A National Historical Park for Delaware? – Legislation moving closer to reality

by Michael Short on March 30, 2011

By Michael Short, March 1, 2011

Delaware is the only state in America without a national park site.

That could change soon, thanks to legislation establishing a national  historic park to celebrate Delaware’s role in the founding of the new world and the birth of America.

Senator Tom Carper and Congressman John Carney were in Lewes on Friday, Feb. 25 to discuss the progress of the First State National Historical Park Act legislation. Championed by Carper since 2002, the legislation appears to be gaining momentum.

The two gathered at the Burton-Ingram House, part of the Lewes Historical Society complex. The Burton-Ingram House dates to 1800, but it’s the new kid in town next to the Ryves Holt House.

Built in 1665, the Ryves Holt House on Second Street is one of a handful of the oldest buildings in the nation. Only a scant few older buildings in Massachusetts or St. Augustine, Florida exist.

 It’s been an inn, a judge’s home and a courthouse during its’ many years of service. Currently, the red home next to St. Peter’s Church houses a gift shop for the Lewes Historical Society. Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Michael DiPaulo said on Friday that among its’ other distinctions was the site of a court case decided by an all-female jury, a considerable rarity in early America.

The Ryves Holt House would be one of several sites to be located in a Delaware Historical Park. Unlike a huge Yellowstone-style park, this would be more like the Boston Freedom Trail, which winds through a series of several historical sites.

The idea would be to highlight Delaware’s Revolutionary War history, rich with John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney, George Read and other figures. Dickinson is sometimes called the “penman” of the Constitution. Carper said that he had much to do with the development of America’s system of three branches of government.

 It would also highlight Delaware’s role in the founding and settlement of the New World, including early Swedish and Dutch settlements.

“Delaware’s history is our nation’s history,” said Timothy Slavin of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.

“We have a better story to tell, frankly, than most states with a national park. It is a story that ought to be told,” said Carper.

“It’s really a fantastic, colorful history,” said DiPaulo.

The legislation establishes sites in each of Delaware’s three counties. They are: the Old Sheriff’s House in New Castle County, the Fort Christina National Historic Landmark, the Old New Castle Courthouse, Old Swedes Church, the Dover Green, the John Dickinson Plantaton and the Ryves Holt House in Lewes.

The National Park Service could also work with other sites in Delaware, even if they are not formally listed.

Carper and Carney were quick to note on Friday that Delaware was the first state to sign the Constitution in 1787.

“Creation (of a park) is good for Delaware and for the nation,” said Slavin.

Carper said that the cost of the legislation would be modest. While he didn’t define modest, he said that he remains very committed to not increasing the federal deficit.

The  idea has been floated since 2002 and meetings have been held in each of Delaware’s counties to see what type of potential park that Delawareans would support.

A group of a dozen people worked on development of potential ideas for a park project, including former University of Delaware professor Dr. James Soles.

Carper, former Congressman Michael Castle and former Senator Ted Kauffman introduced the legislation in October, 2009. It has since been updated and revised and was re-introduced in February by Carper, Carney and Senator Chris Coons. Carney said it was his first piece of legislation since being elected.

Carper said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has expressed support for the legislation.

When the legislation was first introduced in 2009, then Senator Kauffman said “All of Delaware’s children and grandchildren would benefit from visits to old New Castle and the rest of the sites, teaching them about Delaware history and creating memories that will last for the rest of their lives.”

Speaking before Congress last year, Carper said “Once a national park unit is established in Delaware, families from throughout America – and all over the world – will have the opportunity to learn from the National Park Service’s website of the rich, historical heritage of the First State. And, who knows? They just might decide to pay us a visit; much like my own family did when they chose to spend an unforgettable week or two visiting Denali and other parts of Alaska.

In closing, I would note that the word Denali translates loosely to mean “The Great One.” That enormous park is several times the size of my own state.

While visitors to Delaware are not likely to remember us as “The Great One”, they may well end up returning to their own home with lasting memories – fond memories – of the Small Wonder along the Eastern Seaboard of our nation that helped to launch the most endearing experiment in democracy that the world has ever known – The United States of America.”

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