My 20 Minutes of History In Independence Hall

Trip Start Oct 08, 2000
Trip End Oct 15, 2000

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Saturday, October 14, 2000

We awoke to an absolutely picture perfect day in Southeast Pennsylvania.  The weather was forecast to be in the upper 70s, which was very unusual for a Pennsylvania fall day.  But, it just meant that we'd have great weather for my last full day in the Keystone State.

In keeping with our tradition for the past week, we checked out of the hotel and headed over to Borders to get a bite to eat and nurse a cup of coffee for a couple of hours.  We then set off for Philadelphia, and another day of sightseeing.

The day's itinerary called for us to visit Revolutionary War sites.  To be honest, about the only reason I wanted to visit Pennsylvania was to see these sites.  My interest in these places began in elementary school, where I received the same indoctrination that every other American child receives.  We are taught about the wise men that gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776 and drafted a Declaration of Independence that announced to the world the existence of the United States of America. It was then left to a brave man named George Washington to defend that statement by forcing the British off of the new country’s soil. But, before he could achieve victory, he had to undergo a purgatory at a place called Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. He emerged from Valley Forge with a stronger sense of purpose and a better-disciplined army.

Given the near mythological state of importance attributed to Philadelphia and Valley Forge, it seemed like a natural place for me to visit in order to evaluate if the reality matched the legend. Tom didn’t seem to be too interested in visiting any Revolutionary War attraction. But, I managed to convince him that we needed to kill some time on the day before I went back to California. He then agreed to stop at Valley Forge and the Independence National Historical Park.

Our first stop was Valley Forge. As my guidebook pointed out, Valley Forge is not a battlefield. It is instead a “monument” to the bravery and dedication of the American soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. The guidebook also noteed that the park is conveniently located off of Highway 422. That statement turned out to be true, as the site was no more that a half-mile from highway.

The first thing I noticed was that the "monument" looked nothing like I had imagined it would look. It looked more like a city park instead of a “monument.” There were hiking and biking trails, as well as lots of people in shorts walking or picnicking. I wondered where all the items that made this park a “monument” were located.

We first stopped at the Visitor’s Center, located very close to the park’s main entrance. We were hoping to get some information about the rest of the park and to see some Revolutionary War artifacts. We weren’t disappointed on either count. The center had maps that provided the route for a self guided driving tour of the park. Additionally, it had several artifacts from the Revolutionary War era which were quite interesting to study. Tom and I were particularly interested in the medical instruments from the era (they’re not as primitive as one might think) and the tent where Washington lived during a portion of his Valley Forge stay. The Visitor’s Center also has a good-sized bookstore and a theatre where an 18-minute movie on the army’s stay at Valley Forge is shown. We didn’t see the movie, but did pick up a free map and began the driving tour.

It quickly became apparent to me that my initial confusion as to the “monument items” was justified. There really isn’t much of historical value left in the park. This was confirmed after driving about half a mile to the first signposted attraction: the huts used by the soldiers. The huts, which are reproductions of the originals that stood here, provide powerful statements about the living conditions endured by the soldiers. They are not much larger than eight foot by eight foot squares. There’s just enough room in them for cots (stacked three high) and a small stove. It’s quite interesting to look at, but there are only a few of them (less than 10) at this location. The rest of the huts are sprinkled throughout the park. While it might not have made sense to reconstruct all of the huts that were used, the current arrangement leaves the viewer with the impression of “we need a hut in this spot to convince people that soldiers stayed here.”

That same feeling infuses the whole park. There are also a few cannons scattered about, and there are a few statues to important people. There are also other park attractions that impart a little more of the Revolutionary War experience, like Washington’s headquarters and the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum at the Washington Memorial Chapel. But the whole site does little to convince the visitor that an event occurred at Valley Forge that was as monumental as the stories would lead one to believe.

I think that some of the reason for the letdown I experienced is that the idea behind the park is not the same as the reality behind the park. As usual, Tom articulated it best when we were at the National Memorial Arch. After staring at the magnificent arch with its declaration that the site is dedicated to the “patience and fidelity” of the soldiers that stayed there, Tom declared, “This isn’t a monument to patience and bravery. It’s a monument to a logistical blunder!” While he may be a little too blunt, Tom had a point. Valley Forge was (and still is) ultimately about people making the best of a mistake. But, when the real reason is downplayed in order to highlight lesser aspects, the park can only be seen in a manner that is less than the importance attributed to it.

If the Revolutionary War aspect is unfulfilling, then the recreational aspects to the park make it worth visiting. The hiking, biking, and jogging trails throughout the whole facility are well planned out and constructed. The open spaces merge seamlessly with the roads and trails. In fact, the park seems like a major recreation area for Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth visiting if one is looking for a place to exercise in a natural setting.  Still, I would have to say that one could skip visiting Valley Forge and not detract from the Pennsylvania experience. 

After finishing at Valley Forge, we continued down the road to Philadelphia.  We drove through the town and went to the airport, so that we could check-in to our accomodations for the evening:  the Comfort Inn Philadelphia Airport.  It didn't take me long to dislike this hotel.  Much of it was being renovated, which resulted in several amenities being unavailable to guests.  The room, which was supposedly non-smoking, was situated between two smoking room.  That meant that the non-smoking room had all the odor of a smoking room.  Additionally, the room looked like it hadn't been cleaned very well.  Still, it was cheap, and close to the airport.  I told myself that I would have to stay here only one night, and decided to make do.

We drove back into downtown Philadelphia, arriving at about 3:45 in the afternoon. The late arrival didn’t give us much time to see many of the sites. But, the good news is that not much time is needed to see the “crown jewels” of the Independence National Historic Park.

Tom managed to find a parking spot that was only a block from Independence Hall. We rushed over to the hall to see if we could get in on one of the building’s guided tours. I was slightly deflated to find that the line to get into the hall stretched around the building and into the courtyard (known as Independence Square) behind it. Since the only way to get inside the Hall is to use the guided tour, I thought we’d never get inside before the last tour left at 4:30 p.m. The string quartet busking in the courtyard did little to easy my anxiety. However, the line started moving after a few minutes. At just before 4 p.m, we were let inside the building. I was surprised that so many people were allowed on one tour, but my surprise faded when I saw the size of the room that the tour first visits. The room is the former chambers of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A tour guide in the room described the format of the trials that took place in there. After a few minutes of questions, the guide directed the group to move across the hall to the Assembly Room.

It was in the Assembly Room that the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was drafted. It’s an awe-inspiring feeling to actually be in the same room that such luminaries as George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson once stood. The sense of history, while not as palpable as that in Westminster Abbey, was definitely present in the room. After absorbing the room’s atmosphere while my fellow group mates gathered inside, the ranger began a brief history lesson about the events that had occurred in that spot. His talk lasted about 10 minutes. He finished his talk with, “And if you exit to your left, you’ll pass through the doors where the Declaration was read on July 4, 1776. Thanks for coming on the tour.” That was the end of the tour! Two rooms were visited in twenty minutes. No wonder they can get people through the doors so fast! Before we knew it, we were outside the back door of the Hall and into Independence Square.

Since the Independence Hall tour had taken so little time, we thought we might catch one of the last tours at the Liberty Bell Pavilion. We hurried north one block to the pavilion. As we approached, we could see the Liberty Bell though a wall of glass. We could also see another long line waiting for the next tour. Fortunately, our wait was as short as it was at Independence Hall. We crowded into a much too small building with the rest of the tourist. The park ranger who conducted the tour opened her talk by stating that a new pavilion was being constructed (it's now been completed) . I was glad to hear that, because the one I visited was very small and very ugly.

The park ranger gave a brief history of the bell. After the 15 minute talk, it was announced that we could take pictures of the bell and get close to look at it. I was quite surprised to see people actually touching the bell. Yet, everyone who did pose next to it or touched it did so with reverence and respect. Even tourists from other countries approached the bell with a feeling close to veneration. It was very clear from that short visit that the Liberty Bell is a powerful symbol to people all over the world.

It was close to 4:30 p.m. when we exited the pavilion. Since most of the other attractions in the Independence National Historic Park close at 4:30 p.m., we decided to stop at one place that supposedly didn’t close: Christ Church Cemetery. This cemetery houses the remains of a couple of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as other notable personages from the Revolutionary Era. However, the grave everyone goes to see is that of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin. Since it supposedly didn’t close, Tom and I took our time heading the one block north of the pavilion to visit it. Along the way, we took notice of the stunning Georgian architecture that the buildings in the area display. The whole scene was reminiscent of something from London or Dublin, except that the fall colors gave it a distinctly “American” taste. It was definitely one of the most distinctive architectural areas I’d ever seen in the United States. I could only wonder how many other tourists appreciated this interesting piece of architectural history. 

Our leisurely stroll finally deposited us in front of Christ Church Cemetery’s gates. I was shocked to find the gates locked. I had read that access to Franklin’s grave was always available. However, that information seemed to be in error because the gates were clearly locked. I was quite disappointed that I had come this far only to miss visiting the grave. As we began to walk away from the gate, Tom noticed that there was one section of fence which was made of rod iron and not brick. We found Franklin’s grave against the rod iron portion of the fence. It was amusing to find the grave partially covered in pennies. A sign near the grave said that there is a local legend which attributes good luck to anyone who throws a penny on Franklin’s grave. I didn’t have a penny on me, but I believe that visiting the grave gives good luck. After all, I did survive the flight back home the next day! Anyhow, Tom and I partially scaled the rod iron fence to get clear pictures of the grave. We then began the walk back to the car.

On the walk back, Tom and I did a little reflecting on what we had seen. We both agreed that the Park was easily the prettiest spot in Philadelphia. It was distinctive not only for the natural beauty, but also for the architectural beauty evident in the houses and buildings. But, what came across to us was the almost shrine like atmosphere of the area. It was clear from the throngs of foreign tourists that the park is a place where people come to be inspired by the same muses that inspired Jefferson, Washington, and Madison as they created a county. It is also symbolic that these simple, elegant buildings stand as a counterpoint to the looming skyscrapers that are all around them. The juxtaposition of the old and the new is a vivid reminder of how much this nation has grown since its founding. We left the park with a sense of awe at not only being in the presence of these American history icons, but also because the park is a vivid reminder of how the ideas that arose on that site still impact our lives today.

By now, we were feeling pretty hungry.  We first went to the Bourse (formerly, the Philadelphia Stock Exchange), which housed several places to eat.  However, I figured when in Philadelphia, eat a cheesesteak standwich.  Tom's uncle had told us that the best cheesesteak sandwiches in Philadelphia were at Jim's Place.  So, Tom and I set off for the corner of South and 4th Streets to see if his uncle was right.  Upon approaching the restaurant, it became evident that its fame was widespread, because the line inside and outside the building was pretty long. Still, it turned out that the food was worth the wait. Jim’s has a great cheesesteak sandwich:  large, with plenty of meat and little grease. For the price, it was a great bargain. The only downside was that the staff was quite surly. A customer orders at the grill so that the sandwich is made when ordered. If one isn’t sure what one wants, the cook calls out for the next person. In other words, know what you want BEFORE you get to the cook. But, the gruff staff shouldn’t discourage one from going to Jim’s. It was as good as advertised.

We went walking through South Street, which is the hippest part of Philadelphia. While I enjoyed the shops, I got very nervous seeing a police officer on every corner, along with police cruisers patrolling the area. None of these officers were responding to any crime, they were just watching the crowds for trouble. I thought that if there is the need for that much police presence in an area, it can’t be all that safe.  It just reinforced the impressions that I had developed while driving through the town the day before.

At about 11 p.m., we headed back to the hotel.  When we got to our room, we noticed the pungent aroma of marijuana smoke.  We soon figured out that the smell was coming from the room next door.  We thought about saying something to the manager, but were a bit afraid that the occupants would figure out that we were the ones who complained and would come into our room (yes, our rooms were connected; separated by only a door that was locked on our side) to discuss our dislike of pot smoke.  Considering how loud those occupants were, we didn't think they were likely Ivy League graduates who would entertain a rational discussion.  So, we climbed into bed and slept very lightly during the night.  
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