There are more than 200 national parks in the cultural-historical wing of the National Park System. While some get lots of media attention and droves of visitors -- Gettysburg National Military Park and the Washington Monument, for example -- many are small, minimally staffed, and lightly visited. Some of the units in the lesser-publicized niches of the cultural-historical wing deserve much more love than they've been getting.
In a recent Traveler article that focused on the Park System's cultural-historical wing I pointed out that the role of the cultural-historical parks as vehicles for "telling America's story" could be understood through the systematic exploration of ten broad thematic orientations. Each of these ten categories contains at least one park that is greatly underappreciated. Here are ten that you might want to consider for your personal "A" list.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
The Original Inhabitants (aboriginal-themed) parks focus on archeological and historical sites associated with Native Americans or Native Hawaiians. Mesa Verde National Park and Arizona's Canyon de Chelly National Monument are two higher-profile examples. New Mexico's lightly-visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park (34,226 visits in 2010) is a hidden gem.
Located northwest of Albuquerque, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an especially important Pueblo site. Proclaimed in 1907 as Chaco Canyon National Monument, this 33,974-acre park contains the ruins of Pueblo Bonito (Spanish for “beautiful village”), the community that is thought to have functioned during the period A.D. 850 to 1250 as the trade, ceremonial, and administrative capital of the Four Corners area of the ancestral Pueblo realm.
Chaco Culture is renowned for its distinctive architecture and the spectacular character of its public and ceremonial buildings. Among the archeological sites are the ruins of a dozen major pueblos with over 100 rooms each, a 63-feet wide kiva, a large marketplace, ball courts, and other fascinating artifacts. The Chacoans who constructed this remarkable complex, which includes associated roads, ramps, dams, mounds, and other engineering features, combined pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering in ways that continue to amaze us.
Anthropologists are still trying to figure out why this site was selected. Chaco Canyon lies in a very remote location and has poor soil, a very short growing season, and no significant water source. There is no evidence that it was developed as a farming area.
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
Beginning in the 15th century, European colonial powers -- Spain, England, France, Denmark, and Netherlands -- explored, laid claim to, and established settlements in parts of what is now the United States and its territories. Archeological evidence of these activities and events is preserved in more than 20 national parks that address the general theme of Early European Exploration and Settlement. Among the higher-profile examples are Colonial National Historical Park, Cabrillo National Monument, and Castillo De San Marcos National Monument. One of the hidden gems is New Mexico's Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.
Located near Mountainair, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is an old park (established 1909) that preserves the best existing examples of Spanish Franciscan mission churches and convents that were built during the early colonial period. Preserved at three separate sites in this park are the ruins of several of America’s six remaining 17th-century Spanish mission churches as well as three of the largest Pueblo Indian villages. Included among the latter is the partially excavated pueblo of Las Humanas (known today as the Gran Quivira pueblo). The park, which entertained 32,941 visitors in 2010, has an interpretive trail through the missions and pueblos and offers related activities such as picnicking and bird watching.
Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Heritage Area
More than two dozen cultural-historical parks comprise the category Colonial Life and the Revolutionary War. Three higher- profile examples are Boston National Historical Park, Independence National Historical Park, and Valley Forge National Historical Park. A standout among the lesser-known parks in this category is Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Heritage Area
Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Heritage Area, which is located in and near Natchitoches, Louisiana, includes a collection of several dozen National Register and state historic properties in a 35-mile-long zone. The park's two plantation properties (Oakland Plantation and parts of Magnolia Plantation) nicely illustrate the history of colonization, frontier influences, French Creole architecture and culture, slavery, social practices, and the Cotton Kingdom agricultural era. Included in the sprawling heritage area is the city of Natchitoches, the oldest community in the Louisiana Purchase. This park attracted just 25,115 visitors last year, and that is a crying shame.
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument are prime examples of the cultural-historical genre that I've labeled Pioneer America, Western Settlement, and the Indian Wars. There are a number of hidden gems in this category, but none more deserving of special mention than Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site.
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site near Deer Lodge, Montana, preserves and interprets the historic headquarters of a 19th-century cattle empire that once controlled over 10 million acres of land grazed by vast herds of cattle. The 1,618-acre park, which is still a working cattle ranch, preserves over 80 historic structures and numerous artifacts associated with over 125 years of ranching. This park was established in 1972, has since expanded twice, and now entertains about 22,000 visitors a year with guided tours of the main ranch house, self-guided tours of the bunkhouse and other outbuildings, ranger programs, and many other activities and special events.
Andersonville National Historic Site
When people think of parks that preserve Civil War battlefields and related sites, they tend to think of places like Fort Sumter National Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park , Antietam National Military Park, Shiloh National Military Park, Vicksburg National Military Park, and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Few think of Andersonville National Historic Site, but more certainly ought to.
Georgia's Andersonville National Historic Site preserves the site of the notorious Camp Sumter, a Confederate-run prisoner of war camp in which more than 45,000 Union prisoners were interred over a period of 14 months. Conditions at the camp were so appallingly crowded and unhealthy that nearly a third of the prisoners, around 13,000 in all, died of disease, malnutrition, or exposure to the elements. (Henry Wirz, the camp commander, was convicted of war crimes and hanged.) The park includes the National Prisoner of War Museum and Andersonville National Cemetery. The latter contains 16,000 interments, including 1,004 unidentified remains. Last year the park attracted 121,535 visitors. That tally is likely to increase as the commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial hits its stride and more people become aware of this unusual park.
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site
There are dozens of parks of the Commemorating Famous Americans variety (including 29 created to honor Presidents). The higher-profile examples include Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Memorial, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Among the numerous comparatively neglected parks in this category is Vermont's Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site, a hidden gem that attracted just 31,209 visitors last year (0.5% of the Lincoln Memorial count).
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site in tiny Woodstock, Vermont (pop. ca. 3,200), is the Green Mountain State's only national park except for the Appalachian Trail. The Conservation Study Institute is headquartered there, and it's no wonder that an organization striving to enhance leadership in the field of conservation would find the park an inspirational workplace.
Some of the most important members of America's early conservation movement lived there. The park was home to pioneer conservationist George Perkins Marsh and has a model farm and forest that was developed by Frederick Billings and continued by his granddaughter Mary French Rockefeller and her husband Laurance S. Rockefeller (Nelson Rockefeller's brother). It was the Rockefellers who transferred the 643-acre property to the federal government, which established the park (initially designated Marsh-Billings National Historical Park) in 1992.
Today the park operates in partnership with the privately owned Billings Farm and Museum and focuses on conservation themes and the stewardship of working landscapes and the agricultural countryside. Ranger-guided tours of the historic Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion and gardens are the main attraction. The historic Carriage Barn (1895) houses the park's visitor center.
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
Parks addressing themes of the Transportation Systems, Industrial Development, and Technological Progress variety are some of the most fascinating units in the National Park System. Among the higher-profile examples are Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Lowell National Historical Park, and Wright Brothers National Memorial. Why Thomas Edison National Historical Park should be so relatively neglected -- just 63,000 visits in 2010 -- is something of a puzzle.
Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, preserves and interprets the laboratory complex of world-famous inventor Thomas A. Edison. Best-known for his invention of the electric light and the phonograph in the late 1880s, Edison created an “invention factory” that operated here for more than 40 years (1887-1931), accumulated 1,093 patents, and produced a wondrous array of technological achievements that included not only the electric light and phonograph, but also sound recordings, the motion picture camera, sound movies, and the nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery. The 21-acre park complex that visitors roam today includes Edison’s 29-room home (Glenmont), a chemistry lab, a machine shop, a library, and the world’s first motion picture studio.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Parks commemorating Twentieth Century Wars are represented by some of the most prestigious units in the National Park System, including National World War II Memorial, World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (featuring the USS Arizona Memorial), Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are some hidden gems too, and one of them is Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee, Alabama, honors the “Tuskegee Airmen” (1942-1946), the 992 African American fighter pilots who trained at Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Air Field before serving with distinction in combat. Not long after America entered the war, it became clear that more fighter pilots would have to be trained. At the same time, there was considerable political pressure to expand the role of African Americans in the military.
Tuskegee Institute had a well-respected aeronautical engineering and flight program, so it was logical to train some African American pilots there. The pilots and support personnel of the African American units (the 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group) compiled an admirable combat record in North Africa and Italy, with the 99th Fighter Squadron completing 1,578 missions (including 200 bomber escort missions), destroying 260 enemy planes and even sinking a German warship. The grand opening of the 87-acre park was held in 2008. Although little remained of the 1940s-era Moton Field except for a hangar, a control tower, and a few outbuildings, the Park Service has undertaken an ambitious program to rebuild the base and add interpretive facilities and services. The visitor center and scenic overlook are still under construction, but the Hanger #1 Museum and its Orientation Room are currently open to the public. The park logged 60,827 visitors in 2010.
The German destroyer that pilots from the 99th Fighter Squadron sank with cannon fire was reportedly the only warship sunk by fighter aircraft during World War II. Although the feat was documented by the Royal Navy and supported by other records, the U.S. government withheld official credit for the sinking until quite recently.
Roger Williams National Memorial
Statue of Liberty National Monument, which includes Ellis Island National Monument as an administrative unit, is the crown jewel of the the cultural-historical wing's Cultural Diversity and Religious Freedom component. At the other end of the spectrum, occupying a nearly invisible niche in this category, is a tiny park in a tiny state -- Rhode Island's Roger Williams National Memorial.
Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence commemorates the life of the founder of Rhode Island and a champion of the ideal of religious freedom. Williams, who had been banished from Massachusetts for his religious beliefs, founded Providence in 1636 as a refuge where all could worship as they chose without government interference. The little 4.56-acre park, which was created on October 22, 1965, occupies the site where the Providence community was founded.
If you go to this urban park today (as 55,159 folks did last year) you'll find a nicely landscaped site with a visitor center, exhibits, a short introductory film, and interpretive programs. A visit to this inspirational park affords additional high-quality recreational/educational opportunities, since it is situated within the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, an NPS partner area with numerous nationally significant historic sites associated with this region's role as the "Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution."
Manzanar National Historic Site
Parks oriented to The Struggle for Equality and Justice are represented by a number of higher-profile sites like Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta and Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Manzanar National Historic Site is one of the sites of this genre that deserves much more publicity and visitation.
Manzanar National Historic Site occupies an 814-acre desert tract at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Owens Valley area of eastern California. This little-known park preserves the remains of one of the ten concentration camps in which Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese were imprisoned during World War II. (Though their constitutional rights were violated in this harsh way, many of the internees honorably served in America's armed forces and none was ever convicted of a treasonous act.)
Manzanar National Historic Site was established in 1992 under the supervision of Death Valley National Park. Today it remains a work in progress. A 3.2-mile auto tour provides an excellent overview of the site, providing views of sentry posts, the camp auditorium, ruins of the administrative complex, concrete foundations of many types, rock gardens, portions of the water system, and the camp cemetery. The park's Interpretive Center has 8,000 square feet of exhibits, a bookstore, and theaters that show the award winning 22-minute film "Remembering Manzanar."
To explore the park's "virtual museum," which explores the three distinct eras represented by the Paiute people inhabiting the Manzanar area from 600 to the early 1900s, the 1860-1930 ranching and farming period, and the War Relocation Center that confined over 10,000 Japanese Americans on the premises during 1942-1945, visit this site. The park counted 76,592 visitors last year, and would surely tally more if it were not in such a remote location.