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A Brief History: The Smallest National Park Site

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.

 

Credit: Map by Alice Kreit/NPR  

Memorial Photo by Mike Dorn

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton - these are some of the national parks you've most likely heard of. Well, today, as part of our series on the national parks, we're going to visit some lesser-known locations, parks we've picked out for their size - the largest and the smallest.

First, NPR's Robert Smith takes us to the smallest.

ROBERT SMITH: This is going to be a very short tour. America's tiniest national park is up here on the second floor of an old house in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. And I'll show you how small it is.

I can walk across it one, two, three, four steps. What's - I'll ask the ranger here, what's the exact size?

NORRIS: 0.02 acres.

SMITH: The name may actually be longer than the actual park. It's the Thaddeus Kosc--?

NORRIS: Kosciuszko National Memorial.

SMITH: Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

NORRIS: Yes.

SMITH: I guess I shouldn't worry too much about it. Ranger Andrew McDougall tells me that everybody mangles this park's name. The important thing is that you come away with the sense that it's named after a bona fide hero. Kosciuszko came over from his native Poland, he was a military engineer, and he fought in the American Revolutionary War, and to list all of his accomplishments would take like, I don't know, six minutes, which is the length of the movie they play here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT MOVIE)

U: Who is this Polish general that Americans cheer? He was a son of land-owning gentry, and a friend of peasants.

SMITH: Or it could take 12 minutes if you watched the movie again in Polish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT MOVIE)

U: (Speaking in Polish)

SMITH: Kosciuszko was like the George Washington of Poland, and Polish Americans have plastered his name on everything - it's on bridges, monuments, mountains, there are cities in Texas and Mississippi named after the guy. This place, this tiny room, was the place Kosciuszko rented for seven months while he was appealing to Congress for his back pay. I mean, it's no Mount Vernon, but in the 1970s, a Polish-American businessman bought the place and donated it to the National Park Service.

NORRIS: So we kind of just set the room up to look the way it would've looked on any given day that Kosciuszko would've been here, so that, you know, it's a little sloppy in the room, there's some papers scattered around.

SMITH: Now let's be honest, this is no Liberty Bell, there are not lines around the corner. How long can you go here without anyone stopping by?

NORRIS: Well, that varies depending upon the time of the year.

SMITH: Have you gone days, weeks?

NORRIS: No. There's at least one visitor per day.

SMITH: Okay. If we get bored, we can always play with the interactive displays here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT MOVIE)

U: This is such a small room, such a small room for such a great man. But it was typical of Thaddeus Kosciuszko...

SMITH: So you've been open for a while and nobody's coming through the door?

NORRIS: We've had no visitors yet, but that's not uncommon.

SMITH: It's a waiting game.

NORRIS: It can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

SMITH: All right. Clearly, if I'm going to interview a visitor to this place, I'm going to have to pull one in myself.

Excuse me. You guys interested in going into the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial?

NORRIS: I think maybe a Polish revolutionary hero is probably more at the bottom of my list.

SMITH: Fair enough. But Thomas Campbell does say that the next time he comes by, he will try and stop here.

Back inside, ranger Andrew McDougall is still waiting patiently. It's actually one of the easier gigs in the Park Service.

NORRIS: We have no shuttle bus, we have no food service, we don't have any camping facilities. Maybe we could look at it as more quality visitation than quantity. The people who are going to make the point to come to this site are people who are going to be very interested.

SMITH: And sure enough, in the midafternoon, the opens and in walks Yolanta Cartiche(ph), she's Polish American, and she is not going to miss this tiny little corner of the National Park System.

NORRIS: He came to America and fought for liberty because that's what he stood for, he believed in it. In Poland, everybody knows him.

SMITH: She watched the movie, she peers into the exhibit, and then she tells me I've been pronouncing the man's name wrong.

NORRIS: Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

SMITH: Kosciuszko.

NORRIS: It's a sweet name for a military man.

SMITH: Ranger McDougall tells her that she might want to come back again. The whole place, all 0.02 acres of it, is going to be rehabbed with all new exhibits and cool new artifacts like the man's sword and a lock of his hair.

NORRIS: The exhibit will really showcase Thaddeus Kosciuszko as an international freedom fighter or, as Thomas Jefferson termed him, the purest son of liberty he had ever known.

SMITH: It's a lot of praise to fit into a very small park.

Robert Smith, NPR News, at the Thaddeus Kosciuszko...

NORRIS: Kosciuszko.

NORRIS: Kosciuszko.

SMITH: ...Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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