In December, Congress passed and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. Included in the bill was a bunch of new national parks. A couple of them were the traditional big nature parks that come to mind when you think of national parks, such as the Valles Caldera in New Mexico. There were some new historical parks as well. Here in Rhode Island, along with neighboring Massachusetts, the Blackstone Valley, site of the Industrial Revolution reaching the U.S., will be a national park. Slater Mill in Pawtucket, the first factory in America, is already run in conjunction with the National Park Service, including ranger-led tours, so this isn’t too new. Harriet Tubman’s home in upstate New York will now be a national park, as well the Colt gun factory in Hartford, another key site of early industrialization. The long-planned Manhattan Project sites park will also be realized, with spots in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford available for public viewing, albeit probably only a couple of times a year and with some sort of security screening required (I did some historic preservation work at Los Alamos when I was writing my dissertation and this was already in planning at that time).
The U.S. government probably does a better job than any other nation in the world in protecting historical sites and interpreting them for the public. How many World War I or World War II battlefields are protected parks in Europe compared to Civil War or Revolutionary War battle sites in the U.S.? Of course, Republicans have drastically underfunded the NPS ever since the Gingrich takeover of the House, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to interpret our past in this way. These parks can also be great examples of small-scale stimulus programs. If you don’t think Pawtucket businesses could use a little extra money from tourists stopping by the new park, well, you’ve never been to Pawtucket then.
So what other sites should Obama prioritize in protecting during his last two years. Here’s a list of eight sites I think would be great inclusions to the national parks. I don’t know that we will see another bill that passes a Republican Congress, but Obama can also use the Antiquities Act to create National Monuments and then give authority over them to the NPS. So he doesn’t need Congress.
Recent years have seen a significant improvement in protecting sites of early industrial history. There’s Lowell, which is great. The newish Paterson Great Falls site in New Jersey added to this, and now there’s the Blackstone and Colt sites. But our labor history is horribly remembered, whether inside or outside the NPS. Homestead is a mall. The Everett Massacre site seems to be some fenced off area of the port (or at least I couldn’t find it at all when I tried to). Even the Triangle Fire is just marked with a small plaque. So the first three of these are going to be about remembering labor history.
There is not a more obvious site in the nation for the NPS to interpret than Pullman. The site of the legendary 1894 strike is basically a fenced off ruin. A few of the key buildings still remain and could be restored. The company housing is still occupied. There are so many stories to tell here–the strike. Eugene Debs. African-American work on the railroad. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The growth of Chicago, which lacks a park site at all. It’s a clear call and one I hope happens soon.
2. Blair Mountain
If Obama is declaring a war on coal, he might as well go all the way and save the site of the largest insurrection since the Civil War from being subject to mountaintop removal. So much to interpret here.
Right now, all there is at the Ludlow Massacre site is a small monument run by the United Mine Workers of America and the chamber where the women and children suffocated to death when the company thugs burned the camp down. Otherwise, it’s a big open space with plenty of possibilities for a cool museum. There’s a lot in southern Colorado that could also be included. I think the prison where Mother Jones was placed in Walsenburg still stands. There’s also the Colorado Fuel & Iron facility in Pueblo. So many stories here too. Not only the massacre, but the immigrant miners (and the NPS really doesn’t do enough to tell Mexican-American stories), the coal industry, and the rise of company unionism with John D. Rockefeller’s response to the criticism he faced after Ludlow.
4. Auto Industry
I’m not sure precisely which building in Detroit or Flint the government should make a national park to talk about the auto industry, but it is so central to our history and there are so many empty factories that it needs to do something like it did with Lowell and do some interpretation. Maybe the Fisher Body Plant where the Flint Sit-Down Strike took place. Maybe part of the River Rouge plant where Ford busted unions. Doesn’t even have to be a place where a major union struggle took place. But the auto industry is so important to our history and to the regional identity of Michigan that something is needed.
The second area I’d like to see more interpretation on is Asian-American history. So here’s three good sites for this.
5. Wintersburg, California
This site, which is threatened by demolition, would be a great way for the National Park Service to tell the story of the Japanese that focused on something other than the tragedy of the concentration camps.
6. Angel Island
How is Angel Island not already a national park? The Ellis Island of the West Coast and the site where Chinese attempting to get into the U.S. after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 is such an obvious site. I know it is a California State Park and receives some protection but this should be a federal operation.
7. Rancho Cucamonga Chinatown House
The NPS has done a great job integrating African-American history into its interpretation, but outside of Japanese internment, has not done so well with Asian-Americans. Turning this old store into a park would save one of an increasingly few buildings from that era and significantly resolve the Asian-American issue.
8. Marias Massacre. I talked about the Marias Massacre site in Montana here. This clearly needs to be brought into public interpretation since there is basically nothing out there.
There are lots of other worthy places as well. The aggressive expansion of the national parks is the kind of thing we should all be able to get behind.