A whalebone sidewalk and more

Custom House

While perhaps best known for its spectacular aquarium, its otters and Cannery Row, Monterey, California has a fascinating history that illustrates the turmoil of shifting power over many years. Monterey was the capital of the region of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule and the only port of entry for taxable goods on the California coast. Monterey State Historic Park today preserves many of the highlights of this past and a walking tour around the town offers a peek at an incredible rich area of history.

A short primer of California history may be helpful: the Rumsien native peoples first inhabited the area around Monterey. In 1542 the Spanish entered the picture when explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed into Monterey Bay and named it the Bay of the Pines. The Spanish originally thought California was an island. In 1601 Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino landed and planted the Spanish flag, naming the area for the Viceroy of Spain.

Royal Presidio Chapel - oldest building in Monterey

Royal Presidio Chapel – oldest building in Monterey

Fast forward to the early 1770s. Father Junipero Serra again claimed Monterey for Spain, this time settling the area and founding a mission. Spain was feeling threatened by Russian movement from the north, so the military built a presidio and   named Monterey the capital of Alta California in 1775.

Custom House

Custom House

In 1818 an Argeninian briefly seized Monterey for Argentina and three years later Mexico declared independence from Spain. With this came relaxed trade restrictions and the opening of coastal ports to foreign trade. The Mexican government built a large custom house in 1827  to facilitate trade from around the world. The restored custom house is considered the oldest government building in the state and its exhibits show goods from all parts of the world that passed through the port, including piles of hides, one of the main currencies of the area.

For nearly 25 years the Mexican flag flew on the Custom House flag pole, until in 1846 U.S. naval forces sailed into the bay and raised the stars and stripes, claiming over 600,000 square miles of California for the United States of America. They faced no opposition to speak of.

California never went through the process of becoming a an official territory of the United States. Only four years later, with motivation in part due to the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains nearby, California became the nation’s 31st state. San Jose was selected as the first permanent seat of the state government and commercial activity moved to San Francisco located closer to the gold fields.


Casa Soberanes

Today Monterey claims the most preserved adobe houses west of Santa Fe, with the southern part of town referred to as an island of adobes. The sun-dried mud bricks were whitewashed to help with stability and supposedly rotten cactus was mixed in for this purpose as well. An architectural style known as “Monterey Colonial” combined Spanish building methods with New England architectural features and can be seen in various residences around town.

whalebone sidewalk

whalebone sidewalk

A walking tour of historic Monterey should include the old whaling station with its rare sidewalk made entirely of whale vertebrae cut into diamond patterns. A shore whaling industry grew in the nineteenth century and various businesses processed different parts of whales.

The early 1900′s brought a thriving fishing and canning industry and commercial activity shifted away from the center of town.

California’s Independence Hall, Colton Hall is a short walk from the custom house and should also be part of any visit to Monterey.

Monterey State Historic Park and other history organizations offer a variety of ways to explore the city’s past.

I visited in March and was fascinated to see so many plants in bloom at the same time. I’m used to springtime succession, but in Monterey it seems that camelia, azalia, irises, wisteria and rhododendron all bloom together.

Posted in 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, city/town, International, religion, West | Leave a comment

Think you know American history? You may be wrong.

Lemhi pass looking west

On the Lewis and Clark Trail, Lemhi Pass looking West, Montana-Idaho border

In honor of American Independence Day, enjoy these 4 myths, as told in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History

1)      Betsy Ross sewed the first flag.

Mary Pickersgill

Mary Pickersgill

She sits with the Founding Fathers on the Fourth of July parade float,in colonial costume, a mobcap on her head and a thirteen-star American flag draped over her knee. Most American children know her by name: Betsy Ross, the woman who sewed America’s first stars and stripes. But  historians have found no definitive documentary evidence to support the story that Betsy sewed the first flag at the request of General Washington. Yes, she was a well-known seamstress in Philadelphia at that time, and she knew various members of Congress. Yes, she sewed flags. But the crucial link to this notable first, a solid piece of historical evidence, a letter, receipt, newspaper article, is missing. If she were alive today, she would likely be surprised to hear her story. Historians credit her grandson, William Canby, with manufacturing the legend in 1870. Unfortunately Mary Pickersgill, another seamstress from Philadelphia, didn’t make the history books. She sewed the Star-Spangled Banner . Read more of the story here.

2)      Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

According to the popular story, in 1793 Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

invented the cotton gin, which successfully removed the seeds from short-fibered cotton. The machine transformed the agricultural south as cotton quickly became a profitable crop across the southern United States. Harvesting the plant remained labor intensive, and thus slave labor followed the gin. Given this story, two implications might seem obvious: first, before Mr. Whitney’s gin, people cultivating cotton around the world separated the seeds and fiber by hand, and second, prior to Whitney’s invention the British textile manufacturers relied on cotton ginned by hand. Yet these assumptions are wrong. For millennia prior to Whitney, cotton-producing cultures around the world were using something called a roller gin to remove seeds from cotton. Historical fact shows that cotton gins have been used in some form or another since the first century. Whitney invented a cotton gin.

3)      Sacagawea saved the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Signs along the Lewis and Clark Trail thoughout the west show Sacagawea, arm outstretched pointing the way as if she were giving the explorers directions to a restaurant. In reality, since they spoke different languages, Sacagawea and members of the expedition could not communicate directly. Sacagawea, Sacajawea, or Sakakawea (the pronunciation varies according to tribal affiliation) was a pregnant teenager when they met, wife of Toussaint Charbonneau. Lewis and Clark wrote that she was a Shoshone girl who had been captured by the Hidatsa in a war raid. They recognized her language skills and knew they would need to find and communicate with the Shoshones in order to obtain horses to cross the mountains. The journals record her various contributions to the group: identifying edible plants like wild artichokes along the way, gathering root foods, which provided a balanced diet, and, when the Corps finally reached her tribe’s homeland, recognizing various landmarks that could confirm their location. She helped secure horses, but was definitely not a guide. Historians just don’t know much about the woman, since she left no record. Currently on the dollar coin, Sacagawea remains a mystery. Read about the view from Lemhi Pass. Read about a recent Lewis and Clark anniversary.

Lewis and Clark statue, St. Louis, MO (Mississippi River at flood stage. The statue has since been moved farther from the river)

4)      The National Anthem is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Most Americans have heard of Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the National Anthem. During the War of 1812 as the British military commenced attack on Baltimore on September 13, 1814, Key found himself behind enemy lines with a front-row seat to the battle. Hired to facilitate the release of a friend captured by the British a few days earlier, Key and the U.S. government’s prisoner-exchange agent found the British fleet on the Chesapeake and enjoyed the hospitality of the British officers. When the release was finalized, the British detained them because they had undoubtedly overheard plans for the attack. The British promised to release the Americans when the military operation was completed. Forced to watch the naval battle unfold from a boat about eight miles downriver from Fort McHenry, Key could see barges firing bombs and whistling Congreve rockets into the sky. In the early hours of the morning, Key eagerly peered through a telescope and saw Mary Pickersgill’s American flag flying over the fort. Inspired by the sight, he began to write. Key published the poem, titled the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” in a broadside several days after the battle, indicating it should be sung to a popular British tune, “Anacreon in Heaven.” This tune was not a drinking song but the club song of an eighteenth-century gentlemen’s musical club, the Anacreontic Society. Newspapers up and down the East Coast printed the song and the Star-Spangled Banner grew in popularity, until it became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931. History mystery: what happened to Francis Scott Key’s house? Read here.  Read more about the battle here.

Check out my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History. cover 2












Posted in 18th century, 19th century, exploration, fort | Tagged , | 1 Comment

California’s Independence Hall

“It is not an edifice that would attract any attention among public buildings in the United States; but in California it is without a rival.”
— Rev.Walter Colton, alcade of Monterey (chief magistrate), 1849

Colton Hall exterior

Is it misleading to call Colton Hall in Monterey, California the state’s Independence Hall? On a tour of the building, that’s what my guide called it. The people of California didn’t exactly declare independence from Mexico. Then again, it is the site where in September 1849 the California Constitution Convention met to write a state constitution. So perhaps a parallel could be made with that other building in Philadelphia. 

Located south of San Francisco, the town of Monterey was on Mexico’s frontier in 1849. The Gold Rush was in full swing, but only 18,000 people lived in what is now the state of California.

Forty-eight delegates from various corners of Alta California were elected to meet at Monterey in Colton Hall, the largest public building west of the Rockies. It is notable that eight were native-born Californios, Spanish speakers who required interpreters. Over forty-three days they pounded out a state constitution. It borrowed from several state constitutions, especially from Ohio and New York, but in the end proved one of the most progressive constitutions among the states. It created a bilingual state, and was the first state to allow married women to own property and thus represent themselves in court. It also set up free public education in every county. It outlawed slavery and dueling and set San Jose as the state’s first capital.

Colton Hall, interior

A news story described the moment when the delegates signed the document. “At this moment, a signal was given; the American colors ran up the flagstaff in front of the government buildings, and streamed out on the air. A second afterward the first gun boomed from the fort… as the signing went on, gun followed gun from the first, echoes reverberating grandly around the bay, ’til finally, as the loud ring of the thirty-first was heard, there was a shout: ‘That’s for California’”

California officially became the 31st state in the United States a year later in September of 1850. About six months later, the state’s population had grown to 160 thousand.

Read about Independence Hall in Philadelphia. 

Posted in 19th century, city/town, military, West | Leave a comment

Crissy Field in San Francisco


Crissy Field, San Francisco

I’m a planner, so when I travel I’m usually intentional about seeing places that relate to my professional history interests. But every now and then I stumble upon a place that was somehow off my radar. Such was the case recently when I visited a friend in San Francisco. It was a beautiful day and I had no agenda, short of getting outside and enjoying the weather and my friend’s company. He had not lived in the city long, so did not know it well. We decided to hike around the Presidio and take in views of the Golden Gate bridge and sailboats in the bay. We parked at Crissy Field. The broad expanse of grass along the bay was dotted with giant steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero, a temporary exhibition mounted by SFMOMA. At the edges of the field were low buildings that looked like airplane hangars. My friend’s wife had requested that he check out an indoor trampoline park located in one of them.



Crissy Field, original hangar buildings

Only when I stopped to read a historic marker did it hit me. This is the famous Crissy field, the most intact 1920s Army airfield west of the Mississippi River. Minus the buzz of aircraft and cheers of crowds, the grass field and several original buildings offer a glimpse of the early years of aviation when “airmindedness” was the rage. Many of the pioneers of aviation passed through Crissy field.

Crissy Field 1920s

In 1919 the army sent 61 planes on a test flight across the continent. Fifteen planes left from this field heading east. Forty-six left Long Island, New York heading west. Only nine planes finished the flight, including Captain Lowell Smith, later commander of the world flight. Major Dana Crissy was among those killed in the attempt and the commander of the Presidio airfield, Major Hap Arnold, requested the field be named for Crissy.

220px-Lincoln_Beachey_cph.3a49742Crissy Field, completed in 1921, was constructed on the site of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Lincoln Beachey, called the father of aerobatics, thrilled Exposition crowds with his daring maneuvers. Sadly, he died in a spectacular crash during a show at the Exposition in front of almost 250,000 people.


World Cruisers at Crissy Field, San Francisco

World Cruisers at Crissy Field, 1924 National Air and Space Museum Archives

I’m currently writing a book about the 1924 Army Air Service round-the-world flight. Beginning in Seattle, the flight of four Douglas World Cruisers traveled west, becoming the first across the Pacific and the first across the China Sea, and ultimately the first around the world. Five other countries set out to challenge them and it became a race for national prestige. Flying long distances was no easy feat; one of the planes crashed into a mountain in Alaska (both crew members miraculously survived) and one ended up at the bottom of the North Sea (again, the crew survived). When they reached Boston, they began what was essentially a victory lap across the United States toward the finish line in Seattle. At Crissy Field, thousands of people greeted them.


In 1925, the Navy attempted a flight to Hawaii. Two seaplanes left the bay by Crissy Field, one faced engine failure early and safely returned. The other ran out of fuel near Hawaii and eventually reached Kauai by sailing there with sails made from the plane’s canvas wings. Test your navigation acuity with an interactive about this flight from the National Air and Space Museum.

Today Crissy Field is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area run by the National Park Service. More information on Crissy Field at the National Park Service website.

My book about the grand adventures of the world flight is for ages 10-14 and will be published in spring of 2015.

Posted in 20th century, city/town, national park, West | 1 Comment

A Lewis and Clark anniversary

Two hundred ten years ago tomorrow, May 14, at 4 p.m. three boats loaded with enough supplies to fill three modern semi trailers and about forty-eight men, crossed the Mississippi River into the mouth of the Missouri River beginning a historic expedition. In honor of Lewis and Clark, I’m repeating a past post. Enjoy! You can read all about my experiences working on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition in my book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.

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Most fans of explorers Lewis and Clark expect to find traces of them in St. Louis, the start and end of their 1804-06 expedition.  The reality is that only a few sites in St. Louis evoke the explorers.  Lewis spent much time in St. Louis in the winter of 1803, while Clark drilled the members of the expedition across the Mississippi River in Illinois at Camp DuBois. A replica of the fort stands today near the actual site, across from the mouth of the Missouri River. St. Louis was French territory that winter. In northern St. Louis, Clark’s grave sits on a hill in Bellefontaine Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River in the distance. At river’s edge in the shadow of the Arch stands a statue called Captains Return depicting the triumphant return of the expedition. [I just learned tonight that the statue has been moved so it won't be subject to the Mississippi floods. Good idea!] In my opinion the best place in the St. Louis area associated with the explorers is St. Charles, a town on the Missouri River about thirty minutes west of St. Louis. With it’s tree-shaded brick streets and stone and brick buildings with real wood shutters, it feels historic. St. Charles was the first permanent settlement on the Missouri River.  The French founders called it Les Petites Cotes (little hills).  A sign in the town says it was first settled in 1769 (before the American Revolution) and officially founded in 1780 (a year before Yorktown).  It’s historic district running nine or so blocks along the river is filled with restaurants and shops of all kinds – antiques, collectibles, crafts, goods from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (couldn’t find goods from France!) and tsochkes of all kinds.  It oozes charm and character. When I lived in St. Louis and was missing access to the eighteenth century places I loved in the East, I decided that St. Charles was probably the closest thing to a Williamsburg I could find west of the Mississippi. William Clark arrived in town with his expedition on May 16, 1804. They stayed a few days awaiting Meriwether Lewis’s arrival from St. Louis. The journals record that “a number [of] spectators French and Indians flocked to the bank to see the party. This village is about one mile in length, situated on the north side of the Missouri at the foot of a hill from which it takes its name… This village contains about 100 houses… and about 450 inhabitants chiefly French, those people appear poor, polite, and harmonious.” During the brief stay, the town made them feel at home with dances and dinners. It was the last bit of “civilization” they would see until their return in September 1806.  Several of the men were disciplined for being absent without leave and insubordination. Today the town is proud of its Lewis and Clark connection. A huge boathouse on the bank of the Missouri holds the replica boats used by the area’s Lewis and Clark re-enactment group. A small museum explains the expedition. A large statue of the two explorers with dog Seaman sits in a spacious park along the river. The dirty river is wide at this point and rolls along at a decent pace, carrying debris collected on the journey from its source in distant western Montana. I like when history sites don’t require me to tax my imagination, when they offer enough genuine evidence from a time period to help the mind paint a picture of what could have been. St. Louis lost a lot of its historic core when the Arch was built. St. Charles managed to keep its historic buildings. It cares for preservation and those that seek Lewis and Clark will be rewarded in St. Charles. Have you been to St. Charles? What did you think?

Posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, city/town, exploration, West | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Story of a bad boy – Portsmouth revisited

Market Square by Joe Parks

Market Square by Joe Parks

I’ve rhapsodized a bit in a past post about how much I enjoyed a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and hoped to return. I got my wish and recently spent several days there teaching a workshop. One of the great things about my job is access to historic sites and in this case, the workshop was held at a grand eighteenth-century home– yes, one that President George Washington really did visit (in 1789).

Governor John Langdon House

Governor John Langdon House

The large white Governor John Langdon House sits two blocks from the center of town. Langdon, while not a name known to most Americans, was a signer of the U.S. Constitution and three-term governor of New Hampshire. Our guide called him the “founding father who didn’t make it into the history books.” In any case, he took advantage of the booming maritime economy in the 1700s and had his hands in the lucrative privateering industry during the American Revolution. The house was meant to show his status in society and is filled with amazing molding, handcarved pine meant to look like masonry, and wainscotting. Beyond the double parlor, other rooms in the house offer different stories. A rector and his wife lived in the house for forty years and rebuilt a fire-damaged section in the popular Greek revival style. At the end of the nineteenth century some Langdon descendants bought the house and added a large dining room designed by Stanford White, an exact replica of a room in another house in Portsmouth.

glossI often look for a book to read that is set in a place I’m visiting. I found the perfect book at the indie bookstore in town. The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1869 and described as a humorous, poignant yarn of one lad’s adventures. Sound familiar? It was supposedly the inspiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The book is set in the fictional town of Rivermouth, really Portsmouth. The town comes to life in this endearing tale of nineteenth-century boyhood. The protagonist, Tom Bailey, lives with his grandfather Captain Nutter, his sister and an Irish servant. Tom gets into all kinds of troubles as he interacts with the neighborhood kids. It’s considered one of the first in the “bad boy” genre of literature.

The Nutter house, where Aldrich lived, sits not far from the Langdon house. It, too, is restored and open to the public, part of Strawbery Banke, an excellent 10-acre outdoor museum featuring three hundred years of history. Alas, I had left Portsmouth by the time I learned about the Nutter house. I guess I’ll just have to return again.

Check out my past post about Strawbery Banke.

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A new covered bridge


Update: The Pinetown covered bridge featured in the blog post below, written a year ago, is now completely finished. I drove over it several times, admiring the fine craftsmanship. Here are some photos. I’m thrilled that Lancaster County Heritage added an interpretive panel to tell about the bridge’s history.

Pinetown Bridge over the Conestoga River, Lancaster County, PA

Pinetown Bridge over the Conestoga River, Lancaster County, PA


Pinetown Bridge

Pinetown Bridge

I have taken covered bridges for granted my entire life. I grew up riding my bike on a 5-mile loop through two covered bridges. In the summer I’d put the canoe into the river at one bridge and float down to the take-out at the second bridge. It was normal to drive somewhere and go through a covered bridge on the way. This was Pennsylvania after all, the state that still has approximately two hundred of the wooden structures. And, the Pennsylvania county with the most, where I grew up, is Lancaster County, with 29. (The national winner with 31, according to Wikipedia, is Parke County in Indiana).

Utilitarian though they are, there is something about covered bridges (maybe like lighthouses) that offers a connection to the past. Covered bridges recall another era, especially when you see an Amish horse and buggy driving through one.

The ravages of flooding, usually caused by tropical storms and hurricanes, take their toll on covered bridges. One of my childhood bridges, the Pinetown Bushong’s Mill covered bridge, was built in 1867 by an active bridge builder named Elias McMellen (who was also a captain in the Union Army).  No doubt it survived many floods until Hurricane Agnes caused major damage to it in 1972. It might have been replaced with a “modern” bridge had not the local residents raised their voices in protest and the Amish community helped restore it. Then the rising river caused by Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 knocked the bridge off its foundation, bowing its timbers, making it unsafe for use. Though it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, I feared this was not enough to save it a second time due to the escalating costs of repair.

I eagerly awaited the decision about the bridge’s fate. My father kept me apprised of any news. Finally the newspaper reported the bridge would be restored and raised about 2 feet higher to spare it from future flood waters.  On a recent trip I surveyed the work in progress, fascinated by the placement of the cranes and the complex engineering involved.

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I’m so proud that Pennsylvania places such value in preserving its covered bridge heritage. I can still jump on a bicycle and take a ride through covered bridges or canoe the Conestoga River (in the valley where the wagons were produced) and relish a heritage that has still managed to transcend time.

Thank you Lancaster County and Pennsylvania for preserving the bridges! Soon the Pinetown Bridge will be restored to its former glory.

Hunsecker's Mill Bridge, Lancaster County, PA

Hunsecker’s Mill Bridge, Lancaster County, PA

True story: My father was almost run over by a buggy as he walked through this covered bridge. He had to jump up on a wooden beam curb to escape a crazed horse. Only in Lancaster County!

Check out another post about Lancaster, PA

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History near the blossoms

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Here’s an excerpt from my new book “A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.”

One evening a few days ago I left work, turned into the setting sun, and walked west toward the Jefferson Memorial. More and more people crowded the sidewalk, all heading the same direction. The swarm was headed toward the cherry trees at peak bloom, an annual rite of spring in Washington for those residents who can withstand the tens of thousands of tourists that throng West Potomac Park. Anyone who has ever witnessed the massive puffs of pink in the warm air never forgets the sight.  Cherry blossoms, July 4th fireworks and perhaps an Inauguration are the three Washington events that everyone should experience at least once in his life, if he can deal with crowds.

The cherry trees ring the Tidal Basin and I planned to walk the loop around the basin, something I’d done many times, but this year my goal was different.  I’d just heard about an obscure stone marker sitting along the Potomac River several hundred yards from the basin and the FDR Memorial.

“I’m such a history geek,” I muttered to myself.  “Hundreds of thousands of people are headed this direction to exalt in the beauty of nature and I’m excited to see a historic marker.”
I veered away from the pink trees and headed toward the river. Eventually I found the stone marker and its metal plaque, erected in 1958 by the Aero Club of Washington to mark an auspicious 40th anniversary.  It read: “The world’s first airplane mail to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service started from this field May 15, 1918.”  Six years after the first cherry trees were planted nearby, President Wilson and other dignitaries had stood in West Potomac Park providing the official send-off for a lone army pilot in his Curtiss Jenny bi-plane.  This was the inauguration of the Post Office’s regular service between Washington and New York, a three-hour flight.  Unfortunately, the pilot Lt. George Boyle, had a little problem along the way.  He got lost. Using a road map and a faulty compass to navigate, he ended up in Waldorf, Maryland, south of Washington, and flipped his plane upon landing.  He could not continue in the damaged plane. The flight from New York did arrive, however, and the Post Office’s Air Mail Service had begun.

More info at this page from the National Air and Space Museum: http://www.nasm.si.edu/americabyair/early_years/early_years04.cfm

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Top 10 history sites in Washington, D.C.

The cherry trees will be blooming soon and Washington is bracing for the spring crowds. I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area now for nineteen years and love the area’s rich, layered history. If you’re planning a trip to Washington D.C., here is my list of the top ten sites, in no particular order, that any history lover should not miss when visiting America’s capital city. (with links to blog posts about them)

P10402471. Lincoln Cottage -This little-known site owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation opened to the public in 2008 and offers a totally fresh perspective on Lincoln’s life in Washington.

2. Arlington House and cemetery - While most people might visitWP_000411 Arlington national cemetery to see President Kennedy’s grave or the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they should take the time to visit the house just up the steep hill from Kennedy’s grave. Before it was a cemetery, Arlington was home to Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his family. The recently-restored house is owned and run by the National Park Service.

3. White House – At the epicenter of our nation’s history is the home of the President. It still amazes me that the house is open to the public even though it is a residence. Try to get a tour or go for a garden tour.

Smithsonian Castle 14. Smithsonian Castle – The multi-turreted sandstone castle is the nerve center for the world’s largest cultural institution and its museums lining the national Mall. Completed in 1855, the Castle has seen it’s share of history, from buffalo in the back yard, to a major fire during the Civil War.

5. Ford’s Theater - Few sites offer as much emotional Ford's Theatre exteriorpunch as this theater where President Lincoln was assassinated. It is restored to its 1865 appearance (though mostly reconstructed) and cared for by the National Park Service. A museum in the basement tells the story of that horrific night in April and a new education space across the street is well worth a visit. Visitors can peer into the presidential box and since it’s a working theater, should try to attend a play there.

6. Mount Vernon - You won’t be alone when you visit Mount Vernon, first President George Washington’s home on the P1020920Potomac River south of the city. But recent building projects including a visitor center and museum complex have resulted in an well-rounded site devoted to all aspects of the great man, including farmer and slave owner. You should try to see his mules, too.

7. Alexandria – The eighteenth-century town a few miles down river in Virginia was a booming town, home to Christ Church where Washington worshiped, Gadsby’s Tavern where he danced, and the Marshall house where the first casualty of the Civil War occurred. Restored homes line the city’s streets and are the highlight of an evening stroll.

8. Frederick Douglass House – The famous orator lived in this house high on a hill overlooking the city from 1877-1895.You can see his study where Douglass did much of his writing and learn about this great social reformer. The National Park Service operates this site.

9.Capitol building – The new underground Capitol Visitor Center’s exhibitions do a good job of telling the history of one of the most famous buildings in the world.

10. National Portrait Gallery – Today one of the Smithsonian museums, but built as the U.S. Patent building and the third oldest public building in the city. It served as a hospital during the Civil War and site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.

Harpers Ferry hillsideBONUS: Harpers Ferry - An hour or so outside of Washington, this tiny town was a major armory in early America, but is better known for John Brown’s raid on the arsenal there which sparked the Civil War. Today the old town area is interpreted by the National Park Service and the scenic vistas are worth the drive.

What would you add to the list?

Check out my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History to find out many more stories about sites near Washington.

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, art and culture, cemetery/grave, city/town, Civil War, house, national park, President | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Introducing my new book…

A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History

A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History

No blog posts recently for two reasons: My attention is focused on my new book, which will be appearing in bookstores soon. It is about various projects I’ve worked on over my career in some of America’s most visited history museums and shows that the pursuit of history is FUN! It is available for pre-order now. Check out the website www.grizzlyinthemail.com

Please tell your history-loving friends and history teaching friends about this book. What can one do with a history degree? Here is an answer. It’s popular history with an undercurrent of scholarship and important questions like: who owns history? Who has the right to tell what story?

Second reason for my lack of posts recently? Another book in the works and a deadline next week. This one is the fascinating story of the first flight around the world. Few people know about it, but it’s an adventure story of courage in the face of danger. It was literally a race around the world.

My travels start again next week, so look for some new blog posts in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading historyplaces!


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