Podcast Episodes

Angel of the Battlefield

This episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue.

Listen below:

Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara, as she wished to be called, was only ten years old when she assigned herself the task of nursing her brother David back to health after he fell from the roof of a barn and received a severe head injury. She learned how to distribute the prescribed medication to her brother, as well as how to place leeches on his body to bleed him (a standard treatment at the time). She continued to care for David long after doctors had given up. He made a full recovery.

In this difficult time in the world, we look to heroes from our past as inspiration to help us find the resolution to possess even a small fraction of their helping spirit. Clara Barton’s life’s work began with her brother David but never ceased. The effects of her tenacity have rippled through the generations, and, in fact, the response to today’s pandemic crisis might have been very different were she never born.

On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, one of the most decorated women in American history, and the Clara Barton National Historic Site.

Introduction to Clara Barton:

Clara was a timid child all through her early life. To overcome her shyness, her parents persuaded her to become a schoolteacher. She achieved her first teacher’s certificate in 1839, at only 17 years old. She served for 12 years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. Barton fared well as a teacher; she knew how to handle rambunctious children, particularly the boys since as a child, she enjoyed her male cousins’ and brothers’ company. She learned how to act like them, making it easier for her to relate to and control the boys in her care. After her mother’s death in 1851, the family home closed down and Barton decided to further her education by pursuing writing and languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, where she developed many friendships that broadened her point of view on many issues occurring at the time.

She returned to teaching, and in 1852, she was contracted to open the first-ever free school in New Jersey. She was successful, and after a year, she had hired another woman to help teach over 600 people. Both women were making $250 a year. This accomplishment compelled the town to raise nearly $4,000 for a new school building. Once completed, though, Barton was replaced as principal by a man elected by the school board. They saw the position as head of a large institution to be unfitting for a woman. She was demoted to “female assistant” and worked in a harsh environment until she had a nervous breakdown along with other health ailments, and quit.

The experience led her to quit teaching and move to Washington D.C. where she began work as a clerk in the US Patent Office. This was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government and at a salary equal to a man’s salary. For three years, she received abuse and slander from male clerks until her position was reduced to that of copyist, and in 1856, under the administration of James Buchanan, she was fired because of her politics. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, she returned to the patent office as a temporary copyist, in the hopes that she could make way for more women in government service.

Her future would change when the first units of federal troops poured into the capital in 1861. The war had just begun, the troops were newly recruited, and residents in the capital were alarmed and confused. Barton perceived an immediate need in all this chaos for providing personal assistance to the men in uniform, some of whom were already wounded, many hungry, and some without bedding or any clothing except what they had on their backs.

She started by taking supplies to the young men of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry who had been attacked in Baltimore, Maryland, by southern sympathizers and were temporarily housed in the unfinished Capitol building. Barton quickly discovered that many were “her boys,” as she put it; she had grown up with some of them and some she had even taught.

She collected some relief supplies herself, appealed to the public for others, and learned how to store and distribute them. Besides supplies, Barton offered personal support to the men in hopes of keeping their spirits up: she read to them, wrote letters for them, listened to their personal problems, and prayed with them. She knew, however, that where she was needed most was not behind the lines in Washington but on the battlefields where the suffering was greatest.

Barton prodded leaders in the government and the army until she was given passes to bring her voluntary services and medical supplies to the scenes of battle and field hospitals. Following the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia in August 1862, she appeared at a field hospital at midnight with a wagon-load of supplies drawn by a four-mule team. The surgeon on duty, overwhelmed by the human disaster surrounding him, wrote later, “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out an angel, she must be one—her assistance was so timely.” Thereafter she was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” as she served the troops at the battles of Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor.

At Antietam, she ordered the drivers of her supply wagons to follow the cannon and traveled all night, actually pulling ahead of military medical units. While the battle raged, she and her associates dashed about bringing relief and hope to the field. She nursed, comforted, and cooked for the wounded.

Barton’s Story of Antietam, In Her Own Words:

On the way to Antietam, my wagons were at the rear of the army; the road was filled for ten miles with a solid moving mass. It was impossible to get by until they stopped for the night. You understand that if one wagon tries to pass another at such a time, it simply is pushed into the ditch. But at dusk, the train drew to one side of the road and halted for the night. At midnight I directed my drivers to harness quietly and drive on past them, if possible, without creating suspicion. We made the entire ten miles before daybreak and took our place in the rear of the headquarters wagon and moved on next day unquestioned – passing the field of South Mountain, the guns of which had rung in our ear all the day before. On the evening of the 16th of September we reached the valley of Antietam.

It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, every one knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle. It gave a terrible sense of oppression. Then the came was in a hollow which was filled with men and beasts; it was all used and made fetid by this press of human beings and animals. Before dawn I went up on the hill, and there I could sweep the country with my glass, see the countless watchfires of both armies, lying face to face, ready to spring, yet not a man to be seen. Before I left the hill, the dawn came, and the firing began away on the right. There was to be the beginning of the battle, and there I should be needed first. I hastened down; my men were all ready with their wagons, and ordered them to drive to the right, eight miles. We galloped the whole distance, and drew up behind the line of artillery which was covering our infantry and slanted away to the left. There was a big cornfield, and we drove in, and up towards an old barn which was standing in the midst. My men unharnessed the mules and tied them to the wheels and we were ready for work. They were always my helpers. We knew the wounded were in there somewhere, the men went in search of them. The corn was immensely tall, it entirely hid the house from us. Presently, the men came back saying, “yes, they are over there, the tables and surgeons” and I followed them through the corn and came upon the house. It had a high, broad verandah, and on this every kind of thing that pretended to be a table was standing, and on the tables were the poor men, and beside them the surgeons. They were the same with whom I had just been at the second Bull Run.

“The Lord has remembered us!” “You are here again”
“And did you want me?” I asked.
“Want you! Why, we want you above all things, and we want everything.”
“I have everything,” I replied
“Look here,” he said, “see what we need, and how much we need it, we have no more chloroform, no more bandages nor lint, no more liquor, nothing. See here” and he showed me some poor fellows whose raw new wounds were actually dressed with those rough corn leaves.

And this was the beginning of the battle. You must know that we had passed the supplies the night before; they could not come up until the fate of the day was decided. Those were their orders; they must not risk falling into the hands of the enemy. That was the point I always tried to make, to bridge that chasm, and succor the wounded until the medical aid and supplies should come up. I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner and I tried to fill that gap. My men unloaded the wagons, and brought up everything the good women of the country had provided; the wounded kept pouring in, and we kept working over them. After a time my stores for feeding the men began to give out; not the other things, oh no there were plenty of those; but of food I had naturally not enough for thousands, and by afternoon the line of wounded stretched out for five miles.

A curious thing happened there. I had twelve cases of wine, the first nine opened were packed in sawdust; but the last three, when we were nearly in despair of food, were packed in corn meal. My men were almost superstitious over that; they had the idea it must have changed some way from sawdust to meal. It was a lucky sign too, for when we went into the house to reconnoitre for food; down in the cellar we found three barrels of Indian meal and a bag of salt; there were three or four great kettles in and about the house, and we made gruel, gruel, gruel and my men carried it up and down the…

Towards sunset the third charge was made on the line of artillery covering our infantry. Of course, all day the cannonading had been close upon us; but the house and corn field were under the lee of a hill and the enemy’s guns were mostly trained on that hill so that the firing went over us. The upper stories of the house were riddled to be sure and several shells fell in among us and at the edge of the verandah, yet none explored to do harm, fortunately.

This third charge was the most terrific artillery duel I ever heard, and I have had some experience. The tables jarred and rolled until we could hardly keep the men on them, and the roar was overwhelming. After a while I looked around, and to my surprise saw all the surgeons gone, except one man, the chief, who was standing by a table where a man lay, but there was no one to help him with the operation.

“What has become of your assistants?” said I going up to him. “Don’t blame them, madam” said he. “They have been here through ghastly scenes since daylight and then cannonading is nerve-breaking. Don’t blame them that they have retired, and some have gone down the line to the wounded.”
“Very well” said I, “and how about this man? Do you want to go on with the operation? Can I assist you?”
“Can you stand it?” said he.
“Oh, yes” said I, and I took the chloroform. He gave me directions and we tended the man through the whole of the frightful firing.

With night the firing ceased, and I went to see about lighting up the barn. I had brought plenty of lanterns with me this time… When I came back from the barn I went into the house where I saw a solitary light burning. The surgeon was sitting in one of those dark, dank rooms with two inches of a candle by him, and his head on his hand, the picture of despair.

“You are tired, doctor” I said, going to him and putting my hand on his shoulder.
“Tired” he exclaimed, lifting his head with a wrathful gleam in his eyes, “yes, I am tired of this human incompetence, this neglect and folly which leaves me alone with all these soldiers on my hands, five hundred of whom will die before daybreak unless they have attention, and I with no light by that two inches of candle,” and he let his head fall on his hand again.
“Come, doctor”, said I gently, for from my heart I pitied him, “I want to show you something.” I took him to the door, and told him to look towards the barn; it was like a garden illumination of Chinese lanterns.
“What are they?” said he in amazement.
“Lanterns” said I.
“Lanterns, where did they come from?”

“I brought them. The men will be here in a few moments to light the house. You will have plenty of light and plenty of assistance. Don’t despair in your good work doctor”. He didn’t say a word, but he looked at me, and afterward set his own particular guard to keep close by me all the time, to follow me like my shadow … so that I should always have some one at my elbow to help me. The doctor and I have been good friends ever since. We worked through that long bloody night together, and the next morning the supplies came up, my things were all gone, my strength was all gone, they made up a bed for me of an old coverlet on the floor of a wagon; and I lay down on it, and was jogged back to Washington, eighty miles. When I reached there, and looked in the mirror, my face was still the color of gunpowder, a deep blue. Oh yes I went to the front!

American Red Cross:

Toward the end of the war, Clara Barton found herself writing to many families who inquired about men who had been reported missing. Here, again, she recognized a pressing human need and did something practical to address it. In the month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “To the Friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for the missing prisoners of war. Please address her . . . giving her the name, regiment, and company of any missing prisoner.” Barton established the “Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army” and operated it out of her rooms in Washington for four years. She and her assistants received and answered over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men.

She participated in establishing a national cemetery around the graves of the Union men who died in the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. With the help of Dorence Atwater, who had secretly tabulated a list of the dead during his own imprisonment in Andersonville, and a team of 30 military men, Barton identified the graves of nearly 13,000 men. After she helped raise the U.S. flag over the Andersonville grounds at their dedication in 1865, she wrote, “I ought to be satisfied. I believe I am.”

She wasn’t.

Clara visited Europe in search of rest in 1869, where she was introduced to the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, and read a book written by the founder of the global Red Cross network, who called for international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality and for the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis.

The first treaty embodying the Red Cross ideal was negotiated in Geneva in 1864 and ratified by 12 European nations, now known as the Geneva Convention.

With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Clara Barton once again went into a war zone. To protect herself with the newly accepted international symbol of the Red Cross (the reverse of the Swiss national flag which bears a white cross on a red field), she fashioned a cross out of red ribbon she was wearing and made tireless efforts to help the men on the field in countries far from her own.

Barton returned to America, intent on getting a country in reconstruction after a long and bitter war to ratify the Geneva Convention accords. Armed with a letter from the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Barton took her appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, but he looked on the treaty as a possible “entangling alliance” and rejected it. His successor, President James Garfield, was supportive and seemed ready to sign it when he was assassinated. Finally, Garfield’s successor, Chester Arthur, signed the treaty in 1882, and a few days later, the Senate ratified it.

Clara Barton, became the founder of the American Red Cross and would lead it for the next 23 years.

The Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900 and a second in 1905, the year after Barton resigned from the organization. The most recent version of the charter–which was adopted in May 2007 restates the traditional purposes of the organization, which include giving relief to and serving as a medium of communication between members of the American armed forces and their families and providing national and international disaster relief and mitigation.

The American Red Cross, with Barton at its head, was largely devoted to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag flew officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Barton issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan. In 1884, she and 50 volunteers arrived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to help the survivors of a dam break that caused over 2000 deaths. In 1892, she organized assistance for Russians suffering from famine by shipping them railroad cars of Iowa cornmeal and flour. After a hurricane and tidal wave left over 5,000 dead on the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1893, Barton’s Red Cross labored for 10 months, helping the predominantly African-American population recover and reestablish their agricultural economy. In 1896, Barton directed relief operations on behalf of victims of unrest in Turkey and Armenia, the sole woman and only Red Cross advocate the Turkish government allowed to intervene. During her last relief operation, in 1900, Barton distributed over $120,000 in financial assistance and supplies to survivors of the hurricane and tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas, and caused more than 6,000 deaths.

During the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva in 1884, Barton proposed an amendment to the Geneva Treaty calling for expansion of Red Cross relief to include victims of natural disasters. Although some national societies were dubious, the resolution passed and became known as the “American Amendment.”

Over the years, several countries honored Barton with decorations, such as the German Iron Cross for her relief work in the Franco-Prussian War and the Silver Cross of Imperial Russia for the supplies provided during the famine of 1892.

The American Red Cross moved in a new direction near the end of Barton’s tenure as head of the organization when they delivered supplies and services to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Recipients of Red Cross aid included members of the American armed forces, prisoners of war, and Cuban refugees. This was the first time that the American Red Cross provided assistance to American armed forces and civilians during wartime.

In addition to leading the Red Cross, Barton maintained interests in other fields, such as education, prison reform, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.

Barton resigned as president of the American Red Cross in 1904. Leaving the organization she created, Barton turned her attention to establishing the National First Aid Association of America and served as its honorary president for five years. This organization, though small and short-lived, emphasized basic first aid instruction, emergency preparedness, and the development of first aid kits. She published several books on her life and on the Red Cross before she died on April 12, 1912, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, and was buried in the Barton family cemetery plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.

Barton’s legacy to the nation—service to humanity—is reflected in the services provided daily by the employees and volunteers of the American Red Cross throughout the nation and in troubled spots around the world.

Visiting the Clara Barton National Historic Site:

Barton’s family donated her papers and awards, along with numerous mementos, to the Library of Congress. The National Park Service manages what is now the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, which offers daily tours.

Glen Echo was her home for the last 15 years of her life and acted as the Red Cross Headquarters upon her arrival to the house in 1897. The structure illustrates her dedication and concern for those less fortunate than herself.

It’s the first National Historic Site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman and preserves the early history of the American Red Cross. The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlors, and Barton’s bedroom.


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Podcast Episodes

Oh Shenandoah

This episode of America’s National Parks was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue.

Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., is an escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and quiet wooded hollows – 200,000 acres of protected lands are a haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky. But the history of this land is also the history of the people who gave up their homes for a great national park in the East.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Shenandoah National Park, and the livelihood of the people who called the mountains their home.

Listen below:


Introduction to Shenandoah National Park:

The drive to establish a large national park in the east dates at least to meetings held in Washington in the first years of the 1900s between Virginia and Tennessee Congressmen. Although a bill to establish a park was drafted, nothing came of this early effort.

The concept languished until 1923 when National Park Service Director Stephen Mather approached Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of the Interior and former Colorado psychiatrist, Hubert Work, with a request to establish a national park in the southern Appalachians. Work asked Congress to authorize an unpaid Southern Appalachian National Park Committee. The committee developed and published a broadly distributed questionnaire inviting public input into suggested sites for the new park area.

The timing of the establishment of the committee could not have been more advantageous for Shenandoah Valley boosters. In early January 1924, businessmen in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had put out the call for a convention to be held on January 15 to rally their resources together in a program that would tell the world of the scenic, historical, industrial, and other values of the Shenandoah Valley. Whether the timing of this event was serendipitous or based on a knowledge of Work’s congressional proposal is unknown, but almost 1,000 delegates attended the convention, representing thirteen Valley counties. The delegates established a regional Chamber of Commerce, Incorporated, and elected a thirty man Board of Directors, composed of the most influential businessmen, bankers, and politicians. The first Board meeting passed a resolution calling for the creation of a new national park in the Shenandoah Valley on lands owned by the Forest Service and private parties but to the west of the future Shenandoah National Park.

By June 1924, George Freeman Pollock, owner, and manager of the well-established Skyland Resort located in the heart of the future park, along with Harold Allen, Criminal Investigator for the Department of Justice, and George H. Judd, owner of Judd & Detweiler Publishing Company, filled out the questionnaire, advocating the creation of a national park along the Blue Ridge spine with a central focus on Skyland.

Between September and December of 1924, the members of the committee visited the proposed park sites individually and in groups. The business boosters from the Valley and Skyland had been busy in preparation.

“We have already ridden several hundred miles over the area, we have seven towers built upon high points, several trails blazed the whole length of the Blue Ridge… and we have the whole country-side aware to the fact that the Commissioners [sic] are coming.”

Shenandoah Valley, Inc. Spent over $10,000 in their campaign to sell the Blue Ridge site, and in December, the Committee presented their report to the Secretary of the Interior. The report recognized that the Great Smoky Mountains were the most picturesque of the visited areas, but felt that the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia had the greater advantage of accessibility to the 40,000,000 visitors within a day’s drive of the area. They noted:

“The greatest single feature, however, is a possible skyline drive along the mountain top, following a continuous ridge and looking down westerly on the Shenandoah Valley… and commanding a view [to the East] of the Piedmont Plain…. Few scenic drives in the world could surpass it.”

Congress passed legislation on February 21, 1925, allocating $20,000 for the survey and evaluation of proposed parks in the Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave (Kentucky legislatures would not support the bill without this inclusion), and Shenandoah National Park. The authorization envisioned Shenandoah as a park of 521,000 acres, a figure soon reduced to 400,000, and with a stipulation that Virginia purchase the land and present it to the federal government.

Congress to that time had established parks only on government land or on land donated for park establishment – it was not about to break prior precedent.

On July 7, 1925, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Shenandoah Valley, Inc., formed the Shenandoah National Park Association, Inc. in Charlottesville for the sole purpose of collecting funds and donated land for the proposed park. The Association set as its goal the raising of $2,500,000, a figure estimated to be the cost of purchasing 400,000 acres at $6.00/acre. By April 1926, $1,249,154 had been pledged, and the committee felt confident enough to recommend that Congress authorize Shenandoah National Park. The bill passed on May 14 and was signed by Calvin Coolidge on May 22, 1926. Shenandoah would become a reality when Virginia donated a minimum of 327,000 acres to the federal government.

Governor Harry F. Byrd established the Virginia Conservation and Development Commission in April 1926 to take over the management of funds collected for the park. The new Commission was headed by William Carson, Byrd’s former campaign manager, and had a mandate to survey, appraise, and purchase the estimated 4,000 properties within the authorized boundary. As time passed, landowner resistance mounted, and actual property values became more evident or inflated due to government purchase. Carson convinced the Commonwealth legislature to enact a blanket condemnation law. The legislation was passed in Virginia in December 1927, survived Commonwealth Supreme Court challenges in October 1929, but was not finally resolved until the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in December 1935. On December 26, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes officially accepted the legally cleared deeds.

Because of the unresolved legal status of the park land, National Park Service planning and development of Shenandoah from 1931-1935 was confined to three primary locations: the narrow 100′ right-of-way for the Skyline Drive, purchased from willing landowners happy to see modern road access to their adjacent properties, the more than 6,000 acres at Skyland and White Oak Canyon owned by booster George Pollock, and the lands purchased by the Commonwealth at Big Meadows.

From 1931-1933 Herbert Hoover (intimately familiar with the park area because of his fishing camp within the park boundary) supported the expenditure of significant sums of public works funds to build the initial 32 miles of Skyline Drive connecting his camp, Big Meadows, Skyland, and Thornton Gap.

After F.D.R.’s inauguration in 1933 and the establishment of six Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Shenandoah by the year’s end, construction and development exploded – primarily as highly visible public relations efforts to bolster Roosevelt’s campaign to fight the negative psychological impacts of the Great Depression.

There was no official master plan behind the development of Shenandoah at the time. The Commonwealth of Virginia and business interests sought to have a national park because of the economic stimulus it would provide; George Pollock naively thought that he would retain his Skyland, and many of the commercial lodging and mineral-rights owners of park land thought that they would share in a harvest of greatly inflated land values. And no one seemed to have given serious thought to the 400-500 mountain families that had no desire to move from their homes.

Hard Scrabble Mountain life was the closest tie to the pre-civil war days America had at the time. Their life in the years before the National Park had grown exponentially harder, as their primary source of income was forbidden by constitutional amendment.

Importance of Liquor to the People of the Region:

Reed Engle, former National Park Service Cultural Resource Specialist, explains the importance of liquor to the people of the region in his essay “Thoughts on Whiskey.”

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing the prohibition of “intoxicating liquors,” would not have been ratified in an earlier age. Although there had been vocal forces in the 1830s advocating prohibition, the population of the United States was then too rural and too agricultural to support a movement that threatened a significant element of farm and homestead economy.

By 1920, the majority of the electorate was no longer dependent on radically shifting agricultural market economics, the transportation system had improved, and the national taste for the so-called “demon rum” had changed, although not abated.

Alcoholic beverages were the coffee and cola upon which the frontier was tamed.

Tree fruits were grown primarily to drink, frequently to feed hogs, and only incidentally to eat. “Our…forebears were prodigious drinkers of a great variety of liquors, fermented and distilled,” read Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s 1951 book “Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life.” “They viewed waters, for drinking purposes, with deep suspicion if not aversion….The requirements of a family were from ten to fifty [31.5 gallon] barrels [of cider] annually.”

In almost every farm home, a barrel of hard cider was constantly on tap. Foaming pitchers were brought to the table at every meal. When milk was scarce small children drank diluted cider.

And apples and other fruit were not the only source of the liquid staple.

For nearly a century, a considerable proportion of the corn and rye produced in Pennsylvania was marketed as whiskey. This liquor was the almost universal beverage of men, women, and children. There was little or no moral or religious sentiment against it then.

Lest it be thought that Pennsylvanians had an unusual habit, a 1785 letter from John Joyce to Robert Dickson should set the issue to rest:

“As to the Drink chiefly used in this colony [Virginia], it is generally Cyder, every planter having an orchard; they make from 1000 to 5 or 6000 [gallons] according to their rank and Fortune… the very meanest and hilly Lands are proper for the Peachtree, every planter almost having an Orchard of these trees, the Brandy made from that Fruit, I think, is excellent, and they make it in sufficient quantities.”

The Carter family of Nomini Hall typically consumed 560 gallons of rum and 150 gallons of brandy in a year.

Habit and custom, however, were also driven by simple economic forces. Agricultural commodity prices were tremendously variable in the 18th and 19th centuries: good crop years were often rewarded with declining prices in a time before Federal price supports. Thus alternative and derivative products were made, such as distilling rye flour.

Thomas Jefferson, ever one to experiment in his agricultural and horticultural activities, brewed beer, and in 1792 saw the value in liquid grains. As he wrote to George Divers:

“As I propose to purchase a still here for the use of my plantations, & understand there is a good deal in the size, proportion & number of the vessels, I take the liberty of requesting you to inform me what particulars I had better provide. I make this appeal…proposing nothing more than the distillation of my own grain & fruit.”

Divers responded to Jefferson that he “would advise you to purchase One Still and a Copper Kettle of Sixty Gallons with which you may make from 70 to 80 Gallons of whiskey per Week & feed 60 or 70 Hogs on the spent mash.”

Fresh vegetables and fruit were rarely grown for the markets of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Market reports carried in the newspapers of the day often noted prices for dried fruits (particularly apples and peaches), but consistently reported the price of hard cider and peach brandy. Liquid grain was an economic staple, according to Fletcher’s who wrote:
“There was a time…when whiskey was the one commodity that had a standard value and all the mediums of barter and exchange, such as corn, salt, tobacco, etc., were valued in accordance with the amount of whiskey they could fetch. When coin was almost unknown…a whiskey still was as necessary as a grist mill…Nearly every fifth or sixth farm had a copper still.”

The third driving force for the production of whiskey, brandy, and hard cider was the limitations imposed by transportation. Roads in rural areas then, and in some areas, today, were not supportive of significant agricultural commerce. Whiskey was the only farm product that it would pay to transport over the Alleghenies to Philadelphia and Baltimore. A pack-horse could carry twenty-four bushels of rye as whiskey but only four as grain.

A typical horse or mule-drawn farm wagon typically held thirty bushels of apples, weighing 1440 pounds and occupying 141 cubic feet of space. Pressed as cider, the weight was reduced to 502 pounds, the volume to 7.6 cubic feet. As distilled applejack, the original wagon load yielded 11.4 gallons weighing about 100 pounds, a reduction to 1.1 percent of the original space, and 7 percent of the original weight. Transportation of the distilled product was both practical and economically advantageous.

Although much of America had improved roads by 1920, when the 18th Amendment passed, most deeply rural and mountainous areas remained, overflowing with the driving economic and social forces of the 18th and 19th centuries. A world where the copper boiler still turned bulky crops into liquid gold.

The actual number of residents in Shenandoah will never be precisely known because many moved before December 1935. The issue of the forced resettlement of 465 families between 1935 and 1937 represents a classic case of bureaucratic ineptitude. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, long had expressed the Washington policy that park residents would not be disturbed unless they were in the direct path of development. Then on February 1, 1934, the new Director of the Park Service, Arno Cammerer, stated that all inhabitants of the park lands whether landowners, tenants, or squatters, would have to leave. At first, officials in Washington attempted to dump the entire problem on Virginia officials, but a flood of letters to the White House prompted action. The Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration purchased 6,291 acres in seven locations bordering the proposed park to establish resettlement homestead communities.

By the spring of 1938, 42 elderly residents had been given life estates, 175 families had been relocated to resettlement communities, several families had been physically evicted, and their houses burned, and the majority of the mountain residents just left the mountain on their own.

Visiting Shenandoah National Park:

Shenandoah National Park today approaches 200,000 acres. Forty percent of the area is congressionally designated wilderness.

The park museum collections include several beautiful copper stills of varied forms, along with the corresponding copper “worms.” Earthenware jugs and stills were used in the past as “humorous” display objects to ridicule the “moonshining mountain folk,” but in reality, they represent the final chapters in a centuries-old American agricultural tradition.

Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s paradise with over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

You can drive or bike Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is the only public road through the park. It takes about three hours to travel the entire length on a clear day.

The speed limit is 35 mph, so you can roll down your windows, feel the breeze, and experience every curve and turn of this beautiful drive. There are nearly 70 overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east.

RVs, camping trailers, and horse trailers are welcome, but be prepared to shift into low gear. One tunnel just south of the Thornton Gap entrance has a height restriction of 12’8″.

Deer, black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels. Watch carefully for these animals who may dart across your path without warning.

Check out the operating hours and seasons, so you know what it is open in the Park before you arrive. Facilities tend to be limited during late fall and winter.


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For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

National Park Service News

News from the Parks | March 2020

Welcome to this month’s “News From the Parks,” where we round up for you the latest info about happenings at America’s Greatest treasures.

Listen below:


As travel restrictions, shelter-in-place orders, and closures to all but the most essential services sweep the country, the National Park Service has been caught in the middle of wanting to protect people and places, while providing recreational opportunities for Americans to get out and free their minds in nature.

On Wednesday the 18th, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to temporarily suspend the collection of all park entrance fees until further notice.

“I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” he said.

Other states and municipalities have implemented similar policies waiving fees to parks partly in an effort to support social distancing.

But the measure has a second motive, to keep rangers from interacting with the cash and credit cards of visitors.

At a majority of park locations where it is possible to adhere to public health guidance, outdoor spaces remain open to the public, while many facilities are closed.

But the reality of social distancing in a National Park isn’t as simple as it sounds. Narrow trails require people to pass within close proximity of each other. Scenic overlooks still attract crowds. And visiting an expansive park without access to restrooms and water creates a safety and sanitation problem.

More and more parks are realizing allowing for outdoor recreation during this time is an insurmountable challenge. While the Park Service is heavily encouraging social distancing, some individual parks are seeing a business-as-usual atmosphere among visitors.

Shenandoah National Park posted photos on its social media accounts of overcrowded parking areas at trailheads, saying “We are concerned that Saturday’s visitation patterns were in violation of CDC recommendations. If you are coming to the Park, please choose to visit areas that are not crowded to allow for adequate social distancing. This would include NOT hiking at Old Rag, Whiteoak Canyon, Dark Hollow Falls and other high-use trails. The Old Rag and Berry Hollow area became so congested on Saturday that local authorities had to close the road.”

The Coronavirus scare and park visitation is a particular problem for gateway communities outside of parks, which may operate limited healthcare facilities and emergency services.

Moab, Utah, and the surrounding three counties are a popular jumping off point for several National Park Service sites like Canyonlands and Arches. Local officials have enacted an order to close off to tourists. All overnight and short-term lodging facilities are required to be rented or leased only to primary residents of Carbon, Emery and Grand counties.

Brady Bradford, Moab health department director, said during a facebook streaming conference
“I feel like if we don’t take action now, our residents will suffer, our health care system will suffer,” he said. “If we take enough action now we will spread out the impact of the disease over many months.”

Bradford’s order includes dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land, and says that no camp can be located within 200 yards of another camp and no camp can host more than 10 visitors. “At this point we are asking people to suspend their visits,” he said, adding that new reservations for any type of lodging are restricted to residents or people in the region for work purposes.

The area hosts millions of visitors a year, but the Moab Regional Hospital has only 17 beds, no ICU and minimal capability to care for critical respiratory patients.

The virus also led nearby Zion National Park officials to announce suspension of shuttle service indefinitely, but that’s caused the park to be flooded with vehicles.

Many park service sites across the country have, in fact, closed or partially closed. Shortly after the State of California announced a shelter-in-place order, Yosemite announced a total closure.

White Sands National Park is closed, as is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and most of Hawai’i’s other National Park Service Sites. Much of the most visited park in the nation, Great Smoky Mountains, is closed, and The Everglades are closed for most land visitors, but access via water remains available.

In Colorado, officials pleaded to close Rocky Mountain National Park, where the mayor of gateway community Estes Park and the County’s public health director sent letters to the Department of the Interior making the request.

“On behalf of the Town of Estes Park, I am requesting the immediate closure of Rocky Mountain National Park, to assist our community, our county, and our state in addressing the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic.” he wrote.

Traffic in the park had been increasing as spring breakers were coming to Colorado, and as people who would otherwise be at the now-closed ski resorts headed to the park.

The mayor wrote that groceries and emergency services must be available to residents who live in the town, and a continued influx of visitors presents a grave public health concern to Estes Park and the surrounding communities. Estes Park’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced last week. Friday, Rocky Mountain National Park announced that it would close entirely, indefinitely.

Most small park service sites are closed, especially those that are indoors, and additional closures are constantly announced. The best resource for National Park Service closures, whether it be entire parks or campgrounds and activities is National Parks Traveler’s article detailing the latest updates. It’s the featured article on their homepage at https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/.

All of us at the America’s National Parks podcast would like to encourage you to get out and enjoy the outdoors as much as possible while practicing social distancing. But now isn’t the time to travel. Enjoy outdoor spaces in your local community. Take a scenic drive, a bike ride, or a hike. But remember that most visitor centers and restroom facilities in these spaces will be closed.

On a personal note, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of our current situation.

This time in our lives will certainly be remembered in a similar fashion as the days surrounding 9/11, or the Challenger explosion, or the Kennedy assassination. This time will be a guidepost in the story of all of our lives, especially for many of our children who are experiencing their first brush with this type of difficult situation.

Tragedies spawn innovation. Hopefully, 2020 will be remembered as the year before a biotech revolution. Before our healthcare system was reformed, and before sweeping innovations in emergency preparedness.

Half of all Americans misremember where they were and what they were doing on 9/11, only 19 years ago. Make sure to keep photos, notes, messages …anything to remember this time when we couldn’t shake hands, meet in person, or visit our most special places. Those memories will surely be appreciated fifty years from now.

Soon it will be time to Find Your Park again. Until then, remember that the primary purpose of our National Parks is not our enjoyment, but to protect the world for generations to come.

This will be our last “news from the parks” episode for a while. We’re going to return to only sharing stories of beauty, courage, hope, and life from our nation’s treasures next week. We hope you’ll continue to join us.


America’s National Parks is part of the RV Miles Network of Podcasts, which also includes the RV Miles and See America podcasts. To learn more visit RVMiles.com.

Connect with America’s National Parks Podcast on social media! You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group – now over 37,000 strong. Visit Facebook.com/groups/americasnationalparks to join.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

National Park Service News

News From the Parks | February 2020

Welcome to February 2020’s “News From the Parks,” our monthly series where we round up for you the latest info about happenings in America’s Greatest treasures.

Listen below:


2019 Visitation Numbers:

This month the National Park Service released its visitation numbers for 2019. Confirming that the parks continue to be a popular destination, 2019 was the fifth consecutive year that recreation visits exceeded 300 million, with a total of 327.5 million visitors – The third highest since record-keeping began in 1904. Additionally, visitation in 2019 surpassed 2018 by more than 9 million, a 2.9 percent increase. 

2019 also saw Thirty-three parks setting new recreation visitation records in 2019, with two parks breaking long-standing records – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, with 432,818 recreation visits surpassed a record held since 1976, and Capulin Volcano National Monument broke a 1968 record with 81,617 recreation visits in 2019.

Of the 419 National Park Service sites, three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits giving them the top spots of the year – Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From there, 11 parks had more than five million visits, and 80 parks had more than one million.

After Golden Gate, Blue Ridge the third through seventh most-visited sites in 2019 – Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, the Lincoln Memorial, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway – retained their 2018 order.

Visitation to the Natchez Trace Parkway finished just ahead of visitation to Grand Canyon National Park for the eighth most-visited site.

Gulf Islands National Seashore was number 10.

Of the 62 Congressionally Designated National Parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park with 12.5 million and Grand Canyon National Park with 5.97 million continue to hold the first and second most-visited national parks in the United States. Rocky Mountain National Park held on to third place and set a new visitation record at 4.67 million. Zion National Park stayed in fourth place, and Yosemite National Park recovered after a drop in 2018 due to wildland fires to move past Yellowstone National Park for fifth place. The remaining top 15 spots go to Yellowstone, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park, Glacier National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Indiana Dunes National Park, and Gateway Arch National Park. 

If you’d like to read even more 2019 numbers check out this article from RV Miles:


Mount Rainer Closes:

With heavy snowfall and life-threatening mudslides and flooding, Mount Rainer National Park closed indefinitely early February. As of last Monday, the entrance on State Route 706 east of Ashford opened again, allowing visitors access to the Longmire and Paradise areas. Essential staff remained within the park during the closure, maintaining emergency access and services, as well as securing critical water, wastewater, electrical, and drainage infrastructure inside the park. 

Flooding within park boundaries caused damage to roads, trails, and historic structures, including the National Park Inn and other nationally-significant buildings within the Longmire National Historic Landmark District. Several buildings in Longmire lost critical systems as sump pumps were unable to keep up with water intrusion.

Elsewhere in the park, access to the Carbon River area is blocked due to a washout on Pierce County’s Fairfax Forest Reserve Road, and SR 410 is currently blocked by four slides near the park entrance. These roads will remain closed until they can be cleared of water and debris. 

Pierce County is projecting the Fairfax Forest Reserve Road will require a long-term closure and is assessing a detour route for future use.


COVID-19 May Impact Yellowstone Tourism Revenue:

As COVID-19 continues to dominate headlines, a major drop in tourism to Yellowstone is expected 2020, as the coronavirus continues to devastate mainland China, and the US tries to stave off its spread stateside.

About a quarter of all foreign visitors coming to the park are from China or nearly 10% of all visitors. 

Near Yellowstone, the hardest-hit gateway community will be West Yellowstone, Montana. Almost half of all visitors come through the West Entrance, and according to a recent article from rocketminer.com, a publication serving Southwest Wyoming, businesses who have invested heavily in advertising to Asian populations will be impacted the most in the coming season, including tour bus companies, hotels, and gift shops.

The impact could be devastating for some vendors inside and outside the park. 

And while businesses are focused on the economic issues, the World Travel & Tourism Council is worried that any Asian tourists who do visit the United States may face discrimination. In a Salt Lake Tribune article, Tiffany Misrahi, vice-president of policy for the organization, expressed concern that the mainland China travel ban will only promote a stigma and increase discrimination, while doing nothing to protect against the virus saying, “evidence indicates that travel restrictions directed at individual countries are unlikely to keep the virus out of a nation’s borders while exacerbating the outbreak’s social and economic tolls.”

How long the effects of the coronavirus outbreak may last is uncertain, but its effects are far-reaching. “It is critical that during such challenging times the world comes together to promote a message of peace and tolerance, rather than discrimination and stigma,” Misrahi said. A Yellowstone spokesperson noted that visitors from China would be “treated like any other visitors to the park.” The tourism season for Yellowstone begins late spring and continues through early fall. 


The National Park Service has announced Jennifer Flynn, a 29-year veteran of the NPS, will step into the role associate director for visitor and resource protection beginning April 12th.

As associate director, Flynn will serve as the senior official responsible for 30 service-wide programs, 850 employees, and a budget exceeding $200 million. Her areas of responsibility will include law enforcement, security and emergency services, fire and aviation management, risk management and occupational safety, public health services, regulations, and special park uses, wilderness stewardship, the NPS component at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and the U.S. Park Police. 


National Park Releases New Short Video to Honor Black History Month:

The National Park Service marked Black History Month with a variety of new tours, exhibits, and digital media honoring and acknowledging the struggle, resilience, and beauty of the African American experience as reflected in America’s national parks.

As part of Black History Month, the NPS released a new short video titled Twenty & Odd.  Using vocal and artistic imagery to advance messages of African American empowerment, remembrance, education, inspiration and engagement, and featuring Dr. Maya Angelou’s recording of her poem “Still I Rise,” the video and its online companion guide were developed to encourage dialogue about racial equity, representation, and change within the social system.

The piece was filmed on location at more than a dozen National Park Service sites that highlight aspects of African American history and culture, including New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, African Burial Ground National Monument and Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site.

https://www.nps.gov/media/video/view.htm?id=B530727E-F4CF-0576-2CF3D9C841B5F662


This month, several NPS sites celebrated birthdays including Jewel Cave National Park, Bandelier National Monument, and Death Valley National Park. 


America’s National Parks is part of the RV Miles Network of Podcasts, which also includes RV Miles and See America. To learn more visit RVMiles.com.Paragraph

To see the full collection of America’s National Parks Podcasts visit NationalParkPodcast.com. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group – now over 37,000 strong. Visit Facebook.com/groups/americasnationalparks to join.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

What Makes a National Park?

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with audio from Ed Rizzotto: The Importance of Urban Parks.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

The National Park designation has become one of the most prestigious terms in the English language. National Parks have stirred the imagination of Americans ever since they were dreamed up, and a recent focus has been sparked by the confluenc of social sharing like YouTube and Instagram, the park service’s recent 100th anniversary celebrated in 2016, and incredible documentaries like Ken Burns’ “America’s Best Idea.” But the structure of the National Park System remains a mystery to many casual visitors — some of it’s even confusing to the National Park expert. What exactly makes a National Park?

This popularity, combined with politics and the promise of tourism dollars, have driven government officials to leverage the Park system to fit their agendas in recent years. It’s time to step back, take a look at the whole picture, and take stock of what we have and what we haven’t.

I thought we’d take a look at the park system, how it’s actually structured, and show why our focuses are often severely misdirected. Who are the parks for, and how do we decide what a park is?

There are 419 units in the National Park system, and only 62 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park,” including the most recent, White Sands National Park. White Sands was formerly a National Monument, as many National Parks were at one time. National Monuments are places declared reserved for the public by the President of the United States. Most are managed by the Park Service, but not all. National Parks, however, must be named by Congress. In addition to Monuments and National Parks, we have National Battlefields, National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Military Parks, National Historical Parks, National Historic Sites, International Historic Sites, National Lakeshores, National Memorials, National Parkways, National Preserves, National Reserves, National Recreation Areas, National Rivers, National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways, National Scenic Trails and National Seashores.

So…it’s a bit of a mess, and though the Park Service has guidelines for nomenclature, Congress can essentially call something whatever it wants. In the end, the National Park Service calls them all National Parks. They are all managed under the exact same parameters, and there is no special funding or any other benefit to having the congressional National Park designation.

That surprises a lot of people. In the last few years, three new congressionally designated National Parks have joined the fray. White Sands, along with Indiana Dunes National Park, and Gateway Arch National Park.

All three were already National Park Service units, and quite literally, the only change for their operation was removing and replacing signage, badges, brochures, and the like.

Now, here’s the problem. For all three of these parks, local members of Congress lobbied hard for the name change, openly touting the increased tourism it would bring. And they weren’t wrong. Indiana Dunes is probably the best example, with visitation increasing 21% the year after the new National Park status.

But why? Are we so addle minded as Americans that we don’t accept the beauty and splendor of a place without a name change? Do we really skip all these other wonderful places because they don’t have National Park in the title? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the name really is the thing. Which I suppose is why there was a lot of anger when Gateway Arch National Park was announced.

Gateway Arch was formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and it consists of the Arch, of course, and the Old Courthouse (where the landmark Dred Scot case was tried) and a museum representing the location on the St. Louis Riverfront as the ceremonial beginning of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Some thought naming it for the arch diminished the importance of the Courthouse. Others thought it too small. Most, frankly, just think a National Park is a large expanse of beautiful nature, and Gateway just didn’t fit the bill.

I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

On the importance of urban parks such as this, here’s retired ranger Ed Rizzotto in an oral history interview with the Association of National Park Rangers. Ed was a ranger for 7 years at Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey and New York, not to be confused with Gateway Arch.

So what’s the big picture? National parks are all unique, whether on the shores of the Mississippi or in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada. They’re here to protect fragile ecosystems, or to help us remember our history, or yes, for our enjoyment.

Should politicians leverage the system for the gain of their district, I don’t know. But I do know that if we didn’t care so much about names, it wouldn’t work. Yes, the naming system is a mess and could be entirely overhauled. Heck, maybe they should all just be named National Parks. But I beg of you, don’t consider any park service designation as being more important than another. Doing so may have you missing out on the incredible, vast mountains, desert and untamed rivers flowing in deep canyons at Dinosaur National Monument. Or the craggy shores of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Or the somber halls of Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants waited for their first taste of the American dream for themselves and generations to come. Each National Park Service Site has a wonderful, unique story to tell. Dig deeper than 62 passport stamps.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

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For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

The Black Canyon

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:


The Black Canyon of the Gunnison:

The deep Canyons of the west enchant us today as much as they did those who dared to explore them for the first time. They’re all unique in their own ways, as nature seems to brag about the incredible might of its gem-cutting rivers. But one Colorado canyon, in particular, is like none of the rest. It exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. Over two million years, a river has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky that, in parts, only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day due to its steep, narrow split — giving it an ominous name, The Black Canyon.

The Black Canyon is only 40′ wide at its narrowest point at the base. Its cliffs are nearly flat vertical, and their dark stone is set off with extensive, light-colored rock veins, like a marble edifice. It’s foreboding walls strike the imagination of all who stand in its presence, including its earliest explorers.

John Williams Gunnison:

John Williams Gunnison was born on November 11, 1812, in Goshen, New Hampshire. At the age of 18, he traveled to Massachusets to college, and after one term moved on to become a teacher at a local grade school. During his years as a teacher, he prepared himself to enter West Point Military Academy, where he would go on to graduate in June of 1837 second in his class.

Gunnison began military service later that year when he was ordered into active duty under General Zachary Taylor. Violent battles had been brewing in Florida between the Seminole Indians and white settlers. As peace talks were initiated, Gunnison was ordered to explore unfamiliar lakes and rivers in search of provision routes south to Fort Besinger. Although the assignments were challenging and there were many opportunities for adventure, the heat and humidity of the South took a toll on his health.

In 1838, Gunnison received a transfer to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. His new job would offer many adventures, the first of which was his marriage to Martha A. Delony in 1841 and the births of their children in the years to follow. In the summer he was married, he received his first western assignment to do a standard survey of the unexplored, wild country of the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Over the next 8 years, Gunnison would leave his family behind for periods of time, as he and his survey crew mapped much of the borderland, the western coast of Lake Michigan, and the coast of Lake Erie.

Gunnison’s first sight of the western lands came as a member of Captain Howard Stansbury’s Utah Territory Expedition of 1849, which was tasked with surveying the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Having recently been promoted to Lieutenant, Gunnison was assigned as second in command.

After a long, yet beautiful journey through the Great Plains and southern Wyoming, they arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. They explored and mapped the Great Salt Lake region and gathered scientific information about their surroundings.

The winter that followed was unusually hard and the expedition was unable to leave the valley, so Gunnison took the opportunity to befriend some Mormons and study their church. An uprising broke out between American Indians and the Mormons near Salt Lake City. Gunnison negotiated between the two parties, winning the admiration of his peers. The experience led him to believe he could be a successful mediator. When he finally returned to Washington, DC, he wrote a book titled “The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition.”

Although relatively inexperienced, Lieutenant Gunnison was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853 largely due to his successes in Utah and the Great Lakes region. Though happy to be spending more time with his family in the east, he longed to begin a new adventure and to return to the Western United States that he had come to relish. He wouldn’t have to wait long.

The new Captain was selected to lead the search for a Pacific railroad route along the 38th and 39th parallels. He bid his family farewell, sure to return to them when the expedition was over. The search took him through the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the Grand River Valley.

On September 7, the expedition came to a relatively tame section of a Canyon at Lake Fork. The official report described the area as “a stream imbedded in a narrow and sinuous canyon, resembling a huge snake in motion…To look down over…the canyon below, it seems easy to construct a railroad; but immense amounts of cutting, filling and masonry would be required.” Even then, these experienced explorers understood the geologic processes that created such an obstacle – an uplift of the earth, volcanic activity, and the power of water.

Gunnison rode into the canyon several times during that first day and deemed the land “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up,” he had ever seen. Though the party never ventured further downstream, their report contains the first official description of the formidable Black Canyon.

Gunnison and his men decided to navigate around what is now known as the Black Canyon and follow an easier route west through the present day town of Montrose. When the expedition finally reached Utah, they beheld the destruction left by Paiute Indian raids on Mormon settlements. Local residents reassured the expedition that the attacks were not a serious concern because peace talks had just taken place.

The weather was beginning to turn cold and raw, and Captain Gunnison sought to speed up mapping before returning to winter quarters. After a trip for provisions to the town of Fillmore, he divided the troops to make up for lost time. He went ahead with a crew of soldiers and guides, and camped along the bank of the Sevier River. An attack came during the early hours of the next morning. Only four men of his party survived. John W. Gunnison never returned home to his family.

Reports of the incident stated that it was an act of retribution by the sons of a Paiute leader who had been killed by some emigrants heading west. Utah Governor Brigham Young noted that Captain Gunnison underestimated the tension between the tribes and settlers, and Gunnison apparently tried to resolve the situation.

But rumors began to circulate that the attacks took place by a secrete Mormon malitia, dressed as Indians under the direction of Brigham Young. It wouldn’t be the first or last time Young used this tactic.

It was claimed that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were concerned that the railway would increase the influx of non-Mormon settlers. However, the Utah Legislature, dominated by LDS officials, had repeatedly petitioned Congress for both a transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines to pass through the region. When the railroad finally came to Utah, LDS leaders organized legions of Mormon workers to build the railway, welcoming the income for the economically depressed community.

But Martha Gunnison maintained that the attack was planned and orchestrated by militant Mormons, based on the many letters Gunnison sent her throughout the expedition. She wrote to Associate Justice W.W. Drummond, the 1855 federal appointee to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah. Drummond sided with her, after hearing from informants and witnesses. He cited numerous reports by whites and natives of white attackers dressed up as Indians during the massacre.

In 1854 Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe was sent by the War Department to investigate the attack and determine the truth. He did not uncover evidence of Mormon involvement, and, as a result, eight Paiute men were charged and tried for the attack. Three were convicted of manslaughter.

Although remembered largely because of the massacre, Gunnison had the heart of an adventurer, and uniquely understood the wild country beyond the Mississippi River and the tradeoffs that must be made in order to experience such places. It was in his honor, The Grand River was renamed the Gunnison.

Know Before you Go:

The Precambrian gneiss (pronounced “nice”) and schist layers that make up the majority of the steep walls of the Black Canyon formed 1.7 billion years ago during a metamorphic period brought on by the collision of ancient volcanic island arcs with the southern end of what is present-day Wyoming. The entire area underwent uplift between 70 and 40 million years ago. During the Tertiary period that followed, large volcanic episodes buried the area in several thousand feet of volcanic ash and debris.

The modern Gunnison River set its course 15 million years ago as the run-off from nearby mountains. Another broad uplift 2 to 3 million years ago caused the river to cut through the softer volcanic deposits. Eventually, it reached the Precambrian rocks below. Since the river was now entrenched enough into the earth to be unable to change its course, it began scouring through the extremely hard metamorphic rocks at the rate of 1 inch every 100 years. The extreme hardness of the metamorphic rock along with the relative quickness with which the river carved through them created the steep walls that can be seen today.

This certified International Dark Sky Park offers two campgrounds – one on each rim. There is also a campground at the bottom of the canyon called East Portal. Although accessed through the park, East Portal is within the boundary of the neighboring National Recreation Area.

Trails of all difficulty levels hug the rim of the canyon, along with a scenic drive that offers stunning views of the dark chasm. Those who seek the rugged experience of venturing into the Black Canyon’s depths will be rewarded with an experience like no other, but it requires skill, experience, and preparation. The inner canyon is also a designated wilderness area and requires a permit to enter.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

The Great Prarie Highway

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

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I’m standing on the Powder Mill Pedestrian Bridge, which spans Interstate 435 in southern Kansas City, Missouri. I’m looking south at the confluence of I-435, I-49, I-435, I-470, U.S. 50, and U.S. 71. Over 250,000 cars a day pass through here, making —which is known to the locals as Grandview Triangle—one of the busiest interchanges in the country. In fact, this has been one of the most traveled stretches of road since before there was a road.

The Grandview Triangle officially goes by another name — the 3-Trails Crossing Memorial Highway. Two hundred years ago, about 15 miles north of this spot, wagon trains set out on their journies along one of three routes towards the largely unknown West.

For about 50 miles, the trails were one before they diverged. This bridge I’m standing on is, in fact, part of the 46-mile 3-trail corridor, as it’s now known. It was erected specifically to allow people to walk or bike the 46-mile journey before the trails separate, through the concrete jungle of Kansas City, passing many historic sites, until it reaches beyond the edges of town, where green grass fields still show the wagon ruts from 19th-century pioneers looking for a better life.

The upper route headed towards Oregon and the middle route to California. The Oregon and California trails were the pathways to the Pacific for fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, and emigrants. For almost 30 years, beginning in 1841, more than 300,000 emigrants followed this route from the Midwest to fertile Oregon farmlands or California gold fields—trips that took five months to complete.

But the lower route was another matter altogether. It was an international road for American and Mexican traders, until 1848 when the Mexican-American War ended, and New Mexico joined the United States. It became a national road for commercial and military freighting, stagecoach travel, emigration, and mail service.

History of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

On June 10, 1821, a 31-year old saltmaker named William Becknell published a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper soliciting participants for a trip “to the westward for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.” Becknell was bankrupt and facing jail for debts, as Missouri fell under the grip of a devastating depression.

Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, for Santa Fe in September of 1821 with five other men, the first to journey on this particular route to the almost mythical city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Those that journeyed to Mexico before Becknell had been arrested by Spanish soldiers and hauled south toward Mexico City to serve lengthy prison sentences. Those that made it back told of a land starved for manufactured goods and supplies. Becknell was pleasantly surprised to find upon his arrival that Mexico had overthrown the Spanish, and the new Mexican government – unlike their predecessors – welcomed outside trade.

Not surprisingly, others got into the trade soon after Becknell returned, and by 1825 goods from Missouri were not only being traded in Santa Fe but to other points farther south as well. Some traders used the so-called Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Most, however, used the Cimarron Route, which was shorter and faster but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located.

From 1821 until 1846, the Santa Fe Trail was a two-way international commercial highway used by both Mexican and American traders.

Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With the American desire for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and upper California and to protect American traders on the trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.

Commercial freighting along the trail boomed to unheard-of levels, including considerable military freight hauling to supply the southwestern forts. The trail was also used by stagecoach lines, adventurers, missionaries, wealthy New Mexican families, and emigrants. The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws, passing goods from as far as New York, London, and Paris.

Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant peril, with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo herds. In fact, a glimpse of bison, elk, antelope, or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of 8-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. But occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.

At dawn, trail hands scrambled in noise and confusion to round up, sort, and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with whoops and cries of “All’s set!” and soon, “Catch up! Catch up!” and “Stretch out!”

Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day’s main meal from a monotonous daily ration of 1 pound of flour, 1 pound of bacon, 1 ounce of coffee, 2 ounces of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or bison and other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes, and harnesses, greased wagon wheels, doctored animals, and hunted.

They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before the night’s stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into raging floodwaters. At day’s end, crews took care of the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.

Westward from Missouri, forests gave way to Kansas prairie. Long days traveling through seemingly endless expanses of tall and short grass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along waterways, evoked vivid descriptions. “In spring, the vast plain heaves and rolls around like a green ocean,” wrote one early traveler. Another marveled at a mirage in which “horses and the riders upon them presented a remarkable picture, apparently extending into the air. . .45 to 60 feet high. . . At the same time, I could see beautiful clear lakes of water with. . .bulrushes and other vegetation. . .” Other travelers dreamed of cures for sickness from the “purity of the plains.” As the route was mainly commercial, once most wagon trains made it to Santa Fe, they turned around and headed right back.

As void of human presence the prairie landscape might have appeared, the lands the trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian people. Most early encounters were peaceful negotiations centering on access to tribal lands and trade in horses, mules, and other items that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans coveted. As trail traffic increased, so did confrontations, as the travelers disrupted more and more traditional ways of American Indian life. Mexican and American troops began providing escorts for wagon trains.

In 1862, the Civil War arrived in the West. The Confederate plan for the West was to raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande, take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the stores at Fort Union, head up to Colorado to capture the goldfields, and then turn west to take California. They pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, on the Santa Fe Trail. In the most decisive western battle of the Civil War, Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned any hope of reaching Fort Union – and with it, their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.

The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America’s industrial energies. The railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail. Within two years, rails had been laid across central Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from eastern Kansas into Colorado. As lands were parceled out for railroads and the bison were hunted nearly to extinction, Native people were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.

Because the Santa Fe Trail hauled primarily commercial goods, the railroad expansion meant that the trading caravans needed to traverse increasingly shorter distances. During the early 1870s, three different railroads vied to build rails over Raton Pass in order to serve the New Mexico market. The winner of that competition, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, reached the top of Raton Pass in late 1878. In February 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe, and the trail faded into history.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

For nearly 60 years, goods were exchanged on the Santa Fe trail, as well as knowledge and culture. It’s no accident that there are towns in Missouri named Mexico and Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail spans 900 miles of the Great Plains and traverses five states. The route was commemorated in 1987 by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail’s path through the entire length of Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Museums, interpretive centers, and historic sites pepper the journey today – places like Fort Dodge, Fort Union, and the Cimmaron National Grassland.

The National Trails website on NPS.gov does a fantastic job of showing the hundreds of sites along the route, and you can find a wealth of information at SantaFeTrail.org, the website of the non-profit Santa Fe Trail Association. For more information about the 3 Trails Corridor, visit 3trailscorridor.com.

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National Park Service News

News from the Parks | December 2019

By Jason Epperson

Welcome to the December 2019’s “News From the Parks,” our new monthly series where we round up for you the latest info about happenings in America’s Greatest treasures.


Welcome our 62nd Park:

It’s official: The United States now boasts 62 congressionally designated National Parks. New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument became White Sands National Park. On Friday, December 20, the President signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which includes a provision that re-designates White Sands. White Sands National Monument was established on January 18, 1933, by President Herbert Hoover. In addition to containing the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, the park is home to the globe’s largest collection of Ice-Age fossilized footprints.

Entrance Fees on the Rise:

Entrance fees and individual park annual passes are set to increase at many parks across the nation on January 1, including White Sands where an annual pass will go up from $40 to $45. Most seven-day vehicle passes to enter national parks will be increased by $5 or $10. The increase was first proposed back in 2017.165 National Park Service sites charge an entrance fee; the other 254 national parks remain free to enter.

The nationwide America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass and Lifetime Senior Pass will remain $80 in 2020. The Access Pass for people with disabilities remains free. For a breakdown of all the annual pass options, check out our “National Park Passes Explained” video on the RV Miles YouTube Channel. We’ll provide a link in the show notes.

2020 Fee Free Days:

The Park Service has also announced fee-free days for 2020:
January 20 – Martin Luther King Jr. Day
April 18 – First Day of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day
August 25 – National Park Service Birthday
September 26 – National Public Lands Day
November 11 – Veterans Day

A Grave and Immediate Threat:

America’s national parks are facing a grave and immediate threat: invasive animal species.

The National Park Service has asked a group of experts to help chart a course to handle the problem of invasive species, and those findings were recently published in the journal Biological Invasions. Invasive animal species can be found in more than half of all national parks. Of the 1,409 reported populations of 311 separate invasive animal species, there are management plans for 23 percent and only 11 percent are being contained. They include mammals, such as rats, cats, and feral pigs; aquatic species like lake trout, and reptiles like the Burmese python in Everglades National Park where pythons that can reach 23 feet in length were found thriving and reproducing twenty years ago. The result has been huge declines in native mammals.

Currently, the National Park Service has no comprehensive program to reverse or halt the trend of invasive species, but the study was a first step towards a national strategy.

Assisting Wildfire’s Abroad

The United States is sending 21 wildland fire personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to assist in fighting the devastating wildfires currenty plaguing Australia. About 100 fires have been burning for weeks in drought-plagued New South Wales, with half of them uncontained, including a “mega-blaze” ringing Sydney, covering Australia’s biggest city in a haze of toxic smoke.

An extended drought combined with hot and dry weather conditions have elevated wildfire risk, and fire activity is expected to continue for the next several months.

Human Remains Found at Joshua Tree:

On Thursday morning, December 19th, authorities at Joshua Tree National Park were alerted of evidence of skeletal human remains found while analyzing photographs of the park taken last summer. The discovery is in a remote, rocky, steep location away from any trails.

Law enforcement rangers hiked to the reported location where they found the remains, along with the belongings of the victims. There was no personal identification with the remains, which appear to have been in that location for some time. An investigation is currently ongoing, led by National Park Service law enforcement and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department investigators. At this time, the identity of the bodies has not been confirmed, and the manner of death is undetermined. There are no initial indicators of foul play.

National Park Service Seeks Public Assistance:

The National Park Service is seeking the public’s assistance to develop a list of national park lands that would benefit from new or increased access routes. The Park Service and other federal land management agencies are developing a priority list of lands with no or restricted public access. These lists will help the park service priortitize future access projects such as roads and trails.

Public comments will be accepted through January 4, 2020, on the Park Service’s Planning, Environmental and Public Comments website.

Dark Skies at El Morro:

The International Dark Sky Association has named New Mexico’s El Morro National Monument as an International Dark Sky Park. The certification recognizes the exceptional quality of the park’s night skies and provides added opportunities to enhance visitor experiences through astronomy based interpretive programming.

International Dark Sky Park certification promotes public education and astronomy based recreation in parks while improving energy efficiency and reduced operational costs through outdoor lighting upgrades.

The International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001 to encourage communities, parks, and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education. El Morro National Monument now joins more than 100 locations that have followed a rigorous application process that demonstrates robust community support for dark sky certification.

El Morro National Monument features one of the most impressive and accessible records of Southwest history, which is exposed on a single rock. Inscription Rock, a sandstone promontory rising 200 feet from the valley floor has more than 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs of many cultures along its sheer cliff face. Monument visitors can gaze upon original markings of pueblo residents, Spanish explorers, early surveyors, and pioneers in symbols, signatures, poetry, and prose right where they were originally carved.

Protecting The Narrows at Zion:

The iconic Narrows Trail at Zion National Park, is now permanently protected from closure and development. The route follows the Virgin River into a deep slot canyon with sculpted sandstone walls soaring more than a thousand feet overhead. For much of the 16-mile trek, the canyon is so narrow that hikers are literally immersed in the river, with nowhere to walk but in the rocky streambed itself.

Part of the route has always crossed private land. Public access to the Narrows has depended on informal agreements with local landowners. The Trust for Public Land has guaranteed public access to both private properties forever. They won a conservation easement for the Simon Gulch ranch, guaranteeing permanent public access to the last at-risk section of the Narrows Trail.

Internation National Park News:

In International National Park news, beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, foreign and national tourists who visit many of Costa Rica’s national parks will be covered by an insurance policy. It’s a new way to help convince tourists to follow the rules through positive reenforcement. Visitors who enter the national parks through the official entrances and adhere to posted rules will be covered in case of injury or death. Vehicles parked in official lots will also be covered for damage or theft.

The insurance policy will be automatically included in the price of the ticket for all visitors. The parks will also improve signage throughout protected areas in order to adequately inform visitors of the areas they may or may not visit within the park, and if rules are not adhered to, the tourist will be at their own risk.

A New NPS TV Drama:

Last month we told you about a new TV drama in development about National Park Service rangers, well now, there’s another. Kevin Costner is developing a one-hour drama titled ISB that will focus on the Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch for ABC. ISB will follow elite special agents who end up having to solve some of the most complex and heinous crimes committed within the National Parks of the ISB’s Pacific West region.

A National Park-themed Bar:

Nashville Tennessee is about to get a National Park-themed bar. It’s called “Camp,” and it will feature a national park-inspired setting involving indoor trees, boulders, a fish tank, and elaborate drinks, including cocktails served in terrariums named after 10 different parks. Drinks will come with pamphlets featuring information about the corresponding park. At month’s end, the bar will donate to each park according to number of each drink sold.

Happy Birthday to Sleeping Bear:

Finally, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020. The park is planning a year of honoring the past, celebrating today, and planning for the future, starting with a kick-off celebration on Saturday, January 18.

Sleeping Bear Dunes hugs the northeast shore of Lake Michigan. The park is known for the huge scalable dunes of the Dune Climb and its two islands, beaches, farmsteads, and forests.


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Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

Valley Forge

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted and written by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

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On December 19, 1777, 12,000 weary revolutionary war soldiers and 400 women and children marched into what would be their winter encampment. They began to build what was essentially the fourth largest city in the United States, with 1,500 log huts and two miles of fortifications. Lasting six months, from December until June, the encampment was as diverse as any city, with people who were free and enslaved, wealthy and impoverished, speakers of several languages, and adherents of multiple religions. Concentrating the soldiers in one vast camp changed the face of the conflict, leading to the long-fought independence the colonies so desired. 

American Indians occupied the area in and around what is now known as Valley Forge National Historical Park over 10,000 years ago, enjoying the abundance of food and shelter offered by the river valley. Europeans began to settle the region in the late 17th century and gradually displaced the indigenous people. 

The land was cleared for agriculture, and 18 landowners established fairly prosperous farms on the choice agricultural soils. Along Valley Creek, an ironworks named Valley Forge was established, and a small industrial village, including charcoal houses, a sawmill, grist mill, and company store grew up around it.

The slopes of Mounts Joy and Misery were wooded and were frequently cut over to supply wood to fuel the iron forge. By the time of the soldiers arrived during the Revolutionary War, it was an open, rolling landscape divided into many small fields and pastures by fences and hedgerows. Woodlands and charcoal hearths blanketed the mountains, and there was a smattering of structures in what was now the Village of Valley Forge. The forges themselves laid ruined—burned during a raid by the British three months earlier.

It’s perhaps American legend that a rag-tag team of misfit militias defeated the King’s Army, but in reality, the war was a massive, multi-national conflict, and the colonies needed to build a traditional military to force the British from America. 


By the time of Valley Forge, most Americans realized that the Revolution would be a long, drawn-out affair. The nature of the war changed in July 1776 when a large contingent of troops reached America’s shores and sought to crush the rebellion. By the fall, the British had pushed

George Washington’s unevenly trained and outnumbered force to the brink of defeat and established control over New York City and the states of New York and New Jersey. Only Washington’s bold Christmas night 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, saved the cause from disaster.

In order to put the Army on firmer footing, the Continental Congress allowed George Washington to recruit soldiers for longer enlistments, beginning in 1777. The men of this establishment formed the bulk of the professional force that would fight the rest of the war. After wintering at their stronghold in Morristown, New Jersey, Washington’s forces prepared to meet the British with renewed zeal in the spring of 1777.

British strategy for the third year of the American Revolution included a plan to capture the patriot capital at Philadelphia. To accomplish this objective, the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir William Howe, set sail from New York City in July 1777 with nearly 17,000 of His Majesty’s finest troop. The expeditionary force landed at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. 

To oppose Howe, General Washington marched his 12,000-man Army from New Jersey. On the journey south, He paraded them through Philadelphia to impress citizens with the prowess of the patriot force. No longer a rag-tag bunch of inexperienced fighters, the Continental Army was battle-tested and capable of standing up to the British. One observer of the march stated that the men, “though indifferently dressed, held well-burnished arms, and carried them like soldiers; and looked, in short, as if they might have faced an equal number with a reasonable prospect of success.”

In the two key battles of the Philadelphia campaign, Brandywine and Germantown, the Americans fought with skill and courage. Though they lost both battles, as well as the capital at Philadelphia, the Continental Army emerged from these experiences with the confidence of an underdog sports team that had thrown a scare into the champion:

“The experience has served to convince our people, that when they make an attack, they can confuse and Rout even the Flower of the British Army, with the greatest ease, and they are not that invincible Body of Men, which many suppose them to be.”

-George Washington

Yet work remained to be done. The Army had difficulty executing complex large- scale maneuvers such as the orderly retreat. As a result, retreats could turn into panicked flights. In fact, General Nathanael Greene believed that the troops had “fled from victory” at Germantown. 

As the campaign wound down through the months of November and December, Washington maintained strong offensive pressure on the British in the city. With the British ensconced in Philadelphia, Washington and his general officers had to decide where to encamp for the winter. As he chose a site, he had to balance the congressional wish for a winter campaign to dislodge the British from the capital against the needs of his weary and poorly supplied Army. By December 12, Washington made his decision to encamp at Valley Forge. 

From this location 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Washington was close enough to maintain pressure on the enemy, yet far enough to prevent a surprise attack on his own troops. From here, the Continental Army could protect the outlying parts of the state, with its wary citizens and precious military stores, as well as the Continental Congress, which had fled to York, Pennsylvania.

Washington and his men marched into camp on December 19, 1777. The soldiers, while not well supplied, were not downtrodden. They exuded the confidence of men who knew that they had come close to beating the British in battle. They were cautiously optimistic about the future and resigned themselves to the task of establishing their winter quarters.

The romantic image that depicts the troops at Valley Forge as helpless and famished, at the mercy of winter’s fury and clothed in nothing but rags, renders them and their commander a disservice, but constant freezing and thawing, and intermittent snowfall and rain, coupled with shortages of provisions, clothing, and shoes, did make living conditions extremely difficult. Rather than wait for rescue, the Army procured supplies, built log cabins to stay in, constructed makeshift clothing and gear, and cooked hearty meals. 

During the early months of the encampment, the soldiers received an average daily ration of one-half pound of beef. But by February, they went without meat for several days at a time. In early March, the Army listed 3,000 men as unfit for duty due to a lack of proper clothing. 

One of the most immediate remedies against the weather and lack of clothing was the construction of log shelters. Valley Forge was the first winter encampment where many thousands of soldiers had to build their own huts. The officers formed them into construction squads and instructed them to build cabins according to a 14-foot by 16-foot model. The Army placed the 2,000-odd huts in parallel lines, and according to one officer, the camp “had the appearance of a little city” when viewed from a distance. Most agreed that their log accommodations were “tolerably comfortable.”

In addition to the huts, miles of trenches were constructed, five earthen forts, and a bridge based on a Roman design over the Schuylkill River. The picture of the encampment that emerges from the army records and the soldiers’ own writing is that of a skilled and capable force in charge of its own destiny.

Once the bridge spanning the river was complete, the Army made full use of the land on the other side as a vital supply link. The farms located on the north side could sell their produce to the Army. The bridge connection also made the camp more secure as patrols could range the country to the north and east to check British movements and intentions in that quarter.

But establishing a winter base so close to the enemy caused additional hardship. Instead of being able to focus on building the camp and obtaining much-needed rest, the troops had to expend energy on security operations. They spent extra-long shifts on duty patrolling, standing guard, and manning dangerous outposts. Washington recognized the strain that this situation placed on his men and rewarded them with two months’ hardship pay.

Perhaps the most notable suffering that occurred at Valley Forge came from a factor that is not frequently mentioned in textbooks: disease was the true scourge of the camp. Men from far-flung geographical areas were exposed to sicknesses from which they had little immunity. During the encampment, nearly 2,000 men died of disease. Dedicated surgeons, nurses, a smallpox inoculation program, and camp sanitation regulations limited the death tolls. The Army kept monthly status reports that tracked the number of soldiers who had died or were too sick to perform their duties. These reports reveal that two-thirds of the men who perished died not during the harsh winter, but during the warmer months of March, April, and May, when supplies were more abundant. The most common killers were influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.

The scale of the Valley Forge encampment was impressive. The number of soldiers present ranged from 12,000 in December to nearly 20,000 in late spring as the Army massed for the campaign season. The troops who came to camp included men from all 13 original colonies and regiments from all of them except South Carolina and Georgia. The encampment brought together men, women, and children of nearly all ages, from all walks of life, of every occupation, from different ethnic backgrounds, and of various religions. The women included approximately 400 enlisted men’s wives who followed the Army year-round and a few general officers’ wives who came on extended visits. 

Valley Forge was demographically, militarily, and politically an important crossroads in the Revolutionary War. A mix of motives was at play, particularly in the minds of men who enlisted in early 1777. Some of served out of patriotism, but many served for profit, or for individual liberty, as in the case of enslaved, indentured, and apprenticed people. Others were coerced, as most colonies introduced conscription that year.

The participants had different values and different ideas about what words such as liberty, equality, slavery, and freedom meant. The ideals held dear by Americans today were not forged at Valley Forge, but rather contested – not just between patriots and the British – but also among different Americans. Valley Forge and the Revolution put the United States on a long road to defining those ideals in ways satisfactory to all – a process still in the making.

Despite the difficulties, the continental Army matured into a professional force at Valley Forge under the tutelage of Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben. Baron von Steuben assessed the Army and recognized that Washington’s men needed more training and discipline. At the same time, he realized that American soldiers would not submit to harsh European-style regulation. He did not try to introduce the entire system of drill, evolutions, maneuvers, discipline, tactics, and formations into our Army. “I should have been pelted had I attempted it, and should inevitably have failed,” he said. Instead, von Steuben demonstrated to the men the positive results that would come from retraining. He provided hands-on lessons, and Washington’s independent-minded combat veterans were willing to learn new skills when they saw immediate results. As spring wore on, whole brigades marched with newfound precision and crisply executed commands.

The Commander-in-Chief’s professional reputation also got a boost at Valley Forge. Two events that occurred during the encampment strengthened George Washington’s authority. The first was the emergence of a group of critics who denigrated General Washington’s leadership ability. The proponents of this movement, which became known as the Conway Cabal, suggested that General Gates, the victorious leader at the Battle of Saratoga, was perhaps more fit for the top command. This splinter group of officers and congressmen blamed Washington for having lost the capital to the British and argued that he put the war effort in jeopardy. As winter wore on, the so-called cabal dissolved, bringing disgrace to and ending the careers of several of its leaders. Washington’s authority was strengthened as loyal supporters rallied to defend and exalt the Commander-in-Chief.

A second event that consolidated Washington’s control was his successful campaign to have a congressional committee visit camp. The general lobbied Congress to confer with him in person in order to resolve some of the supply and organizational difficulties that had plagued the Army during the 1777 campaign. The committee emerged from the Valley Forge meeting with a better understanding of the logistical difficulties Washington faced and more sympathetic to the Army’s requirements. The army reorganization was one of the most far-reaching consequences of the committee’s work. Almost from the war’s outset, Washington had argued for a large professional army. The public’s disdain for standing armies limited his ability to raise a sizeable force. The reorganization of 1778 represented a compromise between civilian and military ideals. Realizing that the Army existed at only a portion of its authorized strength, Congress consolidated regiments and created a more streamlined force. 

At Valley Forge in the spring of 1778, the Army joyously celebrated the formal French recognition of the United States as a sovereign power and valuable alliance with this leading European nation. Though it would take years to bear fruit at Yorktown in 1781, the alliance provided Washington with the formidable French naval assistance and additional troops he needed to counter British marine superiority.

In mid-June, Washington’s spy network informed him that the British were about to abandon Philadelphia. The Commander-in-Chief rapidly set troops in motion: a small force marched in and took possession of the city. The majority of the Army swiftly advanced from staging areas on the north side of the Schuylkill River and southeast of camp toward the Delaware River and New Jersey. On June 28, at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, Washington’s men demonstrated their new battlefield skills, as they forced the British from the field. Monmouth hurt the British in the short term and provided the Americans with a long-term boost in confidence.

Washington could claim that the war effort was going well. The Army’s decision to occupy Valley Forge and maintain strong offensive pressure on the enemy was a wise one. After they abandoned Philadelphia, the British had little to show for all of their past year’s efforts.

Thanks to the contributions of von Steuben and others, the Continental Army was more unified than ever before.


Many regard Valley Forge as the birthplace of the American Army. The concepts of basic training, the professionalization of the officer corps, and the rise of the Army’s distinctive branches, such as the corps of engineers, all got their start here. The symbolic importance that Americans have attached to Valley Forge both complicates and enriches its authentic history. The establishment of Valley Forge as a memorial provides a place where generations of Americans have had the opportunity to discover and admire the Continental Army’s sacrifices and achievements and to participate in commemoration of this history. 

The 3,500-acres of monuments, meadows, and woodlands honor and celebrate the ability of citizens to pull together and overcome adversity during extraordinary times. 

Valley Forge National Historical Park is located just 18 miles west of Center City Philadelphia and is easily accessible from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Here you can step back in time and re-live that winter of 1777 and 1778. 

The Muhlenberg Brigade Area is the site of a brigade encampment led by General Peter Muhlenberg. Consisting of nine log cabins called huts, facing a gravel company street. This is the main site for Valley Forge’s Living History program. Rangers and volunteers dress in 18th Century attire to show visitors glimpses of life at the Valley Forge encampment.

The Artillery Park Commemorates the cannon batteries led by General Knox with three rows of cannons and is a great place to get a long-distance view of the National Memorial Arch – erected to commemorate the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army.

Washington’s headquarters, also known as the Isaac Potts House, has the distinction of being the structure General Washington used as his headquarters during the encampment.

On December 14, 2018, the National Park Service opened a new 5,760 square-foot Visitor Center within the park. This new, temporary facility will enable construction to begin on a $12 million renovation to the current Visitor Center (built in 1976).

On Thursday, December 19, visitors can witness a reenactment of the March-In of the Continental Army.

This annual event is a full evening of festivities at Valley Forge. Take a candlelit walk to the Muhlenberg Brigade huts, encounter reenactors at a living Continental camp, meet George Washington, and enjoy eighteenth-century music. Warm-up in the Visitor Center with holiday drinks and treats, see historic chocolate making, and more.


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For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

National Park Service News

A Prescription for Fire

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue and video’s from the National Park Service. Links are provided below for all videos used in this episode.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

From a seed no bigger than one from a tomato, California’s coast Redwood may grow to a height of 367 feet and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Imagine a 35-story skyscraper in your city, and you have an inkling of the trees’ ability to arouse humility.

Some visitors envision dinosaurs rumbling through these forests in bygone eras. I’m Jason Epperson, and this is California’s Redwood National Park.

It turns out that picturing dinosaurs roaming through the forest is a perfectly natural thought. Fossil records have shown that relatives of today’s coast redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era 160 million years ago. And while the fantastic creatures of that age have long since disappeared, the redwoods continue to thrive in the right environment.

California’s North Coast provides the only such environment in the world. A combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the Redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. These conditions have existed for some time, as the redwoods go back 20 million years in their present range.

Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall is a mystery. Theories continue to develop but proof remains elusive. The trees can reach ages of 2,000 years and regularly reach 600 years.

Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of a coast redwood. Diseases are virtually unknown, and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.

The Redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely solely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees must. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone. Basal burls — hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree — can sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.

The coast Redwood’s environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle. 

But while these trees enjoy robust and hearty features, they have been threatened by humans. 

When Euro-Americans swept westward in the 1800s, they needed raw material for their homes and lives. Commercial logging followed the expansion of America as companies struggled to keep up with the furious pace of progress. Timber harvesting quickly became the top manufacturing industry in the west.

When gold was discovered in northwestern California in 1850, the rush was on. Thousands crowded the remote redwood region in search of riches and new lives. These people were no less dependent upon lumber, and the redwoods conveniently provided the wood the people needed. The size of the huge trees made them prized timber, as redwood became known for its durability and workability. By 1853, nine sawmills were at work in Eureka, a gold boom town established three years prior. Large-scale logging was soon underway, and the once immense stands of redwoods began to disappear by the close of the 19th century.

At first, axes, saws, and other early methods of bringing the trees down were used. But the loggers made use of rapidly improving technology in the 20th century that allowed more trees to be harvested in less time. Transportation also caught up to the task of moving the massive logs. The locomotive replaced horses and oxen. Railroads became the fastest way to transport the logs to mills.

Land fraud was common, as acres of prime redwood forests were transferred from the public domain to private industry. Although some of the perpetrators were caught, many thousands of acres of land were lost in land swindles.

By the 1910s, some concerned citizens began to clamor for the preservation of the dwindling stands of redwoods. The Save-the-Redwoods League was born out of this earnest group, and eventually, the League succeeded in helping to establish the redwood preserves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

But still logging continued in those parts of the forests that were privately owned, accelerated by WW II and the economic boom of the 1950s. By the 1960s, logging had consumed nearly 90 percent of all the original redwoods. It wasn’t until 1968 that Redwood National Park was established, which secured some of the few remaining stands of uncut redwoods. In 1978, Congress added more land that included logged-over portions of Redwood Creek. Today, these lands are undergoing large-scale restoration by the parks’ resource managers. Logging continues on privately-held lands nearby and throughout the redwood region.

That’s Eamon Engber, Fire Ecologist at Redwood National Park. He stands in front of a park emergency vehicle with a map taped to it, planning the day’s job as he addresses the crew that will carry it out.

Fire is the life-blood of conifer forests and paries. But as modern development encroaches on these lands, fires have become more dangerous, and too big to rebirth plands without killing others. Forest fires have always been caused by lighting, meaning that they happen during or after rainstorms, and otherwise moist times of the year, keeping their impact minimal, usually towards the forest floor and away from the canopy. When humans cause fires during dry periods, they spread rapidly, consuming everything in their path. 

Using a “drip-torch”, fire crews begin to burn the edges of the planned boundary. This occurs after a small test burn has been competed, and only when the temperature, humidity, wind direction and fuel moisture are within strict parameters.

The burn is accomplishing its task. The next time a massive forest fire comes through, there will be less fuel available to it, but more importantly, invasive species are removed, and small trees that choke the forest are eliminated. This forest will continue to thrive because of prescribed burns. 

Redwood National Park is actually managed as Redwood National and State Parks, a string of protected forests, beaches and grasslands along Northern California’s coast. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park has trails through dense old-growth woods. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is home to Fern Canyon, with its high, plant-covered walls. Roosevelt elk frequent nearby Elk Prairie. Giant redwood clusters include Redwood National Park’s Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

 For thousands of years people have lived in this verdant landscape. Together, the National Park Service and California State Parks are managing and restoring these lands for the inspiration, enjoyment, and education of all.

Here, banana slugs, gray whales, Douglas-fir, black bears, and sea anemones are equally at home with redwoods.

Congress protected lands adjacent to the three California state parks in 1968 with the creation of Redwood National Park. In 1994, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service agreed to manage the four-park area jointly for maximum resource protection.

Today, visitors will find not only old-growth redwood groves but open prairie lands, two major rivers, and 37 miles of pristine California coastline. 

Cabins and developed camping are available through the California State Parks system, and plenty of commercial lodging surrounds the area. 

It’s a large area, with several individual groves to explore, so you’ll want to plan well. Scenic drives, hiking, and biking trails abound. 



Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Redwood Area History: https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/historyculture/area-history.htm

About the trees:  https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/nature/about-the-trees.htm

The Three Redwoods:  https://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/ThreeTrees-2014-508.pdf

Prescribed Fire Videos used in the episode: 

https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/photosmultimedia/firevideos.htm


For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

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