Travel Into the Past: Historical Re-enactment Sites, for the Pilgrim in All of Us
The San Francisco Dungeon takes you into the city’s historical underbelly. (Courtesy San Francisco Dungeon)
With the kids out of school for the summer, the last thing they probably want to do is study history. Unless it’s the type of history that explodes, falls screaming from a horse, or drags their sister into a jail cell for threatened torture. That kind of history is fun. And that’s the sort of in-your-face, action-packed scenery from the past brought to life in re-enactments around the country. Whether it’s a placid stroll around a colonial town filled with busy artisans, or front-row seats to a raging battle scene, re-enactments provide a bridge between past and present that’s far more memorable than any historical plaque or guidebook entry. Just don’t ask any of these questions, as re-enactors can sometimes get cranky wearing a wool coat on a hot summer day.
A crazed gold miner threatens you with his pick in the darkness of a mine. The Barbary Coast gangland leader straps you into a chair and brandishes rusty tools of torture. A demented Chinatown rat-catcher punctures a plague victim’s heart with a scalpel, spraying you with slime. You’re packed onto a boat in the misty gloom of San Francisco harbor, where you escape cannon fire only to end up with a murderous ghost in an Alcatraz jail cell.
Related: Travel Guide: San Francisco
While there aren’t any dungeons that I know of in San Francisco, there is definitely enough morbid local history to provide The San Francisco Dungeon with plenty of dramatic scenes for its actors to re-create in darkened rooms and corridors under the streets of Fisherman’s Wharf. The hour-long tour immerses groups deep into the seedy past of San Francisco, from the frenzy of the Gold Rush to the lawless boomtown that followed it.
Actors perform during the 150th anniversary battle (Photo: Getty Images)
The Super Bowl of battle re-enactments. Last year over 10,000 actor/soldiers fought in the 150th anniversary of the original battle in southern Pennsylvania. Stand on the sidelines to watch mass infantry and cavalry charges, cannon fire, plenty of explosions, thousands of (simulated) rifle shots, and the agony of hundreds of men in their death throes. Stroll the Union and Rebel army encampments to soak in a historical slice of life. Before going, read Tony Horwitz’s excellent Confederates in the Attic about the subculture of Civil War re-enactors (including purists who soak their uniform buttons in urine to get the color just right, and those who starve themselves to better look like the lean fighters of the Confederacy.