Longing for a national park


Delaware: A senator hopes the nation's first state can capitalize on its history and burnish its image.

December 08, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Say "Delaware" to your average American, and you'll probably elicit either a blank stare or an outburst of grumbling about tollbooths and speed traps. But you can be certain no one will say anything about the state's national parks.

That's because Delaware doesn't have any.

The nation's first state is also the nation's only state without a single site administered by the National Park Service - no national historic sites, parks, preserves, recreation areas, seashores, battlefields, monuments, trails or even memorials. There are a few national wildlife refuges, but those are run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and, besides, they're for animals.

The Carper poll

Sen. Thomas R. Carper wants to change this status, and the Delaware Democrat formed a committee recently to research possible locations. The panel held four hearings around the state, and Carper expects a final report by year's end.

All this occurred after the senator conducted an online poll to see whether Delaware residents wanted a national park. They did, apparently, by a vote of 113 to 17, even if some respondents expressed opinions more in the spirit of the state's infamous speed traps. (Timothy from Selbyville replied: "Don't waste Delaware taxpayer money just to attract more tourists. The landscape of Delaware has changed enough for tourists.").

Carper began talking up the idea about a year and a half ago, having found Delaware's status especially irksome when he and members of his family signed on to the National Park Service Web site to plan their summer vacations.

"If you go to the Web site and want to learn about Delaware, you find nothing," Carper says. "You find out we don't have anything."

Click on "Delaware" on the Web site's national map, and all that pops up is an outline of the state, cluttered only by an emblem for Interstate 95.

Even Rhode Island, the only state smaller than Delaware, has the Roger Williams National Memorial. Guam and American Samoa, which aren't even states, have National Park Service sites. Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is, by itself, more than nine times the size of Delaware.

And, as if to rub it in further, the Delaware National Scenic River, the Delaware & Lehigh National Scenic Corridor and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"When you look at things from a national perspective, it's noticeable," says Joe DiBello, a National Park Service spokesman.

It's not as if Delaware is bereft of history. It was the first state to ratify the Constitution, during a three-day meeting at Dover's Golden Fleece Tavern. If the tavern hadn't been torn down long ago, it would probably be the natural choice.

The most popular choices in the senator's informal poll were Fort Delaware, site of an infamous Civil War prison for Confederate captives; the John Dickinson Plantation, an 18th-century site in Kent County; the state's route along the Underground Railroad; and the coastal observation towers left over from World War II.

Margaret Owens, senior consultant for Wilmington's office of economic development, makes a vigorous and well-documented case for a national historic park designation for a 120-acre peninsula on the eastern edge of the city, most of which is publicly owned.

She ticks off the tract's high points in rapid fashion: site of the first log cabin built in the United States (from 1640, and still standing, having been rebuilt); site of the first landing in America by Swedish colonists; site of the oldest church in continuous use (Holy Trinity Old Swede's Church, dedicated in 1699); and site of the home of "Black Anthony," Delaware's first black inhabitant.

Passionate for park

With such proposals in play, Carper's effort "has gained impetus," says Charles Salkin, director of the state's Division of Parks and Recreation. "Until recently it was just a curiosity, but now it has taken on a life of its own."

All that energy might be needed once the senator's committee picks its winners, because Congress would have to approve any new site designation as well as the money needed to make it a reality.

"It's not something that happens real fast," says DiBello. "A couple years is quite possible."

But Delaware would seem overdue for good publicity, having come in for an oversized share of recent scorn. The Aug. 19 issue of New Republic magazine lashed out at the state for things as varied as its tollbooths and its founding fathers, concluding, "It is a rapacious parasite state with a long history of disloyalty and avarice."

But with advocates such as Carper, Owens and others on the job, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the state sheds one of its less desirable distinctions.

"We're really passionate about this," Owens says. "This is the first state in the country, and we feel the time has long since passed when the country should take a look at what went on here."

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