From Roosevelt to Vanderbilt
Not wanting to let go just yet of the state of New York, we drive up the Hudson river valley to visit 3 historic sites today; The home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt and the Vanderbilt Mansion. The first two are connected of course, but the last one is at a stones throw away from it so we decide to give it a go and see them all. It turns out there are many with that thought so we keep running into the same (grey-haired) crowd all day! The weather has taken a turn meaning the day is quite dreary with some light showers, which unfortunately takes away a little bit of the autumn foliage magic, but the sites are thankfully indoors and thus still easily enjoyed.
The Roosevelts we have not heard much about yet on this trip, only in passing, so again we get to connect quite a few dots as we watch the video of their lives together and visit their homes (Eleanor lived in a separate house she called her own as the house of Franklin was technically his mom’s). On every site we take a tour with a guide to talk us through the specificities and the boys work on their JR work that always has a scavenger hunt in it. Between the first two sites we hike through the woods while Sven drives the RV, and to the Vanderbilt mansion Sven puts on his running shoes as we drive out.
The Vanderbilt mansion is quite impressive, but mostly a bit depressing with a very dark and heavy interior deemed ‘very European’ by many of the American guests… hmm… The story of the Vanderbilts ties nicely into the train sites we have visited including the Grand Central Station his family owned, and gives a view into the lives of the filthy rich. The ranger is a great story teller which truly makes the site come alive. As we roll out of the parking lot towards the state border with Pennsylvania the drizzle turns into a massive downpour. Time to call it a day in the Pennsylvania Welcome Center parking lot which even has free Wi-Fi!
Steamtown NHS & the Delaware Gap NRR
The next day the clouds have gone and it promises to be another full day of sunshine! We drive to the town of Scranton for the Steamtown NHS, a fantastic museum about the era of the steam train and all its glory. The county apparently has upped the Covid status again so we are back to wearing facemasks here, but that does not take away from the fun we are having in the hands-on exhibits. Extensive explanation of the inner workings of a steam engine of course, but besides this also what life was like along the train tracks back then. How ‘hobos’ would hitch rides and communicate through secret messages in chalk with each other about good places to rest or get on the next train.
All the roles and jobs of the train, from the tycoon that owned it (Vanderbilt? JP Morgan?), to the newspaper boy, from the telegraph messenger to the fireman on board. They all have a place in the museum as we continue to explore and enjoy all the facets of the steam train era and its demise as cars and planes become more popular for passenger transportation. Having handed in both the Steamtown NHS as well as the Railroad Explorer JR book, the boys walk away with two new badges!
Through the Poconos hills we then get to the ‘Delaware Gap’, a part of the Delaware river where it cuts deep in the surrounding hills leaving a proper deep gap/canyon straight through it. The area is declared a National Recreation Reserve as there is plenty to do, most of course on the water! We decide it has become too cold already to pull out the kayak, so Sven rides the bike trail back along the river, while we take the road back through the gap towards the border with New Jersey for another night in a Penssylvania Welcome Center. A very nice one again with spotless facilities and plenty of traveler information plus Wi-Fi!
Mountainbiking & Morristown NHS
As the Welcome Center is located close to some MTB tracks the boys decide to go check them out while mom takes full advantage of the Wi-Fi to catch up on things and plan ahead. The trails turn out to be a bit further away ( the shortcut on the map does not work), but the downhill is really worth it and apparently very popular! The trails are also getting ready for a competition the day after, so there are plenty of people giving them a go and preparing their race. Coming back really excited and hungry makes for a fast lunch, so we roll out of the parking lot a little after noon to our next destination.
The roads in New Jersey are tricky (many unexpected tolls) so we take side roads through the hilly surroundings which are absolutely beautiful. The autumn leaves do not disappoint and the many beautiful houses fully decorated for Halloween give the boys a great show while we drive by them. The Morristown National Historic Site is actually a place in the woods where the American army of George Washington set up their winter camps in their battle for independence. The site has a visitor center with introductory video, but the action is mostly outside in the woods where there is hiking and along the hike you hit a few historic places.
Wick farm is one of them, a restored farm that would have been there as the soldiers arrived and provided shelter for a few officers to get through the winter. The soldiers huts however (all rebuilt) are the part that give a true view of the living conditions after the soldiers had cut down swaths of trees and used them to build their huts in an eerily orderly fashion. Knowing he would have to keep them dry and fed to make sure they would stick with the army was GW’s main concern, and sleeping in tents in 2m of snow would not really do that. It is mostly a really lovely afternoon in the woods, after which we drive into Morristown itself for some laundry and a night’s sleep in the parking lot.
Edison NHS and canal towpath
As we have not been waken up by the police, but happily honked at by the passing train, we have an early start and get ready for another site in the state of New Jersey; Thomas Edison NHS. Now we are sure that everybody knows he is the inventor of the lightbulb, but what we were certainly not aware of is that he had basically an ‘invention-factory’, where he had over 200 people working continuously on inventing new things! Thankfully this location is maintained and restored by the National Parks Services, and makes for a great morning of exploration.
One of his biggest inventions is the phonograph, the predecessor of the gramophone, but his capability of making filament glow has also resulted in toasters, his sound creation in the first talking doll (not a commercial success) and he was one of the first to make films in his rotating studio ‘the Black Maria’. He patented 1093 (!!) inventions, and was a great marketer, putting his own image on the product to exude quality and trustworthiness. A visit to his location gives you access to several laboratories – including a chemical one that still has some radioactivity after a failed X-ray experiment with Radeon -, the workshops, the drawing and invention halls, and his private office and library where he spent so much time his wife put a bed in.
You can even visit his private home (of course one of the first in the US to have electricity :-)) to get the full picture of his life in West Orange. We spend a few hours exploring and finishing the JR work, before heading back to the RV for lunch and another drive through the state. Our place for the night is a beautiful tow path between a canal and the Delaware river, with a small beach where the boys get to play while Sven cycles the tow path. A great relaxing end to a fascinating day, and ready to leave behind this toll road ridden state for another jaunt in Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia – City of Independence
Driving into Philadelphia we are confronted with yet another city filled with contrasts, but thankfully one where traffic is not as bad as our recent city drives. Having crossed back into Pennsylvania – saying goodbye to New Jersey by paying a ridiculous unavoidable 10 dollars to cross the bridge over the Delaware – we have less toll roads to avoid and make good ground driving into the city center. We park the RV at the Walmart close to the river, and with that close to the river bicycle trail. The plan is to ride into the center and as a first stop visit the Museum of the American Revolution, a museum that summarizes the story of the independence from Britain in the 18th century.
The museum does not disappoint, in fact the museum is so entertaining that we spend a whopping 4 hours there moving from room to room and from movie to movie. The story really comes alive and having visited several of the important sites so far but having many on the plans still will make it even more engrained in our understanding of American history. The boys recognize the propaganda from the Boston Massacre and the camp at Morristown, and we get a better view on timings and situations across the east of the US. We also realize how great it has been that we traveled from West to South to East, as it really takes us from the oldest history of the country to the most recent (250 years :-)).
When we leave the museum, we bike to the Franklin Square for a bit of running around and the fountain show (‘it is a fountain flashmob mom!’), before rolling back south to a Philadelphia must-do: Philly Cheese Steak for dinner! We opt for Geno’s, and order a ‘wizz wid’ and a ‘american wid and mushroom’. Some fries and root beer to complement the meal and off you go. The verdict? A good snack for sure, but we would not travel back to Philadelphia for it… between this and the Chicago deep dish pizza, the pizza wins hands down!
Sitting curbside we see dark clouds rolling in, and as we get going trying to beat it, the rain decides to completely pour over us, leaving Bo a bit panicked as we get drenched in seconds and lightning crashes overhead. We get to a bridge to hide under to wait for the rain to calm down a bit, and calm Bo down in the meantime, and ten minutes later with the rain being much lighter make a dash for the RV. Oh the joy of warm, dry clothes and a roof over your head, it really is priceless. We drive to our place for the night, a driveway a bit outside of the city center through Boondockers Welcome, and after a warm welcome call it a night, another day of Philly awaits!
Philadelphia’s city center is filled with sites that commemorate the history of its independence, and thus we spend the day exploring the National Parks sites there. By bike of course, we first have a quick visit to Gloria Dei Church, one of the first churches of the US – a Swedish one. Then we bike on to the visitor center of Independence NHP, the doorway to several sites in combined in a historical park. First stop; the Liberty Bell, now set up in its’ namesake building with exhibit. The NPS has an extra exercise for the kids next to the JR-work, and that is to collect trading cards from rangers they meet, after answering a question correctly. At Liberty Bell they give it their first shot, and thankfully the museum visit yesterday gave them the right answer!
After a photo-op at the Liberty Bell (only named as such by the way in the 1900’s when slavery was abolished, NOT on the 4th of July 1776 when independence was declared) we cross the street and hand in our tickets to see the Independence Hall. This takes us into the building to see the courthouse on one side and the assembly hall on the other, the latter being the one where all the magic happened. The declaration of Independence, and years later the first Constitution of the USA, then only 13 states in total covering the east coast of current USA. 2 more buildings can be visited here: the Congress Hall and the West Wing, both of which provide some extra information on those important documents that were signed here and how the political capital of the USA in the end moved from Philadelphia to Washington DC.
Next stop in the NHP is the Benjamin Franklin museum, which is very well set up, again for kids as well to learn about his life and achievements, but mostly his quirky stories told through his autobiography and other means of communication. Like how he went swimming with a kite once and was convinced one could cross the Channel of Dover and Calais that way… but maybe the pack boat was better for now :-). He also had experience as a printer, which is then demonstrated in the printing house next door, very entertaining! With a last short stop in the remains of the president’s house, we go back to the visitor center to collect the badge.
A visit to Philadelphia would not be complete without a bike ride along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Museum of Arts. Not necessarily for the museum (which is actually closed today) but for the reenactment of the legendary Rocky scene where he runs up the large set of stairs in front of the building and puts his fists up in the air. Not sure what is more fun, doing it yourself or seeing all the people around you do the same, including playing the tune of it on their phones :-). On the way back to the RV we have another quick stop at Reading Market, where we score some delicious fresh cookies before rolling back along the Delaware River and out of the city of Philadelphia.
Valley Forge & Hopewell Furnace NHS
With no train waking us up, we get to ‘sleep in’ until 8am, which is a bit of a luxury nowadays. Today, Sven kicks off the day by biking along the Schuylkill River, towards the Valley Forge NHS. We drive there and check out the visitor center and the movie about the winter camp set up here by George Washington 250 years ago. Then we join Sven on our bikes to tour the whole park, taking us first to the soldier huts that have been recreated and then on along several memorials and a field full of cannons. The ride is along a paved bike path – a rarity in this country – that is slightly hilly, and the wind is starting to become autumn fresh, but it is a lot of fun nonetheless.
We decide to take a detour on an non-paved trail along the Valley Creek, that leads us to the house George Washington used as his headquarters in the wintertime once all the huts were erected (over a 1000 in total!). From there it is back on the paved path with a steep climb up the hill to the statue of the German von Steuben, and the chapel along the way back (there are still cemetery lots available if you are interested ;-)). We are rewarded with a super smooth curvy downhill to the visitor center to hand in our books and have lunch. Oh and with a hot water tap in the toilets we give washing our hair a go…
Later in the afternoon we roll through the hilly surroundings on to Hopewell Furnace NHS, an iron forge site set up by Mark Bird in the 1800’s. There are some nice parallels to a similar site we visited in Canada, but it turns out there are also some things they handled differently. The furnace itself was fed from the top here, a so-called ‘cold-blast’ furnace, and later in the operation an attempt was made to fire anthracite (the same component that were burnt in Pennsylvania’s steam trains) which turned out to be uneconomical so they stuck to charcoal. With a bit more knowledge under our belts we drive south for our next state; Delaware!
First State NHS
The one thing Delaware is famous for is that it is considered the first official state of the United States of America. Not because it was the first place where colonists settled, but because it was the first state to ratify the newly put together constitution after the United States had fought for its independence and got a signed copy back to Philadelphia. A feat that took some states even several years! The representatives of Delaware were unanimous in their vote and as there were only 30 for 3 counties the vote was quite quick and efficient.
This is commemorated in several sites throughout the state including the historical center of Dover, where we stroll the town and ring the copy of the Liberty Bell! (VERY loud we may add) The Old State house is also worth a look inside and outside of Dover the plantation of mr Dickinson (one of the signees) tells his story of being against independence 10 years earlier, but voting for the Constitution once it was put in front of him. Surely we sell Delaware short if we say it is the only thing it has to offer, but we choose to leave the state again to move on to Maryland for our next adventure.
Next week: Washington DC and one more trip north