The long road for the last state’s National Park

One evening nearly 15 years ago, I got off the train in Wilmington after spending a long day in Washington D.C. I had been invited to speak that night about tourism at a Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau event on the Riverfront.

After I concluded my remarks, we opened it up to questions from the audience. Among the first questions that came up was, “Why isn’t there a national park in Delaware?”

It was true — the “First State” was the only state in our union without one.

That evening I also learned that the top tourist destination of people from other countries visiting America from around the world was our national parks. Another person added that night, “Maybe we should do something about it so some of those foreign visitors would visit our national park, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, shop in a state without a sales tax, and enjoy some of the best beaches on the East Coast.”

I said I thought they had a point and that I’d give it some thought. And, starting the next day, I did.

Long before the idea for the National Historical Park we have today was born, though, then-Sen. Joe Biden explored creating a national park for Delaware in the Great Cypress Swamp located in the southeastern corner of Sussex County. However, a group of constituents fond of hunting there was not fond of it becoming a national park, so the idea was soon dead in the water, or as some would say, it was dead in “The Swamp.”

In the weeks following that tourism event on the Riverfront, I began to bounce the idea of a national park off of other Delawareans up and down the state. They had no shortage of ideas. Good ideas from all over Delaware, including some that came to us through social media. The question then became how do we go about choosing from among those ideas, and once we’d made that decision, how could we convince the National Park Service to embrace it.

The next step was to create an exploratory group, led by legendary University of Delaware professor Dr. Jim Soles. This citizens group was comprised of wonderful people from throughout Delaware. They traveled the state, talking to constituents and holding public meetings to gather further input on what might make a great national park in Delaware.

People suggested historic gems like Fort Christina in Wilmington where, more than 375 years ago, the first Swedes and Finns settled in America; Fort Delaware, located in the middle of the Delaware River off of Delaware City, which held some 30,000 Confederate soldiers during the Civil War; The Green in Dover where Delaware delegates debated in December 1787 at the Golden Fleece Tavern whether we should become the first to ratify the constitution; the Ryves Holt House in Lewes, originally built in 1665 by early Dutch Settlers, the oldest house in Delaware and one of the 50 oldest in the country.

Debates held at the Golden Fleece Tavern on the Dover Green in Dover, Delaware led to Delaware becoming the first state to ratify the Constitution. Just a few years before that historic moment, Dover native Caesar Rodney famously rode from Dover to Philadelphia to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of our nation’s independence.
Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, Delaware is the oldest church in the United States that stands as it was originally built and remains in use as a house of worship. It was erected in 1698–1699 by descendants of the Swedish colonists who crossed the Atlantic aboard the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638. The pulpit is the oldest known pulpit in the United States.

There were even some wildly entertaining ideas like a park where visitors would scuba dive to explore shipwrecks off Cape Henlopen.

In any event, our exploratory group gathered these ideas from folks up and down Delaware and reviewed them carefully. Eventually, they came to believe that emerging from all of these ideas — except for the underwater idea, of course — was a central theme: early colonial settlement leading up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution on December 7, 1787.

One day, Jim Soles said to me that rather than just picking one site for our national park, why don’t select a number of them which — together — told an important, but little-known chapter in the story about how this country was formed.

Late, we would take this idea, along with others, to the administration of President George W. Bush and, in particular, to the National Park Service which later would launch a Special Resource Study. It would eventually conclude that the Soles-led exploratory committee was on to something.

What made Delaware unique in their eyes and worthy of a national park designation was our story of early colonial settlement leading up to the ratification of the Constitution. The National Park Service ran that idea up the chain of command in the Department of the Interior. When it reached the top, Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne concurred, and we thought we were on our way.

The New Castle County court house was the first capital of Delaware and its State House (1776–1777). In June, 1776, it is where the state of Delaware was created when it separated from Pennsylvania and the legislature acted to become independent from Great Britain.

If only it had been that easy.

Five years would pass before we would realize our goal. In the meantime, we drafted federal legislation and found ways to make sure this concept would fit within the national budget.

Given that the National Park Service barely had enough funding to operate existing national parks, we worked for several years to come up with ways to offset the cost of a national park in Delaware. Meanwhile, we held over a dozen public meetings in Delaware, as well as legislative hearings in both chambers of Congress to continue to build bipartisan support at home and in our national capitol.

In March 2013, we realized a breakthrough. Encouraged by our vice president, congressional delegation and Governor Jack Markell, President Obama designated portions of our proposed national park as a National Monument, although not as a national park.

While we were grateful for this important step, it wasn’t the same as Delaware being the home of America’s newest national park, so we went back to work and kept pushing until the finish line was in sight.

Finally, in December 2014, the U.S. Senate approved the First State National Historical Park as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015. It quickly passed the House and was signed into law by the President.

At long last, an effort that spanned more than a decade had paid off.

From former Interior Secretaries Dirk Kempthorne and Ken Salazar to famed film documentarian Ken Burns, our national park has benefited from many dedicated supporters who were committed to seeing it grow from an idea to reality. One of its biggest champions, Vice President Joe Biden, joined many of us at the historic Courthouse in Old New Castle to celebrate Delaware’s inclusion into the National Park System in March 2013.

This would have been an impossible feat were it not for the steadfast support of Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, Congressman John Carney, former Sen. Ted Kaufman and former Congressman Mike Castle. Helping us along the way were Pennsylvania’s Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, as well as our wonderful neighbor in Southeast Pennsylvania, Congressman Pat Meehan, our state and local leaders, and most important, the residents of the First State who never gave up on this dream.

Together, we have helped to ensure that Delaware’s vital and unique role in launching the most enduring democracy in the history of the world will not only be preserved but shared with generations to come from every corner of this planet.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Delaware News Journal on April 10, 2016.