Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Haunted Pittsburgh: Stories of the Undead, Ghosts, and Bandits

Ghost tours aren't terribly scary, but they can be terribly entertaining, and the Haunted Pittsburgh tours didn't disappoint. Never mind the Northside, or the Southside -- as the Ghost Tour promises, it takes you to the dark side. Our guide for the evening was Haydn Thomas, a vivid story-teller who emphasized all the right words and held the pauses for the perfect, most frightening effect.

The old morgue building.

The ghost tour started at the City Building at 414 Grant Street, and led us through downtown Pittsburgh, past the Old Morgue, where young men of old had faithfully followed the somewhat morbid tradition of bringing their Prom dates. There's actually a pretty funny story about a corpse that refused to act dead...

The Old Jail.

We then walked over to the Old Jail, a lovely old stone building that's considered among the finest examples of the Romanesque Revival style. In 1902, condemned brothers Jack and Ed Biddle escaped from the jail with the aid of the warden's wife -- the warden and his family lived in a corner of the jail complex. Eventually they were caught, the warden divorced his wife, and she died, lonely and miserable. She sometimes can be seen. As can several other ghosts....

As with most of the other ghost tours, you really need to wear comfortable shoes. I don't know how far we walked, but the tour lasted at least 90 minutes and we walked all over the downtown area -- from the Old Jail over to where we could see the Federal Court Building and the Gulf Building, then past Randal's Toy Store.

Our next to last stop was near "Papa J's," an old building that Haydn claimed was Pittsburgh's "most haunted." (But, that didn't make sense -- he recounted many more ghosts at the William Penn Hotel... but oh well -- just don't stay on floors 22 or 23 there, just sayin'.) But back to Papa J's, a now-closed bar/restaurant in a building that hails back to the 1860s.

We also got a preview of the new Mount Washington ghost tours, with a really frightening story about a dark presence on a corner near the Monongahela Incline. No thanks, I'll pass on taking that incline up the bluff!

Despite the stories of death and mayhem and the undead, ultimately ghost stories are stories about the thwarted hopes and cut-short dreams of real people, and in hearing these stories, you're hearing about local history, of the people who lived and died in the city where you're now walking.

Getting there: Haunted Pittsburgh will be adding ghost tours in the future, so check the website for the location of the tours.

Dogs: I don't see why not, but you should ask when you reserve your tickets.

Hours: Check the website for dates and times of the offered ghost tours.

Website: http://www.hauntedpittsburghtours.com/

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The William Penn Hotel, where a 1920s jazz band still plays... and several guests have never checked out.

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The Federal Court Building, where a judge haunts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Spending the Day at the National Colonial Farm

Photo courtesy Accokeek Foundation.
This week Mike guest blogs about a recent day trip he and his wife enjoyed.

My wife and I visited the National Colonial Farm located in the Piscataway National Park in Accokeek, MD on Saturday, 23 April; we enjoyed it very much. The National Colonial Farm is a living heritage farm (with re-enactors in period clothing) depicting life for a typical tobacco planter's family in Prince George's County in the 1770s.

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The historic site includes a reconstructed 18th-century tobacco barn & farmhouse, a replica out-kitchen and garden, and a smokehouse. There are also lots of rare, heritage-breed farm animals in the park, such as Hog Island sheep, milking Devon cattle, and Ossabaw hogs. (If you go later in the day, you may be able to go in the barns and watch the staff feeding the animals -- the lambs were especially cute and lively at feeding time!) There are also a museum garden, an ecosystem farm, a visitors' center, and lots of trails in & around the farm. 

I highly recommend the riverview trail for a couple of beautiful views of George Washington's Mt. Vernon directly across the Potomac River from the farm.

Additionally, while in this area, I recommend visits to the nearby Ft. Washington National Park (13551 Fort Washington Rd., Fort Washington, MD; open daily, 9-5; $5 admission fee) and Fort Foote National Park (8915 Fort Foote Road, Oxon Hill/Fort Washington, MD; open daily, dawn to dusk; free), as well as lunch or dinner at the Kabayan Filipino Restaurant (9223 Oxon Hill Rd., Fort Washington, MD; open M-Sat., 9-7 and Sun., 9-5:30).

Know Before You Go: There is an education center near the visitors' center where the "Homegrown Coffeehouse" sometimes puts on concerts on Saturday evenings (https://www.facebook.com/HomegrownCoffeehouse/?fref=ts).

Getting there: 3400 Bryan Point Rd., Accokeek, MD

Hours: The Piscataway Park & farm grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk (no admission fee); however, the farm exhibit areas (with re-enactors) and visitors' center/gift shop are only open Tues.-Sunday, 10-4.

Website: For more information about the National Colonial Farm & the Piscataway Park: http://www.accokeekfoundation.org,/ 301-283-2113.

Bonne route!
An Ossabaw hog. Photo courtesy Accokeek Foundation.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Going Crazy at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Like countless others, I've watched the ghost hunting shows that have visited the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA), in Weston, WV. When I realized it was just 1 1/2 hours away from Canaan Valley, where we recently spent a holiday weekend, I added it to our weekend plans -- a fortuitous decision because most of the activities for Canaan Valley depend on pleasant weather. One day it rained, and rained and rained -- a perfect day to visit TALA.
To the left of the photo is the Civil War building, or rather, the original part of the hospital.

Ultimately, the story of TALA is a sad story. The original hospital, designed to house 250 patients, opened in 1864 and reached its peak in the 1950s with 2,400 patients in overcrowded and generally poor conditions. Thus, although it was built and opened with the intent of providing humane treatment for the mentally ill -- somehow through the years, it didn't maintain those high goals.

The "original" women's wing. Women could be declared mentally incompetent for the flimsiest of reasons.
Many women admitted to the asylum never left, as there was a rule that whomever dropped them off also
had to pick them up, and if that husband or father were dead or refused...

The large central building of TALA was designed by renowned architect Richard Andrews, who also built the south wing of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington DC and the Maryland Governors Mansion in Annapolis. Andrews followed the Kirkbride plan, which called for long rambling wings arranged in a staggered formation, assuring that each of the connecting structures received an abundance of therapeutic sunlight and fresh air.

In the early 1850s, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride theorized that the insane could be treated and cured, if they were only removed from the sordid, cramped and inhumane surroundings in which they often found themselves -- usually alms houses and city jails where they were mixed in with criminals without access to any treatment or real care and even were often chained to walls, unclothed regardless of temperature, and mired in their own filth. In other words, he believed in the "moral treatment" of the insane, and published a book advocating for changes in how the insane were treated in 1854. He, along with other reformers, had a profound influence on how the mentally ill were treated for the latter half of the 19th century.

Kirkbride advocated building hospitals for the mentally ill in a style which he believed promoted recovery and healing -- with grounds that were "tastefully ornamented" and buildings arranged in a shallow V, if viewed from above. Thus, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was built with long, rambling wings that provided sunlight and air to comfortable living quarters so that the building itself promoted a curative effect, or as Kirkbride put it, "a special apparatus for lunacy." These facilities were designed to be entirely self-sufficient -- including developing a self-sufficient working farm on the grounds and coal mines for fuel -- providing the patients with a variety of outlets for stimulating mental and physical activities.

The toys are a reminder that many children lived at the asylum, some for their entire lives. It's also
my guess that this room is a primary stop on the Paranormal Tour.

Patients' rooms were spartan and small.

Construction, which began in 1858 by the state of Virginia, was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Following its secession from the United States, the government of Virginia demanded the return of the hospital's unused construction funds for its defense. However, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry seized the money from a local bank, delivering it to Wheeling, where it was helped fund the establishment of the Reorganized Government of Virginia -- a precursor to the state of West Virginia -- which sided with the northern states during the war. The Reorganized Government appropriated money to resume construction in 1862. Following the admission of West Virginia as a U.S. state in 1863, the hospital was renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. The first patients were admitted in October 1864, although construction continued into 1881.

Lobotomies were performed at TALA until the mid-1950s, and one TALA physician was so proficient at
doing them he performed upwards of 100 an hour.

Designed for 250 patients, the hospital held 717 by 1880; and 1,661 in 1938. A 1938 report by a survey committee organized by a group of North American medical organizations found that the hospital housed "epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts and non-educable mental defectives" among its population. By 1949, the population had grown to more than 1800, and a series of reports by The Charleston Gazette that same year found poor sanitation and insufficient furniture, lighting, and heating in much of the complex. Finally, the population grew to 2,600 in the 1950s in overcrowded conditions.

The use of the procedure increased dramatically from the early 1940s and into the 1950s; by 1951, almost 20,000 lobotomies had been performed in the United States. Following the introduction of antipsychotic medications in the mid-1950s and under the influence of the anti-psychiatry movement, lobotomies were quickly and almost completely abandoned.

By the 1980s, the hospital had a reduced population due to changes in how those suffering from mental illness received treatment, although patients that could not be controlled were still often locked in cages.

Finally, ongoing changes in how the mentally ill were perceived and treated by society, as well as the physical deterioration of the facility, forced TALA to close in 1994; the closure devastated the local economy, from which Weston has yet to recover -- the town looks depressed. The hospital was bought by Joe Jordan in 2007, and partly opened to tours and other money raising events for its restoration. All the funds raised by the tours goes back into restoring or stabilizing the grounds or buildings.

You can still see the original paint colors, as well as some of the bed frames still left from the
days the asylum still had patients.

The tours are conducted by individuals dressed as traditional nurses, in white dresses and the funny little nurse cap. We went on the four-floors tour -- recommended -- because it brings you throughout the asylum and to interesting and creepy places such as the morgue, the barber shop, patients' rooms, the violent women's wing, doctors quarters, the auditorium, and staff rooms, among others.

As part of the restoration efforts, some wings have been re-furnished as they would have looked in the late 1800s.

We also tried to go on the Farm and Cemetery Tour, but got rained out -- or rather, we went anyway, but the bus couldn't make it up the steep, muddy hills and we had to be driven back to the main building in a pickup truck driven by one of the employees. Although we were very disappointed, the staff refunded the entire amount for the tour, and even offered us items from the gift shop as an apology, which was extremely kind!

I have to admit, touring TALA was one of the more interesting experiences I've had while writing this blog, and I whole-heartedly recommend adding it to your daytripping bucket list. Although the place is supposed to be extremely haunted, we didn't experience anything untoward during our 90-minute tour, much to my personal disappointment. (But yes, going on the paranormal tour is on my personal bucket list!) My son and his friend were fully entertained throughout the four-floor tour, as well -- this is something that older kids will enjoy.

The doctors' quarters were recreated to resemble the furnishings depicted in several period photos; several doctors and their families lived on the second floor of the institution. Nurses lived on the third floor.

Getting there: 71 Asylum Drive, Weston, WV. If you're GPS won't recognize Asylum Drive, then punch in any address on 2nd Street or River Drive, which are adjacent streets.

Hours: Tour season last from late March to November. Open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays,
Fridays, and Sundays from noon - 6 pm,  Saturdays 10 am - 6 pm.

Dogs: Dogs no, ghosts yes.

Website: http://trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Bowmans Hill Wildflower Preserve

"There is that in the glance of a flower which may at times control the greatest of creation's braggart lords."
--naturalist and author, John Muir

Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve is a nature preserve, botanical garden, and accredited museum located just outside of New Hope, PA, that showcases an extraordinary diversity of plants native to Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley region. The Preserve offers several miles of pleasant walking trails.

How did the preserve come to be? At a chance meeting in a wooded area on state park land in Bucks County, two conservation-minded people struck up a conversation, sharing their mutual appreciation for the peaceful, natural setting that surrounded them. It was autumn, and richly colored wildflowers shone against a backdrop of trees cloaked in brilliant fall hues.

Inspired by the quiet beauty of the woods and the tranquil creek flowing nearby, they imagined a sanctuary for Pennsylvania native plants with nature trails winding through wildflower plantings, a place where visitors could enjoy this natural splendor year-round. Both firmly believed that this area was far too beautiful to be turned into the ordinary picnic grounds proposed for the site.

Native plants are those plants that grew in a defined region prior to European settlement. In the Delaware River Valley region, where Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve is located, Europeans settled here in the 1600's. Native plants have evolved over thousands of years to be adapted to this area and to the other living creatures around them. Of the approximately 2,000 species native to Pennsylvania, the Preserve is home to nearly 800 of them. More than 80 of these species are rare, threatened or endangered native plants designated as Plants of Special Concern in Pennsylvania.

 Non-native plants are those plants that were brought to the area by human activity, whether accidentally or purposefully. Throughout the settlement of our region, people brought the seeds of plants from their homelands, some of which have since spread into the wild, such as garlic mustard which we recently spent a Saturday pulling out from along the C&O Canal. Yes, we saw garlic mustard in the preserve.

Know before you go: You'll see a selection of native wildflowers, trees, shrubs and vines in bloom at the Preserve from early spring through fall. To enjoy the most abundant show of what many visitors think of as the "wow!" wildflower show, plan your visit for mid-April through early June.

Getting there: 1635 River Rd, New Hope, PA 18938

Hours: Open daily in April, May, and June, 9 am - 5 pm. Guided walks daily at 2 pm.

Dogs: Not welcomed in the preserve.

Website: http://www.bhwp.org/

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Updated May 2019

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Appreciating the Beauty of the Blackwater River

We arrived for our holiday weekend in Canaan Valley a few hours earlier. We unpacked the car and get settled into the cabin. The kids decided to hang out there, rather than come along with us as we re-explored Davis and traveled down memory lane a bit.

The view from our cabin across Canaan Valley.

We'd spent several summer vacations several years in a row in Canaan Valley -- but that was several years ago. This year we returned to one of our favorite cabins, a cozy three bedroom vacation home in Northpoint. We'd explored the area fairly well during those vacations, and I've occasionally drawn upon some of our favorite activities for blog posts, such as the Canaan Valley trail rides. But it's been several years since we'd visited for more than a couple of hours, and we decided to spend Memorial Day Weekend up there.

During our after dinner exploration, we drove past an old farmhouse in town, right across from the Shop N Save. I'd photographed it multiple times (see above), back when it still had its original doors and stained glass windows. Someone had loved that old home, and it made me sad then that it was falling into ruin. In the years since, it's descended even further. I suspect that one of these years I'll come back to Davis and it'll be gone, or else, a pile of rubble.

However, instead of turning around at the house, we continued down the road past the old house, over a bridge, and found ourselves in a part of the Blackwater Falls State Park we've not yet explored.

It's a campground (very rustic -- no amenities but nature itself). Apparently it offers great fishing, as we noticed a number of folks fishing, even that late in the day! We noticed a woman bicycling, and we commented that next time we come, we should bring our bikes for a ride. The road is packed gravel, but a hybrid bike could definitely handle it.

Blackwater Falls State Park is located in the Allegheny Mountains of Tucker County, just outside of Davis, WV. The Blackwater River, named for its tannins-darkened water, travels some 34 miles in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia. Via the Black Fork, it is a principal tributary of the Cheat River, and via the Cheat, the Monongahela and the Ohio rivers, it is part of the watershed of the Mississippi River and drains an area of 142 square miles. It is a true blackwater stream: the spruce and hemlock trees in its watershed supply tannins which impart a tea or amber color to its water.

The following morning we headed over to Blackwater Falls. You can really appreciate the color of the water as it tumbles over Blackwater Falls, on the other side of Davis.

To see the falls overlook, you travel down 219 stairs -- that's about 20 flights. But otherwise, the walk is short, and along the way you get several dramatic views of the falls from different vantages.

After checking out the falls, we decided to go on a very short hike out to Lindy Point, which overlooks the Blackwater Falls Canyon -- far below you can see the Blackwater River. The first time we went out there -- about 6 years ago -- a golden eagle soared ever so close to the lookout platform. This time, we only spotted what we hoped was a golden eagle from a distance. It never got close enough to photograph (and I'd left my good telephoto lens at home).

For more photos from a previous trip to Blackwater Falls, click here.

Getting there: 1584 Blackwater Lodge Road, Davis, WV

Hours: Dawn to dusk. However, the visitor's center opens at 10:30 a.m. (in case you want hike guides).

Dogs: Absolutely!

Website: http://www.blackwaterfalls.com/

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