Category Archives: US Destinations

How Rapid City, South Dakota Came to Be ‘The City of Presidents’

A near life-sized statue of President George Washington on the corner outside the Alex Johnson Hotel, one of 43 presidents immortalized in Rapid City, South Dakota, “The City of Presidents.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

If Deadwood, South Dakota – the endpoint of the 109-mile Mickelson Trail on the Wilderness Voyageurs’ six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour – is a shrine to the Old Wild West, Rapid City is what the American West is today.

The Wilderness-Voyageurs Badlands trip (800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com) starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).

The red sign atop the Alex Johnson Hotel, Rapid City, South Dakota, is an iconic symbol of the city © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel, still the third tallest in South Dakota, even provides a walking tour of many artifacts and architectural features that in their own way tell the story of Rapid City.

The Alex Johnson Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, which means that successive owners have recognized their responsibility as stewards of these place-making hotels that harbor the story of their respective destination.  To be accepted into the prestigious HHA program, which has nearly 300 members, a hotel has to faithfully maintain authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity, be at least 50 years old; designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; and recognized as having historic significance. (More information at HistoricHotels.org)

The Alex Johnson Hotel is all of these things and more. The hotel was built by Alex Carlton Johnson (1861-1938), who was vice president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Johnson was unusual for his time in that he respected and admired the Native Americans who lived in the area and developed his hotel as a tribute to the Sioux Indian Nation and honor its heritage. The structural design of the hotel integrates the heritage of the Plains Indians and the Germanic Tudor architecture representing German immigration into the Dakotas.

A striking portrait of Alex Johnson in Sioux attire hangs in the lobby of the hotel he built in Rapid City. Johnson was made an honorary blood brother of Chief Iron Horse in 1933, and named “Chief Red Star.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Construction began in 1927, coincidentally, just the day before work began on nearby Mount Rushmore. The hotel opened less than a year later, on July 1, 1928. 

I follow the walking tour:

At the entrance of the hotel are sculpted Indian heads, taken from the design of Indian-head nickels and pennies.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The entrance has an “AJ” tepee symbol embedded in the entry walkway. The lobby itself is designed in Native American tradition with “Sacred Four Directions” integrated in the lobby tiles. The Lakota Sioux people believed their four sacred powers were derived from the four directions: north (white) a symbol for the “Cleansing Snow.”; east (red), the “Morning Star” which gives “Daybreak Knowledge”; south (yellow) is “Warm Winds” which replenishes the land; west (black) is “Thunder Being,” giving strength and power in times of trouble. Among the signs is a symbol that resembles a swastika, but was long used by Native Americans since prehistoric times.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Suspended with chains, the chandelier that dominates the center is actually formed of war lances. It is in the shape of a teepee and made of concentric, decreasing-sized copper-clad wooden rings. The rings are decorated in authentic Sioux patterns.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exquisite ceiling incorporates stenciled Sioux designs between open beams. The brightly-colored patterns, originally painted with natural materials, are in the traditional “box and border” design. There are eight plaster-cast busts of Indian men that hold the beams.

The fireplace is formed of Black Hills stones. A huge rock in the keystone was selected for its resemblance to a buffalo head. The mantle is decorated with brands of local ranchers. Above the fireplace is a striking portrait of Alex Johnson in Sioux attire. Johnson was made an honorary blood brother of Chief Iron Horse in 1933, and named “Chief Red Star.” Another portrait of Johnson, in a more typical businessman pose, was commissioned by the 580 members of the Chicago Rotary Club in appreciation for his service as president (1924-25).

Alex Johnson, who founded the Alex Johnson Hotel, Rapid City, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are two bison heads mounted over the southwest entrance of the AJ’s Mercantile shop (American buffalo are apparently not buffalo at all, but one of two species of bison). I learn that “buffalo” was a corruption of “boeuf,” the name the French explorers used for the animal.

The mezzanine and second floor are graced with carved wood railings and provide a gorgeous vantage point to appreciate the Indian busts, ceiling painting and chandelier,

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ballroom, which also served as a nightclub back in the day, has four murals painted by Max Rheiner, an artist from Chicago, that realistically depict four well known areas of the region: Harney Peak, the Needles (which we will soon visit on the bike tour), the Badlands (we will soon visit) and Spearfish Canyon.

The Lincoln Room, the site of the original restaurant, has been restored to its original elegance. The ceiling lights are original. The wallpaper custom, hand-printed paper and the same design used in Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield Illinois. An original 19th century Lincoln print is on the wall. Meeting rooms are named after the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.

The hotel also offers Paddy O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Grill, named after the hotel’s first guest.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a kind of museum of exhibits – you can see Johnson’s actual headdress and other artifacts.

But that is not all. I learn that the Alex Johnson hotel is haunted – there is an entire book of testimonials from guests who have had sightings, and recently.

Ross Goldman, the front-desk fellow who has been giving me an orientation to the hotel and to Rapid City, points me to an entire Haunting book filled with people’s letters and descriptions of encounters.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the rooms that is supposedly haunted, 304, was Alex Johnson’s private room where he stayed when he was in Rapid City, and where he died at the age of 90. But years before, his young daughter died in that room. People, especially children, say they have seen a child ghost  In the Haunting book, I find a drawing by a little girl who stayed in room 304, who drew herself, her brother, and another girl with a dark, long dress you can see through (the ghost), dated July 5 2019. Children say they see ball rolling and that there is a knock on doors all at once.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another haunted room, 812, was where 60 years ago, a bride on her wedding night jumped, was pushed or fell out of window. Guests say that doors open, lights go on and some say when they sleep, they feel something pressing on their chest.

The macabre legends must have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock who used the Alex Johnson Hotel in his iconic thriller, “North by Northwest” and stayed here through the filming of the Mount Rushmore scenes– there is an autographed photo of Hitchcock behind reception desk (the lobby seemed much larger in the movie).

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Goldman (the only Goldman in South Dakota, he notes), tells me his father is from Brooklyn, and came to Rapid City for his medical residency and stayed. What a small world: Goldman’s cousins live on my block in Long Island, New York. (He says there are just 300 Jews in the entire state; they hold their Passover seder in the hotel’s ballroom).

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Later, after exploring Rapid City, I get to appreciate the Vertex Sky Bar on the hotel’s tenth floor (the Alex Johnson hotel is the third tallest building in South Dakota). Originally, there was a solarium here and an observation tower that was later used by KOTA radio station. Today, it is an upscale rooftop bar exclusively for members and hotel guests. It provides a wonderful view for the sunset behind the hills.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Goldman gives me some great tips for our bike trip – especially in Deadwood City, where he tells me to be sure to visit the cemetery where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, and where there is also a Jewish section.

And he orients me to Rapid City: Memorial Park was created after a major flood in 1972 collapsed the dam, in which 238 people died (signs in the park tell the story), leveling the poorest section of city. He tells me where to get the best buffalo burger (Thirsty’s).

And so I am off to discover Rapid City.

Rapid City makes the absolute most of whatever it has. The architecture except for a small historic district is mostly nondescript, but there is sheer brilliance in that 20 years ago, an artist began an ambitious program to have almost life-sized sculptures of every president on every corner of the two downtown boulevards, Main Street and St. Joseph’s Boulevard. This turned Rapid City into “The City of Presidents.”

President Dwight Eisenhower. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is fascinating and fun to go in search of them (they aren’t in chronological or alphabetical order). Six artists produced the 43 sculptures, beginning in 2000:Obama’s statue, depicting the Election night scene when he came out holding his daughter’s hand, only went up a couple of months before; Lincoln is also portrayed with his son, Tad; FDR is shown standing at a podium with radio mics; Taft looking amazingly svelte, shown as the first president to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. There is a self-guided walking tour and a Presidential Scavenger Hunt. It is really fun to try to see all of the presidents. What is most interesting is how these significant personages are set in such ordinary circumstance on nondescript small-town America street corners.

President Thomas Jefferson. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
President Lincoln with his young son. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
President Obama is the newest presidential statue. Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A notable exception to the presidents is a bust, “Mitakuye Oyasin” (“We are all related”) by DC Lamphere, from a drawing by Richard Under Baggage, representing “hope for reconciliation, dignity and respect for all the human race.” The earth is in the shape of a hoop or circle of life; crossed pipes represent world peace; the eagle symbolizes all flying creatures, and communication with Tunka Sila; wisdom and the healing arts are represented by a grizzly bear, and a long and productive life is symbolized by a turtle. “The bison reminds us of our ancestors’ healthy lifestyles, free from famine, and also of the white Buffalo Calf Woman who brought us the pipe.”

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another marked contrast to the presidents on every other corner is outside a remarkable shop, Prairie Edge: “Hunkayapi” also was created by local artist Dale Lamphere. The statue, depicting a Lakota naming ceremony, is intended to reflect the warmth in Lakota families, the wisdom of a Lakota elder and the teaching of the Lakota heritage to the next generation.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Prairie Edge is one of the most fantastic Native American shops anywhere. It is almost a museum, with numerous contemporary Native artists who have their own displays, biography and museum-quality art (I learn about quillwork). There is also clothing, including Pendleton & Pilson, blankets and housewares, books and music, and a Sioux Trading Post, and tee shirts and souvenirs and yes items popular in tourist shops on sale, like an old-fashioned mercantile store.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The shop contains a fine art Plains Indian Gallery, a Buffalo Room with bison leather furnishings. There is also the Italian glass bead library boasting the world’s largest selection of glass beads, with  over 2,600 different styles and colors, from the same Venetian guild that supplied fur traders in the 19th century used for trade, including used in trade for the island of Manhattan; after the Societa Veneziana Conterie closed in 1992, Prairie Edge bought the remaining inventory of 70 tons of beads. (Prairie Edge, 606 Main Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 800-541-2388, 605-342-3086, www.prairieedge.com).

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I think about what Goldman told me about continued tension between Native Americans and the “settlers” (for lack of a better word), “Other places are more assimilated. South Dakota has nine Indian reservations. The two largest reservations – Pine Ridge, Rosebud  – make Appalachia look like Beverly Hills.,” he told me. And his remarks echo for me later when I visit the Crazy Horse Memorial on our Mickelson Trail ride.

Prairie Edge is housed in an 1886 building in Italianate style that began as the L. Morris Dry Goods and Clothing store with a dentist’s office on the second floor and rooms to rent. Known as the Clower Building, it is most famously remembered as the Jack Clower Saloon (1895-1917), a cowboy bar ion its day. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Rapid City.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What you do expect in an open-carry state that still prides itself as being the wild west, are the gun shops. There is the biggest gun shop I’ve ever seen, First Stop Gun & Coin. (I am amazed at how heavy rifles are; there are “My First Rifle,” child-sized like starter violins, and some pink and decorated rifles geared for women.

First Stop Gun & Coin, Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander over to Main Street Square, with a spray fountain, Astroturf and stage for performances, and public restroom. 

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a surprising variety of restaurants you wouldn’t expect in a place that calls itself “City of Presidents” – Nepali, Mexican (considering how far from the Mexican border we are). Goldman has recommended Thirsty’s, which looks like a pool hall, as having the best buffalo burger in town. I opt for the Firehouse Brewing Company in the historic firehouse next door to Prairie Edge. I take note of a large 1883 photo mural depicting the store that had stood on the site with store names of Jewish proprietors: Herrmann Treber & Goldberg Groceries, Liquors and Cigars Wholesale.

Rapid City, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back at the Alex Johnson Hotel, I go up to the Vertex Sky Bar on the 10th floor to take in the sunset.

The Alex Johnson Hotel today is independently owned by the Bradsky family of Rapid City, acquired in 2008 on the hotel’s 80th anniversary, and refurbished with respect and sense of stewardship for its historic significance and importance to the city. (The family owns several properties, under the Liv Hospitality banner, in Deadwood and Rapid City, including Cadillac Jack’s and Tin Lizzie’s in Deadwood and Watiki water park in Rapid City. (www.LivHotelGroup.com)

Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.

More information at Visit Rapid City, 512 Main Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 800-487-3223, 605-718-8484, www.VisitRapidCity.com.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

With better planning, I would have also plugged into my itinerary a visit to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The site provides an opportunity to explore the Minuteman II system’s role as a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War and visit sites rarely seen by civilians while in use, but that nevertheless loomed large on the geo-political landscape, and in these tense times, be reminded about what a threat nuclear weapons are.

I first became aware of the site watching an extraordinary documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about Stanislav Petrov, a former lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces and his role in preventing the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident from leading to nuclear holocaust. Now, with Trump and Putin at odds over renegotiating a nuclear arms treaty while boasting about new weapons, it is more important than ever to be reminded of how quickly things can go astronomically wrong.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota has a cameo appearance in the documentary, “The Man Who Saved the World,” a cautionary tale for today’s nuclear tensions © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park consists of three sites along a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 90 in western South Dakota: the Visitor CenterLaunch Control Facility Delta-01 and the Delta-09 Missile Silo.The Visitor Center is located immediately north of I-90, exit 131. The two historic sites which make up the park are four miles (Launch Control Facility Delta-01) and 15 miles (Launch Facility Delta-09) from the Visitor Center. No public transportation systems serve the park. A variety of maps are available to assist you visit and historic understanding. – passed Wall on I-90 (visitor center at exit 131). All tours of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility require advanced reservations. Reservations can be made on-line or by phone at 605-717-7629. (www.nps.gov/mimi/index.htm, https://www.nps.gov/mimi/planyourvisit/directions.htm)

More information from South Dakota Department of Tourism, 605-773-3301, https://www.travelsouthdakota.com/

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© 2020 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

Mount Rushmore, Finale to 6-Day Wilderness Voyageurs South Dakota ‘Badlands & Mickelson Trail’ Bike Tour

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum wrote of Mount Rushmore, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s our last day of the Wilderness Voyageurs six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota, when we would have biked back a portion of the Mickelson Trail that we cycled yesterday before visiting Mount Rushmore. But as luck would have it (and it is actually lucky), it rains as we leave Deadwood. It is lucky because the rest of our rides have been glorious and we did get to complete the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, in addition to riding through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park. Our guides, James Oerding and John Buehlhorn, offer us alternatives: instead of doing the Mickelson 18 miles from Dumont to Mystic (the same trail we did yesterday but downhill) we go directly to Mount Rushmore and see if the weather dries out.

Mount Rushmore is such a familiar American icon, it may be a cliché. But seeing it “in person” makes you rethink what it is all about.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, wrote “Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

Borglum also wrote, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”

The National Park Service offers this about Mount Rushmore National Monument: “Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country. From the history of the first inhabitants to the diversity of America today, Mount Rushmore brings visitors face to face with the rich heritage we all share.”

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The NPS posits that Borglum “selected these four presidents because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the history of the United States. Would another artist at that time, or perhaps a modern artist choose differently? As you read more about Borglum’s choices, think about what you might have done if the decision was up to you.”

I stumble upon a 15-minute Ranger talk in the Sculptor’s Studio about Gutzon Borglum, the carving process and the lives of the workers – how they dynamited away 90 percent of the stone, leaving just 3 to 6 inches of material to chisel off by hand, how they hang a weight to where the nose should be and create the facial features from that reference point.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Ranger stands in front of a model of how a completed Mount Rushmore was envisioned by Borglum. Who knew there was more? I’ve always taken for granted that what we see was all that was meant to be. The model shows that it would have had their jackets down to their waist and hands.

To see the scale of the sculpture, it is hard to contemplate the challenge of blasting away all that rock and carving that stone. But we learn that getting this project underway was a challenge unto itself.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the likenesses of noted figures into the mountains of the Black Hills of South Dakota in order to promote tourism in the region. But once Doane Robinson and others had found a sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, they had to get permission to do the carving. Senator Peter Norbeck (the man who created the Needles Highway through Custer State Park) and Congressman William Williamson were instrumental in getting the legislation passed to allow the carving. The bill requesting permission to use federal land for the memorial easily passed through Congress. But a bill sent to the South Dakota Legislature faced more opposition.

Robinson’s initial idea was to feature heroes of the American West, such as Lewis and Clark, Oglala Lakota chief Red cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. But Borglum wanted the sculpture to have broader appeal, so chose the four presidents, who would each symbolize an important aspect of American history. (That might be why Robinson was not chosen for the 12-member commission to oversee the project.)

Early in the project, money was hard to find, despite Borglum’s guarantee that eastern businessmen would gladly make large donations. He also promised South Dakotans that they would not be responsible for paying for any of the mountain carving. Borglum got Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on board, but only asked for half of the funding he needed, believing he would be able to match federal funding ($250,000) dollar for dollar with private donations.

Borglum worked on the project from 1927, the presidents’ faces were carved from 1933-1939, with his son, Lincoln. Meanwhile, in 1929, the stock market crashed; in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt placed Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

In March, 1941, as a final dedication was being planned, Gutzon Borglum died. This fact, along with the impending American involvement in World War II, led to the end of further carving on the mountain. With the money – and enthusiasm – running out, Congress refused to allocate any more funding. On October 31, 1941, the last day of work, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was declared a completed project.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Ranger explains that the death of the artist raised an ethical issue for anyone who would take over the work. And, the Ranger said, “The country had moved on. They were not as interested in presidents as they were in the 1930s; when Mount Rushmore was a shrine to democracy. And what if the new artist made a mistake?”

I can see how Mount Rushmore was a cautionary tale for the Crazy Horse Memorial and why sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked on Mount Rushmore before being tasked to do Crazy Horse, refused any federal funding, instead establishing a foundation funded with private donations and admissions. Some 70 years after he began his work, his grandchildren are involved in continuing to carve the memorial.

View of Mount Rushmore from the Presidential Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk the Presidential Trail (just 0.6 miles long, 422 stairs, weather permitting) to get up close and personal with the mountain sculpture and perhaps glimpse some of the area wildlife.

Some 3 million visitors come to Mount Rushmore each year.

Among the activities offered:  the Junior Ranger program (booklets are available at the information desks for ages three to four, five to twelve and 13 and up), and the Carvers’ Café, Ice Cream Shop  and Gift Shop.

Also:

Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the history of the Black Hills and the American Indian tribes who have populated this land for thousands of years. Located next to the Borglum View Terrace for 2019, this area highlights the customs and traditions of local American Indian communities. Open 10:30 am to 3 pm,  early June through mid-August, weather permitting.

Youth Exploration Area (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the natural, cultural and historical aspects of Mount Rushmore with interactive programs. Located at the Borglum View Terrace for 2019. Open early June through early August.

Self-Guided Tour (30 – 120 mins; rental fee): Rent an audio tour wand or multimedia device to hear the story of Mount Rushmore through music, narration, interviews, historic recordings and sound effects while walking a scenic route around the park. Available at the Audio Tour Building across from the Information Center (rentals available inside the Information Center during the winter months). The tour and accompanying brochure are available in English, French, German, Lakota, and Spanish.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It had been gray and drizzly when we first arrived making the monument look dull, but as we are leaving, blue sky breaks through and for the first time, I realize that George Washington has a jacket.

(During our visit, the Visitor Center and amphitheater are closed for construction.)

(Just recently, the last living Mount Rushmore construction worker, Donald ‘Nick” Clifford, who worked on the monument from 1938-40, passed away at the age of 98.)

(Mount Rushmore, 13000 Highway 244, Keystone, SD 57751,  605-574-2523, www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm)

Even thought the weather has cleared up just as we are leaving Mount Rushmore, because it is a getaway travel day, the group decides not to bike (the trail James suggests is impractical because it requires the guides to take off the roof racks in order to fit through the tunnel). We decide instead, to go straight to Rapid City, our departure point, for lunch before we all go our separate ways.

Rapid City, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Our last lunch together, in Rapid City, is at Tally’s Silver Spoon (best Reuben sandwich outside of NYC!) – just across the street from the historic Alex Johnson Hotel, where I began my South Dakota odyssey a week ago.

What I love best about Wilderness Voyageurs’ “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour are the varied experiences: Badlands – fossils – Circle View Guest Ranch – Black Hills – Crazy Horse – Custer State Park – stone spires – wildlife – buffalo – Blue Bell Lodge – Mount Rushmore – biking the 109-mile long Mickelson rail trail.

Guided bike trips are not cheap, but what I look for is value for money – my test is whether I could reproduce the trip for less out-of-pocket, to make up for the decided increase in convenience of having the itinerary already plotted out. I found Wilderness Voyageurs excellent value – in the services provided, wonderful accommodations (especially the guest ranch and the lodge), dining, creating an itinerary that was idyllic, entrances to attractions (Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore), and also considerate, superb guides, a relaxed, unpressured atmosphere (“You’re on vacation!”).

The destination, South Dakota, is quite sensational and unexpectedly varied – spectacular scenery, nature and wildlife, fossils (!), culture and history – a microcosm of North America, really. Indeed, it is an ideal destination for international visitors to plunge into the American frontier west mythology of the past, but more interestingly, to see the American West as it is today.  And frankly, even if I rented a bike and paid for shuttle services, I couldn’t have duplicated the itinerary, or the camaraderie, or the expertise and care.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

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© 2020 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

Deadwood, South Dakota Resurrects Wild West Past at End of MicKelson Trail

“Calamity Jane” in a daily shootout on Deadwood, South Dakota’s historic Main Street © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com m

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It strikes me as somewhat ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that Deadwood, South Dakota, so famous for being the place where Wild Bill Hickok was killed in a saloon playing poker, after being mining boomtown and a virtual ghost town, has been reincarnated as a casino gaming mecca.

Our hotel, the Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort, actually reflects both these traditions: it has one of the biggest casinos and the building has repurposed what used to be a slime plant (slime is the waste left when they use cyanide to decompose rock to release the gold), that was part of the Homestake Mine. The Homestake Mine was the second-largest gold producer in the United States and the longest continually operating mine in US history, operating from 1885 to as recently as 2001.

We’ve arrived at Deadwood at the end of biking the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, a bike trail converted from a former railroad line named to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame, which we have covered in three days of the six-day Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

A buffalo strolls over to my cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My day begins at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, with a buffalo strolling up to the porch of my cabin. We then are shuttled in the Wilderness Voyageurs van to the Mystic Trailhead, to ride the remaining 34 scenic miles of the Mickelson Trail into Deadwood.

Biking the last miles on the Mickelson Trail from Mystic to Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking the last miles of the Mickelson Trail to its end, in Deadwood, South Dakota at mile 109 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s already about 3 pm, and armed with a list of activities that take place which I have obtained from the concierge (the shootout on Main Street at 6 pm, for example), I quickly drop my things to rush out to get to the Mount Moriah Cemetery which I remember the Alex Johnson Hotel manager, Ross Goldman, telling me about. Though the concierge and the visitor bureau guy discourage me from walking up there (there isn’t a public bus and the bus tour which makes a quick stop at the cemetery doesn’t make sense, I head out anyway – the hike, up 4,800 ft. to a high ridge overlooking Deadwood Gulch – the highest point in Deadwood – proves no big deal (especially compared to the hills we biked yesterday in Custer State Park) and takes just about 20 minutes.

At the entrance, they provide an excellent map with information and location of the notable graves of the important people who are buried here for you to do your own self-guided walking tour.

The major lure – and why there is a line of people – is the side-by-side plots of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok and Calamity Jane, whose legends continue to animate Deadwood even today.

Wild Bill Hickok’s gravesite is a major tourist attraction that brings hundreds to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the guide, James Butler Hickok was murdered in Deadwood on August 2, 1876. He came, along with so many others, to the Deadwood gold camp in search of adventure and fortune. But his true passion was gambling. While playing a game of cards, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. “Wild Bill’s colorful life included service as a marshal, an Army scout and other tasks which called for a fast gun and no aversion to bloodshed.” (Later, you can see the re-creation of the arrest of Jack McCall, and then a re-creation of the hastily convened miners’ court, by the Deadwood Alive troop.)

Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary (1850-1903) also had a colorful life, which she largely created and which may or may not be true. “She worked on a bull train, performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and was a prostitute.” She claimed to have been Wild Bill Hickok’s sweetheart (and even that they were married and had a daughter). Her grave marker calls her Martha Jane Burke because she married Clinton Burke after Hickok’s death. She is known for acts of charity and willingness to nurse the sick. In 1903, Calamity Jane died in the Terry mining camp, her dying wish, “Bury me beside Wild Bill” was carried out.

Calamity Jane’s grave at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cemetery was established in1878 and actively used until 1949. There are some 3,627 people buried here including a children’s section with 350 who died in of scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemic 1878-1880; a Civil War section, a Jewish section (surprisingly large) and a Chinese section (there is even a Chinese altar and ceremonial oven), and several notable and colorful characters who are described in the guide with directions to their gravesites.

I am struck by the wrought iron gates at the entrance which have symbols representing the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Freemasonry and the Star of David. Indeed the name Mt. Moriah was chosen for its religious affiliation with both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah (Mount Moriah is located within Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s temple.)

It takes about an hour to visit. ($2/entrance, 108 Sherman St., Deadwood 57732, 605-578-2082, www.cityofdeadwood.com).

Deadwood, it turns out, was named for the dead timber on the surrounding hills, not for its shoot-outs. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought thousands of new people to the area. 

I get back down to the historic Main Street in plenty of time for the 6 pm “Main Street Shootout”, featuring a fantastic Calamity Jane character.

“Calamity Jane” cavorts with tourists on Deadwood’s Main Street before the shootout © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are free shows throughout the day on Historic Main Street (reminiscent of a theme park’s re-creation of a Wild West town): Deadwood’s True Tales; a 2 pm Main Street shootout; a Rootin’Tootin’ Card Game for kids and old-thyme musical show; Dr. Stan Dupt’s Travelin’ Medicine Show; 4 pm Main Street shootout; 4:30 Old Thym Hoe Down; 5:45 Deadwood’s True Tales on the steps of the historic Franklin Hotel.

Getting ready for the shoot out on Main Street, Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After the 6 pm shootout, I check out the shops and grab a burger with another couple from our bike tour who I meet up with on the street, and come back for the 7:30 pm “Capture of Jack McCall” outside Saloon 10 (there is the “original Saloon 10 where Wild Bill was actually shot).

From there, we all march up the street to the Masonic Temple for the 8 pm “Trial of Jack McCall”.

The Trial of Jack McCall has been performed regularly since 1925, one of the longest running plays in the nation but each night in Deadwood with new twists because of audience participation. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The Trial of Jack McCall” has been performed steadily, I am astonished to learn since 1925, making it one of the nation’s longest running plays. It began as an annual presentation during Statehood Days. The script is based on news accounts of the actual trial which took place in the mining camp of Deadwood after Jack McCall murdered James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Wild Bill was playing poker in Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon No. 10 and was shot in the back of the head while holding Aces and Eights, forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. (People leave the cards at his grave.). Though based on fact, it is done with great humor (if a murder trial can be fun). “It has to be accurate,” any “Cookie” Mosher who plays John Swift, Clerk of the Courts and Executive Director of Deadwood Alive, tells me because Deadwood Alive, a nonprofit, is supported in part by Historical Preservation Society. (It reminds me of the “Cry Innocent,” recreation of a Salem Witch Trial, in Salem, Massachusetts).

They even recreate the edition of the Black Hills Pioneer which reported the story of Hickok’s murder, on August 3, 1876. “A dastardly murder was committed in Deadwood gulch yesterday afternoon. The fiendish murderer who shot him in the back is in jail. The dead man is Wild Bill Hickok, whose prowess with the pistols is known far and wide. Single-handed, he captured robbers and trouble makers in the south, at Dodge city, Abilene and Hays, Kansas, in Nebraska, in all the south. Men feared him, feared his quickness on the draw, the deadly and accurate aim which send more than one roustabout sprawling.

“But on this terrible, bloodstained afternoon in the wild gold camp of the Black Hills, Wild Bill never had a chance.”

A jury of “minors” at “The Trial of Jack McCall” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is a family-friendly show where the selected members of the audience participate in the performance serving as jurors in the trial- the jury of miners is made up of “minors” – kids who get to wear various hats and sit on a bench). The show is held nightly Monday through Saturday with the schedule as outlined below.

It proves extremely entertaining as a trial for murder could possibly be.

In 1876, Deadwood didn’t have a courthouse so the trial was held in Deadwood Theater (the narrator/court manager explains they have to wait for auditions to finish – so there is music provided by Calamity Jane as the audience files in. The theater was tearing down from the previous week’s show and getting ready for the next, so you see various props.The trial was held just the day after McCall’s arrest.

“Jack McCall” takes the stand in his trial , recreated nightly in Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A boy is given the role of sheriff; wearing an oversized cowboy hat, he seems just itching to shoot the toy gun he hold on McCall.

They call “witnesses” and John Swift, the clerk of Courts (played by Mosher) goes into the audience and pulls somebody up – then after jokes (swearing on “Bartenders Guide” instead of bible), “sneaks” them a script. He grabs a guy as a witness who is wearing shorts so he puts shawl over his leg for modesty; he grabs a woman to play McCall’s’ employer and pretends to flirt.  (It’s very Shakespearean the way they go in/out of character and talk to audience.)

Audience participation makes “The Trial of Jack McCall” especially entertaining. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One witness says Wild Bill asked him to move his chair so Wild Bill could sit with his back to wall, and he refused.

The “minors” on the jury pretend to sleep during Defense’s summation.

As in real life, McCall was found Not Guilty. Then, in an epilogue, the Clerk relates that McCall was driven from town but bragged about killing Wild Bill over a game of cards. The federal government said that because the crime was committed in Indian Country the feds still had jurisdiction to try McCall without violating the rule against double jeopardy. McCall was rearrested in 1877, got a new trial, was found guilty and hanged.

Deadwood Alive has been entertaining visitors for over 20 years with Main Street shootouts and regular performances of the Trial of Jack McCall. The Deadwood Alive troupe of superb actors consists of over 10 characters and provide entertainment throughout the year including daily shootouts, guided walking tours, musical performances and the famous Trial of Jack McCall. Deadwood Alive is managed by a non-profit board of directors and employs up to a dozen individuals each summer to re-enact several historically accurate incidents of Deadwood’s past and make a visit to Deadwood so entertaining for people of all ages (($6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children, 800-344-8826, www.deadwoodalive.com).

The actual Saloon No. 10 where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall while holding a poker hand of Aces and Eights, forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I enjoy the charm of the Main Street. I stop in to the Franklin Hotel, opened since 1903, a beautiful, elegant hotel, now with a casino in the lobby.

Deadwood actually offers a lot of history and attractions, which unfortunately, I do not have time to experience): The Adams Museum (554 Sherman St); Days of ’76 Museum (18 Seventy Six Dr), and Historic Adams House (22 Van Buren St.). (DeadwoodHistory.com, 605-722-4800).

Deadwood preserves its Wild West charm © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More visitor information at Deadwood South Dakota, 800-344-8826,www.deadwood.com.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 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

Discovering Marvels of Crazy Horse Memorial on Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Crazy Horse Memorial is sensational, awesome and profound. The carved portrait in the cliff-side, which I first encounter by surprise as I bike on the Mickelson Trail between Custer and Hill City is spectacular enough, but there is so much more to discover. There is also a superb Museum of Native Americans of North America (it rivals the Smithsonian’s Museum in Washington DC) where you watch a terrific video that tells the story of the America’s indigenous people, and can visit the studio/home of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. It is the highlight of our third day of the Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

I rush to join a tour (a modest extra fee) that brings us right to the base of the sculpture. You look into this extraordinary, strong face – some quartz on the cheek has a glint that suggests a tear.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only then do I realize that, much to my surprise, seeing the scaffolding and equipment, that 70 years after sculptor Ziolkowski started carving the monument in 1947, his grandson is leading a crew to continue carving. Right now it is mainly a bust – albeit the largest stone carving in the world – but as we see in the museum, the completed sculpture will show Crazy Horse astride a horse, his arm outstretched toward the lands that were taken from the Lakota.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At 87 ft 6 inches high, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. They are now working on the 29-foot high horse’s head, the 263-foot long arm, and 33 ft-high hand, the guide tells us. The horse’s head will be as tall as 22-story building, one-third larger than any of the President’s at Mount Rushmore. The next phase of progress on the Mountain involves carving Crazy Horse’s left hand, left forearm, right shoulder, hairline, and part of the horse’s mane and head over 10-15 years. The plan is to carve the back side of the rock face as well, which would make the Crazy Horse Memorial a three-sided monument.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When completed, the Crazy Horse Mountain carving will be the world’s largest sculpture, measuring 563 feet high by 641 feet long, carved in the round. The nine-story high face of Crazy Horse was completed on June 3, 1998; work began on the 22-story high horse’s head soon after.

“One if hardest decisions (after two years of planning) was to start with head, not the horse (in other words, work way down),” the guide tells us.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 71 years of construction, there have been no deaths or life threatening injuries of the workers (though there was that accident when a guy driving a machine slipped off edge; his father told him he had to get the machine out himself.)

Four of Korczak and Ruth’s 10 children and three of his grandchildren still work at the Memorial.

On the bus ride back to the visitor center, the guide tells us that Zioklowski was a decorated World War II veteran who was wounded on D-Day, but was so devoted to the Crazy Horse Memorial, he even planned for his death: there is a tomb in a cave at the base of the monument..

Back at the visitor center/museum, the story about the Crazy Horse Memorial is told in an excellent film:

The overwhelming theme is to tell the story, to give a positive view of native culture, to show that Native Americans have their own heroes, and to restore and build a legacy that survived every attempt to blot it out in a form of genocide.

There were as many as 18 million Indians living in North America when the Europeans arrived (the current population is 7 million in the US). “These Black Hills are our Cathedral, our sacred land,” the film says.

Crazy Horse was an Ogala Lakota, born around 1840 on the edge of Black Hills. He was first called “Curly” but after proving himself in battle, earned his father’s name, “Crazy Horse” (as in “His Horse is Crazy”). The chief warned of encroaching “river” of settlers, leading to 23-years of Indian wars. In 1876 Crazy Horse led the battle against General Custer, the Battle of Little Big Horn (known as Custer’s Last Stand, but Indians call it “the Battle of Greasy Grass”). It was a victory for the Indians, but short-lived. Soon after, the US government rounded up the rebels and killed Crazy Horse while he was in custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. (See www.nps.gov/libi/learn/historyculture/crazy-horse.htm)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am introduced to a new hero: Standing Bear.

Standing Bear was born 1874 near Pierre, South Dakota, and was among the first Indian children sent away to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where his name was randomly changed to “Henry.” In the school, their Indian identity was forcibly removed – they cut the boys’ hair, they were not allowed to speak their language “to best help them learn the ways of non-native.”

“As a result of attending Carlisle, Standing Bear concluded that in order to best help his people, it would be necessary for him to learn the ways of the non-Native world. Somewhat ironically, Carlisle – an institution that was designed to assimilate Native Americans out of their indigenous ways – became a source of inspiration that Standing Bear would repeatedly draw upon to shape his enlightened understanding of cross-cultural relationships, as well as to find new ways of preserving his people’s culture and history.” He honed leadership skills like public speaking, reasoning, and writing, realizing that because of the changing times, the battle for cultural survival would no longer be waged with weapons, but with words and ideas. “This realization became a driving force behind much of his work during his adult life and led him to become a strong proponent of education,” the background material on the Crazy Horse Memorial website explains (crazyhorsememorial.org).

Standing Bear attended night school in Chicago while he worked for the Sears Roebuck Company to pay for his schooling. With feet firmly placed in both worlds, he became heavily involved in the affairs of his people over the course of his life and politically astute —working with Senator Francis Case and serving as a member of the South Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. He led the initiative to honor President Calvin Coolidge with a traditional name – “Leading Eagle,” taking the opportunity for advocacy during the naming ceremony to challenge President Coolidge to take up the leadership role that had been previously filled by highly-respected leaders such as Sitting Bull and Red Cloud.

In 1933, Standing Bear learned of a monument to be constructed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to honor his maternal cousin, Crazy Horse, who was killed there in 1877. He wrote to the organizer that he and fellow Lakota leaders were promoting a carving of Crazy Horse in the sacred Paha Sapa – Black Hills.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing Bear looked for an artist with the skill to carve the memorial to his people that would show Indians had heroes too and turned to Korczak Ziolkowski, a self-taught sculptor who had assisted at Mount Rushmore and had gained recognition at the 1939 World’s Fair. Standing Bear invited him back to the Black Hills. 

Born in Boston of Polish descent in 1908, Korczak was orphaned when he was one year old. He grew up in a series of foster homes and is said to have been badly mistreated.  He gained skills in heavy construction helping his foster father.

On his own at 16, Korczak took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, MA, after which he became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the rough Boston waterfront. He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather clock from 55 pieces of Santa Domingo mahogany. Although he never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters and began creating plaster and clay studies. In 1932, he used a coal chisel to carve his first portrait, a marble tribute to Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had befriended and encouraged the gifted boy and introduced him to the world of fine arts.

Moving to West Hartford, Conn., Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York.

Ziolkowski wanted to do something worthwhile with his sculpture, and made the Crazy Horse Memorial his life’s work.

“Crazy Horse has never been known to have signed a treaty or touched the pen,” Ziolkowski wrote. “Crazy Horse, as far as the scale model is concerned, is to be carved not so much as a lineal likeness, but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse – to his people. With his left hand gesturing forward in response to the derisive question asked by a white man, ‘Where are your lands now?’ He replied, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.”

There is no known photo of Crazy Horse, Ziolkowski created his likeness from oral descriptions.

He built a log studio home (which we can visit) at a time when there was nothing around – no roads, no water, no electricity. For the first seven years, he had to haul himself and his equipment, including a decompressor and 50 pound box of dynamite, up 741 steps.

Living completely isolated in the wilderness, Korczak and his wife Ruth bought an 1880s one-room school house, had it moved to this isolated property and hired a teacher for their 10 children.

There is so much to see here: The Museums of Crazy Horse Memorial feature exhibits and engaging experiences that let you discover Native history and contemporary life, the art and science of mountain carving and the lives of the Ziolkowski family.  

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA® houses an enormous collection of art and artifacts reflecting the diverse histories and cultures of over 300 Native Nations.  The Museum, designed to complement the story being told in stone on the Mountain, presents the lives of American Indians and preserves Native Culture for future generations. The Museum collection started with a single display donated in 1965 by Charles Eder, Hunkpapa Lakota, from Montana, which  remains on display to this day.  The Indian Museum has about the same number of annual visits as the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Close to 90% of the art and artifacts have been donated by generous individuals, including many Native Americans.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The gorgeous building housing the Museum was designed and built by Korczak Ziolkowski and his family in the harsh winter of 1972-73, when no work was possible on the Mountain. The Museum incorporated Korczak’s love of wood and natural lighting, being constructed from ponderosa pine, harvested and milled at Crazy Horse Memorial. The original wing of the museum was dedicated on May 30, 1973. In the early 1980s, Korczak planned a new wing of the Museum to accommodate the growing collection of artifacts. He did not live to see his plans realized, instead his wife Ruth Ziolkowski and 7 of their children made sure the new wing was built. The structure was built in the winter of 1983-84 and funding came in large part from a $60,000 check left in the Crazy Horse Memorial contribution box in late August of 1983. The contributor said he was moved by the purpose of Crazy Horse, Korczak, and his family’s great progress and by the sculptor’s reliance on free enterprise and refusal to take federal funds

The Ziolkowski Family Life Collection is shown throughout the complex and demonstrates to people of all ages the timeless values of making a promise and keeping it, setting a goal and never giving up, working hard to overcome adversity, and devoting one’s life to something much larger than oneself. There are portraits of the couple and personal effects that tell their life’s story.

Portraits of Korczak and Ruth Ziolkowski, Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mountain Carving Gallery shares the amazing history of carving the Mountain. It features the tools Korczak used in the early years of carving, including a ½ size replica of “the bucket” – a wooden basket used with an aerial cable car run by an antique Chevy engine that allowed the sculptor to haul equipment and tools up the Mountain. Displayed in the Mountain Carving Room are the measuring models used to carve the face of Crazy Horse, plasters of Crazy Horse’s face and the detailed pictorial progression of carving the face. They also detail the next phase in the Memorial’s carving which is focused on Crazy Horse’s left hand and arm, the top of Crazy Horse’s head, his hairline, and the horse’s mane. If you stand in just the right spot, you can line up the model of how the finished work will look against the actual mountain sculpture as it is.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Crazy Horse Memorial is actually a private, nonprofit (they also have a nonprofit college and medical training center that educates Indians), and twice turned down federal funding because “they didn’t believe the government would do it right.” Indeed, Mount Rushmore (which we see on the last day of our bike tour) was never completed because the federal government stopped funding the project. The entrance fee ($30 per car, 3 or more people, $24 per car two people, $12 per person, $7 per bicycle or motorcycle) support the continued carving, the Indian Museum of North America and the Indian University of North America, which assists qualifying students get their college degrees.

Once again, I am so grateful that I am not being pushed along with an artificial time limit by the Wilderness Voyageurs guides, I wander through the vast complex trying to take it all in. I am utterly fascinated.

I buy postcards for 25c apiece and stamps, sit with a (free) cup of coffee in the cafe and mail them at their tiny post-office. There is an excellent gift shop.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is open 365 days of the year, with various seasonal offerings.

(Crazy Horse Memorial, 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD, 605-673-4681, crazyhorsememorial.org.)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m the last one to leave the Crazy Horse Memorial, and note that the bike of our sweeper guide for today John Buehlhorn, is still on the rack, but I figure he will see that I have gone and catch up to me, so I get back on the Mickelson Trail. He catches me again when I don’t realize to get off the trail at Hill City, where we are on our own for lunch and exploring the town.

South Dakota State Railroad Museum, Hill City, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hill City is really charming and the home of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, where you can take a ride on an old-time steam railroad. The shops are really pleasant.

The Wilderness Voyageurs van is parked there in case anybody needs anything.

Hill City, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ride to the Crazy Horse Memorial was uphill on the rail trail for 8 miles but going down hill isn’t a picnic because of the loose gravel – but not difficult and totally enjoyable.  We ride through train tunnels and over trestles. It is no wonder that the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, which is a centerpiece of the Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour, is one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.  We finish this day’s ride at Mystic at the 74.7-mile marker– we’ll ride the remaining miles on another day. Mystic used to be a significant town when the railroad ran here. Now there are just two buildings and four residents.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, Mystic, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I notice the sign tacked up at the shelter: Be Aware: Mountain Lions spotted on the trail toward Rochford within the last few days.

We are shuttled back to Custer for our second night’s stay at the Holiday Inn Express (very comfortable, with pool, game room, WiFi and breakfast), and treated to a marvelous dinner at one of the finer dining restaurants, the Sage Creek Grill (611 Mount Rushmore Road, Custer).

Sage Creek Grill, Custer, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

_________________________© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitgoingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions toFamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour Offers Unexpected Experience on Guest Ranch

Note the slope at the end of the gravel road up to the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The steep gravel road to the Circle View Guest Ranch proves too much as I slip and slide with my hybrid bike and I wind up walking the bike a short distance (only one of us managed to ride it), at the end of our 28 mile ride through the Badlands National Park, South Dakota on this first day of our six-day Wilderness Voyageurs bike tour. The guest ranch, set on a mesa surrounded by 3,000 acres, with beautiful views, is delightful. I drop my bags in my room, wonderfully decorated in a Western motif, and go out just in time to see 11-year old Katie Kruse feeding chickens and her brother, 10-year old Jacob, being chased by an aggressive calf anxious to get at the bottle he is using to feed it.

Young guests at Circle View Ranch get to bottle feed a calf © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 A stay on a guest ranch in South Dakota, just beyond the entrance to Badlands National Park and adjacent to Indian lands, is an unexpected bonus experience of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour of South Dakota.

Philip Kruse was born and raised on the ranch and opened it to guests in 2000 to give visitors “a glimpse into life on a real, family run cattle ranch.” It is very much all of that.

Katie shows me where 17 eggs have been “hidden” by the hens to prevent them from being taken by the farmer so they can hatch. The secret nest had been hidden by high grass and only revealed when the grass was cut. The hen had apparently walked off to get some water, revealing the eggs. Katie lifts up one of the eggs – I can still feel the warmth.

“Sometimes they hide an egg in a tree and abandon it. Sometimes you will see one chicken with 10 chicks following. They sneak in to lay eggs that won’t be collected.” On the other hand, the hens that do hatch the chicks aren’t necessarily maternal. “They don’t show the young ones where the water is.”

I am amazed to contemplate the strategy and teamwork that these hens, which we assume are just dumb creatures, to create a collective nest, hide it from the farmer, and designate one of the hens to sit on it.

Now the farmer uses his wits to outwit the hens. “We don’t want the chickens to hatch their own because we will not have control over whether they have roosters or infertile chickens. So in the night when they sleep, we will steal an egg and replace it with a hatched chick so she will think it is hers.”

There’s a pecking order, she tells me. The older, bigger hens sleep on top; younger ones on the floor. She says that young chicks lay one egg a day; older ones lay fewer and fewer, maybe one in two or three days.

“Here, we don’t kill the hen when gets old but another lady butchers them – after she chops off the head, they can still run around for 5 minutes – she has machine that spins to take off feathers.”

I find all of this utterly fascinating.

Burros on the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I watch how aggressive the calf is chasing after Jacob who is trying to bottle feed it. The calf was born prematurely and would have been abandoned by its mother. There are a slew of chicks and peacocks all about, as well. And burros.

We enjoy a sensational dinner prepared by Amy Kruse, served family style along long tables inside and outside on the porch. Tonight’s menu is Mexican tacos, prepared with such fresh ingredients including cherry tomatoes from the garden as sweet as candy.

At Circle View Guest Ranch, see a hen defying farmer by sitting on secret nest with 17 eggs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning before breakfast, I walk out to see if the hen is sitting on the nest. Sure enough. But as I walk back, my head in my notepad, I look up to see a crowd of kids frantically gesticulating at me and yelling, pointing to my right. As I move, they stop, so I keep moving in that direction. I assume they are directing me to watch them feed the chickens. No, they are warning me not to walk up the path because there is a rattlesnake that had been discovered by their dog. “That’s why we wear cowboy boots,” 10-year old Jacob tells me. “Rattlesnakes can’t bite through.”

Later at breakfast, Philip Kruse, shows me his jar two-thirds filled with rattlesnake rattles (they are only about an inch long and quarter inch wide) collected over two generations on the ranch.

10-year old Jacob bottle feeds a calf at the Circle View Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The breakfast that Amy Kruse prepares is a triumph: fresh eggs from the farm (of course), whole wheat blueberry pancakes, tater tots with bacon, white chocolate and raspberry scones (sensational), granola made of sour cherry, pistachios, vanilla yogurt.

We get to experience much of what the Circle View Guest Ranch offers – free wifi, beautifully appointed rooms, seeing the various animals, feeding chickens, including burros, enjoying scrumptious breakfast (included) and dinner, access to the guest kitchen, and the game room. But we don’t have the time to really experience all it offers longer staying guests: horseback rides, bon fires, hunting rocks and fossils, and exploring the 3,000 acres. There are also cabins including an original 1880 Homestead cabin.

Western vibe at the Circle View Guest Ranch, Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But even with this short stay, it gives us a first-hand glimpse at family life on a ranch.

The ranch is open year-round, as is Badlands National Park.

Circle View Guest Ranch, 20055 E. Highway 44, Interior, South Dakota 57780, 605-433-5582, www.circleviewranch.com, cvgrphil@gwtc.net.

Biking the George S. Mickelson Trail 

Biking the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s just the second day of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour. We pile into the van and are shuttled from Badlands National Park to the George S. Mickelson Trail. Over the course of our trip, we will ride the whole 109 miles of the rail-trail. Today, instead of starting at mile “0” in Edgemont and riding uphill to Custer, we start at the Harbach Park Trailhead in Custer (mile 44.5) and bike mostly down a slope to Edgemont (mile 0), where we are picked up and shuttled back to Custer for the night.

Such different landscape today from biking the Badlands – we ride through a pine forest with the smell of pine.

Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Minnekahta, where we have an amazing lunch that our guide, James Oerding, pulls out of the van and sets up under a lean-to (28 miles into the ride) at the rest stop, is just off the highway that looks just like the country road in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – that famous scene of Cary Grant running from the crop duster that is trying to kill him. There is even the same sound of silence broken by the wind and growing scream of a truck as it comes out of the distance and barrels down road. There is that long view of the road disappearing into the horizon, white clouds in blue sky, hay bales in the fields on either side (in the movie, they were corn fields). Surreal. I still wonder if this is the very location where Hitchcock filmed that scene.

Highway evokes scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” which was filmed in the area © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lunch stop on the Mickelson Trail at Minnekahta Trailhead © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Railroads opened up the Black Hills. The 109-mile long Mickelson Trail is built on the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. Work started in 1991 and the full trail was dedicated in 1998. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mickelson Trail is wonderfully maintained – mostly crushed limestone – with rest facilities and water cisterns along the way and great signage. On this first day, we are immersed in ranch land with broad vistas, dramatic cloud formations, hay bales, cows.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From Edgemont, we are shuttled back to Custer, a pleasant, modest Western town, with art of decorated bison on many corners. We will be here for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express. Tonight we are on our own for dinner, but tomorrow we will be hosted at a fine-dining restaurant.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning, Day 3 of our trip, we ride out from the hotel directly onto the Mickelson Trail at Harbach Park Trailhead (thankfully, our guide, John Buehlhorn, has caught me again going onto a wrong spur and bringing me back to the trail).

We are now in the Black Hills National Forest – a lot of trees with black bark, which I presume gives the forest its name.

From Custer, we bike along the Mickelson Trail, 8 miles up a gentle grade (one of the advantages of a rail trail versus a road which can have much steeper slopes and corkscrew turns), with lovely scenery, beautiful rock formations, grassy plain and pine trees, when all of a sudden, the Crazy Horse Memorial comes into view. I am entranced by it when John, the Wilderness Voyageurs guide, again catches me missing the turnoff for us to ride to the Memorial for our visit. (Biking up the very steep hill proves the most challenging part of the day, and I am delighted with myself that I make it.)

That first view of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the Mickelson Trail is mesmerizing © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial is a revelation.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing onMarch 21 (yes, Americans can still visit Cuba).

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

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© 2020 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

New Orleans: ‘It’s Not All About The Jazz,’ Guest at Destination Wedding in NOLA Discovers

By Laurie Millman and Martin Rubin

Photos by Laurie Millman and Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the most festive traditions of a New Orleans destination wedding is the Second Line parade. Here the newly married couple leads the line through the Bywater district © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Laurie spent years staying away from New Orleans, Louisiana, with the excuse that she didn’t enjoy jazz enough to go there. Recently, though, we found ourselves in the Mississippi River delta city to attend a family destination wedding. After five days in New Orleans (affectionately known by its acronym — NOLA), we can now say that this is one of the most exciting and interesting cities we’ve visited. It is certainly a destination to return to, perhaps at Mardi Gras time!

We stayed in the old, quaint French Quarter at The W New Orleans (316 Chartres St., (504) 581-1200, https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/msywh-w-new-orleans-french-quarter/) — a Marriott property with rooms that surround a serene, outdoor garden, fountain, and pool. The modern style of our hotel room contrasted with our balcony view of the colorful, historic buildings built during the city’s French and Spanish periods, with distinctive French Quarter pastel colors and balconies decorated with rod-iron scrollwork.

Prior to travelling to New Orleans, it was recommended to us to forego a rental car as long as we planned to stay primarily in or around the French Quarter and the other New Orleans neighborhoods. We found that Ubers, Lyfts, and taxis were never more than 5 minutes away, and usually inexpensive – and then we didn’t have to deal with the nightmare of parking. 

For sightseeing around the city, we recommend using the red, double-decker bus marked, “24-hour Hop-on Hop-off City Bus Tour.”  This bus follows a loop around New Orleans, going through the colorful neighborhoods. With a day pass, passengers may stay on the bus the entire time and learn about the NOLA neighborhoods from the bus guides, and get off and back on at various stops along the route to spend more time exploring. (https://www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com/new-orleans-bus-tours)

Walking tours abound in the French Quarter with guides retelling stories about events, pirates, voodoo queens, and hauntings. Our private walk around the historic Quarter was fun and interesting: we stopped to read the plaques describing the French and Spanish history, visited little boutiques and galleries, checked out themed bars and restaurants, checked out a few unique museums, and strolled through the beautifully groomed parks.

NOLA Electric Streetcar Trolley Stop © Laurie Millman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For an historic mode of transportation, NOLA offers an electric streetcar trolley system. The St. Charles line is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. All four of the NOLA lines either run along or intersect with Canal Street in the area between the French Quarter and the Central Business District. A standard, one-way fare on a streetcar is very reasonable at only $1.25 per person.  However, a word of warning: the trolley system was not the quickest form of travel, and we had to wait at least 15 minutes before a trolley arrived to pick us up.

Band entertains on Frenchman Street © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

NOLA knows how to party — 24×7 — both inside and outside the many bars and restaurants. We saw visitors out and about at all hours carrying alcohol between bars and restaurants in the French Quarter. Live music abounds in venues, on street corners, and in the parks, throughout the day and night. We noticed colorful beads from past Mardi Gras celebrations layered like tinsel on the trees lining the city streets. We listened to the sounds of the city as we enjoyed breakfast and afternoon snack on the balcony of our French Quarter room.

Second Line brass bands marched down our street and through the French Quarter throughout the day and evening – one of the most popular traditions during a New Orleans wedding (we soon experienced this first hand) – a common occurrence and one of the many reasons New Orleans is one of the most popular venues for destination weddings.

Celebrating a wedding with a Second Line parade © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For a wedding, the Second Line signifies the start of a new beginning of life for the bride and groom.  A Brass band leads the bridal party and the guests from the ceremony to the reception venue or it may take place at the reception itself. The first line is usually a brass band and the ones being honored, the newlyweds.  The newly married couple leads the second line holding decorated umbrellas or parasols. The guests who join in the celebration make up the second line, forming a line behind the band and the newly married couple, as they all dance and stroll through the streets to lively music waving handkerchiefs.

Celebrating a wedding with a Second Line parade © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Soon enough, instead of watching a Second Line brass band from our balcony, we were parading in ourselves, as the newly married couple we came to New Orleans to celebrate led their wedding guests on a New Orleans musical journey around the artsy Bywater neighborhood near the French Quarter.

French Quarter © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is legendary for its barhopping and music. Only about a mile from Bourbon Street and our hotel, we also found a real gem of bars, restaurants, and local artists selling their art late at night on Frenchman Street. We came back to this street often for the diverse live music and food, as well as to purchase gifts for the family from the artists. We enjoyed sharing small plates and meaty gumbo at the Three Muses Restaurant (517 Frenchmen St., (504) 252-4801), while listening to a jazz pianist playing some of our favorite Scott Joplin Ragtime jazz songs.

Musicians in the Spotted Cat © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

We dropped in to the Spotted Cat, a small bar with a live band playing traditional Dixie jazz, then went across the street to Cafe Negril (606 Frenchmen St, (504) 229-4236), for drinks and to listen to our favorite Caribbean sounds being expertly played and sung by a  large reggae and funk band. We came back another night for Cajun and American food at The Maison (508 Frenchman), where we listened to two different local jazz bands — the stage in the back of the restaurant had a band playing and people dancing when we first walked in but by the time we were into our dinner; a second band had set up and played from the small stage at the front of the restaurant.

Maison on Frenchman Street © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Besides the music for which NOLA is known, the major attraction is its food – NOLA has some of the most unique local foods in the US, from traditional Louisiana Po-Boy sandwiches (usually roast beef or fried seafood, often shrimp, crawfish, fish, oysters or crab), meat or shrimp gumbo (like a thick soup), and beignets (donut pastry with powdered sugar). Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter is a popular open-air coffee shop that serves only beignets along with non-alcoholic drinks (800 Decatur St, in front of Jackson Square, 504-581-2914). Harbor Seafood & Oyster Bar offers traditional seafood po-boy sandwiches, fried and boiled seafood, gumbo, raw oysters, char-grilled oysters, blackened seafood (3203 Williams Boulevard, (504) 443-6454). Cafe Degas is located a few blocks from the house where Edgar Degas lived while in NOLA. The restaurant offers French bistro food (mussels, in-season soft shell crab,frites, escargot, French onion soup) in a setting where a large pecan tree grows through the dining room, giving the feeling of an open-air patio (3127 Esplanade Ave., (504) 945-5635).

Cafe Du Monde server line with trays of beignets and drinks © Laurie Millman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

NOLA is more than alcohol and music and food – it is a city with plenty of attractions for visitors of all ages. Go online or speak with your hotel’s concierge for suggestions, and to make reservations on tours and at restaurants. Also check with visitor centers around town for discounts through “Day Passes.”

The scene at Café Negril © Laurie Millman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our attraction recommendations are:

Take a walking or bus tour to the historic and purportedly haunted locations in the French Quarter and local cemeteries. We joined an evening bus tour to four city cemeteries to look for evidence of hauntings, while learning about NOLA history from our resident guide.  Although we did not experience a “haunting,” we viewed a Christian cemetery from the gates to look at the iconic NOLA “houses” for the dead, and walked around a Jewish cemetery to see if we “felt” anything, while our guide explained how this lower-than sea level town interns their dead when they can’t be buried six feet down. We also walked around the Hurricane Katrina Memorial Park (5056 Canal St.): six blank, black mausoleums were designed for the unnamed and unclaimed victims. They border the paths representing a hurricane’s spiral path, and lead to a central, vertical rock which depicts the eye of the storm.

In the center of the French Quarter is a little museum which preserves New Orleans’ unique history and culture of the practice of Voodoo.  The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum is open seven days a week and most holidays, from 10AM to 6PM. General Admission is $7.00/person; $5.50/Seniors, Military, College Students with ID; $4.50/High School Student;  $3.50 Kids under 12. (724 Dumaine St., www.voodoomuseum.com, (504) 680-0128).

The National WWII Museum is a complex of buildings with immersive, interactive, multimedia displays to help you learn about the WWII campaigns. Visitors first start out by obtaining a “dog tag” (think “card key”) and you “board” a simile of a train to be assigned a digital WWII service person. You can then learn about the individual’s experiences, and collect digital WWII artifacts at stations posted throughout the museum campus. The Museum is open daily, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.) General admission is $28/adult, $24/Seniors (65+); $18/Military (w/ID), college student with ID), child (K-12).  (945 Magazine St,, https://www.nationalww2museum.org 

Experience gourmet bug food at Audubon Nature Institute’s Insectarium © Laurie Millman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
At the Aquarium, see Greta the Great White Shark sculpture from plastics reclaimed from oceans
© Laurie Millman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Audubon Nature Institute has three facilities which offer visitors special NOLA experiences:

The Aquarium of the Americas (https://audubonnatureinstitute.org/aquarium; open Tuesday – Sunday, 10am-5pm) is a two-story building located along the waterfront, and accessible by public transportation, including the trolley car lines. We love visiting aquariums across the country, as each one showcases local fish, mammals, and birds. This is true for the NOLA aquarium, where the main floor leads you through indigenous marine creatures from the Gulf of Mexico, as well as jellyfish and the Mayan reef. On the second floor, you can visit the Mississippi River Gallery and an albino alligator. Also check out the penguins, sea otters, sharks, and marine animals from the Amazon rainforest.

While walking around upstairs, take a break for some pizza at Papa John’s or a bowl of Haagen Dazs ice cream. Don’t forget to walk around the ice cream bar to check out the large collection of colorful parakeets.   Look for the large, fanciful sculptures which are scattered around the Aquarium and are made from reclaimed plastics from the oceans and seas. Without having to fly to the Maya Riviera in Mexico, you can treat yourself and others to a snorkeling experience in the Maya Reef exhibit, as well as schedule an up-close visit with the penguins and the sweet sea otters

To save $3 per Aquarium admission, go to the Audobon web site:  $25.95/Adult; $17.95/Child (2-12); $20.95/Senior (65+) (plus sales tax and $1 transaction fee per ticket).  You need to book the marine encounters in advance of your visit, either online or contact the Aquarium directly.

We walked into the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium (open Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 4:30pm), expecting to be in and out in an hour — three hours later, we walked out with amazing new experiences. This facility is a living museum, with many examples of live insects and a wonderful butterfly room with a koi pond. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by one of the facility’s entomologists, who walked with us and described each live insect in the long hallway cases and rooms. The entomologists rotate throughout the facility, always ready with a smile and a story to help you learn about the bugs.

A giant mealworm becomes food at Audubon Nature Institute’s Insectarium © Laurie Millman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The same entomologists take turns in the ‘Bug Appétit’ Kitchen, six days a week. They prepare many of their own recipes to allow visitors to sample food made with edible insect ingredients. On the day we visited, we sampled roasted whole crickets with barbeque and other flavorings, chocolate “chirp” cookies with organic cricket flour, and crackers coated with garlic spread, humus, and cheese spread — all contained ground, roasted crickets or mealworms. Surprisingly, these delicacies all tasted quite good and turned out to be the highlight of our visit. As Mack, the head of Bug Appétit noted, “This is the wave of the future.” In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been promoting the increased consumption of insect protein around the world since 2003 — farming of edible insects produce low greenhouse emissions, and offer a sustainable and inexpensive source of protein, vitamins, and amino acids essential for humans.

The Insectarium price includes an animated, 4-D movie about superstar bugs and their outstanding achievements. “Awards Night,” is fun for all ages, with celebrity voices by Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, and Brad Garrett. The “Flea Market” gift shop has unique items to take home: Laurie purchased amber earrings and keychains with baby scorpions and other bugs as gifts for herself and the family!

To save $3 per Insectarium admission, purchase online at the Audubon web site:  $18.95/Adult; $13.95/Child (2-12); $15.95/Senior (65+) (plus sales tax, $1 transaction fee per ticket).The Audubon Zoo offers an animal-themed water splash park for all ages with three different splash zones and  one area specifically for toddlers and younger kids. Grab an inner tube for a lazy ride along Gator Run, slide down a huge alligator water slide, run through spider monkey soakers and water-spitting snakes. Check the web site to confirm when the water park is open.

To save $3 per Zoo admission, purchase online at the Audubon web site:  $18.95/Adult; $13.95/Child (2-12); $15.95/Senior (65+) (plus sales tax, $1 transaction fee).

If you plan to visit all three Audubon centers, the best value is to purchase the “Audubon Experience” ticket, which offers a savings of up to $30.90 per person: $44.95/Adult (plus sales tax); $34.95/Child (2-12) (plus sales tax); $37.95/Senior (65+) (plus sales tax).

The Music Box Village is an enchanted secret garden of art and music which brings out the kid in anyone © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Music Box Village is an enchanted secret garden of art and music which brings out the kid in anyone © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


The Music Box Village in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans was the location for the wedding which brought us to this part of the country (the bride, an artist who had done a couple of residencies in New Orleans, had a personal connection to the Music Box, and the groom had an American Roots band). The “Village” is a unique, outdoor, artist-created sculpture garden of life-sized, interactive musical houses. Each “house” is whimsically designed with different types of materials and equipment. The overarching purpose is to allow visitors of all ages to explore many different ways to make sounds and music. It is a magical, enchanted garden that turns anyone into a kid absolutely enthralled with making music. Check the Village’s web site for events while you are in town, so you, too, can experience this magical outdoor venue. (4557 N Rampart St., https://musicboxvillage.com)

New Orleans turned 300 during 2019.

Here are more highlights of a visit to New Orleans:

St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. New Orleans celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2019 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
New Orleans celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2019 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Horsedrawn carriage passes by the Oldest Tavern in US, reputed to have been built between 1722 and 1732, in the French Quarter of New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Voodoo shop in the French Quarter © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
The French-style wrought iron that decorates buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
French Quarter, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Night on Frenchman Street, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Night on Frenchman Street, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Night on Frenchman Street, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
A walk through the Bywater, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A walk through the Bywater, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A walk through the Bywater, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Beads strewn from Mardi Gras past, New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Walk over the Rusty Rainbow Bridge to Crescent Park Trail from the Bywater, along the water, to the French Quarter of New Orleans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rusty Rainbow Bridge: Besides music, art and food, New Orleans is about poetry and romance © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rusty Rainbow Bridge: Besides music, art and food, New Orleans is about poetry and romance which is why it is so perfect for a destination wedding © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

New Orleans & Company, the visitor bureau, has an excellent website to help plan your visit, including sample itineraries: 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130, 800-672-6124, www.neworleans.com.

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© 2019 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 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

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

 

Cruising into Martha’s Vineyard’s Warm Embrace

 

Viewing the sunset over Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard from the bow of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

What I love most about Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is that this single island, just 100 square miles, holds such diversity of culture, heritage, ecology. You can find a place on this island to suit whatever mood or craving you have – Edgartown’s austere conformity; Oak Bluffs’ color and whimsy; Vineyard Haven’s seagoing tradition; Wampanoag Indian reservation; fishing villages, beaches, nature preserves, lighthouses, farms. Go a few miles and it’s like crossing a border to another state or state of mind.

Tossing out the line to dock at Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive after a two-hour sail from New Bedford aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe at 7:30 in the morning. I watch with great admiration how Captain Patrick Moynihan maneuvers us into the Tisbury Marina in Vineyard Haven, where billionaires have their yachts (our 84-passenger ship is about the size of the more ambitious of them), swinging us around so we are perpendicular to the pier. The first mate throws out a line to lasso the pylon.

Across the way, we can see where the big ferries come in from Falmouth, Hyannis, Nantucket, New Bedford, MA; Quonset Point, RI and New York.

The tall ship, Shenandoah, moored in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see historic sailing vessels, like the tall ship Shenandoah, that add to the ambiance. Docked at the marina, we can go on and off the ship at will.It’s our third day of our New England Islands cruise – an itinerary that had to be completely rearranged because of storms at sea.

The best way to experience Martha’s Vineyard if you only have a day and especially if there are mobility issues is with an island tour. I am traveling with my brother who has some difficulty walking. We are recommended to Oak Bluffs Wharf & Land Company’s island tour, and we recommend it for both its length and scope. You come away feeling you really know Martha’s Vineyard from end to end, and more significantly, its people.

The tour company operates out of the Dockside Inn, an absolutely charming place a short walk from the ferry terminal; the inn (which I take note of for a return visit) and the tour company are both owned by John Tiernan (9 Circuit Avenue Ext., Oak Bluffs, MA, 508-684-8595, www.DocksideInnMV.com)

We hail an Uber and arrive at the charming inn in plenty of time to enjoy rocking in a wicker chair on the porch and watching the world go by (at least the people coming and going from the ferry) before we start the tour.

In the course of 2 ½ hours (more like 3) we get to visit all six of the island’s towns and go as far as Aguinnah and the Gay Head Cliffs.

Our guide, Linda, has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 25 years but says her teenage grandkids still refer to her as a “washashore.” She is vivacious and interesting, as she drives the van and narrates about the points of interest, but also, gives us a real feeling for the people who live here and have been drawn here since the first European settlers arrived in 1642.

East Chop Lighthouse on Telegraph Hill © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Martha’s Vineyard is home to some 17,000 people year-round (I envy them); the population swells to 100,000 in summer. Traffic at the five-corners intersection (there are only two traffic lights on the island and these are on the bridges; no parking meters, neon signs, or billboards either) becomes a dance and a test of neighborly good will.

I could definitely live here. I’d be right at home among all the writers, journalists, musicians, artists, political people – the diversity of their backgrounds is laudable:

There’s Gloria Swanson’s house given to her by Joseph Kennedy. At West Chop, she ticks off prominent people who lived here (I note the media people and writers); Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Lillian Hellman, Carly Simon. She points to where Charles Lindbergh and wife came for respite after their baby was kidnapped and killed; where John Kerry just bought property; She clicks off names of people who live in the area: Diane Sawyer (“Chip Chop” house); Mia Farrow; Katherine Graham (Washington Post), Beverly Sills; here’s where Princess Diana stayed here while divorcing; here’s a horse farm that was owned by James Cagney (still in his family); and here’s Lambert’s Cove, where Carly Simon is a regular (she always stops to ask for directions).

Michael J Fox had a home in Aquinnah, even named his daughter Aquinnah; Jackie Kennedy Onassis bought 400-acre spread, now owned by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Obama, who had regularly vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard during his presidency, just bought a piece of it. Driving through Chilmark, Bob Villa (“This Old House); author David McCullough (“John Adams”), Judi Blum, Susan Bronck, Philip Craig, Tom Clancy, Geraldine Brooks, and Jim Belushi; in Oak Bluffs, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (PBS “Finding Your Roots”), Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

It’s the atmosphere, the vibe, the ingrained culture of this place that makes it so accepting, so comfortable. I see it, feel it myself as I walk about.

It starts with Martha’s Vineyard’s early European settlement – not the Puritans who settled Plymouth, but Quakers who were more tolerant and respectful of the Wampanoag Indians and later the Cape Verdeans who were recruited to whaling, and still later African Americans and Jews who were barred elsewhere.

Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain, Oak Bluffs, erected in 1891 by MV Herald newspaper editor Charles Strahan, an ex-Confederate soldier, to honor local Union veterans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is most emblematic for me when I come upon the statue of a Union soldier in Ocean Park. Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1891 by Martha’s Vineyard Herald editor Charles Strahan, who had served in a Virginia regiment of the Confederate Army. He wanted to express gratitude and remorse in his adopted home and erected the statue in honor of local Union veterans. Then, in 1925, residents reciprocated by adding a tablet in recognition of Confederate soldiers. The statue, with a fountain-fed water trough for horses, originally stood at the foot of Circuit Avenue; it was restored in 2001 and rededicated at this site on its 110th anniversary. It is one of the few expressions of reconciliation after the Civil War that I have ever found.

Linda notes that Martha’s Vineyard has a rich African American history; a heritage trail through the island has 20 sites, including the Shearer Cottages, an inn to accommodate African American visitors, which was started by Charles Shearer, a freed slave who came to the Vineyard and started a laundry service, which is still run by his great granddaughter Doris Jackson. There is also Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s  house. And, Linda later points out when we are in Aquinnah, “The first African American woman to own her own property. Rebecca Amos, was a former slave married to Wampanoag, and when her husband died, she acquired his home.”

Inkwell Beach, the town beach in Oak Bluffs, Linda notes, was the first beach to be integrated. Indeed, when I return on my own, as I look around at the gatherings of people, you see genuine integration, not just neighbors –as in the historic Methodist camp meeting grounds – but in gatherings of friends and multi-racial families along the beach, the promenade, the main street, sitting on a bench at the Union Chapel.

As we travel in the comfortable van, Linda relates the island’s history:

Martha’s Vineyard was visited by Scandinavians as long ago as 1000 AD, naming it Vineland. The Italian explorer Verrazano sighted the island in 1524. But the most significant explorer was Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England, who in 1602 sailed into the Elizabeth Islands (he named), naming Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard (named for his mother-in-law who financed the voyage).

In October 1641 Thomas Mayhew, an English merchant and settler of Watertown, Massachusetts, bought Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Elizabeth Islands for 40 pounds from Lord Stirling and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who had been granted ownership by the English Crown. Mayhew, who made himself governor for life, sent his son, Thomas Jr. with a few families to settle the island; Thomas required that the settlers purchase their land from the natives and from all accounts, treated the Wampanoag fairly and with respect. (This is likely why Martha’s Vineyard did not suffer the same violence as Plymouth did in the bloody King Philip’s War, 1675–76, in which native Americans made a final stab at forcing English settlers out of New England). “The diverse peoples lived in peace and the island also became a haven for people of color, those of African and Cape Verdean descent.”

Mayhew sent his son, Thomas Mayhew Jr., a missionary, “to ‘take savage out of natives’ so they would be more forthcoming with land (to sell to settlers),” Linda relates. Mayhew learned to speak Algonquin from an Indian man named Hiacoomes. Mayhew was Quaker, who believed in the “inner light” and that it was not necessary to believe in Jesus (as I subsequently learn in Nantucket). The converted Indians settled in their own village, “Christiantown”, where could live separately. They had their own meeting house and cemetery where Christianized natives were buried.

“Many natives died of disease but not the Christian ones, so they were more amenable to conversion,” Linda says.

Still, their numbers suffered after European settlement: in 1642, there were 3,000 Wampanoag; by 1764, their numbers had dwindled to just 300.

We pass an indigenous great white oak tree simply called “The Oldest Tree”, which is 400 years old (Alfred Eisenstadt took a famous photo of the tree).

Linda points to a dirt road named Tea Lane, the oldest road to the ocean. “Martha’s Vineyard had its own Tea Party – smuggled tea, buried it. Later, during Prohibition, they smuggled rum, and in 1970s, smuggled marijuana.”

We drive into Menemsha, a working fishing village (scenes from “Jaws” were filmed here and the Harrison Ford movie version of “Sabrina” used a charming cottage. Linda, who mentions that she is the daughter of a lobsterman, says it is popular for people to buy a fresh fish dinner and watch the sunset.

As we come into Aquinnah, where the Wampanoag reservation still exists, and where most of the remaining native population live, Linda relates how the whaling captains, knowing of the natives’ prowess harpooning whales that got beached, would try to recruit them. Herman Melville spent a lot of time talking with Amos Smalley, the first Indian to harpoon a whale single-handedly, who was very likely the model for his Queequeg character in “Moby Dick.”

Indigenous Wampanoag (“people of the first light”) have lived on Martha’s Vineyard for millennia. Nearly 1,000 are still listed on tribal rolls and, of these, 150 live in the southwestern 3,400-acre peninsula of Aquinnah, designated a reservation, and another 150 live elsewhere on the island.

The town of Aquinnah ends in cliffs once called Gay Head (because of the ‘gay’ appearance given to it by stripes of variegated clay and sand of which it is composed) and now called Clay Cliffs at Aquinnah. The one mile of exposed cliffs rise dramatically 150 feet feet above sea level.

Gay Head Cliffs: the pre-glacial sedimentary formation shows a cross section of strata from the Cretaceous through Pleistocene Ages, documenting geologic phases on the continental shelf from 100 million years ago © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The pre-glacial sedimentary formation shows a cross section of strata from the Cretaceous through Pleistocene Ages, documenting geologic phases on the continental shelf from 100 million years ago. The cliffs are one of the Island’s biggest tourist attractions.  Erosion, though, has forced the island to move the lighthouse, at a cost of $2 million.

Linda stops here to let us explore for about a half hour – take in the stunning view that includes a lighthouse (that had to be moved further inland) and visit a small market that includes a shop operated by Wampanoag, the first permanent settlers of the island.

The stunning view of Gay Head Cliffs and lighthouse at Aquinnah © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hiking sticks (versus a cane as an assist for those who have trouble walking) really come in handy here, to make it up even the short, but pebbly slope. I meet a woman who is also using hiking sticks instead of a cane, and she confirms my theory: they provide better balance, let you stand up erect and walk more naturally, and use the upper body, relieving some pressure on the legs; added benefit: you look more like an athlete. “And I’m a nurse,” she exclaims.

You can buy wampum jewelry in one of the shops at the cliffs, where there are also food stands, and restrooms.

There also is a trail to the lighthouse and you can climb up to the light, or (with more time), hike a steep path down to water. We opt to take the short path that takes us to a fabulous view of the cliffs and the lighthouse.

There is also a relatively new Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum (in what was the Vanderhoop residence, a large Wampanoag family who run a fishing charter business).

Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum at the Gay Head Cliffs © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Jackie [Onassis who purchased 400 acres of property in Aquinnah] had to negotiate with Wampanoags for beach access from her property.”

As we drive through Chilmark, known for its sheep, Linda relates how, in September 1778, a British fleet of 40 ships sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor,  after having burned New Bedford and Fairhaven. Soldiers burned and pillaged vessels and farms.

“The British said there wouldn’t be bloodshed in Martha’s Vineyard if the settlers delivered 10,000 sheep and cattle in five days.” They had no choice but to comply, but one, where we pass the Alan Sheep Farm, hid six sheep in the basement (we see descendants of those sheep in the fields today). But the economy was decimated.

Quitsa Pound, 1877, an animal jail where stray animals would be confined until the owner paid a fine © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Linda relates one of the most interesting aspects that go to the heart of Martha’s Vineyard culture: Some early Vineyard settlers carried a gene for deafness (the first known deaf one was Jonathan Lambert, 1694), and over years of marriage, generation after generation was born with hearing loss. At one point, one in four children was born deaf. There were so many deaf people on the Vineyard (the greatest concentration in Chilmark) that they developed a sign language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which was later incorporated with mainland signs to form American Sign Language.

Sign language was so accepted on the Vineyard that a newspaper marveled in 1895 at the way the spoken and signed languages were used by both deaf and hearing residents. People moving to Chilmark actually had to learn sign language in order to live in the community. Deafness was so common, it was never considered to be a handicap. “The intermarriages persisted and the deaf population of Chilmark and the rest of the Vineyard continued to propagate. It would have kept growing if not for the growth of deaf education on the mainland. As deaf Vineyard children attended schools off-island, they tended to settle off-island, married mainland mates, and gradually the deaf Vineyard population died out. The last deaf Vineyard native passed away in the 1950s.”

There are other aspects of Chilmark: Chilmark Chocolates, which attained national renown after Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen presented a box to Ellen DeGeneres, is notable because the couple that own the chocolate company had a disabled son who enjoyed working in the store; now they only hire disabled.

The island also has Camp Jaberwocky. Founded in 1950 by the Lemb family it was the first overnight camp for children with cerebral palsy. “We see the kids every year. It still costs same as in 1950.” (Later I see the red bus carrying children to the camp.)

John Belushi’s grave on Martha’s Vineyard: “I may be gone, but/Rock and Roll lives on.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Linda stops at John Belushi’s grave where people often leave bottles of Jack Daniels and rocks – not because of the Jewish tradition, but a reference to his chosen epitaph: “I may be gone, but/Rock and Roll lives on.”

“He had said, ‘Martha’s Vineyard is the only place I can get good rest’.”

Several of the sights she points out were used in making the movie “Jaws,” (despite the setting supposedly being Nantucket). One of them is a bridge where there is a prominent sign, “No jumping,” that everyone jumps off.

Beginning in 1765, Vineyard men became engaged in whaling, but when the numbers of whales near the island were exhausted, the ships sailed further and further away, with voyages lasting three to five years. By 1850, Vineyard whaling ships were found on every ocean; there would have been 50 ships out of Edgartown at any one time.

“No jumping.” Jumping off the “Jaws” bridge on Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Edgartown reflects the Vineyard’s whaling tradition the most – in the many captain’s houses; the Old Whaling Church (now a performance venue); the lighthouse. There is a uniformity in Edgartown that is mandated by town code: the houses have to be white or shingled, the trim can only be black, green or navy blue.

Even Duke’s County Jail and House of Correction, conforms to Edgartown’s architectural regimen © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But in the 1860s whaling collapsed – the ships had to travel further and further away, petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the Civil War came and ships were blockaded – and the Vineyard had to look again for a new industry. It turned out to be tourism. For Martha’s Vineyard, that began in Oak Bluffs.

Perhaps one of the quaintest institutions on the Vineyard is the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association, which held its first camp-meeting in August 1835 in the Wesleyan Grove, in what is today Oak Bluffs where the Tabernacle stands.

Founded by the Methodist church, the campground began with pitched tents, then canvas on wood platforms, and then cottages that were gorgeously decorated in gingerbread patterns (like family crests, the patterns usually make a statement) and gay colors. These homes have been in their families for generations (they own the cottage, but not the land).

A row of charming cottages of the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was, in its way, the beginning of tourism, and when whaling fell apart for Edgartown, Linda says, Edgartown wanted in on Oak Bluffs’ good fortune. A railroad was built in 1874 between Oak Bluffs wharf to Edgartown, then to Katama and on to South Beach (still the best beach on the island). The railroad operated until 1897; eventually, a rail line was linked to New York (discontinued in 1917 and the rails sold to the government for iron). (Today, Martha’s Vineyard has an excellent public bus system.)

We arrive back into Oak Bluffs. Linda points out Inkwell Beach – one of the first integrated beaches in the country. “There is no discrimination here.”

Oak Bluffs, she says, is where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote some of his speeches.

Linda’s tour finishes at the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association’s Cottage Museum.

Oak Bluffs Wharf & Land Company, 9 Circuit Avenue Ext. Oak Bluffs, MA, 508-684-8595, http://vineyardhistory.com/.

The Cottage Museum, Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A Free Day

Grand Caribe’s Captain Patrick Moynihan has reshuffled our New England Islands voyage because of a storm which would make reaching Nantucket, 30 miles out to sea, too uncomfortable (10 foot seas) if not outright dangerous. But by staying over in Martha’s Vineyard for an extra day, he expects the weather to improve so we can sail there on Friday, as our last port of call.

The unexpected second day in Martha’s Vineyard is a gift, as if you had been given all these extra hours to do anything you want.

After two active days and anticipating another active day in Nantucket, Marty opts to spend the day relaxing on the ship.

The Cinderella Cottage, one of the points on the self-guided walking tour of Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I opt to return to one of my favorite places on the planet: Oak Bluffs. I love the color, the whimsy, the vibe. I have never seen a more open, welcoming place anywhere – it isn’t a coincidence that this is where Valerie Jarrett had her summer home, or that President Obama would summer on the Vineyard here every year during his presidency, or that there are so many media stars and celebrities (many who happen to be Jewish) who had vacation homes here.

Gorgeous detail of the Victorian cottages in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I cross the street from the marina where we are tied up at the pier, and hop the #13 bus to Oak Bluffs (it makes a loop to Edgartown).

I pick up the “Historic Walking Tour of Oak Bluffs” brochure from the information center at the bottom of Circuit Avenue, and find myself on what seems a scavenger hunt to find all the places.

I tour of the famous Campground, with all those gorgeous gingerbread cottages with names like Respite, Time Remembered, Alice’s Wonderland, and the Tabernacle, which can seat 2000 for a service.

Inkwell Beach, Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I make most of the 20 sites on the map, enjoying the notes about history, architecture and people.

I enjoy wandering along the Oak Bluffs Harbor promenade, and Inkwell Beach and take in the lovely shops along Circuit Avenue.

I stop in at the Flying Horses Carousel, the nation’s oldest platform carousel (a national landmark), that was constructed in 1876 by Charles Dare, and today is one of only two Dare carousels still in existence. Originally operated as a Coney Island, NY amusement, it was moved to its red barn in Oak Bluffs in 1884, delighting generations ever since. The carousel was acquired by the Preservation Trust in 1986 to prevent it from being dismantled and sold piecemeal to collectors of antique carved horses. The Trust undertook an extensive restoration to return the carousel to its original appearance, complete with the historic panel paintings that were done by a Dare factory artist. The horses were individually restored and feature real horsehair manes and tails, and distinctive objects in their glass eyes. The 1923 Wurlitzer Band Organ plays old-timey tunes on original paper rolls. The highlight of every ride is the chance to grab the lucky Brass Ring to win a free ride.

Grab for the brass ring on the Flying Horses Carousel, Oak Bluffs, the nation’s oldest platform carousel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Flying Horses Carousel is one of 20 historic properties owned and managed by The Vineyard Trust. Among them: Alleys and The Grange in West Tisbury; The Old Whaling Church and Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown; and Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

I take the bus back to Vineyard Haven, getting off opposite the ferry terminal, and walk up to the village’s main street which has many charming boutiques. The local movie theater has a poster of “Jaws.”

It’s a short walk back to the ship – I pass the Benjamin & Gannon ship building and repair company – actually a small shack, but Linda had mentioned that they are very welcoming to visitors, and sure enough, am invited to look inside.

Sunset at Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s so much to do on Martha’s Vineyard: with more time, I would bike (the island has 44 miles of bike and multi-user paths; several of our passengers took advantage of the rental bikes on board); 19 named beaches, 125 miles of coastline, fishing piers, kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing; horseback riding; guided cycling, natural, ecological, birding, historical, ghost and aerial tours; dozens of art galleries and boutiques, potters and artisans workshops and bookstores; visit an alpaca farm; wildlife and nature preserves, reptile and bird park, sanctuaries, arboretums, reservations; take the On-Time ferry to Chappaquiddick Island to explore Cape Poge and Wasque Reservations; visit Mytoi Japanese garden; the Vineyard’s Native American Wampanoag people at the Aquinnah Cultural Center, explore the Wampanoag Way, an Aquinnah Cultural Trail; follow the African American Heritage Trail; take in a performance at Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven or at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown; take a cooking, dance, yoga, pilates,  landscape painting class; circumnavigate the island or its surrounding waters aboard a sailboat, schooner, catamaran or motorboat; take a charter fishing or sailing excursion or lesson; attend a film, food & wine, artisans or other festival.

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe tied to the pier at Tisbury Marina, Vineyard Haven © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For more information, and to help plan a visit, contact Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, 24 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, 508-693-0085, 800-505-4815, info@mvy.com, www.mvy.com.

The Grande Caribe sails on to Nantucket. 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:

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

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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

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

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