Reopening of National Parks "Just In Time" For Two Major Park Events

Yorktown Day 2013 included artillery firing demonstrations on Yorktown Battlefield. NPS photo.

The reopening of NPS areas late last week came just in the nick of time for not only the popular fall color season, but also for a pair of major annual special events in parks. Among the activities held last weekend were Yorktown Day at Colonial National Historical Park, which commemorated the 232nd anniversary of America's climactic Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, and the 34th Annual Bridge Day at New River Gorge National River.

On October 19, 1781, the surrender of the British Army to American and French forces at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively marked the end of the American Revolution. This major milestone in our nation's history is celebrated each year at Colonial National Historical Park, which includes Yorktown Battlefield, but when the government shutdown went into effect, there were concerns about its impact on this special event.

Park Has Key Roles In Yorktown Day Event

"Yorktown Day" is a cooperative effort sponsored by the Yorktown Day Association, a loose affiliation of over a dozen organizations, including Colonial National Historical Park. The NPS has played a major role in this event in previous years, and key activities are held on park property, so there was understandable concern among organizers and potential visitors about the shutdown.

Those worries were magnified since October 19 fell on a Saturday this year; when the anniversary occurs on a weekend, the schedule expands from a one-day event to a "Yorktown Victory Weekend." Most of the activities could have been moved to sites off park property, but a commemoration of the American victory at Yorktown—with the Yorktown Battlefield off-limits for the ceremonies, tours and other special programs—wouldn't seem very, well...victorious.

The end of the shutdown arrived just in time, and park spokesman Michael Byrd says the "patriotic ceremonies" at the Yorktown Victory Monument went on as planned, along with special programs such as artillery demonstrations by British and American reenactment units and ranger-guided tours of the battlefield.

Yorktown Day Slims Down From Previous Years

Even though the park was open, Yorktown Day was a bit scaled-down when compared to years past. The combination of reduced funding stemming from the sequester and uncertainty about the length of the recent shutdown led to cancellations by several military units who have played key roles in recent years.

Among the missing were the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and the Commander-in- Chief's Guard, whose members "wear Revolutionary War-era uniforms and demonstrate the weapons and tactics of the time." Both are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, based in the Washington, D.C. area, and they've been crowd-pleasers at Yorktown Day in recent years.

Annual "Bridge Day" Is A Big Deal In West Virginia

An even bigger event, at least in terms of the size of the crowd, was also scheduled for October 19 at the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia. That park is home to the New River Gorge Bridge, said to be the longest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere. Perched 876 feet above the New River, the bridge is also the third highest in the United States, and it's that height that draws a big crowd on a single day each fall.

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A BASE jumper lands at this year's Bridge Day. NPS photo.

Every year since 1980, the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce has hosted Bridge Day on the third Saturday of October. It's the only day of the year that visitors may walk across the bridge, and the only day that BASE jumpers may legally engage in their leaps in a National Park Service area.

"BASE" is an acronym for "building, antenna, span, earth," the four types of fixed objects from which these parachutists begin their jump. For fans of this activity, the New River Gorge Bridge is a magnet, and the annual Bridge Day has grown into what organizers call "the largest extreme sports event in the world."

According to event planners and local media sources, at least 70,000 spectators showed up to watch 450 base jumpers make just over 900 total jumps from the bridge. The "launch point" on the U.S. Highway 19 bridge is under the jurisdiction of the State of West Virginia, but landing zones are within New River Gorge National River, leading to potential confusion about the status of this year's event due to the government shutdown.

Many Agencies Involved in Bridge Day

NPS employees have some important roles in the event, including emergency services for the inevitable injuries and occasional rescues when jumps don't end as intended. However, management of this major event is a multi-jurisdictional affair, with many non-NPS resources involved, and organizers went to considerable lengths to assure participants and spectators that Bridge Day would go on as planned, shutdown or not.

Bridge Day continues to be a bit controversial in park circles, but the reopening of the park just two days before the event removed the potential for shutdown-related confusion, and it seemed to be welcome news for those involved in the day's activities. An entry on the park's Facebook page noted, "We are so excited to be back to work and just in time for Bridge Day—the largest one day festival in WV! There is so much to celebrate—the gorge, the bridge, and beautiful fall color."

Thanks to reopening of NPS areas across the country, there's indeed much to celebrate at your favorite park...with or without a special event.