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Smallest National Park? Kosciuszko, Forgotten Son of Liberty

Here's a brief look at a man who Thomas Jefferson called "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known"



    AP, File
    In this April 1, 2013, file photo a statue of Poland's General Thaddeus Kosciuszko is enveloped in the early morning fog in Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington. Kosciuszko was a military engineer from Poland, Kosciuszko came to Philadelphia in August 1776 to offer his services in the fight against the British.

    If the hip-hop Broadway smash "Hamilton" can reignite interest in the first U.S. treasury secretary, what will it take to drum up interest in another forgotten hero from America's fight for independence?

    That question has stumped National Park Service employees who oversee the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. It's the smallest and one of the least-visited sites in the system, despite standing just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

    The few who do come are a passionate bunch — usually tourists with Polish heritage or history buffs familiar with Kosciuszko's pivotal role in the American Revolution.

    As hordes of people descend on the city for July Fourth, here's a brief look at a man who Thomas Jefferson called "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known."

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    A military engineer from Poland, Kosciuszko came to Philadelphia in August 1776 to offer his services in the fight against the British.

    His defenses helped the Continental army win the critical Battle of Saratoga in New York, and he later worked on fortifications that secured key access to the Hudson River at West Point — now the site of the U.S. Military Academy. He also fought in the Carolinas.

    After the war, Kosciuszko returned to Poland and, in 1794, led a rebellion against Russian occupation. He became a hero to his countrymen despite Russia's victory and his ensuing exile.

    Kosciuszko is pronounced kos-CHOOS'-koh. Alternate spellings include Tadeusz for his first name and Kosciusko (no "z'') for his last name.

    Sean Rayford/Getty Images

    Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia while in exile and received a warm welcome. From November 1797 to May 1798, he stayed at a boarding house that now serves as the national memorial.

    While here, Kosciuszko rarely left his bedroom because of a severe leg injury suffered during the fighting in Poland. But he kept busy playing chess, painting and entertaining a steady stream of dignitaries and visitors, including his longtime close friend Thomas Jefferson.

    Kosciuszko soon went back to Europe with the ultimate goal of helping Poland regain its independence. It didn't happen in his lifetime, and he died in Switzerland in 1817.

    To be sure, Philadelphia is hardly alone in its Kosciuszko tribute. A statue stands across from the White House in Lafayette Square, and the Kosciuszko Bridge connects Brooklyn and Queens in New York. Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, and Australia's highest peak is Mount Kosciuszko.

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    At West Point, the school boasts a Kosciuszko monument and garden. Cadets still study his fortifications, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dave Siry, who teaches at the school.

    Nearly two centuries after Kosciuszko lived at the boarding house, the building was purchased by Philadelphia philanthropist Edward Piszek, the son of Polish immigrants and co-founder of the Mrs. Paul's frozen fish empire.

    Piszek gave the three-story brick row house to the park service, and then bought and donated the home next door to add exhibit space. The memorial opened in 1976 and occupies just 0.2 acres in the historic Society Hill neighborhood, making it the smallest site in the park service's portfolio.

    The ground-floor displays tell the story of Kosciuszko's life. Upstairs, his bedroom has been re-created with period furniture and artifacts based on an inventory found in Jefferson's personal papers. There's also a small theater with a six-minute film. All exhibits offer English and Polish translations.

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    The bedroom includes replica papers from an abolition society because of his vehement opposition to slavery. While here, Kosciuszko wrote a will instructing that his American assets — he earned a pension and land for his military service — be liquidated to free slaves and educate them. When litigation arose after his death, the will was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The memorial used to have daily hours, but now it's open only on weekends for seven months a year.

    "Some days when we were open full-time, you'd see the mailman — that's it," said park ranger Adam Duncan. "Sometimes we would have bus drivers come in to use the bathroom."

    A park service survey from 2015 showed the memorial welcomed 1,261 visitors, compared with 4.3 million tourists just a few blocks away at Independence National Historical Park, which includes the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

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    Only about a half-dozen national parks got fewer visitors than Kosciuszko last year — including a pair of remote sites in Alaska that are accessible only by plane.

    But while the modest Philadelphia site lacks grandeur, it rewards guests with a compelling story, said Duncan.

    "We hope that they walk away with a sense of who Kosciuszko was and what he did for the United States, and his dedication to liberty — liberty for all," Duncan said.