December 14, 2017

Philadelphia's Historic District Brings Outlander To Life

Storied Philly Blocks Reveal Historic Locations Used In Diana Gabaldon’s Popular Novels

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Author Diana Gabaldon set two of her novels, “An Echo in the Bone” and “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” in Revolutionary-era Philadelphia. Currier & Ives., courtesy the Library of Congress
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Seven marked trails, comprising more than 30 miles, lead outdoor lovers past landmarks at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Photo by J. Fusco for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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Built by Benjamin Chew in 1767, the Cliveden estate was the site of the Battle of Germantown, one of General Washington’s worst defeats. Photo by R. Kennedy for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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What’s Philadelphia’s Historic District got to do with Outlander, author Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling eight-book (and-counting) series—now also a hit TV series on Starz—about a World War II British army nurse who travels through time to meet an 18th-century Scottish Highlander? Plenty. Protagonists Claire and Jamie Fraser are at the heart of Outlander’s heady romance and historic fantasy. In the book series’ last two editions—which are not yet televised—the Frasers bring that romance and fantasy to the heart of Philadelphia’s Historic District.

Revolutionary War-era Philadelphia sets the scene for Gabaldon’s most recent novels, An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. (The first, Outlander, was published in 1990.) Within and around the original city, the couple meets Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine and Benedict Arnold. Claire Fraser chats up both General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Jamie Fraser serves under Washington in the Continental Army.

Among the deaths, weddings, reunions, life-saving surgeries and life-threatening battles—exactly what fans have come to expect from Gabaldon—much of the action takes place in and around Philadelphia’s Historic District, between the Delaware River and 7th Street, Vine and Lombard Streets. Here are the real Philadelphia sites where the Frasers and other fictional Outlander characters spent time, and attractions that recall the events they experienced. Spoiler alert: There are lots of spoilers.

Outlander Sites In The Historic District:

  • An Echo in the Bone arrives in Philadelphia around July 4, 1777, when the city is in rebel hands—and celebrating. Some of the deepest dives into our nation’s origin story come via visits to the must-visit Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, both part of Independence National Historical Park. Hall: 6th & Chestnut Streets; Bell: 6th & Market Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
  • Is there a doctor in the house? Wherever Claire Fraser is, yes. But colonial Philadelphia was home to another famous surgeon, Declaration of Independence signer, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, in the series, aids a character’s battle-wounded relative in 1777. Today, Rush’s house is gone, but an 18th-century-style garden gracefully marks its footprint in Independence National Historical Park. Other notable 18th-century homes nearby include the Dolley Todd House at 4th and Walnut Streets. Benjamin Rush Garden: 3rd & Walnut Streets, nps.gov/inde
  • Billed as “our nation’s oldest residential street,” Elfreth’s Alley, between 2nd Street and the Delaware River, appears 18th-century picturesque because much effort has gone into keeping it that way. It’s quiet now, but back in the day this section lived up to its “Hell Town” nickname. A heartsick William Ransom, the titled son of Jamie Fraser, ventures here in search of a pleasurable escape from torment, but finds trouble instead. One of the tiny houses is a museum open to the public (no. 124-126), and there are private and special-event tours. (215) 574-0560, elfrethsalley.org
  • A house at “17 Chestnut Street” is the center of much of the action in Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. The location was fictional, but a sense of what a city neighborhood was like in the 18th century is never far away in the neighborhood of Society Hill, with its brick-fronted period mansions, cobblestone alleys and a recreated Headhouse Square that’s home to a year-round farmers’ market. This picturesque neighborhood is bordered by the Delaware River and 8th Street, Walnut and Lombard Streets.
  • Spoiler alert! Also in the latest book in the series, Young Ian Murray, who is Jamie Fraser’s nephew, and Rachel Hunter, a Quaker physician’s assistant, and Denzell Hunter, Rachel’s brother and Continental Army surgeon and nurse Dottie Grey are wed in a double ceremony at a fictional church that physically and historically resembles St. George’s United Methodist Church. St. George’s is open for services, tours and weddings. 235 N. 4th Street, (215) 925-7788, historicstgeorges.org

Outlander Themes in the Historic District:

  • A Sassenach’s got to eat. (“Sassenach” is an old Gaelic term that’s pejorative for outsider; in Outlander, it is also Jamie’s pet name for Claire.) City Tavern, a Colonial dining establishment based on the restaurant frequented by John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin and their compatriots, recreates through-the-Stones authenticity. The staff wears period costumes and chef Walter Staib’s menu tweaks 18th-century dishes for today’s tastes. 138 S. 2nd Street, (215) 413-1443, citytavern.com
  • The Franklin Court Printing Office belonged to Benjamin Franklin, but the Historic District replica of the 18th-century print shop strongly resembles that of Outlander printers and couple Fergus and Marsali Fraser. Among the Frasers’ customers was a dour fellow by the name of Thomas Paine. Franklin Court, with entrances on Market and Chestnut streets between 3rd and 4th Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
  • The Museum of the American Revolution houses artifacts, documents and art from the era the two novels cover. Powder horns to muskets to cooking gear, flags and uniforms are all like those the Frasers might have seen or used. Perhaps Claire and Jamie were in General Washington’s headquarters tent, also on display. 101 S. 3rd Street, (215) 253-6731, amrevmuseum.org

Outlander Beyond The Historic District:

  • Armed with a 20th-century medical degree but 18th-century medical supplies, Claire relies heavily on herbal remedies. So of course she restocks her medicinal larder at Bartram’s Garden. It’s also the scene of a thunderous reunion with her husband. The garden takes up 45 acres along the Schuylkill River and has both a rolling meadow and medicinal plant display. 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, (215) 729-5281, bartramsgarden.org
  • The 18th-century Cliveden House in Germantown has an intriguing Outlander connection. The estate was the site of the decisive Battle of Germantown in October 1777, part of the British reoccupation of Philadelphia. The house, now open for tours, displays authentic period furnishings (once the provenance of the resident Chew family), including two ornate mirrors and other mementos from the Mischianza, the notoriously posh British ball of 1778 honoring British General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. In the book, Claire attended the affair, naturally. On the first Saturday October, Cliveden hosts a reenactment of 1777’s Battle of Germantown. 6401 Germantown Avenue, (215) 848-1777, cliveden.org
  • The Continental Army encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78 is a somber backdrop for many events in Echo in the Bone. Characters tend to the sick and wounded—approximately 2,000 soldiers died, though no battles were fought—and a Redcoat Fraser relative courageously seeks aid here. Valley Forge National Historical Park commemorates our founders’ sacrifice with educational displays and interpretive programs, a restored Washington’s headquarters, statues and other memorials. The park’s 3,500 acres offer multi-use and horse trails, picnic areas and more. 1400 N. Outer Line Drive, King of Prussia, (610) 783-1000, nps.gov/vafo
  • Rittenhouse Square’s popular British pub The Dandelion gives a culinary nod to Claire’s 20th-century roots, especially when the menu features Eton Mess, a dessert she serves at a dinner party in the third season of the TV show, along with sticky toffee pudding, a perennial (although comparatively modern) dessert favorite. 124 S. 18th Street, (215) 558-2500, thedandelionpub.com
  • The Frasers cross paths numerous times with notorious Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold (before he turned traitor). Claire also meets Peggy Shippen. Arnold and Shippen married in 1779, the same year he purchased Mount Pleasant, one of the historic Fairmount Park mansions along the Schuylkill River. Mount Pleasant closed temporarily for renovation in 2017, but visitors can tour other period homes in Fairmount Park. parkcharms.com
  • Many scenes in Written in My Own Heart’s Blood—including one of the saddest—take place “perhaps two hours’ walk outside the city,” according to the book. This would place the Frasers and other characters approximately five miles from the Historic District, in the heart of Fairmount Park. The Park’s Wissahickon Valley Park evokes the grandeur of America’s great forests and features 50 miles of multiuse trails and history. Along the Wissahickon Creek, the easy-to-navigate five-and-a-half-mile Forbidden Drive—“forbidden” because cars can’t drive on it—lets visitors walk, bike, run or meander on horseback. Friends of the Wissahickon has the details, plus guided hikes and other activities. fow.org

Philadelphia’s Historic District campaign, from VISIT PHILADELPHIA®, showcases the city’s incomparable place in early American history and the still vibrant neighborhoods of Old City, Society Hill and the Delaware River Waterfront. The campaign celebrates America’s most historic square mile in the country’s first World Heritage City, as designated by the Organization of World Heritage Cities. Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development and H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, the initiative runs through September 2018.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, visitors can engage with costumed history makers, hear stories of the real people of independence and take part in colonial reenactments. And every day of the year, they can tour, shop, dine and drink in the area just like the founding fathers and mothers once did. For more information about all there is to see and do in Philadelphia’s Historic District, go to visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com.

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