One of the most rewarding things about volunteering with the Park Service, in addition to collaborating alongside the amazing rangers who work there, is meeting the public. Everyone visits a site bringing their own expectations to what they hope to get out of it. For some that means using the bathroom and leaving without saying a word, which is fine. Others however visit on some sort of mission or purpose. We had a few of these yesterday at Federal Hall. Here are two:
Two fellows came in from rural Pennsylvania in mid-afternoon. I showed them around and then got into a longer conversation with one of them. He told me had never thought much about history until earlier this year, when his sister discovered a trove of letters written by an ancestor who had served in New Jersey regiment during the Civil War. One thing led to another and after some digging he discovered that his family roots date back in the New World to the 1640s. This knowledge in turn led him to studying not just the Civil War but the Early American period. Thus he and his friend were making the rounds of various historic sites. They were on their way to Fraunces Tavern after Federal Hall.
He told me his son lives in Brooklyn and therefore he comes to the city frequently. So I quickly jotted the names of further historic sites in various boroughs he might try to see when time permits. I will never know if he follows through. Hopefully he will.
Later a man came in with his son and we too got into a conversation. As it turned out for decades, going back to the 1980s, he was a White House correspondent for a major newspaper syndicate. We got to talking about the evolution of the newspaper industry, which in turn led to a discussion of covering various historical events. I mentioned George H.W. Bush having been at Federal Hall in April 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Washington’s First Inaugural. The man mentioned that the event had been part of a larger project that took place over that year starting in January called “From George to George.” The retired journalist had an extraordinary amount of institutional memory.
Stories like the above are just two examples of the things one only gets from being at the place itself. People, at least some of them, come in reflective and eager to share what led them to come and experience the thing for themselves.
I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start. Happy Father’s Day to all dads out there. Posting will pick up here now that the summer days have settled into something of a pattern. With the academic year over I again began volunteering with the Park Service. This summer I am at Federal Hall. Though I never planned it this way, it has been something of a run through the various New York City sites. There is actually a great deal of overlap in the histories of these places, and Federal Hall has a unique story and provenance spanning many centuries. The site itself was placed under the auspices of the Park Service by the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, who did so eighty years ago in 1939 around the same time they quashed Robert Moses’s Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. The Early American Period is an era about which I know fairly little and I have thus spent much of my time since submitting grades Memorial Day Weekend engrossing myself in the literature. I find it comforting on a number of levels, not least as I try to understand our own troubling and disturbing times. The Founding Father have so much to teach us.
The site upon which stood Federal Hall has been many things over time. It was where the First Congress met and where George Washington was sworn in as our first president. The original building was torn down in 1812 and a customs house built on the choice Wall Street property in 1842. During the Civil War it became the New York Sub-Treasury, and would remain so until just after the First World War. A great deal of all this also ties in to my book manuscript, which really excites me. I am already up-and-running, writing some bits for the social media and giving tours. I’m looking forward to telling more stories and jumping in.
(image/Robert Shaw sketch via NYPL)
In late June 1864, with the country still reeling from Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody Overland Campaign, President Lincoln signed legislation granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. I speak in my manuscript about how forward-thinking many were even in the worst depths of the war about what might come afterward, hence the passage of the Pacific Railroad, Homestead, and Land-Grant College bills as early as 1862. The 1864 Yosemite Act was a part of that optimism. Eight years after this, President Grant put Yellowstone under federal control. In between, in the summer of 1865, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax led an expedition out west just after the Civil War to review the situation. Three years after all this Colfax became Grant’s running mate and then served four years as vice-president from 1869-73.
Frederick Law Olmsted left his position as secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in mid-1863 and took a position in California managing the Mariposa mining estate. There he was horrified by the corruption and environmental depredations he saw. A bright spot was that he was eventually placed on a committee to examine how the state of California might preserve Yosemite and Mariposa. Back in Washington on 14 April 1865 Grant and Colfax both begged out of attending My American Cousin at Ford’s Theater with President and Mrs. Lincoln. That same day Lincoln spoke to Colfax excitedly about the Speaker’s upcoming trip out west. As Colfax remembered it, Lincoln told him, “Mr. Colfax, I want you to take a message from me to the miners whom you visit. I have very large ideas of the mineral wealth of our nation. I believe it practically inexhaustible. It abounds all over the Western country, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, and its development has scarcely commenced.” Later that evening Booth shot Lincoln and the president died the next morning.
Colfax and his entourage headed west shortly after the president”s assassination and traveled many thousands of miles by various means, taking in what they saw and thinking optimistically about the possibilities for the reunified country. By early August they reached Yosemite and toured that beautiful valley along with the sequoias at Mariposa Grove. On 9 August 1865 Speaker of the House Colfax and others listened to Frederick Law Olmsted read his “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report,” the study that Olmsted and his team had written for state officials outlining how California might best preserve these sites. The state eventually did nt pursue many of the commission’s recommendations, deeming them too expensive and impractical. It was not a total loss. The Colfax Expedition helped lay the groundwork for President Grant’s signing in March 1872 of the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. It was the start of the environmental movement here in the United States. Yosemite and the great sequoias too eventually came under the management of the National Park Service.
(image by Carleton Watkins; Courtesy Yosemite National Park Research Library)
Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act on this date in 1864. This legislation deeded Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. It is interesting to note that Congress wrote and President Lincoln signed the measure in late June 1864, just days after the Overland Campaign in which so many men had been killed or wounded in ghastly ways. Even with the war far from decided people were looking ahead.
I tell the story a little bit in my book. The painting we see here was begun by Albert Bierstadt in 1863 and finished in 1864. While out west Bierstadt was also writing to his good friend John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, back in Washington about the scenic beauty of California. It is not difficult to imagine Hay describing all this to his boss in the White House. As it happened, another man from back east was in California in 1863: Frederick Law Olmsted. He had resigned his position as secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission in September to take a job running a mine in Mariposa. Olmsted was burned out from his work with the Sanitary Commission and got as far away as he could by going out west. Soon after Lincoln signed the Yosemite legislation, Frederick Law Olmsted found himself part of a commission whose job it was to survey Yosemite and the Big Tree Grove and create for California officials a plan the state might use to make these protected parklands. Olmsted and his colleagues went about their task and submitted a report in August 1865. California officials ultimately tabled Olmsted’s report, deeming his provisions too expensive.
As for the painting we see above, it quickly ended up in New York City just after Albert Bierstadt completed it in early 1864. That spring officials of the Sanitary Commission sold the art work during the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair. The fair, like others held in various locales, raised funds for the Sanitary Commission to do its work tending the needs of soldiers out in the field. Albert Bierstadt’s “Valley of the Yosemite” sold for $1600, the highest sum for any artwork on sale for charity at the New York Sanitary Fair.
(image/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
I am having my coffee getting ready to head out the door in a bit for my first day at Grant’s Tomb. Yesterday a friend and I took the bus to Philadelphia to visit the Museum of the American Revolution. The Revolutionary War period is something I know little about. My first experience visiting sites related to the period came a few years ago when my aunt and uncle took me to Lexington and Concord. It was an experience that has stayed with me. Of course we have a certain amount of Revolutionary War sites here in New York City as well, though the heritage tourism is less pronounced. Apparently the Museum of the American Revolution now stands on the site of what what used to be a visitor center for the nearby attractions.
The image of me above was taken yesterday outside of Independence Hall. If you look closely at the date, Lincoln’s visit fell on Washington’s Birthday 1861. This was while Lincoln was president-elect and on his way from Illinois to Washington for his inaugural. He was here in New York just a few days before this meeting with Edwin D. Morgan and others. Note that this tablet was put there by a Grand Army of the Republic post, though alas it does not give the year. A tablet next to this one mentions a John F. Kennedy visit to Independence Hall on July 4, 1962. We could not go into Independence Hall because tickets for the day were sold out but we weren’t too concerned because the museum was our main focus for the day. We did sit on an interpretive talk by park ranger of the adjacent Congress Hall. The ranger did a great job telling the audience about the significance of the hall and, among other things, about John Adams’s swearing in there as the second president.
I had an aunt who died about three years ago who lived in Greater Philadelphia. She loved visiting places like this and I’m sure over the years came here regularly with her elementary school students. There was a Boy Scout troop sitting in on the ranger talk and a group of young high schoolers in matching red t-shirts from Ohio in the museum. I love seeing the continuity and had to text my mother and tell her I was thinking of her older sister. Overall it made for a great day. We already have plans to visit again next year and take in the full experience. Now I’m off to the General Grant National Memorial. Enjoy your Sunday.
One of the most poignant moments at Camp Doughboy this past weekend was the rededication of the Merle Hay monument on Sunday morning. The color guard you see here are active service personnel currently serving in the First Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment. They had come from Fort Riley in Kansas and are the same men who had been in Paris this past July for the ceremonies there. The men in uniform behind them are living historians who had set up camp on the island for the weekend. I snapped the image of the new tablet a few minutes after the unveiling. I thought I would re-up the video we produced a few summers ago about Private Merle B. Hay. It is so good to see that the Hay tablet is back where it belongs.
This past summer when I was at Hyde Park I had a conversation with one of the rangers in which we discussed that 2017 was the 135th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birth. He was born there at Springwood on 30 January 1882. I usually visit Hyde Park every summer and have spoken to different rangers in recent years about the dwindling number of visitors who have that emotional, visceral attachment to FDR when visiting the site. It is no wonder, with so many Americans having grown up hearing the four-term president on the radio regularly throughout the Depression and Second World War. Nowadays there are still a few such on the pilgrimage, but for the most part that cohort has aged out. I find this photograph intriguing on a number of levels. The image is of Sergeant George A. Kaufman of the 9th Army and was taken in Germany on 9 March 1945. The public did not know it at the time, but Roosevelt was failing quickly by this time. He would die in Warm Springs just over a month later.
Roosevelt’s life and times spanned much of the American moment, an era that sadly might be winding down before our eyes seven decades after his passing. Roosevelt attended Harvard at the turn of the century, served as Wilson’s Assistant Navy Secretary during the Great War, governed New York State in the late 1920s and 1930s, and was in the White House the last dozen years of his life. It is easy to forget that he was only sixty-three when he died. I see on the Hyde Park/NPS website that they are having a program today at 3:00 pm in the rose garden behind the library. The Hudson Valley is cold this time of year, but it looks like the weather will cooperate. I am curious to see if there is more to come over the course of the year.
I’m sorry about the lack of posts in recent weeks but with the semester in full swing it has been a grinding period at work. I’ll have more posts in the coming days and weeks. Last Saturday I was in Oyster Bay for the Theodore Roosevelt Association conference. It was great seeing some folks again and meeting new people as well. The talks were great. After lunch I took a cab to Sagamore Hill with a couple from Texas who I had met that very morning. The three of us had split an earlier cab getting from the Glen Cove train station to the conference hall. I had never been to Sagamore before. It was rewarding to share the experience with others who have a strong knowledge of the topic. Because there is so much to see–I am fully aware that I missed a great deal in just our 2-3 hour jaunt–I’ll probably go back during a warmer weekend this winter.
Yesterday I finished Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. I don’t know untold the story was, but the authors did a fine job of conveying the complicated relationship between the two women who between them lived in the White House for twenty years. I saw the co-authors (and married couple) speak at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street a few years ago and spoke briefly to one of them. One thing the Ken Burns’s Roosevelt documentary did well was show how the two sides of the family interconnect in all its human complexity. The authors of this dual Alice and Eleanor biography have done the same.
This weekend I began James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. The book came out a full sixty years ago, in 1956,and straddles a line between history and current events. It is volume one of an eventual two volume work and ends in 1940 on the cusp of the Second World War. Volume two came out out in 1970. I’m reading it with the awareness and caveat that James Burns was an open admirer of FDR. As a cog in the political/academic nexus of the 1940s-60s though, I suppose this was inevitable. My impression however is that Burns did not lapse into the role of court historian the way Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did. The Lion and the Fox is a political biography and I am looking forward to hearing what Burns has to say about young Roosevelt as assistant navy secretary during WW1.
We are getting the front end of the Hurricane Matthew rainfall here in New York City. It makes for a relaxing Sunday, especially when I don’t have to leave the house at 7:30 to go to Governors Island. I was out-and-about yesterday running some errands in the city when I came across this window display in the Oxford University Press office on 35th and Madison. A quick perusal shows that OUP has created a small online site dedicated to the NPS’s 100th. Most passersby certainly walk past this with a sense of incongruity, not realizing that there are at least a dozen Park Service sites in and around Greater New York City.
I always found it curious that Woodrow Wilson created the Park Service in August 1916, what with the presidential election in full swing and Europe mired in the death and destruction of the Great War. Just how important he believe the Park system to be is something I suppose we will never truly know. It is a flawed institution in many ways, for reasons mainly outside of its own control, but our national parks are still, as the saying goes, one of our best ideas.