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Your Great American Places

July 2024
5min read

When, last October, the editors announced the First Annual Great American Place Award —and chose Saratoga Springs, New York, as its recipient—we invited our readers to send us their own suggestions for Great American Place. The responses have been impressive, both in the wide variety of choices they recommend and for the eloquence with which they are described. Here is a sampling.

The Village in the City

My entry for Great American Place is Beverly/Morgan Park, two sister communities on the far southwest side of Chicago. Founded in the late 180Os, they retain much of the charm of their early days, including winding tree-lined streets and a wealth of historic homes that run the gamut of architectural styles. Many great architects left their imprint here, among them Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin. We have a strong sense of community and an active neighborhood group, the Beverly Area Planning Association, that sponsors a wide ^ ranee of events. Known as the Village the City, we are comfortably integrated, a great place to visit, and a wonderful place to live.

David Daruszka Chicago, Ill.

No ordinary Park

I recommend my favorite American place—Oglebay Park, Wheeling, West Virginia. It was a personal gift to the city but has today become a beautiful gift for all to share. When the Cleveland capitalist Earl W. Oglebay, whose hobby was agriculture, died in 1926, he willed his 754 acre estate to the city of Wheeling. With the property came an obligation to create a “people’s park” out of it. The result is no ordinary park. Set on fifteen hundred acres in the magnificently wooded rolling hills of the Ohio Valley (visitors may well believe they have been transported into a Grant Wood painting), the park contains three golf courses, a zoo, shops, nature programs, cabins, a Winter Festival of Lights that draws tour buses from across the United States and Canada, a resort and conference center, Olympic swimming pools, playgrounds, riding stables, music and plays under the stars, the excellent Oglebay Institute Mansion Museum, and more. But I, like most visitors, simply enjoy walking through the beautiful gardens and forest areas. The park is a beacon to the citizens of the Ohio Valley, where unemployment is stubbornly high. Families can escape the worries of everyday life and feel that they’ve been transported to another world at Oglebay Park.

Karen Silverthorn South Lancaster, Mass.

Marine Life

In the glory days of American sail, fully 90 percent of the masters of full-rigged ships hailed from the little village of Searsport, Maine, on Penobscot Bay. Dozens of deep-water vessels were launched from its shipyards. You can savor those exhilarating seafaring days at Penobscot Marine Museum, the oldest maritime museum m Maine, founded in 1936. A complex of twelve buildings houses a vast collection of artifacts, ship models, and paintings by such noted marine artists as Thomas and James Buttersworth. A sea captain’s entire house is authentically furnished throughout. These buildings were not brought in: Captains’ houses, the converted early town hall, and the schoolhouse all stand on their original foundations, and a contemporary gallery for special exhibitions and an extensive reference library have been added. Around the town a number of stately old captains’ houses have become pleasant bed-and-breakfast inns, so you can even sleep in the world of beautiful Penobscot Bay.

Dorothy Black Hilton Head, S.C.

Touched by History

I nominate the area around Rock Island, Illinois, because, among many other reasons, it was the home of pre-historic Mound Builders; the westernmost battle of the Revolutionary War was fought here (the Indian village of Saukenuk was burned on orders from George Rogers Clark); it was the home of Black Hawk, who fought with the British against the United States in the War of 1812; it was the site of a great prison for Confederate prisoners during the Civil War; the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi went up here in 1856; Abraham Lincoln was sworn in nearby as a captain during the Black Hawk War; and it was home to the Civil War general John Buford, while Dred Scott lived in neighboring Davenport. Living there —with history—was an experience I shall never forget.

Henry L. Hoist The Sea Ranch, Calif.

The National Road

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Clay have one thing in common: All were promoters of America’s first federally funded thorough-fare, the National Road, today’s U.S. Route 40. Yet even ese visionaries could not have predicted the explosive impact of a road that united the burgeoning Eastern seaboard with lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. Built from 1811 to 1818 between Cumberland, Maryland, and Wheeling, West Virginia, and extending finally to Vandalia, Illinois, the National Road stimulated unparalleled economic growth, nurtured a young nation’s political unity, and gave rise to the great Westward movement that created the modern United States. The road summoned towns from the wilderness in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, communities that sprang up and grew through the sheer vitality of the incessantly traveled east-west route. Today many National Road artifacts remain in every stage of preservation and decay, including tollhouses, stone taverns and inns, churches, bridges, mile markers, and portions of the handmade road itself, still visible beneath layers of pavement. Many communities boast the original family and business names that arrived with the road and never left. If a sense of place seems to be missing from America today, it can yet be found in traveling the National Road, the original transportation artery in a country still obsessed with moving along the highway.

Suzanne Grenoble Uniontown, Pa.

Fortune and Flood

Galveston, Texas, is a very interesting town. Cabeza de Vaca explored it in 1526. Jean Laffite, who commanded three ships and a thousand privateers, controlled the area between 1817 and 1821. In 1836 the cabinet of the Texas Republic retreated to Galveston while Sam Houston fought the Battle of San Jacinto forty miles to the north. During the Civil War, Galveston was captured by the Union and then recaptured by the Confederacy. After the war Galveston served as the main port for four Southern states and exported cotton to Europe with such vigor that by 1880 it was the second richest city per capita in the United States. Twenty years later a hurricane struck and killed 6,000 people, the greatest calamity in the nation’s history (the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, by contrast, killed only 750).

Galveston has gone through a fascinating renaissance in the last thirty years, largely fueled by a growing appreciation of its history, and has restored the charm of many of its beautiful homes and significant buildings.

George P. Mitchell Woodlands, Tex.

Safe Haven

Since my hometown is Springfield, Illinois, I’m tempted to nominate it for your Great American Place. However, I now live in a house built in 1861 in Montrose, Pennsylvania, and I’ve become aware of the historical treasures of this place. This small Susquehanna County seat has in the past years seen its courthouse, green, and former jail entered on the National Register of Historic Places. Lake Avenue’s mansions are a living reminder of the Gilded Age, when wealthy Philadelphians discovered Montrose and the Endless Mountains. Most notably, the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies is trying to revive interest in Montrose as a vital stop on the Underground Railroad, a place where fleeing slaves were made to feel so welcome that many of them stayed on. Until perhaps thirty years ago Montrose had a large black population. Most have since moved away, and their heritage was forgotten until recently. The folks at the Center have changed that, and they hope to restore the AME Zion Church and to build a research center on a nearby farm settled in 1810 by Bristol Budd Sampson, a black Revolutionary War veteran. And these are only the highlights of this beautiful area.

Barbara J. Mitchell Montrose, Pa.

Nobody Got Rich

I’m writing to bring your attention to a great American place you may not have heard much about: Bonanza City, Colorado. Bonanza, a productive mining town from the 188Os to the 1930s, was nearly destroyed by fire in 1937, and it survives today as one of the smallest incorporated towns in Colorado. Its early promoters proclaimed Bonanza the new Leadville, but it was never anything of the sort; it was more typical of the hard prospecting life. Nobody seems to have gotten rich in Bonanza, but the hardy and hopeful worked and dreamed and lived and died there, and a few still do. A fortunate consequence of my own work here has been learning the history of Bonanza and locating more than 150 historic photographs of the area. Some are great, while many are just snapshots of forgotten people or vanished buildings. A few are poignant, like the picture of a handsome, grinning miner named Pat Burns standing with a friend at the Empress Josephine mine. We know he was later killed by a cavein, but there he is, carefree and full of life, confident of a future that never came about.

Today I work with the Forest Service to clean up a century of mining-related environmental problems that contaminate the creek in Bonanza. It’s a very good thing, but the history of the optimistic, hardworking common Americans who lived here in a time long gone, but not so long ago, is what makes this place special to me.

Tim Buxton Saguache, Colo.

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