Meet the New Superintendent of First State National Historical Park

Recounting Delaware’s role in history is no easy task, but Ethan McKinley is ready for the challenge.

Photo by Joe Del Tufo

Ethan McKinley recently became the new superintendent of First State National Historical Park. The park, which was approved by Congress last year, is comprised of sites throughout the state, including the Woodlawn Tract in north Wilmington, the New Castle Court House Museum and The Green in Dover. McKinley, 33, is charged with developing the park while telling the story of Delaware’s role in early Colonial settlement through the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  We caught up with him after he had been on the job about a month.


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DT: Congratulations on getting what seems to be a very exciting opportunity.

EM: Thank you. The superintendency of a brand new national park is an extreme rarity. It’s a really exciting place to be right now.


DT: What have you been up to?

EM: A lot. You know the first month of any job is finding out where your resources are and where your needs are. And we’ve got a lot of both. It’s been a busy month of taking inventory and figuring out where we can best use our resources. We’ve got a tremendous amount of momentum. As you know, Congress passed the national historical park on December 19. That makes us official. We were a national monument before, so the commitment was there. But it’s been reaffirmed by Congress. So we are basically working toward getting established. It’s like starting any large program—you have to start kind of small at first and plan a map for success and that’s what we’re planning to do.

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DT: Was it your goal to become a superintendent of a national park?

EM: We had a community meeting here last night in New Castle, and I told the community here the same thing: I’ve grown up as sort of a green and gray, I think, by most people’s standards. I grew up in Colorado. I was in Boy Scouts. I spent a lot of time enjoying the outdoors and getting to our national parks in Colorado. I was an Eagle Scout and always had a really close relationship to natural resources. It was a pretty natural fit for me to take the business background that I eventually got in college and work it into the National Park Service. I think I saw my first superintendent by the time I was 7 or 8. It had always been in the back of my mind. It came into my forethought when I was 16 or 17. It’s been a longtime goal of mine.


DT: How much are you able to talk about your work right now, considering how early you are in the process? While the park physically exists, everything else is just kind of an idea, right?

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EM: The genesis of this whole thing is an idea, starting back with the original concept of the Colonies to this becoming the first state in the country. It’s all very conceptual and the founding fathers of the state and of the country didn’t have much assurance as to what it was going to be. I think we’re taking a lot of what the original intent of the founding fathers is, and we’re trying to realize it. And we’re trying to tell the story of how this state came to be. Conceptual? Yes. There’s not a tremendous amount of tangibility at this point. We have a lot of partners to work with.


DT: Where do you begin?

EM: We have three main priorities out of the gates in making this a really successful visitor experience and something Delaware can be proud of and something visitors are drawn to from all over the country. That vision is community and youth engagement first. President Obama came out with an announcement about Every Kid in a Park. It’s pretty exciting and something that we’re going to tie into. It’s basically a goal and a vision to get every fourth-grader in the country to know their parks. It’s a big one. We have the centennial of the National Parks Service coming up in 2016. We have several initiatives associated with that. Every Kid in a Park is going to be an addition to this drive. It couldn’t be better really, because we have a state that’s committed fourth-graders to study their state’s history. What better way to experience the history of their state than by visiting the places that have been determined to be nationally significant?


DT: One of the reasons I love this state is because of its history.

EM: It’s everywhere you look. It’s incredible because it holds a place of extreme importance with Delawareans. And I think it’s something we can do better at making the nation aware of.


DT: Are there other concepts similar to Delaware’s National Park, where a national park is made up of areas that aren’t contiguous? Is this unique?

EM: There are parks that have multiple units that are spread out over great distances. Every park is, by definition, unique when it comes to national parks. There has to be some sort of unique national significance. There has to be a unique story that can’t be told elsewhere … at least it can be told here better than elsewhere. Our big challenge here is going to be working with our partners—and this is by definition a partnership park—to create a cohesive story. We have a plethora of stories to draw from, but from a visitor’s eye, our job is to make a compelling, comprehensive, exciting experience of Delaware’s history and the nation’s history. So it’s going to be taking our five different areas and trying to create a really fascinating storyline that’s going to draw visitors and locals from one to the other and try and tie together, not just the county history or the city history or the town history or even the state history, but the nationally significant story that’s to be told.


DT: Sounds like a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.

EM: It is a thrilling challenge. I was telling you about resources and needs. I have been incredibly impressed with the resources we’re dealing with. We have invested people. People are excited about their history. We have historical societies, city councils … here in New Castle, we’ve got A Day in Old New Castle, we’ve got Separation Day—all of these stories being told. History here is very much alive. Our job is to try to pull out this nationally significant piece or to make it very evident.


DT: You probably can’t say, but do you have a favorite site here?

EM: I will say that each site has a unique and significant contribution. They did not end up becoming legislation by accident. There’s a resource study that was done in 2008 and 2012 that was presented to Congress and the president. It determined these sights to have national significance. That determination is set in stone, and our work is to tell the story behind that significance. We have sites from Woodlawn, the farthest north, where we have natural resources, trails, mountain biking, equestrian, hiking, we have people floating on the river and we have this great story behind it of a Quaker settlement, of William Bancroft, of the development of the site historically and how it was set aside for conservation. And moving down to Wilmington and New Castle and Wilmington and Dover and Lewes—we have sites that hold unusually important significance to the story of the American people.


DT: The First State Heritage Park in Dover seems to be a microcosm of the national historical park, in that noncontiguous sites are tied together through their history.

EM: It’s a similar concept. [First State Heritage Park] is a park without borders. That’s from their mouths. We define our park as a partnership park. We don’t own all of our sites. Here, where I’m sitting right now at the courthouse in New Castle, the state owns this property. The HCA [state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs] operates the tours here. But we do own the sheriff’s house next door. And we have an easement on the courthouse and The Green here in New Castle. This is an example of how the partnerships are working. It’s not all straight-out federal ownership. We are dependent on our partners to be able to tell our story.


DT: Other than your salary, what other funding comes your way and how is it used?

EM: Currently, we have what could be classified as a starter park. The planning process has yet to take place. I’m going to go back a little bit. I started telling you about the three initial priorities for the park. The first one was community and youth engagement. The second one is partnerships. The third is planning and progress. So, this question is getting to that third priority, which is planning and progress, which is how we plan to move forward. The first piece of this is getting the foundation document in place. The foundation document is a general management plan for the park that will engage the community. It will provide foresight for how we can strategically manage our resources. And that’s going to lay a foundation for future investments, the size of staffing and what would make sense as far as being the most efficient, the most impactful and the best neighbor we can be as a partner.


DT: So, really everything just needs to be sorted out.

EM: There’s planning that has to take place at first, but there are initiatives that we can take in this early stage of the park. And that’s going to be working with volunteers. Here in New Castle, we have a great volunteer corps and they do outreach to visitors basically. You’ll see them during the summer updating visitors to New Castle about what this place means to them, to the national story, to the state story and to the local story. And we have volunteers doing trail maintenance at our Woodlawn location. There will be events. I would say that even though it is a starter park, there are some very real steps we can take to create a presence and start telling the story. But that strategic vision of exactly how we’re going to tie it all together and how we’re going to work with the community to create that comprehensive visitor experience that’s going to pull people in … that’s going to take time. And we’re going to do it right and we’re going to listen to the stories that are there and work with our partners to make sure that we have this more developed park that is going to serve Delaware’s history well.


DT: When will we see start seeing physical signs of a national park?

EM: We have signage up at the sites that were under the national monument. With the sites that were added as part of the national historical park, we’re working on signage as we speak. You’ll see physical evidence. We’ll be working on updating our social media and website. And it’s going to be step-by-step trying to build that presence.


DT: Is there a timetable for when things should be up and running—two years, three years? Is it always going to be a work in progress?

EM: That’s a tough question.


DT: I know.

EM: (He laughs.) I would say that conservation is always a work in progress. Storytelling constantly evolves. I think your question is more to when are we going to have that full experience—that comprehensive story? I can say that as a park we want to see it happen as soon as humanly possible, but we’re not going to do that at the cost of getting it wrong. We are going to listen to historians. We are going to listen to historical societies. We are going to listen to our partners on every aspect of history and make sure that we are getting the story correctly. And that takes time. It’s going to take a lot of research. It’s going to take a lot of public involvement. And we are going to make sure that we create a high-quality visitor experience. But it’s getting put into place piece by piece.


DT: So, Delawareans will play a huge part in shaping this story?

EM: Yes. The stories that are going to find their way into the park—and there’s really no limit to the amount of stories to be told—the stories that will tie the whole park together are going to be a collaborative effort. It’s going to be fact-checked, and we’re going to be sure we’re telling the history as best as anyone knows it. This is going to be a real chance for folks to get involved in the story of their state as it relates to national history. We’ve got a state where people are very proud of their history. We’re hoping that Delawareans are just as excited about this park, or maybe even more so, than visitors. We’re really hoping it will be something that gets local engagement, along with that national attraction to folks who want to learn more about the nation’s history.


DT: It seems you’ve done your homework on Delaware’s history.

EM: I’m learning every day. I spend a good amount of time on a weekly basis talking with people who know the history. I know some of the Colonial history, but I wouldn’t say that I’m any kind of expert in Delaware’s history.


DT: How will your business background serve you in this role?

EM: The reason the park service thought I might do well here and add something to this site is my work with private partnerships. I am very dedicated to the park service. It has been a lifelong goal—if you can call it that from 16 or 17—to be a superintendent and make an impact in the park service. I think we have a tremendous story to tell here. And I think my background in private partnerships, in working with communities, hopefully, can bring some life to the park.


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