West Point

Why West Point:

West Point is the home of the United States Military Academy. It is located 50 miles north of New York City along the Hudson River. 

It can easily be done as a day trip from New York, but the logistics are a bit tricky, at least in the winter. 

A once-a-day weekend-only bus leaves New York City at 8:45 arriving at 10:30. The return bus leaves West Point at 17:00 (there is a weekday bus, but the schedule does not work well at all and you would have to spend the night there). There are trains to the area, but the station is on the wrong side of the Hudson River and you would need to take a $30 taxi ride to get across. 

Additionally, West Point is an active US military base. Therefore, access is restricted to member of the military. There are only two ways for the general public can get onto the campus. The best way is to take one of the bus sightseeing tours at https://westpointtours.com. The other way is to go for a specific event such as a football game. 

January 30, 2022: Winter, Highland Falls

I did not really know what to expect when I boarded my 8:45 Short Line bus at New York City´s Port Authority Bus terminal. It turned out to be a private bus trip, as I was the only person on except the driver! This was most likely because yesterday was a blizzard which largely shut down transit. 

The bus drove through suburban New Jersey before heading through the woodlands of the Hudson River Valley. The road became extra scenic when we passed Bear Mountain State Park, a popular hiking destination. Eventually, we reached the town of Highland Falls, the entrance to West Point. The bus dropped me off outside the West Point Visitor´s Center. 

There, I walked over to the desk to check in for my bus tour. 

Only person on the bus!

Again, I was the only person on the tour. But during the summer, tours regularly sell out. 

West Point has a storied history. The land was first occupied by the Continental Army in 1787. At the time, the British controlled both New York City and Montreal. The Hudson River was a key waterway and the main way to transport goods between the two large cities. George Washington decided to build a fort at West Point because it was the narrowest point along the Hudson River. The Americans then built a chain across the river that, when raised, could stop British ships from sailing through. 

Links from the Great Chain on display at West Point

After Independence, President Thomas Jefferson decided to build an academy to train military engineers at West Point and established the United States Military Academy in 1802. The inaugural class has 2 graduates. 

In 1833, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer took over as superintendent of the academy. He transformed the academy from an engineering school to a military leadership school and implemented the rigorous curriculum and strict standards that are still in place today. The academy was so successful at training military leadership that nearly every general in the Civil War came from West Point. In fact, Robert E. Lee was superintendent of West Point in the 1850´s. 

The bulk of military leadership in the 20th Century also came from West Point, including household names such as Douglas McArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton. While there are many paths to military leadership, the Long Gray Line of West Point graduates seem to be the best prepared to succeed. Every graduating student becomes a Second Lieutenant in the US Army.

The Long Gray Line of West Point Graduates

The tour bus left the visitor center and went through two military checkpoints to enter the school. After passing by the athletics fields, we entered the main academic area. The buildings are in the “Military Gothic” style. While there are some buildings from the 1800´s, most buildings were built in three waves: 1900-1910´s, 1960-70´s, and 2000´s-2010´s. 

We passed the spectacular engineering building before reaching the main parade grounds. This large grassy lawn is where the Corps of Cadets (the entire student body) does military marching drills and presentations. Behind it is the barracks where the entire Corps lives. Inside the barracks is the Mess Hall where all the cadets eat at the same time.

Across the road, we visited Trophy Point, which contains not only a view of the Hudson Valley, but numerous captured cannons from all of America´s wars. Also here are links from the original chain that crossed the Hudson and a powerful memorial to the soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War. My guide mentioned that the Civil War is still a touchy subject at West Point. 

While the academic buildings were closed to tours, we were able to enter one building: the Cadet Chapel. The landmark Gothic Revival-style church is home to the school´s Protestant chaplain and hosts church services every Sunday (West Point also has Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Interfaith chapels but they are far smaller and less impressive). The interior is covered in military flags and houses the largest pipe organ in the world! Quite a sight. 

Inside the Cadet Chapel

After a drive back past the athletics facilities (sporting competition is a major focus of the West Point Curriculum), we arrived back at the visitor center.

The town of Highland Falls is cute but very small. Its claim to fame is that Billy Joel lived here for some time and wrote the famous song “Summer, Highland Falls”. I got lunch in an old local restaurant called the The Park, where I got a burger. This was clearly the local watering hole, as the staff seemed to know everyone else dining.

Burger in Highland Falls

Now, it was time to explore the museums. It turns out that there are two museums next to each other: the Visitor Center and the Museum. Both are free.

The Visitor Center covers the current academy. Using videos and exhibits, this museum covers every possible aspect of life at West Point from Day 1 to graduation/enlistment in the Army and everything in between. The museum was exceedingly thorough, and I felt like I had basically been to West Point. In addition to explaining, the museum really hammered home the value that West Point brings to the United States. I would consider it one of the best museums I have ever visited, as it explained so much in a clear manner. 

Next door is the West Point Museum. This much older museum has 5 wings: History of the US Army, History of West Point, History of Warfare, Small Arms, and Large Arms. It took me about 2 hours to go through the museum.  The museum feels more dated than the Visitor Center, but did contain some incredible artifacts such as Hitler´s gun, George Washington´s sword, and the casing of the atomic bomb. If you actually read the exhibits, you would be able to learn the history of the US in great detail. 

It was now 4:00, but the bus didn´t leave for another hour. With nothing left to do, I wandered the town. Everything was closed. So, I sat in the bookstore until that closed. Luckily then it was only 15 minutes until the bus left. Again, I was the only one. 

There was a little more traffic, so I returned to New York City at 19:00. 

Final Thoughts:

West Point is a fantastic day trip from New York City! There is so much history to see. The bus tour, museum and visitor centers are absolute musts. I learned so much!

The schedule of the bus gave me a bit too much time in West Point. I was able to see it all (at a very slow pace) and still had 2 hours to spare. 

While I really enjoyed the trip, I did not quite agree with the narrative of US history taught. The message was that the US since its inception was always right and victorious. They said that “In 1973, the Americans left Vietnam a stronger democracy than ever”. Really? “The causes of the Civil War and complex and numerous.” Really? Additionally, the massacres of the Native Americans at the hands of the US army were never mentioned. Instead, the museum displayed the final letter from the “infamous” George Custer. 

While I understand that the displays at West Point are meant to instill patriotism. I hope that when cadets actually enroll at West Point, they are able to critically think about what they are fighting for: the good and the bad.  

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