I got home tonight and there in the vestibule was the author’s copy of The Wonder of It All sent to me by editors at the Yosemite Conservancy. There is nothing quite like seeing your name in print. The official release date is March 15, 2016, but the Conservancy has it exclusively until then. I did not know that Shelton Johnson had written something for the collection. Longtime readers may recall that I interviewed Ranger Johnson two years ago. It’s kinda cool to now be associated with him on a project such as this one for the 100th anniversary of the Park Service. I’m looking forward to reading his and the others’ contributions.
Late last week I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear Martha Hodes discuss her new book Mourning Lincoln. Dr. Hodes, a professor at New York University, explained that while writing her book she used the events of 9/11 as a springboard to analyze the Lincoln assassination and especially its aftermath. What she meant was that today, fourteen years after the World Trade Center attacks, the tendency is to think that there was a universal quality to Americans’–and even New Yorkers’–responses to that event. Old photographs she dug up of people congregating at Washington Square reminded her that the immediate response was more complicated than her fading memory. Such is the nature of these types of events.
The ultimate example of this phenomenon is the murder of Lincoln. Today the tendency is to believe that all Americans responded with universal grief and solemnity when nothing could have been further from the truth. Many–and not just below the Mason-Dixon line–were euphoric. This was especially true here in New York City, where Copperhead sympathies predominated throughout the war. No photographs exist of Lincoln’s assassination or the scene at his deathbed. The closest thing we have is artist Carl Bersch’s painting Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands. As far as is known this is the only rendering to have been done by an eyewitness. The provenance is unclear, but Bersch seems to have painted the work sometime later in 1865. It’s what we have.
A friend sent me an article about the ongoing restoration of the painting, which is in the care of the National Park Service. The painting has not been seen by too many people over the past century and a half, though it did go to Russian four years ago as part of an exhibit to mark the parallel lives of Lincoln and Czar Alexander II. The czar had freed the serfs in 1861 and would himself later be assassinated. I would not put too fine a point on it, but in a way Lincoln’s killing can be seen as part of the wave of political assassinations that were so common between his killing in 1865 and Archduke Ferdinand’s in 1914. Bomb-throwing revolutionaries killed Alexander II in 1881, and it was Leon Czolgosz’s shooting of President McKinley twenty years after that that brought Theodore Roosevelt to power. And those are just a few of the most prominent examples. Anyways, here is that piece from the Washington Post about the painting’s restoration. The restoration work began in August and should conclude in early 2016 with the painting going on display at Ford’s Theater.
I received the good news today from the editor at the Yosemite Conservancy that the book for which I wrote a chapter has gone to the printer and will hit the warehouse in mid-October. As they said they might, the editorial people indeed changed the title; there is no official release date yet, but The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories from the National Park Service will be hitting book stores toward the end of the year. This will be the first book chapter I have gotten into print. I am very excited about it not just for that reason, but because if I do say so myself it reflects many years of dedicated volunteer work. Of course it is not only my story but that of other volunteers and the rangers at Ellis Island, the Theodor Roosevelt Birthplace, and Governors Island National Monument who work so hard to make one’s National Park Service experience rewarding. It has been my good fortune to work and volunteer with many people who have taught me so much.
I remember writing the piece last November. It was actually easy to do, as I just opened up about how and why I began volunteering the winter after I married and my father died. The draft was written, proofread and sent off less than thirty-six hours after I received the announcement seeking solicitations. Alas I have no image of the dust jacket to share now. They said they would send that as we get closer to the publication date. Remember that the focus of the collection is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Find Your Park in 2016.
Today is the anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. It was on this date in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation creating the system. National parks themselves pre-date the 1916 Organic Act. Yellowstone goes all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant’s first term in 1872. Many people helped create the NPS; the one who stands out the most was its greatest advocate and first director: Stephen Mather.
Mather was an independently wealthy industrialist who worked tirelessly for America’s wilderness areas as Park Director. He held that position for a dozen years, from 1917 to 1929. Things were markedly different in those early years. Most parks in the system at this time were west of the Mississippi. Note that the Civil War battlefields were not yet under the auspices of the Park Services. The War Department managed Gettysburg, Antietam, et al during these years. It was Franklin Roosevelt who put the battlefields under the management of the NPS in the early months of his first term. FDR’s New Deal also left a strong mark on the parks; CCC and WPA crews built light infrastructure–camp grounds, stone walls, parking lots, restrooms–in Civil War and other parks.
Eisenhower was another big influence on the Park Service. In 1956 he created the Mission 66 initiative to build visitor centers and other tourist accommodations. The idea was to get this billions-of-dollars undertaking complete for the 50th anniversary in 1966. This work was imperative. The parks were feeling the strain of the millions of American families Seeing the USA in Their Chevrolet during those prosperous postwar years. The Richard Neutra Cyclorama Building in Gettysburg was one example of the Mission 66 movement.
The NPS urges all Americans to Find Your Park during the centennial. Thankfully this is easier than ever. There are now over 400 National Park Service sites within the United States and even overseas. Many of the newer sites are reflective of the changes in historiography that have taken place in recent decades, with an emphasis on telling the stories of traditionally underrepresented groups. There are still very few World War One related destinations within the system; that is because the battles were fought overseas and the American Battle Monuments Commission handles the memorials and cemeteries there. I know firsthand that the rangers and volunteers at Governors Island National Monument are working hard to tell the story of the American Expeditionary Force. The island is rich in WW1 history. That will all play out in the next few years.
Wherever you are, I urge you to visit your national parks.
(image/Stephen T. Mather as he was around the time of the National Park Service founding; Library of Congress, permalink: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2009000939/)
Yesterday the staff at Governors Island National Monument uploaded my video tribute to Merle David Hay. I say “my” video but really it was a team effort. I wrote and narrated the text. Before we videotaped one of the rangers reviewed the draft and added some valuable insights and recommendations. He and another ranger also forwarded along some images to go with the ones I had. Their contributions greatly added to the final cut.
We shot it over three consecutive Sunday mornings in July. It is amazing the work that goes into a four minute clip. Finally one of the summer interns edited the footage. Needless to say, his technical skills are considerably greater than mine. It would not look as good as it does without his hard work. I could not embed it so one will have to click here to watch. Please note that any mistakes are mine alone. We are hoping to do more of these as the WW1 centennial continues. Merle Hay was one of the first three American to have been killed in the First World War. I hope the video is worthy of his memory. It is just one of the stories one will hear at Governors Island.
Here is the link once more. Enjoy.
Yesterday’s New York Times had a write-up about Sunday’s reopening of Sagamore Hill. I will probably visit sometime in early fall. Like the restoration of the Lee Mansion in Arlington that took place a few years ago, much of the Sagamore restoration work was gritty and unglamorous. It was about the infrastructure–electricity, duct work, cleaning the taxidermy–and things of that nature. Sexy or not that is what needs to be done to keep such treasures functioning for future generations. The latest rehabilitation is now itself a part of the story of the 130-year-old home.
The excitement around Sagamore has been building for months. We certainly talked about it with visitors at the Roosevelt Birthplace on a daily basis.
Find your Park.
(image/Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Sagamore Hill, home of President Theodore Roosevelt at Oyster Bay, L. I.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-83e5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)
It was a great day at the Roosevelt Birthplace yesterday. Charlie DeLeo was indeed on hand and gave an entertaining and enlightening talk about his 3+ decades maintaining the Statue of Liberty. His was a unique experience, and due to changes in procedures one that will not be come along in quite the same way ever again. Here are a few pics. In the one photo he is reaching into his hat pulling out the names of the raffle winners of his biography. As you can see, everyone was eager to have their copy signed. Keep in mind that Mr. DeLeo often speaks at schools and other venues. Everyone present yesterday can attest to how special his story is.
Yesterday someone received his National Park Service Volunteer Pass for going over 250 hours of service. I could have gotten the pass a long time ago had I been paying attention to the benefits that accrue with these milestones. When I began volunteering at the Roosevelt Birthplace last October I told myself I would vigilantly track these types of things. It is not about the money saved per se, but enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. I intend to put it to good use over the summer when I visit a few places.
One of the most enjoyable endeavors at the TRB this year was the opportunity to work on writing content for the installation in the lower gallery. The rangers did a great job putting the whole thing together, and it was a privilege to play a role. The two cases you see here were mine. Here are a few close ups.
Governors Island on the 4th of July was a wind and rain swept landscape. The weather kept people away but those who were there were in good spirits and enjoying the holiday atmosphere. The weather could have been better, but the island does have a fun feel in such circumstances.
For the second time this summer I met people at the Roosevelt Birthplace who were on Governors Island the day before. Usually such folks are out-of-towners who have an interest in historic sites. One of the most interesting things about Park Service sites in New York City is meeting such folks. This was especially true at Ellis Island where such a large percentage of the visitors are not New Yorkers.
The summer is on here in New York.
This morning I received the final details of the upcoming WW1 Centennial Commission trade show. About sixty individuals and organizations rsvp’ed. I am looking forward to the presentations and hearing what people have planned for the next 4-5 years. I know I myself intend to do a fair amount with the Great War Centennial between now and the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Conference.
It is hard to believe the New York History conference in Cooperstown was a full year ago. Alas I could not attend the 2014 NYSHA conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, as either a speaker or attendee. Tomorrow, however, I will be tuning in to a webinar coming from the nearby Henry A.Wallace Visitor Center at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. The panelists will be discussing Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, the 2011 report from the Organization of American Historians analyzing the state of public history within the NPS. I have read the report and its while it lauds some NPS successes it also highlights where there might be improvement.
Tomorrow’s panel begins at 9:00 am and will focus on history at NPS sites within New York State. This is going to be an informative and lively event.