Tag Archives: heritage tourism

A dozen Civil War sites

CNN Travel lists twelve top destinations for Civil War buffs.  Lists of this sort make for great debate fodder.  I’m actually pretty satisfied with these choices, except I’d be tempted to replace Mobile Bay with Ft. Sumter.  If you consider Springfield a Civil War destination with all of its Lincoln attractions, then you could probably throw that one in, too.

What we really need is a list of the top Rev War spots.  The tricky part would be deciding what constitutes a “location.”  Does the Philly area get one slot on the list, or do you separate Independence National Historical Park and Valley Forge?  How about Williamsburg and Yorktown?  And what in the world are we going to do about Boston?

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Here be dragons

I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing about historic sites, summer vacations, dinosaurs, and gunfighters.  Normally these subjects wouldn’t be sharing the same space, but in my case they share a complicated autobiographical conjunction.  If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s life for you.

For most people who love history, geography evokes the past.  Visiting a region or looking at a map will cause your historical mind to kick in and make associations with past people, events, cultures, and so on.  The deeper your historical knowledge of a particular place or region, the more richly detailed the mental historical map that you can impose on the actual one.  When I look at a map of South Carolina, I see the Revolutionary War playing out.  When I drive across Virginia, I see Union and Confederate armies.  You probably have your own historical associations that you impose on particular places or regions.

For me, having this tendency is a comparatively recent development.  My passionate childhood encounters with history were pretty few and far between.  I didn’t turn into a full-fledged history nut until I was old enough to vote.  Dinosaurs took up all the neurons I could spare.  Most young dino fanatics start to cool in their enthusiasm when they become teenagers, but that was the age range in which my dino-fever intensified.  Hollywood had a lot to do with it.  The first two Jurassic Park films bracketed my high school years; the first movie opened the summer before I became a freshman, the sequel on the weekend I graduated.

In 1993, the same year that Jurassic Park whipped my dino-fixation into a fever pitch, my mom decided to start writing about gunfighters in the Old West.  For the next few years, our family vacations coincided with her research trips to the western U.S., a part of the country where none of us had spent much time before.  Since the West is also home to some of the greatest dinosaur graveyards in the world and scores of natural history museums, I’d have the chance to indulge my dinosaur obsession along the way.  Furthermore, my dad was a history teacher, so we also planned to hit some battlefields and other sites.  Something for everybody.

Thus was born a venerable Lynch family tradition, the Great Summer Western Circuits of the 1990’s.  My parents and I would stockpile books, snacks, and maps into a minivan, generally with one or two other bystanders in tow, and head across the Mississippi to spend two or three weeks at a time on the trail of gunslingers.  We usually went southwestward through Arkansas and Texas and then into Arizona and New Mexico, and then made a loop north toward the Canadian border before turning eastward and heading back home, by which point we were all ready to strangle each other from days of close confinement.

We paid homage at the usual tourist Meccas—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore (which was overrated, I thought), the Alamo—but given Mom’s interests, most of the places we visited were gunfighter locales like Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood, Coffeyville, Northfield, and Fort Sumner.  We saw more restored saloons, dance halls, penitentiaries, and courthouses than I could count if I tried, and paid our respects at every outlaw’s last resting place between Montana and Arizona.

Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, these were my first sustained experiences with historical travel.  I had visited historic sites as a kid, but never so many of them in so short a period of time as I did on these vacations.  The thing is—and I didn’t realize this until recently—these early ventures as a heritage tourist were very unconventional.  Sure, I got to see some “mainstream” historic sites, mostly battlefields along with a smattering of forts and writers’ homes. (Mom is a former English teacher, so Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on the itinerary.)  But most of our destinations involved the West that you see in the movies, the one populated by gamblers, lawmen, train robbers, and all those other figures who cast such a long shadow across the American imagination.

Just as these characters straddle the boundary between history and myth, so the historic sites where people came to walk in their footsteps were hard to categorize.  These gunfighter attractions tended to be small, offbeat operations, lying somewhere on the spectrum between legit historic site and outright tourist trap and often much closer to the latter.  They had the kind of charming roadside aesthetic you don’t get at a place like Mount Vernon or Antietam.  The interpretation was heavy on folklore and melodrama, and collections policies were practically non-existent.  In New Mexico, we visited a Billy the Kid museum that boasted a stuffed and mounted two-headed calf as one of its artifacts. The small courthouse on the plaza in Mesilla where the Kid was (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) sentenced to hang, and where the Gadsden Purchase was signed, had become a souvenir shop; I bought an acrylic paperweight with a dead scorpion encased inside of it there, and kept it on my dresser for years afterward.  The old Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ had become a quirky museum, crowded with every kind of antiquarian bric-a-brac you could imagine—an 188o’s barber chair, old medical instruments, racy photos of Victorian-era prostitutes, and (most bizarre of all) a Fiji mermaid, that staple of nineteenth-century sideshows.

Tombstone was always on the itinerary.  What Gettysburg is to the Civil War, Tombstone is to the Old West—a great tourist Mecca where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some historic attraction or gift shop.  The main attraction was the O.K. Corral.  The proprietors had walled in the vacant lot behind the stables where the gunfight actually took place, so you had to pay admission and walk through the corral gate to get to it.  Garish mannequins representing the participants marked the spot, and a recorded spiel with sound effects played at the push of a button.  A small fee got you into Boot Hill, where a map handout guided you to all the notable graves.  You could drink a Coke in some of the old saloons, or take a stagecoach tour through the streets.  You could buy a different Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday t-shirt for every day of the month.  One of the souvenir apparel shops was in a former pool hall where Earp’s younger brother took a fatal bullet in the back.

Allen Street in Tombstone, AZ. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The historic West I saw as a teenager was the semi-mythical West, but at the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the conventional historic sites and the kitschy tourist attractions.  It was all just filler between the dinosaur stops.  I didn’t care too much about cowboys, Indians, and vast herds of buffalo; I wanted vast herds of Triceratops.  The only history that really excited me was the history of fossil hunting.  Indifferent to Mt. Rushmore and the Truman Library, I flipped out when we drove past Como Bluff, WY, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous dinosaur burial grounds.

Como Bluff, WY. Some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of the 1800's were made here during the famous "fossil feud" between rival paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

My mental map of the West was very sketchy, my appreciation of its history negligible.  It was similar to those old maps that have vast expanses of terra incognita populated by monsters.  The difference is that the dragons on my mental map had once been very much alive.  I had been to these blank spaces, but they remained blank anyway because the dragons were all I really noticed at the time.

Detail from a 1570 map. Image from The Old Map & Clock Company, http://www.old-map.com

When I looked over the atlases that my dad used to navigate our western trips, and when I watched the landscape zip past the window, I associated places with the dinosaurs that once lived there: sauropods and stegosaurs in Utah, tyrannosaurs in Montana.  If geography evoked human history at all, it was only the history of paleontology, as at Como Bluff.  What seems funny to me now is how much my frame of reference has changed since then.  These days, when I look at a map or drive across a landscape, I see associations with the 1700’s and 1800’s. The ways I make sense of the world have evolved.

So although I got to travel throughout much of the West, I knew almost nothing of its rich history while I was seeing it.  Indeed, the history of the West remained a hazy subject for me even after I finished my master’s degree.  When I got assigned to teach a survey course on the post-Civil War U.S., I had to do a lot of boning up on the settlement of the trans-Mississippi before I could put a decent lecture together.

My mental map of American history doesn’t have quite as many blank spaces now as it did when I was a teenager.  I can look at an atlas of the United States or drive through a region and make connections with important people and events; the landscapes I see around me are filled with the bones of people as well as the bones of dragons.  Old habits die hard, though, and the dragons are still lurking around.  As a history major I had to take a methodology course and complete a major research project, so I wrote my paper on a feud between two nineteenth-century paleontologists, a feud in which the dinosaur graveyard of Como Bluff figured prominently.

I’m a little sorry that, when I had the chance to appreciate the historic West firsthand, I was so obsessed with the prehistoric one that I didn’t pay very close attention to anything else.  I’d like to spend some more time out there now that I’m armed with some sort of historical sensibility, and pay the dinosaurs a visit while I’m at it.  The map isn’t blank anymore, but I think there’s still enough space for the monsters.

Allosaurus takes on Diplodocus at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, from Wikimedia Commons

3 Comments

Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

More strange but true tales from public history

While we’re on the subject of befuddled tourists, check out Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles for a horror story from Little Bighorn.

Since people seem to have gotten a kick out of the Legend of Virginia Beach, here are a few other anecdotes from the good old days when I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War museum. Once again, these stories are all, unfortunately, true.

  • When I was an undergraduate intern, one of the first projects with which I was involved was an exhibit on black troops in the Union Army. One day a visitor marched into the lobby in a huff and demanded to know why that exhibit didn’t include any information about Confederate soldiers.
  • On a related note, another guy once asked why the museum—the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, mind you—didn’t give equal space to Jefferson Davis.
  • I answered my phone one morning and took a call from a gentleman who demanded to speak to the museum’s director in order to correct him on a point of history. When I asked him to be a little more specific, he told me that he had watched an interview with the director on C-SPAN and took issue with a remark about Lincoln’s presidency. Turned out he thought he’d called the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. I gave him their main number and wished him good luck. That was back when Richard Norton Smith was running the ALPLM; I wonder if the guy ever managed to get hold of him. If he did…sorry about that, Dr. Smith.
  • A woman sent us a letter with detailed recommendations about improving the tours we offered to school groups. She suggested we give each child a kepi, a uniform coat, and a toy musket to take home with them. Alas, she didn’t suggest how we should pay for all this.
  • A visitor asked me if we ever “got into trouble” for having a Lincoln museum in a Confederate state. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked him with whom we could have gotten into trouble. The guys who hanged the East Tennessee bridge burners in 1861, maybe?
  • A surprisingly large number of visitors informed me that they were direct descendants of Lincoln, whose last undisputed descendant died in 1985.
  • Another surprising thing was the number of panicked high school students who e-mailed me to ask if I could send them “all the stuff you have about Abraham Lincoln” for an assignment. Conscientious fellow that I am, I eventually put together a standardized packet of material for these requests. I didn’t manage to get “all the stuff” we had into it, but in my defense, that would’ve been a heck of a lot of stuff.
  • Finally, here’s the only story that rivals the one about the Virginia Beach guy. One of the items in the museum’s collection is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Painted by her niece Katherine Helm in 1925, it depicts Mary as she would have appeared on her wedding day. Two ladies came out of the gallery one day and informed me that the exhibit label for this painting contained a typographical error. Surely, they said, Mary Todd Lincoln was dead by 1925. Indeed she was; it had not occurred to them that artists occasionally paint pictures of people who are no longer alive. When I pointed this out, they remarked that they had “fixed it.” Alarmed, I ran to the gallery and looked at the label. Sure enough, one of them had taken an ink pen, marked an “X” over the date, and written “1825” above it. (For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not get married in 1825. Child marriage never really took off in nineteenth-century Lexington.)

I don’t want you to get the impression that my basic attitude toward visitors was one of disdain. I miss doing public history, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to share the past with people on a daily basis. These days, when I find myself at a museum or a site, I’m the one on the other side of the admission counter. I just hope I never take an ink pen to a label.

3 Comments

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Hitting the trail, or at least a close approximation thereof

My teenage cousin has morphed into a bona fide history fanatic, and I’ve promised to take him to my favorite historic site, which of course is King’s Mountain. I’ve got two extra days off this week, so we’ve decided to bypass the direct route and take the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which approximates the route taken by the Whig militia on their march to intercept and defeat Ferguson’s Tories. (We’ll be starting at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton, TN, but there are additional branches of the trail that start in Virginia and North Carolina.) As a certified King’s Mountain fanatic, driving the trail has been on my personal bucket list for a long time, and I’m pretty excited.

The only problem is that I’m a horrible navigator, and since the OVNHT doesn’t necessarily follow the shortest route from point to point, I can’t rely on my GPS to show me which roads to take. The NPS has an official map of the trail, but it doesn’t provide specific directions and road names. I’ve plotted out the main stops on an online mapping program and adjusted the directions to follow the trail, but my track record with this sort of thing is less than stellar. I therefore predict one of two possible outcomes:

  1. We’ll have to give up on the official driving tour and just navigate from stop to stop using whatever route the GPS indicates, or
  2. We’ll try to stick to the trail come heck or high water, get irretrievably lost, and neither of us will ever be heard from again.

Anyway, we’re setting off for Elizabethton tonight to get an early start on the tour tomorrow morning. Assuming we come out of this alive, I should be able to post some interesting pictures and site reports in a few days. If not, at least my demise will come in the midst of some serious historical touring, so I’ll die happy.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution

Historical Touring with TomTom

There are few things I like more than a good historical field trip, but I’m cursed with a poor sense of direction.  Hence my recent interest in automotive GPS navigation systems.

It’s something I’ve resisted for a long time, because I’ve got a Luddite streak a mile wide.  I was the last member of my generation to trade my tapes for CDs, and my CDs for an iPod.  Most of my cell phones have been antiques, and until pretty recently I habitualy kept my cell turned off.  So I considered GPS car navigators to be more superfluous pieces of junk being foisted on a fad-crazed public.

I changed my mind after last month’s North Carolina trip.  Most of the historic sites I visit are in rural areas, where you don’t have to deal a flurry of turns within a few minutes or seconds, and where it’s usually easy to turn around when you get off-track.  That wasn’t the case in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, where I almost killed myself while trying to juggle printed directions and steer at the same time.  Worse, on two occasions, the online directions were completely wrong, telling me to take a turn when I should’ve gone in the opposite direction.  And, of course, printed turn-by-turn directions are useless if you take the wrong road or miss an exit.  (I do that a lot.)

I finally decided that this was a case where there was something to be said for gadgetry, so it was off to Best Buy.  I picked the TomTom One 130S, which is pretty cheap but still has a good-sized screen and speaks the actual street names.  

On Saturday a friend of mine and I conducted the first field test.  We headed off to a historic site neither of us had visited before, with absolutely no maps or printed directions of any kind, completely at the mercy of a 3.8-inch box with a computerized female voice. 

This, my friends, was no light matter.  A few years ago the two of us set out for Gettysburg with a set of Mapquest directions.  We did okay until we actually got to town, at which point we circumnavigated the roundabout near the Wills House for what seemed half an hour, trying to figure out which street to turn into.  Our attempt to get from our hotel to Cemetery Hill produced similarly unfortunate results, although we did get to a see a lot of things we weren’t necessarily looking for—Lee’s headquarters, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a local resident’s spacious driveway, etc.  We’re not exactly Lewis and Clark.

Luckily for us, the TomTom passed our road test with flying colors.  The difference with printed directions was like night and day; in fact, the spoken directions were so spot-on and handy that I didn’t even have to look at the screen.  I’m O.C.D., so I’m usually thinking about the next turn, keeping a close eye on the mile markers and my odometer, terrified that I’ll make a misstep.  This time I just enjoyed the drive, knowing that the device would prompt me in time to turn or exit.  When I missed a ramp on the way back, the device recalculated in seconds and got us right back on track.

Another great thing about these gadgets is that it makes your trip so much more flexible.  If you’re using printed directions you’re chained to your route.  Change your itinerary, and the directions become useless.  With GPS, you can alter your route as much as you want.  Happen to spot an exit for some out-of-the-way museum on your way to Antietam?  No problem.  You can hit all those spontaneous little finds and then move on to your original destination, and see everything in between.  You can use the search feature to find other historic sites near the place you’re headed, or the ones along your route.  You can hit every historic marker in your county, or every bivouac from your favorite campaign.  The only limitations are your gas tank, your trip budget, and the number of vacation days before you’ve got to head back to work.

I’ve got only a few minor complaints.  First, roads sometimes change, which requires you to update your device by plugging it into your computer from time to time.  For instance, my history-related trips usually start out on US 25E.  It’s the Yellow Brick Road for all those Carolina Rev War battlefields, the Tennessee frontier sites to my east, and the Shenandoah Valley and all Civil War points beyond.  It’s also perennially under construction, and has been for as long as I can remember.  Some of the newer road changes  between Claiborne and Grainger Counties aren’t on my TomTom’s map, which is really odd, since they’ve been in place for a while and the unit itself is brand new.  It wasn’t really a big deal; we just ploughed on ahead and the TomTom adjusted accordingly.

The second issue is more applicable to historic travel in particular.  To plot a route, you need to enter a city and then pick your point of interest.  You can either enter the name of the location or select it from a list of categories.  The thing is, different types of historic sites fall into different categories.  Battlefields and state parks tend to fall under “Parks and Recreation,” whereas historic house parks are usually under “Museums.”  There’s also a category for “Tourist Attractions,” but it seems to consist mostly of amusement parks and stuff like that.

I also haven’t figured out a way to enter a point of interest without first selecting a city, another nearby point, a route, or a map region.  You need to give the device a ballpark range before it will bring up a specific destination.  This can be irritating.  Everybody knows that you have to head to Gettysburg to see Gettysburg National Military Park.  But what if you get an urge to visit Moore’s Creek Bridge or Lincoln’s Boyhood Home?  If you can’t name a nearby town, you might have to do a little online digging first to see what’s in the vicinity.  Of course, since you’re probably going to look into a place you’re planning to visit, this isn’t a serious drawback.

These are definitely handy gizmos to have if you’re a dedicated history tourist.  Every battlefield stomper should have one, especially if you want to make a lot of first-time trips.  There’s your TomTom review for the discerning heritage tourist.  Next time I’ll review the site we visited on our field test, a house on a rocky hilltop with an interesting story to tell.

(Lewis and Clark portraits via Wikimedia Commons)

4 Comments

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Uncategorized