It’s 7:20am in the morning and thirty of us are getting on a bus for Philadelphia rather than sleeping in. We have come from parts far and wide and want to see the liberty city the easy way, guided and coddled. Moving rapidly past the new National Constitution Center (I am constantly impressed with the ability of government to build striking buildings containing vast amounts of space and not much else, but even that is illusory as you should catch the multimedia orientation, "Freedom Rising" and wander about in the exhibit hall), we move to the Liberty Bell Pavilion. It is unfortunate that one has to go through the same process that one would have to go through in a major airport. ("Do you have any change in your pockets? Please put it in the tray"… and so on). Finally we are in, and there it is, an American icon. The saving grace here is the interpreter from the National Parks Service whose humour and insights make the bell come alive. I understand that the bell is to be moved back to Independence Hall.
And off we go to Independence Hall (tours here are timed and you have to pick up your tickets before coming) where we report dutifully to the East Wing to pick up our tour. Again, going through the metal-detection process. Once again, it is the interpreter who makes the movement for independence and the events of 1776 come alive--he’s clever, funny, and knowledgable. Into the two rooms of the hall we go. First the courtroom and then into the magical room itself where the Confederation was put together. It even looks like a room in which serious work was done, but only two items in it were present in those fateful months in 1776--a quill pen and Washington’s chair. In the West Wing is the Great Essentials exhibit, and since it consists, for the most part, of the written word, it is potentially the least interesting room. But if the words are read and appreciated, you will find that they are poignant and important to the fabric of America.
I’m hungry. Well, the Bourse is just down 5th street, a converted business exchange that now houses small shops and a food court. The architecture of this century building is interesting enough that you should go in even if you don’t need to eat.
Where to? How about Franklin Court and the Market Street houses? Benjamin Franklin’s house once stood in Franklin court and as it was torn down by his heirs, a simple metal framework symbolizes its presence. Off Franklin court is the Underground Museum, a tribute to a great American. There are a number of exhibits on Franklin but I recommend that you see the film in the theatre. It is a brief biography of the great statesman and inventor and is fascinating. Having done that, we go off to Betsy Ross’s House ($2 donation). It’s in the realm of vaguely interesting and takes a mere 10 minutes.
At that point we were on our own for about an hour. We chose to visit the Christ Church burial ground where Franklin and a number of other revolutionary leaders are buried. We try the Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the United States, but it’s closed for renovation. ("To serve you better". . .hmmm.) Well, it’s just a short walk down Chestnut to Carpenter’s Hall (five or so minutes) and the New Hall Military museum (another great interpreter). Here too it is an interpreter who makes the otherwise scanty display come alive.
There are a number of other things to see here--some require a guide, some are open all the time. We missed a number of them. On the other hand, there was little "wow" factor here--without the interpreters, it is pretty dry and static. I suggest that you start your trip here at the visitor center and make a plan of action that relies on Park Service narrative as much as possible. Otherwise you can see everything on the quick-step and not retain a thing.
Okay, back to the bus. We’re going to Washington Crossing, a state-run site that is a short drive away and the site where Washington crossed the Delaware River on a December night in 1776. What? You thought it was just a painting? A traffic accident just a few vehicles in front of us brings us to a dead stop. Now this would have happened even if you had been driving your own vehicle, right? But our tour is somewhat truncated. Washington Crossing is actually two sites--the McConkey’s Ferry Section and the Thompson Mill Section. We see the former, not the latter.
These buildings are in the somewhat interesting category, but only if you can imagine Washington eating Christmas dinner in McConkey’s Ferry Inn. There is a rather good film in the visitor center, then a visit to see the Durham boats of the type that Washington would have used. Then the inn and across the street to the Mahlon Taylor House, a rather prosperous 19th century dwelling. We visit the Taylorsville store which is still in operation as a general store open to the public and then it’s back to the bus with about half of the whole site under our belts.
What do I think about the whole day? Well, it was over four hours of driving and the "wow" factor was definitely missing. We saw some things that any well-traveled person is supposed to see, but without the interpreters, it would have been very dry. At $54/person, I can’t recommend it. I think if you’re comfortable with driving, you won’t have a problem getting to and from these sites but I would save historical Philadelphia for that time when you are going to overnight in the city or its environs.