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American Icons: West Point

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What is it that draws 3 million visitors each year to the United States Military Academy at West Point? Duty? Honor? Country? No, wait, those are the three words West Point uses as its motto attracting thousands of dedicated young men and women to carry on the academy's legendary tradition. Actually, New York state's third-most-visited attraction draws a diverse mix of guests from veterans, to proud parents, to curious tourists for a variety of reasons. West Point is steeped in over 200 years of U.S. history and tradition, a fact that no doubt draws many to step through its gates. Plus, America's oldest continuously occupied military post sits on a 16,000-acre reservation amid the tranquil beauty of the Hudson River Valley, which makes for a nice getaway from New York City, just over 50 miles to the south.

 

ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS

As far back as the Revolutionary War, West Point's commanding perch on the Hudson River earned it distinction as one of America's most strategic locations. In 1778, Gen. George Washington commissioned a fort to be built at West Point and transferred his headquarters here in 1779. Despite a traitorous scheme by Benedict Arnold to hand the fort over to the British, Fortress West Point was never captured.

 

Not long after the war ended, pressure mounted to create a military academy devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare, and in 1802 Thomas Jefferson signed legislation to establish just such a place. The focus of West Point soon broadened, and by the mid-1800s civil engineering became the foundation of the institution's curriculum. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, West Point graduates had a hand in the construction of many of the nation's railway lines, bridges, harbors and roads. Later, graduates such as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Sherman and Stonewall Jackson dominated the leadership on both sides of the Civil War. And, over the years, distinguished military leaders of the 20th century such as George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and H. Norman Schwarzkopf have passed through the institution's halls. Today, the academy continues to attract high-caliber men and women, preparing them for duty in the Army and service to their country.

 

WHAT TO DO

Since visitors can only enter the gated academy grounds on a guided tour, one's first stop should be to the West Point Visitor's Center. Here visitors can brush up on historical information, watch a video and sign up for a guided bus tour. A photo ID is necessary for taking the tour, but children accompanied by an adult do not require one.

 

Directly behind the visitor's center is the West Point Museum, which houses a collection of arms, cannons, artillery, uniforms, and military art and objects tied to West Point's past. Opened in 1854, the West Point Museum is the nation's oldest and largest military museum, with 135 exhibits that represent every American armed conflict, from the Revolutionary War to the Battle of Gettysburg to World War II. Entrance to the visitor's center and museum is free.

 

Next stop is the West Point Tour, which will take you into the gated portion of the academy grounds and to the major sites, including the Cadet Chapel, Trophy Point and the academy's parade ground, as well as academic buildings and the dean's and superintendent's homes. Trophy Point offers an amazing view, plus plenty of historical information. Here you can see links from "The Great Chain" a 150-ton iron chain extended across the Hudson by Washington's soldiers to control river traffic during the Revolutionary War. Be sure to check out the Battle Monument, which is reputed to be the largest polished granite shaft in the Western Hemisphere and includes 2,230 inscribed names of officers and men who fell in battle during the Civil War. Due to heightened security since Sept. 11, Fort Putnam and the West Point Cemetery the burial place of former famous graduates like Gen. George A. Custer are currently no longer accessible to visitors. If you can't make the real tour, visit our West Point Slideshow for an online tour of the campus grounds.