Mohawk Valley fields of grain that supplied the Continental Army.
The last battle here took place in 1780, when a work party outside the fort was ambushed by British-allied Indians and Loyalists.
But for most of the Revolutionary War, “It is frustrating for the troops to be here, the backwater of the Revolution,” Park Ranger Bill Sawyer, who is dressed in the uniform of the 3rd New York regiment, tells us. The men were upset because they were far from the fighting. But “Washington was vindicated in his decision to keep it fortified because the British refortified Fort Ontario. Washington wanted to block the British.”
And I am certain that those disgruntled soldiers confined to Fort Stanwix never appreciated that as a result of these events at Fort Stanwix, the British grand plan to slice off New York from the rebelling colonies and cut off the Continental Army’s source of food, failed. Instead, the Americans had the critical support of France.
Fort Stanwix: Living History
After this introduction in the Visitors Center, Park Ranger Bill Sawyer, walks us into the Fort, where we are greeted by costumed interpreters dressed as American soldiers. A couple of teenage boys (summer interns at the fort) patrol the ramparts of the fort. You are immediately transported back centuries.
This fort is a nearly complete reconstruction on the original foundation – the only thing original is a fireplace (that can be seen in one of the rooms). Over the decades, Rome was built up on top of the fort. Archaeological excavations conducted in 1970-73 uncovered the site, but all the artifacts were removed, the site completely cleared, and the fort rebuilt with new materials.
The fort held 800 soldiers (twice the number the fort was built to hold); families of soldiers (who couldn’t afford to maintain them in their homes) camped in the ditch outside the wall; women would try to get jobs within the fort. People died of disease and winter cold.
By February 1778, the soldiers’ clothing was reduced to rags, they hardly had any bedding left or blankets. They would have been stationed here for anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. Morale was terrible.
We see the harsh living conditions. Artillery men, though, had somewhat better accommodations, because they were specialists. “They had to have knowledge of math and the use of measuring tools to calculate the trajectory of cannon and mortar. They had better pay and living conditions.”
We visit the different rooms for the junior officers, a family quarters, the officers’ lodging, the orderly room, the surgeon’s day room. The Commandant’s HQ had a fine room befitting his wealth and high station and had a private assigned.
On my first visit, two years ago, I was able to see an outstanding film that depicted life in the fort and how the soldiers suffered. “The walls imprisoned them, supplies cut off. They were overcome by boredom and hunger. They wanted to go fight. Five men deserted, headed to Canada. Gansvoort sent out a band of Indians to recapture them. They were executed as an example to the rest….It was a forsaken place. Finally, they were sent to war.”
On my first visit, one of our cyclists, Peter Reeve, was British, though living in Maryland since 1981, and gave me the British perspective: “The British people didn’t care to keep America,” Reeve told me. “They didn’t want to spend the money fighting the Revolution. Most British generals were against the tax acts. General Howell supported the Americans’ grievance.”
While major battles took place in the South, minor battles and guerrilla-style warfare characterized the fighting in New York. General Washington lamented that crops that were being destroyed in these raids were needed to feed his army surrounding New York City. These raids and counter-raids were waged by Patriots, Loyalists, American Indians, British and British-allied Germans, alike, often against civilians, and were among the most brutal of the war.
The fort served as an isolated outpost for another four years after the siege. The inaction drained morale and the constant shortage of food and munitions made the soldier’s life insufferable. Regular petitions for transfer and increasing desertions reflected the wretched conditions.
By 1779, British strategy changed and they invaded the other colonies. Though Britain won most of the battles, they failed to destroy the Patriot army. Outmaneuvered, the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, bringing an unofficial end to the war.
Following their 1781 defeat at Yorktown, the English saw little value in continuing large scale war in America. Two years later, war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the US, France and Britain. As the British Army withdrew, Loyalists migrated to Canada and elsewhere.
American Independence Voids Treaty with Indians
The 1783 Treaty of Paris officially ended the war – at least between the British and the colonists. However, no terms of peace were negotiated for the American Indians. In later years, American Indians negotiated their own treaties with the Patriots (who tossed out the Treaty of 1768.)
The focus at Fort Stanwix on Indian history is very clear from the first display that greets you as you enter the Visitors Center – of trappers trading with Indians.
American Indians’ history, NPS Ranger Sawyer says, “was long ignored. Now we interpret to include it.”
Indeed, Fort Stanwix offers one of the most interesting and informative presentations about American Indians outside of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.
I am most surprised to see that the Indians lived in villages, with a grid street plan; they wore western-style shirts and many had European names. They had many of the same household goods as the colonists – an indication of how well-developed trade had become, and in fact, how dependent the Indians had become on trade.
The constant theme in the history between the Indians and European settlers, though, was how the Indians were constantly betrayed.
The Indians wanted no part of the Revolutionary War and tried to stay neutral. That changed with the Battle of Oriskany, though.
The Revolutionary War split the Iroquois Confederacy (“Iroquois” was the French name for the Haudenosaunee, “People of the Longhouse”). Mohawks led by Joseph Brant (the brother of Molly Brant who triggered the ambush of Herkimer’s militia at Oriskany) adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British, and eventually most Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas joined them. But Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans, owing in large measure to the efforts of their Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland. The Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, as Oneidas clashed with Senecas at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. (“Centuries of peace upended in a single day,” the notes read.) Iroquois suffering was compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan, on orders of General Washington, led an American army through their lands, burning 40 towns and destroying crops.
Both sides practiced a scorched earth strategy. “Raids by Loyalists and British-allied American Indians in 1778 destroyed Patriot settlements in Pennsylvania and New York. In 1779, General Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to retaliate and destroy Six Nation towns, homes and food. Soldiers from Fort Stanwix tricked Patriot-allied Oneida warriors into raiding the British supply depot at Oswegatchie before leaving to destroy Onondaga towns. These raids and counter-raids continued until 1783.” Afterwards, General George Washington was given the name “Town Destroyer” by the Seneca people.
The Americans, who always wanted to take over Indian lands (another sore point that led to wanting independence from Britain), nullified the treaty of 1768 as soon as they won independence in 1783, claiming it was negotiated with the British and did not apply to the new nation. The Americans voided the treaty with the Cayuga, Canandagua and Mohicans claiming that these nations sided with the British, and pushed them further west.
In 1784, Governor George Clinton (uncle of Dewitt Clinton who launched the Erie Canal project), who was not a supporter of the federal Constitution, decided to make his own treaty. The new treaty, negotiated at Fort Stanwix with the Oneida who allied with the Patriots, effectively relegated three Oneida Indian nations to a measly 32 acres, in which they were surrounded on all sides by settlers. (The Oneida tribe had already split, with half moving to Wisconsin).
“Now, for first time in history, the Indian nation is relegated to a reservation, surrounded by Europeans (whites),” Sawyer tells us.
By the 1790s, houses were built by the fort; by the mid-1800s, the fort was demolished and the city of Rome built on top of the ruins. In 1935, a national monument established, though by then the site a commercial district with no trace of the fort.
By the 1960s,a grassroots urban renewal effort was underway to revitalize the downtown and restore the fort, but this required the National Park Service to go against its long-standing policy: “We protect, preserve, interpret any natural thing, but nothing was left of fort.” But political pressure mounted to create a new Revolutionary War “themed park” to open in time for the bicentennial in 1976.
A massive excavation got underway by local volunteers and in the process, 400,000 artifacts were uncovered in three years of archaeological work.
They had a the foundation plus they had the original plans (from the British museum) and maps, clothing and receipts, enough to reconstruct the fort exactly as it would have looked.
Ranger Sawyer, who tells me his interest in becoming a park ranger was ignited during summer internship at the fort when he was a teenager and got “hooked”, says that the 400,000 artifacts are housed in a cultural conservation center in the Visitors Center.
In summer, on Wednesdays & Thursdays, at 11:15 & 1 pm, they open up back area to guided tours to see archaeologists working with the artifacts.
I am literally the last person out of the fort when they close at 9 pm, and walk a block to get some pizza for dinner (this is one of two nights when we are on our own for dinner and the city of Rome has provided a list of eateries.)
The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.
The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.
More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.
Next: Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Promotes Rise of America as Global Industrial Power
We finish our 62-mile ride on this third day of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour in Seneca Falls, renowned as the birthplace of Women’s Rights, where the organizers have arranged for the major sites, including the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, to stay open for us, and for a shuttle bus to take us from our campsite on the grounds of the Mynderse Academy into the downtown.
My impression of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, operated by the National Park Service, has not changed from my first visit two years before: It is an absolute dud, especially when you consider the innovations in museums – especially compared to Fort Stanwix National Historic Site in Rome and the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse (both of which we will see in coming days). What is more, the NPS rangers who run the site know how antiquated and uninspiring – even disrespectful to women and the struggle for equality – the exhibit is and revealed a frustration in their inability to improve it.
There are no new insights or inspiration to be gained. The exhibit doesn’t have a clear theme, point or focus: is it about how and why the Women’s Rights movement started here in Seneca Falls (the influence of the Oneida Indians, which allowed women to become chiefs, have property and retain custody of their children, on Melinda Gage, for example; the prevalence of Quaker women among the early women’s rights leaders who had roles in their church; and the number of factories, spurred by the Erie Canal, which in turn employed women who subsequently wanted equal pay and to control their earnings)? Is it about the leaders of the movement, the courage they needed and how they persevered? What about exploring why it took 80 more years for women to get the vote, even after former slave men got their (theoretical) right to vote after the Civil War? Nor does it confront the controversies behind the continuing fight for women’s rights: why women still don’t earn as much as men for the same work, what is the “glass ceiling”. What role does the lack of affordable, accessible child care and healthcare play, and the mother-of-all controversies: why are women’s reproductive rights still so tenuous? And, oh yes, why are women still so underrepresented in elected office, including the highest office in the land, the Presidency?
What is glaringly obvious is that the exhibit reflects the 1980s Reagan perspective – more Phyllis Schafly than Gloria Steinem – a half-assed, slap in the face, disrespectful, condescending lip service to women’s rights and the ongoing struggle. If there is a theme, it is that women should be grateful for the opportunity to work in fields beyond teaching, secretarial and nursing – but nothing about pay equity or glass ceilings or sexual harassment. To Reagan (and now Trump), women’s rights are simply a way of supplying more workers and keeping wages low.
No discussion of how laws and the lack of anti-discrimination laws helped keep women down: How a woman could be raped, beaten, killed by her husband – was not much more than property (as were children) – and how a woman’s property became her husband’s. How women could be fired from jobs once married or pregnant or had children or reached a certain age or weight, or not hired at all merely because of gender. How insurance companies could charge women more (preexisting condition for being able to give birth). How landlords could refuse to rent to a woman without a husband’s signature; banks would not loan money for a home or business; how women couldn’t get a license to practice law. Sexual harassment”? The phrase was only invented in the 1970s, as the modern Woman’s Movement came into flower.
What did not having a vote mean for women in society? What happened when women were widowed or divorced? Why were there certain professions that women were steered into – like teaching, secretarial work, factories and nursing, positions which as a result tended to be woefully underpaid?
What was the role of the Church in suppressing women’s rights? That is, except for the Quakers who were the earliest advocates of women’s rights. What was the influence of the Oneida Indians, which gave women property rights, custody of children and the ability to become a tribal chief, on the early feminists including Melinda Gage (the mother-in-law of Frank Blum who wrote Wizard of Oz).
Where is the discussion of the women who opposed suffrage, equal rights (ie. Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Shafly), even the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt initially was not a supporter of women’s suffrage (until happened), and the women today who oppose a woman’s right to choose (then and still today)?
Instead of “women’s rights”, (and this is pretty typical of women’s issues generally) the exhibit goes off track into the bigger topic of civil rights (Abolition, the Underground Railroad). This should be seen in the context of how women were the backbone of the movement to end slavery, but after the Civil War, fully expected to win the vote along with freedmen, but instead only black men got the right to vote (such as it was, before Jim Crow). Also, it gives a nod to Jacksonian Democracy but doesn’t answer the question how white men without property got to vote without the need for a Constitutional amendment, but women didn’t get the vote until the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.
The exhibit is largely devoid of the heroic women (except for the sculpture) who fought for suffrage, and what the fight was like (locked up, force-fed).
There’s copy of Lily Ledbetter act signed by Obama in a case in the lobby, but no explanation or context.
There is a film in a lovely auditorium, “Dreams of Equality,” (delightfully cool and relaxing after biking 62 miles in the hot sun) which dramatizes the early internal debate over breaking out of the constrained role women were relegated to, is woefully and pathetically outdated – the historic elements aren’t bad but the pseudo “conversations” between girls and boys is frankly stupid and archaic.
But in the film, one of the main characters loses her husband in the Civil War and one woman says to the other, “If a woman had a say in making laws, there would be no wars,” to which the other woman replies, “If we had a say, who would listen?”
And in another bit of dialogue, the woman wonders, “Don’t women also have rights?” to which her brother responds, “What men most prize in a woman is affection.”
You also visit the Wesleyan Chapel where the first Women’s Rights convention was held in 1848 and the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The structure’s history can be a metaphor for the ambivalence of American society to women’s rights: From 1843-1871 it was chapel, then an opera house/performing arts hall; then a roller skating rink, a movie theater (in 1910s), then a Ford dealership, and ironically enough, was a laundromat before facing a wrecking ball.
Women fought to save the building, and in 1982, during the Reagan Administration, it was turned into a national park.
(Womens’ Rights National Historical Park, 136 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315-568-0024, www.nps.gov/wori.)
To put faces to the women’s movement, I walk down the main street to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. It is still in a ground floor storefront in a former bank building, awaiting its move into the factory building that was the Seneca Knitting Mill across the canal. This is most appropriate because the mill was where a number of the early feminists came from (they had a taste of earning their own money and were fired when they asked for wages equal to men).
This massive factory, which dates from 1844, was owned by two men, Charles Hoskins and Jacob Chamberlain, who were among the 32 who supported women’s right and signed the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the Women’s Rights Convention. That is saying something because out of the 300 people (40 of them men) who attended the convention in the Wesleyan Chapel in 1848, only 32 people signed the Declaration. The Seneca Knitting Mills, which operated until 1999 (can you believe it!), manufactured heavy woolen socks for 150 years, and then went the way of 50,000 other factories in the US.
The plan is to turn the 170-year-old limestone building into the hall of fame, research center and museum celebrating women and their accomplishments, to be called the Center for Great Women.
When I was in school, I could count on one hand the number of women who were presented as heroic figures – Madame Curie, Molly Pitcher (who I learn may have been fictional but still representative of women who took up the guns when their husbands were killed in the Revolutionary War), and the reporter, Nellie Bly.
I am thrilled to find Nellie Bly among the honorees. Her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (1864-1922, honored in 1998), and was a trail-blazing journalist considered to be the “best reporter in America” who pioneered investigative journalism (hence the pseudonym); Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, (1813-1876, honored 2002), who headed the committee that organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA in 1850, helped found the New England Women’s Suffrage Association and established Una, one of the first women’s rights newspapers; Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), the first woman to own, operate and edit a newspaper for women, The Lily (first published in 1849 in Seneca Falls) and whose penchant for wearing full-cut pantaloons under a short skirt (as a protest to the way women were expected to dress), gave birth to the term “bloomers”.
It turns out there were dozens and dozens of women, going back to Colonial times, who did really important things. The women who are honored here are not necessarily honored as feminists, but for their accomplishments.
“Women’s stories are not told,” the organization notes. “Less than 10% of the content of history books references women. Students cannot name 20 famous American women through history, excluding sports figures, celebrities and First Ladies. Only 20% of news article are about women. A society that values women values all of its members. By telling the stories of great American women through exhibits and educational resources, the Hall will make a future where all members of society are valued a reality.” (Indeed, the New York Times, during this year’s Women’s History Month, began publishing obituaries of women who were overlooked in their own time.)
Founded in 1969, the Women’s Hall of Fame actually predates the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (one could say it even was at the very cusp of the Women’s Movement which really emerged in the 1970s). And when you contemplate the timeline of the biographies, you get a better understanding of the historical context of the Women’s Rights Movement.
Looking around: Abigail Adams, what a pistol she must have been! She had such a strong influence on her husband but clearly was frustrated in the lack of opportunities women had to utilize their potential. (“Remember the ladies” in forming the new government,” she admonishes her husband, John Adams, in 1776).
Secagewea, Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman. Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Margaret Bourke-White, Pearl S. Buck, Rachel Carson. Frances Perkins (Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt), Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Sullivan, Rosa Parks.
Of course, there are the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony (there is a Susan B Anthony bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua), but I also discover women identified as being early feminists (most you never heard of), and you realize that the struggle goes way, way back.
For example, Anne Hutchinson who lived 1591-1643 (honored 1994), was the first woman in the new world to be a religious leader and for it, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony (there is a parkway in the Bronx named for her); Sarah Grimke, who lived 1792-1873 (honored 1998), who published papers championing abolition and women’s rights, and with her sister Angelina Grimké Weld, 1805 – 1879 (honored 1998), were southerners, born in South Carolina, who became the first female speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society; Fanny Wright, 1795-1852 (honored 1994), the first American woman to speak out against slavery and for the equality of women; Mary Lyon, 1797-1849 (honored 1993), who founded Mount Holyoke in 1837, the first college for women, which became the model for institutions of higher education for women nationwide; and Maria Mitchell, 1818 – 1889 (honored 1994), an astronomer who discovered a new comet in 1847 and the first woman named to membership in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women.
Walking around (you can also peruse the website to find these biographies) I am introduced to all sorts of women I had not known, that fill me with pride: women on the front lines of science, civil rights, labor rights, education, human rights.
Mary “Mother” Harris Jones, 1830-1930 (honored 1984), a labor organizer and agitator who worked on behalf of the United Mine Workers and other groups; Sarah Winnemucca, c1844-1891 (honored 1994), Native American leader who dedicated her life to returning land taken by the government back to the tribes, especially the land of her own Paiute Tribe; Susette LaFlesche, 1854-1903 (honored 1994), a member of the Omaha Tribe and a tireless campaigner for native American rights; Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 (honored 1998), suffragist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” a lecturer on religious subjects, a playwright, an organizer of a women’s peace movement and advocate for women’s equality in public and private life; and Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887 (honored 2009), famous for authoring the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and an important forerunner of the Zionist movement.
There is the famous flyer Amelia Earhart but also Bessie Coleman, an aviatrix of the1920s, who was the first African American woman to have pilot’s license (at a time when women, let alone a black woman, were not allowed to have a license; Coleman went to Europe to get her license, what does that tell you?).
I so appreciate the diversity of the women represented, especially in the 20th century, when women do have more educational and professional opportunities: astronaut Sally Ride; tennis player Billie Jean King who broke through for women’s athletics; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor. Madeleine Albright, Bella Abzug, Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball, Dorothea Lange, Lilly Ledbetter, Margaret Sanger.
(Go to the website to see the most recent inductees as well as search all).
We commiserate over the life-size portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was already in the Hall of Fame as First Lady and New York Senator, the first woman to be a presidential candidate of a major political party, but should have been the first woman President.
It is remarkable to look at the faces and read the short biographies of women who have made such important contributions, going back to colonial times.
I wander over to the canalside park just in time, 7 pm, to enjoy an old-fashioned band concert by the Seneca Falls Community Band (33rd season!); there is a stand selling the absolutely best ice cream in the world. Perfect.
Our campsite tonight is on the grounds of the gorgeous Mynderse Academy, which even has a flat-screen TV where a few of us gather around to watch the All Star Baseball Game.
The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.
Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.
More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.
Next: Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Half-way Mark of 400-mile Biketour
My third day of my deep-dive into Revolutionary War America in Philadelphia is devoted to exploring key figures and sites that I have never visited before: Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center.
Once again, the best way to connect is to walk because you are quite literally walking “in the footsteps” of these iconic individuals, and in so doing weave together the places and events, create a context. It is exciting to happen upon a site – a historic marker, a building keystone – that you would never have thought to seek out.
I am off to visit the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which is relatively new (open four years) and very close to the very new Museum of the American Revolution. The trick here is that you need to walk up an alley (I missed it the first few times I went by). I enter from Chestnut Street, but you can also come through from Market Street, where there is a row of townhomes (“Franklin’s Neighborhood”) that includes the post office, Franklin’s print shop, and looks back at City Hall.
Ben Franklin is, of course, a native son of Philadelphia, and justifiably the most revered figure, and here we learn why that is so deserved, why the city still has his stamp.
You enter a courtyard and come upon the “Ghost House” – the sculptural frame of Franklin’s home (the museum is actually in what would have been the basement) you can peek into the archeologically preserved remains of the foundation of his house. Franklin’s grandkids, unable to afford the “prohibitive” taxes, tore the house down in 1812 to sell to a real-estate developer. Eventually, a rooming house was built on the site. The National Park Service tore that down in the 1950s in order to restore the Franklin site, and after the Independence Bicentennial in 1976, it became a National Park, administered by the National Park Service.
The exhibit area is divided into five “rooms” with each room interestingly focusing on a particular trait of Franklin’s: ardent and dutiful, ambitious and rebellious, motivated to improve, curious and full of wonder, and strategic and persuasive. There are videos, touch screen interactives, mechanical interactives, and artifacts in each area. An additional area called the “Library” presents a video with excerpts from Franklin’s Autobiography.
The exhibit is well presented to give a total biography of this fascinating Renaissance, self-made man, who so epitomizes the American Dream.
I come to Franklin Museum hoping to learn more of this fascinating man, and was richly rewarded. I did not realize his humble beginnings, or fully appreciate the range of his talents, accomplishments.
But my essential question about Franklin – my theory that it was the Stamp Act (not the tea tax) which imposed taxes on newspapers – that was the key to the colonists taking up arms to “free” themselves from the greatest superpower humankind had known. Franklin was not just a printer, but a newspaper publisher who provided seed money to newspapers throughout the colonies and became (what I consider) the first syndicated columnist, sending out editorials that would have been printed in those papers. My theory (as yet unproved) is that newspaper editors were the ones who turned opinion against British rule, gave the colonists the notion that they could actually win their independence, and gave the colonists from Massachusetts to Virginia, who were then (as now) very different, a sense of unity. Had the British not imposed the Stamp Tax, the newspaper editors may not have been so gung ho for Revolution. If my theory could be addressed at the museum, it was not at all clear to me.
But what is clear is that Franklin lived in the Age of Enlightenment – ideas and innovations were spread by trade and globalism – and people with the wit and wisdom like Franklin – despite having only two years of formal schooling – were encouraged to learn, innovate, invent not just technology (he did experiments with electricity and invented the lightening rod, bifocals, Franklin stove, urinary catheter and glass harmonica and charted and named the Gulf Stream) but civic society (volunteer fire department, the Philadelphia hospital, library, founded what became the University of Pennsylvania) and politics. There was greater willingness to challenge authority and notions of “divine right” – even question institutionalized religion – and class rather than be ruled by them. Colonists – who hailed from many countries in addition to Britain and would not have had loyalty to the Crown – had already lived in the New World for a century, and saw themselves not as British but as Americans. And Franklin knew better than anyone that a person from humble beginnings could ascend the ranks of social status.
I am surprised to learn that Franklin never patented his inventions, believing in the equivalent of what we call “open source.”
He was a key figure in creating the Declaration of Independence – one of the committee of 5 (with Jefferson, Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston); and along with Adams nominated Jefferson to write the Declaration and made some important changes to Jefferson’s draft.
He was a generation older than Adams and was in his 80s during the Continental Congress – near death and in significant discomfort. He was considered a giant, an elder statesman, “The Sage.”
America’s ambassador to France during the Revolution, he secured critical support of the French.
I was shocked to learn that Franklin initially owned and dealt in slaves (it was a time when that was common place, even in the North) but by the 1750s, he argued against slavery from an economic perspective and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.
His personal background is worthy of a multi-part dramatic series:
Ben Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, one of 17 children of his father. He only attended two years of formal schooling which ended when he was 10; he continued his education through voracious reading.
At 12, he apprenticed to his older brother, James, a printer, who founded the first independent newspaper in the colonies. Ben started publishing columns secretly under a pseudonym (his brother was furious). When James, who was a free thinker, was jailed for three weeks in 1722 for publishing material unflattering to the governor, Ben took over the newspaper and wrote, in the character of his alter-identity Mrs. DoGood, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”
In 1723, Franklin escaped his apprenticeship and fled to Philadelphia, making him a fugitive. He took up lodging in the Read home, and at the age of 17, proposed marriage to 15-year old Deborah Read. But her mother refused permission for them to marry. Franklin went off to London for several years and Deborah married John Rodgers, who abandoned her, ran off with her dowry and but without a divorce, left her unable to remarry.
When Ben Franklin returned to Philadelphia, he formed a common-law marriage with Deborah who becomes a mother to Ben’s illegitimate son, William.(William grew up to become a Loyalist and self-exiled himself to London; William too had an illegitimate son who became Ben Franklin’s secretary and aide). Deborah and Ben had two more children together, but his son died at the age of 4 of smallpox; his daughter Sarah married, had children, and took care of Ben in his old age
I hadn’t realized that Franklin spent much of his life abroad, especially between 1757-1775, and as Ambassador to France from 1776-1785.
Franklin returned to the United States in 1787 and is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention.
When Ben Franklin died in 1790, 20,000 people attended his funeral. Later, I see where he was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground. It is interesting to note that in 1728, when he was just 22, Franklin wrote his own epitaph: “The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.” But the tombstone simply reads, as he specified in his final will, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”
You leave the museum realizing what a remarkable Renaissance man Franklin was – like Thomas Jefferson in that way – with all the inventions and areas of success. Franklin was very much a modern man; if ever there was a person who could find himself 250 years in the future, he would have been very much at home in the 21st century. And very much Philadelphia’s Favorite Son for good reason.
The Ben Franklin Museum is a very welcoming space that really humanizes and personalizes Franklin. I love Franklin’s witty quotes, the portraits of him that show him throughout his life, even his love letters (to women not his wife).
For children, there is a scavenger hunt for the small squirrel figurines located throughout the exhibits. Franklin delighted in pet squirrels, or skuggs as they were known in his day.
You need at least an hour to visit.
The museum and print shop are operated by the National Park Service as part of the Independence Hall.
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission $5/adult; $2/children 4-16.
From here, I go back up to the court yard and find my way to Franklin’s print shop, where there is a replica of an old-style printing press (not much different from the days of Gutenberg), where National Park Rangers run off documents (you can buy a printed Declaration of Independence though Franklin never actually printed it). If you are lucky, you may visit when the ranger is in period dress.
On the Market Street side of Franklin Court, there is the B. Free Franklin Post Office, where you can get postcards hand-stamped just as one would have when Franklin was the first postmaster. The line of attached buildings are very much the way they were when Franklin lived here. You notice on Market Street and then around the historic district townhouses that still have the reliefs that show what fire insurance company protected the house. On this day, the street is closed off for a street festival. After spending some time enjoying the music and festivities.
I also pass a firehouse with a wonderful bust of Benjamin Franklin.
Philadelphia had just held a Veterans Day parade, and just as I pass the Christ Church Burial Ground where Benjamin Franklin and many other Founders are buried, I come upon Civil War re-enactors from the 3rd Regiment: Sgt Major Joseph Lee and Corporal Robert F. Houston.
The Franklins’ tombstones – extremely modest – is easily the most visited (and can be seen through the gate from the sidewalk). People throw pennies onto the tombstone – a nod to Franklin’s motto that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” as well as a symbol of good luck.
Others buried here include John Dunlap, who printed the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, composer and poet Francis Hopkinson and medical pioneers Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. Philip Syng Physick. Divided into quadrants, the ground is mapped and plots are identified with markers where the original inscriptions are gone. A book of 50 biographies is available for purchase at Christ Church. (There is an admission to the burial ground, $3 adults/$1 child or $8/$3 with guided tour.) (5th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia 19106, 215-922-1695, ext 30, http://www.christchurchphila.org/about-the-burial-grounds/
I walk the few blocks to the Betsy Ross House, another Revolutionary character who would have been thoroughly at home in the 21st Century.
Follow in Franklin’s Footsteps
VisitPhilly.org, the city’s convention and visitor bureau, offers a marvelous walking tour to discover historic attractions visited by Franklin himself, sites dedicated to his accomplishments and local restaurants that would appeal to one of history’s most prolific men.
The Franklin’s Footsteps Itinerary starts at the Benjamin Franklin Museum, Franklin Court, the Ghost House, the Print Shop and Post Office and continues:
City Tavern (138 S. 2nd St. 215-413-1443), where Colonial America is recreated at this authentic tavern in Old City
Carpenters’ Hall (320 Chestnut St., 215-925-0167), the site of the First Continental Congress, was once the home of Franklin’s Library Company and the American Philosophical Society (APS), two organizations he founded.
Christ Church (20 N. American St., 215-922-1695), where Franklin and his family attended services, and Christ Church Burial Ground.
Fireman’s Hall Museum, (147 N. 2nd St., 215-923-1438), commemorates the history of firefighting in an old firehouse
The Liberty Bell Center (6th & Market, 215-965-2305), home of the internationally known symbol of freedom (pick up timed tickets for Independence Hall at the Independence Visitor Center, or order them online at recreation.gov).
My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia, which started with the National Museum of Jewish American History and Museum of American Revolution, continues at Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center.
Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.
Bermuda is a magical place where the beaches have pink sand and the aquamarine water is so clear, you can see amazing marine life and feed fish Cheerios. But one of the most magical experiences of all is Dolphin Quest.
The experience starts off with our own training – shaping our own behaviors in order to properly interact with the dolphin. We join three others for a 30-minute Dolphin Dip – one of several different interactive encounters that are available. Lottie, the cheery dolphin trainer, tells us so much about how the dolphins learn and how they respond to specific calls. She demonstrates some incredible tricks (behaviors) by teaching the five of us how to signal to the dolphins ourselves.
When we are in the large pool, Lottie calls me out to the middle of the lagoon and tells me to bring my hands together with palms facing up on the surface of the water. She blows a whistle and Caliban swims up to me and puts her snout on my hands, seeming to smile up at me with that broad dolphin mouth. Then she tells me to show her my cheek and he kisses me on the cheek!
Now it’s Dave’s turn to come out. Lottie tells him to put his hand out to the side. Then Caliban swims up and takes his hand. They practically dance! Then Caliban swims past us, inviting us to stroke her tummy for positive reinforcement. We get to feed her a small fish after each behavior which she seems to really enjoy.
Lottie has each of us engage different behaviors with the four dolphins we get to meet, which are all also perfect photo opps. A professional photographer is on hand shooting photos the whole time and capturing so many amazing moments.
The digital and physical copies of the photographs are available for sale through an online portal. They’re pricey, but they capture priceless moments! There is free seating poolside so if anyone in your party is not in the water with you, they have the opportunity to capture their own photos, too.
The photographer is also extremely knowledgeable about the dolphins. He tells us about the 5- star health care they have and that the average lifespan is roughly double for the dolphins in their facility compared to dolphins in the wild. They also have a larger, more natural enclosed swimming area just outside the walls of the maritime museum, though we can’t see it ourselves because it is being cleaned.
It’s $219 for the 30-minute “Dolphin Dip” — pricey, but one of the cooler experiences we’ve had. It’s an amazing gift for someone you want to indulge and celebrate! Family/friends can watch from the sidelines where they can also enjoy seeing the dolphins up-close without paying the premium of being actually in the water with them.
A portion of the proceeds goes towards continued animal research. So far, Dolphin Quest programs in Hawaii, Oahu and Bermuda have contributed more than $3 million in funding, resources and field support to vital marine studies around the globe. University research studies have generated hundreds of published scientific works that are helping researchers find solutions to the threats dolphins and whales face in the wild. These studies also help the marine mammal community better care for dolphins in human care.
But there is something more: Dolphin Quest gives people a rare experience to interact and engage with dolphins, deepening our empathy for marine mammals and raising awareness about conservation programs.
“With our dolphins, we touch the hearts and minds of our guests in a fun and inspirational way, sharing how each of us can play a vital role in protecting our precious ocean ecosystem,” Dolphin Quest says.
Our time with the dolphins is not like a performance. We are reminded that dolphins are wild animals; they clearly only engage with us as they like, and seem to genuinely enjoy the intellectual stimulation.
It is an incomparable experience to interact with another species, and especially so with an intelligent marine mammal.
In addition to contributing millions of dollars toward research and conservation programs, Dolphin Quest also contributes essential medical and training support to wild marine mammals in distress through the marine mammal stranding networks in Hawaii and Bermuda. Its team members also hand raise newly hatched endangered sea turtles, releasing them back into the wild when they are large enough through the “Turtle Ambassador Program”.
Dolphin Quest also organizes beach and stream cleanups, recycling efforts, and other environmental stewardship initiatives.
Indeed, Dolphin Quest’s humane stewardship of the marine animals living in its care is recognized: Dolphin Quest is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, with all three of its locations certified by the American Humane Conservation program.
After the Dolphin Dip (or any of the Dolphin Quest programs), you are given free admission to the Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Bermuda, where you can explore the 200-year-old fort and experience educational maritime and cultural exhibits including: the Commissioner’s House, Shipwreck Island, The Warwick Project, Bermuda’s Defense Heritage and The Hall of History 1000-square-foot mural painted by Bermudian artist Graham Foster, plus an onsite Playground and Playhouse for children.
New Programs in Expanded Ocean Habitat
Dolphin Quest Bermuda has expanded its large ocean water dolphin lagoon inside the walls of the National Museum of Bermuda to include an outer Ocean Habitat. Accessed by a tunnel passageway, this supplemental sea sanctuary provides Dolphin Quest’s dolphins and guests another enriching natural environment to explore.
The outer Ocean Habitat utilizes an environmentally friendly sea pen structure. Its natural underwater terrain and sea life mirrors the shallow bays and estuaries where the coastal ecotype of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are found in the wild.
“While our dolphins are thriving in their ocean water lagoon within the walls of the museum, it is so fun to be able to introduce them to another area for them to play, socialize and inspire people to care about and protect dolphins in the wild”, says Lauren McWilliams, Supervisor of Marine Animals at Dolphin Quest Bermuda.
Founded by two marine mammal veterinarians in 1980s, Dolphin Quest continues to be on the leading edge of advocacy, conservation and research. Back then, Dr. Jay Sweeney and Dr. Rae Stone sought to create an alternative to oceanariums and “dolphin shows.” They set out to create pristine and enriching natural dolphin habitats where visitors could enjoy inspiring and educational dolphin encounters that, in turn, funded wild dolphin conservation.
Since opening their first location at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii in1988, Dolphin Quest has become recognized as a leader in establishing large natural habitats for the animals, creating successful dolphin breeding programs and developing innovative interactive dolphin programs that combine fun and learning for the animals and the people, and promoting environmental stewardship.
They opened their first Dolphin Quest in Bermuda in 1996 at the Southampton Princess Hotel, but it was damaged in Hurricane Gert in 1999. The staff battled high winds and rough water to move the animals to a protected area on the most southwestern side of the island, into an area known as The Keep within the Royal Naval Dockyard. This offered a large, protective ocean-water lagoon within a historic fort, with a connected outer habitat that would be safe from hurricanes and weather events. This became Dolphin Quest’s home on Bermuda.
New innovative and inspiring interactive programs are now available in the Ocean Habitat: “Dive with Dolphins” helmet dive, the “Sea Quest” guided water scooter ride with the dolphins and the “Exclusive Sea Quest” which is a private experience.
Dolphin Quest Programs Year-Round
A variety of programs are offered year-round. The website offers excellent information and an easy-to-follow breakdown of the various programs available by season and by age-appropriateness. Programs include:
Ultimate Adventure, an hour-long program (45 minutes in the water with dolphins), the longest time available, appropriate for ages 6+, available May-October.
SeaQuest, a scooter program, April-October, for ages 8+, 45 minutes
Dolphin Encounter, available November through April, let’s you create your own dolphin experience (30 min., $175).
Underwater Exploration (20 minutes with dolphins, for ages 8+, $100 (maximum 3 people): You explore dolphins’ natural ocean habitat with underwater scooters and snorkeling; you have the opportunity to interact with dolphins in deeper waters, guided by marine mammal specialists (water scooters and masks provided; you must be a proficient swimmer; no more than 3 people and the trainer). After the program, the marine mammal specialists are available to discuss dolphins’ care and wellness, animal training, conservation; and you get free full day admission to the National Museum of Bermuda. Winter programs (November- May) provide free wetsuits and booties; and a winter hot tub special (December 15-April 30, limited spaces available).
Marine Conservation Tour is a two-hour behind-the-scenes program that finishes with a five-minute dolphin touch, but it focuses on training programs, learning about animal care, visiting the medical lab, and watching the dolphins interact and socialize with each other (November-April, $79)
Trainer for a Day, a five-hour program with 60 minutes with the dolphins where you are side-by-side with trainers and dolphins and participate in dolphin health exams, dolphin training sessions, dolphin play time and dolphin programs for guests (lunch included). There is time in the water with the dolphins as well as interacting from the docks. (Wet suit and booties provided, November-May).
National Museum of Bermuda
The fortuitous collaboration between Dolphin Quest and the National Museum of Bermuda greatly enhances the visitor experience, as well, because you are not only given this rare experience to interact with marine mammals, but also become immersed in Bermuda’s rich heritage.
The Keep of the Dockyard is a six-acre historic fort that was designed to serve the naval fleet at anchor in Grassy Bay. It was once one of the most strategic military installations in the world and was heavily protected with a moated entrance, cannons, shell guns, and other weapons.
It was designed so munitions and provisions could be moved by boat between the large Keep pond and the vessels in the harbor. The grounds and many buildings of the Keep are now home to the National Museum of Bermuda’s exhibits and serve as home base for its highly-regarded maritime research, restoration, and preservation efforts.
“The fort provides probably the world’s most secure home for our dolphins, and we are enjoying exploring the many possibilities for expanding our dolphin programs within this historic context,” Dolphin Quest notes.
It is contained within a 16-acre National Museum of Bermuda with eight exhibit buildings and the most extensive historical collection in Bermuda, including the hilltop commissioner’s house. You can walk along the ramparts.
In 2016, the dolphin’s habitat was expanded to include The Ocean Habitat, a large sanctuary that extends beyond the museum walls and allows the dolphins to swim out into the ocean waters via a connecting tunnel from inside the lagoon. The entire sanctuary is one of the largest and most natural dolphin habitats in the world. Dolphin encounters in this area allow guests to interact with dolphins while riding underwater scooters and they can also explore the Bermuda reefs and bountiful marine life.
After American independence from Britain, Bermuda was identified as a strategic location for a naval base and dockyard. Construction on the dockyard began in 1809, which involved massive land reclamations and quarrying, first by slaves and then by thousands of British convicts. In its heyday, the dockyard provided facilities for the Royal Navy’s fleet.
The Keep was the citadel of the Dockyard, built to guard the naval base against land or sea attack and as an arsenal. The massive bastions and ramparts were designed by the Royal Engineers and are reinforced at intervals by casemated gun emplacements. Casemates were built in the late 1830’s to house troops manning the Dockyard fortifications. After Dockyard closed in 1951 it became Bermuda’s maximum-security prison from 1963-1994.
It is currently undergoing extensive restoration by the Museum and volunteers.
The Museum’s scope has expanded to encompass more than maritime history and today it is a vital custodian of Bermuda’s heritage. It is also a champion for the preservation of Bermuda’s underwater and land-based cultural heritage through collecting, exhibitions, restoration, conservation, research, publication, education, public outreach, and archaeology.
The National Museum of Bermuda is open daily except Christmas Day (Dolphin Quest is still open); admission fees are $15/adult, $12/seniors; under 16 free; admission fee is waived for Dolphin Quest participants.
“Dolphin Quest is committed to protecting our planet and inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards by providing inspirational interactive experiences, educational programs and contributing funding, resources and field support to vital marine studies around the globe.
“With resort partners in Bermuda, Hawaii, and Oahu, Dolphin Quest inspires tens of thousands of guests each year to care about and help protect dolphins in the wild.”
The first thing you notice about the Thomas Cole House, “Where American Art Was Born,” is the view from his porch – out to the ridges of the Catskills Mountains, the Hudson River curving around a bend. It is not hard to imagine that in Cole’s day, there would have been fields between his house and the river. But it is the same scene immortalized in paintings renowned as the “first American art movement.”
Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove, now the Thomas Cole Historic Site and Site #1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail, has been redone since I last visited – more of the house restored to the way it was when Cole, at 35 years old, married 24-year old Maria Bartow, the niece of the man who owned the house and farm where Cole was renting studio space for 10 years..
The guided tour has also been revamped with new innovative, multi-media features as well as personal effects – I love seeing Cole’s top hat, his musical instruments which he played and posed, his paint box, his traveling trunk with his signature and date, 1829 – and original paintings, and most especially his studio with his easel and paints and a room devoted to his creative process.
The presentation really personalizes the man, brings him into your presence. You start the guided tour in the parlor that Thompson, who really encouraged Cole, turned into a sales office for the artist. What appears to be Cole’s portrait – a video projection – becomes a slide show of his art as a voice narrates from Cole’s own journal and writings. Around the room are projections or digital reproductions of Cole’s paintings (some of Cole’s original paintings are in upstairs rooms we visit). He describes the inspiration and rejuvenation he feels from this wilderness, how he is “deliriously happy” at having his family, and his outrage over the “ravages of the axe” of progress.
These themes come together in his work: while primarily a painter of landscapes, he expressed his philosophical opinions in allegorical works, the most famous of which are the five-part series, The Course of Empire, which depict the same landscape over generations—from a near state of nature (depicting American Indians) to consummation of empire (Rome), and then decline and desolation, which is now in the collection of the New York Historical Society (and will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018); and four-part The Voyage of Life, which are reproduced in his studio. (“Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” will be on view at the Met, January 30-May 13, 2018, and feature some of his most iconic works, including The Oxbow (1836) and his five-part series The Course of Empire (1834–36, www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2018/thomas-cole,).
I appreciate Cole as very possibly America’s first environmentalist, the first to appreciate conservation and raise the alarm over the march of progress at a time when the Industrial Revolution was taking hold and technological progress was worshipped along with capitalism, as he railed against the “copper-hearted barbarians” and “dollar-godded utilitarians.”
“We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly,” he says, as a projection of his painting, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828) appears.
Cole worried that America’s rapid expansion and industrial development would destroy the glorious landscape – in 1836, he could see the railroad being built through the valley and he bemoaned the loss of forest along Catskill Creek, “the beauty of environment shorn away.”
Cole recognized America as a land in transition – the settled and domesticated juxtaposed with the wild and undomesticated… He witnessed the changes taking place around him.. And in the early 1800s, America was still in process of creating own culture, distinct from the European settlers.
An Immigrant Dazzled by America’s Wilderness
Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire, England, in 1801 and emigrated to the United States with his parents and sister (his father was in textiles) in 1818, settling first in Philadelphia, then Steubenville Ohio, then New York City. He had little formal art training; he picked up the basics from a wandering portrait painter. Cole soon focused on landscape and ultimately, Cole transformed the way America thought about nature and the way nature was portrayed on canvas.
As an immigrant, Cole was dazzled by America’s vast stretch of untamed wilderness, unlike anything that existed in Europe. At this point in time, though, most Americans did not appreciate the wilderness – they thought of it as something to be feared or exploited. Instead, America was enthralled with industrialization, technology and progress.
Cole was 24 years old when he took one of the new steamships up the Hudson River (it was “the thing to do” at the time). He made a painting which sold immediately, came again to make another painting and that sold immediately, as well. He came so often he looked around for a studio in the village of Catskill. He came to Cedar Grove, John Alexander Thompson’s 110-acre farm with an orchard and a hilltop view out to the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains – the same view we see today – and for the next 10 years, rented a studio in a structure next door to Thompson’s house (where Temple Israel now stands).
Cole fell in love with Maria Bartow, Thompson’s niece 11 years younger than Cole, then 35 years old, and moved into Cedar Grove permanently, all living together in the modest house which Thompson had built in 1815.
Thompson provided Cole with the two parlors on the main floor to use as “sales rooms” for his painting, and built a studio for Cole, cutting out a window so he would have northern light.
Thompson also built a studio for him with a high window to bring in northern light, and we see his paints and easel as if he had just left the room for a moment.
Cole’s studio, which Mary’s uncle made for him, installing a high window to bring in northern light, has been restored. It is where he painted one of his most famous series, the four “Voyage of Life” paintings (he painted eight sets of four; one of the sets is in the New-York Historical Society and will be on display January 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). We see his paints and easel as if he had just left the room for a moment.
Alas, the studio probably contributed to his early death, at the age of 47, when his wife was pregnant with their fifth child – the studio in winter had little ventilation and he was working with turpentine and paints and had a respiratory illness. He died of pleurisy. Mary named their son Thomas Cole, Jr.
Frederick Edwin Church, recognized as a prodigy, was 18 years old when Cole, then 43, took him on as an art student. Cole would take his six-year old son Theodore out with them painting. Paintings by Church that have a small boy are likely Cole’s son. After Cole died, in 1848, Church, who built his Olana on a hilltop on the opposite shore of the Hudson, helped the family, even hiring Cole’s son Theodore as his farm manager.
Cole’s Creative Process
Touring the house is remarkable because it contains many of Cole’s personal effects including several of his paintings, like “Prometheus,” and his special items like musical instruments that he played and used as props for his paintings.
All of this is fairly miraculous because the house was sold in the 1960s and the contents auctioned off – the paintings, the furnishings. Over the years, many of the sold items have since come back, like “Uncle Sandy’s” chair, which we see today, which was purchased by a local postman who donated it back to Cedar Grove.
In a living room on the second floor, Cole’s letters “appear” on his actual writing desk (triggered by a motion detector); some of the paintings that decorate the room where they would have been are reproductions (the originals held in museums), but some are originals. There are black-and-white photos of his daughter in her later years, sitting in that very room. I am fascinated to see his “magic lantern” (an early slide projector with hand-painted glass slides) that drew its light from a candle inside. We appreciate Cole as a man of enormous talents –a poet, essayist and musician in addition to an artist and we see some of his instruments. We visit his bedroom and see his traveling trunk which he had made on Pearl Street, with his signature and date.
We learn that he was close friends with the novelist James Fenimore Cooper and provided illustrations for his work, including “The Last of the Mohicans” (1827) and “The Pioneers.”
My favorite room is his “Process Room” where we see his actual sketches, his paint box which he decorated with a beautiful painting and papers and his famous color wheel.
On my hikes on the Hudson River School Art Trail, I wondered how Cole would have captured the scenes – the sheer logistics of getting to these remote places that take us 20 minutes to reach by car along paved roads. Cole painted at a time before photography was a handy tool, before capped paint tubes made painting “en plein air” as feasible as it was for the Impressionists decades later.
I learn that Cole hiked with a pocket easel and pencil. He would get to a place like Sunset Rock by dark (a trail which I hike), camp and stay there a few days. He made copious notes of the smallest details – the light, color (he created a color-wheel for himself which we see), the atmosphere, the vegetation and natural forms.
But then he would wait before he painted the scene, for time to pass “to put a veil over inessential detail to turn it into beautiful and sublime…He had a vision of nature as an expression of the divine.”
It is important to realize that at the time, a painting afforded the only way for people to see places without actually visiting for themselves.
He began to turn his landscapes into allegorical exposition. Over a three-year period, he painted “The Course of Empire” a series depicting the same landscape over centuries and generations as civilization rises and falls, from savage to civilized, from glory to fall and extinction. He intended the series as a warning against American unbridled expansion and materialism. It took him three years to create and earned him a veritable fortune in commissions and fame.
Cole also became progressively more spiritual – coinciding with a rise in spiritualism in America. – and used his landscape painting as religious allegory. This is manifest in Cole’s “Voyage of Life,” a series of four paintings that show a pilgrim from infancy to old age, led by a guardian angel, which became Cole’s most popular work.
Each year, there are always special exhibits as well – in the Cole house, oddly juxtaposed with Cole’s 18th century works (we even see the wall trim that he painted himself) is a contemporary artist, Kiki Smith. In the New Studio, a separate building, this season is “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills.”
Most days when you visit the Cole house, you take a guided tour, but on Saturday and Sundays, 2-5, you can tour the house on your own. The house usually closes at the end of October but this year, it is open for three weekends in November.
Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill, NY 12414, 518-943-7465, www.thomasscole.org (Normally open May-October, but will have extended season this year, three weekends in November).
I am surprised at how much we could cover on our first day in Yosemite National Park, spent hiking in Yosemite Valley. This is the most popular and iconic part of this vast park, the size of Rhode Island, but the three trails we chose – Mist Trail, John Muir, Mirror Lake – haven given us a really good sense of the park, despite its size. Since we need to leave the area for San Francisco, 200 miles away, by 4 pm, we cleverly find a hike (thanks to the Tenaya Lodge concierge) that starts from just inside the South Gate, in the Wawona section, thereby cutting out 1 ½ hour drive each way jut to get into Yosemite Valley at the center of the park. We plan this out very well: the Chilnualna Falls Trail is just about 6 miles from the Tenaya Lodge, and is much, much, much less crowded – and yet, we meet some wonderful people from Australia and other places.
It is also sufficiently long hike to take about five or six hours – exactly the amount of time we have, and, we discover, offers dramatic, close-by views of the cascading Chilnualna Falls, the sweeping vistas of the southern Yosemite, and wonderful diversity of the landscape, as the trail winds through a variety of terrain and habitats. Our choice proves brilliant.
We start out in the village of Wawona (you pass a general store so if you need supplies, this would be a great place), turn onto Chilnualna Falls Road and park at the trailhead (there are restroom facilities here).
This hike is billed as strenuous – mainly for a fairly steep, nearly mile-long beginning, that includes narrow, high stone steps (with the reward of a gorgeous cascading waterfall). Then it is a steady upward (though mostly gradual) climb for about 4 miles, with a 2,400-foot elevation gain to an altitude of 6,600 feet – that’s what makes the hike tough.
The Chilnualna Falls, which fortunately for us is one of the less known and visited falls (and not accessible by car), consists of five large cascades that slide through and over large granite rock formations – almost like the ruins of a fort, parts of which we get to climb.
At various points we come across the cataracts, up close, and each time, the sound and view is dramatic.
Finally, we come to a beautiful scene where the Chilnualna Falls comes to a ledge before going over a ridge. Here, we sit along some flat rocks right beside the water, and look over the forest and distant mountain peaks of the southern Yosemite and the Wawona Dome.
From here, you can continue on to get to the top of the fall (as well as connect to several other trails that go all the way back to into Yosemite Valley), but considering our time schedule (and looking out at rain clouds flowing in), we head down after a lovely picnic along side the cascading Chilnualna Creek.
Most of the trail is along the ridge so you have dramatic views of the creek or valley. Some of it crosses through meadow, so there is wonderful variation. The views of the rushing water and waterfalls are surprising and dramatic.
One of the nicest aspects of this trail, as compared to yesterday’s hikes on the Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Mirror Lake Trail, are the opportunities to appreciate some magnificent trees and flowers. After about a half mile (and the first cascade), the trail leaves the creek and heads up switchbacks through manzanita, oak and mixed conifer forest. In the spring, the hillsides are full of Mountain Misery – a spreading plant with beautiful white blossoms, which we get to see. In among the Mountain Misery you may well see Hartweg’s Irises, Indian Pink, Golden Yarrow, Narrow-Leaved Ceanothus, Utah Serviceberry and several more showy flowers. Some of the side seeps might be blooming with Seep Spring Monkeyflowers and perhaps Sunflowers.
The upper cascades of Chilnualna Falls are quite beautiful in high flow, and in the early season they will be flanked with Azaleas, Mountain Pride Penstemmon and Dogwoods, Pussypaws and others.
We don’t necessarily realize it, but we are also passing through territories of deer, coyote, mountain lion, and black bear. There are birds, as well, but we are a bit early to see the western tanager which can be spotted from May through September.
Finally, as we near the top, we have views over to Wawona Dome and finally of the falls themselves.
We have to climb down a little from the trail to these broad slabs so we have a beautiful view of the falls. It is a perfect place for our picnic lunch.
Coming back is much, much easier – basically a gentle downward slope, and you are looking out at the scenery. Even the obstacles are no concern because we have already done them.
We are down to the steep part when it begins to rain. There are a couple of obstacles – like leaping over flowing water (thank goodness for my hiking sticks!).
We make it all the way back just in time for it to rain in earnest, adding to our feeling of physical satisfaction and accomplishment. All in all, an 8.2 mile hike that takes from 10 am to 3:40 pm.
What I love most, after completing this trail, is how different the experience has been from the previous day’s hike in Yosemite Valley – the vegetation, the meadows, the general landscape – and how surprisingly gorgeous the falls and the creek, and especially, the peacefulness without the crowds.
Preparation: bring enough water (2 water bottles) and prepare for changes in weather: bring rain poncho and plastic bags to cover cameras from rain or mist; rain poncho; snacks, moleskin for blisters, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, camera, extra memory card and battery, cell phone, an extra layer in case it gets cool. I have also found hiking sticks extremely helpful.
For non-hikers, non-DIYers, Tenaya Lodge offers a Yosemite Tour Package, via mini-bus, that includes lunch and narration, and guarantees waterfalls and wildlife and seeing the most popular sights of Yosemite. (Offered May 1-Nov. 30; from $575 spring, $685 summer, $555 fall; call 888-514-2167 or Tenaya Reservations directly at 559-692-8916).
Tenaya Lodge, 1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623, 800-722-8584, tenayalodge.com.