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Travel Into the Past: Historical Re-enactment Sites, for the Pilgrim in All of Us

September 17, 2015
san francisco-dungeon
san francisco-dungeon

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.

The San Francisco Dungeon

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 Battle of Gettysburg 

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.


Two soldiers on horseback in Williamsburg  (Photo: Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

Colonial Williamsburg

The granddaddy of all re-enactments, Colonial Williamsburg is a 300-acre “living history museum” populated by costumed characters living the lives of craftsmen, soldiers, slaves, and politicians of 18th century pre-revolutionary Virginia. Lively street theater programs rotate daily, telling different stories of the city and its people leading up to the revolution. Twenty separate guided walking tours bring you into the workshops of artisans, through the gardens of wealthy citizens, and into the back roads of slave life in the park’s ironically named Great Hopes Plantation.

Related: Go Inside the New Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Diagon Alley

But Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just some frumpy museum with needlepoint demonstrations and pie-making seminars. It’s the setting for daily mob attacks on the Palace and revolution in the streets, and offers the chance for some militia training and marches with the fife-and-drum corps. You can even buy or rent a costume and become a historical character yourself. By the time your visit is done, you may be reluctant to rejoin modern society.


Children learn sword skills at Pirate School (Photo: Pirates Gulf Coast)


Arrrrrgh, Avast me hearties!  Galveston, Texas was a hub of pirating action in the Gulf of Mexico, and as such is a fitting home to the living history museum of “Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast.” Amidst exhibits of pirate history, actors get to put on their best Blackbeard swagger and assault guests with barrages of banter from the seven seas.  Learn about local legend and patriotic pirate Jean Lafitte, who fought alongside Andrew Jackson in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Jean preferred the more genteel term of “privateer,” so be careful when labeling pirate-like sailors you may meet. The center also has half-day “pirate camps” for the kids to whack each other with foam swords and practice their pirate lingo.

Related: Was Christopher Columbus’s Long-Lost Ship Found Near Haiti?

And for a glimpse into the curious world of pirate re-enactors, check out the Gentlemen of Fortune, a society and information hub for all you wanna-be pirates out there. Get tips on attire, events, and how best to find and join a local pirate camp. Learn the difference between true historical pirates and those despicable “fantasy pirates.” 

Courtesy: Mid Atlantic Vintage Baseball League/Facebook

Hoopskirts, Halftracks, and Historic Baseball  

Long Island’s 200-acre site of Old Bethpage Village Restoration is a typical 19th-century historic recreation, complete with period actors and preserved buildings, but with a couple of surprising additions: a vintage baseball league, and a WWII vehicle museum. After chatting with women in hoopskirts, grabbing an old-tyme root beer, and visiting a hatmaker in the village, stroll out to the nearby baseball diamond where the New York Mutuals play in the Mid Atlantic Vintage Baseball League. Using uniforms and rules from the 1880s, players swing “bats” that are more like square clubs and try to catch the slightly softer hardball with without gloves. Sometimes they’ll even let visitors play (as this author did — went 1-for-4 and got poison ivy from chasing a ball into the shrubbery).

For a jump into a more recent past, visit the recently opened Museum of American Armor, where a collection of halftracks, tanks, jeeps and other vehicles are on display in an incongruous warehouse tucked away inside the Bethpage Village grounds.  A few times a year, the convoy of vehicles rumbles through the village and into nearby fields where uniformed drivers re-create armored assault tactics, perhaps under the watchful eye of some Dutch seamstress from 1850, and a third-baseman from 1884.  

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