Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Beautiful Ruins, Beautifully Preserved

On a hilltop overlooking the Patapsco River Valley, stabilized ruins sit serenely in a park just above Ellicott City. I've known vaguely that these are the former Patapsco Female Institute, which was founded in 1837 as an elegant finishing school for young women. Despite living in Ellicott City for almost two decades now, only recently did I finally explore the ruins.

The school operated until 1891. Since then, the buildings served as a private residence twice, as well as a hotel and theater. Since 1966 the building has been under the care of the 'Friends of the Patapsco Institute.' Now, the Patapsco Female Institute (PFI) most often serves as a popular wedding venue and an annual haunted house. Supposedly it's haunted, but the sense when I toured the site was of peace and beauty.

Regular readers of the blog know I love me a good ruin. A trip to Ireland last April only wet my appetite! (And yes, that trip is likely to show up in this blog!) I've known about the PFI for years, but it was in pursuit of an Ingress mission (Ingress is a game played on mobile phones, which imposes a virtual world of portals in a scenario of benevolent (or is it?) alien invasion on real world landmarks) that brought us to the park on an October Saturday. It's a good time to go -- the trees are gorgeous!

The day we were there, autumn foliage in Howard County was at its peak. Looking
through the windows of the former chapel onto the gorgeous trees outside
created an illusion of stained glass windows.

A steel frame inside the ruins stabilizes it from further deterioration; deck-like flooring on the "first floor" allows you to walk around inside on the first level; the basement is paved with brick. A skin of concrete on the inside protects the walls as well as shows where stairs climbed between the levels.

The granite faced, Greek revival structure housing 100 students was built on 12 acres of land in what was then called Ellicott's Mills (it didn't get renamed Ellicott City until much later). Its proximity to the B&O Railroad and the National Pike made it an attractive location. A waterworks, greenhouse, servant's quarters, and facilities for male teachers were built on the grounds. Classes consisted of Latin, mathematics, music, religion, and philosophy.

Between 1841 and 1855, the school was operated by Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, an interesting figure in her own right. Phelps, a slaveowner but yet still a Union supporter, accepted students from both the North and the South to encourage friendship between the two sections of the country. During her tenure, the school expanded from six teachers with forty one students to eight teachers and nine staff with seventy students. Phelps, while raising two families, teaching, and leading seminaries for young ladies at various places, also wrote extensively, authoring 14 books, including Familiar Lectures on Botany (1829) and Lectures for Young Ladies (1830).

During the Civil War, the 12th New Jersey Infantry Regiment camped near the Institute's grounds in 1862 while guarding the B & O Railroad against the Confederacy's advance.

In 1917, during the First World War, the building was called into service as a hospital. It was fitted with 50 beds to accommodate wounded veterans returning to the States.

Know before you go: Signs indicate the park is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays April through October (except when closed due to a private event). However, we fortuitously showed up at 1:30 p.m., at the same time as the docent, who that day was splitting her time between the PFI and a log cabin down in Ellicott City. So if you go, go at 1:30 p.m. and wait a few minutes for a docent to show up. Chances are, you'll receive a private tour!

Getting there: 3655 Church Road, Ellicott City, MD 21043

Hours: Tours are on Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., April through October. Private and group tours are available year-round, weather permitting. For more information and scheduling special events and rentals, call 410-313-0420.

Dogs: Nope


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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Lost Post

C&O Canal Between Monocacy Aqueduct 
and Catoctin Creek Aqueduct

I call this the lost post because I had this article almost completely written -- I was just feeding in the photos, when my beagle, Meeko, sat his big fat hairy butt on my little laptop and butt-erased most of the post. 

I was more sad and discouraged than angry -- I'd just spent a couple hours researching and writing it, but it was my own fault for not being more careful with my laptop. I closed my laptop and tried to forget about it.

A year later, I wish I'd not shoved this lost post away! So here it is, just over a year later. Re-researched and rewritten, and ultimately, resurrected! 

Until there's snow on the ground, I plan on continuing biking. With that in mind, my friend and I braved 44 degree weather in early November (2014) and headed out to one of my favorite destinations: the C&O Canal towpath, to test out our new bikes. Despite the occasional wind gusts and chilly weather, the leaves were still on the tree and the trail still pretty, and the forecast promised a sunny afternoon.

It seems like only a few weeks ago I had been writing with a great deal of excitement about purchasing my Electra Townie! But in fact, it was last January, and over the past 10 months, I've logged close to 300 miles on the bike, riding the B&A Rail Trail, the NCR Rail Trail, the Heritage Rail Trail, and the Indian Head Trail. But the recent Pedal Through History bike ride proved to me I needed to upgrade to do the type of riding I want to do. So I'd been looking for a comfortable hybrid that was both sturdy and capable of handling unpaved (but groomed) trails, but could more easily climb hills than my comfortable but way too heavy cruiser. So recently, my friend traded in her under-used mountain bike and I traded in the Townie for the sleeker, more agile Trek FX 7.3 hybrids.

The stretch between the two aqueducts came recommended by my sister, who frequently runs that stretch with her running club. We found the parking lot off of Mouth of Monocacy Road (near Rt 28 in Dickerson). Conveniently, there are bathrooms on the site (okay, glorified portopotties, but still convenient). We'd been assured that the Trek FX hybrids could handle the C&O Trail, but now we would test it out.

The first thing you notice after leaving the parking lot are the ruins of the Monocacy Village granary. I couldn't find any more information about the structure, much to my disappointment.
The Monocacy Aqueduct is the largest aqueduct on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, crossing the Monocacy River just before it empties into the Potomac River in Frederick County, MD. Sitting in the shadows of Sugarloaf Mountain, the 438-foot aqueduct was built between 1829 and 1833, with stone quarried from the base of Sugarloaf. From 1833 to 1924, the aqueduct carried the canal waters over the Monocacy River. Thousands of boats, boatmen, and mules, and millions of tons of coal and other cargo passed over the aqueducts. And for the most part, it's withstood the test of time: multiple floods rushing down the Monocacy River washed tons of debris against the aqueduct over the years; Confederate troops tried twice to blow it up, but it endured until finally, Hurricane Agnes in the early 1970s weakened it, almost to the point of no return.

In fact, the Monocacy Aqueduct survived to our times, even though it was on the endangered list for about 30 years, steadied by an outer skeleton, a steel banding system intended to stabilize the structure and a steel rod reinforcing system. to steady it, until it was restored in the spring of 2005 to its former glory.

The C&O Canal used 11 aqueducts to carry the canal over rivers and streams that were too wide for a typical culvert. We rode to another of the aqueducts: the Catoctin Aqueduct, which crosses Catoctin Creek in Frederick County.

This aqueduct, completed in 1834, was also called the "Crooked Aqueduct" because of the sharp turns before and after it on the canal. Recklessness among boatmen (usually because of speeding) resulted in accidents, damaging the sides of the aqueduct, causing the nation's first speed trap to be set up -- no, I'm joking. I just made that up. However, in March 1870, the Canal's board of directors ordered that all boats should slow down 50 yards from the aqueduct, and stationed a watchman to ensure that they did, indeed, slow down!

The cool thing about the Catoctin Aqueduct is that it was made of granite from Ellicott Mills, Maryland -- yeah, that's where I live. The uncool thing is that this aqueduct was cited as the "worst built" aqueduct on the canal, and it had serious leaks throughout its life as an active aqueduct. Oh well! The cause of its instability was the two arches used in its construction: elliptical in the center, and Roman on the side, the two stresses do not balance each other, and are prone to failure. Finally, it sagged badly in 1926, eventually collapsing in October 31, 1973.

If you hike or ride this stretch, you'll notice that this is a really pretty stretch of the canal! Of note in this stretch is Lockhouse 28, which was built in 1837.

This lockhouse stands as a reminder of the fierce competition between the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the race to reach the Ohio River Valley. At Point of Rocks the land between the Potomac River and the rocky outcropping becomes precariously narrow. Both companies knew ownership of this strip of land was imperative to winning the race to the Ohio. Adversaries in the courts for four years, both canal and railroad were given rights-of-way, with the C&O Canal allowed to build next to the river, and the B&O Railroad forced to carve its way through the hillside just above the canal.

Today, Lockhouse 28 is a rustic retreat, situated between the scenic Potomac and the still-active railroad tracks.

For other parts of the C&O Canal, check out the below articles:
Brunswick to Dargan Bend
Canal Pride Days 
Edwards Ferry
Fort Frederick to Hancock
Great Falls
Locks 33 and 34
Lander Lockhouse
Maryland Heights (Harpers Ferry)
Paw Paw Tunnel to Lock 56
Swain's Lock to Seneca Aqueduct
Kayaking at Swain's Lock

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Updated June 2020

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Getting to Know the Ghosts of Gettysburg

Gettysburg is as known for its ghost tours as the battle itself, which caused so much alleged paranormal activity.

The ghost tours are everywhere! Stroll along Baltimore Street or Steinwehr Avenue at 7 or 9 pm and you'll see multiple groups. There are now more than a dozen to choose from, a ridiculous number for so small a town, and although it's unlikely you'll actually experience a paranormal encounter, you can still appreciate these ghost tours for what they are -- a different way of learning about the town's colorful history.

The old school. Strange figures are seen in the windows.

I'm a big fan of ghost tours, actually, having gone on tours in Ellicott City, MD; Annapolis, MD; Fort Delaware, DE; two in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont, Canada; and several other places. Each tour has its own schtick, whether dressing a guide in period garb or bringing you into "haunted" buildings or in some cases, actually going ghost hunting. Both of the tours we went on in Gettysburg had guides who dressed in period garb, and we saw other ghost tour guides, also similarly dressed. Despite several centuries of ghost-making history, most of the ghost tours in Gettysburg dressed their guides in the Civil War era garments.

The old jail, now municipal building.

Some of the stories are pretty goofy, and not all the guides, including ours on Ghosts of Gettysburg, actually "believe" in ghosts, although they'll dissemble when asked point blank. But it doesn't matter. The trick to enjoying a ghost tour is to go in good fun, enjoy the story telling (who doesn't enjoy hearing stories?), enjoy the stroll (it's better than sitting on a couch!), be prepared for a fright or a cold breeze on your neck, and have fun all while appreciating the historic town in which you're walking.

The Ghosts of Gettysburg tour took us up Baltimore Street toward High Street, then down High Street past an old school and the old jail, then back to Baltimore Street. We heard about several ghostly soldiers, a lonely ghost who wanted to attend a party, and several others. We walked past Shriver House with nary a comment about its ghostly inhabitants, much to our disappointment!

The second ghost tour we went on was the Battlecry Tour, put on by Gettysburg Ghost Tours. This tour promises to escort "guests along what was once known as 'No Man's Land' where the streets ran red with blood in 1863! Where you will pass Battlefields, Cemeteries, Haunted Hotels and the Reynold's "Death House!'" And indeed, the tour does do all that. 

I have to say, I loved our tour guide -- one of the best story-tellers I've ever had a pleasure of listening to, and heads and shoulders above the tour guide for Ghosts of Gettysburg, who was pretty good himself. But there was an dramatic and noticeable absence of ghosts. I kept waiting for the spooky ghost story. ... yep, still waiting. However, she very dramatically told us about the mass graves that especially the Confederate dead were interred in throughout Gettysburg, insinuating that these mass graves still exist below the very blacktop we walked over. And at the very least, she said, there were mass graves of the limbs sawn off the wounded. If you feel a tug at your ankle, she warned, then you may want to walk more quickly. Okay, the tour gets creepy points for that!

We stopped at the famous Dobbin Tavern, where our guide told a ghost story, I think, although I can't remember it, frustratingly. Because what I do remember is that she pointed out how the lighting and the shadows on an upper porch make it look like what Lincoln's profile may have looked like. Hmmmm. Okay.

But then she took us to the Reynolds Death House, told us a lovely and sad story about how an officer -- Union General John Reynolds -- died there, leaving his fiance inconsolable. This building, also known as the George George House, is where Reynolds' lifeless body was taken after he suffered a fatal wound the first day of battle, July 1, 1863. The house is positioned between Cemetery Ridge, the stronghold of the Union Army of the Potomac, and the Lutheran Seminary, where General Lee’s Confederate forces had amassed -- thus situated on "no man’s land" during the time of the battle. Apparently cards have fallen mysteriously inside the building.

But still no ghost. None. Not Reynolds' ghost, nor his fiance's ghost, have ever been seen there at the Reynolds Death House, although our guide did dare us to look in the windows to see whether we might see a ghost (we didn't, to our disappointment and relief). We walked past a portion of a local cemetery, where our guide told us to take photos into the dark as very often, people catch orbs and the like. But no story. No ghost. No orbs. Just darkness.

If you are really into ghosts and such but want to avoid the tours, then I recommend picking up one or several books of Gettysburg ghost stories. My favorites? The Ghosts of Gettysburg series by Mark Nesbitt, of Ghosts of Gettysburg tour fame. He was a park ranger that started to collect ghost stories, including his own experiences working in the battlefields, and then published them. These books have maps to all the locations of the stories and are not expensive. So pick up a few books and go out ghost hunting on your own after dark. But there are other books being published by Gettysburg-based paranormal hunters, so you may want to sample a variety.

The battlefield is open to the public until 10 pm every day. In late July and early August you will have a good hour of total darkness. Some of the more active ghostly points of interest are Little Round Top, Devil's Den, Spangler's Spring, and The Wheatfield. Don't trespass after the park is closed, and certainly be considerate of residents living in the buildings you stop by. Don't be obnoxious!

Nope, no ghosts here.

Getting there: Ghosts of Gettysburg is located at 271 Baltimore Street; Gettysburg Ghost Tours is located at 47 Steinwehr Avenue. There are a host of other ghost tours as well. Do some research and find one that sounds good to you.

Hours: Check websites for tour availability. Many of the tours close during the winter months or have reduced tour offerings.

Dogs: Actually, yes! Well behaved, friendly, and leashed dogs are welcomed on many of the tours. I recommend checking before you purchase the tickets.

Websites: and

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

My Top 5 Winter Day Trips

Periodically (i.e., whenever the whim strikes me, I'll post my top picks. This another in the series of the My Top Picks posts. Links to the original posts will be embedded in the text. Let me know what you think of this new blog feature!

5. Snowtubing, of course!

There are lots of places to go, but if you live in central Maryland, chances are you'll visit Boulder Ridge, part of the Ski Liberty Resort. If you're a kid, snowtubing is just plain fun! And if it's been a few years since you've been a kid, it'll make you feel like a kid again! 

4. Tour Fonthill Castle

Fonthill Castle, located in Doylestown in Bucks County, PA, is one of my favorite historic house museums. It's creator threw away all the typical rules of house building and just let his imagination and whimsy loose, and the castle reflects it. It's great to tour in colder weather (it's not air conditioned) but dress warmly, since the tour takes you out on balconies.

3. Check out Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum

Going to museums, where you're indoors, is always a great option for those gloomy winter days. Make an art museum kid-friendly by stopping by the gift shop first and letting your child pick out a postcard that they particularly like. Then go through the museum looking for the piece of art depicted in the postcard, and discuss what they like about it and why they selected that one. My younger son, who's not a museum-going kinda kid loved the American Visionary Art Museum: its art -- much of it in unusual mediums such as yarn, toothpicks or bottlecaps -- will intrigue almost everyone!

2. Go on a winter walk in Downs Memorial Park

Or any local park, really. Here's why walking in the winter is so good for you: a brisk, outdoor walk for 20 minutes daily can leave you with a better mood, higher self-esteem and an improved sense of well-being. Nothing compares to the crisp, clean air of winter and the magnificent view of a snowy landscape -- sometimes offering quite a nice surprise from the scenes you are more used to in the midst of summer. The photo below is of ice on the Chesapeake Bay as seen from Downs Memorial Park.

1. Explore underground...

...where the temperature is always around 53 degrees, regardless of the weather. I was fascinated by Penns Cave and the boat ride through the cave system, but with the help of a guest blogger, the blog also visited Crystal Grottoes Caverns. Checking out a cave is a good way to spend a winter day!

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!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Snow Tubing Winter Fun

One of my favorite wintertime activities is to go snowtubing. It's better (although more expensive) than going sledding, and for those of us intimidated by skis and snowboards, a great alternative. It's one heck of a great way to feel like a kid again!

My favorite place to go is Boulder Ridge, part of the Ski Liberty Resort. Growing up in Frederick made Ski Liberty the go-to place for years for skiing and snowtubing.

The great thing about snowtubing is, no lessons, no experience is necessary -- just dress warmly, and get ready for an adventure! I loved the thrill of going down the lanes. We've gone almost every year, and some years the lanes are faster than others, I guess depending on how packed the snow is. One year we went and it was relatively warm -- in the high 30s -- which was very enjoyable as we waited on line for our turn to go down.

Know before you go #1: Go in the morning, before the crowds really gather. Also, bring some entertainment for yourself. Entry into the queue to go down is timed, i.e., you'll be given a start time at the top of the hour, but depending on the crowds, that could be an hour or two away. It can be a bit boring just watching other people go down and having all the fun. So bring a board game or card game and relax in the two-level log lodge at the foot of the tube lanes. Grab some coffee or hot chocolate and enjoy the day!

Know before you go #2: We like to bring snacks -- the concessions in the lodge can be quite expensive. And because we tend to go in the morning, we have a late lunch at the Shamrock Restaurant, between Thurmont and Frederick along U.S. 15.

Getting there: 78 Country Club Trail , Carroll Valley, PA 17320

Hours: Hours and opening times vary, so be sure to check out the website.

Dogs: Nope, leave them at home, curled up warmly on the couch!


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Monday, January 4, 2016

Day Trip on a Budget: Fort Necessity

This is my first day trip on a budget post, and I'm going back to one of the first posts of this blog: Fort Necessity, which is part of the national park system, for the material. I'll be drawing on a lot of my day trips to national and state parks, because quite honestly, they're all a bargain and a great way to see this country inexpensively!

Fort Necessity is a reconstructed wooden fort on the spot where George Washington, then 22 years old and a lieutenant colonel bunkered down to fend off a likely attack from French colonial forces. While you're there, you'll learn about Washington's charge to forge a road, which eventually became the first federally funded and maintained road. Washington expected an attack because a few days before he arrived at the site that was to become Fort Necessity, his forces successfully attacked a French patrol, pissing them off in a big way.

"A charming field for an encounter," Washington said of the marshy, natural meadow surrounded by dense forest. He threw a few logs up, called it a fort, and settled down to await the French attack. The wait wasn't long -- just 30 days, during which time Washington and his men lengthened the new road by some 14 back-breaking miles.

A large French reprisal force attacked Fort Necessity and forced Washington to surrender on 4 July -- the only time Washington ever surrendered. Washington and his men left, and the French burned the fort. The present day reconstruction is close proximity to what Washington had built.

Know before you go: Plan 1 1/2 to 2 hrs to see the historic sites in the main unit of the park. Add an hour to visit Braddock's grave and Jumonville Glen sites.

On-a-Budget: Entry fee is $5 per person, which gets you into Fort Necessity, nearby Mount Washington Tavern, and Braddock's Grave; kids younger than 15 are free. For $15, you can purchase a pass that includes entry to Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.

Getting there: 1 Washington Parkway, Farmington PA 15437

Hours: Park grounds open sunrise to sunset. Visitor center open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on the following Federal Holidays: January 1, 3rd Monday in January, 3rd Monday in February, 4th Thursday in November, December 25.

Dogs: Welcome on the grounds, leashed. Not so much in the visitor's center.

Eats: Pack a picnic -- picnic tables available, well shaded by trees in a very pleasant setting. There are also a number of inexpensive restaurants in Unionville, which is about 11 miles away.


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!