CELEBRATE National Park Week 2017

Bill Seratt

April 12, 2017

National Park Week April 15th – 23rd

Free Admission to America’s National Parks!

For the past 100 years the National Park Service has been at the forefront of preservation of the natural and cultural assets of the United States of America.  Congress established the National Park Service in 1916.  At that time 35 national parks made up the national park system.  Today, that number has grown to 402 covering 84 million acres in 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  Yes, that is correct:  as an American you own 84 million acres of national heritage!

By the Act of March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming “as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and placed it “under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior.”  The founding of Yellowstone National Park started a worldwide national park movement.  Today more than 100 nations contain 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.

In the early days some of America’s national parks were overseen by the Department of the Interior, some by the War Department and some by the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture.  President Woodrow Wilson’s signature on August 25, 2016, created a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior:  The National Park Service.

Vicksburg is home to one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service:  The Vicksburg National Military Park.  The park was established on February 21, 1899, to commemorate the siege and defense of Vicksburg.  The park covers over 1,800 acres of land.  Both the park and the Vicksburg National Cemetery were transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service on August 10, 1933.

In the late 1950s, a portion of the park was transferred to the City of Vicksburg as a local park in exchange for closing local roads running through the remainder of the park.  It also allowed for the construction of Interstate 20.  The monuments on land transferred to the city are still maintained by the National Park Service.  The park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.  Over half a million people visit the park each year.

There are several ways to tour the Vicksburg National Military Park.  National Park Service licensed guides are available to join you in your vehicle to provide you with interpretation of the strategies of the battlefield as well as stories of how civilians and soldiers alike survived the hardships of war.  A guided tour of the park will take about 2 hours or longer, perhaps, depending on how much information you desire.  There are CDs available in the Visitor Center gift shop that will provide interpretation of the battlefield.  You may choose to download the Vicksburg Battlefield app from www.Civilwar.org .  The app features three tours that take you on a journey to the Civil War sites of Port Gibson and Raymond as you follow in the footsteps of General Grant’s campaign for Vicksburg.

The Vicksburg National Military Park is an urban forest that forms a crescent around the city’s historic districts.  The main tour road of the park is about 18 miles in length.  Each day hundreds of walkers, joggers and cyclists take advantage of the serenity of the lush surroundings and the inspiration gained from the works of art as a backdrop to their daily exercise routines.  Cycling in the park is a true challenge that takes you through the hills and hollows of the loess bluffs of Vicksburg.  There are 3 and 4 miles loops for walking on what locals call the flats.  A walking map of the park is available at the Visitors Center located at the entrance to the park. 

If your time is limited be sure hit the park’s hotspots.  The grandest of the state monument in the park is the Illinois Monument.  Modeled after the Roman Pantheon and dedicated in 1906, Stone Mountain (GA) granite forms the base and the forty-seven steps in the long stairway – one step for each day of the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg.  The rest of the structure is made of Georgia white marble.  The monument has sixty unique bronze tablets lining its interior walls, naming all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who served in the Vicksburg Campaign.  (Stop 5 on tour road).

The Shirley House located next to the Illinois Monument is built in the Creole cottage style that prevailed in Louisiana from the mid-1700s through the beginning of the Civil War.  The home was constructed by Nicholas Gray of Wexford County, Ireland in 1837.  He called his home Wexford Lodge.  In 1851 the home was purchased by Judge James Shirley, a lawyer from New Hampshire.  The Shirley House is the only remaining antebellum structure located within the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The U.S.S. Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  These powerful ironclads were formidable vessels, each mounting 13 cannons.  On December 12, 1862, under Lieutenant Commander Thomas Selfridge, Jr., while attempting to clear the Yazoo River of underwater mines, or torpedoes, the U.S.S. Cairo was struck by two mines and sank in 12 minutes.  The vessel remained beneath the surface of the murky waters of the Yazoo until being raised in the summer of 1965.  The U.S.S. Cairo Museum contains the vast collection of artifacts from the only remaining Civil War ironclad.  Just west of the U.S.S. Cairo is the Vicksburg National Cemetery where the remains of over 17,000 Civil War Union soldiers lie in repose.  The Vicksburg National Cemetery is the nation’s second largest behind Arlington National Cemetery.

There are now 402 national parks under the management of the National Park Service.  You can purchase a National Park Passport at national park gift shops and get it stamped as travel around the country.  No matter what you interests are or where your travel be sure to #FindYourPark at www.nps.gov.