On a hilltop three miles from the White House, Abraham Lincoln paced the floors of his summer cottage thinking about his Emancipation Proclamation and pondering strategy for the Civil War. There he sought the refuge and privacy of this home to be alone with his thoughts. There he mourned the loss of his young son and escaped the throngs of visitors at the Executive Mansion. President Lincoln’s Cottage opened to the public in February 2008, enriching the country’s historical landscape and giving heritage-seeking travelers a new destination.
The Cottage is one among a group of landmarks that are generally off the tourism radar, or have only recently been designated as historical destinations. With the economic slump, more travelers will be taking their vacations within driving distance of their homes, hitting the hot tourist spots and maybe finding a little love for new historic landmarks that are still gaining their footing.
There are more than 80,000 historic sites on the National Register for Historic Places, said Alexandra Lord, the Washington, D.C., branch chief for the National Historic Landmarks Program. Just 2,500 of those sites are deemed National Historic Landmarks, a designation made by the Secretary of Interior. The designation means the site holds significance nationwide for the understanding of a cultural movement, an important person, an American ideal or scientific importance.
David Huff, owner of Avenues to Travel, Ltd., in Tulsa, Okla., and a member of the American Society of Travel Agents, said historic travel by college students and adults typically means trips abroad to engage in world history. Travelers planning historic domestic trips are often families, he said, especially those with younger children seeking educational experiences. They tend to head toward Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston, he said.
In San Francisco’s Bay, Angel Island Immigration Station opened for public tours in February 2009, nearly 70 years after the “Ellis Island of the West” shut down. Leading up to WWII, about one million immigrants were detained on the island for months, sometimes years, trying to get into the U.S. Humiliating exams and poor, crowded living conditions led many to carve heart-wrenching poems into the barracks’ wooden walls.
Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., defines the modern architectural movement that Johnson is known for and which influenced American architecture thereafter. Built in 1949, the Glass House, as well as several unique dwellings Johnson later built on the estate, is a monument to postwar construction. The site was left to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened to the public in 2007, shortly after Johnson’s death.
In Honolulu, Washington Place was the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’oukalani, and then became the governor’s mansion. A new governor’s home was completed in 2002 so Washington Place could open to the public. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007 and tells much about the island-nation's turmoil during its conversion from a kingdom to a state.
The Josiah Henson Site in Bethesda, Md., was where the former slave lived and worked before escaping to Canada and then becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Henson’s autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The property just recently came into the hands of a local parks service.
Forty Acres served as the first headquarters for the United Farm Workers–the first permanent agricultural labor union in the United States. In the '60s and '70s, with civil rights activist César Chávez at the helm, the union fought for improved working conditions for migrant workers and developed a national headquarters with a gas station, auto repair shop, multipurpose hall, health clinic and retirement center, which is still in use. Forty Acres became a National Historic Landmark in 2008.
“People are looking more closely at what’s in their neighborhood, and they are going to discover wonderful sites and see history in their own communities,” said Lord of the National Historic Landmarks Program. National landmarks “mean something to everyone, whether you are in Nebraska, Ohio, Maine or Florida.”