Tuesday, June 21, 2011

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park

George Rogers Clark
"George Rogers Who?" you ask? Revolutionary war hero whose victories occurred in places like what is now Vincennes, Indiana?! Pshaw. Everyone knows all the important Revolutionary War stuff happened a lot farther east, like in Massachusetts and New York.

Back when I worked for the Park Service, this was one of the parks that I got told we didn't bother going to: it's small, its main claim to fame are a battle and a military commander no one can remember, and it got nominated for status as a National Historic Landmark based on the architecture of the monument (see below), not for its association with Clark (see above). It fell into the mystery category, also known as which politician pulled strings to get this one into the system? (There are a number of units in the system where employees regularly wonder just why they're being managed by NPS and not by a local township. You know, nice, moderately interesting, but are they really, truly of national significance? George Rogers Clark actually comes closer to that significance standard than some better known places.) I was moderately curious about the place, but not curious enough to push my boss into sending me there, especially when the park superintendent at the time wasn't particularly interested in having anyone from the inventories do a field visit. I am, however, always willing to check another park or two off on the life list, so decided to follow US-41 down through Indiana instead of sticking to Interstate highways.

George Rogers Clark monument
My first thought was, wow, this thing bears a remarkable resemblance to Warren G. Harding's tomb, although Harding's tomb has more columns and isn't domed. I guess all the massive-monument designers in the early 20th century were working from the same play book. The interior does have nifty murals (a couple are partially visible behind the Clark statue) and some interesting details:
Decorative architectural detail
What, I wonder, is the symbolic significance of having what appear to be bronze vent covers that look like dragons? And why the marble bench that goes all the way around the interior? Were visitors expected to come in, sit down, and stare worshipfully at either the statue of the Great Man or the murals depicting the key events in Clark's part in the War? Maybe I should have grabbed a park brochure. . .  I did quiz the interpretive ranger (or, more accurately, I'm thinking, the seasonal visitor use assistant; based on the levels of knowledge he could muster up, I don't think he'd quite merit the title of park guide), but he was as clueless as I was. Who was the architect? Did not know. When was it built? No clue. Why does the exterior look like a drum? Ah. . . . ah. . .  Get a lot of visitors? Er. . .um. . . I guess. In the world of resource education, the nice young man had a long way to go. There was a fair amount of decent signage explaining the content of the murals, but not much that provided information on the structure itself.
Francis Vigo, stuck with his back to the river and staring at the monument for all eternity.
The park is nicely situated in downtown Vincennes, right on the river, and does include a few other minor items, like this statue of Francis Vigo. I'm not sure what he did to merit a statue, but Indiana did name a county after him. I also thought the Lincoln bridge was lovely -- it looked positively dazzling, much whiter than it photographed:

I'm not going to question the importance of Clark's contributions to the war effort -- he defeated the British in two decisive battles on the western frontier, and as a result the colonies got the Northwest Territories (now Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) as part of the peace settlement. It's history worth remembering -- and maybe so is the fact that Clark lived out most of his life as a failure. He was a war hero in his 20s, turned into a drunk in his 30s, and spent the remainder of his life (he died in 1818, almost 40 years after his glory days in battle) surviving on the generosity of various family members. Is there a moral there? Who knows.

Definitely a cannonball park
If a person happens to be near Vincennes, George Rogers Clark NHP is worth a visit. I'm just not sure how to define "near."


  1. Your description of the encounter with the interp just depressed me no end.

  2. I knew about Clark but had to look up Vigo. Thanks for this informative post. Great pictures.

  3. Bob, my thought was that it reflects poorly on park management - at a historic structure like the Clark monument the person behind the desk should be able to rattle off the highlights (architect, year built, why, etc) without having to fumble. I doubt I'm the first person to ask, So, who designed this thing? He was obviously poorly oriented to the site and the job. It depressed the heck out of me, too, because current management (i.e., the superintendent) is someone I worked with in Omaha and had considered reasonably competent.

  4. It looks like a lovely spot, but you can add me to the list of people who'd never heard of him before now.

  5. Well, of course. Park Management 101 is that you give brand new info desk jockeys a cheat sheet with the 20 Most Commonly Asked Questions. Then you go back in a couple of days and make sure they've read and remembered it. Seems like at least one of these steps was neglected.

    Won't comment on personnel issues except to wonder if the current Supt. is the same program manager who never got around to providing requested feedback on a document you and I jointly authored until I was retired and you were working for another agency.

  6. Bob, if you're referring to the person who spent almost 3 years telling me he'd look at it "soon," the answer is yes. Nice guy, but more than a bit disorganized.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.