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Uncovering the history around us

Created date

September 24th, 2015

Manhattan

They are seemingly ordinary places in our everyday lives: a Rite Aid drugstore in downtown Baltimore; a Hilton Hotel in the middle of Manhattan; a Jersey City station stop on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson commuter line. 

Most passersby wouldn’t have given these places a second thought if Andrew Carroll hadn’t come along. For years, the writer and historian has been traveling the country in search of stories from America’s past in an effort to shed light on the forgotten people, places, and events that have helped shape our nation.

Ironically, the man who has made it his life’s work to explore history never much cared for the subject as a youngster.

“Growing up, I had no interest in history,” says Carroll, who currently serves as director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in California. “I didn’t like going to forts, battlefields, and historic sites. They really bored me.”

Out of the ashes

But all of this changed when, in 1989, during his sophomore year at Columbia University, he received news that his parents’ home in Washington, D.C., had burned down in a freak electrical fire. Everything was lost.

“The fire destroyed our belongings,” he recalls. “Heirlooms, photographs—they were all gone. And this was before the iCloud; we didn’t have backups of our family pictures and other memorabilia.”

This made Carroll realize exactly how easy it is to lose precious remnants of the past—a fact that is as true on a national level as it is in the personal realm. 

Soon, he stumbled upon stories from all over the country that embodied instances of such loss. In some cases, tragedy was to blame, in others, commercial development and historical amnesia.

Thus began Carroll’s “Here Is Where” project (Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, Three Rivers Press). What he casually describes as “a hobby” is actually an intricate endeavor to travel around the United States marking buildings and places where people made history.

One of Carroll’s favorites is the Exchange Place stop of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson in Jersey City, N.J. A spot where today countless urban commuters await their trains was, in 1863, the scene of an extraordinary intersection of paths. 

During the Civil War, this stop was part of the New Jersey Railroad Company’s line. The very ground upon which unwitting travelers stand was where actor Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) saved the president’s son Robert Todd Lincoln from being crushed by an oncoming train.

“These kinds of stories are better than anything a novelist could concoct,” exclaims Carroll. “It blew my mind to see that people were standing right where it happened and didn’t know it.”

Marking historical spots

At these sites, he has a plaque made to commemorate the event that occurred there. The price tag for each can run into the thousands.

Carroll recently had one such plaque installed inside a Rite Aid Pharmacy at 125 E. Baltimore Street in Baltimore, Md. After extensive research, he discovered that a print shop run by 38-year-old Mary Katherine Goddard stood on this lot more than 200 years ago.

One of America’s first female publishers, Goddard was an unsung patriot. On this site in January 1777, she printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to contain most of the signers’ names.

“This was high treason as far as the British were concerned,” notes Carroll. “She could have been hanged for it, but she took that risk to get the word out about our Declaration of Independence, and she did it in her print shop, where the Rite Aid currently stands in Baltimore.”

Then there’s the towering Hilton at 6th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan. At first glance, it blends in with the rest of the looming New York metropolis. 

But thanks to another of Carroll’s plaques, pedestrians will know that it was here that Martin Cooper made the first cell phone call in history on April 3, 1973. 

“The places that I’ve marked were largely forgotten, some completely paved over or erased,” Carroll says. “As an American, I feel that it’s my duty to memorialize them.”

That’s what history is all about—remembering. 

The past lives on in our hearts, our minds, our imaginations, whether it’s through a document in an attic or a patch of pavement in Manhattan. Few know this better than Andrew Carroll.

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