After a good night’s sleep in a Walmart parking lot, we picked a few things up and headed out, with a quick stop at Duck Donuts, which I’d never experienced before. It was the first time I’d ever had a donut made after I ordered it and, I have to say, it was pretty incredible. I was so impressed, I asked the lady who made our donuts if they sold the t-shirts the workers were wearing, and I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. And the girls were thoroughly embarrassed, which is a primary objective within my current job description as dad.
We started our day with a quick 5-minute drive to Valley Forge National Park to see the place where farmers and peasants became soldiers, in what many call the turning point of the American Revolutionary War. Prior to heading to Valley Forge to hunker down for the winter, General George Washington and his troops were badly beaten in previous battles with the greatest military power the world had ever seen up to that point, and now Washington and his men, some 10,000 soldiers, marched to Valley Forge and set-up camp, building over 2,000 log cabins from the dense surrounding forests in this strategic area located 20 miles outside of Philadelphia.
It was here with his generals, both foreign and domestic, that Washington trained his army and refined his strategy to prolong the fighting and ultimately defeat the mighty Red Coats through a war of attrition. It would be a mere three years later that the war would end with the battle of Yorktown in which this ragtime Army would declare victory and finally take hold of their proclaimed independence.
We had the opportunity to take the drive throughout the camp, seeing all the locations of log cabins, as well as the rolling fields, pockets of forests and man-made bumps at the top of the hills on the south side used to hide cannons from an approaching enemy. George Washington’s quarters were on the back side of the camp in a house rented for the season from a local resident, right next to a river that brought supplies and additional troops from the thirteen colonies. Even Martha Washington came up from Mount Vernon to spend the winter with the General & his troops, and we were able to see into the windows of their home, including the attached kitchen. The area had been preserved so well that you could feel the energy that must have been present as the soldiers would spend their time marching and doing drills to sharpen their skills for battle.
From Valley Forge, we made the 25 minute drive to Philadelphia and Independence Hall, the birthplace of a new nation. As we approached, we noticed so many things that were original, most notably the brick road in front of Independence Hall, which was quite the bumpy ride in an RV. After spending a good 25 minutes looking for a place to park, we walked towards the town square where so much history took place nearly 250 years ago. Our first stop of the day was the National Constitution Center, a private, non-profit facility started by Jeffrey Rosen that turned out to be the most incredible museum we’d visited so far. It started with a live oration, Freedom Rising, in an oval, reverse pyramid theater of the beginnings of our country from an actress who did an incredible job presenting the incredible achievements and monumental struggles of the men who forged a new nation. It was gripping and moving, and well worth the price of admission.
Exiting the theater on the second floor, we took almost an hour going through the amazing exhibit of the history of our country, from those critical moments at its founding to our present administration, and all the amazing events that transpired, including pivotal court cases, presidential scandals and political battles that shaped our nation. It was incredible to see how norms of government we often take for granted had to be created and shaped into what we know today. For example, no one had ever been a Supreme Court Chief Justice until John Jay and his new band of brothers, and it was upon them to establish the precedents of practice & procedure, and many new positions worked like that.
Normally when we go through an exhibit, everyone is waiting on me, as I get so caught up reading through each exhibit. However, this time, we couldn’t pull the girls away from listening to Supreme Court cases being argued and other really engaging exhibits. In one, Naomi took the oath of office as President of the United States, and she was so excited to do so!
After leaving the National Constitution Center, we had to rush back to the RV and head to the RV Park to set up camp before our 3:00 pm tour of Independence Hall. Everything went smoothly, and we made it back to the corner of 5th in Chestnut with 15 minutes to spare. As we waiting for the tour to begin, we stood in the courtyard behind Independence Hall, which is the first public place in which the Declaration of Independence was read out loud after it was approved. We also noticed the different shots in the movie National Treasure, which was filmed partially in Philadelphia at Independence Hall and the surrounding areas. We saw the clock tower, as well as the brick wall where they found the glasses Benjamin Franklin supposedly made to read the map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
Once the tour began, it was a seriously lesson in history from several really enjoyable historians. It is always great to listen to people who are passionate about what they do, and the three presenters we listened to that day absolutely loved what they did, you could just tell.
We started in the court room, then worked our way into the legislature chambers, which was the location in which the delegates from all 13 colonies would debate for over a year whether or not to declare independence from Britain, and once they finally did, they selected a group of five, including Thomas Jefferson as the primary author, to write the declaration. This room was also the same room in which the delegates from each state would return 10 years later to discuss, debate and eventually create a new U.S. Constitution, replacing the ineffective Articles of Confederation. Independence Hall was originally the State House for the British colony of Pennsylvania, where the governor worked, but it became the location of the state capital of Pennsylvania once independence was declared and the new nation was formed.
After our tour through Independence Hall, we were able to take a tour of the Congress building next door. It was in this building that the new House of Representatives and the Senate would work once Philadelphia became the temporary capital of the United States while Capital City (now Washington D.C.) was being built. It was in this building that George Washington took the oath of office for his second term, and most of the business of the nation took place in those first few years of our republic. The presenter shared with us that this row of buildings on Chestnut St. between 5th & 6th would house the city, state and federal government buildings during that last decade of the 18th century, and then in 1799, the state capital was moved to Lancaster, PA, before eventually settling in Harrisburg in 1812. A year later, in 1800, the federal government would move to the newly constructed Capital building in D.C., and Philadelphia would be left as a historic city, the birthplace of our nation.
Our next stop was across the street to see the original Liberty Bell, which hung in the steeple of the State House and was reportedly rung on July 8, 1776 after the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time in the court yard. The bell cracked sometime in the early- to mid-1800s, and was removed to be displayed and paraded around as a sign of Liberty and Freedom. It is unknown what caused the bell to crack; however, the men who cast the bell, John Pass and John Stow, whose names are on the inscription of the bell, were iron workers who had never cast a bell before, and they probably did not know how to create a bell that would last. It was replaced by the Centennial Bell for the 1876 Centennial Celebration, and that bell is still hanging from the steeple today.
We left the Independence Hall historic district to take a drive around Philadelphia to see some of the other historic landmarks in the city, such as the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in which Sylvester Stallone famously ran up during his training in Rocky III. We also wanted to see the “LOVE” sign synonymous with the City of Brotherly Love.
And finally, I had to try a Philly Cheese Steak from Philly, and there are a few spots that have been producing the best cheese steaks in Philadelphia for nearly a century. After reading a few reviews, we decided to go to Pat’s King Steaks, which is a cash-only, triangular building in a classic Philly neighborhood, across the street from a baseball/softball field and where cars lined the streets for the residents of the row-house neighborhood. The line was 25 deep, so I knew I was in the right place. If you ever go to a famous, local establishment like this and the line isn’t long, it’s probably not that good. The guy behind me was a local, and he gave me the inside scoop on which cheese steaks were the best. There was a sign on the wall to educate newbies like me on how to order, and when it was my turn, I pulled it off like a pro: “Two cheese steaks, no onions.” Two guys were working the window and had the cheese steaks made and wrapped in under 30 seconds, and then I picked up two orders of cheese fries from the second window, same process. We drove back to the RV to enjoy the cheese steaks, and even Naomi, who doesn’t typically try new things, said they were good. We now know where to go for a great Philly Cheese Steak next time we’re in town.
After dinner, Naomi and I rode bikes around the park, something we love to do together, and then we all decided to watch National Treasure to commemorate our day in Philadelphia, and then we called it a night. So far, Philadelphia and the surrounding areas have proven to be the most enjoyable place we visited.