Contributed By Sheena Baker, Somerset County Chamber of Commerce
What comes to mind when you think of national parks?
Most people associate national parks with the sprawling landscapes and geographical wonders of the West – Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon – when in reality there are more than 400 national parks, battlefields, monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, scenic rivers, trails and recreation areas across the U.S. and its territories, each one as unique and diverse as American citizens themselves.
As more and more Americans pushed westward in the 19th century, conservationists began to fear for the loss of the country’s scenic wonders, stunning landscapes and its native species as well as historic sites and natural monuments. This preservation movement slowly gained momentum and on March 1, 1872, President Grant signed a bill creating Yellowstone Park, the world’s first national park, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Other parks – Yosemite, Sequoia and Crater Lake – followed in the years to come thanks to the efforts of men like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, but it was decades before the national parks – what writer and historian Wallace Stegner called “the best idea we ever had” – had their own unified identity.
Finally, on Aug. 25, 1916, Congress and President Wilson created the National Park Service to preserve and protect the country’s growing list of national parks while also leaving the sites “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Since then, the National Park Service has worked with partners and volunteers as stewards to guard and promote these natural and cultural resources for the millions of people who visit these sites each year. In 2015 alone, more than 300 million people visited U.S. national parks.
This year marks the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary and to celebrate, the NPS launched the “Find Your Park” campaign to encourage Americans to discover and reconnect with the vast multitude of national parks across the country and to find a park that speaks to them personally. On Aug. 25, the day the NPS hits the century mark, until Aug. 28 – the National Park Service is offering free admission into all of its 412 sites.
Pennsylvania is home to 19 national parks or NPS-managed sites. No doubt most people think of Gettysburg National Military Park or Independence Hall in Philadelphia when they think of NPS sites in the Keystone State, but did you know there are five national parks in southwestern Pennsylvania?
To celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial this month, we suggest you #findyourpark at one of these five NPS sites in our region.
Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site
When New York’s newly completed Erie Canal began negatively impacting business and trade in Pennsylvania in the mid-1820s, businessmen and legislators sought a solution to keep the state – and their interests – competitive. In 1826, the Pennsylvania legislature approved the Mainline of Public Works for the construction of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. However, crossing the Keystone State also meant crossing the formidable Allegheny Mountains, a seemingly impossible task for a canal system. Instead, engineers built the Allegheny Portage Railroad, a system of 10 inclined planes – five ascending and five descending – with large stationary engines to pull and lower boats, rail cars and freight over the mountains from the Hollidaysburg canal basin in the east to the Johnstown basin in the west. With the completion of the 36.69-mile Portage Railroad in 1834, the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal – which came with a $16.5 million price tag – reduced travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh from 23 days to just four. Today the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site covers 1,249 acres in Blair and Cambria counties and is, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes it, a “national park for nerds” as the site pays homage to engineering and innovation. At the park’s main unit, visitors can learn about the Portage Railroad at the Summit Level Visitor Center, tour the historic Lemon House, see Engine House #6 and the Skew Arch Bridge, and hike numerous trails. Visitors can also see Staple Bend Tunnel, the first railroad tunnel built in the U.S., at a second, separate until of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site near Mineral Point. During the summer, park rangers lead heritage hikes, offer van tours of the railroad’s route from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown and host Evening on the Summit events on select Saturdays.
Flight 93 National Memorial
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 40 ordinary individuals boarded a plane in Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco. Little did they know that just over an hour after takeoff, they would band together as “citizen soldiers” in America’s first fight against a new kind of jihadist terrorism. The Flight 93 National Memorial tells the story of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 and pays tribute to their heroic actions, which prevented the plane’s four al-Qaida hijackers from reaching their intended target, believed to be the U.S. Capitol, just a short 18 minutes flying time from where the Boeing 757 crashed into an abandoned strip mine near Shanksville, killing all on board. Since the 2001 terror attacks, more than 2 million people from around the world have paid tribute to the Flight 93 story by visiting first the temporary memorial administered by local caretakers – the Flight 93 ambassadors – and later the Flight 93 National Memorial, which opened to the public in 2011. Today the memorial includes a visitor center with interactive displays, a flightpath overlook, a marble wall of names, 40 groves of memorial tress and nearly 3 miles of walking trails. Plans are underway to complete the memorial’s last phase, a 93-ft. tall Tower of Voices featuring 40 wind chimes, one for each passenger and crew member. During the Sept. 10-11 weekend, the National Park Service will lead the Families of Flight 93, Friends of Flight 93 and others in commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks with special ceremonies and programming. Be sure to visit the memorial’s website for details. The memorial also hosts the annual Plant a Tree at Flight 93 reforestation project each spring as well as Walk 93, an untimed public walk to raise awareness and support for the memorial.
Fort Necessity National Battlefield
Before American colonists fought for freedom from British rule in the Revolutionary War, the British and French struggled for possession of the immense and valuable Ohio River Valley and Ohio Territory west of the Appalachians. That struggle came to a head in 1754-1755 when the British, under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock and a young Lt. Col. George Washington, made two failed attempts to push the French from Fort Duquesne in modern-day Pittsburgh. At Fort Necessity National Battlefield, site of Washington’s lone military defeat, visitors can learn how precursors to the French and Indian War – and the worldwide Seven Years War – were fought in the Laurel Highlands. In addition to offering a reconstructed version of Washington’s “fort of necessity,” an impressive Interpretive and Education Center with interactive displays and 5 miles of walking trails, Fort Necessity National Battlefield also details the history of the National Road (modern-day U.S. 40). Visitors can travel back through time and learn about the highway’s construction, its decline during the industrial, railroading age and its rebirth as an automobile “motor touring” highway in the 20th century. The Mount Washington Tavern, a former stagecoach stop overlooking the reconstructed fort, is also part of Fort Necessity National Battlefield and serves as a museum depicting life along the National Road during its heyday.
Friendship Hill National Historic Site
Tucked in the westernmost corner of Fayette County on the banks of the Monongahela River, Friendship Hill National Historic Site is the country estate of Albert Gallatin, who served as Secretary of the Treasury for 13 years under the Jefferson and Madison administrations. The Swiss-born gentleman farmer and diplomat was influential in developing the United States in its infancy, planning the financing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, funding the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806, and advocating for federal funding for roads and canals, which eventually led to the building of the National Road in 1811. Today visitors to Friendship Hill can explore Gallatin’s uniquely constructed home, enjoy more than 9 miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails on the 675-acre estate, visit the gravesite of Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, and gain insight into life in early America. On Sept. 24-25, be sure to visit FestiFall, hosted by the National Park Service and the Friendship Hill Association. The free, two-day event celebrates the life and times of Gallatin and includes demonstrations, period music and food, crafts, children’s activities and more.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial
Sitting on a mountainside 14 miles northeast of the city of Johnstown, Lake Conemaugh once served as a reservoir for the nearby Pennsylvania Mainline Canal before it and the canal system became obsolete in the 1850s. Decades later, it became the home of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive and somewhat secretive summer retreat for wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists and businessmen. A series of missteps and poor maintenance over the years made the deteriorating South Fork Dam a “ticking time bomb,” and on the afternoon of May 31, 1889, after a night of torrential rain, the structure gave way, unleashing 20 million tons – an estimated 3.6 billion gallons – of water on the unsuspecting residents of the valley below. The Johnstown Flood of 1889, the sixth worst death toll disaster in U.S. history and the country’s deadliest inland flood, claimed 2,209 lives and caused more than $17 million in property damage. The Johnstown Flood National Memorial, built on the banks of what was once Lake Conemaugh in Saint Michael, preserves the remnants of the South Fork Dam, the former lakebed and several buildings of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. At the site’s visitor center, visitors can watch the powerful “Black Friday” film, hear one survivor’s harrowing account, see interactive maps and displays, and visit the north and south abutments of the South Fork Dam. In the summer, park rangers offer guided tours around the lake as well as van trips and hikes along the flood’s path. Each spring, the National Park Service commemorates the anniversary of the 1889 flood with special programs and events, including a luminaria ceremony remembering the flood’s victims.