August 28, 2013 —
It’s one thing to read about the history of a place in a book or study it in a classroom. It’s another thing to directly experience something about a place’s historic past. This is why destinations like Jefferson’s home in Monticello, VA or the Alamo in Texas are so effective in telling a story that makes history come alive. Or take, for example, our own Fort Delaware Museum in Narrowsburg, NY, with its full-scale replica of an early Colonial fort and a settlement peopled with re-enactors depicting the daily life of the area’s original European settlers. Accomplishing this “living history” museum at the fort represents 30 years of work and devotion on the parts of many people. (Debra Conway, with loving assistance from Sullivan County Historian and husband John, especially deserve credit for their leadership roles.) The end result presents us with the chance to learn about the heritage, culture and traditions of the place we call home today.
To the west, in Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Lackawaxen River not far from Hawley, the Wayne County Historical Society (WCHS) took a major step forward last weekend with its own living history project, the first phase of which has been to turn a section of the towpath of the historic Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal into a walking-running-biking trail and a park. The longer-range goal—to create an interpretive museum in a 19th century, canal-era house at D&H Lock 31—remains a work in progress.
This towpath-to-trail project began as an idea in 1995. Over the years, the historical society acquired the land through gift, purchase, grants and funds resulting from the settlement of a local environmental damages case. The last 16 acres were acquired in 2001. Since that time, volunteers have logged over 1,500 hours to remove more than 100 years of debris from the canal bed and towpath and to repair and clean up the house. Projects like this are community efforts and would not be possible without the contributions of volunteers. This work of volunteers, in and of itself, tells us much about the culture and the traditions of this place where we live.
The master plan for this site includes turning the restored lock house into a living history museum, and there are still hopes of extending the one-mile section of towpath trail all the way to Hawley (waynehistorypa.org/projects/Towpath_to_Trail-Dec2010.pdf). We salute WCHS for persistently pursuing this dream.
Local history is a source of pride no matter where you live. Philadelphia may have its Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but our area’s historic sites are no less important to local residents. Take Honesdale, for example: named after Philip Hone, the president of the D&H Canal in 1825 and 1826, he was also the mayor of New York City in those same years. Coal from the Lackawanna Valley mines to the west was the economic engine that drove the canal, transporting black gold to the canal’s terminus at the Hudson River where it continued on its way downriver to heat homes in New York City. Little wonder that Honesdale and New York City have always had some special ties even to this day, if one can judge by the number of New Yorkers who visit and move here. This is just one example of how knowing local history helps explain a place. The knowledge adds a rich texture to and clearer understanding of a community.
Preserving artifacts, memorabilia, photographs and writings is not just some idle business of historical societies. These things tell us something about who we are, often quite literally. (Did you know that one of the busiest roles of the WCHS research library is helping people with genealogy?) And when it comes to buildings, architecture and even parks, historic preservation helps keep towns attractive, alive and livable, giving people a stake in their communities.
In addition, heritage tourism, as it is called, also offers the potential to make real contributions to local economies, offering an attractive, clean form of economic development.
So the next time someone tries to tell you they’re not interested in our local history because it’s of little value, tell him or her that historic places are true assets of a community and that knowing our roots is an important way to understand our present.