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.
"All history isn't pretty," said Soles, who noted that every fort in Delaware has been nominated by citizens as a possible federal park site.
One site that will not be on any list of finalists is the Great Cypress Swamp in Sussex County. Locals, apparently concerned about the potential for hordes of visitors, were upset in the 1980s when Sen. Joseph Biden, at the request of environmentalists, proposed a feasibility study for including the swamp in the National Park Service system.
"I told people when we kicked this off that the one place we will not be considering as a national park site is the Great Cypress Swamp," Carper said. "We don't want to get bogged down there."
The National Park System consists of 387 units in more than a dozen categories, including parks, battlefields, parkways, monuments, preserves, historic sites, memorials, cemeteries, recreation areas, rivers and seashores.
The park service has no role in the approval of an addition to the system, a decision that is made by Congress. It does, however, establish criteria for national significance, suitability, feasibility and management alternatives.
"I don't think it's going to be an easy task to meet the National Park Service's requirements," Soles said. "You have to be able to make a very compelling case."
Site Approval Can Take Years
The process of getting a new NPS site approved and built often takes years. Government officials say the record for the quickest site is likely the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, which was dedicated Sept. 24, 2002, just over a year after a hijacked airliner plowed into the ground during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Gerry Gaumer, an NPS spokesman in Washington, said the ability of lawmakers to persuade their colleagues in Congress can be a key factor in getting a site approved.
"A lot of it has to do with how good your congressional representatives are, how good a package you put together," he said. "There's a lot more to it than just a good idea."
Carper said he's up to the challenge and hopes to introduce legislation in the near future.
"With a really exciting concept that I and other Delawareans can get juiced up about … I'm prepared to give this issue a good deal of my time and energy," he said.
Even if the political battle is won, money is an issue.
Gaumer noted that several sites approved by Congress have yet to be included in the NPS system because land acquisition and private funding of other capital needs are incomplete. Those sites include Ronald Reagan's boyhood home in Illinois, memorials to Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr. and the John Adams family in Washington, and the Sand Creek Massacre site in Colorado.
Fortunately, perhaps, for a small state such as Delaware, potential visitation is not a factor for addition of a unit to the National Park Service.
While the Blue Ridge Parkway received more than 21 million visitors in 2002, the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, a volcanic crater in the Aleutian Mountains of Alaska, welcomed a grand total of 241 visitors.
If You Go...
NATIONAL PARKS: For a complete list of every national park site in the country, visit http://www.nps.gov/ DELAWARE: Local attractions include Fort Delaware, Cape Henlopen, New Castle and The Green. For details, visit www.visitdelaware.net/ or call (866) 2-VISITDE.