Delaware’s First National Park: First State National Historical Park
Every year, millions of Americans plan their vacations around our nation’s national park system. National parks are also the most visited destination for foreign travelers coming to this country on vacation. As a result, national parks provide valuable tourism dollars for states and local communities- even the smallest national park unit, results in over a million dollars in tourism revenue. Despite having played such a prominent role in the birth of this great nation, Delaware was for a long time the only state not included in our National Park System and did not reap the economic benefits from the National Park Service.
Many people do not know Delaware played a critical role in our nation’s early history. Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution; the first state in which Swedes and Finns came ashore to America 375 years ago; the place where William Penn first landed in America; and the place where the Dutch built an ill-fated settlement nearly 400 years ago. Senator Carper has long believed these are important stories in our nation’s history and they should be told within the National Park System. For over a decade, Senator Carper has worked with the Delaware delegation, federal officials, state officials, and community leaders to identify a theme and a park concept that fits well within our federal budget and is worthy of designation as a national park. In January 2009, the Bush Administration finalized a National Park Service Special Resource Study concluding that a national park should be placed in Delaware and every year since Senator Carper has introduced legislation authorizing a national park. Since 2009, there have been over a dozen public meetings on the national park effort – including legislative hearings in both chambers of Congress – which have shown overwhelming support for the national park idea.
In December 2014, Congress approved the First State National Historical Park Act of 2013 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, creating the first and only national park in Delaware. The legislation that passed authorized the sites included in the First State National Monument in Delaware to become the First State National Historical Park and expanded to include additional park sites in all three counties of Delaware. Similar to the national monument, the First State National Historical Park will celebrate early American Dutch, Swedish and English settlements throughout Delaware, and Delaware’s role in the events leading up to the founding of our nation. Estimates of construction, operation and maintenance of Delaware’s park – puts First State National Historical Park as one of the least expensive parks in the National Park System.
Scope of the First State National Historical Park
The First State National Historical Park Act authorizes a national park in the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania. This national park preserves and interprets resources associated with early Dutch, Swedish, and English settlement of the Colony of Delaware and portions of the Colony of Pennsylvania, as well as Delaware’s role in the birth of the nation as the first State to ratify the Constitution
Sites Authorized for the Park
The sites below will be authorized to be included in the First State National Historical Park. Together they tell a story important to our nation’s history that is not being told elsewhere, a key requirement for establishing a new national park. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior will be authorized to work with the State of Delaware or any entity owning one of these sites to negotiate conditions of the site being included within the boundaries of the park. Authorization does not mean a site has to be included within the park; that will be decided by the property owners and the National Park Service.
New Castle County, DE / Delaware County, PA:
- Woodlawn Tract – This site is made up of 1,100 acres of land located along the Brandywine River and the arced border between northern Delaware and southern Pennsylvania. This land was first deeded to William Penn and reflects early Quaker settlement patterns. At least eight structures from the 18th century remain on the property. The property has served as a privately-owned park since 1906 until donated to the National Park Service. This site was already included in the First State National Monument.
New Castle County, DE:
- The Old Sheriff's House, the Old New Castle Courthouse and the Old New Castle Green -
These sites are located in the heart of historic New Castle, Delaware, which was first settled in 1651 by the Dutch and seized by the English in 1664. Historic New Castle served as the colonial capital of Delaware until 1777 and provides great examples of colonial, Dutch and Federal architecture and provides valuable stories of our country’s earliest settlers and founding fathers. This is the location where William Penn first landed in the New World in October, 1682 and where four signers of the Declaration of Independence – George Read, Thomas McKean, George Ross, and Francis Hopkinson once lived. The Old New Castle Courthouse was built in 1732 and served as the meeting place for the state’s colonial assembly from 1732-1777. It is here where the Delaware Assembly voted in June 15, 1776 to separate from England and from Pennsylvania, creating the “Delaware State.” Court is still held occasionally at the courthouse, making it the oldest continuously used chamber of justice in the United States. The cupola of the Courthouse also serves as the center of the “12-mile arc,” which established the original border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. The Green was first laid out by the Dutch as a public square – and has since served as a place for public forums and town activity. The Sheriff’s House is located adjacent to the Courthouse and on the Green – is all that remains of Delaware’s first prison system and once renovated will serve as the First State National Historical Park’s headquarters. These sites were already included in the First State National Monument.
- Fort Christina National Historic Landmark – This site is located in Wilmington, Delaware along the banks of the Christina River. It was here over 375 years ago, the first Swedish and Finnish American settlers aboard the Kalmar Nyckel and the Fogel Grip landed and settled the first American Swedish colony, New Sweden. Fort Christina was quickly built and named for the Queen of Sweden at the time. The wharf of rocks that was the site of the first landing remains, however, some believe archeological digs at the site could uncover much more.
- Old Swedes Church National Historic Landmark – This property is located in Wilmington, Delaware, walking distance from Fort Christina. In 1699, Swedish and Finnish settlers finished building what is now called the Old Swedes Church. Much of the original church stands today and is celebrated as the oldest church in America still used for worship. The church has preserved records of life of early settlers and many early settlers are buried at the graveyard on site.
Kent County, DE:
- Dover Green – This site was laid out in 1717 and is located in the heart of historic Dover, Delaware. At the Dover Green, visitors can learn about the debates of the Delaware delegates at the Golden Fleece Tavern – which used to reside on the Green – about whether to ratify the U.S. Constitution or not. It was these debates that led Delaware delegates to decide to become the first state to ratify the Constitution on the Green on December 7, 1787, thus making Delaware the first state in the new nation of the United States. It is also here, where visitors can also learn about Dover’s native Caesar Rodney, who famously rode from Dover to Philadelphia to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of our nation's independence. This site was already included in the First State National Monument.
- John Dickinson Plantation National Historic Landmark – This site was built in 1739 and is located about 6 miles southeast of the Dover Green in Dover, Delaware. This was home to John Dickinson, known as the "penman of the Revolution" because his writings helped inspire colonial opposition to Great Britain. John Dickinson was also a member of the Colonial Congresses that wrote the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution. After John Dickinson’s death, President Thomas Jefferson wrote Dickinson was “Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government: and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”
Sussex County, DE:
- Ryves Holt House – The site was originally built in 1665 in Lewes, Delaware by early Dutch settlers. The house was thought to be built thirty years after the destruction of the nearby ill-fated Zwaanendael colony (which was one of the first Dutch settlements in America and first European settlement in Delaware) and is estimated to be the oldest house in Delaware and one of the 50 oldest structures in the country. The house survived the Lord Baltimore raids – which eventually led to the English taking control of the area. The house was purchased in 1723 by its namesake, Ryves Holt, who served as the first Chief Justice of Delaware from 1745 until his death in 1763.
Boundaries of the Park
Through the legislation, all of the sites that were included in the First State National Monument instantly were transferred to the First State National Historical Park. For the additional sites, the Secretary is authorized to “acquire” or have “interest” in all or a portion of any of the sites identified above. The Secretary can acquire or have interest in sites by:
- Easement with a Cooperative Agreement – We expect most of the sites to be acquired through an easement. This means an owner enters into a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service through a historical preservation easement to preserve the site. The current owner would still retain ownership but, through cooperative agreement, would come to resolution with the National Park Service regarding management, public access, and upkeep. Each easement would be tailored to individual needs and requirements set forth by the property owner and agreed upon by both parties.
How the National Park Service acquires each site will be negotiated with each owner. If an owner does not want to give up their property – the National Park Service cannot take the property through imminent domain.
Sites for Interpretation
The following sites are not authorized to be included in the national park but are listed specifically to allow the National Park Service to work with sites to include them in national park materials, tours, etc. The language allows the National Park Service to work with other sites that fit the scope of the park within Delaware as they see fit, but the legislation highlights these sites as a priority.
- Fort Casimir;
- DeVries Monument;
- Amstel House;
- Dutch House; and,
- Zwaanendael Museum.
National Landmark Study
The legislation also required the Secretary to complete a study assessing the historical significance of additional properties in the State that are associated with the purposes of the Park and include an assessment for designating the properties as a National Historic Landmark.
Senator Carper's Hearing Testimony on the Delaware National Park
On Wednesday, May 11, 2011, Senator Carper testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on National Parks on S.323, the First State National Historical Park Act of 2011. In his testimony, he noted that every state -- except Delaware -- saw over $1 million in economic benefit from national park tourism in 2009.
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