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June 17, 2008 / howardmestas

Wandering Tourist

 

 

Independence Hall Bell Tower before dusk

June 11 — 2008

Tdoc1oday we were commisssioned with the joyful task of a self-guided walking tour of historic Philadelphia.  This was great for me since I knew I could not be labeled with the infamous tag of “lollygagger” for not keeping up with the group.  You see I have a habit of overextending my “moment” at every historical site, which includes reading every possible word on a placard and asking anyone who will listen, every imaginable question.  For these reasons, my tour guide (me) was very accommodating.

I started at the most rational place, the visitor’s center, which had many interesting items and helpful people.  I was able to watch two videos with the best one being about the diaries of different teenagers of many walks of life starting at the moment the Declaration was signed and then through the long war that followed.  Some were in favor of the movement, others opposed, and as always, some were unsure.  It also covered in great detail the British occupation of Philadelphia (while Washington was with troops at the winter encampment at Valley Forge).  This was something I needed to see more of since it was a topic I knew little about.  Especially helpful were the illustrations of the city at the time and how the occupation and the evacuation was viewed so differently through the eyes of loyalist and patriots alike.

 

 “Constitution Cow”

Perhaps this photo will get my students at Pueblo County interested in the Constitution!

 

From there I completed a hike through an area I wanted to see since the first day, Dock Street, which is the only street in Old Philadelphia that is not at a right angle.  It is in the place of where Dock Creek used to be and where it is alleged that Willie Penn first departed ship and touched land in Pennsylvania.  It was such an important location that the original city of Philadelphia was designed from the creek outward.  It was a convenient docking point for merchants and traders who made the city wealthy and there are many tales of shady visitors like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd who frequented the ubiquitous taverns on each bank.  Eventually the many tanneries, smith shops, and slaughterhouses along the creek made the water so polluted and foul-smelling that the area was eventually sealed off and covered.  Today all that remains is a chalk line placed by the National Park Service showing what used to be the path of the creek (small photo, top left).

One of the most touching sites on my tour was Washington Square and the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.  It is actually the last resting place for thousands of unknown soldiers from the war who died from wounds and sickness and were buried en masse. The site includes the bones of many other unknowns who departed life in Philadelphia including condemned criminals, slaves, and many victims of the horrific yellow fever plague in 1793.  The only joyful thing about the park was that it was a site where African American’s, both free and slave, gathered to sing traditional songs in their native tongues and to engage in African dances.  No doubt these were rare moments of mirth for a people trying to forget the difficult life the new world had brought to them.  In one of my “lollygagger” moments I sat on a bench for a long period of quiet reflection trying to imagine all the rollercoaster events that took place on that small piece of land.

Finally, my tour brought me back to Indepencence Hall where I sat on the grass on the back side of the building; which was actually the front side in the summer of 1787 when delegates met to figure out a new Constitution.  It was late in the afternoon and there were few visitors present which allowed me to quietly visualize the days of the convention and the great men who met in secrecy for many hot months just inside those brick walls.  My imagination allowed me to see nosey Philadelphians peeking through the windows, and as I looked at the door I could see James Madison and the Virginia delegation, and other delegations of other states stepping outside for a breath of fresh air, and discussing in private the issues that would best represent the needs of their state while allowing for a strong national government.  I imagined delegates bidding good night as they left each day on their way to a local tavern or to their homes to write a letter to their families who must have seemed worlds apart.  As the shadows began to cover the bell tower of the building, it was a serene moment for me.  This was the experience I was hoping for ever since I read Carol Berkin’s book, “A Brilliant Solution.”  I was not disappointed; it was a great day for me.

 

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