New England, with some of the earliest colonies in a place that would later become the United States, harbored hundreds of years of history along with a people who appreciated their ties to the past. Most of my previous trips through the region hugged the coast. I relished an opportunity to wander inland to places less tread by tourists. The history there may not have been as memorable as its coastal cousins although it had been continuous and intense since colonial times.
Every little rural town oozed Eighteenth Century charm. We must have driven through hundreds of hamlets on backcountry roads taking the straightest line between races, although the lines were never truly straight. They all seemed to follow old colonial paths that followed ancient Native American trails that followed tracks through the forest blazed by animals millennia ago.
Hancock, New Hampshire (map) seemed to follow the typical model of a New England settlement with its town square, gazebo and a protestant church with requisite steeple. This place was settled by Revolutionary War veterans who named it for John Hancock, "signer of the Declaration of Independence (who happened to own nearly a thousand acres within the town boundaries), [although] there is no evidence that Governor Hancock ever visited or benefited the community in any way."
We stayed overnight in Hancock because our race took place in a nearby state park the next morning. I got to walk around and take a few photos. Otherwise we would have driven through Hancock without stopping to appreciate it, like we did with countless other Hancock equivalents, similarly attractive and historic.
I’d gotten in the habit of looking for National Park Service properties before each trip because there were often hidden gems to be found. NPS listed scores of options in New England although they tended to congregate along the coast. Pickings were slim farther inland. The Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Springfield, Massachusetts looked interesting though, and caught my eye (map). It wasn’t far from our route either. The Armory became a new nation’s primary arsenal during the Revolutionary War and "for nearly two centuries, the US Armed Forces and American industry looked to Springfield Armory for innovative engineering and superior firearms." It also included the "world’s largest historic US military small arms collection." Too bad I didn’t get to see it.
If I collected National Park Service passport stamps, a hobby I know some 12MC readers enjoy, I probably would have paid closer attention to the website. The armory closed on Tuesdays before Memorial Day. It never dawned on me that a park would be closed on a Tuesday. So there we stood outside of this large edifice and took a few photos because we were already there and what else were we supposed to do, and then moved on to other activities we’d planned for Springfield. The whole setup was kind-of weird too. The armory shared a campus with a local community college so visitors had to wind their way around the school to the back, and past people directing traffic who made sure everyone parked in the right spot.
I probably don’t care enough about firearms to go back although I certainly enjoy wandering outside for a few moments on a beautiful day.
Mark Twain House
I guess I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), lived in Connecticut for many years although his writing drew more inspiration from his formative years in Missouri, growing up along the Mississippi River. Still, themes of New England crept into books occasionally such as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He lived in a fancy house in Hartford for seventeen years, 1874 to 1891 (map). The home has since been preserved as the Mark Twain House and Museum. Some of his most influential and best-known works were penned within his upper-floor study on that property, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and of course the aforementioned Connecticut Yankee.
The tour wound through the interior of Twain’s home although it was one of those places that didn’t allow indoor photographs. The 12MC audience will have to take my word that it was pretty impressive inside, or simply examine the many photos plainly visible on the Intertubes. The docent explained that Twain was a lousy businessman in spite of his success as an author. The house actually belonged to his wife who came from a very wealthy family. She owned it outright in her name. Otherwise Twain would have lost the house during bankruptcy.
Air Line Trail
I mentioned the Air Line Trail, its proximity to the Connecticut-Massachusetts-Rhode Island Tripoint and the infamous 4-train collision that happened there in Of Course Geo-Oddities. It began as the New Haven, Middletown and Willimantic Railroad (NHM&W) in 1873 as a high speed corridor between Boston and New York City. According to the Air Line State Park Trail site, the name came from an imaginary shortest distance "through the air" between those two cities. While completing that theoretical line proved impossible, portions did adhere to the standard and requiring great cuts, fills and bridges to tame the terrain. This railroad was quite profitable for awhile.
Successful businessmen and prominent citizens, including President Benjamin Harrison, rode this increasingly well known line that had gained its name as it sped across Eastern Connecticut with its seemingly luminescent cars being easily recognized – especially at twilight.
The Air Line was a marvel of the Industrial Revolution, like so many other endeavors that took root in 19th century New England. Gradually technology overcame the usefulness of the Air Line and now the former rail bed has been converted into a linear park, for walkers, bikers and equestrians to enjoy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
I had so much fun at the Woodrow Wilson birthplace a few months ago that I decided to check out the lifelong home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York (map). Technically this wasn’t New England although it seemed close enough so I kept it on the list.
The residence had been preserved as part of his Presidential Library and Museum. There were distinct differences between Wilson’s home and Roosevelt’s abode. Woodrow Wilson was the son of a minister and his home reflected a certain modesty. FDR lived on what would accurately be described as an "estate" called Springwood occupying an entire square mile of land (2.6 square kilometres). He came from a distinguished family and his father increased the family fortune even farther through coal and railroad interests.
Roosevelt became the first president to designate a presidential library to hold his records. He built the library on his estate and kept an office there that he used during trips to Hyde Park while president. Some of his Fireside Chat radio broadcasts took place in the library. His original office remained untouched after he passed away in 1945 and it became a permanent exhibit, an integral part of the museum. Prior to FDR, presidential papers didn’t necessarily have a permanent home. They were personal property of each president and many records became lost over time. He set a precedent by donating his papers to the American people along with a means for public access by designating a permanent library. He then went a step further by donated his entire estate to the government with the understanding that he and his immediate family could remain there indefinitely. The family relinquished the property soon after his death.
Reminders of the Past Everywhere
The past always lurked around the corner wherever we traveled through New England, sometimes in unexpected ways. I was reminded of that as we checked into our hotel in Rochester, New Hampshire (map). There, beside the parking lot and next to the highway stood a small cemetery. It reminded me of the impermanence of people who came before. I doubted that families who established a cemetery a century and a half ago in what was probably a rustic setting ever imagined their loved ones would end up sandwiched between a noisy road and a strip mall. Nothing lasts forever.
New England articles:
- Part 1 (Give me a Sign)
- Part 2 (Of Course Geo-oddities)
- Part 3 (Did I Mention Doughnuts?)
- Part 4 (A Little History Too)
- Part 5 (Yes, More Bridges)
- Part 6 (Roundup)
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr