Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Shinrin-yoku at Scott's Run Nature Preserve

Forest bathing -- essentially just being in the presence of trees -- is the practice of taking a short, leisurely visit to a forest for health benefits. The practice originated in Japan where it is called shinrin-yoku (森林浴) in Japanese. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being. To properly forest bathe, you simply are in the forest. No hiking, no fitness goals. Just sit, or meander, but overall, just relax and take in the trees.

I'd read about shinrin-yoku a couple years ago, and then just encountered a Washington Post article about the practice. As we entered Scott's Run Nature Preserve, I was awe-struck by the beauty of the mature trees and the green surroundings. I immediately thought of forest bathing -- this was it. I immediately felt surrounded in comforting green, a leafy bower that both stimulated and soothed. The WaPo article lists possible explanations for forest bathing’s soothing effects, one of which involves our sense of awe when viewing natural beauty, which made sense, given my first reaction to Scott's Run.

Scott's Run Nature Preserve is a nature preserve in Fairfax County, VA. Located in McLean, it is bordered by VA State Route 193/Georgetown Pike to its south, Interstate 495 to its east and the Potomac River to its north. In the heart of northern Virginia suburbia, it's easy to get to, and only minutes off the Washington Beltway. It's 336 acres of woodland is bordered by its namesake, Scott's Run, flowing through its west side. While you're walking in the preserve, you'll often hear the river, falls, and lots of birds. Only to its southeastern portion do you hear faint noise from the roads that surround it.

But we weren't there just to forest bathe amidst the trees. We were there to explore and hike. There are a number of trails throughout the preserve, leading to various overlooks, waterfalls, and the ruins of the former owner's cabin. We parked in the eastern parking lot -- mostly because we happened upon it first. Parking was tight -- it's the smaller of two parking lots. From there we took the yellow trail to Stubblefield Falls Overlook.

We didn't really see the falls, but we heard the waterfall. From there we veered right onto the Potomac Heritage Trail, marked with blue blazes, for a bit of a rock scramble, before picking up the more sedate Laurel Ridge Trail, marked with red blazes, which we took to the Oak Trail, marked with blue blazes, which we followed back to the other end of the Potomac Heritage Trail, which here was a wide, road-like path leading from the western parking lot to Scott's Run Waterfall.

Some of the park’s trails are gentle and wind quietly through forest. Other trails require hiking up and down precipitously steep hills and cliffs, both challenging and fun.

If you are looking for solitude, then park in the eastern parking lot, and head up the yellow blazed trail. You may pass an individual or two but no more than that. The western parking lot will typically be more crowded (but is bigger); most folks seem to head down the path that runs alongside the park's name sake: Scott's Run, down to the falls -- in fact, the bulk of the folks we encountered in the preserve was in this section. Although you'll encounter quite a few folks, it doesn't impinge on the great experience. (As with all urban/suburban parks, it is quite difficult to actually experience solitude.)

There's an interesting story about the preserve -- it grew out of a citizen uprising of sorts, power of the people and all that! The establishment of the park was a battleground during the formative years of the nation’s significant growth in environmental awareness. Before the property was owned by Fairfax County, it belonged Edward B. Burling. During the 1920s, Burling purchased the land for $200 an acre and built a cabin on the north side. He used the property for relaxation and informal business meetings.

After Burling's death in October 1966, his descendants sold the property to a developer, which planned to build 309 luxury homes on what was known as the "Burling Tract." When Elizabeth Miles Cooke, who lived next to the tract, noticed it was slated for development, she help organize an opposition.

After a lengthy debate between citizens, the Virginia Governor, several U.S. senators, developers, and local organizations, voters opted to raise their taxes in a referendum on 14 July 1970. The measure would secure $1.5 million to help purchase the land. An additional $1.5 million in funding was provided by the Department of the Interior and $0.6 million from state and local governments. In early September 1970, the tract was officially purchased by Fairfax County for $3.6 million.

So, thank you Elizabeth Miles Cooke and her fellow activists, for ensuring this tract of land is here today for all of us to enjoy shinrin-yoku.

Know before you go: There are two entrances into Scott’s Run off of Georgetown Pike with small parking lots and trailheads leading into the stream valley park. One entrance sits alongside the stream (Scott's Run), and the other has trails leading to the bluffs above the Potomac River.

Getting there: 7400 Georgetown Pike, McLean, VA 22102

Website: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/scottsrun/

If you enjoyed this post, go to this page to keep exploring all the other interesting places the Blog has visited! And share the Blog with others!

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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! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

An Afternoon at the Museum

Big cities don't have a monopoly on art and culture, and modest Hagerstown can attest to that, with its Museum of Fine Arts.

What began as an initial gift from the founders has grown into an extraordinary permanent collection that includes over 7,000 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and other works of art representing a variety of international cultures.

Gene Davis, untitled, 1972, oil on canvas; from the museum's Ashcan to Abstraction: Modernism in America exhibit
The Museum’s permanent collection encompasses more than 6,500 objects, including paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and decorative arts. The diverse collection began with an initial gift by the Museum’s founders, Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Singer, Jr. Their generosity and that of subsequent donors have built a remarkable art collection that continues to grow. The collection includes strengths in American art, 19th century European, international collections that reflect the founders’ cosmopolitan worldview, and collections of world cultures.

Exhibitions highlight the permanent collection and the work of living artists, as well as local and regional artists and local school students. In fact, I rather enjoyed the student art exhibit. There were really some standout pieces among them and the sheer exuberance of their artistic expression often made us laugh!

Perhaps my favorite in the museum -- appropriately enough -- was the Singer Memorial Gallery, which was established in 1949 by the Museum’s founder, Hagerstown native Anna Brugh Singer (1873-1962), as a tribute to her husband, artist William Henry Singer, Jr. (1868 – 1943). The diverse art collection they amassed, and of which over a hundred works were donated to the Museum, conveys the story of their lives as American expatriates in Norway and art collectors, while presenting compelling and significant works reflecting American, Dutch, and French trends of the late nineteenth-century.

Anton Mauve, Dutch, "Return to the Fold, on loan from Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA

Opened in 2013, the current installation was organized by guest curator, Hollis McCullough, to display the tastes of the Singers and highlight the significant works of art they contributed to the Museum. Artists in the installation include Willard Metcalf, Childe Hassam, Adolphe Joseph Monticelli, Gustave Courbet, and Pierre-Auguste Rodin.

But, surprise! Not only was William Henry Singer an art collector and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, he himself was a well respected artist.

William Henry Singer, American, "Our River in Summer," 1924, oil on canvas

Singer, founder of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, was born in Allegheny, on the north side of what is now Pittsburgh, PA. His father was in the steel business of Singer & Nimick in Pittsburgh, founded by his uncle, John Singer in 1854.

Singer had early decided on a career in art. His mother, Hester Harton Singer, encouraged his artistic pursuits, while his father was a Sunday painter and his grandfather George Singer had been a painter and gilder of chairs in Greensburg, PA. In 1895, Singer married Hagerstown resident, Anna Brugh and in the summer of 1900, they went to Monhegan Island in Maine where Singer began painting full time. In 1901, the couple crossed the Atlantic and Singer enrolled in the Academie Julian in Paris for several months. His love for the outdoors caused him to leave the Academie to paint directly from nature. They moved to Laren, Holland, not far from Amsterdam, where a regional school of artists flourished. The couple began spending summers on the west coast of Norway and settled near the village of Olden on the Nordfjord, north of Bergen during World War I.

William Henry Singer, "October Showers," 1924, oil on canvas

Singer's greatest artistic inspiration came from painting the Norwegian landscape. Although the first World War closed the era of painting abroad for most artists, Singer remained, painting in the style of the post-Impressionists long after it was fashionable. His work often shows the influence of Pointillism with its stippled coloration. Glorifying the natural setting, Singer created beautiful landscapes throughout the 1920s and 1930s until his death in Norway during the Nazi occupation.

William Henry Singer, "The Sun's Last Rays," 1930, oil on canvas

This art museum is intimate, cozy, with a collection that is easily digestible in a pleasant afternoon. You will find some surprises and delights here, to be sure! You will leave a slightly better version of yourself, for having immersed yourself in the beauty and expression at the MFA.

Getting there: 401 Museum Drive, City Park in Hagerstown, MD

Hours: Open Tuesday through Friday: 9 am - 5 pm, Saturday: 9 am - 4 pm, Sunday: 1 pm - 5 pm,
closed Monday. Free admission.

Website: http://wcmfa.org

Updated May 2018

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Baltimore - Washington Area's Best Urban Oases

When the urban jungle becomes too much for us, we naturally seek an oasis of peace and calm amidst the asphalt and pandemonium. I've found eight surprising urban oases offering us the promise of lovely vistas, green relief, or a pleasant walk. These are all near or in Washington DC and Baltimore. Check them out below!

1.  Baltimore & Annapolis Trail The B&A Rail Trail is a local favorite, although it can get quite crowded with dog walkers, joggers, and bikers. The B&A Trail runs for just over 13 miles between Glen Burnie and Annapolis, following the old Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad. Although the "park" is only 60 feet wide, many parts of it are wooded and it is relaxing to get away from the roads and the more suburban scenery of strip malls and shopping centers. Even with such a narrow park, there is wildlife. On an early spring day we saw a lot of birds and the ubiquitous grey squirrels. There were also deer and we noticed fox prints in mud along the trail.

2. Patapsco River Valley State Park Strung like pearls from northern Howard County into the city of Baltimore, Patapsco offers valleys of hidden surprises, from the Grist Mill Trail and its swinging bridges to Maryland's own ghost town, Daniels. There's mountain biking, hiking, and water tubing, as well as a variety of picnic areas to make spending an afternoon pleasurable and refreshing.

3. Brookside Gardens An oasis in the midst of cluttered suburbia, pretty much anytime in spring or summer, the gardens are lovely, but Brookside is a standout for its variety of azaleas, making early to mid-spring the best time to vist. The grounds of Brookside Gardens are designed around three formal gardens leading to a Wedding Gazebo, an Azalea Walk on the brow of the hill, plantings around the entrance, and the Conservatory.

4. The U.S. National Arboretum is a garden, a park, and a research institution, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its 446 acres include world-famous collections, such as its azalea, bonsai, and Asian plant collections. It is green and lush and colorful. There are wooded walks and expansive meadows and quite a bit in between.

5. C&O Canal Towpath in Montgomery County, but really, all the way in to its terminus in DC itself. The C&O Canal Towpath stretches 184 miles from Washington DC all the way up to Western Maryland. Whether you want some pleasant and near-flat bike riding, want to stretch your legs or walk your dog -- the towpath is a go-to destination. Nearer to Washington DC, and through Montgomery County -- one of Maryland's most crowded and urban counties -- the towpath offers moments of solitude and respite from the urban jungle. When the concrete makes your eyes sore, and the incessant noise of civilization makes your ears ache, then go to the towpath. Enjoy green trees, sweeping views of the Potomac River, and listen for the birds singing in the trees. You'll see evidence of muskrat and beaver, herons and ducks galore, and probably also deer. Over the Potomac River itself, don't be surprised if  you spot a bald eagle. Although Great Falls has plenty of parking, it also is one of the most visited sections, so instead check out Swains Lock, drive up to Brunswick or the Monocacy Aqueduct areas, or one of the several other less crowded access areas.

6. Columbia's Four Lakes Just 20 minutes outside of Baltimore is the planned community of Columbia, MD. James Rouse, the visionary who founded Columbia, incorporated winding, tree-lined roads and lakes in his planning, making this community a pleasant one to live in and the lakes a pleasant destination for walks and strolls. The four lakes: Centennial, Elkhorn, Kittaquamundi, and Wilde Lake, all offer quite different experiences.

The lakes all have paths that offer changing views and a chance to enjoy seeing beaver, deer, herons, ducks and geese, as well as a variety of other birds. Wilde Lake, ironically, is the least wild, since you're strolling below homes right at the lake's shore, but the houses are all lovely; my favorite time to stroll this lake is at dusk, because of the lighting. Centennial is Columbia's largest lake; the path takes you through quite densely wooded areas, although large sections of the path are not shaded (so a no-go on a hot summer day -- this is one of my favorite two lakes to visit for the first-thing-on-a-Saturday-morning-let's-take-the-beagles walks). Elkhorn is interesting in all seasons and at all times of the day. One evening around dusk last summer we watched four or five beaver play and romp. The lake is home to the largest snapping turtle I've ever seen. And I don't think we've ever visited the lake without seeing at least one grey or green heron.

7. Baltimore's Waterfront Promenade Built around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the waterfront promenade doesn't offer solitude as much as it offers a chance to re-connect with Baltimore's working harbor past -- that, and some magnificent views of the water! As you stroll along its five + miles, you'll travel through Baltimore's historic neighborhoods as well: Canton and Fells Point among them. Grab a coffee or grab lunch in Fells Point, or visit one of the historic light ships or lighthouses -- the promenade offers a brief interlude of relaxation away from the major hustle and bustle of Baltimore's city life. Travel in one direction on foot, then take a water taxi through the harbor back to your starting point!

8. Mount Vernon Trail, north of Reagan National Airport, offers sweeping views of the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, and other easily recognizable, patriotic buildings and monuments, from across the Potomac River, which the trail closely follows. Easily accessible from DC, you'll want to check out the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove or Roosevelt Island on this get-away from the urban hustle and bustle of downtown DC.

If you enjoyed this post, go to this page to keep exploring all the other interesting places the Blog has visited! And share the Blog with others!

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:  facebook.com/midatlanticdaytrips! And follow us @midatlanticdaytrips on Instagram to find up what we're up to between blog posts!

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, June 14, 2017

7 Places in Pennsylvania You Don't Want to Miss in 2017!

Over the four years that I've been writing this blog, I've discovered unexpected castles, rocks that sing, places of incredible beauty or incredible historical significance -- and sometimes both. I've ridden bikes along rivers, hiked to mountain tops, and explored underground -- all in the great state of Pennsylvania.

Now that school is out, here are my recommendations for some out-of-the-ordinary day trip destinations in Pennsylvania. There's a little bit of history, a little bit of science, a little bit of nature... See how many you can visit this summer!

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851.
7. Washington's Crossing State Park, in Buck's County, PA, is a park in two parts -- one where the crossing itself occurred, and another part -- just as, if not even more interesting, just up the road. The park commemorates the famous Crossing as the turning point of the American Revolution. Start your visit in the lower park at the visitors center. It features a small exhibition with some Revolutionary war artifacts, and an original letter written by George Washington while in the Mckonkey's Ferry Inn. Spring for the ticket for both tours -- a bargain for $11. This is a great way to bring some history alive for kids who otherwise might only hear about it in history classes at school!

For more information, click here.

6. No. 9 Coal Mine offers it all. Dirt, going inside a mountain, a train ride... more dirt. Some history -- but just enough. Opened in 1855, No. 9 Coal Mine, located in Lansford, PA, is the world's oldest continuously operated anthracite coal mine. It closed in 1972 and the opening was concreted over, only to be re-opened as a heritage tourism attraction in 2002. Today visitors ride by train 1600 feet into the mountainside, to see and experience first hand what it was like for miners to work underground. On the hottest summer days, it offers a brief respite from the scorching heat as you escape underground!

For more information, click here.

5. Ohiopyle State Park and Cucumber Falls: The waters of the Youghiogheny River are the center of the Ohiopyle State Park, in the Laurel Highlands area of Pennsylvania. The Ohiopyle Falls are gorgeous, but Cucumber Falls are dramatic and breathtaking. It's not a strenuous hike to Cucumber Falls, so small kids can easily make it -- you go down some steps and there it is, a ribbon of water splashing over the side of a cliff. You can climb behind the waterfalls itself, as a semi-cave has been carved out. And wear clothes you don't mind getting muddy or wet, because you can splash around in the water a bit too.

For more information, click here.

4. The National Aviary, located in Pittsburgh, is home to over 600 animals representing about 200 species -- including the Victoria Crowned Pigeon, the National Aviary, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the only independent indoor nonprofit aviary in the United States. It is also the country's largest aviary. Kids of all ages will giggle in delight at the many shapes and sizes of the birds they will see. Bonus -- so much fun for adults too!

For more information, click here.

3. Ringing Rocks County Park (Bucks County) is an understated and underrated destination. I found it really cool. Forget history -- this park is all about the science and wonder of our natural world. The thought of rocks that do more than just lie around on the forest floor doing nothing more than, well, looking like rocks lying on the ground is kind of intriguing. The point of this park is a fascinating "field" of 10-foot-high rock piles that make ringing sounds when struck. You'll want to bring your own hammer...

For more information, click here.

2. Fonthill Castle, built between 1908 and 1912, has more than 44 rooms, 18 fireplaces, 32 staircases, and more than 200 windows of various sizes and shapes. It's owner and creator, Henry Mercer, believed in recycling and reusing, so if he encountered at a sale an old window from an old house or church or other public building that he thought would fit his castle, he bought it and inserted it into his design. Thus, there didn't seem to be many windows alike, and often within a room there would be windows that didn't quite match the others. His castle seems organic, in that it seemed to have been designed from the inside out. The ceilings are sloped and rounded (all with tiles inserted), and few rooms are square or rectangular. You need to visit this wonderful American castle to learn about its other secrets!

For more information, click here.

1. Ricketts Glenn State Park is unbeatable for the astounding beauty of its falls and surrounding forest. This isn't a hike for younger kids, however. There's a 7-mile hike that leads to all 21 waterfalls, or a much shorter 3.2-mile loop, that leads you past 18. (You could add maybe another mile -- half mile there and back -- and tack on a side trip to see the remaining 3 falls.) Plan on just taking your time and enjoy the immense beauty of this park! The hike is all about the waterfalls. Even rainy and foggy, it was incredible. Once the trail meets up with Kitchen Creek, it hugs it for the rest of the way -- a no time are you away from sight and sound of waterfalls or the creek itself. Plan on at least 3 1/2 to 4 hours for this hike.

If you enjoyed this post, go to this page to keep exploring all the other interesting places the Blog has visited! And share the Blog with others!

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:  facebook.com/midatlanticdaytrips! And follow us @midatlanticdaytrips on Instagram to find up what we're up to between blog posts!

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, June 12, 2017

Afterlife Behind Bars at Moundsville Penitentiary

West Virginia Penitentiary was one of the bloodiest and deadliest prisons within the United States. It also is where the dark souls of rapists, murderers, and other criminals still may be walking, spending their afterlife imprisoned behind the same bars that held them captive when they were alive.

Talk about recidivism!

It was, of course, completely natural that my friend and I, after one incredible ghost hunt already, were determined to spend a night with 32 of our closest ghost-hunting friends (you become friends very quickly, even with strangers, when you're so fundamentally frightened). We entered the penitentiary at 9 p.m., finally emerging exhausted but thrilled at 5 a.m. the next morning. The time went quickly.

Paranormal groups and enthusiast travel guides consider WV Penitentiary, which I blogged about last week, to be one of the most haunted prisons in the United States, with ghost stories originating as early as the 1930s. Legends include the prison occupying the site of a Native American burial ground, which makes sense, since the Grave Creek Burial Mound is right across the street, and it and other Adena burial mounds in the area provided the town with its name. It also makes absolute sense that a prison so violent that it had to be shut down -- the Department of Justice’s Top Ten list of most violent correctional facilities in the nation included it -- would hold so much paranormal activity.

In one of the main corridors.
There are several areas in the prison known as 'hot spots,' where an unusual amount of paranormal activity reportedly occurs, including the infirmary (especially the x-ray table), the cafeteria, the Chapel (although I have to admit, I only felt quiet and peace there), the shower cages, and the North Wagon Gate, which served as a death house until the prison switched over to electrocution as a means of execution. One of the more infamous locations in the prison, with instances of gambling, fighting, and raping, was a recreation room known as "The Sugar Shack." Hot spots aside, with 998 men who died on the prison grounds (murder, execution, sickness, old age), there are few places that aren't hot spots.

From the dining hall looking toward the kitchen.

Paranormal reports include phantom inmates and, frighteningly, a dark figure wandering the corridors, lurking in the shadows of the halls and cells. Of course, it's impossible to know who this fearsome entity is -- an inmate? a correctional officer? During our evening there, the shadow man made his presence known to our group in the kitchen, seeming to rise out of the floor near one of our group members, but then disappearing into the darkness just as quickly. According to the daytime tour guide, this shadow figure "lives" in the kitchen, although he roams freely throughout the halls and corridors.

Most ghost hunters at the prison experience unexplained noises -- pings, creaks, clanks and cranking noises, snorts, snuffles, whispers, voices, and cold spots, and during our ghost hunt, we experienced all of these. Some believe that William Red Snyder, stabbed 36 times in 1986, still walks the corridors, often touching tourists and ghost hunters, alike. To my relief and disappointment, we made no contact with Red, or any other named inmate, although when we were down in the "hole," or boiler room, we felt as if an entity stalked us from the corners of the dank basement. It was really frightening, although I dared myself to sit on a chair near the corner, until my hysteria and fear finally overwhelmed me, and I joined the safety of the informal circle the others had formed in the center of the room. I envied one of our group her courage, for daring to stand alone in the corner where the activity was making itself known.
An orb streaks across right in front of my camera lens n the infirmary.
In total, 36 known homicides took place in the prison. One of the more notable ones is the butchering of R.D. Wall. On October 8, 1929, after "snitching" on his fellow inmates, he was attacked by three prisoners with dull shivs while heading to the boiler room, or "hole." Was he the entity that stalked us from the corners of the room? Although his body didn't immediately die -- he was brought to the hospital -- the dull shivs entering his eyes probably performed the equivalent of a frontal lobotomy.

At one point, during a session on the cell block, my friend and I were sitting on the third tier of cells. I felt pressure on my throat and chin, as if being pressed. This went on for a second or two, then it was gone. I was sitting right in front of a cell, with my back to the cell door. Was this a ghostly hand reaching out of the darkness to threaten me? Or was it fear that wrapped itself around my jaw? Later, near the same spot, a clank suddenly echoed in the cell behind us, scaring the bejesus out of us. I'm not a medium -- so I'm always taken by surprise by paranormal activity. I can't sense whether an entity is dark or more benign. At the prison, we assumed most were not benign, given the lives they led and the misery they lived in at the penitentiary.

Sometimes, during the ghost hunt, there simply is silence in the darkness. There is a lot of waiting, a collective holding of breath. There is more waiting, more, and still more. You say things out loud, breaking the silence, politely inviting the entities to make themselves known. Then you wait, and hope, willing the darkness to offer up a sound, a whisper, something, anything (as long as it's not too close to you). Ghost hunting is a mixture of boredom, hope, and abject terror...

The ghost hunts start at various times, depending on the sponsor (whether the WVP Penitentiary or an outside company such as Ghost Hunts USA), but will include a 90-minute tour that will provide you a familiarization of the known hot spots and some cold hard facts about the prison -- the numbers of the dead, the conditions they endured, how many lived in those inhumane conditions.

Know before you go #1: Having a recorder or EMF detector, in addition to your camera, would be helpful, as some of the ghost hunts give you extensive free time to explore on your own.

Know before you go #2: Whether you believe or don't, weird things might happen. During the day tour (in last week's post), my camera stopped taking photos -- I kept trying periodically -- while at the penitentiary. After the prison tour, we crossed the street to tour the Grave Creek Burial Mound and the associated museum -- camera worked perfectly. It worked perfectly all the rest of the afternoon, including just outside the prison right before the ghost hunt began. We entered the prison, I took one photo (in fact, the photo immediately above), and it stopped working. Brought it home, and now it's working perfectly again. Who knows?!

Know before you go #3: Dress for the weather. It can get chilly after the sun sets, and then there are the cold spots. Wear comfortable shoes, as you're on your feet for extensive periods, and it's a big place, so there's lots of walking. You probably want to wear long pants (in lieu of shorts), as it's also likely you'll be sitting on the floor in some pretty icky places.

Know before you go #4: Ghosts are not performing seals, offering you a show on demand. They are fickle creatures, preferring to sneak up on you or surprise you when you least expect it. Although it is LIKELY you'll experience something at the penitentiary, there are no guarantees what, if anything, you will see or hear. What reputable companies and facilities do guarantee is that nothing is staged.

Getting there: 818 Jefferson Avenue, Moundsville, WV

Hours: West Virginia Penitentiary offers both 3-hour twilight ghost hunts and all-night ghost hunts. See their website for more information. Companies also offer periodic all-night ghost hunts with accompanying psychic mediums.

Websites: wvpentours.com

  Can't get enough ghost hunts? Check out the following ghost hunts and paranormal investigations we've participated in!


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Behind Bars: Touring the West Virginia Penitentiary

The West Virginia State Penitentiary is an imposing, gothic style prison located in Moundsville, WV. It operated from 1876 to 1995. Now open for tours, it stands as a monument to a bygone era, and provides ongoing testimony to man's inhumanity to man.

The town of Moundsville is interesting in its own right, having derived its name from several Adena Indian burial mounds constructed more than 2000 years ago that are located in the area -- including the largest conical burial mound in North America, Grave Creek Burial Mound, right across the street from the penitentiary. Ironically, Moundsville is a land of sacred pasts.

An example of inmate art decorating the dining hall. The inmate artist was incarcerated for brutally
killing his wife. A memorial to her is located just behind the truck cab.

In 1863, West Virginia seceded from Virginia at the height of the Civil War. Unfortunately, as a new state, it lacked public institutions, including prisons; After nine inmates escaped in 1865 from county and temporary facilities, the local press took up the cause, and the state legislature took action. On February 7, 1866, the state legislature approved the purchase of land in Moundsville for construction of a new prison. 

The prison inmates themselves built the facility, taking a full 10 years to complete, in 1876. When completed, the total cost was of just over $363,000. In addition to the North Wagon Gate, there was now north and south cell blocks. South Hall had 224 tiny cells (7 ft. by 4 ft.), and North Hall had a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel. A four-story tower connecting the two was the administration building, and provided space for female inmates and personal living quarters for the warden and his family. 

The facility officially opened in 1876, and held 251 male inmates, including some who had helped construct the very prison that now held them. After this phase, work began on prison workshops and other secondary facilities.

The 90-minute tour takes you through the prison yard to the North Wagon Gate, where the public hangings occurred through the 1930s. The first execution took place in 1899 when the state assumed the responsibility of capital punishment from the counties. Hangings continued until 1949, with a total of 85 men executed by this means. From 1951 to 1959 nine men were electrocuted in the chair cleverly known as “Old Sparky,” itself designed and built by an inmate. (West Virginia abolished capital punishment in 1965.)

Next, the tour led us over the site of the old Death House (now a basketball court) to North Hall Cell Block -- also nicknamed the Alamo (because so few emerged alive), through the first floor of the administration building, to the South Hall cell blocks. From there we strolled out to the South prison yard and then into the Sugar Shack, a basement space that served as a recreation area for prison inmates and was virtually unguarded. 

Interestingly, throughout the prison are samples of inmate art.

Conditions at the prison during the turn of the 20th century were good, but deteriorated by the second half of the century as the inmate population surged to more than 2000. Inmates were housed three to a cell. The North Hall cell block was particularly horrific and was where the worst of the worst were housed. Correctional officers wore riot gear to go about their daily jobs, and were pummeled by urine, feces, and miscellaneous other objects hurled at them. 

Un-air conditioned and all but unheated, both the inmates and the riot-gear dressed correctional officers sweltered in the summers, and froze in the winters because the heating system was so very inadequate. There was a series of riots -- giving the prison the well-deserved reputation of being one of the nation's most violent. Eventually, it was shut down completely by 1996, and the remaining inmates shifted to other correctional facilities throughout the state.

Outside of town is the prison cemetery, where many of the men who died on the location were interred, either because they had no known family, or their families refused, in anger or shame, to claim them. Although not officially on the prison tour, we felt that an understanding of the penitentiary was not complete without a visit to White Gate Cemetery. 

It is a lovely spot, alongside a stream, the woods encroaching upon the graves, most of which are identified.

For a great aerial tour  of the facility, click here.

Inmates were given a fair amount of leeway to decorate their cells. Some were painted quite vividly,
while others were covered with words, poems, and art.

Getting there: 818 Jefferson Ave, Moundsville, WV 26041

Dogs: Actually, surprisingly, yes!!

Hours: Open April 1st - November 30th, Closed on Federal holidays and Easter. Hours vary monthly, so please check the website.

Website: http://www.wvpentours.com

For other day trip destinations, go to the Blog's Find a Great Place to Day Trip!

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