A Brief History: The Smallest National Park Site

 

Credit: Map by Alice Kreit/NPR  

Memorial Photo by Mike Dorn

About The Terminology:

The National Park Service lists the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial as the smallest national park. But the issue is more complicated than it seems.

 

The park service manages thousands of sites, large and small. It takes care of things as tiny as statues and grave sites and as gigantic as the vast tracts of forest and mountains in Alaska. Some sites are called parks. Others are designated monuments, memorials or historic sites. All have equal status in the park service.

 

The Kosciuszko memorial is the park service's smallest autonomous unit, which means it was created by a separate act of Congress. The park service may run smaller areas, but they're usually connected to some larger park and not managed alone.

This summer, intrepid travelers will spend weeks in the great outdoors, exploring national parks across the country. For those who don't have that kind of time, you can always take a few minutes to tour the smallest attraction in the National Park System.

Don't bother with the sunscreen and bug repellent. The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial is inside a narrow row house in Philadelphia.

And you can forget the walking shoes. It's only .02 acres.

Even Kosciuszko, hero of the American Revolutionary War, didn't think much of the place. In 1797, Kosciuszko, a native of Poland, traveled to Philadelphia to petition Congress for his back pay. He instructed his secretary to find him a place "as small, as remote and as cheap" as possible. He lived there for seven months.

Andrew McDougall, the memorial's sole ranger on a recent visit, gives a very short tour. He points to the rumpled bed and strewn papers and says the park service has tried to capture what it might have been like for this great man living in a small, messy room. It's an inspiration to renters everywhere that a cheap studio apartment could become part of the National Park System, but McDougall says they had no choice.

Kosciuszko spent the war of American independence as an engineer traveling from fort to fort. This room is the only place that can be pinned down as an actual home for him.

You can also watch a six-minute video about Kosciuszko's life. Animated and voiced in the 1970s — the memorial was established in the mid-1970s — the movie seems a little dated. Some of the Revolutionary War heroes appear to have sideburns and feathered hair. If you are a real buff, you can watch the movie again in Polish.

Really, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial tells you more about Polish-American pride than the man himself. In Poland, Kosciuszko has the stature of a George Washington — though when Kosciuszko led an uprising in Poland against the Russians, he got his butt kicked.

But his democratic ideals and his success in America have led Polish-Americans to celebrate him. Kosciuszko's name is on bridges, parks, monuments, streets and even a mountain in Australia. There's also a Kosciusko, Miss., and a Kosciusko, Texas.

Even the memorial in Philadelphia was purchased and donated to the U.S. government by a Polish-American businessman.

McDougall says most of the visitors are either Revolutionary War buffs or Polish tourists.

Don't worry about lines. Hours can pass without visitors, but McDougall swears the memorial gets at least one tourist a day. It's a pretty quiet gig for a ranger, he says. There's no snack bar, no parking and certainly no camping. There is a gift shop, but it's really a few shelves filled with Kosciuszko books and a couple of postcards.

"Maybe we can look at it as more quality visitation than quantity," McDougall says.

Still, the place is showing its age. The carpets are worn, and there aren't many real artifacts here. McDougall says that will change when the park service rehabs the place at the end of the year. He says it hopes to bring in Kosciuszko's sword and a lock of his hair.

"The exhibits will really showcase Thaddeus Kosciuszko as an international freedom fighter. Or, as Thomas Jefferson called him, 'the purest son of liberty I have ever known,' " McDougall says.

All that, and an entire national park attraction you can see in less than 10 minutes.

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