Despite a state slogan that boasts "It's Good to be First," Delaware ranks dead last when it comes to the National Park Service.
Delaware is the only state in the country that does not have a national park, national monument, national historic site or any other unit of the National Park Service. That distinction might come as a surprise to travelers in the mid-Atlantic region who have flocked to the state's beautiful beaches, parks and historic sites for generations.
U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper believes it's time the First State joins the rest of the nation.
"I've pretty much concluded that this is a road that we want to go down," said Carper, D-Del. "But I've not concluded to what destination."
Carper's staff conducted a Web-based survey and held a series of workshops across the state last fall to gauge interest in joining the national park system and to receive suggestions about what Delaware has to offer.
Dolphins and Cobblestoned Streets
The suggestions include an underwater marine park off Cape Henlopen, where a popular state park known for its frequent dolphin-sightings already exists; Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island; the 353-year-old cobblestoned town of New Castle; and a historic site related to Caesar Rodney, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
At a workshop in Dover, Bonnie Johnson of the Dover Historical Society proposed that The Green, a tiny downtown square laid out by William Penn and lined with historic buildings and government offices, would be a good addition to the national park system.
The Green was where Rodney, the Revolutionary War patriot, began his famous ride to Philadelphia to cast Delaware's vote for independence in 1776. It was also the site of the long-gone Golden Fleece Tavern, where colonists gathered for the historic vote by which Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. "I understand that the national park comes in all sizes and shapes," Johnson said. "I consider The Green to be ground zero for Delaware's American history."
James Soles, a retired University of Delaware professor heading a citizens' research committee that will present findings to Carper, said "all of Delaware is ground zero for American history," but agreed with Johnson that size does not matter.
"There are national parks bigger than all of Delaware," Soles noted.
The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska covers more than 13 million acres, enough to accommodate a dozen Delawares.
Conversely, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia covers a scant .02 acres, making The Green a virtual behemoth.
Jane Hovington, head of Georgetown's volunteer parks and recreation group, offered up a 52-acre tract currently designated as a site for a local park.
Hovington noted that part of the Underground Railroad went through Georgetown, which also is home to Return Day, a ritual, election-year burying of the hatchet by newly elected officials and their vanquished opponents.
"It would be a perfect spot for a national park," she said.
Infamous Prison Camp
A front-runner among Delaware's possibilities is Fort Delaware, site of an infamous prison camp where thousands of Confederate soldiers died during the Civil War.
Such a site would not be out of line in the National Park Service, which includes the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where more than 12,000 Union soldiers died, as a National Historic Site.