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Eastern vacation yields lessons in history

Eastern vacation yields lessons in history

Visitors impressed by Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Independence Hall

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Eastern vacation yields lessons in history
This mansion was built entirely of hand-mixed concrete between 1908 and 1912 and has 44 rooms, 18 fireplaces and more than 200 windows.

The first stop on our trip was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the location of the greatest battle of the Civil War and the site where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Today the battlefield appears much the same as it did during the three days of battle July 1 through 3, 1863, when 51,000 soldiers died.

It was such a thrill to stand in the Gettysburg National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered his famous speech. It also is where many Union soldiers who died there are buried. It took us about five hours to follow the 18-mile self-guiding auto tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield. Numbered stops and markers in chronological order describe the action during the battle.

Our next stop was Lancaster County, were we drove through the rolling farmlands viewing the homes, one-room school houses and farms of the Amish, and dined at two restaurants offering family-style feasts of fried chicken, ham, mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, noodles, shoo-fly pie and much more.

We visited Valley Forge National Historical Park, the site of the six-month encampment of the Continental Army of the newly formed United States of America under the command of General George Washington. We viewed a film at the welcome center, then drove on a self-guiding tour past Washington's headquarters, the field where General von Steuben trained the army, past replicated wooden huts, memorials, markers and statues.

The impressive National Memorial Arch commemorates the patience and fidelity of the soldiers who wintered at Valley Forge. Washington Memorial Chapel commemorates Washington's service to his country.

In order to visit Independence Hall and Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, one must obtain free tickets in the visitors center and go through a security check. It was awesome to stand in the assembly room of the Pennsylvania State House where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were drafted.

The Liberty Bell, though cracked long ago, remains an icon of freedom and independence all over the world. I did not realize that it did not get its name until the 1830s, when abolitionists remembered the inscription on the bell, "Proclaim liberty through all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

We continued our walking tour by visiting Christ Church Cathedral, known as the "Nation's Church," which Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both attended. From there we walked to the Christ Church burial ground, where some of America's most prominent leaders are buried, including Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence. We also visited Betsy Ross' home, Franklin Park, and Elfrith's Alley.

We stopped at the Washington Crossing Historic Park, where on Christmas Day 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River and assaulted the unsuspecting Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. This victory changed the course of the Revolution.

One of my very favorite stops on this trip was Fonthill in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This was Henry Mercer's home built entirely of hand-mixed concrete between 1908 and 1912 and has 44 rooms, 18 fireplaces and more than 200 windows. The interior walls, floors, and ceilings are adorned with Mercer's original handcrafted tiles.

Mercer was a noted tile-maker, archaeologist, antiquarian, artist and writer and a leader in the early 20th-century arts and crafts movement. On the grounds one can also visit the Moravian pottery and tile works, which he built 1912. It also is made of concrete and resembles a Spanish mission in design. To this day the tile-work facility makes decorative tiles and mosaics using designs and techniques made famous by Mercer.

Next stop was Altoona, site of the world-famous Horseshoe Curve in the Allegheny Mountains and one of the most incredible engineering feats in the world. We walked up the 194 steps to the tracks and rode the funicular back down to the bottom. We visited the visitors center and learned what the "Pennsy" railroad workers had to overcome in order to build rail tracks through the rough terrain of the mountains.

Irish laborers used picks and shovels to form a ledge on which they could place the tracks. The tracks ended up in the shape of a horseshoe: they went up the eastern side of the mountain, turned left to cross the valley to the western side, where they turned left again. When the Horseshoe Curve opened in 1854, it reduced travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by four days.

Next stop was Bedford County, where we drove on the Lincoln Highway (Route 30), the nation's first coast-to-coast road. We toured the beautiful countryside to see some of the covered bridges, murals depicting the history of the highway, barns and even buffalo.

Because it was Sept. 11, we drove to Shanksville and visited the Flight 93 Memorial, which was created to honor the men and women who lost their lives in the crash of that hijacked airplane on 9/11/01. It was a sad and somber reminder of what happened on that day.

We returned from our trip with a deeper awareness and appreciation of what of our forefathers sacrificed in order to obtain the precious freedoms we enjoy today in this great country.

Lois Hasenfratz is a resident of Florissant.

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