Herald Standard: by Pat Cloonan

Tourism in the Laurel Highlands is getting a boost this year, as the National Park Service marks its 100th anniversary.
“With five incredibly significant national parks, the Laurel Highlands is an ideal region to learn about America’s history,” Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau director of public relations Anna Weltz said.

She refers to the Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Farmington and Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Point Marion, both Fayette County, and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown, Somerset County.

Additionally, just outside the three counties covered by the Visitors Bureau, there’s the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitzin Township and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in South Fork, both Cambria County.

“Not only are all five dynamic experiences for local residents, children and students, but they are economic drivers as well,” Weltz said. “Tourists from all over the country and the world come to the Laurel Highlands experience these historic sites often stay for multiple days and will also experience other great attractions in our region.”

To call attention to that anniversary, the National Park Service reported on the economic impact of each venue. For instance, NPS said visitors last year to Fort Necessity spent an estimated $17.7 Million in local gateway regions, supporting 282 jobs, $8.9 million in labor income, $14.2 million in value added purchases and $24.6 million in economic output.

Statewide, NPS said there were 9,935,361 visitors last year to Pennsylvania’s national parks, spending $453.1 million and contributing to 7,577 jobs as well as a $649.7 million cumulative benefit to the commonwealth’s economy.

“Whether they are out for an afternoon, a school field trip, or a month-long family vacation, visitors come to have a great experience, and end up spending a little money along the way,” said Mike Caldwell, Philadelphia-based Northeast regional director for the National Park Service.
Mary Ellen Snyder, an NPS management assistant based at Fort Necessity, said no special commemorative events are planned, though the anniversary adds a special component to the usual schedule of annual events.

“We want to increase visitation from people who don’t normally come (to a national park),” Snyder said, citing for instance programs that attracted 750 fourth graders.

Youngsters can access www.everykidinapark.gov for a free pass to the parks that charge admission fees (Friendship Hill and Flight 93 do not), where they can participate in “hands on” curriculum based education programs, become a junior ranger, tour historic homes and education centers, explore a battlefield and take hikes on over 25 miles of trails.

“Thanks to creative campaigns and educational initiatives like Find Your Park (and) Every Kid in a Park, we should expect to welcome a significant number of visitors to our region,” Weltz said.

Fees will be waived for all visitors to national parks over a 100th birthday weekend beginning Aug. 25, as well as on National Public Lands Day Sept. 24, an annual commemoration that promotes both public use of the parks and volunteer conservation efforts, and on Nov. 11 for Veterans Day.

Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau staffers were among 500 volunteers at an initiative on May 13 and 14 at the Flight 93 memorial, where 15,000 tree seedlings were planted over 23 acres of land surrounding the Stoystown landmark. Varieties such as Eastern hemlock, American chestnut, sugar maple, dogwood, black walnut and red maple were planted as part of a reforestation project, meant to restore wildlife habitats in an area that was once a surface coal mine.

“It was an emotional day for us,” Laurel Highlands CEO Reneé Seifert said on the site where United Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, as passengers sought to thwart a terrorist attack on Washington, D.C. “We each leave the memorial humbled and with a reaffirmed sense of pride.”
Another event coinciding with the centennial involved a donation nearly 200 years old to the Friendship Hill National Historic Site at Point Marion, the restored country estate of Swiss immigrant and 19th Century U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin.

An 1823 letter written by Gallatin in his role at the time as U.S. Minister to France was obtained by the Friendship Hill Association, a nonprofit that helps the Park Service maintain the estate, from the West Overton Village and Museums in Scottdale.

“This is such a wonderful addition to our collection,” said Rev. George Relic, president of Friendship Hill Association. The original was turned over to the National Park Service during a May 1 ceremony while a duplicate copy was retained to be displayed at the Point Marion estate.
Alongside the area’s national parks, Fayette and Westmoreland are among seven counties tied in to the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, based in Homestead, which focuses on industrial valleys along the rivers of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“We are an affiliated site and included in their promotions, and as such we are promoting the National Park Service,” said Rivers of Steel CEO August R. Carlino.

Five tours are offered by Rivers of Steel, including a Youghiogheny “Mountains of Fire” route from Summit Inn at Farmington to Connellsville and Greensburg and a Monongahela “Fueling a Revolution” tour from Rices Landing and Brownsville down river on the Mon.

Carlino provided a 2013 report on the economic impact of Rivers of Steel and five other national heritage areas as published by the Pittsburgh-based TrippUmbach marketing firm. It said Rivers of Steel had a $69,441,323 economic impact, producing 901 jobs and $6,047,217 in tax revenue.

“While this report is from 2013, we anticipate equal if not higher numbers for 2016 and throughout the centennial,” Carlino said.
Much of the report deals with Rivers of Steel’s backyard in the Homestead area, but also refers to Rivers of Steel’s preservation of the W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop in Rices Landing.

“Another area that (Rivers of Steel) has been involved with is a partnership with the Westmoreland Museum of American Art,” TrippUmbach said, “for a large-scale exhibition of natural landscape paintings and artifacts, a book, and two films. Pieces from this museum have been on exhibit in Germany, allowing for the heritage of the Rivers of Steel area to be shown on an international platform.”

Snyder provided a list of upcoming events at area NPS sites:
n On June 25, there will be a Living History Day at Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site and “Walk 93,” a second annual Memorial Walk at the Flight 93 site.
n July 2 and 3 mark the 262nd anniversary of the battle at Fort Necessity between Col. George Washington’s company of colonial and British troops and a combined French and native American force, as well as the Abenaki heritage weekend, honoring one of the tribes that contributed troops to the French force that compelled Washington to surrender – and unwittingly admit that he assassinated a French military officer, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, in a May 28, 1754, encounter a few miles away.

Jumonville’s older half-brother Louis Coulon de Villiers led the French attack on Fort Necessity. The events in Fayette County triggered the worldwide Seven Years’ War, better known in this country as the French and Indian War, between coalitions led by Britain and France.

On July 23 and 24 the fourth annual Albert Gallatin Project at Friendship Hill will be highlighted by a reenactment of a visit to the estate by First Lady Dolly Madison.
On Sept. 11 a 15th anniversary commemoration of the crash of Flight 93 will be marked at the national memorial in Stoystown.
On Sept. 24 and 25 FestiFall and Market Fair will take place at Friendship Hill.
On Oct. 8 Spirits on the Summit Tours will take place at the Allegheny Portage Railroad site, while on Oct. 29 Spirits of Staple Bend Tunnel will be marked at that Cambria County location.

Read more