Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

I should have written at the launch of this regular department for Pennsylvania Heritage, which debuted in the Summer 2011 edition, that there would be some experimenting with how to best capture the feel of Trailheads, a blog I write weekly. In the previous issue of the magazine, I took an in-depth look at Drake Well Museum’s renovation project, which had been covered in small bites on the blog. For this edition, we’re including several projects that are in various stages of completion. The challenge I’m finding is that in Trailheads, the blog, when I want to provide more information for readers, I am able to insert a live link to a website or a Google document. For “Trailheads” the magazine feature, I must include enough detail to make sense without bogging down readers.


American Association for State and Local History Awards

Two ambitious Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) projects have recently received recognition by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), a national membership organization that provides leadership and support for small and large institutions dedicated to making the past meaningful for all Americans. PHMC’s publication Soldiers to Governors: Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders and the visitor center exhibit at Pennsbury Manor are among the honorees at AASLH’s Leadership in History awards ceremony in Richmond, Virginia, this September.

Soldiers to Governors recounts the lives and careers of six Pennsylvanians who served the Union during the American Civil War and later led the Commonwealth as chief executives. Drawing on the extensive holdings of the Pennsylvania State Archives and The State Museum of Pennsylvania, the book traces the military experiences and political careers of these individuals and chronicles their role in the Commonwealth’s history. Author Richard C. Saylor, Pennsylvania State Archives archivist, whose work has appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage, has brought together information from a variety of sources to document Pennsylvania’s compelling Civil War story. Readers can purchase copies of Soldiers to Governors online.

Pennsbury Manor developed its visitor center exhibit entitled William Penn: The Seed of a Nation to serve as an orientation to the historic Bucks County site, adding context to the visitor’s experience of the reconstructed manor house, outbuildings, and gardens. The exhibit, which builds on the research of numerous staff and outside scholars, explores Penn’s early life, religious beliefs (discussed in “Discovering Religious Diversity Along the Pennsylvania Trails of History” by John K. Robinson in the Summer 2011 edition), and the founder’s plans for his beloved “holy experiment.” It also introduces visitors to the family members, servants, and slaves whose lives impacted the manor, and explores the early twentieth-century reconstruction project, as well as ongoing research to make sure the stories we tell are accurate. To learn more about Pennsbury’s history go to the Pennsbury Manor website.

In addition to PHMC, four Pennsylvania organizations received AASLH’s Leadership in History awards: Jefferson County History Center, Brookville, Wharton Esherick Museum, Paoli, and the Fairmount Park Art Association and the City of Philadelphia Department of Records, Philadelphia. To learn more about AASLH and its awards program, visit the AASLH website.


Joseph Priestley House Laboratory Exhibit

Although one might not immediately associate Joseph Priestley’s scientific experiments with PHMC’s 2011 theme “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity,” there is, indeed, a connection. Much like many other natural philosophers of his day, Priestley studied the minute workings of nature in order to gain knowledge and understanding of God. He is famous for his “discovery” of oxygen, but the laboratory where he isolated and observed the properties of carbon monoxide was at his residence in Northumberland, in northcentral Pennsylvania, completed in 1798. Following many years of research about the laboratory – very likely the first of its kind in North America – and much discussion and debate about how to share that research with the public, a new exhibit recently opened at the Joseph Priestley House.

With the support of the Friends of Joseph Priestley House, historians Mary Ellen Bowden and Kevin Cannon worked with a wealth of documentary and archaeological research developed and compiled during PHMC’s management of the site. The Priestley House was severely impacted by state budget cuts in 2009 and PHMC transferred management of the site to the Friends of Joseph Priestley House. In an innovative partnership, exhibit fabrication was handled by the theater technology department of Susquehanna University, located in nearby Selinsgrove. The goal of the exhibit is to help visitors understand, to the best of our current knowledge, how the lab might have looked in 1800, when Priestley identified carbon monoxide as a unique gas. The Joseph Priestley House website provides detailed information on the project, including a report on the archaeological investigations of the laboratory.


Projects at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and Washington Crossing

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is in the midst of improving its environment for people and collections. If you’ve visited in the summer or winter, you know the temperature in the museum’s Rolling Stock Hall can be uncomfortable. You also know just how dramatic the shift can be. Renovations to the existing heating and cooling system are coupled with the addition of some 125 geothermal wells, which will use heat from the earth to help power the system. The improved stability of indoor temperature and humidity levels will make visitors and staff more comfortable and create a better environment for the preservation of wooden railcars and artifacts.

In addition to the heating and cooling system changes, the project also includes rebuilding and insulating the roof of Rolling Stock Hall and adding skylights and energy-efficient, insulated doors – that also let in natural light – to replace the roll-up doors at the west end of the hall. The forthcoming Roundhouse Project, currently in the design stage, will also make use of geothermal systems.

PHMC has completed geothermal projects at Drake Well Museum, Eckley Miners’ Village, Erie Maritime Museum, Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, and Old Economy Village. Projects are ongoing at or planned for the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, Pennsylvania Military Museum, and Washington Crossing Historic Park.

At Washington Crossing the much-anticipated groundbreaking for the site’s visitor center project took place on Friday, June 10. Hosted by PHMC and the Friends of Washington Crossing Park, the program included elected officials and community leaders who have worked for a vastly improved building to welcome visitors to the site. Primarily a renovation of the existing facility, the project will result in a modern, energy-efficient building with additional space for programs and education, due in part to a generous grant from Lockheed Martin, and a new exhibit gallery, a separate project.

Washington Crossing Historic Park commemorates George Washington’s daring decision on Christmas night 1776 to lead his troops in a surprise attack on Hessian soldiers at Trenton, New Jersey, a move seen as a turning point of the American Revolution. Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, speaking at the groundbreaking and quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer the day following the ceremonies, emphasized “without this site, there is no United States of America.” For the staff, volunteers, and community members who have been waiting for this project to commence, that significance has kept them dedicated and motivated.


Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator based in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums, supporting education, interpretation, and communications efforts bureau-wide and at individual historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History. She writes an informative weekly blog entitled Trailheads.