Thursday, February 27, 2014

Eastern State Penitentiary

How do you describe a place that is intentionally ugly, intentionally horrible, intentionally built that way? How do I describe a place that having visited a couple of years ago, still haunts me? The Eastern State Penitentiary Museum and Historic Site initially captured my interest in the early 1990s, when I worked at the American Correctional Association (ACA). Despite living just 2 hours away, I ended up waiting almost 15 years to visit Eastern State, which is located in Philadelphia.

I know that prisons aren't supposed to be pleasant places. But rarely are we confronted with places like Eastern State Penitentiary. (I'd like to note that this was not the first prison I've entered. As a writer/editor for Corrections Today, I'd traveled to several jails and maximum security facilities, including the now notorious Baltimore City Jail and the Women's Correctional Facility in Jessup, MD.)

Opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is the world's first true penitentiary. At its completion, the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected, and became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. Operational until 1971, Eastern State's revolutionary system of incarceration encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.

Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its innovative wagon wheel design, and Al Capone's luxuriously furnished cell has been recreated and is on display, complete with oriental rugs, lamps, and elegant furniture. Ordinary inmates at the time were two to a cell, plain beds and only the most minimal furniture.

Al Capone's cell

If you weren't Al Capone,this is what you could expect!

It is a severe place. Bare stones. Crumbling concrete. Peeling paint. Abandoned cell blocks give no clue to the lives of the men who did their time there. The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change.We wondered whether the initial concept of isolation-induced contemplation yielded the reformative results originally intended? Unfortunately, recidivism statistics were not kept at the time. By 1913, Eastern State officially abandoned the one man, one cell system and operated as a congregate prison until it closed. When it closed, Eastern State was overcrowded, as were most American correctional facilities by the early 1970s.

Originally, inmates were housed in cells that could only be
accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; only a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks. This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church.

Outside the cell was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners could not communicate. Exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards.

Cell accommodations were advanced for their time, including a faucet with running water over a flush toilet, as well as curved pipes along part of one wall which served as central heating during the winter months where hot water would be run through the pipes to keep the cells reasonably heated.

The original design of the building was for seven one-story cell blocks, but by the time cell block three was completed, the prison was already over capacity. All subsequent cell blocks had two floors.

During the abandoned era (from 1971 until the late 80s) a "forest" grew in the cell blocks and outside within the walls. The prison also became home to many stray cats, which are remembered by an art installation that was there at the time we visited: whimsical white statues of "ghost cats" placed throughout the prison grounds. There also are art installations in several of the cells and throughout the buildings.

The modern-day museum is in the process of halting the deterioration of the penitentiary in many places, and restoring it in a few other places so we can better understand the evolution of this country's correctional system.

Visiting Eastern State sparked an interesting conversation on the way home about how we should punish those who break the law, which evolved into a discussion on basic human rights. That conversation is exactly why I dragged my kids to this place! It's been a few years -- and yet, it haunts me, and not just because it's been showcased on several different ghost hunter "reality" shows. I think it's time to go back!

Several ghost tours are offered, and at Halloween there's an extensive "haunted house." These sound fun, and are on my list, but I definitely recommend going for the history and to experience the place itself.

Tip: If you're looking for something to do on a winter's day -- head to Eastern State. Dress warmly as it's not heated. But it's not air conditioned either, so I'd recommend this as a winter day trip.

Getting there: GPS it: 2027 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130. There is only street parking at the location, so you will have to either find a spot on the street or use the public parking lot next door to the penitentiary. Parking was easy to find mid-morning on a Saturday.

Hours: Every day 10 am to 5 pm

Dogs: Although Pep, a black lab, was given a life sentence in Eastern State in 1924, your dog isn't welcomed.

Eats: Once you're outside the historic site, there are plenty of local restaurants and cafes to chose from.


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Singer Castle

Who can resist exploring a castle? And that's a problem with America for us castle-lovers -- there simply aren't enough of them around. So when you get to tour one, even if it isn't five centuries old, I jump at the chance! I'd like to say that even Boldt Castle isn't castle enough -- it's really just a humongous Victorian mansion (which is coolness enough, and I'll never turn my nose up at touring a gorgeous old Victorian manse).

Singer Castle LOOKS like a real castle (by design). It's kind of boxy and huge and has crenelations and towers. Like Boldt Castle, it's on its own island in the St. Lawrence River, called Dark Island. It was built for Frederick Gilbert Bourne, president of the Singer Manufacturing Company (now the Singer Corporation), producer of the Singer Sewing Machine. Bourne wanted to surprise his wife Emma and their children with an island 'hunting' retreat. He purchased Dark Island and had designed and built the castle originally known as "The Towers” for a cost of about half a million dollars. Italian stonecutters were engaged to shape the granite for the 4-story, 28-room castle, 4-story Tower, and an elaborate boathouse. Dark Island Castle was the last of several "castles" built in the Thousand Islands during the late 19th century. Bourne undertook the project while larger Boldt Castle was nearing completion nearby.

Bourne lived in the castle until his death, when Marjorie Bourne Thayer took over; she lived there and made additions in 1928. After Marjorie's death, the Roman Catholic order Brothers of the Christian Schools, or Christian Brothers, bought it for a school, but it was eventually deemed impractical, and was sold in 1965 for approximately 30k to a vaguely religious charitable organization, the Harold Martin Evangelistic Association. During this Martin interval, the property was called "Jorstadt Castle," from Dr. Harold Martin's family surname from Norway. There was some local controversy and heartburn over whether Martin's organization deserved its taxfree status. It appeared that the castle was primarily a private residence during this period.

After more than 30 years of Martin tenure, the property fell into disrepair, largely due to the high cost of maintenance. Rumors about the property, together with gradual deterioration of the property and stories about a complex maze of dimly lit secret passageways (there are indeed secret passageways!), complete with a dungeon, all increased the romantic mystique of Dark Island.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dark Island was listed for sale, and remained unsold until 2001, when Dark Island Tours, Inc., acquired it. Dark Island Tours, Inc. undertook an extensive campaign of restoration and adaptation to open Dark Island to the visiting public. The interiors of Dark Island Castle retain their original character, with most of the Bourne-Thayer furnishings. Unlike Boldt Castle, Dark Island always served as a private residence, until it opened to the public for tours in 2003.

Singer Castle's massive medieval entranceway with knights of armor standing guard beside the enormous marble fireplace. A marble stairway leads up to the former Breakfast Room where large Gothic windows frame the breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence River. The tour went all through the castle, including the bedrooms, gym rooms, and bathrooms, even showing where some of the secret passageways are.

The Castle currently is decorated as it would have looked while Frederick or Marjorie were living there, and it was easy to imagine them in the spaces.

Although the living areas are all formally decorated in a heavy, gothic style, the bedrooms were surprisingly light and airy. Throughout the castle, old Singer sewing machines are appropriately scattered, to remind visitors of how the fortune that built the castle was earned.

Getting there: Singer Castle, on Dark Island, is located in the St. Lawrence Seaway in the United States and is only accessible by water. There are several tour companies with cruises to take you to Dark Island.

Hours: The 2014 season begins on Saturday, May 17th. The castle will be open 4 days a week: Saturdays and Sundays 10-5 with the last tour of the day at 4 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 noon to 4 pm. June 27th through Labor Day the castle will be open seven days a week 10-5 with the last tour of the day at 4 p.m. After Labor Day, the castle will be open 4 days a week: Saturdays and Sundays 10-5 with the last tour of the day at 4 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 noon to 4 pm.

Dogs: Ummmmm... no.

Eats: The cruise offered a snack bar that offered the usual snacks (pretzels, tortilla chips, etc., and a variety of soft drinks. It was also acceptable to bring a picnic and eat it on board as well.

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Monday, February 17, 2014

1000 Islands Visited: Sunset Dinner Cruise on the St Lawrence River

I'm a sucker for beautiful sunsets, dinner is always a winner, and who doesn't like a cruise on a lovely river? This "day trip" had all three -- a Sunset Dinner Cruise on the St Lawrence River, touring the Thousand Islands. Lovely scenery and the food wasn't half bad!

That morning we'd driven 8 hours from Ellicott City, MD, where we live, to Pulaski, NY. We'd arrived mid-afternoon, unloaded the car and moved into the cottage we'd rented for the week, then climbed back in to the car to drive another hour up to Alexandria Bay to go on the dinner cruise.

Despite groans from my entire family at the prospect of another hour in the car, they all ended up enjoying dinner and cruising on a river boat around the various islands, and it turned out to be a perfect way to introduce everyone to the region. The weather was gorgeous, the river beautiful, the company excellent. If you're ever in the Thousand Islands area, we all recommend the sunset dinner cruise -- even my youngest son, who was 10 at the time!

Rather than write more about the dinner cruise, I decided to make this a photographic essay instead.


(The blog's coverage of day trips and places and things to do in the mid-Atlantic region will resume next week on the usual Thursday publishing day!)

Hours: Dinner cruises usually are only offered on Fridays and Saturdays, but check the different tour companies.

Dogs: Not on the cruises.

Eats: Because this was a dinner cruise -- plenty to eat right on board. On the other cruises offered by the same company, there was always a snack bar that offered the usual snacks (pretzels, tortilla chips, etc., and a variety of soft drinks.

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Valentine's Day Special: Boldt's Castle Is the World's Best Love Letter

In honor of Valentine's Day, I decided to write about a visit to Bold's Castle in New York's Thousand Islands region -- one of the most extravagant valentine's day gifts ever!

Middle class men give Hallmark cards to their wives; multimillionaires build castles.

George C. Boldt started work on his love letter to his wife Louise in 1900. He bought an island in the St. Lawrence River, then hired 300 carpenters, craftsmen, and stonemasons to build a six-story, 120-room castle, an ode to his beloved. Boldt's Castle incorporated tunnels, children's playhouses, towers, dovecotes, and drawbridges. Appropriately, the island was named Heart Island and is, in fact, shaped like a heart. Hearts and harts are prominent throughout the design, and appear everywhere, from weathervanes to railings, from shrubbery to stained class windows.

Then, just four years after work began, before the place was complete, Louise Boldt died suddenly, in January 1904. Heartbroken, Boldt telegraphed the workers to stop their work immediately. He never returned to the island, nor was the building ever completed.

For the next 7 decades, Boldt Castle lay abandoned and open to the elements and vandals. When the
Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property in 1977, it was decided that through the use of all net revenues from the castle operation it would be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Since 1977, several million dollars have been applied to rehabilitating, restoring, and improving the Heart Island structures.

As a child my family had visited the Thousand Islands and I remember exploring the unfinished and forlorn mansion with them.

Inside the Castle, the first floor has been restored to reflect George and Louise Boldt’s intended finished interior, complete with furnishings. The upper floors are not completely finished, showing not only the rough plaster but the wooden slats and studs. Several of the rooms still sport the graffiti of numerous wits and vandals, who left their mark over the 70 odd years the house and island were neglected. Although work continues, to finish what Boldt left undone, the house will never be completed, in honor of Boldt's broken heart.

The grounds are lovely, however, and pleasant to walk around, enjoying what Boldt and his family never had a chance to.

Getting there: Take a tour boat! (Well, that's the only way, unless you have a boat of your own.) There are several tour operators that make stops at Heart Island.

Hours: Tour times vary. Check Boldt Castle's website, as well as the tour boat's schedules.

Dogs: Nope, no way, no how. Service dogs allowed.

Eats: There is some concessions available on the island or on the tour boats. However, it's also easy to pack a small cooler with a picnic lunch, and there are some benches available on the island for an impromptu picnic.


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Thousand Islands: Light Houses

This week's blog will be different than other weeks. Last weekend I didn't do anything worth blogging about, unless you want to hear about replacing bathroom light fixtures (with some really cool 1970 retro lights) and re-organizing my closet...

No, didn't think so.

So over this week and the next, I'll post several blogs, starting with this one, about the Thousand Islands region. Be sure to check out Thursday's post -- a Valentine's Day special -- about a very special place one man created for his beloved wife. Next week we'll explore the sights of a twilight dinner cruise through the Thousand Islands and wrap up the series with a visit to Singer Castle.

Although our visits to see the lighthouses offered in this post weren't part of a day trip from our homebase in Maryland, it was a "daytrip" from our forward-deployed vacation position in Pulaski, NY, where we'd rented a lovely cottage on the shores of Lake Ontario for a week two summers ago. It was during this trip that I first conceived the idea of blogging about day trips. It took me a while to get started!

First off, I should state I don't go on vacation to relax. There are things to see, places to go, and go I do -- I like to see the area, if only driving around the roads (such as in Texas, where truly there didn't seem to be much to see, near Killeen/Fort Hood). Thus, it was with the greatest of sacrifices that I carved out time in a packed week-long schedule in upstate New York for the kids and I just to float and play in the Lake Ontario waters...

We went on several boat tours of the Thousand Islands. The St. Lawrence River is beautiful and clear, and Thousand Islands is definitely on my list of favorite places -- I'd like to go back and explore the area further. I'd love to rent Singer Castle for a night, or stay at one of the lighthouses that are available.

Since traveling to upstate New York, I've challenged myself to visit and photograph all the lighthouses in the United States. For the time being, I'm working on those light houses east of the Mississippi. It's a formidable goal -- I've got some 400 or 600 light houses to see. (Plenty of ammunition for many a blog posting.)

Why lighthouses? When lighthouses were used for safety, they alerted sailors that their ship was approaching shore or unseen hazards in the water. Even though lighthouses are no longer used for their original purposes (thanks to modern technology), the legacy of lighthouses makes them very popular, and they still serve as navigation aids.

Is it the mystery of the sea (or river, in this case) and a way of life long gone by? Or are they merely symbols of a "simpler" and thus perhaps safer time? (No, not really -- I think life is so much easier for us now than when there wasn't indoor plumbing and electric lights and stoves and ovens, dishwashers and clothes washers.) Lighthouses seem to attract, more than any other type of building, legends and ghost stories. I'll leave it to the anthropologists to explain why. I like their solitude and mystery.

On my "wish list" this year is a boat tour of the Chesapeake Bay that will take us to "a bunch" of lighthouses, and of course, that will appear in the blog. But meanwhile...
...come with me to visit the light houses in the Thousand Islands region. I think I missed a few... oh well, I guess I have to go back!

Sunken Rock Light House

Sunken Rock Light is a lighthouse on Bush Island. In 1847, Congress appropriated $6,000 for three beacon lights in the Thousand Islands area of the St Lawrence River. One of these was designated to mark Sunken Rock, a dangerous submerged obstacle located near the eastern entrance to the narrows running between Wellesley Island and the mainland. The rock was built up to provide the foundation for a tower and boathouse. The islet is also known as Bush Island. 

In 1882, a new iron tower was erected on a concrete base placed over the foundation of the first light. The new tower was lined with bricks up to the first landing, and wood above that. A new boathouse, measuring twenty-one feet by twelve feet, was built the next year to replace the old one, which was too decayed to repair. For the convenience of the keeper, part of the boathouse was partitioned off and fitted with a bunk to serve as a watchroom.  It was converted to solar power in 1988 and is maintained by the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.

Of all the lighthouses, this was the one I never got a decent photo of -- either the lighting or the angle
were always wrong. It was, ironically, the lighthouse that we probably passed by most often,
at least six times during the week we were there.

Website for information about Sunken Rock Lighthouse:

Rock Island Light House

Rock Island Light, opposite the mouth of Mullet Creek, was erected as one of the three beacons authorized in the St. Lawrence, by the act of March 3, 1853; the other two being Sunken Rock, near Alexandria Bay, and Cross-over Island, in Hammond. Since a beacon existed at Rock Island as early as 1847, the "authorization" of 1853 probably refers to approval for refitting the towers, which eventually happened in 1855.

I loved this light house and cottage -- the red cottage is so cheerful looking.

In 1882, the combination keeper's dwelling and tower were replaced by separate structures. A conical iron tower was erected on a bedrock platform at the center of the island, having the foot of its base approximately 15 feet above mean river level. Similar towers were erected on Sunken Rock Island and Crossover Island, such that today both stand as examples of what Rock Island Light looked like during this period. A few yards away, a one-and-a-half story Victorian shingle-style dwelling was constructed, facing north, and surrounded by a concrete seawall for protection.

After the tower was erected at the center of the island the rate of shipwrecks in the vicinity actually increased, since the house, trees, and other lights from the mainland obscured pilots' perceptions of the beacon. In the fall 1894, the light tower was raised approximately five feet from its position in the center of the island, so it could be seen over the roof of the dwelling. It was set atop a solid octagonal wall of red granite laid in Portland cement mortar beneath.

It was finally thought best to move the light tower to an unobstructed location. At the turn of the century, construction began on a walkway, consisting of masonry rubble coated with concrete, that extended from the north face of the island into the river. At its end was added a partially submerged platform upon which a 15 foot wide conical brick base was built. In 1903, the old iron tower was then taken up from its place at the center of the island and placed atop the brick base, thus maintaining more or less the height of the previous light above water level. It is this "stacked" tower that exists today

The light once held a sixth-order fresnel lens, but following World War II, the station was deactivated and the old lens removed. At one time the lamps were powered by a gasoline generator. In 1988, the station was converted to use solar power. Today, the tower emits a white light, but is no longer officially used as a navigational aid.

Unfortunately, we visited the area in July 2012, and I say unfortunately because in June 2013, the island and all its buildings were reopened to the public as a park maintained by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation. The island is accessible by private boat and local shuttle service, and the grounds are open for touring and picnicking. NYS Parks has partnered with Clayton Island Tours to offer a special "Rock Island Tour" with a one hour stopover at the Island. Contact Clayton Island Tours for tour times and fees at 315-686-4820 or on the web at - See more at:

Hours: Open weekends Memorial Day to June 22nd; Daily June 22nd to Labor Day; and Weekends from Labor Day to Columbus Day. Hours: 10 AM - 5 PM - See more at:


Tibbets Point Light House

Tibbetts Point Lighthouse Hostel is located at the point where Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River

meet. After the lighthouse became fully automated in 1976, the Victorian-era lightkeeper's quarters was converted to a hostel. Explore the Lighthouse Museum next door. Built in 1827, the Lighthouse features the only original working Fresnel lens in Lake Ontario. Visitors will enjoy using the provided telescope to survey the Lake and River.

Capt. John Tibbetts of Troy, NY gave 3 of his 600 acres to the Federal Government to establish a lighthouse. In 1827 the first Tower and Keeper's Quarters were built. In 1854 the first tower was replaced by the present circular one. This also marked the installation of the Fresnel Lens -- which is still in operation. A fog whistle was added in 1896. It was replaced with an air-diaphone in 1927 operated by a diesel engine with automatically timed blasts. In 1939 the U.S. Coast Guard assumed lighthouse duties until 1981, when the light was automated and serviced out of Oswego, NY. Lighthouse quarters became a Youth Hostel in 1984.

Getting there: 33439 County Road 6,  Cape Vincent, NY 13618

Hours: Open Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend. May 25 - June 25: Friday through Monday 10 am -7 pm; June 29 - September 3, 7 Days a week. 10 am -7 pm; September 7 - October 8: Friday through Monday 10 am - 7 pm.


Selkirk Light House

Although not on the St Lawrence River, we visited this light house, located near the cottage we rented in Pulaski. It's one of the more picturesque light houses that I've been to, and when I saw it, I thought that the light house should be haunted. As it turns out, according to web sites, local legend says it is indeed haunted, by not one, but two ghosts! Selkirk Lighthouse is located at mouth of the Salmon River and is one of only four lighthouses in the United States that retains its original bird-cage lantern. Completed and activated in August 1838, it is one of three lighthouses in the North East that visitors can rent for overnight stays.

This one "looked" haunted to me, and when I did some research about it, I did uncover some
ghost  stories about it. Very picturesque lighthouse --it looks exactly as an old lighthouse should.
This is probably my favorite.

The original light was a 14" diameter parabolic reflector/lamp system using eight lamps and reflectors, showing a fixed white light for 14 miles. Four reflectors faced the lake and two were positioned on each side. This apparatus initially burned whale oil from a 24-hour reservoir and used a secondary frost lamp in particularly cold weather to warm the main lamp.

Operating seasonally during the shipping season, the lighthouse keepers were paid $350 per year for 8-9 months of duty, then returned to their normal homes in Pulaski or Richland for the winter. The lighthouse was officially de-activated in 1858, although Coast Guard records describe its apparent conversion to Lake Ontario's second activated lifesaving station at the beginning of the annual navigation season on April 1, 1877.

The Selkirk Lighthouse was dedicated as a "Designated Historic Landmark" by the Oswego Heritage Foundation in November 1976, and elected to the National Register of Historic Places in March 1979.

August 6, 1989 the lighthouse officially activated a Coast Guard approved photocell-actuated lamp with automated bulb-changer and are back on the NOAA charts as a Class II navigation aid.

Getting there: 6 Lake Road Extension, Richland, NY 13144


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!