We have all been cooped up over a year with COVID-19. No travel, no flights to exotic destinations; mountains, beaches, forests or deserts. Staycation is fine but it has its limits. Now spring is here; the sun is brighter, air warmer and grass greener. I started feeling the itch of the travel bug. If I cannot travel far, how about somewhere close. Was there a place I had always dreamed of visiting but had never managed to? Yes. Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I will go see America’s birthplace. Time to turn pandemic related restrictions to our advantage!
How many of us have really taken a tour of our home town, of places close to us? Not many, I think. There are so many places to visit within driving distance; museums, historic sites, scenic spots. But, perhaps we did not have the time or the inclination before. COVID-19 has forced us to rethink, hopefully for the better.
I have lived close to Philadelphia for decades, but never seen Independence Hall, the place where this nation was born, literally. So, on a bright, cool spring day in early May, I decided to visit.
I studied my options. This is a prime tourist destination. In the summer, especially on weekends it would be very crowded. Social distancing comes to mind. You need a ticket to enter. Tickets are free, but you have to reserve one online or by phone. Each ticket is for a timed entry. You could try and get it on the day of, but that is a gamble. I therefore weighed the risks and decided to visit on a weekday in early May. I figured not many tourists would be around. I was lucky. I did get a walk-up ticket for the visit.
I took the train—no driving, no desperate search for parking and getting snared in Philadelphia’s notorious “courtesy parking” scheme. I drove to the SEPTA parking lot and parked. It was only a quarter full. Before the pandemic it would have been packed with commuters jostling for spots. I boarded the train and in just under an hour got off at Jefferson Station in Philadelphia. It was 11.30 AM. I fortified myself with an apple as I walked the few blocks towards Independence Hall.
Independence Hall Park is a complex under the jurisdiction of the National Park Services. Uniformed rangers were everywhere and were very helpful. At the south end of the complex is Independence Hall. Moving northward you will see the Liberty Bell enclosed in a large glass viewing room, then the Visitor’s Center and at the north end, the Constitution Center.
I headed towards Independence Hall. It was built in 1732 as the Pennsylvania State House housing several government departments including the state supreme court. It is an iconic building with a tall central bell tower that once housed the famous Liberty Bell. I asked the ranger on duty if any tickets were available. He had a bunch in his hand and he handed one to me. I went through security and sat on one of the benches in the staging area under a shady tree trying to imagine the place as it was in 1775. There were some interesting placards around me. One said that the declaration was read out loud for the first time in front of an excited crowd at the very spot where I was standing. The park ranger rounded up the group for the 12.30 tour and we entered the fabled Independence Hall.
We were ushered into the two historic rooms. On the east side was the Assembly room. Here the continental delegates met, discussed, debated and eventually signed the Declaration of Independence. The period piece furniture captures the moment. Green table cloths cover the tables with yellowed books, papers, inkstands and writing quills. There was a sheet of paper with the word “A Declaration” prominent in the headline. Could this be the final draft! On one table a cane was placed just as the user might have kept it during the deliberations. Perhaps he poked someone with it to make a point. The debates were heated as we now know leading to the grand compromise that was acceptable to all the colonies. Such thoughts were going through my mind as I listened to the park ranger.
In the back of the hall on a raised platform is a high-backed wooden chair, the only original piece of furniture, with a rising sun carved on the top. In front is a replica of the inkstand used in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington sat on this chair as he presided over the proceedings.
I looked around me, fascinated, as I took pictures. I pondered on the birth of a nation ruled by We the People…and not by the divine power of kings. Of a fledgling nation that had the temerity to declare their independence from an empire on which the sun never set. At this very spot on July 4, 1776, 246 years ago.