Thursday, June 26, 2014

Capitol Hauntings: Taking a Washington Walk Around Capitol Hill


Ghost tours are always intriguing -- they're a little bit of sight-seeing, a little bit of ghost story, and usually a lot of history. It's a good way to get to know a city or town and the people who once lived there. Ghost stories start with people and usually a tragedy, a life cut short, or a life unfulfilled, but ultimately, ghost stories are stories about the human condition -- the drama and joys, but mostly sorrows, of our lives. Often, they're like Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story" radio segments that those of us who are of a certain age remember (I remember listening to them when I was a child in the 1970s).

The Capitol Hauntings ghost tour, which debuted this month, is no different, except instead of looking at homes and houses, you're hearing stories about places that are the backdrop for where America's history happened: the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court Building, the National Library of Congress, among others.

You'll hear about people who somehow played a part in the history of the United States, for example, Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General of the United States Army, involved in prosecuting the case against those who ran Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison for Union prisoners of war.

Apparently Holt spent his latter years as a semi-recluse, re-arguing with/to himself his most famous case -- the one he prosecuted against Mary Surratt, one of the co-conspirators in President Lincoln's assassination. Although found guilty and ultimately hanged --the first woman in the United States to be so -- the case against Surratt was circumstantial and frought with gaps in the evidence. When he died in 1894, those who moved into his house still heard him muttering about that case, and flipping through his law books looking for arguments to bolster the case against her.



We heard again about Mary Surratt a little later in the tour -- people have glimpsed her looking out the windows of the Old Brick Capitol Building, years after her death.

Unfortunately for ghost story fans, Holt's house, like the Old Brick Capitol Building, has been gone for years, so there's no chance you can take a photo of the place and just happen to catch an orb or a ghost. Holt's house was torn down in the early 1900s to allow for the Canon House Office Building to be constructed. It is unknown whether he still walks the halls of the Canon Building -- but if you work there and have heard strange things, Washington Walks wants to hear from you! Likewise, the Old Brick Capitol Building came down a decade or so later than Holt's house to accommodate the construction of the Supreme Court Building in the 1930s. The Old Brick Capitol served as temporary Capitol of the United States from 1815 to 1819 (while the Capitol Building was being rebuilt after the Brits burned it down during the War of 1812); it became the Old Capitol Prison during the American Civil War. 

If there is a complaint about the Capitol Haunts tour it's this: too many of the stories evolved around buildings that are no longer there, about ghost sightings that were last witnessed over a 100 years ago. It would have been far creepier to have heard stories about ongoing hauntings, in buildings that still stand, while we were standing in front of them. 

In researching this blog post, I happened across this blog, "10 Ghost Stories of the US Capitol," from 2010. Several of the Capitol Hauntings walk stories echo ones in this blog, as we heard about the Demon Cat, the John Kincaid-Representative Preston Taulbee (D-KY) argument that resulted in Kincaid shooting Taulbee dead (Taulbee's blood still reportedly stains the steps in the Capitol Building upon which he died), the haunted Senate bath tubs, and the ghost of John Quincy Adams. That's because, I suspect, these are the more well known ghost stories, and all center around the Capitol Building, which perforce must be on a ghost tour of Capitol Hill. Although a nod to these famous stories is okay, I'd love to hear more less-famous ghost stories.


But, this ghost tour does give you an excuse to walk around the outside of these lovely and famous buildings at dusk -- something you could do anytime but most will never get around to doing on their own, so why not go on it for the stories and seeing Capitol Hill at a time when most crowds have departed? Plus, the ghost tour tells you about some of the arcane history of some of these buildings, such as the architect of the Capitol Building who put a curse on it (the blog I mentioned above recounts a slightly different version). And while you're on the walk, you'll learn why there's a local roller derby team named the Demon Cats.


Since 1999, Washington Walks guides have been leading visitors and locals alike along the streets of America’s capital city, revealing the stories and sites that abound on the National Mall and beyond. The Capitol Hauntings tour is just one of many different tours -- but also their newest -- offered to folks interested in learning a little more about our nation's capitol. (I have to say, this is one of the benefits of living in the mid-Atlantic states region -- easy access to Washington, DC., as well as several other major cities!)

My favorite ghost story from the tour was one about the Library of Congress worker who decided that little read tomes in the library, which at the time was still in the Capitol Building, would be far superior places to put his small fortune than deposited in a bank. He died suddenly. His heirs looked in vain for his money, but it was only found years later when the Library was moved to its current location, and money fell from various books as they were being packed for removal to the new building. "They" say he still walks the halls of the current Library of Congress, flipping through the pages of books looking for his fortune.


The final story took us to the first and only private home on the ghost tour. But, while you're standing there, listening to the related ghost story, you should snap as many photos as you can: you may catch an incredible but creepy photo of a gigantic orb.

This photo was taken by my friend, who went with me on the ghost tour!


Getting there: This ghost tour departs from Capitol South metro station.

Hours: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., May 31 - October 31. This walk is NOT offered on  June 28 and October 4.

Website: www.washingtonwalks.com

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Civil War History Galore at Hollywood Cemetery

My husband and I recently went "tombstone touristing" at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA. Hollywood Cemetery is a classic example of the Victorian notion of creating park-like cemeteries, where families could go spend the afternoon or picnic in a picturesque and natural setting, contemplating nature's beauty amidst reminders of life's certain ending.

Hollywood Cemetery is definitely a destination cemetery for sight-seers, even if you are not into tombstones. History, art, and landscape come together at Hollywood, which is perched on bluffs high above Richmond and the James River. So far, of the several historical cemeteries I've been to -- it's the loveliest.



A lovely door to a
mausoleum, dated 1912.
For history lovers, there are numerous graves of the rich and famous, including the fifth and tenth U.S. presidents. Civil War enthusiasts will find a virtual who's who of Confederate generals, including J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett, as well as the grave of the president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. There are, in addition, several famous authors and other notables. Beyond the famous and the rich, though, there are some very beautiful examples of grave art that make the cemetery worth visiting.

I'm what's known as a taphophile, in that I'm intrigued by the statues and art on grave markers, particularly from the Victorian era, although I prefer the term tombstone tourist -- it doesn't sound so much like a disease. Victorian Americans were taphophiles, too -- they viewed these cemetery gardens as destinations, a place to spend a pleasant afternoon, even if they didn't have loved ones buried there. Hollywood, with its landscaping and winding lanes, hills, and hollows, is a classic example of a Victorian cemetery, which is what its designer had hoped it would be. In fact, the man who designed it, Philadelphia architect John Notman, wrote that he wished the cemetery to be "original in every thing, as it had a distinctive and superior character of ground, which with the splendid panoramic views from it of the city and the river, makes it equal to the best in the country."



The heyday of mortuary art lasted between 1830 and 1930, and it was the landscaped cemeteries such as Hollywood (and Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore and even Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD) that gave people the space for the large, creative monuments that make going to these cemeteries so interesting. The monuments range in style, from classical to naturalistic to gothic to Egyptian and art deco.




Having arrived at the cemetery 20 minutes after the single daily guided walking tour (at 10 a.m., sharp), my husband and I decided to explore on our own. We stumbled upon a ceremony commemorating Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis' birthday on 3 June, at his gravesite. Curiosity got the best of us, so we joined in, appreciating the wreath-laying, the spectacle of re-enactors dressed in Confederate uniforms rubbing shoulders with modern-day quintessential Southern ladies in their lovely hats. Davis' gravesite appropriately is located near the edge of the bluff overlooking Richmond. As a Yankee I chuckled, wondering (to myself, since we were outnumbered there) whether they realized that the South, ummm....had lost the war. (It's also interesting to note that Davis had been reviled by his own people during the last years of the Civil War.)

Some 18,000 Confederate soldiers also are interred in Hollywood. As you enter the Confederate Soldiers section, you can't help but notice the 90-foot-high pyramid honoring the Confederate dead. This monument was erected in 1869 with funds raised by the Hollywood Memorial Association. This was the first memorial placed in honor of soldiers of the "Lost Cause," as the Confederacy was thought of back then. (Ah, so they did realize they'd lost. Good to know.)

A story about the pyramid is that volunteers were sought for the dangerous and possibly fatal job of placing the capstone. There was only one volunteer, a sailor serving time in the nearby state penitentiary. When he successfully placed the capstone AND survived, the man was granted his freedom.

As the first, largest, and most prosperous of the British colonies in America, Virginia was the birthplace of four of the first five presidents of the United States -- and eight total U.S. presidents were born in Virginia, more than in any other state. In the 1850s, there was a movement to gather the remains of presidents who were native Virginians and re-inter them in Hollywood Cemetery. Thus, James Monroe's body was brought down from New York to a place of honor in the center of Presidents Circle. His is one of the most dramatic markers in the cemetery. The marker is "significant for the flamboyant and delicate tracery in cast iron," which forms a sort of "bird cage" over a simple granite sarcophagus. It is Victorian design at its best and most elaborate, and curiously beautiful (I've always been inclined to excess).

A mere five yards away is tenth U.S. President John Tyler's grave. Don't remember John Tyler? You probably remember the slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," from your high school U.S. history class.

Detail from the top of John
Tyler's grave marker.
That's him. The song's lyrics sang the praises of Whig candidates William Henry Harrison (the "hero of Tippecanoe"), who died shortly after inauguration (but is not buried in Hollywood), and John Tyler, while denigrating incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. Tyler's grave stone is notable for its interesting eagle sculpture at the top, although it's hard to appreciate without a zoom lens on your camera.

Unfortunately, these two presidents were the only two, of the seven Virginia-born U.S. presidents who died before 1850, to be gathered to Hollywood. George Washington is interred, as per his wishes, at Mount Vernon; Thomas Jefferson at Monticello; James Madison at Montpelier; William Henry Harrison in North Bend, OH; and Zachary Taylor in Kentucky in a cemetery named for him.

Detail from the stone marking
the grave of Fitzhugh-Lee,
Virginia governor,
Confederate general and
then general of U.S. forces. 
Tip #1: To get the most out of your visit, before you go, make sure you view the slideshow offered by Hollywood's website: www.hollywoodcemetery.org/history-slideshow.html

Tip #2: There's a interesting little pamphlet, Hollywood Cemetery, A Tour (by James E. DuPriest, Jr., Richmond Discoveries, 1985) that I wish we had seen BEFORE we'd visited Hollywood Cemetery! Although it focuses on famous personages and not as much on the lovely statuary that can be found at the cemetery, it provides a map, a numbered stop tour, and information about the most famous gravesites.

Getting there: 412 S Cherry St, Richmond, VA 23220

Hours: Open but there are walking tours April through October, Monday through Saturday at 10 a.m.

Dogs: Sure! There were several dog-walkers while we were there and the cemetery is best appreciated on foot; be sure to bring baggies to pick up after them.

Website: www.hollywoodcemetery.org

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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email daytripgal@gmail.com if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 



Thursday, June 12, 2014

NCR Trail in PA: Exploring Heritage Rail Trail Park

Wonderful summer weather lures all of us outside. Always on the lookout for new destinations, we decided to bike the path that continues on from Maryland's NCR Trail (read about our exploration of that here).

Established in 1992 and covering 176 acres, the Heritage Rail Trail County Park is 21 miles long and runs north from the Mason Dixon line just south of the Borough of New Freedom through Glen Rock, Hanover Junction, and Seven Valleys in the Howard Tunnel to the Colonial Courthouse in York, PA. It's within easy reach of Baltimore, being just an hour away straight up I-83.

The trail connects to Maryland's 20-mile long Torrey C. Brown Trail (better known as the NCR Trail). Today, the rolling countryside along the old Northern Central route is relatively undeveloped – so it's easy to imagine how scenery would have looked a hundred years ago.

The trail passes through pastoral farmland, along a little creek that provides interesting views along the trail. There are beautiful old barns and stone houses, fields of goats and horses, and wild flowers, such as the purple spiderwort pictured to the right, along the trail.


Our plan was to park at Hanover Junction and ride the 9ish miles to New Freedom, have brunch, and ride back. When we arrived at the parking lot, though, we were surprised to see the Bob Potts Marathon underway. Luckily for us, the trail wasn't closed to us, as long as we yielded to the runners. At any rate, most of the race course was to the north -- we were headed south to New Freedom.

Although the grade throughout the trail is reasonably level, New Freedom is the high point., and no matter which direction you approach it from, there's a bit of climb. The PA side of the trail is quite different than the Maryland side. The path is wider, actually better maintained. 

In addition, the old railroad still runs alongside throughout, and the rails are still active, although "just" for the Steam Into History Scenic Train rides. Expect to see a train at any time while enjoying a trip on the trail. In fact, we encountered the train as we rode back toward Hanover Junction, riding alongside of it for a bit before we sped off (we were traveling about 5 miles per hour faster than the train).

The 1800s saw the growth of the Northern Central Railroad, a vital link between Washington, DC; Harrisburg, PA; upstate New York; and Lake Ontario. Its passage through York County -- the Heritage Rail Trail runs through York County -- brought prosperity to the area's farmers, merchants, and manufacturers, and spurred the growth of communities such as New Freedom and Hanover Junction.

During the Civil War, the railroad was a prime target for the Confederates prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. Rebel troops cut telegraph wires and destroyed bridges in an attempt to isolate Washington DC from the rest of the Union. After the Gettysburg battle, President Lincoln traveled via the NCR to Hanover Junction, where his train headed west to Gettysburg so he could deliver his famous Address. The Steam Into History engine is a replica of the locomotive of the train Abraham Lincoln rode to present the Gettysburg Address and two years later carried his body in a funeral car.

When we arrived in New Freedom, we headed straight to the New Freedom Rail Trail Cafe, which offers breakfast and lunch entrees, as well as smoothies and coffee. We both decided on the Knuckle Sandwich -- scrambled eggs, cheese, and turkey sausage on a toasted ciabatta roll. That and an iced coffee made a most excellent break from the bike ride and provided us energy for the return ride. It's worth noting that the New Freedom train station is restored to its 1940 history. The museum there is open only on Saturdays.


The ride back to Hanover Junction was mostly downhill, making it an enjoyable ride as the day was heating up. The spur line junction, which carried Lincoln west to Gettysburg, at Hanover Junction is still there, as is the old train station, restored to its state in the late 1860s. The station is in a lovely setting -- with some artwork on the lawn and a garden dedicated to the memory of Abe Lincoln for all to enjoy.

The York County Park Service offers special 12 to 15 mile rides on the trail. Each ride has a different starting place. It also offers a 9-mile "moonlit" ride, during which riders can enjoy learning about local folklore, history, and nature. 

Getting there: There are multiple places to park along the Heritage Rail Trail. Check the park's website for specific directiojns.

Hours: 8 a.m. to dusk.

Dogs: Happy tails! By all means, bring them!

Websites: www.yorkcountypa.gov/parks-recreation/the-parks/heritage-rail-trail-park.html; www.steamintohistory.com.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Beach Combing at Calvert Cliffs State Park

It can be really fun to go fossil hunting --
at least, it sounds fun to a 12 year old. It sounded fun to me too. That's why an early summer Saturday found us on our way to Calvert Cliffs State Park. Calvert Cliffs State Park is unique among hiking opportunities in the region for its up-close views of the Calvert Cliffs from below, fossil hunting opportunities, and hiker-only access to the Chesapeake shoreline along a mile of sandy beach.

The main feature of the park is the huge Miocene cliffs that dominate the waterfront. The cliffs and the shores below contain more than 600 species of fossils from the Miocene epoch, more than ten million years ago. These cliffs rise over the Bay over 100 feet and are slowly eroding at the rate of almost 3 feet per year, ensuring a constant supply of "new" fossils to discover. They were created over 10 million years ago when the Chesapeake Bay and most of southern Maryland were still a shallow sea. As the waters receded, the sea floor became exposed and what was to become fossils gathered at this point. The cliffs are the most extensive assemblage of Miocene fossils in the eastern United States.



More than 1,000 acres of this park are designated as wildlands; the park is allowing the landscape to return to its more natural state.

The beach is littered with fossils that have fallen out of the cliffs and washed ashore. We noticed that other visitors had buckets, sieves, and rakes to help them hunt for sharks teeth and fossilized shells. In fact, several different groups, from families to groups of friends, and several couples of all ages were there with some very serious equipment! We felt under prepared, having brought only a couple of plastic bags to carry out our findings.

If you follow the red blazed trail to the cliffs, it is just about 1.8 miles out to the water, for a solid 3.6 mile hike there and back. The hike itself is lovely. The trail, which is mostly dirt with some boardwalk (in good shape) winds mostly through the woods and is largely flat, although there are a couple of small, easily surmounted hills. Because we went the day after 2 to 4 inches of rain had fallen on Maryland, there was a lot of mud on the trail, so if it's rained recently, wear footwear that will protect your feet or that you don't mind getting wet and muddy.

After following and observing a creek develop into wetland, the path all of a sudden opens to the Bay. Don't rush through the trail because the woodlands and the babbling brook that runs along it for much of the way are simply lovely, and deserve as much of your attention as the fossils at the end. When the trail changes and opens into the wetlands, frogs croaking replaced bird song as the dominant sound. Go slowly, because there are some lovely birds to be observed there, including the white egret I was lucky enough to photograph. While hiking, keep alert for the unexpected things -- the lone Siberian iris in bloom along the trail, or the black snake sunning itself on the path.

While the walk to the beach is a bit longer than some might expect, it is well worth it. I'd originally intended on only stopping on the beach to search for sharks teeth and fossils for 15 minutes, but we had a lot of fun with that and we were there well over an hour -- not just looking for the fossils but chatting with the other folks who were there.

So what did we find? We found a very tiny shark's tooth, a huge fossilized barnacle, a very cool looking curled stone that immediately had me imagining that it was the claw from some ancient crocodile roaming the vast seas... when we talked with the park ranger who was
on the beach, she informed us that the claw-like stone was "bog iron." ... sigh. But we also found several very interesting rocks with shell imprints and a "matrix fossil" with layers of fossilized shells and such. Although we didn't find anything uber exciting, we felt very satisfied with our finds, and overall, had a great time going beach combing!



Right around the corner from the state park is the Cove Point Lighthouse. Over the protests of my offspring, I decided to check it out. Cove Point Lighthouse is known for being the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay; to this day, it remains an active aid to navigation.

This light was built in 1828 by John Donahoo, who erected a brick conical tower along the plan he had used at several other sites in the Bay. The keeper's house was also built that year.

The keeper's house was enlarged in 1881 when it was converted to a duplex with housing for two keepers and their families. and again in 1925 when inside kitchens were installed. In 1950 a separate small house was built as home to a third keeper and his family.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 as Cove Point Lighthouse. The keepers remained until 1986 when the light was finally automated. The light was in good condition, with much equipment remaining from prior years, when it was turned over to Calvert County in 2000. Since then it has been administered by the Calvert Marine Museum, which allows access to the light and grounds in the summer months.

Getting there: Calvert Cliffs State Park is located at: 9500 H. G. Trueman RoadLusby, Maryland; Cove Point Light House is located at 3500 Lighthouse Blvd, Lusby.

Dogs: Yes for the state park, no for the light house.

Hours: During the months of June, July, and August, the lighthouse grounds are open daily from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. During the month of September, the Cove Point Lighthouse is open on weekends only from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Website: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/calvertcliffs.asp

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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email daytripgal@gmail.com if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!