Our story: what we saw & learned at Western Pennsylvania NPS sites

Fort Necessity

This past weekend was the last before school began. So, we set out to Western Pennsylvania to check off a few more National Park Services sites in my kids’ passport books. 

With this being the Centennial Celebration for the National Park Service (NPS), the five sites in Western Pennsylvania are offering a commemorative patch for those kids who visit all five and complete the Junior Ranger program at each. The Jr. Ranger program involves completing a workbook that has questions and exercises based on the exhibits at each site. Here is what we saw and what we learned at the five Western Pennsylvania NPS sites.

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (NHS)

Allegheny Portage RR

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was one of the engineering feats in the early 19th Century that opened America west of the Appalachian/Allegheny Mountains to the colonies in the east. Pennsylvania was sandwiched between two states, New York and Maryland, both of which had constructed canals across their states to deliver goods to their eastern ports. Not to be outdone, Pennsylvania proposed its own canal, but had the obstacle of the Allegheny Mountains to surmount. It did so through a means of engine houses that hauled railroad cars loaded with boats traversing the canal up and over the mountains.

What we saw: We saw the original foundation for Engine House Six, the summit point, with a reconstructed Engine House showing the impressive gears and steam-powered pistons that pulled the railroad cars up the mountain.

What we learned: the Allegheny Portage Railroad was only useful for barely two decades, being rendered obsolete once locomotives were developed that were powerful enough to simply pull the rail cars up the tracks and over the mountains. So, one could be tempted to consider this site as something of a historical anomaly, a blip in the historical record. But, the film at the visitor’s center made an important point: though the railroad would be rendered obsolete, at the time, it was the best that technology could offer and the only way to traverse the mountains. It opened up Pittsburgh and points West for providing their goods to the eastern ports and opened up the way for settlers to move west. Technology, by its nature, is always rendering what is now cutting edge, obsolete by the next development (see Betamax, VHS, DVD, blu-ray, streaming on demand). But, for the time in which it exists, the state-of-the-art is the best those living at that time can enjoy.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial (NM)

Johnstown Flood

On May 31, 1889, following the heaviest downpour ever recorded in the Johnstown area of Pennsylvania, the South Fork Dam burst, causing a two-mile lake to come roaring down the mountain and wipe out Johnstown and several other smaller hamlets. Two thousand two hundred and nine people were killed in the tragedy.

What we saw: We walked out to the remaining edge of the South Fork Dam and stood atop its 70 foot height overlooking what is now a small river that runs through the valley. We saw photographs of old growth forest trees that impaled houses, having been ripped from the ground by the tidal wave and flung like spears into the town.

What we learned: On the day of the flood, telegrams were sent from the South Fork Dam to Johnstown beginning around noon warning the town that the situation was dangerous and the dam may not hold. The flood did not happen until four hours later, yet most of the residents disregarded the warning. The dam foundered due to poor maintenance of the spill way and failure to repair the sagging in its middle. We should not become complacent in trusting the work of others nor in failing to heed their warnings that their work may fail.

Flight 93 NM

Flight 93

On the morning of September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 departed Newark bound for San Francisco with forty passengers and crew members, and four terrorists. The terrorists took control of the flight and in the ensuing 20 minutes, the passengers learned from phone calls made from the plane about the other flights that had crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The passengers devised a plan of attack in the following nine minutes, executing the plan in six minutes, resulting in the plane crashing in an empty field.

What we saw: Visitors enter the memorial walking along a black path that tracks the flight’s trajectory. In the visitors center, exhibits detail the timeline; recordings of calls made from the flight can be listened to; and, a touchscreen menu profiles each of the innocent passengers and flight crew. There are boxes of tissue throughout, and they are liberally used.

What we learned: The innocent passengers were simply boarding a flight, many trying to get home to their families, others traveling for business or pleasure. The flight crew were just going about their jobs, preparing for flying another flight. But, in a matter of minutes, they banded together and prevented a larger tragedy and more deaths, knowing it would likely mean their ultimate sacrifice.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield (NB)


In 1754, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington commanded a small force of British soldiers clearing a road through the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania. Like the Allegheny Portage Railroad some four score later, the colonies were trying to establish a transportation route to the three rivers area of modern-day Pittsburgh. Washington was informed of a nearby force of French and their Native American allies. He took a small force out to meet them where, accounts conflict, but ultimately the French commander was killed. This was the first battle of what would become the French and Indian War that would be part of the greater battle between the British and French across five continents.

What we saw: Washington knew the French would seek revenge. He therefore established a “Fort of Necessity” from which he thought he would be well protected while firing at the French in an open field he described as “A charming field for an encounter.” The field remains charming, but Washington badly misjudged. The French along with their Native American allies remained in the treeline, turning Fort Necessity instead into the equivelent of shooting fish in a barrel, resulting in dozens of casualties to Washington’s troops. Washington was forced to surrender and in doing so, admitted (due to relying on an inept translator) that he had assassinated the French commander in the earlier skirmish.

What we learned: In today’s military, such a defeat would likely have ended a young officer’s career. Washington, instead, did not allow himself to be defined by this defeat and twenty years later would lead the Revolutionary Army against the British army he once belonged to. Moreover, rather than avoid being reminded of his first battle and defeat, Washington still appreciated the quality of the land where Fort Necessity was built and bought it.

Friendship Hill NHS

Friendship Hill

In 1780, a Swiss immigrated to the United States (before even it was called that). His name was Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin. Over the next seventy years, he would devote himself to public service, being first elected to the Senate, then the House of Representatives, and then serving as still the longest-tenured Secretary of the Treasury (a statue of Gallatin greets visitors to the Treasury Department in Washington D.C.). He served as ambassador to France and England; was the primary negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, which settled the War of 1812; and, upon returning to America, served as the first president of what would become New York University. Friendship Hill was the home he built in Western Pennsylvania when he immigrated.

What we saw: Visitors enter the historic site driving up a tree-lined path to see an impressive, sprawling mansion atop a hill overlooking the Monongahela River. Inside, we learned of Gallatin’s service, how he devised the financing to retire America’s debt from the Revolutionary War, finance the Louisiana Purchase, and finance the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

What we learned: Despite towns, a river, counties, and many other honorariums being named after him, Gallatin largely is a forgotten figure. Even among the National Park sites, his was the only one that did not have its own Junior Ranger badge. Given that this was our final site, the dejection James felt after his sister and he had proudly pinned the four other badges onto their shirts with the expectation of adding the fifth, and last, badge, was profound. Similar to the Allegheny Portage Railroad, Gallatin’s work is largely forgotten, but at the time, it was of the utmost significance to those living in his time.

Relevance to this blog

While I have detailed what we saw and what we learned, so far, I’d like to end by addressing what others saw and what others may still learn.

James and Juliet walked throughout all of these sites, in the case of Fort Necessity and Flight 93, going on hikes on trails for a considerable distance, to see the historic sites. At each site, they toted their Junior Ranger workbooks with them, completing each activity at each exhibit. James would help Juliet and vice versa when they would come upon an answer. Both also asked the Rangers questions and talked with them.

What others still have to learn, because this was shared on a recent call I had with advocates around the country, is that physicians need to stop counseling their patients when delivering a diagnosis of Down syndrome about all the things their child will not be able to do, notably walking. The rangers and other visitors who attended the sites while we were there got to see a happy brother and sister ambling about, sometimes running (when they shouldn’t have been), filling out workbooks. And, at the end of each visit, they would hear James and Juliet repeat the pledge after the ranger as they were sworn in, five times over, as junior rangers of the National Park Service.

Swearing In


  1. […] above picture includes a visit we made to Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania, a site where George Washington suffered an embarrassing […]

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