Buckle Up! A Trip to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park (WORI) and Seneca Falls, NY
By: Anna Tiburzi
Strap in, because this week we take a break from the archival research to journey to the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.
This week I had the opportunity to visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY. Though I started my travels in Westchester County, I was fortunate to have a place to stay in Syracuse to use as a base for the visit, trying to avoid any unnecessary risks as far as food and lodgings go.
My sister joined me for the trip and, after packing up the car with our lunch, water, notes, and camera bag, we were ready to make the rest of the drive out to the site.
The drive from Syracuse to Seneca Falls is only about an hour and, despite the weather forecast warning otherwise, there were blue skies and sunshine throughout the whole day.
Upon arriving at the park, we were greeted by WORI Superintendent Dekoter and her daughter. The four of us spent a great morning together – but several feet apart – talking about the park’s sites, structures, people, and history.
Though it’s currently closed to the public, we were able to take a tour around the park’s Visitor’s Center, courtesy of WORI Chief of Interpretation Waller who, like the rest of the park staff, were happy to answer any questions I had and talk about the park and share some of our favorite history regarding Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the movement.
The first floor of the building is mostly dedicated to a sculptural installment, which depicts the “First Wave” of the Women’s Rights movement. Life-size – though not all accurately scaled – statues of attendees of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention stand in the Visitor’s Center, walking and milling about as if they were just leaving the Wesleyan Chapel following the convention – including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Martha Wright. Multiple artists worked on the statues and a couple of their likenesses can be seen walking with and between the historic figures.
The second floor of the Visitor’s Center holds a majority of the informative panels regarding the women’s rights movement and women’s history, as well as a section on Haudenosaunee culture and family.
From a window on the second floor, you can see right out and over Declaration Park to the Wesleyan Chapel, a close neighbor to the Visitor’s Center.
Portions of the Wesleyan chapel feature the original brick from when it served as the site of the 1848 convention. The differences in coloration of the brick in the walls of the structure show where new (lighter) meets old (darker, variable coloration) – the original material having persisted to this day, despite weathering by use, elements, and time.
These bricks bore witness to history, having been in “attendance” at the 1848 convention themselves, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other suffragists presented and signed the Declaration of Sentiments. The presence and preservation of the original materiality contributes to the integrity of the chapel as a significant structure in the Women’s Right’s movement.
Though the Chapel is also currently closed to the public, Superintendent Dekoter opened the doors for us, and my sister and I had the whole place to ourselves, if only for a few minutes.
Inside the chapel, the noise from the street – people, cars, and trucks – which made discussion on the sidewalk difficult at times, can no longer be heard. The reconstructed walls and ceiling of the building muffle the sounds of the street, making it easier to step back in time, taking in the structure and imagining what it might have been like on that day in 1848.
Between the Wesleyan Chapel and the Visitor’s Center is Declaration Park. The western boundary of the park is made up of a solid waterwall, which features the text of the Declaration of Sentiments and lists the original one hundred signers of the document. While we were there, we saw several people stopping to read the words as they visited and passed through the park.
Afterwards, we followed Superintendent Dekoter to the landscapes that serve as the body of research for my project – the Stanton House and Chamberlain House sites.
At the Stanton House, we were joined by Park Ranger Hilary and spent some time walking the lot, talking about the landscape, the history, and the way the park uses the site for programming and visitor engagement. All the furniture in the house was removed earlier this year, not having been original to the house but instead close or related substitutes, and so the home sits open and ready for new interpretive opportunities.
A mature horse chestnut stands at the front of the Stanton property. This Witness Tree is the only known specimen to have been present during the period of Stanton occupancy and, though it’s seen some damage from storms and lightning, still stands today and – hopefully – for many years more.
Around back, we can see the rest of the Stanton House, at least what’s still standing.
Due to a lack of sufficient evidence, the missing historic east wing and north wing couldn’t be reconstructed when the National Park Service acquired the structure. However, visitors can see where the east wing would have been attached to the south wing, as indicated by the interpretive treatment use of gray siding on the (what is now an) exterior wall.
Still at the rear of the Stanton House, two large windows (which might have connected to a porch) face into the backyard. Though today they look out over a mown lawn, in the past the wide view may have looked out onto the bars, swings, and ladders that Stanton’s children used to play on, with the vegetable gardens and orchard in the background.
Like the missing historic east wing, the Stanton House’s north wing also lacked sufficient evidence for reconstruction. The northern exterior wall of the house bears an outline of where the missing north wing is believed to have been attached to the main structure.
Without these two wings, the Stanton House is actually about half the size as it would have been when Stanton lived there herself.
Down the embankment and just across Seneca Street from the Stanton House sits the Chamberlain Property. The house is significant for its association with Jacob P. Chamberlain, who was one of the male signers of the Declaration of Sentiments as well as an organizer of the Free Soil Party, a political party which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the United States.
Unfortunately, the Chamberlain House sits in a state of disrepair and, like the missing wings of the Stanton House, cannot be restored due to a lack of sufficient evidence. In a difficult decision, the structure is currently slated for removal by the National Park Service.
The Chamberlain House sits on the edge of Van Cleef Lake, though historically this hasn’t always been the case. In Stanton’s time, it sat on the Industrial Flats, a span of the Seneca River with held mills, factories, homes, and other commercial structures.
In 1915, New York State flooded the river and the flats in their construction of a new barge canal, which required a larger reservoir of water than the river currently supplied, submerging hundreds of homes and other buildings under a new Van Cleef Lake and making the Chamberlain House lakefront property for the first time.
Every now and then, up until the 1950s, the canal was drained, revealing remnants of the submerged structures which can still be seen on the floor of the lake bed.
After finishing up at the two properties – taking lots of pictures and notes – my sister and I decided to get a full feel for the park and take a short drive over to the nearby town of Waterloo, which is where the park’s other two structures, the Hunt House and the M’Clintock House, are located.
The Hunt House is where the first gathering of the women who would plan the 1848 convention would be held.
And, last on our stops for the day, was the M’Clintock House, which is where the Declaration of Sentiments would first be drafted, modeled after the Declaration of Independence.
With that, we had a wrap on our first day of the site visit. We headed home for a well-earned dinner and rest before starting up again the next day.
The second day of my trip took place entirely indoors, within the walls of the historic mansion that serves as the Seneca Falls Historical Society.
On the third floor of the mansion is the society’s library, which holds a range of texts on the Women’s Suffrage movement, canal history, genealogy, scrapbooks, and other local historical records. After several hours, and with help from the society’s Educator and Program Coordinator, Nellie, I was able to dig up a few new dates for the chronology document, as well as a nice collection of photographs and historical maps depicting the area. While there weren’t many of the Stanton and Chamberlain House exclusively, they feature in the distance in a few images showcasing Van Cleef Lake, the associated barge construction, or the Industrial Flats which pre-dated the lake.
Here is just a sample of some of the historical photographs we were able to pull together. In these three images, you can see the drained Seneca River and, in the image on the right (rotated above, and included again below), the newly constructed barge locks in the distance just left of what is potentially the Chamberlain House, sitting high on the embankment to the east (right).
Foundation remnants of those submerged structures I mentioned earlier can be seen in the foreground of the images, before the flooding of the lake in 1915 submerged the structures and rapids, transforming the landscape into the one we recognize today.
And with that, we conclude our site visit! I feel so fortunate to have been able to make the trip, amidst the current circumstances, and I’m so grateful for those from the park service and the historical society who took the time out of their day to speak with me and tell me a little more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the movement, and the landscapes that represent such a pivotal time in women’s history.
Thank you all for reading, I’ll see you next time!