Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Ghost Hunting at Belmont Manor

We visited historic Belmont Manor, in Elkridge, MD, in search of ghosts, as part of Howard County Parks & Rec programs one evening in March. This wasn't a ghost tour, where you're led around and told ghost stories. This was a ghost hunt.

We were excited about the opportunity to see this lovely historic manor, as well as to perhaps experience some other worldly contact. According to Margaret Ehrlich, founder of Inspired Ghost Trackers, the group leading the ghost hunt that evening, all the ghosts -- and there are several -- are "friendly" ghosts, although one of them was a "grumpy man," who was identified as an Andrew Lyons, who had suffered a heart attack while staying at the manor house.

The manor dates back to colonial days, and started with a love story, so its current use is very apropos. In 1732, Caleb Dorsey, then of Annapolis, owned the land. Caleb Dorsey owned and ran several iron forges on the creeks that fed into the Patapsco River near Elkridge Landing, which back then, before erosion filled the river with silt, was a bustling and prosperous port (now most of the river is just a few feet deep, easily waded -- hard to imagine ships of any size navigating up it). His son, also Caleb, was an avid foxhunter, and while tracking a grey fox, found himself near the home of Priscilla Hill. They struck up a friendship that led to a romance and marriage. 

Father Dorsey gave his son the land, and Caleb the son built the manor house, where he and Priscilla lived, raising a family of three sons and six daughters. Caleb died in 1772, leaving the manor house to his son, Edward. It remained in the family for 200 years, passing through generations of Dorseys, Hansons, and Bruce families.

According to a Baltimore Sun news article (April 13 2015; Belmont Manor eventually was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, which used the estate as a conference center from the mid-1960s until 1983, when it was sold to the American Chemical Society. Howard Community College bought the property in 2004, and held hospitality classes there until late 2010. Eventually, Howard County obtained the property, and determined to renovate it as a wedding venue.

There were about 25 of us on the ghost hunt, so not an intimate group, but they divided us into groups of eight and sent us to different parts of the manor. The night was cold enough to be kind of snowy and rainy, so we didn't get to wander over to the cemetery plot. Our group went first to the bridal suite, where we encountered Amanda or Amelia, a playful little girl who'd died of flu or pneumonia.

We communicated with her via a cat toy that lights up when moved. Our group's leader placed it on the bed and invited her to play with it. After a few minutes, it lit up. They asked her some questions, such as how old she was -- six years old -- and whether her name was Amanda or Amelia (neither confirmed as a solid yes, although it seemed to indicate her name was Amanda).

After a few minutes, we moved to another room, and we didn't get much activity, until eventually we came to the room where the grumpy man died. There the medium began channeling the grumpy man, who indicated his name is Andrew Lyons, a merchant possibly selling lumber. IGT takes the information provided through the mediums and researches it, with the goal of either verifying or debunking the information. A quick google search indicated there was someone, from Baltimore, named Andrew Lyons, but it didn't quite fit the period he was believed to have lived in.

So how did IGT become aware of the ghosts at Belmont? Ehrlich said she'd been researching local places, and came across some stories about Belmont. She contacted the right people, and when Belmont re-opened, they contacted Ehrlich about holding some programs and lectures there, which the group readily agreed to. "We have loved every minute of it and look forward to many more to come," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich and IGT host these ghost hunts because this allows them some access to this haunted location. But she has other motivations as well. "We love what we do by helping others learn about the paranormal and ghosts," Ehrlich said. "We also love doing the investigations. It is like getting the best of both worlds. What we do is for free. Belmont makes the money and we like the fact that we can help them do this, while we teach people about what we know."

If you get a chance to go on a Belmont Manor ghost hunt, do. It's fun, and you get to explore a cool, historic manor, which for me, is a bonus!  

Read the entire interview, which reveals some of the best haunted places in Maryland, here.

Getting there: 6555 Belmont Woods Rd, Elkridge, MD 21075

Hours: Check the websites for dates and times when Belmont Manor is open or when ghost hunts are being conducted.

 Websites: and

Photo courtesy Howard County Parks and Rec.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Light City Baltimore Festival

Today's post is a special event post, because the Light City Festival is happening RIGHT NOW! So pull this post up on your phone, download the Light City app, and get going down to Baltimore!

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to a media preview of Baltimore's first ever light festival -- being a blogger has its benefits! But in fact, anyone could have walked through and by the lights -- it's a free festival in public spaces, intended to showcase Baltimore as an international city, highlighting its people, its music, its creativity, its innovation, and its BRILLIANCE, in colorful, sometimes thought-provoking artistic installations and exhibits.

In fact, the Light City Festival is touted as the first "large-scale, international light festival" in the United States, right here in Charm City -- ummm, I mean, Light City. (Please don't joke about City of Lights -- the Light City Festival organizers are grumpy about bad jokes like that.) The festival will celebrate ideas, ingenuity, and creativity through art, music, and innovation.

Premiering this week, Light City Baltimore is the first large-scale, international light festival in the United States, homegrown right here in Baltimore. Light City will provide a backdrop for the celebration of ideas, ingenuity and creativity through art, music and innovation. In addition to the light displays, there will be music and live performances as well.

Light City’s innovation programming will generate an "ecosystem of ideas and learning" during the day – while lights, performances and live music "reimagine" the Inner Harbor at night. I don't know about that. But it is a feast of light sensation for your eyes. And it's enjoyable, whether you try to learn about the artists' messages or just appreciate the setting, the light, the color extravaganza, and the opportunity to enjoy downtown Baltimore at night.

"Dear Baltimore," an art installation by Thick Air Studios, which I was most looking forward to seeing, although I only glimpsed them from a distance, to my disappointment. This installation is a moving one -- so you're lucky if you catch it -- in that bicyclists carry luminous letters above their bicycles -- arriving at a particular location either en masse or from disparate directions -- and as they form a line, the letters compose a message. All the letters come from the phrase "Dear Baltimore." Advertised as a "dance on bicycles," the riders "flow" throughout various Light City locations and local streets. Keep an eye out for their messages!

Diamonds are a girl's best friend, so of course, I was excited about the "Diamonds Light Baltimore" installation, presented by Legg Mason, and created by artist Cheon Kroiz. This art installation consists of 15 diamonds of various sizes and shapes, although each is large enough to walk around, beneath, and through. It creates a cool effect - the diamonds as a whole scatter down the Waterfront Promenade and reflect in the water, mirroring their luminosity.

The lights were playful and colorful, often interactive, such as the bridge of lights (in the photo above) that would change color according to the passage of people below the light canopy, titled "Pixel Promenade Radiance," by artists Erin Barry Dutro and Kyle Steely. One, such as the light art depicted in the photograph below, tried to remind people about what we're losing -- touch with nature -- by our increasingly urbanized, denaturalized lives. This artist, Lisa Dillin, sought to recreate the play of shadow through trees. Others were just pure visual fun, such as "Peacock," by artists Tim Scofield and Kyle Miller, presented by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a 20-foot tall animatronic bird whose illuminated plumes open to about 40 feet across. Spectacular!

Getting there: It's all happening in and around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, along a mile and a half stretch of the Waterfront Promenade.

Hours: Festival is open from 7pm-11pm March 28- March 31, 7pm-12am April 1-April 2, and 7pm-11pm on April 3.

Website: For more info about the art installations and better photos, as well as information about other aspects of the Light City Festival, go to

"Voyage," by artists Aether and Hemera; 300 "paper boats" with rainbow-colored lights.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Disturbingly Informative, Not for the Faint of Heart

I finally got to visit the Mutter Museum, in Philadelphia. I've wanted to visit it for a couple of years, but something always intervened with my plans to do so. Finally, the stars aligned a few weeks ago; I wrote this post the same day I'd visited, so the reactions are very real, but raw.

Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The museum feels very old-timey -- and in a way it is, because much of its collection was collected in the  1800s and much of the collection is housed in wood and glass cabinets. At first I was almost disappointed, but before I knew it, I was engrossed in the displays.

So what is the Mutter Museum? Its collection consists of more than 20 thousand unusual, weird, REAL, anatomical specimens in a museum of medical history. The museum displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th-century “cabinet museum” setting. The museum helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease. As you progress around the exhibits, you definitely get a sense how diagnosis and treatment have evolved over the years. Frankly, I became grateful for the state of medical treatment today.

Tallest skeleton on display in North America, shown with an average skeleton and with a
skeleton of a woman who had dwarfism.

Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
It is NOT for the faint of heart. I found it fascinating but also a little horrific. There were a lot of skeletons and skulls. It is also not for children. I'd say they may get nightmares, but I'm not convinced I'm not going to have nightmares tonight, after visiting it today. (Note added later: I didn't that night, but a few days later I did have a weird dream about the museum, that left me unsettled for most of the following day.)

What got me were the many baby and fetus skeletons. And quite a few babies preserved in bell-jars. That's where this fascinating museum veered from purely fascinating and just a little disturbing into slightly nightmarish, when I started feeling sad for the woman who suffered from dwarfism and died trying to give birth to a normal-sized baby; at one point, the doctor killed the baby, attempting to abort it via dissection, to allow her to live. At the time she lived, C-sections were uncommon, and women more frequently died than lived who had them, but they tried that as well -- the pain and torment before she died must have been horrific. The cranium of her baby was displayed by her feet (not shown in the photo above). I wondered whether she had agreed to let her skeleton be displayed -- she lived in the late 1800s, and how likely was it that a doctor had gotten her permission before she died?

Regardless of how some of the older specimens were obtained, now all the specimens and human remains are treated with respect. There's an "ossuary" display, which discusses the treatment of the remains and Mutter's approach. An ossuary is a chest, box, building, well, or site -- in this case a display cabinet -- made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce -- Europe has many. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary, sometimes even displayed in attractive patterns and designs, as was Mutter's.

In the left foreground is the Mutter ossuary. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Then I saw the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, a man who lived with FOP until he died just 6 days shy of his 40th birthday. He suffered from Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP, and he willed his skeleton to Mutter after he died. FOP is a disorder in which muscle tissue and connective tissue such as tendons and ligaments are gradually replaced by bone (ossified), forming bone outside the skeleton (extra-skeletal or heterotopic bone) that constrains movement. Mr. Eastlack wanted his skeleton to be displayed at the museum to allow for additional research into FOP as well as to educated others about this terrible disease.

Harry Eastlack's skeleton.
Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
The museum explains that the Collection began as a donation from Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, who was determined to improve and reform medical education. Back when Mütter was a student at University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, students were not allowed to work with patients or help with medical surgical procedures. His disappointment with American teaching techniques drove him to Paris to receive hands-on training. Upon his return to the States, Mütter assembled the collection and offered it to the College with a $30,000 endowment. The donation stipulated that the College had to hire a Curator, maintain and expand the collection, fund annual lectures and erect a brick building to house the collection. The College has held true to its promise to Dr. Mütter.

It was very popular -- I was surprised how crowded it got. Today the museum enjoys a steadily rising reputation and visitor count, and no wonder -- the collection educates as well as fascinates.

In addition to what I've already discussed, the Mutter collection includes:
• Soap Lady
• Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
• Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
• Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
• a section of Einstein’s Brain

Getting there: 19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 191103

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.


Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection; Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Where You Should Go to See Ruins in the Mid-Atlantic

Because all but one of these sites are in Maryland. I am challenging myself over the next year to find some good daytrips to ruins or ghost towns OUTSIDE of Maryland! By the way, I don't do breaking and entering, so I'm not into sneaking into abandoned asylums or hospitals. If it's fenced off and posted no trespassing, I don't go there. Even beyond the whole legal/law abiding aspects, that's the way horror movies start!

Please let me know if you have any suggestions for places to check out.

7. Harpers Ferry

On the hill above Harpers Ferry are picturesque ruins of an old church. Very pretty, in a great setting, and part of an overall fun place to spend a day. Plus, right across the river at Maryland Heights (yes, in Maryland) are the spooky ruins of an old lockkeepers' house.

6. Smith Island
Not only one of my favorite day trips, Smith Island is an interesting place to see houses slowly falling into ruin -- sad, really, since these homes represent a way of life that is fast disappearing. The most I did to "explore" was to timidly creep up to the windows and peer in, when I dared; these homes are all on private property. But very photographable. These ruins are unique in that they're old, abandoned wood frame homes -- not the stone ruins featured in the other six entries on this list.

5. C & O Canal
And I'm not talking about the canal itself, or the locks, although the aqueducts are kind of cool -- it's the lockkeepers houses and the scattered mills and other similar buildings that you can encounter along the trail that make the 184 miles of the C & O Canal a go-to place to see ruins. In addition to Maryland Heights, opposite Harpers Ferry, pictured above, the section between Hancock and Fort Frederick offers the ruins below, as well as what's left of one of the aqueducts.

4. The Western Maryland Rail Trail
Ironically, because when you're biking, the last thing you're expecting are ruins. But the portion of the WMRT west of Hancock offers up the remains of several old farm houses (located on private property) as well as the remains of a cement factory (located between the C & O Canal and the WMRT). East of Hancock: a forgotten cemetery sleeps peacefully (we hope) along the trail.

3. Patapsco River Valley State Park
There are old stone houses -- or their remains -- scattered throughout the park, which I've encountered on various hikes. In the Avalon/Orange Grove area, along the Grist Mill Trail, there are the remnants of several mills. The park is teeming with ruins, making this unique park one of the best places to go find the unexpected!

2. Patapsco Female Institute
These are gorgeous ruins -- lovely to look at, not creepy at all. Worth a visit, especially if you enjoy playing around with photography. Cool angles and aspects.

1. Daniels, Maryland's Ghost Town
Although Daniels is also in the Patapsco River Valley State Park, it's worth its own mention, mostly because the ruins are also kind of creepy; the creepiness focuses, at least for the friends we went with, on the Pentecostal Holiness Church, or what's left of it. Worth exploring, especially, and for me the least creepy and most picturesque part of Daniels, is what's left of Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church and the cemetery behind it (okay, so the cemetery is a little creepy, especially the row of children's graves, but that's more of a sad creepy rather than a scary creepy). Overall, Daniels is an intriguing, mysterious, and very cool place to explore -- and I've noticed it keeps drawing me. I've visited it in both fall and winter, so far, and both are interesting times of the year to visit.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Whether Natural Chimneys Or Cyclopean Towers, Still Awe-Inspiring

Natural Chimneys, limestone rock formations standing an impressive 120 feet above the ground, have intrigued our imaginations for centuries. Thus on a recent visit to Harrisonburg, VA, I traveled some 15 miles southwest of the home of James Madison University to visit the regional park where Natural Chimneys is located.

I prefer an old, 1800s Romantic era name for them that's now out of fashion -- the Cyclopean Towers. Locals referred to them as Natural Chimneys, however, and the local name won out. Now, a county park, located near Mt. Solon in Augusta County, VA, at the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley, protects and preserves these geological wonders, not far from the banks of the North River.

These rock formations are so old they make the Appalachian Mountains seem young. And they remind us mere humans that we are here on this precious earth a mere speck of time.

The rock "chimneys" formed from limestone that began to accumulate and harden into stone about 500 million years ago in the Paleozoic Era, when the region was underwater. Molten lava, under tremendous pressure, forced its way through two limestone layers, creating a distinctive reddish layer; the source of the lava was about 10 miles away from the chimneys.

Over time, enormous upward pressures of magma and widespread geologic upheaval, which created the Appalachian Mountains -- themselves incredibly ancient -- combined with erosive forces of water and destroyed weaker layers of stone. Eventually, this created the rock chimneys as seen today.

The tunnels and caves at the base of the chimneys are remnants of sinkholes and caves that once laced the limestone layers of this area; in fact, not too far away are several commercial caverns, including Luray, Shenandoah, and the Endless Caverns. One sign in the park described Natural Chimneys as being the remnants, now above ground, of an underground cavern system.

There is a very short -- just a half mile round trip -- but steep hike to an overlook above the chimneys. Worth taking for the view of the mountains in the distance, especially near sunset, but also cool to see the towers from above. 

There isn't much to do at the park, other than perhaps enjoy a picnic, but it's worth visiting simply because of the lovely Shenandoah Valley countryside that you drive to from Route 81. If you're into camping, the park offers a number of camping sites, with running water and bathroom facilities. The park is about 15 minutes away from Harrisonburg and the James Madison University and just over 2 hours away from Washington DC.

Getting there: 94 Natural Chimneys Ln, Mt Solon, VA 22843

Hours: Dawn through dusk

Dogs: Sure!!

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Field of Lost Shoes

New Market Battlefield State Historical Park is a historic American Civil War battlefield and national historic district located near New Market, VA, in Shenandoah County. The park is also the site of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, which is operated by the Virginia Military Institute.

Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant designed a "grand strategy" to press the Confederacy into submission. His goal was to ensure the Confederacy couldn't take advantage of the strategically important and agriculturally rich Shenandoah Valley. While he engaged Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern portion of the state, he ordered Major General Franz Sigel's army of some 10,000 troops to secure the valley and threaten Lee's left flank.

The Shenandoah Valley encompasses the site of the Battle of New Market, which was fought on May 15, 1864, during Valley Campaigns of 1864. This is one of the smaller battlefields and there isn't a huge amount to see, although I did enjoy touring the farmhouse on the battlefield. However, it is also noteworthy because of the film which tells the story of the VMI cadets. My sons are the same ages those cadets were. I watched the film, and by the end, was very teary. I identified with their mothers, despite our ideological differences.

At New Market, about 6,000 Federals under Sigel clashed with makeshift army of between 4,100 and 4,500 Confederates, including very young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), led by Maj. Gen. John Breckenridge. It was another battle at which Union forces had numerical superiority, not to mention better supplies and materiel; the Union forces should have won. However, Sigel made a series of bad judgements and calculations, split his forces, and subsequently lost the battle.

Breckenridge, upon learning of Union presence in the valley, sent for the VMI cadets to help augment his troops. They marched for 2 days in the pouring rain before reaching New Market, where the opposing sides were gathering. He vowed not to send them into battle unless it was desperately necessary. Despite Sigel's errors and blunders, it became necessary.The cadets marched through a muddy field, where many lost their shoes to the boggy mud; the field afterward was dubbed "The Field of Lost Shoes." Then the cadets marched around the Bushong farm house, where several cadets died, straight into the center of a Union counterattack, which ultimately was ineffective. Sigel began withdrawing his artillery, and in moved the Confederates. The Union line finally broke and Union forces retreated.

Information from the Museum, which is operated by VMI, noted that "never before or since has an
American college student body participated in pitched battle."

This was one the last significant Confederate victories, although other battles, including Cedar Creek would take place throughout the summer and autumn. By the following spring, however, the Civil War was over.

The film at the museum is over-long, but it does humanize the battle and the soldiers, including a Union colonel, which is important when we consider the impact the Civil War had on American society, regardless of sides.

In the middle of the battlefield stands the Bushong House, used by both sides as a hospital during the battle. It now demonstrates both how homes near battlefields often were turned into ad hoc hospitals as well as how a middle-class farmer lived during the mid-1800s.

Know before you go: Touring this national battlefield makes a good pairing with Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Site, which I posted last week.

Getting there: 8895 George Collins Pkwy, New Market, VA 22844

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Six Historic House Museums You Should Visit!

If you're looking for great daytrip destinations as winter slowly turns into spring, consider visiting a house museum! Here are six of my area favorites! 

6. Bushong Farm (New Market (VA) National Historic Battlefield)
Although not the largest house museum, this one is interesting. Sitting in the middle of the national battlefield, it depicts a farm family home around the time of the Civil War, which raged through the Shenandoah Valley. I like it because it looks similar to the house my father, whose family farmed in Pennsylvania just north of Gettysburg, was born in.

5. Shriver House Museum (Gettysburg, PA)
The Shriver House Museum was interesting because, like the Bushong Farmhouse, it shows how a middle-class family in the 1800s lived. It also tells the story of Hettie Shriver, and how she weathered the slings and arrows of fortune during the turbulent years of the Civil War. This house is also a favorite because of two spooky incidents that occurred during our visit, which you can read about here (at the bottom of the page) and here.

3. Fonthill Castle
A crazy genius took an old farm house and kept layering concrete around and above it and created Fonthill Castle. The genius and whimsy captured my imagination. Enough said. But then he decorated the inside with tiles from his nearby tile factory, which he'd started to revive a local folk art AND provide local jobs. It's a crazy castle filled with whimsy and creativity, a must see!!

2. Fallingwater
Loved Fallingwater. Touring it is a lesson in architecture and the whims of the rich and famous -- imagine having such a home, as a summer home, no less! I would love to stay a weekend in the house, to really experience the home. One of the aspects of Fallingwater that attracted me the most was how Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated nature into the home. You can walk down from the living room into an outdoor pool. Bedrock helps shape the living room hearth and fireplace. The sound of the falls themselves is heard throughout the house. Loved it.

1. Hampton Mansion
What makes Hampton Mansion my number 1 choice: Not only is it an amazing mansion, it's also free, run by the National Park Service. And they have an extensive program focusing on slavery on the estate. Touring the estate is also a lesson about Maryland colonial history!

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Updated September 2018