Category Archives: Places of History

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail: America’s Revolution Comes to Life at Washington Crossing

The Thompson-Neely house is interpreted as it would have been in 1776, when it was used to hospitalize soldiers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Being here at Washington Crossing State Park on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River, hearing the story of General George Washington crossing icy water on that fateful Christmas night, I realize that all I knew of that scene was the image from the painting so indelibly impressed on every school child’s brain. The actual events are much, much more dramatic, as the 300 Sojourners, cyclists who have come down the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, learn on our guided tour.

This opportunity to tour Washington Crossing Historical Park is built into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn, one of several options for our layover day on the fourth day of the five-day biking-and-camping trip.

The Sojourn rides- usually five or six days of supported camping and biking – are typically constructed with a layover day where you get to choose from activities and excursions that exemplify the area or just hang out on your own. Other options include a kayak tour on the Delaware Canal; a visit to the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a tour of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, or just exploring New Hope, PA on our own to take in attractionsdining and art galleries.

I have opted to join the historical tour of both the Upper Park and Lower Park of Washington Crossing Historical ParkBowman’s Hill TowerThompson-Neely HouseSoldiers’ Gravesthe Village and the Visitor’s Center.

I realize I had no clue of just how heroic, indeed, how much of a Mission Impossible this feat was, and how many were involved, nor how significant this relatively small battle of was for the ultimate success of the revolution that founded our nation.

A copy of the famous painting depicting Washington crossing the Delaware is on the boathouse wall, likely to give inspiration to the reenactors © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit to the Washington Crossing Historical Park starts with an excellent 14-minute video introduction that lays out why Washington said of this desperate mission ““Dire necessity will, nay must, justify the attack.”

It was winter of 1776. The Continental Army had suffered terrible defeats on Long Island and New York. Washington was forced to retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania on December 7 and 8.

The British were on the march to Philadelphia, plundering and ravishing homesteads as they went. They were waiting for the Delaware River to freeze so they could march across. That gave Washington some time to regroup.

Morale of the American troops was low. The soldiers lacked food and warm clothing, even boots. Washington watched his army shrink due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Now, more than ever, a victory was desperately needed.

Washington hatched a daring plan to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness, march to Trenton and unleash a surprise attack on the Hessian outposts in and around Trenton.

He ordered every boat that could be found to be at the ready. Among the various types of boats gathered, most notable were the large, heavy Durham boats that were used to carry pig iron down the Delaware.

His plan was for a Pincer-style attack, with two divisions attacking from the south of Trenton.

Sojourners tour McConkey’s Ferry Inn at Washington Crossing Historic Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

We walk into a historic village – and come to McConkey’s Ferry Inn, which was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing – the other buildings were constructed 40 years or more after.

Walking through it, it is an amazing feeling to sense Washington sitting here, plotting what could have been a suicide mission, making such decisions.

The inn was built on the major thoroughfare between Philadelphia and New York City to accommodate the ferry, one of many along the river.

You can imagine George Washington sitting at the table in McConkey’s Ferry Inn to compose his letter to Colonel Cadwalade, “I am determined.” © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

We go into the boathouse – which was built in 1977 to house re-creations of the Durham boats that Washington would have used.

These are all re-creations, and smaller (40 feet long) and lighter and more nimble than the ones Washington would have used.  By the 1830s, these boats, built to carry cargo, were obsolete – indeed, even in their day, they were often used for one-way trips and discarded.

Washington’s boats were 65 feet long, weighing 7,000 pounds, 50 percent heavier that these re-creation. As it is, it takes a day to put four boats in the water for the annual Christmas re-enactment.

In Washington’s time, the boats would have been kept in the water, not a boat barn, which was built in the 1950s when they started doing the reenactments.

There were no seats in the boats – everyone stood up, but no one was as high up as Washington is depicted in the famous painting.

The painting shows 13 people – 12 in the boat and one standing up; for the reenactments, they use 11 crew, four oars each 15 feet long and 50 lbs, with two people per oar at shoulder level. One of the oars is 22 ft, weighing 100 lb,that is used like a rudder to steer the boat.

One of the replica Durham boats that are used for the annual reenactments of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

“We do it in one hour. It took 11 hours to transport Washington’s troops during the night, going back and forth.” Once, he recalled, it was snowing heavily during reenactment which was most like the actual conditions.

Each boat made five trips both ways, carrying 45 soldiers plus the boat crew (imagine what that would have been like for the boat crews). It took a half-hour or longer for each trip. One man fell off the boat, but was saved.

The river was fast, but 45 feet wider than normal, and with ice blocks as big as six feet wide, would come suddenly with speed, joggle the boat and knock it off course. It was difficult to see.

Over the course of the 11 hours, Washington’s 2,400 soldiers were shuttled across. But then, these soldiers, some of whom were dressed in rags and barely had shoes, had to wait for hours as they were pounded by a Nor’easter that set in at 11 pm, for the rest to arrive, and then march 9 miles over mud paths to fight the same Hessian troops who had beaten them five times before.

“The odds were not in their favor. It shows the fortitude of the men.”

Because surprise was his key weapon, Washington kept the mission a secret until the last minute.

“Washington didn’t tell the men the attack was underway until 1 pm. That was not enough time for the men to prepare supplies and march. So a lot of the men were late,” he tells us, standing in front of a map that illustrates the battle plan.

Washington assembled his own troops near McConkey’s Ferry in preparation for the crossing. By 6 pm, 2,400 troops had begun crossing the ice-choked river. The operation was slow and difficult due to the condition of the river. There was an abrupt change in the weather forcing the men to fight their way through sleet and a blinding snowstorm. These obstacles proved to be too much for the supporting divisions led by colonels Cadwalader and Ewing, ultimately preventing their crossing at southern points along the Delaware.

Washington had planned for a Pincer-style attack. He had them synchronize their watches. He had already started sending the men across when he learned that the other two generals were not able to send their men. He decided to continue anyway.

In this ferry building, Washington writes to Colonel Cadwalader, “’Dear Sir. Notwithstanding the discouraging accounts I have received from Colonel Reed of what might be expected from the operations below, I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the river and make the attack upon Trenton in the morning. If you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible. I am, Sir, your most obedient servant.’”.

The guide at Washington Crossing Historic Park describes Washington’s “pincer-like” battle plan which depended upon the element of surprise © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

“Now the weather works to the Americans’ advantage,” our guide relates, standing in front of a battlefield map. “Hessian guards (pickets) are in houses. Washington sneaks through perimeter undetected. But one rogue group launches a raid, which undermines the crucial element of surprise. The Hessian guards run into city to warn the commander, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Riall, but Riall thinks it is just a raid. He musters half to guard two main roads, but doesn’t meet Washington head on. Washington tries to retain initiative.”

The First Battle of Trenton takes only an hour. Of the 1,500 Hessians, 100 killed or wounded. Rall is fatally wounded.

Washington informed Congress of victory but neglected to mention how many men were lost (the Hessians lost about 100).

It was a relatively small battle but the victory elevated the American cause in eye of world. Then, within 10 days, Washington chalked up victories at Trenton and Princeton.

There were still 5 more years of war, until 1781, to come, but this was the turning point in revolution.

“The 3 victories are huge for Continental Army. France and Spain began to pay attention. If Washington had lost, Continental army would have disbanded.”

The Hessian prisoners were paraded through Philadelphia to Lancaster where they worked on farms, were paid and given free room and board. A quarter of the Hessian prisoners wound up staying or returning to the area after the war (the Pennsylvania Dutch were already here.) But American prisoners were badly treated.

The single biggest fact we don’t know about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware? Who crossed.

Each December, thousands of people gather on the banks of the Delaware River to watch the reenactment of George Washington’s daring 1776 Christmas night river crossing. During the event, several hundred reenactors in Continental military dress row across the river in replica Durham boats.

This year, there are two opportunities to view the reenactment at Washington Crossing Historic Park, on December 9 (10 am to 4 pm, the crossing is at 1 pm, $8/adult, $4/child 5-11; in addition to the crossing reenactment, special colonial-era activities and demonstrations in the Historic Village will offer a full day of family fun and learning) and Christmas Day, December 25 (noon to 3 pm, crossing is at 1 pm; free. The event draws thousands of people; arrive well before 1 pm for a good place to view (see www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org).

The Historic Village

The McConkey Ferry Inn which we get to visit was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware; the other structures came later.

The first ferry building was built in 1752, but only the basement kitchen remains. The current inn was built in several stages; the west side, the one farthest from the river, was built around 1790 and includes the original basement.  The building represents a typical country inn or tavern of the Revolutionary era and suggests the variety of amenities that would have been available to the traveler at that time.

Mahlon K. Taylor House: Born in 1791, Mahlon K. Taylor became the wealthiest and most influential member of the Taylor family, a fixture of Taylorsville’s commercial success until his death in 1870.The stately home, built 1816-17,  illustrates Taylor’s successful career as a merchant and entrepreneur. The house is an example of the degree to which the fashions and refinement of upper-class Philadelphians were beginning to influence rural Pennsylvania.

Taylorsville Houses: These 19th century buildings were built by different members of the Taylor family as their own residences or to rent to trades and craftsmen. Many 19th-century country villages and towns also had general stores that sold a wide array of merchandise. Mahlon Taylor opened the Taylorsville store around 1828 shortly before the Delaware Canal was constructed, and served as postmaster there for 40 years.

Hibbs House: Built in 1828, this building was one of several tenant houses the Taylor family constructed to attract artisans to Taylorsville. It served as the home and workshop of a shoemaker, then a cooper, a wheelwright, and finally a carpenter, Abdon Hibbs. A typical two-room over two-room stone structure, it housed a worker, his family, and his apprentice, as well as his shop.

Frye House and Blacksmith Shop: Bernard Taylor built the Frye House in 1828 as a tenant property. It housed Taylorsville’s blacksmith and his family, as well as an apprentice. The blacksmith was indispensable, fashioned iron tools and implements essential to work and to family life in the preindustrial era. The current shop was built in 1990. Living-history demonstrations are conducted during special events.

Revolutionary War Memorial Cemetery

Our afternoon tour begins with a visit to a memorial cemetery where an unknown number of Continental soldiers who died during the December 1776 encampment in Bucks County are buried.

Memorial to fallen Continental soldiers at Washington Crossing Historic Park. The only one who is identified is James Moore, a 24-year-old artillery captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Although no Americans were killed during the Crossing and the First Battle of Trenton, these soldiers would have died due to exposure, disease or previous injuries. James Moore, a 24-year-old artillery captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company, is the only veteran buried in this plot whose identity is known.

Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076, www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org.

Thompson-Neely House & Farmstead

I love visiting the Thompson-Neely House, on Bowman’s Hill, just across a road from where we camp at the Washington Crossing State Park, and on the other side of the canal.

The house is presently interpreted as it would have been when it served as a temporary regimental army hospital during Washington’s winter campaign of 1776/1777. Ill and injured soldiers were brought to this home of the Thompson and Neely families for medical treatment and recovery. A young officer from Virginia named James Monroe, who was seriously injured during the First Battle of Trenton, convalesced here. In 1817, he became the fifth president of the United States. William Washington, a distant cousin of the commander-in-chief, was also wounded and he too recovered. This is where Captain James Moore of the New York Artillery died of camp fever on Christmas day and is buried on the property (in what is now the Soldiers’ Graves area).

© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Thompson-Neely House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an example of vernacular 18th-century architecture. Originally a low, one-room dwelling, it was expanded over time to a two-story, multi-roomed farmhouse reflecting the growth of colonial Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy and the prosperity of the Thompson family, who milled grain into flour for export.

Several hundred years ago, the area occupied by the Thompson-Neely House and Farmstead and the nearby mill were inhabited by natives of the Lenni Lenape village of Winnehawcnunick. Around 1684, a runaway indentured servant, John Pidcock, fled his master and took possession of the property, establishing a fur trading station there around 1701.

The next owner of the property, Quaker miller John Simpson, constructed the original central section of this house about 1740, as well as a gristmill along Pidcock Creek. At the time of his death in 1747, Simpson was a prosperous farmer with an interest in a sawmill besides his other holdings. His widow, Hannah, married Scots-Irish miller Robert Thompson in 1748, whose farming and milling businesses on the property made him one of the wealthiest men in Solebury Township by 1761.

In 1757, owner Robert Thompson built a two-story addition on the west end (away from the river) of the house.

Nine years later, Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth, married her father’s apprentice William Neely, an Irish immigrant, and Thompson added a second story above the old first section.

The Thompson-Neely house is interpreted as it would have been in 1776, when it was used to hospitalize soldiers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Neely, who was in the militia in 1775 with Washington’s troops. Neely brought the army here to camp out. There would have been some 500 Continental army troops camped here (7400 in the area), among them James Monroe (the future president), and William Washington, a cousin to General Washington.

Robert Thompson enlarged the house once again by constructing the two-story east wing in 1788 to accommodate the Neely’s growing family. Taller ceilings gave this newest portion a higher roofline than the existing structure.

When he died in 1804, Robert Thompson left his large estate to his grandson, Robert Thompson Neely, including the main farmhouse with outbuildings, two mills, a cooper’s shop, and a distillery. Although Robert Thompson Neely continued to expand his family business and real estate holdings, he died in debt in 1848. Succeeding generations of the Neely family continued to own the farmhouse. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired it in 1926, the building had been little changed since the early 19th -century.

Once the centerpiece of a working farm and milling complex, the Thompson-Neely House is surrounded by the numerous outbuildings needed for farmlife in the 18th-century, such as the restored smokehouse, chicken coop and privy. Washington Crossing Historic Park’s flock of sheep may be visited at the restored barn.

Thompson-Neely Grist Mill

The Thompson-Neely grist mill, built in 1875, is actually the third grist mill to be built on the property.

The grist mill figured into the prosperity of the families who lived here, first Englishman John Simpson who acquired the property around 1740 and built the first grist and saw mill. After he died, in 1747, the mill passed to his journeyman, Robert Thompson, who married Simpson’s widow, Hannah. The couple farmed and ran the mill at a time when Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America and had a thriving flour market, exporting five million pounds in 1771. By 1782, Thompson had become one of the wealthier men in Solebury Township.

William Neely, Thompson’s apprentice, married Thompson’s daughter in 1766, and ran the mill for more than 40 years before his death in 1804. Thompson’s daughter and grandson, Robert T. Neely, inherited the mill.

The Thompsons and the Neelys built up an estate that included the grist mill, a saw mill, cooper’s shop, distillery, store, sawyer’s house, miller’s house, and assorted barns and outbuildings on 500 acres of land.

The Thompson-Neely grist mill has been restored and only recently reopened to the public © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Second Mill, 1829-1873: The Pennsylvania Canal Commission built the Delaware Canal through Neely’s property, along the original creek bed that powered the mill’s water wheel which put  Neely’s mill out of business. He received $8,000 from the state for damages and built a new mill further upstream on the site of the present grist mill.

The Third Mill, 1875-1910: Robert’s Neely’s son John owned the mill when it caught fire in August 1873. The mill was rebuilt in the same place and reopened in 1875 and operated until 1910, after being purchased by the State of Pennsylvania.

The mill was closed for 50 years, until the state renewed interest in it as a historical site.

Restoration: During the 1970s, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission carried out archaeological research and restoration of the site. A new water wheel was installed in its original location, and the mill was restored to a state resembling that of a grist mill of the late 1820s. But the mill was again shuttered 20 years later.

Restoration work began in late 2016. And after two decades shuttered to the public, the Thompson-Neely Grist Mill’s doors reopened on March 17, 2018, just a couple of months before we Sojourners arrive. In-depth programming including live demonstrations of the milling process, field trips for area students and a special program for children during the park’s annual Sheep-to-Shawl Day are planned.

Bowman’s Hill Tower

Bowman’s Hill Tower, we discover on the tour the Sojourn has arranged for us, is just about the only place in Bucks County to get an above-the-trees, bird’s-eye view of the surrounding countryside and Delaware River. The Tower, which was built between 1929-31 as a Depression-era project, rises 125 feet high atop Bowman’s Hill; on a clear day, you can see 14 miles away.

We hike up the 124 steps (an elevator installed during the 1980s restoration can take you up three-quarters of the way, to the last 23 narrow steps).

Bowman’s Hill Tower © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Soon after the tower’s construction, workers planted 28,300 seedlings in the area to reforest the hill like people thought it would have been in Washington’s time. Some of those seedlings have become today’s towering trees on Bowman’s Hill.

Walking up from the Thompson-Neely House, passed the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (so many wonderful, themed trails to explore! Next time!), proves to be quite a hike, because it is about 1.5 miles up on a winding road before you even get to the staircase.

During the regular season, a 60-minute walking tour of the Thompson-Neely House and Farmstead and the grist mill is offered daily from 10 am to 4 pm; tickets are $7 or $15 for all park sites (the Historic VillageBowman’s Hill Tower and the Thompson-Neely House and Mill).

Sojourner’s pose at the base of Bowman’s Hill Tower © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076, www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org.

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.) 

Sojourners enjoy kayaking on the Delaware © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

See also:

Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn bikers come upon an interpreter in period dress beside the restored lock and lockmaster’s house along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail at Freemansburg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

I race from the historic Asa Packer Mansion to the railroad station in the center of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where a ceremony is being held to open the new Mansion House pedestrian/biking bridge across the Lehigh River that eliminates a gap in the Delaware Lehigh bike trail. (See: Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour)

This wonderful celebration, led by the local bike club, gets the 300 Sojourners in gear for our longest ride, 48 miles, of our five-day, 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail through the picturesque Pennsylvania wilderness to Hugh Moore Park in Easton where we will camp for the night.

Jim Thorpe Bike Club is the first over the new Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We follow after the Jim Thorpe Bike Club as the first across the bridge, an achievement 25 years in the making.

Around midday, we navigate a complex gap in the D&L Trail onto city streets.  Indeed, drawing attention to such gaps, and the coalition working to improve them, has been one of the objectives of these annual Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn supported biketours. To date, an impressive 92 percent of the D&L Trail has been built—most of which we ride during this Sojourn—and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022.

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are among the first to cross over the new Mansion House Bridge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail condition has been surprisingly good considering yesterday’s drenching rain and even yesterday, the trail had enough hard-pack that our tires didn’t sink into mud.

Yesterday, as we rode downhill from the highest point, deep in Pennsylvania’s coal mining country, the beauty of the wilderness section of the trail was hard to appreciate through the rain (though nothing could mar the exquisite beauty of Buttermilk Falls).

But on this June day, the weather is sunny with a cool breeze, just perfect for biking.

Biking the Lehigh-Delaware Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We  get to see just how beautiful the trail is – much of it following a narrow canal on one side or the other. The trail is built on the original towpath, which is essentially a built-up berm. We see rock walls, lily pads. The scenery and joy of biking produce a feeling of euphoria.

We come to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, which is like an oasis to us. The center is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)

Beautiful scenery along the Lehigh-Delaware Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond, we Sojourners are treated to a catered lunch in a park, where we can sit comfortably under a pavilion.

Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.

A shuttered steel mill looks like abstract sculpture © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s.

At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, and I am delighted to find the site manned by interpreters in period dress. I ask if the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.

The restored lockmaster’s house and lock at Freemansburg © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)

This proves a warm-up for what we will see during our overnight stay at the Hugh Moore Park and its major attractions, the National Canal Museum and the ride on a mule-drawn canal boat that has been arranged for us.

National Canal Museum, Hugh Moore Park.

Our 48-mile ride today ends at the home base in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park, where we began and will end. With the Lehigh River, Lehigh Canal, the old Lehigh Valley Railroad, National Canal Museum, remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, the park offers a microcosm of the D&L story, and an absolutely delightful place for our second-night campout.

The Sojourn planners have specially arranged for us to have free cruise on the historic Josiah White II canal boat, all the more exciting because it is pulled by two mules and manned by a crew in period dress along this portion of the restored canal. You really get to appreciate what it was like for these families who operated the canal boats that carried the anthracite coal from the mountains to Philadelphia. At one time mules pulling canal boats on narrow towpaths would have been a common sight in much of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Boarding the Josiah White II canal boat © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We board the Josiah White II canal boat to cruise on the restored Section 8 of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation canal. Captain Susan is at the tiller. The boat is 50 feet long – when it turns, it has mere inches to spare.

Two mules, Hank and George, pull the boat, led by Steve and Doug. You would think it is a strain, but the boat slides easily. “Benjamin Franklin worked out the mathematics, that two mules can pull 235 tons on water. He saw the method in Europe and Britain. George Washington also was a proponent of canals. – though neither one lived to see beginning of canal era.”

Captain Susan is just finishing saying how Hank and George are the luckiest mules in the land, when they both bolt and start running toward the campsite, chased by Steve and Doug who bring them back.

The boats were designed to carry 80 to 90 tons of coal, which meant the canal had to have six feet of draft.

They needed eight feet high walls – so they dug out four feet by hand and piled on the four-feet of soil to create the eight-foot high walls.

They knew the limestone couldn’t contain the water, so they lined the canal with clay, using the same method of road building in Ireland – sheep tamp down the bottom and the clay is left to dry in the sun. (The clay enclosure is why you can’t have any sharp implements on the boats).

It took 2 ½ years to build the canal which extends 46 miles from Jim Thorpe and consists of 9 dams and 51 locks. It cost $1 million (actually under budget). These canals were the first million dollar civil projects in the United States, she says.

When they started to mine the anthracite coal, this whole region of northeast Pennsylvania was uninhabited. To make money, they had to move the coal to the population center in Philadelphia. The Lehigh River was not suitable for transportation – it was too shallow, rocky.

The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (we saw their building in Jim Thorpe) owned the river, built the canal, and furnace and brought an iron maker from Wales who knew how to make iron with anthracite coal (the secret was high-pressure blast of air).

Pennsylvania is one of the few places where anthracite – hard coal – is known to exist. It was discovered sporadically during the 18th century, when people would literally stumble on it on the surface. “No one cared. It looked like stone. You couldn’t light it.”

What is more, there were still trees to provide fuel. But by the early 1800s, the mid-Atlantic was virtually clear cut of wood sparking an energy crisis.

They experimented with soft coal, but the supply was cut off in 1812 by blockade during the War with Britain.

Around then, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, who manufactured wire and nails from iron, needed coal.

They learned of the success of a Welshman who developed hot-blast iron making. They traveled to Wales to sign David Thomas to a five-year contract, and brought him to Pennsylvania to oversee the construction of an anthracite furnace.

In 1818, they bought the Summit Hill quarry. But the problem still was how to get the coal to market.

They founded the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and created one of America’s first industrial and transportation networks, which led to an industrial boom across Pennsylvania and the Northeastern United States.

We see a lock tender’s house that was built in 1928 to replace one that burned – the new house was the only lock tender’s house with indoor plumbing and electricity.

Two mules pull the Josiah White II canal boat © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This lock had a new gear system that even a young person could operate, so the father (who would have earned $8/month, low even for those times) could take a cash job in one of the many mills or furnaces in the area. The lock had to be manned from 3 am to 11 pm, so this was a family enterprise. The mother could sell or barter with the canal boat families – at this lock, known as a “laundry lock” the woman would do the canal boat family’s laundry. She would also keep chickens and vegetables.

“There was an economy of people who lived and worked on the canal, separate from anthracite. Boats were crewed by families.

“Sailors had poor reputation and White was Quaker and wanted ethical people, sober and honest. So he recruited married men. They didn’t want to be away from their families from March to November, so they brought them on the boat. Whether provided own or leased from Lehigh Coal & Navigation – were families.

“The father of the family (the only one who legally could sign a lease) was the captain, kept records, leased the boat, bought the mules ($20) on time; the wife helped with steering and homemaking. Kids as young as six would be responsible for caring for the mules. Younger children were tied to the boat so they couldn’t fall over.”

She demonstrates how they would blow a conch shell to alert the lockmaster, who would have been on duty 18 hours a day.

“It’s easy to romanticize life on the canals, but it was difficult, uncomfortable.”

This canal was operated until 1942; the Delaware until 1932; there were sons, grandsons and great grandsons of canal boat captains.

“It was a way of life. People stuck with it.”

Here at Hugh Moore Park was the site of an industrial furnace. By the time of the Civil War, half of iron in the United States came from Lehigh Valley.

Hugh Moore made his fortune manufacturing Dixie Cups. He bought this property and found out it came with the disused canal.

I get to tour the National Canal Museum, which has stayed open late for us.

The National Canal Museum was originally housed in a Crayola factory building; it was relocated to the Hugh Moore Park in 2006 with a National Science Foundation mission to provide a STEM curriculum to school children – the museum is loaded with interactive exhibits and experiments.

“Canals are perfect for these lessons – it’s the last transportation system using simple machines and human and animal power (mules).”

Comfy Campers sets up tents at the Hugh Moore Park, Easton, for more than half the Sojourners © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. The National Canal Museum is open seasonally, from June until October. Hands-on exhibits highlight 19th century canal life and technology. During our visit, we saw its special exhibition, Powering America:  Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Railroads.

See more  at National Canal Museum, https://canals.org/

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)

Day 3: To New Hope

As spartan as our first night’s campsite was on a baseball field in Jim Thorpe, Hugh Moore Park in contrast feels luxurious, especially with access to the facilities in the museum (in addition to actual bathroom rooms) and one of the workers, has offered to stay inside and open it up for us during the night .

We also have a delicious catered dinner and breakfast around the museum before setting out on our third day’s ride, which will take us 38 miles but 242 years back in time to Washington Crossing State Park, where we will camp for two nights, and find ourselves immersed in the story of the American Revolution.

The Delaware-Lehigh Trail showcases America’s Industrial Revolution © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just before we cross the Delaware to Frenchtown on the New Jersey side, we see a picturesque red wooden bridge over the canal. Frenchtown, where they have arranged for a bike corral while we enjoy the restaurants and shops, is very charming. I munch on the artisanal cheese and bread I purchased beside the water before setting out for the rest of the ride.

This part of the ride is along the sensational Delaware-Raritan Canal trail (one of my favorite trails, a particularly gorgeous section is from Princeton University north). We cross back to Pennsylvania at Lambertville into New Hope, another picturesque village. We are on our own for dinner tonight and many will bike back into New Hope from our campground at Washington State Crossing Park.

A bucolic scene along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the ride, I rehash what I learned at the National Canal Museum and wonder, “What did these families do for the rest of the year when the canals were closed? It bothers me that these families made so little money ($8/month) for such long days, they had to work extra jobs, even after all the members of the family also worked, when owners became richest people in the world.

How did Benjamin Franklin calculate that mules could pull a floating barge carrying 235 tons? How did they calculate the 6 foot draft for the canal boats to carry 90 tons? By formula or by trial & error? What if a boat had different dimensions?  I wonder if the STEM curriculum at the National Canal Museum would answer these questions.

The Delaware-Lehigh Trail goes under a bridge © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here’s another important lesson from our immersion into this National Heritage Corridor: The change in ecology necessitated changes in the economy and technology (an example of how history matters.) Americans were always moving, migrating to take advantage of new industry, new technology, new economy, new opportunities, sometimes forced by changes in the environment. These canal towns, factory towns, mill towns arose because of coal and steel and many were ruined with the change in fortunes. Today, climate change, global warming is changing ecology again, forcing new changes in the economy, in technology, in society and in where and how we organize our communities.  It’s very much how the canal towpath, originally devised to transport the coal which replaced wood, is repurposed for recreation and wellness, revitalizing the local economy.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866.202.9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

Next: The American Revolution Comes to Life at Washington Crossing

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Fall is a superb time to bike some of the phenomenal multi-purpose trails repurposed from rail lines and canal tow paths.

This year, I became acquainted with one of the best in our area – the Delaware-Lehigh Trail just across from New Jersey in Pennsylvania, a 165-mile long trail that follows the Delaware Canal State Park and the Delaware Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The trail was featured in this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, an annual multi-day supported biking/camping trip. The itinerary included riding a portion of one of my favorite trails on the planet, the Delaware-Raritan on the New Jersey side of the river.

Rails-to-Trails has offered these supported Sojourn biketours annually since 2002 to showcase repurposed rail trails and highlight the need to advocate for future projects. These trips are incredibly popular and the 300 of us on this year’s trip were saddened to learn that this Sojourn would be the last, because RTC will be focusing on advocacy and leave such organized bike tours to local organizations. Appropriately, the focus of the last Sojourn was also the trail for its first.

Still, it is there for all of us to enjoy, any time.

Beautiful scenery along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) follows the Delaware and Lehigh Canals and the old Lehigh Valley Railroad as it stretches through five counties, from the city of Wilkes-Barre in the mountainous coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, to historic Bristol borough, along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Congress established the Heritage Corridor in 1988 at a time when the region was economically depressed with the collapse of coal and steel industry that had birthed these communities – the mining towns, factory and milltowns –  to begin with.

With 86 of the D&L Trail’s 165 miles located within two state parks (Lehigh Gorge and Delaware Canal), the advocates to create the trail out of disused towpath had a jumpstart to connect people to the region’s story—one of innovation, conservation and industrialization.

About 92 percent of the D&L Trail is built and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022. Three gaps will have been closed in 2018, including the opening of the $4.1 million Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River at Jim Thorpe (we get to participate in the opening ceremony and are among the first to cross), a road/railroad crossing at Middleburg Road in Luzerne County and a connector in Delaware Canal State Park at Tyburn Road in Bucks County.

These trail projects inspire local groups, breathing new life into the small downtowns along the corridor. Three regional revitalization efforts in particular: a 2004 move to greener programming; a 2005 Superfund reclamation project at Lehigh Gap Nature Center (which we visit); and Tales of the Towpath, an educational curriculum that now has 80 schools participating, which we get to sample at the National Canal Museum at Hugh Moore Park in Easton. And all along the way, we get to see participants in the Get Your Tail on the Trail wellness program who so far have logged more than 3 million miles.

As we, the beneficiaries of all this effort, appreciate over the course of our Sojourn, the trail showcases and immerses us into two significant revolutions in American history: the American Revolution (particularly when we get down to our most southerly point, Washington Crossing) and the Industrial Revolution. All along our route, which follows the canals built to transport anthracite coal from the mines to the markets, we see the markers and remnants amidst a beautiful setting.

Indeed, for me, the big surprise was seeing remains of the historic canal, the locks and gates, dams and lockmaster houses all along the ride.

Here we see the underpinnings, the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled the United States to ascend as a world power. Yet, from where we are on the trail alongside the canal with trees on one side, in a more natural state, except when we come upon long-shuttered steel mills that now seem like oversized sculpture.

A Soggy Day One

We meet up at Hugh Moore Park in Easton, Pennsylvania, (which we learn is land donated by the man made rich through the manufacture of Dixie Cups) where we park our cars and register. Interestingly, we will be returning here to camp the next night.

Rain starts just as we board the buses that take us an hour and a half to the start of the D&L trail near the quaint mountainside community of Glen Summit. But instead of stopping as forecast, the drenching rain continues on, and on, and on, throughout the day and into the night – almost 24 hours before it stops. I’ve never been outside in the rain for a full 24 hours before.

We set out on the ride – 160 miles over the course of five days – at the highest, steepest part of the trail, literally in the mountains where anthracite coal was mined. The trail becomes muddy and slick in the steady rain. I make myself feel comfortable with the feeling of slipping, but soon enough, the trail flattens out. The trail is surprisingly still solid enough to keep the tires from sinking or catching.

But we miss the gorgeous views for which this part of the trail is renowned.

I am loving the new poncho that I bought at the Bike Expo before the NYC 5 Boro Bike Tour, but thinking about having to set up my new REI tent in the rain which I have never done before, kicking myself that I didn’t use the Comfy Camper service (closest thing to glamping) so that my tent would be up, with an air mattress, when I arrived.

Instead of just enjoying the scenery and the thrill of biking downhill, this becomes an interesting physical and mental  challenge that tests character, an adventure in overcoming obstacles, that when it is accomplished, changes you because you know you have done it and can do it– a value of a biking/camping trip in itself.

We ride along the river and see people out there in canoes and kayaks having a rollicking good time – clearly a great day for a waterborne activity.

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

This first day, we bike 35 miles southeast along the rushing Lehigh River, passing the most rugged and natural landscape of the ride – 800-foot hillsides of the Lehigh Gorge. At Moosehead Lake there are the remnants of highlift locks that were part of the Lehigh Canal’s Upper Grand Navigation.

Even this grey day cannot mar the beauty of the waterfalls we come upon, particularly Buttermilk, which cascades down in tiers.

Jim Thorpe, PA

We bike to the quaint town of Jim Thorpe, which (we discover), because of its steep hillsides, narrow streets, and terraced gardens is known as the “Switzerland of America.” I think of it as the San Francisco of Pennsylvania.

Our campsite is on a baseball field literally a 1.5 mile hike up a steep winding narrow road from the center of this charming town, pushing our bikes up (it’s only about half-mile walk back down along a steeper route). The rain is unfortunate because unlike most campgrounds on these trips, the only cover are a couple of dugouts that we have commandeered to stow our stuff (one woman has set up her tent inside one), but no pavilions.

I overcome one of my anxieties, setting up my brand new tent in the rain, fortunately, which has abated to more of a drizzle.

We stand outside in the rain waiting out turn for the shower truck to clean off the mud before walking back down into the town for dinner (tonight’s dinner is on our own).

The charming town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town of Jim Thorpe is absolutely charming even in this weather that has many of us buying up sweatshirts and sweatpants and even taking lodging in one of the many charming inns and guesthouses instead of camping out.

I am invited to join some new friends from the Sojourn I meet on the walk down for dinner at the Molly McGuire pub-style restaurant, which I learn is named for the Molly McGuires, labor agitators who were executed here (you can visit the Old Jail).

I stroll around awhile – struck by the many American flags and other patriotic displays, and in one of the charming historic inns, I find a poster of Jim Thorpe.

Established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain, it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, Olympic hero, Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough.  But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge and rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial. 

Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (we can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.

I explore this charming town before taking one of the shuttles the organizers have arranged for us to ferry us back up to the campground.

I am comfortable in my tent despite the rain which continues to fall, At 1:45 am, I hear the rain abating, so I race to the bathroom and get back to tent just in time for the rain to start up again. It stops in the early morning, so I rush to take down the tent before it rains again.

This morning’s breakfast as been arranged in a restaurant a short walk from the campsite.

I remember that they have arranged for us to have a guided tour of the Asa Packer Mansion (before the bridge dedication) and I race over there.

Asa Packer Mansion

Two things stand out as I regard the exquisite decoration and furnishings in the Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a charming town on the Delaware-Lehigh trail: the house, which dates from 1861, was vacant from 1912 to 1954, but never disturbed, never vandalized, never burgled despite the fantastic riches it contained; and Asa Packer, who I had never heard of before, was a rags to riches American Dream come true story, who became one of the richest people in the world (Queen Victoria even gave him a table which we see in the house), but was always beneficent to his workers (he built housing for them and paid in cash from a strongbox), founded Lehigh University (was originally for boys who attended tuition-free), hospitals. In fact, everything that he built is still in existence and used for good purpose. Cornelius Vanderbilt hated him because Packer, an intensely religious man, made the miser look bad.

The mansion, built in 1861 by Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan, and containing the original furnishings and exquisite architectural details, is spectacular in its own right.

Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mansion was constructed over a span of two years and cost a total of $14,000 dollars.  Topped by a red-ribbed tin roof and a central cupola, or belvedere, the home was built over a cast iron frame and consists of 3 stories, 18 rooms and approximately 11,000 square feet of living space.

The furnishings are exquisite – a “Mermaid” chandelier, an important grandfather clock by Bailey Bay Banks & Biddle of Philadelphia, a table that was a gift of Queen Victoria. The mansion had gasoliers (capable of both electric lights, which was new, and gas) and a self-cleaning stove. But out of all this splendor, there is a “settler bench,” dating from the 1700s, that seems out of place: Asa kept it as a reminder of where he came from.

The mansion is spectacular enough, but  what fascinated me is the story of Asa Packer, one of the early Industrial Revolution millionaires (he became one of the richest people in the world), but who never forgot his humble beginnings, acted honorably to his workers, antagonized the likes of the cheapskate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and whose beneficence created many important institutions that are still operating today, including Lehigh University (which was tuition free when it opened) and St. Lukes Hospital, because there weren’t any hospitals in the area. He made considerable donations to the Gothic Revival  St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Jim Thorpe. “Everything he built is still operating,” the docent tells me.

The mansion – in contrast to Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers mansion in Newport – is a testament to Asa Packer’s humanism: he kept a safe from which he would pay workers’ wages and from the mansion you can look out on row houses on Ray Street that he built for workers; he built an entire new wing on the mansion and hung gold wallpaper (literally gold) for his 50th wedding anniversary gala at a time when few people lived long enough to celebrate a golden anniversary. He took in two orphan girls who became cooks – their rooms were actually quite splendid (especially compared to the servants’ quarters at The Breakers); the butler’s room had a copy of Lincoln’s bed and was where the son, Harry, would stay when the Bishop visited. (Just next door to the Asa Packer Mansion is the Harry Packer Mansion which was a wedding present; the Victorian mansion is also a jewel, indeed it was the model for Disney’s Haunted Mansion; today, it is an inn and hosts murder mystery weekends and wine tasting events.)

Born in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father.  But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.

He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Asa purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad).  By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State.

He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving asja Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.

The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania in 1861 and on January 23, 1878, Asa and Sarah celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later. For all his success, their life together was marked by tragedy.  Daughters, Catharine, Malvina and Gertrude all passed away before the age of three.  Lucy Eveline (1832-1873), Robert Asa (1842-1883) succumbed to pneumonia. Harry Eldred (1850-1884) passed away from cirrhosis of the liver (the mansion next door was built for him and is operated as an inn today). Mary Hannah (1839-1912), was the last of their children to pass away; she was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but got sick in 1912; she was legally blind when she died.

The Harry Packer Mansion Inn inspired Disney’s Haunted Mansion; it offers Murder Mystery Weekends and wine-tasting events © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Asa never fully forgot his humble beginnings, his generous deeds spoke for him. A philanthropist throughout his lifetime, Asa gave $33 million to the town of Mauch Chunk and the Lehigh Valley.  At the time of his passing, Asa retained an estate valued at $55 million.”

Asa’s daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, who moved into her mother’s bedroom when she got sick, inherited the mansion and estate as the last surviving child of seven (becoming the second richest person in the world after the Queen of England). When Mary died in 1912 (the calendar on the desk is from 1912); she bequeathed the home and all its contents to the Borough of Mauch Chunk as a memorial to her father and his accomplishments. But the house remained shuttered from 1912 to 1954, until the Bear Mountain Lions became trustees and reopened the mansion to the public in 1956. Remarkably, the true testament to Asa Packer and his family is that in all that time the mansion was vacant, with all these priceless antiques inside, it was never vandalized or burgled.

“Robert, the only grandchild who survived, didn’t want the house after Mary died,” the docent relates. “Robert’s great granddaughter and her daughter came on tour once,” she recalled.“

(The Asa Packer Mansion Museum, Jim Thorpe PA  18229, 570.325.3229, www.asapackermansion.com).

Rides on the historic the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway are one of the attractions at Jim Thorpe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This quaint village of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania is actually a hub for many marvelous natural and historic attractions including the Harry Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death, and down into the eerie dungeon); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, the St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum and Old Jail Museum, plus wineries, distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting (PoconoBiking.com, PoconoWhitewater.com, Adventurerafting.com.

There are a score of historic bed-and-breakfasts, inns and guesthouses.

Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org. 

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are among the first to cross over the new Mansion House Bridge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866.202.9788, railstotrails.org,TrailLink.com.

Next:

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

A Mother-Daughter Cruise Aboard Windstar’s Star Breeze from Athens to Venice is Chance to Share History and James Beard Cuisine

Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze is anchored just off the Old Port of Dubrovnik (photo by Geri Bain)

by Geri Bain

My 23-year old daughter Jenny and I have carved out two weeks to travel together, something we haven’t been able to do since she graduated high school. Setting our sites on Greece and Croatia, we decide a cruise will let us see the most with our limited time—and still be relaxing. We select a ten-day sailing from Athens to Venice on Windstar Cruises’ 218-passenger Star Breeze motor yacht (www.windstarcruises.com); it maximizes the time in each port, often staying on long after the larger ships depart, and goes places larger ships can’t.  Plus, Windstar Cruises’ partnership with James Beard Foundation promises (and delivers) gourmet cuisine.

We fly to Athens two days before the ship’s departure and check into the elegant Grand Bretagne Hotel (www.grandebretagne.gr) in time for a late breakfast at its rooftop terrace restaurant, where the views of the Acropolis are as amazing as the extensive buffet spread, which even includes spanakopita.  At 11 a.m., our waitress suggests we look across the street and we catch the formal changing of the guard at the Greek Parliament building. Conveniently located on Syntagma Square, the hotel also is within walking distance of everything we want to see in Athens, and we enjoy being able to stop back “home” in between sightseeing for a cool drink in the lobby or a refreshing dip in the pool.

After settling in, we head to the Acropolis, but lines are long, so we go to the Acropolis Museum at the base of the site. The museum displays original treasures and finds from the Acropolis that were moved inside for safe-keeping. That evening, we join a free 2.5 hour walking tour (www.athensfreewalkingtour.com) with Euphrosyne, an excellent guide who is both informative and entertaining and gives us great touring tips.

Taking her advice, the next morning, we are at the side entrance of the Acropolis at opening and find virtually no line and have the site almost to ourselves for almost an hour, and on our last morning, we take her suggestion and walk up the wooded trails of Philopappu Hill for amazing views of the city. We also love strolling through Plaka, Athens’ old town, especially the picturesque Anafiotika area with its steep narrow streets lined by white-washed houses with brightly painted shutters. It’s especially pretty at night when strings of light twinkle about the small restaurants and shops.

Windstar Star Breeze’s cabins are large, with sitting and sleeping areas, a walk-in closet and a marble bathroom with a full-size tub (photo by Geri Bain)

We are sad to leave Athens but excited to board our ship. Our standard cabin is much larger than we expected; there’s a true walk-in closet, a marble bathroom with a full-size tub, and sleeping and living rooms that can be separated by a curtain. We also are happy to find there are no assigned dining times and tables and surprisingly, five different places to dine—plus room service. Throughout our cruise, we enjoy meeting our fellow passengers, and it seems the crew somehow learns everyone’s names almost spontaneously.

The well-preserved Theatre of Epidaurus still hosts performances. (photo by Geri Bain)

The next morning, we are excited to wake up and find our ship docked in the center of Nafplio. We will be here from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.  We start with a pre-booked four-hour tour to ancient Epidaurus, where we learn that theater was considered integral to good health in ancient Greece–just one of the fascinating tidbits our guide Elsa shared. Most of the temples and buildings are in ruins, but the Theatre of Epidaurus, among the largest and most beautiful of the ancient theaters, is still in use today. Guides usually demonstrate the near-perfect acoustics, but we are lucky. Just when Jenny and I reach the top row of the theatre, a group of German students stand in the center of the stage and sing, their lovely harmonies reaching us loud and clear.

Back in Nafplio, we accomplish our daily workout at the Venetian-built Palamidi Fortress, which fell to Ottoman control when the architect, who the Venetians neglected to pay, got his come-uppance by showing the Ottomans the way in. The fort is accessible by bus, or via stairs from Old Town; locals tell us there are 999 steps but we lose count! We quickly realize how hard it would have been to conquer. Once scaling the nearly 800-foot outer walls, intruders would reach not one fort, but a maze of enclosures. Areas that seem like they will connect, never actually do. Many times, we follow a path that seems to link to the next area only to reach a huge chasm or high wall, forcing us to retrace our steps. Our frustration is offset by the ever-changing and stunning views of Nafplio, the Aegean Sea, and the surrounding hills.

Geri Bain and daughter Jenny at Palamidi Fortress overlooking Nafplio.

Old Nafplio, the first capital of the modern Greek state, (from 1823 until 1834, when the capital was moved to Athens) is one of our favorite ports. We visit the site of the first Greek parliament. Saint Spyridon church and the small Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation museum, but what we most enjoy is strolling amid the pretty Venetian architecture, with its characteristic red roofs and colorful windows. We dine at Kastro Karima, tucked into a back street. It has scrumptious moussaka, and at reasonable prices.

Our next two ports of call are the ancient sites of Delphi and Olympia, which served as unifying forces for the many independent city states that made up Ancient Greece. Both were places the ancients would gather to pray, make offerings to the gods and compete in Pan-Hellenic competitions. As at Epidaurus, our Windstar Cruises excursions featured knowledgeable guides who shared insights with our group (about 20) about ancient and modern Greece during bus rides as well as at the sites.

Ancient Delphi perches high on a mountain overlooking a fertile valley (photo by Geri Bain)

Built on a high mountain slope guarded by steep jagged cliff faces, the site of Delphi is as awe-inspiring for its natural beauty as its temples. The extensive site is best known for the Oracle of Delphi, where people came from around the ancient world seeking advice. The Oracle’s messages often were cryptic and could be interpreted to provide opposing meanings, so accuracy was high.

In ancient Olympia, walking through its open-air park strewn with marble pillars, platforms and statues, our guide reconstructs the site and events of the past. We learn that ancient athletes also cheated by doping and that their traditional race attire was none (nudity) and only men could enter the athletic competitions.

Magna Grecia Farm hosts an all-ship party, complete with traditional dancing (photo by Geri Bain)

The hills surrounding ancient Olympia are striped with olive groves and vineyards. We see them up close at a complimentary all-ship lunch at Magna Grecia Farm, a family-owned operation producing olive oil and wine. We see how olive oil is produced then have a family-style feast with tastings of olive oil, wine, ouzo, wonderful local sausages, tzatziki and a zesty chicken and rice dish. After lunch, a traditional Greek dance troupe performs and then leads us all in a line dance around the room that seems right out of the movie “Zorba the Greek”.

At Corfu, our last port in Greece, we hit our first bad weather on an island bus tour and walk around the beach in the rain before heading back to Corfu’s Old Town, guarded by two forts. Fortunately, the rain stops as we explore Old Fort and the pretty marina at its base, and then slowly shop our way back to the ship.

It’s all photographers on deck for the leisurely cruise through the Bay of Kotor (photo by Geri Bain)

Rough seas delay our departure for Kotor, and after taking off, we hit the only rough seas of the trip. I get a bit seasick but once in bed, the rocking is no problem. The next morning is clear and the approach to Kotor through the mountain-framed “fjords” (geologically a once-submerged river-carved canyon) is thrilling. Everyone is on deck, taking photos of gleaming white cliff-top churches and small villages nestled into rocky coves backed by steep mountains.  Around a final bend is the walled city of Kotor, its ramparts rising in hairpin-turns to a mountaintop fort.

Picturesque Perast comes into view as we sail through Kotor Bay (photo by Geri Bain)

Before exploring Kotor, we head to the nearby maritime town of Perast and its famed Our Lady of the Rocks, a powder blue domed Catholic Church and museum on a man-made island a short boat ride off shore. According to legend, a lame fisherman was cured by an idol of the Virgin Mary he found at the bottom of the bay. In reverent gratitude, the town built an artificial island over the spot and to this day, sailors make offerings here and in an annual ceremony, fill their boats with rocks to add to the island.

Back in Kotor, we are happy to find that the entire walled Old City of Kotor is a pedestrian zone. Its twisting medieval streets are easy to navigate since all roads lead to the main plaza, Arms Square, with its iconic Clock Tower or the square of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, consecrated in 1166. The town traces its history to Roman times but it was the Venetians whose influence we see and we enjoy spotting the Winged Lion of St. Mark, symbol of the Republic of Venice emblazoned around the city, especially on its Baroque and Renaissance style palaces.

For our daily workout and photo op, we climb the fortified path to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy where the views of Kotor’s red-roofed Venetian homes and the fjords beyond are amazing. We’d planned to continue on to San Giovanni Castle, a bit higher above the city, but the sun is setting and we return to see the city lights reflected on its marble streets and sidewalk restaurants filling with patrons.

The walled city of Dubrovnik was built for defense (photo by Geri Bain)

We wake up the next morning at 8 a.m. anchored just off Dubrovnik. We have 12 hours here and have decided to explore it on our own. After breakfast, a five-minute tender shuttles us to the dock right in the heart of the Old Port, where Fort St. John guards one end of the harbor and Fort Revelin, the other. A walled cliffside city, Dubrovnik is stunning for its setting as for its pretty red-roof topped buildings that climb up and down its hilly streets.

The entire Old City is a pedestrian zone and despite massive bombings by Serb and Montenegrin soldiers in 1991, Dubrovnik has rebuilt itself back into the spectacularly frozen-in-time city you see today. No wonder Dubrovnik was selected as the setting for so many famous “Game of Thrones” scenes.  We marvel that for a relatively small city, Dubrovnik packs in a lot of museums that can offer fascinating perspectives, often in bite-size 30 to 60-minute visits. Among my favorites was the Jewish Synagogue. (Note, if you plan to walk the city walls and dip in and out of museums as we did, check out the Dubrovnik pass.)

The other thing about the city is its extreme hills. I wish I’d worn a Fitbit because by day’s end, we must have climbed up and down at least sixty flights of stairs following the guard’s walkway around the walls of the city, climbing the stair-stepping streets of the city, and exploring St. Lawrence Fort, which defends one of the ancient harbors from a promontory facing the city walls. The walls, reinforced by towers, forts and bastions, started in the 10th century and improved right up until the 17th century, rise to over 80 feet in places and we make a point of mounting each of them. All those vantage points make for stunning vistas—one more amazing than the next—and a great workout.

Our final stop before Venice is Hvar, and we are only there from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. so we make sure to get up and out early. Our ship anchors a short distance offshore from Hvar, a small gem with its marble streets and Venetian architecture. Despite being a trendy destination these days, it feels like a small town. We see children walking to school and locals chatting in waterfront cafes.

Of course, we have to hike up to the mountaintop Fortica Španjola (Spanish Fortress). Like the town, most of what is standing was built under Venetian rule, which lasted from the 15th to 18th centuries. Then we pick up towels and water at the Windstar launch and walk to a recommended beach, just outside town. The water is calm and refreshing and the beach is beautiful.

Windstar’s Star Breeze sails into Venice as explorers and traders have done since the heyday of the Venetian Empire (photo by Geri Bain)

The next morning, we are up at 6:30 a.m. so we can be on deck as we cruise into the city of Venice, just as explorers and traders traveling routes like ours had done in the heyday of the Venetian Empire. We are greeted by thick fog and I feared we wouldn’t get to see the sail in. I needn’t have worried. Everything stops when the fog is too thick. After a leisurely breakfast, we wait. Finally, the captain announces we will be sailing into Venice shortly and soon, we are sailing past St. Mark’s Square.

Nafplio, Kotor, Corfu, Dubrovnik and Hvar were all strongly influenced by the Venetian Republic for centuries and by the time we arrive in Venice, we recognize the grand buildings, richly-decorated churches and marble streets that characterize a Venetian city. Each port is stunning, but as we take in the splendor of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, and the ornate architectural details at every turn, it is obvious that Venice was the capital of the Venetian Republic in every way.

Looking back at our cruise, Jenny and I are happy with our choice of ship and itinerary and marvel that we could comfortably explore nine different ports in ten days. We never visited the small casino and apart from the well-attended, informative port talks, our favorite entertainment was the lively Crew Show. Like the ship, the show was sophisticated yet informal, mirroring much of what we enjoyed about Windstar. We also enjoyed getting to know our fellow passengers; while they tended to be more my age than Jenny’s, the ship’s friendly, low-key ambience was just right for a mother-daughter cruise.

For more information on Windstar Cruises, visit www.windstarcruises.com,

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A Day in Nantucket: How a Tiny Isolated Island Became a Global Powerhouse (With Lessons for Contemporary America)

The tall ship Lynx, an 1812 privateer, sails past the Brant Point Lighthouse, Nantucket, second oldest lighthouse in America, first built in 1746 © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin and Martin D. Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Nantucket, a porkchop-shaped island just 14 by 3½-miles with just a few thousand inhabitants, hangs 30 miles out to sea off Massachusetts’ mainland. That creates a special kind of isolation and 350 years ago, made for a special incubator for culture and industry.

“Nantucket has been a microcosm of America for 350 years, a magnet and unique laboratory for some of our most powerful impulses…People around the globe knew of Nantucket whalers,” says the narrator of a documentary, “Nantucket” by Ric Burns. Nantucket, he says, has a history of reinventing itself.

“Nantucket was created by sea. In as little as 400 years, it will be taken by the sea. We are on borrowed time.”

That alone sets up the drama before our visit to Nantucket. The documentary is an evening’s activity aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe, and now, we sail into Nantucket’s harbor in a dense fog, on the last day of our week-long voyage that has taken us to the New England islands.

Picturesque Nantucket © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This tiny place, we learn, became a global powerhouse because of whaling, which itself required technological innovations and produced a revolution in the way people lived: “Nantucket was the first global economic engine America would know.”

Indeed, here in Nantucket, we realize how revolutionary candlelight was, extending people’s days into the darkness of night. “Nantucket sperm oil made the Industrial Revolution happen.”

It also proves to be a lesson in the importance of globalization and immigration.

“In 1820, Nantucket entered its golden age. The entire Pacific its backyard, America as world power.” The square-rigged whaling ships we think of as quaint today “were state of art, decades into development, a perfect factory ship to render oil. They could go anywhere, withstand horrible conditions, serve as the home for dozens of men for three to four years at a time. They were vessels of exploration, the space ships of their day, they could travel to unknown worlds…Nantucketers were astronauts of their day.”

(I appreciate this all the more after having seen the “Spectacle of Motion: “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World,”  at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a few days before on our own voyage. See story)

But here on Nantucket, we are introduced to another aspect of the story: Quakerism and feminism.

Whaling, it turns out, became a thriving industry because of the Quakers who settled Nantucket, peacefully coexisting with the Wampanoags who had lived here for thousands of years (their numbers were decimated, though, by the diseases the Europeans brought). The Wampanoags knew how to harpoon whales that were beached and introduced the English to whaling.

But it was the Quakers’ open-mindedness, their values of modest living, hard work and practice of reinvesting money into the industry rather than on lavish living that produced the innovations. Even more significantly, Nantucket could become so successful in whaling because of the Quaker sense of egalitarianism, seeing women as having equal ability. How else could Nantucket men go off for years at a time, leaving their home, business and community to be run by the women they left behind (one street is known as Petticoat Row because of all the women-owned businesses)? Quaker women, including Lucretia Coffin Mott (who was from Nantucket) became leaders of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.

So it is no wonder that Nantucket enabled a woman, Maria Mitchell, to thrive.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer, in an exhibit at the Nantucket Whaling Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Born in 1818 on Nantucket, Maria Mitchell became America’s first woman astronomer (famous for discovering a comet in 1847, which was named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”), the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850).  She was Vassar’s first professor of astronomy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and active in the Women’s Suffrage movement.

We first are introduced to her on “Gail’s Tours” of the island, then when we visit the Whaling Museum which has a whole gallery devoted to her, and after, I am so fascinated with her, I follow a self-guided “Walking in the Footsteps of Maria Mitchell”  which takes me to the Quaker Meeting House. (Ironically, Mitchell  was too skeptical and outspoken for the Quakers and “written out” so she joined the Unitarian Church instead, which today shares its building with the Congregation Shirat Ha Yam, “a pluralistic Jewish congregation”).

Nantucket has a land area of about 45 square miles (about half the size of Martha’s Vineyard), yet seems larger, somehow, to get around.  The best way to experience Nantucket when you only have a day and when mobility may be somewhat limited, is to take an island tour.

Grand Caribe passengers take the launch into Nantucket © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

So we take the launch boat into Straight Wharf (this is the only stop on the New England Islands cruise where we anchor instead of dock), and walk along the cobblestone streets about half-mile to where Gail Nickerson Johnson has her van parked in front of the Visitor Center.

The first impression of Nantucket is how much it looks like a movie set with its quaint shops and cobblestone streets. Indeed, the one square-mile National Historic District is the largest concentration of antebellum structures in the United States. I take note of a mural on the side of a building that shows how many miles from places like Iceland, Pitcairn and Cape Town are from Nantucket, as if the center of the world.

A map on the side of a building shows how many miles from places like Iceland, Pitcairn and Cape Town are from Nantucket, as if the center of the world © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have been recommended to Gail’s Tours, and what a find this is. Gail, it turns out, is a 6th generation Nantucket native, descended from the Nickersons (her family line includes the Gardners, Coffins, Foulgers), was raised here, and knows just about everybody and every house we pass. She took over the tour business from her mother, who, she says, used to summer here before marrying her father. Her mother used to take visiting friends and relatives around in a woodie, and then got the idea to turn it into a tourist business, which she ran for 40 years.

Gail points out all the local sights:” I remember when….” “We used to ….,” “When we were kids….” “That used to be ….”

She notes that some 10,000 to 15,000 people live on Nantucket year-round, quite a jump from the 3,000 people who lived here year-round when she was growing up.

Gail jokes that Nantucket is on shaky ground – it is predicted to be under water in 400 years time. “In 300, I’m outta here.”

The Coffin House, oldest on Nantucket, dates from 1686 © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We pass all the important sights: the island’s oldest house, built as a wedding present for Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner Coffin in 1686. It has been restored after lightening struck the house, splitting it in two; the Old Windmill (1746); the Quaker cemetery where there some 5,000 people are buried but few headstones, so it looks more like a rolling field; the Maria Mitchell Observatory; cranberry bogs; the Life Saving Museum.

She points to the house that Frank Bunker Gilbreth owned – the efficiency expert depicted in his son’s book, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” “They found among his papers Morse code for how to take bath in 1 ½ minutes.” The family still owns the house. She points to where Peter Benchley (“Jaws”) lived, the house where John Steinbeck stayed when he wrote “East of Eden.”

The 70-foot tall Sankaty Head Lighthouse was built of brick in 1850 but moved to its location next to the fifth hole Sankaty Head Golf Course in 2007 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stop at Sankaty Head Lighthouse so we can get out for a closer look. The 70-foot tall lighthouse was built of brick in 1850 and automated in 1965; its beacon can be seen 26 miles away. It had to be moved and was re-lighted in its new location, just next to the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course in November 2007.

The tour finishes just around the corner from the Nantucket Whaling Museum. We pick up phenomenal sandwiches from Walter’s, have lunch on benches outside the museum.

Gail’s Tours, 508-257-6557.

Nantucket Whaling Museum

We had been to the excellent New Bedford Whaling Museum and now come to the renowned Nantucket Whaling Museum. Interestingly, the presentations and focus are very different – so the two are like bookends that add to the telling of this dramatic story.

We arrive as a historian is describing the hunt for whales, and then join the docent-led highlights tour, which is sensational.

The sperm whale oil, she says, “is a light source, power source and lubricant and could be used in winter. Artificial light in winter revolutionized life for 3 to 4 months of the year. It was used throughout the United States and Europe, prized the world over.”

The earliest whaling industry was created by Quakers, who were austere, not vain, and reinvested income into growing the industry. Portraits were not permitted (the portraits that decorate the entire wall are made later), but by the 19th century, they were not practicing Quakerism. She points to one of the earliest portraits which, without a tradition of art education in colonial America, was probably made by a housepainter, and probably an authentic representation of her likeness without artifice. She has one blue and one brown eye, which was a genetic trait among some of the earliest Nantucket settlers.

She points to a portrait of Susan Veeder, one of the women who accompanied their husbands on a whaling voyage. She kept records of the day-to-day life. “Her journals are anthropological, whereas the men’s journals were mainly about weather, tides and number of whales caught. She is the reason we know so much about life on whaling ship.” The docent adds that Veeder delivered a baby daughter while on board, but it died. “While British whalers had to have a surgeon on board, American whalers were not required to. The ship had a medical kit with numbered vials and instructions. But if they ran out of #11 vial, a captain might just add #5 and #6 together.”

Another painting shows a wife standing beside her husband seated at a desk. “It’s a rare image. Women had roles in Nantucket – they ran the town, home and business. Her husband was a whaling captain who brought back artifacts; she set up a display in house and charged admission fee and told stories. This was the first museum on the island. The contents went to the Atheneum and now are part of the Historical society collection.”

She points to a jaw bone that is the height of the room. It would have come from 80-ft whale such as rammed the Essex (the event that inspired the story of “Moby Dick”).”For people of Nantucket (most of whom had never seen a whale) would have been seen as a sea monster. For the captain to make the decision to keep this onboard for two years or so of the journey, taking up precious space on ship, speaks to how important it was.”

We go into the part of the museum that was originally a candle factory, built by the Mitchell family immediately following the Great Fire of 1846, where there is the only surviving spermaceti lever press left in the world.

She explains, “When the ship returned to Nantucket harbor, filled with as many as 2000 barrels of oil, each holding 31.5 gallons apiece, the oil would be put in storage.

“They would wait for winter to begin processing because only highest quality oil would remain liquid in winter; then process the lowest quality in spring and summer. They kept the lowest quality in Nantucket and sold first and second pressings.

“The best oil was used for lighthouses. What was left was used for spermaceti candles.These were the best candles – they burned with no odor, no smoke, no drip. They were prized throughout US and Europe. They changed the quality of life because of having a reliable light source.”

At its height, there were 36 candle factories in Nantucket.

You become aware of hearing sea chanties in the background.

Detail of the “Ann Alexander teeth” scrimshaw in the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The Ann Alexander was also sunk by a whale, but the men were rescued © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

She leads us up to the second-floor Scrimshaw gallery (those who have difficulty with steps can ask to use an elevator). “It was a way for captains to keep their sailors entertained and occupied (so they didn’t get into fights). They would soak whale teeth, burnish with shark skin (like sandpaper); sharks would be attracted to ship when processed whale – and they would kill sharks for food and use the skin.

“Sailors may be illiterate. They would trace designs from newspaper images and advertising. Victorian woman a common subject for scrimshaw because they were commonly used in fashion ads they traced.”

Some scrimshaw was functional – like pie crimpers. The men would fashion corset stays as tokens of love (they were worn close to heart). Only captains would have the space to make swifts – tools to wind skein of yarn.

Today, she says, the scrimshaw is priceless.

She notes that the Essex was not the only ship that was sunk by a whale: the Ann Alexander also was sunk by whale, but the sailors were rescued the next day and returned home.

“Another ship in the Pacific found a whale with a harpoon from the Ann Alexander in it – killed the whale and made scrimshaw out of its teeth, known as the Ann Alexander teeth” that we see here in the gallery.

There is a small room devoted to Essex story, and we come upon a storyteller retelling the story of the Essex, sunk by a whale – the event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” – from the point of view of the actual events as documented in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea” which ended with the men so desperate, they committed cannibalism.

The cabin boy on the Essex who 30 years later wrote his memoir, was Thomas Nickerson (one of Gail’s ancestors? I wonder).

This was the first known incident of an unprovoked whale ramming a ship. But, he says, they now believe that it was hammering to quickly repair one of the chase boats used when they go after the whale, that caused the whale to charge.

Melville, it turns out, only visited Nantucket for the first time in 1852, after he wrote Moby Dick.

Most interesting is the room devoted to Maria Mitchell’s Legacy, where we are introduced to her biography and achievements.

The Nantucket Historical Association which operates the museum also operates several other attractions which are included on an “all access ticket”($20/adult, $18/senior/student, $5/youth 6-17): the Oldest House & Kitchen Garden (the 1686 Coffin House); the 1746 Old Mill (you go inside and meet the miller); the Old Gaol (1806), the Quaker Meeting House (1836), the Fire Hose Cart House (1886, the last remaining 19th century fire hose cart on the island); and Greater Light.

Nantucket Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street, 508-228-1894, https://nha.org/visit/museums-and-tours/whaling-museum/   Allocate at least two hours here.

In Search of Maria Mitchell

Nantucket is dramatic, of course, because of the whaling industry – an invention that revolutionized life by bringing light into winter’s darkness and what the oil meant to enabling the Industrial Revolution.

But for me, the most fascinating thing is being introduced to Maria Mitchell – we are shown important sites associated with her on the island tour and at the museum. I am so inspired that I follow a self-guided walking tour that is delightful to give structure to exploring the town.

I meet her again in a storefront display dedicated to her, and then follow the Maria Mitchell Foundation sites: the Nantucket Atheneum (she became the first librarian, at age 18); the Pacific Bank where her father was president; the Unitarian Universalist Church which she joined after leaving the Quakers; Mitchell’s House where she was born, the Observatory built after her death in 1908 and the natural history museum operated by the Maria Mitchell Foundation (mariamitchell.org).

The Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This leads me to the Quaker Meeting House where I have a most unexpected – and fascinating – discussion of Quaker religion sitting in a pew.

“Quakers were the social cement of the community.” You couldn’t do business without being Quaker, but you could pretend to be Quaker.

“Quakers were seen as activists, the hippies of their day,” because they were free thinking and were egalitarian in their treatment of women and people of other races.

The Quakers were considered heretics and banned by the Puritans because they believed in an “inner light”. They refused to pay taxes to the church or accept authority, or take oaths (for this reason, they couldn’t become doctors or lawyers). It went counter to the control mandated by the Puritans, Anglicans.

“They would show up naked at an Anglican Church,” she tells me which sparks a thought: why isn’t Quakerism being revived today? It seems more consistent with modern-day approaches to organized religion.

Most heretical of all: they did not require those they sought to convert to accept Jesus. “They did not require personal knowledge or acceptance of Jesus, just to find God through Inner Light.”

“The Quakers were hanged, branded, their noses split.”

But they found safe haven in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, because in 1661, Charles II ordered that all trials of Quakers had to take place in England. “They were safe in America since they wouldn’t be shipped back to England.”

And over time, the Quakers toned down the “dangerous” rhetoric.

“They were excellent businessmen. They valued education (to this day): boys were educated to 13 or 14 when they were expected to join the whaling ships; but girls were educated to 17 or 18, so they had more formalized education than men.”

The women, therefore, were left in charge of home, businesses and community when the men left for their whaling voyages. Centre Street was nicknamed Petticoat Row because women owned all the businesses.

On the other hand, Maria Mitchell must have stepped over the line, because in 1843, even though her father was an elder, her “skepticism and outspokenness resulted in her leaving Quaker Meeting and being ‘written out’ by the Society.”

A pair of Greek Revival houses tell of the heyday of Nantucket’s whaling industry © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The decline of Quakers in Nantucket followed the decline of the whaling business. A great fire in 1846 destroyed much of Nantucket’s infrastructure and the livelihoods of 8 out of 10 Nantucketers. When gold was found in California, in 1849, scores of whaling ships sailed for San Francisco and were sunk in the harbor there rather than return; when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859 as a cheaper, easier fuel, scores of Nantucketers went there. The ships, which had to be built bigger and bigger for the longer journeys, had trouble coming into Nantucket’s harbor because of a build-up of silt. Then the Civil War came – more than 300 Nantucket men joined the Union and 73 were killed; the whaling ships were easy targets for the Confederates. The last whaling ship sailed from Nantucket in 1869.

“By that point, Nantucket well out of picture,” the “Nantucket” documentary notes. “The city in the middle of the ocean was evacuated. It went from a population of 10,000 to 3000 in a matter of decades, like a sleeping beauty castle, waiting 100 years with only the memories of whaling.”

Now, the docent says, there is only one full-time Nantucket resident who is Quaker. “We get 5 to 8 people for Sunday meeting.” During that time, people sit and meditate; they do not even read a Bible.

I stop in at the Research Library where there is a stunning exhibition of needlepoint on display.

A display of carvings in one of the Nantucket shops © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is so much more to see; I make notes for my return visit:

Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum  (49 Union Street, 508-228-1177, https://www.nantucketlightshipbasketmuseum.org )

Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum (158 Polpis Road, 508-228-2505, http://eganmaritime.org/shipwreck-lifesaving-museum/.  The museum is located at some distance from the town; you can obtain a free Wave bus pass to the Museum at Visitor Services at 25 Federal Street in downtown Nantucket. Nantucket Regional Transit Authority is on 20 South Water Street not far from the Whaling Museum)

Cisco Brewers  (5 Bartlett Farm Road, 508-325-5929, http://ciscobrewers.com/ . The brewery operates its own free shuttle, noon to 6:30 pm daily on the half-hour, from Visitor Services at 25 Federal Street downtown.)

Bartlett’s Farm (33 Bartlett’s Farm Road, 508-228-9403, https://bartlettsfarm.com/; located about 10-minute walk from Cisco Brewers.)

There is easy access to Nantucket’s beachfront and coastline; half of the island is protected from development © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ever-shifting sandbars lurking beneath the waters around Nantucket have caused between 700 and 800 shipwrecks, making lighthouses necessary navigational aids. Besides the Sankaty Head Lighthouse which we have seen there are two others that are worthwhile visiting:

Brant Point Lighthouse, standing at the entrance to Nantucket harbor, is the second oldest lighthouse in North America, first built in 1746 (the oldest is Boston Harbor Light c. 1716). Over the years, it has been moved and rebuilt more times than any other lighthouse in the country. The present lighthouse is the ninth one built on Brant Point. It is 26 feet tall wooden tower topped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that was built in 1901. Still in active use, it is owned by the US Coast Guard and closed to the public, but you can visit the grounds (www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime).

Great Point Lighthouse (also called Nantucket Lighthouse), New England’s most powerful lighthouse, sits at the extreme northeast end of the island. A wooden tower was quickly built and the station with a light was activated in October 1784 (and destroyed by fire in 1816). The following year a stone tower was erected which stood until toppled in a storm in March 1984. The Lighthouse was rebuilt again in 1986, the stone tower was built to replicate the old one, and still remains in operation today. Modern additions include solar panels to recharge the light’s batteries, and a sheet pile foundation and 5-foot thick concrete mat to help withstand erosion.

Nantucket also offers miles upon miles of beach open to all. And thanks in large part to the early efforts of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, nearly half of the island’s 30,000 acres are protected. A network of beautiful cycling paths wind through the island.

Contact the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, Zero Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554, 508-228-3643.

Now it is time to return to the Grand Caribe. (they make it very easy to step from the launch boat onto the stern of the ship through an open bay).

I’m back in time for the farewell cocktail reception, an open bar with delicious hors d’oeuvres. Dinner is lobster tail or prime rib (both fantastic); vanilla gelato or crème brule.

Fog envelops Nantucket harbor © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are eating dinner when the fog starts rolling in most dramatically. Within minutes, it is difficult to see even the boats anchored nearby. The foghorn blasts every few minutes – which is funny as we sit in the lounge watching the movie, “Overboard,” when the blasts seem coordinated. (Jasmine, the cruise director, has opted for this romantic comedy instead of the movie “Perfect Storm.”)

It will be a nine-hour sail back to Warren, Rhode Island where the Blount Small Ship Adventures is based. Captain Patrick Moynihan tells us to anticipate three to four foot seats for about an hour when we reach Rhode Island waters.

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955, info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com). 

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe anchored in Nantucket harbor © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

See also:

A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

Endlessly Fascinating, Newport RI, Playground for the Rich, Makes its Attractions Accessible

Cruising into Martha’s Vineyard’s Warm Embrace

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Endlessly Fascinating, Newport RI, Playground for the Rich, Makes its Attractions Accessible

 

The Gold Room at Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, epitomizes the Gilded Age © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

by Karen Rubin & Martin D. Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Each time I visit Newport, Rhode Island, the guided tours of these Gilded Age mansions get better and better, more immersive into the lives upstairs and downstairs, more intriguing, and the relevance to society today more apparent. The gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this great since Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his palatial summer “cottage,” The Breakers.

Newport is still a playground for the rich – it is the reason it is the home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and considered the sailing capital of the country, why it is so associated with classic cars – but the interesting thing is you don’t have to be rich to play, too.

This most recent visit to Newport comes as a port of call on the second day of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long voyage to New England islands. We have a full day to explore, and sailing in gives a very different perspective.

We also are able to experience Newport from the perspective of how well the destination accommodates visitors with mobility issues.

Our ship, Grand Caribe, docks at Fort Adams State Park, “America’s largest coastal fortification,” a short stroll to a launch or a water taxi to the “downtown”.

Many of our fellow passengers are taking the island tour that the ship offers, which will include a stop at The Breakers, and the cruiseline had also arranged a 2-hour sail aboard an America’s Cup classic yacht (which had to be canceled because of weather). But I have some particular goals for our day in Newport.

We are met by Andrea McHugh from Discover Newport who has organized an itinerary to maximize our time gives us our own island tour (as well as the gossip of which tech billionaire has just bought which house, and how Jay Leno, who visited and attended events at the new Audrain Automobile Museum (which we will visit), passed an oceanfront mansion he liked and bought it on the spot, and now is seen regularly tooling around).

The gorgeous coastal views along Newport’s 10-mile Ocean Drive © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive along the magnificent 10-mile long Ocean Drive with its scenic views and rocky shore, and pass the driveway into Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss estate where Jackie married John Kennedy. It used to be open to the public with a fantastic exhibit of the Kennedys but was acquired by Peter Kiernan (notable for the Robin Hood Foundation, funded by John Jr.), and is no longer open.

We pass Beechwood, a mansion once owned by the Astors and for many years, where actors played their parts in period dress. It is now owned by Larry Elllison (Oracle), who, we are told, is planning to open part of the mansion as an art museum.

We pass Belcourt, once owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont (who became the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt), which was purchased in 2012, by Carolyn Rafaelian, who has spent a considerable sum on a multi-year restoration and has reopened it for public tours.

The Breakers

The Breakers, the 70-room summer “cottage” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at The Breakers, probably the most famous (and emblematic) of the Newport Gilded Age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. It has a new visitor center which is really well done – barely visible from the street, it blends in wonderfully architecturally while affording a very comfortable (air conditioned) place to pick up tickets (take advantage of the multi-ticket options offered by The Preservation Society, which operates 10 of these glittering Newport Mansions, each with special exhibitions and presentations (see NewportMansions.org), refresh at a delightful café (sandwiches, $9.95), and utilize accessible restrooms (before, it was difficult for people with mobility issues to access a bathroom on property).

The new visitors center at The Breakers has a lovely café and sitting areas and is particularly helpful for visitors with mobility issues © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each time I visit, I find new things to appreciate and understand– audio-guides, for example, which replace the scheduled docent-led tours so let you tour at your own pace, are endlessly fascinating with opportunities to click on specialized topics. (A free app, Newport Mansions, let you download the commentary on a smart phone even when you aren’t touring the property.)

(The audio-guide lets you know that people who can’t climb the stairs can ask a docent to escort them upstairs in an elevator.)

Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (the grandson of “The Commodore,” the founder of the fortune, who turned a ferry boat into a shipping empire into a railroad empire), this breathtakingly grand, eye-popping, 70-room Italian Renaissance “cottage,” designed by Richard Morris Hunt, replaced a wooden structure that burned down. This was 1895, and the United States was jockeying for a position as an industrial power on the global stage. Hunt, the commentary relates, had a vision for an architecture expressing an American Renaissance, one that was classic, grand in scale, but that which reflected the hope and optimism of America.

Eye-popping grandeur at The Breakers, Newport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is mind-boggling to recall when you see the gilding, the carefully carved wood, the marble, the artwork, that this palace (they called it a “cottage”) was only used about eight weeks of the year, during “the season.” The Breakers would have had 40 staff in summer (Newport had 2,000 servants, mostly immigrants).

The Breakers is as much an architectural and artistic treasure as a touchstone to social, cultural and political currents of the Gilded Age.

We learn about the family and the social structure of Newport: Mrs. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bedroom, for example, also functioned as an office from which she ran the home.

Newport was actually run by women, we learn. These grand homes were designed to present their wealthy daughters (heiresses) to be snapped up for a favorable marriage.

Dressing was important. Women would have to change something like seven times a day (a riding habit, tea gown, bathing outfit, tennis, golf, sailing). Newport was the first place women played outdoor sports; whole new fashions were created.

The Breakers had 15 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms (we see one bathtub, carved from a single block of marble that was so cold, it had to be fully filled and drained several times before it would be warm enough to bathe in.)

We see the servants corridors, hidden closets and back stairs. “Female servants were invisible.”

When we arrive in daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom, we learn that she was upset to learn she was an heiress. She preferred to be an artist, and became a sculptor, an art collector and patron and, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum. (Here, I click the audio guide for more detail on specific things: Gertrude was on the forefront of the New Woman, an educated girl. The idea to become an artist came to her in a dream.)

We come to the mezzanine overlooking the grand staircase. (People who cannot climb stairs can ask to be escorted to an elevator.) “Gilded Age Newport was built, managed, and maintained by women. It was the backdrop for the presentation of women” at a time when a woman’s fortune depended upon making a favorable marriage.

The Breakers’ Grand Staircase – the steps were made two inches shorter so the debutantes would not trip on their gowns © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that the grand staircase stairs were built (and even rebuilt) to be two inches shorter, so the young debutantes could be presented in their gowns without fear of tripping.

At this portion of the tour, you can click on the audio guide to hear more detail about how the Vanderbilt’s attained such wealth and privilege (but it is really, really hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard – so many have the same name like British royalty).

The Commodore left the vast majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt (“Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it,” Cornelius Vanderbilt said.) Though he outlived his father by just eight years, in that time William doubled the Vanderbilt wealth from $100 million to $200 million.

In the oddest quote on the audio-guide, William Henry Vanderbilt explains why he sold controlling stock of the Vanderbilt empire to a syndicate headed by JP Morgan: “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden.” The commentary adds, “Without a single visionary leader like the Commodore, there was no one to invest in the next new technology. Automobiles and airplanes replaced the railroads, the once vast fortune was split and shared among generations of descendants.”

When we visit the kitchen, we get to appreciate some of the modern innovations of the house. The first Breakers burned down so when Cornelius II rebuilt it, he had the kitchen separated from house and no burners. Zinc, the stainless steel of its day, covered the worktable. There was a separate, smaller room which could be kept cool, for preparing pastry.

The Music Room at The Breakers, Newport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is worthwhile to appreciate that as we see the trappings of obscene wealth, privilege and power, we also get to appreciate that the servants – who were mainly immigrants – saw their position in these mansions as improvements, and many were able to embrace the American Dream and move up in station and class.  The Breakers’ chef, we learn, started as a kitchen boy and became known as the Omelette King.

The Butler’s pantry, a two-story affair, had a safe for the butler to lock the silver away. The butler, we are told, was like the captain of ship.

Leaving The Breakers, we walk down to the Cliff Walk, the most visited attraction in Rhode Island, and for good reason. This is a delightful walkway along the cliffs (mostly paved and accessible for someone who uses a cane or, as I urge instead, hiking sticks), behind the grand mansions such as The Breakers, and free to enjoy. It extends 3.5 miles all the way to Doris Duke’s Rough Point (where the walkway becomes more scrappy). Today, we only get a taste of it, in order to conserve time and energy.

The 3.5 mile Cliff Walk goes behind many of the magnificent Newport mansions and provides stunning views of the ocean © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marble House

If The Breakers is about patriarchal wealth, power and privilege, Marble House, built before The Breakers by Cornelius II’s sister-in-law, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, tells the story of burgeoning feminism and what happens when a smart, ambitious woman has few outlets for her vast talents beyond making an advantageous marriage.

Of the $11 million spent to build Marble House was built for Alva Vanderbilt, $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marble House (which we reach by hopping Newport’s delightful trolley-style bus) was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed The Breakers). Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House was built between 1888-1892 at a cost of $11 million of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. When it was finished, William Kissam Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s grandson, gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.

Alva built Marble House to be “a cottage like nothing Newport had ever seen.” As it turns out, Alva Vanderbilt was also like nothing Newport had never seen.

At a time before there were public museums, The Gothic Room at Marble House, which Alva Vanderbilt purchased “en bloc” in Europe, became a private museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Gothic Room featured an important Gothic collection from Europe, which Alva purchased “en bloc” – the whole caboodle. “She considered herself equal to European collectors but didn’t want to collect over generations.” The room was designed and executed in Paris – then reassembled here piece by piece.

At a time before there were public museums, this room became a private museum.

The most revealing room into Alva’s soul is the library (the “morning room”), where you see photos of Alva’s children and a portrait of Harold, born when her oldest, Consuelo was 7, who came back one day to find she had a baby brother and was told “God had sent him to us.”

The room is Alva’s feminist declaration, decorated with images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power. She wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.

Part of the ceiling decoration in the Marble House Morning Room, depicting women in intellectual roles, part of Alva Vanderbilt’s declaration of women’s rights. She later was a leader and benefactor of the Women’s Suffrage movement, holding rallies at Marble House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”

She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”

Her bedroom also was a display of the power she coveted – a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.

Alva Vanderbilt’s throne-like bedroom in Marble House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Consuelo seems to have been Alva’s obsessive focus. You hear how she was groomed to be married off to European royalty – from childhood forced to wear a steel rod from her neck to waist with a strap around her shoulders, to force her to sit up straight.

From her quotes, Consuelo seems to be fully aware of how she was being dominated by her mother, yet was a dutiful daughter, very close to her mother and understanding. We visit her  austere room decorated by her mother which, she says, “reflected in my mother’s love of me.”

Consuelo Vanderbilt’s bedroom at Marble House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see the guest room – the only one in this fabulous mansion – decorated in rose silk, with an 18th century bed. The most famous guest was, of course, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo’s intended. We learn there is only one guest room in the house because people who would visit the house either had their own “cottage,” rented for the season or stayed in a hotel. “Marble House is built for the family.”

Consuelo “reluctantly accepted a proposal from the Duke of Marlborough.” She was one of the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who married foreign royalty.”Consuelo Vanderbilt not the first or the last, but she was the best known.”

These marriages, “were a melding of the old world and the new world. They enabled royalty to maintain property and palaces for another generation.”

Indeed, the Gilded Salon – literally painted in 22 carat gold, the very epitome of Gilded Age – had a featured role in Duke’s marriage proposal.

But after Consuelo was married off to British royalty, Alva acted for herself, divorcing William K in 1895.

My favorite quote from the audio guide, “I was the first of my set to marry a Vanderbilt and the first to get divorced – but not the last.” Alva Erskine Smith of Alabama felt herself a pioneer for her class, a female knight reassuring others. “Mine was the first, but the first of many.”

She ditched William K. Vanderbilt to marry her husband’s best friend, Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt.

After her second husband’s death, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs, and held Women’s Suffrage rallies © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs. She became active and a major donor to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, holding rallies in 1909 at Marble House.

She raised money for the cause by opening Marble House to the public: “Shop girls could mingle with socialites” for the price of a $5 ticket (which would have been equivalent to $500 in today’s money).

Alva insisted, “Women shouldn’t marry until we get vote,” a pronouncement considered hypocritical for a twice-married woman.

Following her mother’s example, after 26 years as Duchess of Marlborough living in Blenheim Palace, Consuelo ended her loveless marriage in 1921, giving him $2.5 million a year, and married “for love” a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. (More about these personal relationships in a fantastic photo gallery in the basement.)

In stark contrast to the grand (albeit austere) bedroom that Consuelo occupied, her brothers’ rooms were tiny and spartan; Willy K Jr.’s room was occupied by Marble House superintendent, William Gilmour, who joined the household when he was 16 to be Willy K’s companion.

We visit a trophy room (that had been converted from two dressing rooms that were between Alva’s bedroom and Consuelo’s), that recognizes sons William K., Jr.’s role in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America (he created the Vanderbilt Cup auto races and built the Vanderbilt Parkway which starts across from where he had a home in Lake Success); and Harold Stirling, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times and invented the game of contract bridge.  Notably, as chairman of the board of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Harold supported integration.”He wanted to be associated with positive, progressive thinking.”

In the basement kitchen (capable of feeding 100), we see yet another side of Alva in a quoted segment complaining “how the rich are exploited. When a shopkeeper learned my address, he said he made mistake of the price and added 50%.” This at a time when she paid a French chef (after all, you had to have a French chef), the massive sum of $10,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today).

We see in the cupboard silver trays etched with the children’s names and china made with “Vote for Women.”

In Marble House, too, people who have difficulty climbing stairs can ask to use an elevator, and the docents will find a place to sit and rest, as necessary.

In summer, the Preservation Society has 10 properties open, all with distinctive presentations and exhibits.

Rosecliff, the 1902 “fantasy in terra-cotta”, is presenting “Bohemian Beauty” celebrating the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, personified by Oscar Wilde who visited Newport twice, with furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and clothing (thru Nov 4).

(Plan your visit in advance at The Preservation Society of Newport County, 424 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840,  401-847-1000, info@newportmansions.org, www.newportmansions.org.)

In addition, there are the homes and heritage sites operated by Newport Restoration Foundation including Rough Point and Whitehorne Museum (51 Touro St., Newport, RI 02840, 401–849–7300, newportrestoration.org).

Tennis, Classic Cars

Between The Breakers and Marble House, we take in some of Newport’s other distinctive attractions:

The grass tennis court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, where the first US Open tournaments were played. The hall of fame honors tennis champions © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which features the original grass court where American tennis began. The museum features 2,000 artifacts spanning hundreds of years of tennis history (such as the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874), displayed in redesigned galleries with some interactive exhibits. One of the newest, most novel exhibits features a hologram of tennis legend Roger Federer who offers the top 10 reason why he loves tennis. The Hall of Fame honors hundreds of the most accomplished champions, inducted since 1954. After touring the museum, you can explore the seven-acre historic grounds of what the Vanderbilts’ would have known as the Newport Casino (the Tiffany clocktower and Shingle style building was originally developed by architects McKim, Mead & White in 1880), grass courts of the Bill Talbert Stadium and newly built indoor courts (you can even rent time to play on its grass courts). Here, too, we are able to request the use of an elevator to get up to the exhibits on the second floor. (194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com).

Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars (every one in working condition), from 1899 to modern day, as well as special events. Ever changing exhibits display 15 to 20 cars at a time around a theme. We had just missed the “Muscle Car Madness” exhibit featuring cars of the 1950s and 1970s, accompanied with surf boards and original art.) On view now are some intriguing cars I had never seen before: Messerschmidt, which after World War II when Germans were no longer allowed to build airplanes, used airplane parts to create a micro-car that basically looks like a cockpit with wheels. A French version is also on view. “They aren’t great to drive,” says the young docent who drove it and says all the cars on display have to be in working condition.  (Audrain Automobile Museum, 222 Bellevue Avenue, 401-856-4420, audrainautomuseum.org)

Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars; here some of the micro cars produced after World War II that are more like an airplane cockpit (and made from airplane parts) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We enjoy a marvelous lunch at Annie’s bistro café (176 Bellevue Ave., anniesnewport.com) – elegant dining in a casual atmosphere and the best New England clam chowder anywhere –before hopping a trolley-style bus for a short ride to Marble House (you can see the schedule on googlemaps.com on your smartphone).

Andrea returns us to the Grande Caribe, where it is too late to explore inside the fort, but I walk along the Bay Walk (a 2.5 mile  loop with gorgeous views of Narrangansett Bay and Newport Harbor) before returning to the ship for the cocktail hour and dinner.  (Blount Small Ship Adventures, 800-556-7450,  www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).

This was what you could do with one full day in Newport. There is so much more to do, and so deserving of a return multi-day visit. Top on my list: Doris Duke’s Rough Point (newportrestoration.org); Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors Center (tourosynagogue.org), Redwood Library and Athenaeum (opened in 1750 and has a collection of more than 200,000 titles, www.redwoodlibrary.org), and The National Museum of American Illustration (americanillustration.org), to list but a few.

See more and plan your visit: Discover Newport, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-326-6030, 401-849-8048, www.discovernewport.org.

Blount’s Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Grande Caribe will next sail to New Bedford (see A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum) and on to Martha’s Vineyard.

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955,  info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com). 

See also:

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie: Heritage of Erie Canal Preserved in Murals Along the Erie Canalway

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the many delights of Parks & Trails NY’s 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour from Buffalo to Albany across New York State, is coming up beautiful murals that describe the history and cultural heritage of the Erie Canal and the canaltowns that were spawned.  Through the course of the ride, you travel 400 miles but also 400 years through history, and see the whole story of how America came to be unfold in front of you.

Here are some of our favorites, as we bike along the Erie Canalway, on brick, on barns, on bridges, on benches, on fences:

Gasport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Middleport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Medina © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Spencerport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Spencerport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Palmyra © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Palmyra © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Palmyra © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Newark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sims General Store, Camillus © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Syracuse Canal Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Outside of Rome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.   

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Spurs Rise of America as Global Industrial Power

Cycle the Erie, Days 7-8: Schoharie Crossing, Mabee Farm, Cohoes Falls to Finish Line in Albany of 400-Mile BikeTour

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie, Days 7-8: Schoharie Crossing, Mabee Farm, Cohoes Falls to Finish Line in Albany of 400-Mile BikeTour

 

Outside of Conajoharie, a Cycle the Erie rider stops off to buy some fresh-baked cookies © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

A highlight on Day 7 of Parks & Trails NY’s annual 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany is Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site. It looks fairly innocuous at first, a farm house along the canal, but here is the only place where you can see all three alignments of the Erie Canal – the 1825 “Clinton’s Ditch”, the 1836 expanded canal and the modern, 1918 “Barge Canal.”  The house, now a visitor center, contains a fascinating exhibit and is adjacent to outlines of Fort Hunter, an 18th century fort and trading post, remarkably only discovered after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site dates from colonial times; it was a trading post. Here you can see all three incarnations of the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The historic flooding caused the Schoharie Creek to breach its banks and destroyed the site’s parking lot. After the flood water receded, a number of stone walls and numerous artifacts associated with Fort Hunter emerged. Excavations revealed flat stone foundations upon which a fort wall and 24-foot square blockhouse would have been constructed.

After the archaeological work was completed, these original fort foundations were preserved by reburying them. Their exact locations are now represented on the surface with modern stone pavers. Artifacts recovered during excavation included a mix of domestic and military objects that represent the site’s Mohawk and British occupants. Dates associated with the artifacts suggest that the blockhouse saw greatest use from the 1740s to 1760.

Though you don’t really see anything of Fort Hunter, it points to how significant this area was in colonial times: Schoharie was a place of key interactions between Europeans and Indians, setting up a later clash of cultures.

Outlines of the foundation walls of Fort Hunter were revealed after Hurricane Irene in 2011© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the 1600s, the British and French competed for control here. In the 1690s, the British forged an alliance with the Iroquois to establish a permanent structure – a fort/trading post – in order to solidify their standing.

The Indians at the time of the Revolutionary War were settled on farms and in towns. They employed European style farming techniques, lived in houses, and the gender roles started to shift away from the matriarchal society to male-dominated, copying the Europeans.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, there might have been about 10,000 Indians living in the area.

“They didn’t have a concept of property ownership. They were outnumbered early on” largely because of the diseases the Europeans brought that wiped out large numbers of the population, and over-trapping which pushed many further west.

“They were very good at diplomacy – well organized – and controlled access to the waterways. They played the European powers,” David Brooks, Education Coordinator says.

East Guard Lock – the original 1820s “Clinton Ditch” canal – at Schoharie Crossing State Historic State © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic photo of the lock at Schoharie Crossing © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most interesting at Schoharie Crossing is you can stand over the East Guard Lock – the original 1820s “Clinton Ditch” canal (now overgrown) – and see the same scene, minus water, as depicted in a historic photo.

Facing the other direction, standing beside the water, you can look over to what remains of the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct, built between 1835 and 1841 for the enlarged canal. This once grand 14-arch, 624-foot long aqueduct carried the canal above and apart from the Schoharie Creek (it enabled the canal to continue to function during flooding). The aqueduct was abandoned in 1917 when the Barge Canal opened on the Mohawk River, and over the years it declined so only six of the arches remain.

What remains of the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.comA short bike ride further along the trail, you can visit Yankee Hill Lock #28 and the Putman Canal Store – the last double lock that was completed in eastern New York. The Putman’s Lock Grocery was constructed in 1856 and owned by the Garrett Putman family into the 1900s. (Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, 129 Schoharie St., Fort Hunter, NY 12069, 518-829-7516, SchoharieCrossing@parks.ny.gov).

Putman Canal Store sits amidst at the convergence of the three Erie Canals © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Mabee Farm

The initial appeal for me to join Parks & Trails NY’s annual Cycle the Erie bike tour was the exciting prospect of biking 400 miles, point to point, mostly without cars (and mostly on a flat trail), across New York State, with support services to carry our gear and host meals. But each and every day, I am pleasantly amazed at the array of sites to explore and discover. The Parks & Trails NY people who have designed the tour not only arrange visits at important sites along the way, but for morning and afternoon rest stops at interesting attractions that you might not have considered visiting on your own.

This is the case for our afternoon rest stop (at Mile 33.6), at the Mabee Farm Historic Site, which also houses the Schenectady Historical Society Museum.

Here, you can visit the Mabee’s 1705 Dutch-style Stone House, which was owned by the Mabee family until 1999.

This is one of the oldest homes in New York State and the oldest in the Mohawk Valley. It was first built in 1670 by Daniel Janse Van Antwerpen, who, it is believed, opened it as a fur-trading post. The property was sold to Jan Pieterse Mabee in 1705 and the house stayed in the Mabee family for a remarkable 288 years. It was given to the Schenectady County Historical Society in 1993 by George Franchere, the last descendant of the Mabee line, for the purpose of being a museum and education center.

Mabee’s 1705 Dutch-style Stone House, which was owned by the Mabee family until 1999, This is one of the oldest homes in New York State and the oldest in the Mohawk Valley © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a surprise to most who visit these colonial sites to learn that slavery was practiced here, beginning after Jan Mabee’s death in 1725 and ended 100 years later in 1827 with Jacob Mabee, his great grandson (when New York State abolished slavery). Among the 583 original documents from the farm are three bills of sale for slaves, wills giving slaves to children and a receipt from the Crown Point Expedition in 1755 when a trusted slave, Jack, was sent to Fort Edward and Lake George with supplies, two weeks before the Battle of Lake George.

“What is significant about the Mabee family is that they were ordinary,” the docent says.

Jan Mabee, born in Holland, bought the property from a neighbor in 1705, and lived in the cellar as he built the house. Jan and his wife Annette had 8 kids.

The house partly made out of stone; the wood beams are 1000 years old.

Jan was likely involved in the illegal trapping business. His wife was part Mohawk so they had a good relationship with the local Indians. The Dutch were tolerant and fair with the tribes (it was the British and French who cheated them).

Over the years, the house was turned into the Mabee Inn. Simon Mabee farmed the land and when he died, he left everything but the Inn to his son, Jacob;  he left the inn to his two sisters.

It turns out that the Mabee farm is more than a history lesson, but a study of a dysfunctional family.

“Jacob was not a nice man. Jacob evicted them. He hired a carpenter and flipped the staircase around so they have no way to get up to the second floor. He built a new door. The sisters lived in one room. Jacob died 6 years later and the land passed to Margaret.”

The Mabee sisters were confined to just one room of the house by their brother, Jacob © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just outside the house is the family cemetery. You can visit the 1760s Nilsen Dutch Barn, see the beautiful Mohawk River flow alongside the site. Tied to the dock or parked behind the Dutch Barn is a reproduction 18th century bateaux, the De Sagar and the Bobbie G , which provides an idea of how goods were shipped up and down the river.

Mabee family cemetery © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During our visit, a country fair is underway.

(Mabee Farm Historic Site, 100 Main St (Rte 5s), Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150, 518-887-5073, schenectadyhistorical.org/sites).

The Schenectady History Museum offers wonderful exhibits that follow the history of the county from the early settlers who traded with the Indians and farmed, to the 19th and 20th century. There is a collection of early American artifacts of the American Revolution era, the impact of the Erie Canal, and artifacts that show the role this area played in technological innovation and industrialization because of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company.

Coming upon a country fair at the Mabee Farm Historic Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride a newly paved bike path into Schenectady.

In Schenectady, they have arranged for us to leave our bikes in a “corral” so we can explore the city.

I spend my time riding through The Stockade District. The oldest neighborhood in Schenectady, the Stockade District has been continuously inhabited for over 300 years, and is New York State’s first Historic District (since 1962) with an amazing assortment of historic buildings with more than 40 pre-Revolutionary houses and architectural styles that include Dutch Colonial, Georgia, Federal and Victorian.(You can access a cell phone walking tour at www.historicstockade.com.)

Riding through the Stockade District in Schenectady, New York State’s oldest neighborhood and first historic district, it has been continuously inhabited for 300 years. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I pull myself away to finish the ride to get to the Jewish Community Center at Niskayuna, a suburban neighborhood of Schenectady, where we camp. This is an incredible facility with a country-club like outdoor pool (indoor pool also).  I get there in time to swim.

This is the last night of our journey – and what a journey it has been. They have an elaborate “gala” dinner starting with beer and wine and hors d’oeuves, a fantastic catered dinner, and a “No Talent” talent show and a fashion show put on by the van drivers and baggage handlers of all the stuff that is still in the Lost & Found. And awards: like the most bones broken; the most crashes (5); most flat tires (4); the youngest solo peddling cyclist (8), the oldest cyclist (84). Side-splitting fun.

Truck drivers put on “fashion” show of Lost & Found items on last night of Parks & Trails NY’s Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 8, Schenectady to Albany, 31 Miles

Our last day, the eighth of our 400-mile journey which began in Buffalo, is a breeze. Just 31 miles from Niskayuna into downtown Albany where most of us have parked our cars to take the bus to Buffalo for the start of the tour. The weather is perfect – sunny, cool.

Riding along the Mohawk River © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The highlight of today’s ride comes at Mile 12: Cohoes Falls, one of the most powerful falls east of the Rockies which posed a major challenge for the Erie Canal engineers. Some of our riders who started in Buffalo were able to visit Niagara Falls and now are ending with Cohoes Falls, outside of Albany. What a way to bookend this journey.

Cohoes Falls, one of the most powerful falls east of the Rockies, posed a major challenge for the Erie Canal engineers © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just next to the falls are 19th century brick structures, built as factories that have been repurposed to apartments.

Our ride takes us onto Peebles Island State Park, Waterford, where our final rest stop of our journey is arranged at the Erie Canalway Visitor Center. During the Revolutionary War, American forces prepared defenses here to make a final stand against the British. (518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org).

Biking over the bridge from Peebles Island State Park © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride through city streets – notable for the American flags that are flying – neighborhoods that have seen better days but nonetheless evoke a folksy feel of Americana.

Now, we come to the Hudson River, a goal in itself. We ride along a beautiful paved trail beside the Hudson that takes us into downtown Albany, New York State’s 300-year-old capital, and finally, cross the finish line, 400 miles.

You realize you haven’t just traveled 400 miles, but 400 years of American history, back to its very founding. And you understand so much better, the trajectory from colonialism and the clash of cultures with Native Americans, the transition from an agrarian economy to the Industrial Revolution, the wave of immigration and innovation, the progressive movements that followed and precipitated the explosive changes in society: labor, Women’s Rights, abolition. Most interesting of all, is how all of these seeds still flower in contemporary culture and politics. All of this unfolds before our eyes, mile by mile.

Youngest self-pedaling rider, 8-year old Sam Demeritt, with 11-year old brother, crosses the finish line in Albany, after biking 400-miles from Buffalo on the Cycle the Erie bike tour. Family, from Malta NY, also included Mom and Dad and 4-year old brother. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Biking adds an extra dimension to sight-seeing. It’s physical participation, an endorphin rush, an immersion. It puts you into the scene rather than merely observing – a participant, a part of the scene, rather than apart from it.

The tour is meticulously planned, well organized and supported, and how we have such wonderful opportunities to meet people from around the country (36 states are represented) and around the world (travelers from a half-dozen countries are here). A gathering like this prompts such fascinating interactions as people share their backgrounds, perspectives.

All of us have been so impressed by how well organized the trip is – from the truck drivers who pick up and drop off our gear each day, to the people who set up our breakfast and dinners and the morning and afternoon rest stops, to the SAG drivers and the riders who are there to assist if we have a problem. To the lecturers, the massage therapist and bike mechanics who travel along with us like camp followers.

Ah, this is the life. Camping on the grounds of the Schenectady Jewish Community Center in Niskayuna © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For those who prefer not to set up their own tent (or take advantage of “indoor camping”) there is Comfy Campers, the closest thing to “glamping”. You have the luxury of having someone set up tent so it’s ready when you arrive, especially if it is raining, where you get a remarkably comfortable air mattress to put your sleeping bag on (amazing what a difference this makes), and take the tent down in the morning so you can just hit the trail again. Not to mention a fresh towel each day! Also, they set up a separate comfortable sitting area under canvas with charging stations. Those who want can also pay for coffee in the morning.

Camping on the grounds of the Schenectady Jewish Community Center in Niskayuna © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are told that the finish line right at the Albany visitor center closes at 2 pm; UPS is on hand for those who need to ship their bikes home; a shower is made available nearby at the North YMCA; the municipal parking lot where many of us have parked our car is just next door; our luggage is deposited in the parking lot behind the visitor center for us to claim; some of us will take the shuttle bus back to Buffalo.

This has been one of the best, most memorable trips I have ever taken because the end-to-end Cycle the Erie ride hits on all cylinders: physically active and challenging so you feel you have really accomplished something at the end; communal – being with like-minded people from all over the country and the world, rich in heritage, scenic, affording real exploration and enlightenment. It’s no wonder that so many of us (myself included) have done it multiple times. (On this trip, the oldest cyclist, 84-year old, has done the tour 12 times.)

Cycle the Erie is an annual event, but you can download the route and do it all, or do segments as you like. A novel way to do it is by houseboat  through companies like Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., Ltd. (11 Jordan St., PO Box 61, Skaneateles, NY 13152, 315-685-8500, 800-545-4318, info@midlakesnav.com,www.midlakesnav.com, and take a bike onboard, providing a unique experience. (Be aware: they pull the plug on the Erie Canal – actually drain the water – from November through April).

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.  

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Spurs Rise of America as Global Industrial Power

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Spurs Rise of America as Global Industrial Power

Moss Island trails let you see prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 6: Rome to Canajoharie, 63 Miles

It’s Day 6 of our 8-day, 400-mile Parks & Trails NY’s annual Buffalo to Albany Cycle the Erie bike tour following the Erie Canalway. I was lucky last night when the deluge we had while biking stopped just as I came into the campsite and I was able to set up my tent on the grassy area surrounding Fort Stanwix, in Rome. This morning, I am awakened at 4:15 am to another massive downpour. I check weather.com app on my cellphone which says the rain would stop by 5:45 am. So I get up at 5:45 am (which is not unusual for the Erie Canal cyclists) and sure enough, the rain has stopped. I take advantage of the dry spell to organize my packing and take down the tent to avoid more rain.

Our breakfast – freshly prepared pancakes which we consume at long tables laid out with pretty placemats – is at the local YMCA before we head out onto the Canalway for our 63-mile ride to Canajoharie – the longest ride of our trip, there are actually three rest stops along the ride today, at mile 14, 41.5 and 52.5).

Yesterday’s rain has made the trail muddy, and when we go off the trail onto the road, there are serious headwinds and some significant hills, and my gears aren’t working properly.

Remington Arms Factory, founded in 1816, closed when we pass. Its museum shows a legacy of typewriters, bridges, and guns, and early marketing branding genius: getting Annie Oakley to endorse its rifle. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride past the Remington Arms Factory housed in a massive 19th century complex of brick buildings (the factory opened in 1816 and employed hundreds of people from here, which helps explain the pro-gun voting sentiment in this part of upstate New York). Two years ago, on my first Cycle the Erie biketour, I visited the Remington Museum (a highlight was seeing how they branded and marketed the guns, making a promotion deal with the celebrated Annie Oakley, for example; and how the company also produced other things, like bridges and typewriters but guns were the cash cow). I was looking forward to visiting again but it is closed and the cyclists are clearly not invited anywhere near the premises. (News update: the Remington Arms company has filed for bankruptcy protection – and I am reminded of several other periods of financial woes in its history – but I’m betting it won’t actually go out of the business of manufacturing guns.)

Fort Herkimer, named for General Herkimer , “the most important hero of the American Revolution that few have heard of,” who was fatally wounded at the Battle of Oriskany © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I come upon Historic Fort Herkimer Church, built around 1767 which is thought to be the second-oldest surviving church. From my visits to Fort Stanwix last evening, I understand why General Herkimer is known as “the most important hero of the American Revolution that few have heard of “. General Herkimer led that ill-fated group of 800 volunteers who were ambushed at Oriskany on their way to reinforce Fort Stanwix. Oriskany turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, with 600 killed in the space of an hour, but by a weird chain of events, indirectly altered the course of the Revolutionary War which the Americans were losing. Herkimer died here. Later (at Mile 43.4), we pass directly in front of Herkimer’s mansion home that is literally along the Erie Canal Trail, so I take a few minutes to walk the grounds before continuing on my way, paying respects to an unsung hero.

The second rest stop is at a beautiful visitor center at the Little Falls Canal Park on the bank of the river where I buy a long-sleeve t-shirt for added warmth). The weather improves after, with 25 miles to go, and I don’t need to wear the extra shirt.

Just beyond our rest stop at mile 41.5 at the Little Falls Rotary Canal Park,  at mile 42.6, we can explore the glacial potholes of Moss Island, a National Natural Landmark and Lock 17, the highest lift lock on the Erie Canal (located .8 miles off the route but you don’t have to go back up). The geology here is most impressive: Moss Island trails let you see prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America. The Mohawk River Valley, the marker says, is the only horizontal break in the Appalachian mountain chain, which is what made it possible for the Erie Canal to be built and provide a water route west for trade and settlement of the United States interior.

Moss Island trails let you see prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We pass German Flatts townpark, which you are unlikely to take note of, except that in Fort Stanwix, I had learned that German Flatts had been burned to the ground by Loyalists, part of the brutal scorched-earth strategy waged by both sides in the Revolutionary War.

This part of our ride immerses us in colonial-era America. At mile 52.5, we have an option of two routes to take into Canajoharie and consistent with my plan to do as much as possible differently from my first Erie Canal ride, I take the blue trail option along the road to three historic sites (I miss the first one, the Nellis Tavern built in 1747, which was serving travelers along this route well before the Erie Canal was opened, in 1825); I stop at Fort Klock, built in the 18th century where there is a 1750 farmhouse, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop);  I see the Palatine church, built in 1770 by Palatine Lutherans, from across the busy road. But I also see Amish (or Mennonite) workers using a power saw, one gets into truck; an Amish horse and buggy passes by. I am happy with my decision.

Fort Klock, built in the 18th century, where there is a 1750 farmhouse, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the challenges of the entire 400-mile ride now faces us: the last mile is the steepest climb of the trip, up to the Canajoharie High School at the very top where we will camp. There is a t-shirt for anyone who makes the climb. (I almost make it but my gears fail me, and I give up.)

Taking the historic “blue” route instead of the Canal trail into Canajoharie, passing farms, I encounter this scene © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Parks & Trails NY biketour organizers mercifully have arranged buses to take us back down into the town center to the Arkell Art Museum where we are being treated to a fantastic barbecue chicken dinner, and the museum is staying open for us until 7:30 pm (at a reduced fee of $5).

The Arkell Art Museum was established by the millionaire founder and first president of the Beech-Nut Packing Company. I hadn’t visited the museum the last time (when we also had a fantastic chicken barbeque dinner here), so I made a point of visiting this time.

Bartlett Arkell, built the original Canajoharie Gallery in 1927 based on galleries he had visited on his travels to Europe. A museum designed by Ann Beha and DesignLAB Architects was added in 2007 to the existing Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery to provide new space for exhibitions and programs.

Visiting the Arkell Art Museum, founded by Bartlett Arkell of Beech-Nut © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Almost all of the paintings in the permanent collection were purchased by Bartlett Arkell for the people of Canajoharie. The American painting collection includes 21 works by Winslow Homer, and significant paintings by many distinguished artists, including George Inness, William M. Chase, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Henri, and other members of The Eight. Permanent and changing exhibitions also feature selections from the museum’s Mohawk Valley History collection as well as the Beech-Nut as the Beech-Nut archives of early twentieth-century advertising material.”

Artwork for Beech-Nut ad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am even more intrigued by the exhibit that tells the story of Arkell and the Beech-Nut company, which (at least the photos suggest) was the Google of its day in terms of providing a cafeteria for its workers and other employee niceties.

Artwork for Beech-Nut ad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn that the key renovation that led to Beech-Nut’s success was the invention of the flour bag and that Beech-Nut began as a packaging enterprise; gum and candy came later (and used the peppermint oil from Hotchkiss Oil company in Lyons which we had visited).

You can see the old Beech-Nut factory (now shuttered) across the street; Beech-Nut was acquired by another company which has a new factory nearby. 

(The Arkell Museum ,2 Erie Blvd., Canajoharie, NY 13317, 518 673-2314, info@arkellmuseum.orgarkellmuseum.org)

From the village center, we see the old high school, a cold, gothic style structure, up on another hill. The new high school, where we are camping, is luxurious. We wander around the quaint village, which has some striking Victorian architecture as a tribute to its wealth, before taking the shuttle bus back up the hill to our campsite.

I get back to the school in time for a rock n’ roll concert in the auditorium.

Day 7: Canajoharie to Schenectady, 46 Miles

It is Day 7 of our 8-day ride and we are already feeling nostalgic that the end of our 400-mile journey from Buffalo to Albany is near. It’s a nice day for biking the 46 miles to Schenectady: perfect temperature, little wind, morning sun. The trail is nice, with a slight downhill tilt.

A glimpse of the break in the Appalachians which provided the route for the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A fellow has stopped on the trail and I look to where he is looking and see “Big Nose & Little Nose” –  where a glacier cut a path through Appalachians which is why this was always the place where the Erie Canal could be constructed  (it’s hard to appreciate because of the overgrowth of trees).

Unscheduled rest stop: buying cookies © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A highlight of this day’s ride is the new pedestrian/bicycle bridge across the Mohawk River connecting to Amsterdam.

The bridge is fabulous, much like the Walkway over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie (now one of New York State’s most popular attractions). I meet Michelle Eggleston who is a good-will ambassador for the town of Amsterdam, who tells me, “The bridge gives the community a sense of place,” she tells me. “More people are enjoying the river. My daughter started a kayak business, Down by the River Kayak. There are more boats on the river.”

Amsterdam used to be a center of carpet manufacturing factories which shut down, bringing down with them the economy and living standard of the city. Now many of these buildings have been repurposed to business incubators; there is ballroom in the clock tower.

The new bridge over the Mohawk River at Amsterdam © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“New people are moving in. Two of my four kids bought houses in Amsterdam. They are seeing it as a great place to live – the waterfront, the bike trail, restaurants they can walk to. Other business are seeing that and that Amsterdam is a great place to be, and are coming in. We had the Albany Symphony here on July 4 – thousands of people on the bridge. I’ve lived in Montgomery County my whole life – I’ve never seen that before. We have been given a sense of place; people are proud of our town.”

In one fell swoop of the space of our bikeride, today, we have gone from colonial times to the Industrial Revolution, to the post-Industrial Revolution.

Next: Schoharie Crossing, Mabee Farm, Cohoes Falls and Finish Line of 8-Day, 400-Mile Cycle the Erie BikeTour

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.  

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

National Park Ranger Bill Sawyer (right) and two other reenactors bring Revolutionary War-era history to life at Fort Stanwix, Rome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Cycle the Erie riders set up tents just outside the fortifications of Fort Stanwix, in downtown Rome, a reconstruction of the 1758 fort, now a National Historic Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Reenactors patrol the ramparts at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Map of the Six Nations territory, according to the 1768 treaty negotiated by Sir William Johnson © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.”

Reenactors patrol the ramparts at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

The British surrender at the Battles of Saratoga removed the threat of a British invasion in northern New York. Few realize how the Patriot victory was a ripple effect of events at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

National Parks Ranger Bill Sawyer guides us through Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The fireplace is the only part of the original 1758 fort that remains at Fort Stanwix. The fort was rebuilt to original plans retrieved from British archives © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

National Parks Ranger Bill Sawyer guides us through Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.”

Fort Stanwix also offers one of the best presentations of tribal Indians and European settlers in the colonial and Revolutionary War period © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Centuries of Peace Upended in One Day © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

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 © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Household items, among the 400,000 items excavated from the Fort Stanwix site, would have been similar between Indian and settler homes © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Our Cycle the Erie encampment at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

 

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