Ashuelot River Campground, NH

June 22-24

The first thing I don’t want to forget to report is that we saw a low-flying, close-our-overpass bald eagle en route from Gilbert Lake to Swanzey, New Hampshire. Of course, I didn’t get a photo of it, but it was very cool to see so close.

We arrived later than we expected to Ashuelot River Campground—a private campground we’d visited driving home from picking up our trailer from Safari Condo during the spring of 2015. You can read more about our first stay at Ashuelot and the Swanzey/Keen area at my blog post here.

But en route, our path was blocked by an unknown emergency and we detoured along a rutted, mostly-dirt road over a mountain and through the streams.

We drove slowly, primarily because we had not the first clue where we were going—but also to keep the jostling of the trailer to a minimum. Eventually, we made it back to the road blocked by the emergency and carried on our merry way (after letting the oh-so-patient drivers behind get past the slow-moving snail of a blue blockade we fondly call “Roomba”).

The campground, still managed by Chuck and Laura, has been considerably expanded. Many more sites with electric and water line the banks of the river, and many folks were floating, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing along the river.

Our campsite is perfect (#35) because there was hardly anyone nearby, and we made it into a pull-through so our “view” was of the river and Roomba was parallel to the shore. It was a nice, flat site.

In our planning for Camping in the Time of Plague, we had been informed that Ashuelot was accepting only guests who were “self-contained.” Although we do have an on-board toilet, we use the “closet” as a pantry. It would be difficult to either convert it to its intended use (unnecessary to date) or to use it for both functions.

Knowing this, we purchased a portable camp or boat toilet, and we figured out how to fit up our screen house, with its drop-down rain curtains, as our privacy area that would include use as a private shower.

By the time of our arrival, however, Chuck and Laura had built small toilet houses with running water and porcelain fixtures—and had hired someone to come in every 4 hours between 8AM and 8PM to disinfect them. There was no hot water, but what delightful news, and right across the road fro our site, too. There was even a roomy dishwashing station on the structure.

Relieved that the only use we had to make of the screen house was for showers (using the shower port already on the utility side of the trailer), we also were gratified that there was plenty of room for the screen house to be properly set up. The utility side also turned out to be the sunny side, so we got the extra boost of having the screen house shade the trailer.

It was plenty hot in NH, so we ran our AC almost constantly. Next to the river, there were also plenty of mosquitoes. 

Despite asking everyone to self-check-in, Chuck and Laura had opened the office to a limited number of people at one time, so it was easy to access the campground’s free wifi around the office. The wifi was robust, so it was easy to get a good signal by sitting outside in Adirondack chairs or along the porch.

Our first full day there, we planned to return to the Ashuelot River Rail Trail that connects Keen to Swanzey. Upon uncovering the bikes, however, we found there had been a major failure of our bike rack. 

The problem could have been so much worse—but it was bad enough. One vertical side of the aluminum tube (in the shape of an upside-down “U”) that actually holds the rack onto the front of the Alto had snapped in two right at the fitting that secures it to the trailer. The opposite vertical part of the tube was bent at the same spot. If it also had broken, who knows what would have happened to the bikes and the trailer. (In the pic on the right, I tried to remove or at least lessen the distracting effect of the background. Hope I didn’t make it even more “noisy” for you by mistake.)

So instead of riding the trail before the heat and humidity set in, we called the bike rack manufacturer (Arvika), to see what might be done. Our goal was to get them to overnight the part to us, but the timing was tricky—located in Canada, Arvkia would be celebrating a Quebec holiday the next day, making it impossible for it to reach us before we left Ashuelot.

While the guy on the other end of the line (who happened to be the owner) promised to see if he had the part in stock, and if he did, whether or not it had been painted—we gave him our schedule and discussed shipping to our next destination campground in VT (whom we’d already called to see if they could accept such a shipment).

There was nothing to do but carry on until we heard back from him. So we rode our bikes. As before, we rode from Swanzey to Keen on the Ashuelot River Rail Trail (about 6 miles).

Riding0675Web

We got to Keen before lunchtime, so we had a snack sitting in the shade outside the pub we’d visited 5 years ago. Then we checked our map (a more thorough one than what we’d had before) to find out how to continue north from Keen. The updated map was excellent, with many cycling trails outlined on the Monadnock Region Bicycle Routes map.

Wending our way through town on the Industrial Heritage trail in Keen, we saw these cool bike rack-cum-park bench structures.

They marked the beginning of the rail trail to Walpole—another 7 miles one-way—on the Cheshire Rail Trail, which was excellent up until we climbed quite steeply uphill (wondering how a train might have managed the grade) to a road crossing called Aldrich Road. Although we did cross Aldrich and go another 2 miles to a capped landfill, the footing from the north side of Aldrich until we gave up was terrible. Enormous rocks proud of the surface, deep sand, and tough gravel made those 2 miles of the ride not any fun at all. If you head north out of Keen toward Walpole on the Cheshire, take our advice and turn around at Aldrich Road.

Back at camp, we’d logged ~25 miles at an average speed of 10 MPH. It was in the mid-80s by then, and we’d had a couple of snacks along the way, but we’d missed lunch. Happily, we had taken some lamb chops out of the freezer and accompanied them with baked potatoes (grown by John and Mary) and grilled baby zucchini. It was an excellent endpoint for a strange and vigorous day.

After our ride and before it was cool enough to get into the screen house to shower, I lounged beside the river while Jack went to the office area to get wifi and see if Arvika might have found the part we needed. Once the site was shaded, we discovered our shower house rig worked out great. We didn’t even need to heat the water—between the hose baking in the sun and the ambient heat of the day, it was an excellent, private, roomy, and wonderful shower.

Not having been able to reach Arvika, we realized there was no option but to figure out how to pack the bikes into the trailer to transport them. So we spent our last day engineering the fit, and how the rest of the pack would work when the bikes took up space we usually use for other gear.

We did a “dry run” by taking the front wheels off the bikes and wrapping them (to keep grease from painting a new color scheme inside the trailer) in enormous leaf bags we obtained from the local grocery store despite Chuck’s warning that the locals didn’t really appreciate interactions with visitors from other states during Covid-19. Once we figured out how to do it and where everything would go, we settled down to an easy pasta dinner while the bagged bikes cooled their heels outside.

The pack up morning was stressful as we tried to keep the bikes safe and the interior of Roomba from getting ripped, punctured, greased, or dented. We had most of our bedding packed around the bikes to keep them from bouncing around. For my part, being in charge of the interior stowage process, I had to remember an entirely new procedure to be sure this or that would go there before we cut off access to that or the other.

Lesson One for Camping in the Time of Plague: ADAPT. Think smart, stay safe, consider options, and adapt to whatever arises.

All things considered, we did a pretty good job of adapting to not having a bike rack. The bikes (and Roomba) made it without incident to our next destination, Sugar Ridge Campground near Danville, Vermont.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to note that we’d discovered President Trudeau had extended the closure of the Canadian border, making it impossible for us to keep our service appointment at Safari Condo—the stay afterward at the Canadian campground we’d reserved was likewise, toast. Instead, we’ll “drop back and punt” and stay at Robert Moses State Park in New York for those 7 days. In addition, the group for whom I edit and layout their quarterly magazine officially canceled their annual meeting (which I’m expected to attend) due to Covid-19. This year, it was to be held in Pittsburgh, one of my favorite cities. While we will stay at the campground we’d originally reserved near the site of the convention, and while we will ride the Great Allegheny Passage as we’d planned, I won’t need to pull out any of the “nice” clothes I brought along to wear as an employee of that group during their big annual meeting.

Again: Watchword = adapt.

BridgeBikes0678Web

Gilbert Lake State Park, NY

Among our favorite campgrounds is Glimmerglass State Park, at the end of Otsego Lake opposite where Cooperstown resides. But when we made our reservations, the pandemic had not hit the US, yet Glimmerglass was already booked solid for this week in June.

What a fortuitous bump! We discovered Lake Gilbert State Park, slightly farther from Cooperstown than Glimmerglass, to the south and west. Gilbert is much smaller than Otsego but still lovely and popular. 

GilbertLake0632Web

 Our site, #2, gets quite a lot of morning and early afternoon sun, necessitating some AC, but it is elevated and relatively private. John, Mary, and Riley are next door in site 3. The only disadvantage of the two sites was that J&M were next to a dusty grail trail going right beside them up to a ball field (not marked on the maps) that no one appears to ever use. The staff, however, would drive up there occasionally, casting dust in J&M’s living space.

The camp area we chose is one of 2 in the campground (called Hilltop) and is grassy and open, with stately trees scattered around the middle and a large bathhouse with 4 private toilet/showers and the usual men’s and women’s group areas. There is also a dishwashing station, and a washer and dryer, but we had some reservations about the clothes washing area, as it’s outside with the dishwashing area.

When we checked in, the group bathhouse areas were closed, but the 4 private rooms were disinfected several times daily. By the time we checked out, the whole bathhouse was open.

There were 4 large RVs there when we arrived and it became obvious they were all together. None of them wore masks the whole time we were there, and they gathered at one site or another to eat and party together. This only got annoying on Friday night when “Green Shirt” had a few too many beers and began talking VERY LOUDLY and being quite obnoxious. One family among the group had mounted a large boar’s head on a step ladder at the hitch end of their rig, and upon its head was an enormous MAGA hat. ‘Nuff said.

Along with Riley, there were a number of dogs there—most were well-behaved—with whom Riley wanted to be friends. So he’d whine and bark sometimes upon seeing some of his species about, which, in some cases, set the other dogs to barking.

The days we were at Gilbert Lake were sunny and quite warm, but there was little humidity. Every afternoon gray clouds would roll in and we could hear thunder in the distance, but it only showered on us once. Riley has anxiety issues with thunder, but on only one evening did he need his “thunder jacket,” actually a dog life vest for water, to ease his discomfort.

MaryRiley0654Web
The calm after the storm

The downsides of Gilbert Lake for bicyclists are 2: First, the state of the paved roads is terrible (broken up, patched, and pitted); and second, there are no rail-to-trail conversions anywhere in the area that we could find.

On the 19th (Juneteenth) Jack and I took a short 7-mile tour of the area, sticking to the pubic roads in the campground, checking out the enormous cabin area (33 or so, some of which were built by the CCC back in the 30s or 40s), the beach and concession areas (beach open, concessions closed), and the lower, larger camping loop (called Deer Run maybe?). That camp loop was partially open with 3 RVs in sites, but the staff were doing work around the loop, probably preparing for the July 4th holiday-goers. That campground area is closer to the lake’s beach and is the home of the only dump station in the entire complex.

Saturday the 20th, Jack ran in to the nearest village (Morris) to do a reconnoiter and some laundry. Other than the laundromat, there’s nothing of significance in Morris (not even a grocery store). Meanwhile, I took a ride to check out the path circumnavigating the lake. Signs warn folks from entering, calling it a service road, and the folks at the camp store said there weren’t any bike trails on site, but I took my bike around anyway—John and Mary had walked Riley along the path and reported it to be okay for bikes, so I rode. A spot or three needed some extra care to avoid roots or rocks, but it was just fine.

I did 2 loops of the ride down the hill to the camp store and back to the point where I joined the lake road, circumnavigated the lake, and then climbed back up the steep hill to Hilltop. On one of the tours of the camp store, I saw a Cooper’s hawk lift from the ground near the road and make some effort to get airborne. My guess was that it was carrying something it had caught by the road. 

All told, my ride was about five miles each loop, with the lake path being a bit over a mile. One time I did the lake trail counter-clockwise, and the other time I did it clockwise.

Jack got back around 11:30 and John came puffing up to get the car to go back and fetch Mary & Riley. Mary had twisted her ankle and fallen down on her knee along one of the hiking paths, ending up with a significant scrape on her knee and a sore ankle. She was fine, only embarrassed, but walking was a bit of a challenge for her.

After lunch (and ministering to Mary’s wound and resting her ankle) we all set off for Cooperstown. Mary thought that a gentle walk around the town would ease some of the stiffness and swelling in her ankle, which John wrapped with an Ace bandage.

A stroll and an ice cream later, J&M drove up toward Glimmerglass, and Jack and I hit the grocery store for the goods to make a Dutch Oven dinner for us all the next day, on our final night together.

On Father’s Day Sunday, J&M headed north to link up with Mary’s brother at a half-way point for them both. Jack and I had a lazy day reading and napping. Every day of our stay we heard and saw a Cooper’s hawk circling overhead—possibly a mate to the one I saw on my solo ride on the 20th. 

I fixed the DO goulash dinner for us and we enjoyed the meal and a quiet evening around the fire, which, as usual, included some distant thunder, some gray clouds, and a sprinkle thrown into the mix. 

JohnMaryRiley0658Web

On June 22, we packed up our houses on wheels. J&M headed south, back to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in PA en route to their home and garden; and Jack and I headed north and east to New Hampshire and an old friend, Ashuelot River Campground in Swanzey, NH.

Butterfly0639Web

Trip’s End

Sunday, Apr. 21

We finally got a break in the weather, but most of the Alto crowd had left. Jack and I headed to South Hill for foodstuffs enough to fix dinner for John (arriving without Mary, who has fallen under the weather, or possibly the pollen) and additional Floyd friends, Brad and Ellen. 

PanoKayaks4031Web

Because we’re settled and they’re arriving in the afternoon and likely won’t be set up before dinner time, we texted with them to let everyone know we’d handle dinner for all of us. We found the fixins for the fennel chicken dish we like to cook in the Dutch oven, and we also got some pork loins to grill for Mary and Allen who were coming to the campsite on Monday. 

I began cooking circa 5:30, completing it by around 6:30, and served directly from the Dutch oven, with Omnia heat-and-serve rolls and roasted potatoes. Afterwards, we cranked the Solo fire, and the Karl & Hari crowd came over from loop C to share.

DinnerCooking4020Web

Campfire4035Web

It was another glorious sunset, with the sun peeking below the clouds and shining brightly on the end of our peninsula, making the trees look like they were about to combust.

LightOnPeninsula4026Web

No good sunset is complete without a good reflection photo off Roomba (it’s a thing with the Alto models that have lots of windows).

ReflectionPic4027Web

Here’s a gallery of photos I’m calling “Sunset After the Storms”

Monday, Apr. 22

First thing in the morning, I watched an adult bald eagle fly over. The day dawned cold (47 degrees) but I was outside watching for birds and enjoying the clear morning by about 7. I wasn’t the only early bird, as a couple of fishermen were plying the waters near our site also.

Fishing4039Web

Before lunch, we took a bike ride with Brad and Ellen while John took a kayak paddle-about. We toured around the campground, and across the hydro dam, where we stopped both coming and going to watch bald eagles and osprey and enormous fish near the dam. I could have watched the birds all day.

Osprey2731Web

Instead of going back to the campground, we turned right at Rt. 4 and headed to the tailwaters of the dam, where there were tons and tons of birds all doing wondrous things, just carrying on with their birdy lives. We got off our bikes again to watch eagles and osprey and herons and cormorants and so many more. Saw this heron trying to hide while roosting in a tree.

HeronTree2728Web

Returned to eat a late lunch and enjoyed the sun. Even though the breeze picked up as we ate, the sky was incredibly blue-blue, and the sun was toasty hot.

Allen and Mary came for dinner around 6, and we grilled a pork loin. John, Brad, and Ellen brought their own dinners and we all ate together. Everyone enjoyed another campfire, topped off with a celebratory dram to mark the end of our trip, as well as Brad’s (Apr. 24) and Jack’s (Apr. 26) birthdays.

Tuesday, Apr. 23

Naturally, on the day we must leave, the temp soared to 52 degrees and the wind stayed dead calm. Heard several lonely loon calls in the early AM.

We enjoyed a leisurely morning and said goodbye to Brad and Ellen around 8:30. Watched a contest between a lone loon with a fish, versus an entire gaggle of cormorants. The cormorants were doing a tag-team “harass the loon so it drops its fish” game, with much of the action happening under water. The loon would dip below, with 2 or 3 of the cormorants flying over to where it dove and diving after it. The loon would pop up again and other cormorants would fly over to it and dive after it when it dove for cover again.

Finally, the loon surfaced and up-ended the fish so it would go down its gullet, and suddenly, all the cormorants looked like they were bored, as if they’d had nothing to do with the loon at all. They all went different directions after the game was won by the loon.

Once the water warmed up a bit, John took a final kayak tour before he began to load up for departure. We ate an early lunch and began breaking camp in earnest around noon.

JohnKayak2735Web

Just as we were nearing our own departure time, we saw a Canada goose family swimming by. The water was a bit choppy by then, but the little goslings were pretty easy to see. The hard part was getting the youngsters and both parents in my camera’s frame at the same time. But I finally managed.

It was an uneventful drive back home, and we parked Roomba in the driveway near his garage overnight. All was well with the house and critters and we were thankful for Surya, our house sitter. Naturally, the first thing Mischief wanted to do was play ball. 

RoombaHomeWeb

PlayBallWeb

I grabbed some meat and went out to see how Beebs (redtailed hawk) was doing, and she seemed quite keen on the food, but not so sure about me.

TakeoffWeb

Thus the 2019 Spring Trip comes to a close. It was wonderful and fun and so very exciting to share with so many of our friends and to meet new friends along the way. 

More adventures to come—watch this space for the next peregrinations we undertake with our Alto camper.

 

Kiptopeke State Park, VA Part 2

Monday, April 15

Tootled down the Southern Tip Bikeway (old Cape Charles Railway bed) to the beautiful and enormous wildlife refuge, which once was an Army base (see reader board text below). Rode down to the old gun emplacement and around some of the trails, over to the boat launch, and the marsh observation deck. Saw a juvie baldie and lots of other neat birds. 

Reader board: Cape Charles Railroad

The Cape Charles Railroad once ran along this bike path, connecting lower Northhampton County to the town of Cape Charles. From there the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad carried produce from the Eastern Shore to northern cities.

In the early 1900s, local farmers carried their produce to Cape Charles by boat. During potato season, boats filled with produce clogged the town’s harbor. Building the Cape Charles Railroad solved this problem and for years daily trains ran between Kiptopeke (south end) and Cape Charles.

In 1941 the rail line was extended south to supply the 5000 troops housed in the new Army base, today turned into a wildlife refuge (but still features two of the gun turrets and one of the guns used in WWII to protect the Chesapeake Bay). After WWII, improved highways and the growing trucking industry led to the slow decline of the railroad, which closed in 1972.

Today, the bike trail is all that remains of the Cape Charles Railroad, and the path runs from the Wildlife Refuge and its exceptional Visitor Center (open only Thurs/Fri/Sat at this time of the year) adjacent to Route 13, ending at a 700-numbered road called Capeville Rd (near a truck stop and seafood restaurant called Sparky’s). But the effort continues to extend the bike path all the way to Cape Charles when possible. For now, intrepid cyclists must leave the protected path and use the wide shoulder of Rt. 13 (or a maze of back roads) to cycle into Cape Charles proper (which Jack & I did on April 17, but more of that later).

RefugeBoatRamp2675Web

It was during this ride, especially on our return to camp, when we took some back roads instead of staying on the bike path, that we encountered a very gusty, strong wind that alternated between being a headwind and a crosswind. We were literally threatened with being knocked off our bikes by oversteering the cross-gusts. We also (Mary especially) discovered the thick, dense pollen that was blowing and collecting everywhere and on everything. Note the yellow tinge of the Big Front Window on our Alto in the below photo.

PollenCoating2676Web

For John and Mary’s last night camping, we had a celebratory “weenie roast” (using bratwurst) over a Solo stove fire, even though it was pretty darn chilly. 

BratRoast3990Web

SoloFireMeal3993Web

Mary even cooked a s’more for herself and John (Jack and I don’t do s’mores). When it was full dark, Mary cranked up her “disco light” and we placed it around the two sites to see what it looked like. The best photo I was able to get was when it was sitting on J n M’s teardrop, Little Debbie’s doorstep. Pretty cool.

DiscoLightLilDebbieWeb

The next day, John and Mary got away about 10:30 (April 16). Jack and I sat around to let the sun warm us up a bit and then headed out for a long bike ride after lunch. Again, pollen counts must have been off the charts, and the wind had not abated by any measurable margin.

As we set off we stopped at an active osprey nest midway up the main road into Kiptopeke (we’d noticed it yesterday, but I couldn’t get any pix). The parents were around, and Mr. delivered a fish, but I wasn’t able to capture the carry or drop.

Osprey2681Web

Taking the Bikeway as far as we could, we decided to head toward the Bay along the Custis Tomb road, west of Rt. 13. We rode down to the tombs themselves, on what was once the Custis Arlington Plantation, now a tony housing development. A short history of Arlington: Early in the 1670s John 2 built a three-story brick mansion on the south bank of Old Plantation Creek, in southwestern Northampton County, naming the house Arlington after the Custis family’s ancestral village in Gloucestershire, England. 

The name of the mansion inspired Custis’s descendant, George Washington Parke Custis (adopted grandson of George Washington) early in the nineteenth century, to give the same name to his estate outside Washington, D.C.

There’s not much left except an open grassland where the grand home once stood, with some reader boards, and the view of Old Plantation Creek.

ArlingtonView2688Web

And of course, the tombs themselves, which bear mention. Both John Custis II and his grandson John Custis IV are buried there, within a brick-walled enclosure with a small wooden gate. The inscription on John 4’s marker is significant and rather funny. Both original inscriptions are unintelligible on the stones, but the preservation folks have reprinted them for posterity.

John Custis II’s inscription:

John2Inscription2685Web
Oddly, John 2 neglected to mention the actual name of his granddaughter-in-law, Frances Parke Custis (seeing her father as being much more important), but she was evidently a rather difficult person, evidenced by her husband’s inscription.

 

John4Inscription2686Web

The one for John 4 (above) is notable on several counts, not the least of which is that he threatened to cut his son, Daniel Parke Custis, out of his inheritance if he would not place his requested wording on the marker. While John 4 had moved to Williamsburg in 1717, he specifically wanted to be buried on the Eastern Shore, under these exact words:

“Aged 71 Years and Yet lived but Seven years which was the Space of time he kept a Bachelors House at Arlington on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. This Inscription put on this Tomb by his own positive Order.” It was chiseled there by William Coley, Mason in Fenn Church Street, London.

Now, if several of these references (Governor Berkeley, Bacon’s Rebellion) have stirred your memories of Virginia history or snagged your “bells” on the names themselves (Custis being a part of Martha Washington’s as well as Mrs. Robert E. Lee’s names) you can click here for a somewhat cobbled-together history of those periods and people in Colonial Virginia’s history, up to (nearly) America’s Civil War.

Back at the long-gone estate, we pedaled into and out of the Arlington development, and then, turning randomly on the country roads to see waterfront where we could and stay off Rt. 13, we made our way back to Kiptopeke. We hadn’t ridden around the park itself yet (something we nearly always do, taking every left turn so you cover it all without getting lost, since you end up where you began eventually) and we learned some things and saw things missed the first time through, two years prior (for more, check the link here).

KiptopekeSignBoat2696Web

We went down to a boat launch, beach, and fishing area, adjacent to the “cement ships” used during WWII as cargo vessels so that the metal ships could be used in the war effort. They have been beached off the shore of Kiptopeke, as a breakwater. The 9 ships that comprise the breakwater now serve as structure for fish habitat.

JackNBike2697Web

This area was also the northern landing site for the once-busy Kiptopeke Ferry, which carried passengers from Norfolk to the roads accessing Cape Charles between 1949 and 1964.

It is obvious this was a passenger throughway if you catch this sign buried in the woods near the Ferry Road, and adjacent to the Kiptopeke Hawk Watch area (where the country’s highest counts of migratory peregrine falcons have been documented).

 

Bike Stats

  • Ride time = 2 hours
  • Stopped time = 1 hour
  • Distance = 21 miles
  • Average speed = 11 mph
  • Fastest speed = 17 mph

Not to belabor this entry overmuch, on Wed., April 17, we rode into Cape Charles for lunch at Tim’s Family Restaurant (good food) in the shopping district and pedaled around the neighborhoods for much of the day. 

Before leaving camp, we noticed a family of squirrels living nearly above our heads in our major shade tree. The strangeness of the black plastic trash bag caught my eye at first, and then we watched the mama exit and leave the kids behind. There were at least two of them and they were stretching their legs a bit before they disappeared back inside (went down for a nap?).

Anyway, forgot to take my camera along on the ride, so not much more to report. After getting back to camp and before the teensy Cape Charles library closed, I drove back into town to upload the Janes Island Pt. 2 post. We tried to fix pizza for dinner, but it was too windy to cook properly on the grill (with our grill-sized pizza stone). Decent, but sort of like eating a big pizza cracker: crispy on the bottom and barely melted on top. We’ll try that dinner again sometime, without the wind.

Bike stats

  • Ride time = 2.25 hours
  • Stopped time = 1.5 hours
  • Distance = 26 miles
  • Average speed = 11.5 mph
  • Fastest speed = 18 mph

 

Janes Island State Park MD, Part 2

As you might have noted in the most recent post (Part 1 of this section, sharing April 7-10) I was slightly hurried to be done, without time to double-check. You see, I was in a library that closed 15 minutes before I was done, and I rushed to finish the post by 5PM.

In my description of April 9 of that section, I neglected to include two important photos: That of the library where we visited for cell and wifi several times (a very nice library, indeed—much nicer than the one I was working from when I had to rush the finish of the prior post), and the laundromat in Crisfield, which also was quite clean, roomy, and well-equipped. So these two pix are from our April 9 excursion into Crisfield for some “obligatories.” (By the way, I dearly love libraries!)

April 11 in Jane’s Island was laid back as we listened to music, Jack washed Roomba’s windows, and we tidied the living spaces a bit. Our morning began at 46 degrees but didn’t take long to warm a little. 

Jack headed to our fave seafood retail/wholesaler, and got enough shrimp for an excellent grilled (skewer) shrimp meal, with go-withs to satisfy the tummies. 

Another thing I forgot to mention was the situation at these campgrounds surrounding a dishwashing station. Surprisingly, many campgrounds don’t offer this amenity, which I think is an unforgivable oversight. They’re always going on about not dumping gray water or food scraps around your site, but they force those of us in small rigs (and tenters) to wash dishes on site and dump the used water afterward. 

Anyway, we always look for dishwashing stations, and (to backtrack a little) Chippokes had one at the “secondary” bathhouse in our loop, but it did not offer hot water. Pretty sure this was the normal situation (not just a seasonal thing) as it appeared to have no hot water feed at all. 

Janes Island, however, had a very nice hot-and-cold-running-water, very clean and accommodating dishwashing station (“counter” space on both sides of the sink). That said, there was an enormous hole where, in a “normal” kitchen, there would be a garbage disposal, so you had to be careful not to lose your spoons down there. Also, they’d evidently had some trouble with campers walking off with their drain plugs, so they wired them to the sink with twisted-strand wire and lock nuts. At the plug ends of the tie, when you reached under the sudsy water for a dish, you had to be careful not to stab yourself with the wire tips beyond the fasteners that had come untwisted with use.

On Friday, April 12, Jack and I took a long ride to a little place called Westover, following the “Crustacean Causeway” north of Crisfield. (Only getting a little lost along the way, and coming back along a different path).

CrustaceanMap2673Web

During the ride we passed a broken-down, sad old church, belching vines and weeds from its once-sculpted windows. I could imagine pretty stained glass in them during its heyday.

Church2667Web

We also saw a cute tiny house, unfortunately, right next to the big highway, but I had to stop and get a picture of it anyway.

TinyHouse2665Web

We got back from our ride just as John and Mary returned from another long kayaking trip. After we’d all showered up, we gathered for a Dutch oven jambalaya fixed by John and Mary (with additional shrimps from Jack’s purchase the day before). It was delicious, and J n M wanted to “host” us inside their trailer for dinner, so we arranged ourselves into “Little Debbie” for our meal comfortable, satisfying meal.

Bike Stats

  • Ride time=2:20
  • Stopped time=57 min
  • Distance=30 mi
  • Average speed=13 mph
  • Fastest speed=22.5
  • (There was a truly lovely stretch, straight and slightly downhill, with the wind at our backs just outside of Westover, where we really cadillacked along with little effort and got that “fastest speed” number pretty high)

Our final day at Janes Island State Park (April 13) was rainy. First thing in the damp morning, we discovered a tiny toad, ensconced in the folds of Jack’s camp chair, that had been collapsed the night before and was leaning against the trailer. He was a cutie.

Toad2671Web

Since it was raining, we spent all day finishing the first of the three jigsaw puzzles Jack gave me for my birthday. 

 

Puzzle3945Web
Difficult to tell here, but the puzzle represents a painting of a Paris marketplace in summer.

 

On April 14, we were sad to leave Janes Island, except for the fact that the mosquitoes, which had not made an appearance at all during our week, showed up with some vengeance a couple of the days before we left. All of us were somewhat surprised, as it was pretty cold and breezy. But who knows? Maybe there was a nearby hatch or something. Anyway, we got away by about 9:45 AM with heavy hearts and a promise to return. Next stop: Kiptopeke State Park near Cape Charles, Virginia.

 

Janes Island State Park, MD Part 1

It was an uneventful trip up to MD and one of our fave spots, Jane’s Island State Park. We snagged the site we’d had a couple of years ago when we came here for the first time and John and Mary set up beside us (sites 22 and 23). Contrary to our prior stay, we found a nearly-empty campground. As before, however, the waterfront sites are simply without parallel. Electric available but no water at the sites, although spigots are nearby. As was our former experience, cell service was spotty at best and, being near a military base, we theorize that some blocking activities might have contributed to cell service inexplicably dropping out totally on occasion. Happily, we found the Crisfield Public Library handy (just a 2-3 mile bike ride or drive away) and they had robust, free wifi and cell service.

But I get ahead of myself. Our transfer day was my birthday (April 7) so we settled into our sites and then headed straight out to The Watermen Restaurant for a celebratory (and delicious) meal. I thoroughly enjoyed my shrimp scampi on linguini with black olives. 

WatermensInnSign3932Web

On our first full day at Janes Island SP, John and Mary headed out to do some kayak touring.

I had fun taking pix of a loon fishing in front of our campsite.

We’d hoped for some grill-able seafood, but none to be found, but when we looked at the place where J & I had found excellent shrimp last year, we did note that they’ve got shrimp again.

ShrimpPlaceWeb

But we had to settle for some really tasty grilled burgers, with hassle back potatoes made by J & M in their dutch oven. Seriously delicious.

Then the rain and wind came and nearly blew us all away. We were relatively dry eating in the screenhouse, but when the wind sent the rains horizontal and it began dripping on us, we retired to our respective sanctuaries.

The next day (April 9) John and Mary took another kayak tour of the water trails around and were thankful for less wind. Jack and I ventured to the local Food Lion to stock up on necessities, and we did laundry at a local “duds n suds.” Had to hit the Crisfield Library for a bit of wifi. Returned to camp and enjoyed an excellent sunset that seemed to go on and on.

April 10 was dry yet a bit windy and we decided to take a leisurely bike ride around Crisfield, the harbor town nearby. We had a lovely lunch on the public dock supplied by Bubbies burger joint, and I worked a bit on the blog catch-up. Had a lovely “upside down” day with eggs, hash browns, and hot rolls for dinner, eaten around a lovely fire in the solo stove. 

 

Chippokes Plantation Campground, April 5 & 6

One last thing I forgot to mention as a big “pro” on the plus side of our Bike Florida Tour: Oranges.

All the rest stops had them in abundance, and they were cherry red, sweet, and O! so refreshing. So good, in fact, that we stopped at a roadside stand before leaving FL and bought a sack full. Yum.

OrangesWeb

So we said goodbye to FL and headed to SC. Travel was unremarkable, thank goodness. But I did capture this pic of Angela and their Alto2114 traveling along ahead of us at one point.

FollowingAngela3892Web

So Lynches River Campground was our overnight spot on Thursday, April 4, and that’s the campground that is mostly for tenters, with only 2 serviced RV sites. Mark and Angela got #2 (a pull-through) and we got #1 both with electric and water. The bathhouse was rustic to say the least, but it had exactly two private rooms, each with its own toilet, sink, and shower. For a one-night stayover, it was just perfect. Next stop: Chippokes Plantation Campground near Williamsburg, VA, April 5 and 6.

Site1-3894Web

Chippokes is actually in Surry, VA, and is a re-purposed grand farm and mansion, once an actual plantation. Today, it is quite a fine and spiffy Virginia State Park, with hiking trails, the mansion itself, equestrian trails, electric and water, and nice renovated bathhouses. Loop B has the most modernized and level campsites, where Loop A has older, less flat/improved sites.

We linked up with John and Mary at Chippokes, so we had three side-by-side sites with Mark and Angela. Roomba was in the middle, on site #2.

Mark and Angela’s son, Brent, linked up with them (and us), coming down from New York to see his parents while they were relatively close. He spent some of our arrival/set up day in Williamsburg and he and Mary and John all arrived around 5PM.

We all went out to dinner, hoping to catch the pub in Smithfield, but there was a minimum of an hour’s wait there, so off we went to Smithfield Landing where we had a delightful dinner, and all got to know one another a bit better. The walk through Smithfield from the pub to the Landing and then back to our cars after dinner was fun times together also.

The next day, Mark, Angela, and Brent headed to Jamestown, while Mary, John, Jack, and I headed across the ferry into Williamsburg. But first, we went to the Edwards Ham store and picked up some good old fashioned Virginia Ham products. Yum.

We rode the Pocahontas ferry and saw a smaller ferry passing across the river. It was overcast the day we headed into Billsburg, but it never rained despite the look of the sky.

We had a bit of a drive around the campus, telling J&M tales of our college days, and had a quite nice sandwich from Colonial Williamsburg’s famous Cheese Shop.

CheeseShop3901Web

That night, we all fixed our own dinners but joined up to eat at our site. We had shared appetizers and a fire to cozy up to as our final night together after our fun travels with Mark and Angela. Brent also was headed back north the next day, while John, Mary, Jack, and I were headed to Janes Island, MD for our next, longest stop of our Spring Trip.

Before everyone broke apart, I set up the timer on my camera to get a group shot. And Riley also had to have some fun before we bundled off to Maryland.

 

GAP 7, To Meyersdale

September 17, 2018

As forecast, the rains came with a vengeance, curling around from the east and Hurricane Florence. Having nothing to do with the rains, but somewhat of a portent of our day, was this tree across the street from our lodging. Happily, it did not cause a power outage at our place.

Tree2500

Eventually, I got wet enough that I feared for my “good” camera’s well-being, even as I kept it under my raincoat, so I put it in safe-keeping in my waterproof pannier. My iPhone has a waterproof case, so what photos I took in the steady, pouring, insistent rain of the day were taken with the iPhone camera.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about the ride for the day. We got wet. The trail was wet. Our bikes got filthy.

Happily, however, it was warm, temperature-wise. In fact I got so hot riding that I eventually took off my jacket which was wet from the inside as well as the outside from my own sweat and the nonstop rain. This was the day during which we climbed to Meyersdale, known as the highest town along the GAP Trail.

There is some interesting history associated with several bridge/tunnel/railroad structures we rode over and through. The Pinkerton bridges, tunnels and horn have an interesting story. From the 14th Edition of the official GAP Trail Guide (which I recommend if anyone is going to ride this trail):

There were two railroad tunnels built through the Pinkerton Neck (MP52), a narrow pinch of erosion-resistant geology that created a peninsula in the Casselman River (locally called “The Horn”). The first was the B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) tunnel, completed in 1871. Like many tunnels of the era, it was lined with timber, and when it was destroyed by fire in 1879, a bypass or “shoofly” was built around the horn while the tunnel was being repaired.

CSX completed a major construction project in 2014 to “open-cut” or “daylight” the B&O tunnel so it would accommodate double-stacked rail cars. The fill from this massive cut was placed on top of the Pinkerton horn and has drastically changed the way this area looks.

The Western MD RR built its tunnel in 1912, flanked by the Pinkerton Low and High Bridges over the Casselman River. It had not been open to trail use until 2015 due to its severely deteriorated condition. GAP Trail users had traveled along the B&O shoofly for a scenic 1.5 mile “detour” around the Pinkerton horn.

Major work was undertaken in 2015 to re-line the WM RR tunnel, making it safe for trail use.

PinkertonLiner20152851
This photo is from the official GAP Trail Guide, 14th Edition.

We dripped our way into the town of Rockwood, PA (MP43, across the river from the Trail) to visit and eat lunch at the Mill & Opera House, for which we got a lovely tour of the truly ancient (and the proprietress reported, haunted) structure. While Rockwood was laid out in 1857, it was not until after the American Civil War that it began to boom with the arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad. By the 1880s, Rockwood was southern PA’s fastest-growing villages.

Rockwood2722

Our lunch (and slightly-drying-out-spot) in the Mill Shoppes & Opera House was most definitely “comfort food.” Many of us chose the chicken pot pie for lunch and man, was it warming and delicious. Lumber and feed were processed in the old mill building for nearly a century, and like many small towns with large warehouse-like structures, the building has had a performance area above the working mill and storage areas for nearly as long.

Judy Pletcher had a dream to restore the old mill and opera house, and her dream was realized in 2000. She described some of the renovation challenges, and indicated a few of the “left as-was” rooms (mostly storage areas) on our tour. These days the structure is a café, pizza shop, gift and retail shop “mall” on the lower floor, and a presentation space for the community upstairs. Along the upstairs wall, which includes a catering area for dinner theater and special events, are signed photos of many “stars” who have performed in the renovated Opera House. A large-ish (bigger than HO scale) model train runs around the main café room, along a track suspended near the ceiling.

Next we came to the Salisbury Viaduct (MP33.5). This is one of the most distinctive features of the GAP Trail. At 1,908 feet long, this amazing structure dominates the Casselman River Valley. The 101-ft. high steel trestle was a key engineering achievement for the Western Maryland Railway Co.’s Connellsville Extension. Hundreds of spectators cheered when the first train rolled across this engineering wonder in the early 1900s.

It was not built without cost, however. Disaster struck in 1911 when an electric traveling crane crashed to the ground while trying to lift a 14.5 ton girder up to the deck. Six men were killed and one was severely injured. A month later, a worker fell to his death from the trestle deck.

Like most of the train bridges in this part of the Western Maryland RR line, it was built to accommodate a second track, but that expansion was never built. Decommissioned as a through-route in 1975, the trestle was decked for Trail use in 1998.

There is also the Keystone Viaduct (MP30) at 910-feet long, and the Bollman Iron Bridge (MP30.5) originally built by the B&O to cross Gladdens Run in another county entirely. It was moved 100+ years ago to serve as a farm road crossing above the RR in Somerset County. In 2007 it was moved again to augment the GAP Trail as a piece of history. It is an early example of a cast and wrought iron bridge (by Master Bridge Engineer, Wendell Bollman).

Here are a few random images from along the ride.

At last we rolled into Meyersdale (MP32) and the Yoder Guest House where we were met by Charles Yoder. We had a nice bike shed in which to put our gear, and a hose with which to clean our bikes of the grit and grime the rain had not already washed away. It was somewhat horrifying to walk into this lovely renovated old home dripping like sponges—but we did, in fact, remove our disgusting shoes before entering.

Jack and I had a very nice room and the big bonus was that the bathroom had a heater included with the shower vent, so we were able to drape, hang, and spread out most of our wet gear in the bathroom to get mostly dry during our stay (after we ourselves had taken showers, of course).

Denise Yoder cooked a scrumptious meal for us, and we spent some good “community” time on the Yoder front porch, watching the traffic pass and chatting about this and that. The Yoder house is definitely a recommendation, because they were very friendly and accommodating, and have covered their walls with bicycle art.

It was a very fun place that I’d recommend to anyone passing through Meyersdale. Up from the Yoder’s is the renovated depot next to the trail that is also worth a stop. It is a museum of the railroad heritage and an interesting building to boot. There you can get GAP gear, a snack, water, and other necessities of trail riding.

MyersdaleWelcomeDepot2506
Picture taken the next day, after the rain.

Bike Stats:

  • Ride time: 3 hours
  • Stopped time: 3.25 hrs.
  • Distance: 32.3 miles
  • Average speed: 11MPH
  • Fastest speed: 23.3MPH
  • Ascent: 796 ft.
  • Descent: 125 ft.

 

GAP 5 Part 2: To Connellsville

September 15, 2018

Before we left West Newton, in the Ruritans’ reclaimed rail car, we learned about some of the sights we were to see along our way toward Connellsville. There’s a lot of history along the GAP trail that is worth at least a fleeting glance, so a rider can understand the context of the trail’s roots and bones, rising from its origin as a railroad bed.

When talking about The Ruins Project in the most recent post, I mentioned the town of Whitsett (MP 103). As a traditional “company town,” Whitsett is a living example of the “cracker-box” houses that were owned by the company, along with the infamous “company store.” In the song Sixteen Tons, the singer says, “I owe my soul to the company store”—not an uncommon situation in which many of the coal mine workers found themselves. Because goods in the company store were tremendously expensive, most miner families had to buy food and goods on credit, ending up owing the mining company more than their wages, and plunging them into indentured servitude.

But Whitsett is known for another reason: the populace is extremely proud that the town has always been an integrated community. Neighbors in Whitsett have watched out for and stood by one another through many hard times. The floods of 1936, ’54, and ’72, plus two train derailments (1947 & 1974) brought distress to the families of Whitsett. But the town has become more closely-knit, and today is known, among other things, for generating some of the finest amateur baseball teams known.

Waitsett2375

Early in our ride, I stopped to see this marked feature along the trail (marked with a post and the words “Mailbox Formation”). It was pretty cool.

The Tufa

A tufa is a rare formation of limestone that grows out of fresh water seeping through the ground outside of a cave (as the water warms, calcium carbonate emerges and fossilizes, covering anything it falls upon, drip by drip). It’s like the deposits found in caves (stalactites and stalagmites) but without the protection of the surrounding rock. A tufa is exposed to and vulnerable to the elements.

To teachers, students, and naturalists interested in geology, it is a delicate outdoor classroom—it’s difficult to ‘get’ geology indoors because of its scale (this tufa stands 37 feet tall). To archeologists, the tufa is a scrapbook: layers upon layers of calcium salts have trapped the history of the last 18,000 years. Every day, something else disappears (and is preserved) under the constant, slow, drip, drip. For example, dust from passing trains in the 30s; from distant volcanic eruptions; even from the first atomic tests in the 40s—could be recovered and studied, telling tales and stories intimate to the era in which it has been preserved.

As such, the tufa is vulnerable to destruction by curious visitors, fertilizer runoff, logging activities, pipelines, and exploration. Therefore, not many of the locals let folks like us know exactly where it is, because its fragile situation is quite close to the trail. Happily, it is difficult to see and to find, and it’s on private property. 

I did try to find something like what I’d read about and seen in an old newspaper article. But what I saw and photographed (and intentionally left off here) might simply have been a slow-moving spring polluted by a long-gone mining operation. I mention it because it’s interesting, but I leave the photo out so the tufa won’t be destroyed by folks as curious as I am.

Coke ovens

In the industry’s heyday, hundreds of these beehive-shaped ovens would be burning, all in a long row (for ease of loading coal from rail cars into the ovens; and then for transfer of the coke back to rail cars to head up to Pittsburgh for steel-making). Elder residents can remember the coke ovens lighting up the night sky. The area around MP 89 and Connellsville became known as Dante’s Inferno.

A fellow named Cochran, who lived in nearby Dawson, had discovered how to make coke from coal around the 1840s. The key was a small, dome-shaped oven, modeled after bread ovens. For nearly 100 years afterward, coke ovens (also called “beehive ovens”) were in use along the Yough River (until about 1930). Cochran’s method was the biggest industrial discovery ever made along this section of the GAP trail, and resulted in the greatest number of millionaires per capita residing in the geography between Connellsville to Perryopolis than anywhere in the United States. At one time, 13,000 bushels of coke were boated from Connellsville to Cincinnati.

Here’s a brief primer on coal, coke, and steel.

Bituminous coal (black coal) is relatively soft, and contains a tar-like substance called bitumen (asphalt). Bituminous coal is of higher quality than lignite coal; yet it is of poorer quality than anthracite.

If it is to be used for many industrial processes, bituminous coal must first be “coked” to remove the volatile components. Coking is achieved by heating the coal in the absence of oxygen (to the extent possible), a process which drives off hydrocarbons (for example propane & benzene among others) as well as sulfur gasses. Much of the water in bituminous coal is also driven out during carbonization.

While the coal is heating in the “beehive oven” in a very low-oxygen environment, it softens, allowing the volatiles escape through its pores. When cooled, the resultant coke has swollen (as compared to how it began) resulting in a larger volume—contrary to what we know to be typical of burning, where the end result is most frequently a much smaller volume than what was burned in the first place.

Coke (also called metallurgical coal) is used in the manufacture of steel, where carbon fuel must be as volatile-free and ash-free as possible. The strength and density of coke is particularly critical when used in a blast furnace. In steel-making, the coke is not only a fuel but also a reactant in the steel-making blast furnace.

In steel making, impurities (nitrogen, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur, and excess carbon) are removed from raw iron ore. At the same time, alloying elements like manganese, nickel, chromium, and vanadium are added, which produce different grades of steel. The use of coke in the furnace also limits impurities (termed “inclusions”) in the steel, which is also critical to ensure the quality of products cast from molten steel.

This is how the “beehive ovens” worked: A fire brick chamber shaped like a dome, typically ~13 ft. wide and ~8 ft. high, was used to make coke. The roof had a hole for introducing the coal and other kindling from the top. 

In the lower part of the wall was an opening (with a door) through which the coke was removed. In a coke oven battery, a number of ovens were built in a row with common walls between neighboring ovens. An average battery consisted of a great many ovens, sometimes hundreds, in a row.

Bituminous coal was introduced from above to an even layer of about 25 to 35 inches deep. Initially, air (and sometimes kindling material) must be supplied to ignite the coal. Carbonization (burning) then began, producing the volatile gases, which subsequently burned inside the oven, providing both the heat as well as the oxygen-free carbonization environment required to make coke.

Carbonization happened from top to bottom of the layer of coal, and was completed in 2 or 3 days. Because the heat was maintained by the ignited and igniting volatiles, no useful by-products of the burning were recovered. Exhaust gasses were allowed to escape to the atmosphere.

The hot coke was then quenched with water and removed manually through the side opening. The walls and roof of the beehive oven retained enough heat to ignite the carbonization process for the next layer of 25-35 inches of bituminous coal.

Impurities not driven off and/or burned as gasses accumulated to form “slag.” Basically, slag is the accretion of those removed impurities not burned, evaporated, or discharged out the roof hole. In the early days of coke-making, slag was simply an unwanted by-product and was discarded into enormous piles. Later, it was found to have some use, as an ingredient in brick-making, mixed cement, and granule-covered shingles.

The man who discovered this process, Cochran, lived in Dawson, and we rode across the river to see the town. Possibly due to the floods of Gordon, but possibly because its a dying community, we found a ghost town. But we did see the well-maintained former Cochran home.

DawsonVictorian2395

Much of the area, however, looked like this elderly structure, which some intrepid soul had once tried to turn into a shop-filled destination.

DawsonShopBldg2394

Another ambitious person had tried to set apart his/her home, sited right next to the active rail road, by painting it purple.

DawsonPurple3951
This neon-colored house was difficult to miss.

There was a pretty church in the town, and the sign outside said there were Tiffany windows preserved within. We didn’t get inside, so we couldn’t see the windows.

As we were riding toward the bridge back across the Yough, another interesting home with a wrought-iron fence around it caught our attention. In one of the gate “posts” was an active honey bee hive. We thought it was quite appropriate to see these gentle workers after seeing the coke ovens, and considering the mosaic of the “beehive” oven we discovered at The Ruins Project (see my post here).

DawsonHoneybees2399

BeehiveOven2357

We passed under the glass arch into Connellsville around lunch time. Since the demise of the coal and steel industries, Connellsville has re-made itself as a glass making center.

We rode into town to the Connellsville Canteen—site of a railroad stop-over for troop trains heading with soldiers toward the ports from which they’d ship to fight in WWII. Mrs. Rose Brady, founder of the Canteen, organized 600+ women volunteers between the ages of 21 and 80 to offer warm, healthy food and smiles to troops heading to fight. The Canteen served more than a half-million servicemen and women between April 1944 and April 1946, an average of 3,500 people every week.

Canteen2427

The place had lots and lots of WWII memorabilia, photos, icons, stories, and objects donated to the “museum” by Connellsville residents. It is a very personal museum dedicated to honoring the military men and women and their families who haled from Connellsville. We ate an excellent meal, before which we were invited to go see the elaborate HO-gauge train town set up in a back room.

Sept. 15 was a great ride full of interesting stuff, topped off with excellent meals including a hole-in-the-wall, local Italian dinner at Ruvo’s Italian Restaurant. Well worth the discovery. 

RuvosChef2669

We slept for the night at the Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, just off the trail, complete with a bike-washing station and free towels to wipe the bikes down after their rinse.

CobblestoneHotelSign2429

Bike Stats:

  • Ride time: 2:30
  • Stopped time: 5:00
  • Distance: 29.3 miles
  • Average speed: 11.75MPH
  • Fastest speed: 17.8MPH
  • Ascent: 301 ft.
  • Descent: 77 ft.

Next up: Connellsville to Confluence

GAP 2, Cumberland, Maryland

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018

Before jumping into the shuttle service van that was scheduled to drive us, our bikes, and all our gear (in Minnie-Van) to a ‘burb of Pittsburgh (West Homestead, PA), we had time to take a quick walking tour of Cumberland, mostly along the waterfront GAP trail, and up Washington St. to the famous Episcopal Church on the hill, in which Tiffany windows glow even with the dull, cloudy day on which we started our adventure. But more of that in a bit.

CumberPedMallEntry2248

There’s a lot of history in Cumberland, where a very young George Washington surveyed the area, and where Wills Creek (channeled with concrete in the photo to mitigate flooding in the downtown historic district) meets the Potomac River. Historically, Cumberland was first a Fort, then a transportation hub; today, it is a hub for recreation, where the C&O Canal towpath trail meets the Great Allegheny Passage rail-to-trail conversion: Mile 0 of the GAP trail. The terminus of the C&O Canal, in the ebb of its heyday, became the beginning of the first US National Road.

WillsCrkMeetsPotomac2251

As a National Historic Place registrant, Cumberland has a lovely pedestrian area where old building facades have been preserved and are in use as boutiques, restaurants, businesses, and shops, accessible from the GAP trail. Much artwork adorns the Wills Creek area.

TowPathMule2284

Mural2249
This is just a small section of an enormous mural adorning two complete building walls framing the corner of the pedestrian mall area.

As we walked across Wills Creek and up Washington Street toward two amazing tours Allen had arranged for our group (one was a Historic Society preserved Victorian home with most of the period furnishings and structure intact), we saw many homes and churches in the oldest, highest-above-the-river part of town. Among the prettiest is the one at the top of this blog post. 

NeedsTLC2256
Some of the homes need a bit of TLC.

The original Fort Cumberland, a colonial-era stronghold, was built atop the high ridge, with a protective (and controlling) view of the mighty Potomac River.

FtCumberTablet2252

FtCumberArt2280
Artist’s interpretation of what Fort Cumberland might have looked like when it was used in the 1700s. This image shows the Potomac River in the foreground, with Wills Creek joining it near the lower right—that is not a turn in the Potomac, but rather the two flowing together, then meandering off to the right, out of the picture and toward the Atlantic.
FromFtCumber2276
View of Cumberland today from the old fort site.

At the time, much more of the municipality was on high ground. The earth has been removed for building and roadways over the long years since it was just a fort. Now Cumberland occasionally floods. This knowledge and seeing where our cars would be parked for the trip left the three couples who had vehicles in the Canal St. long-term parking area slightly concerned about local flooding with Florence’s potential trajectory. What we hadn’t counted on was the pigeons—more on that in the final installment of the cycling part of this trip.

Upon the site of the old fort was built, in the 1800s, the Episcopal Church with the Tiffany windows.

ChurchUpWashington2250

The neatest aspect of this building, in my opinion, is the way in which they preserved some of the abandoned fort infrastructure, and used the old fort’s tunnels upon which the church sat as a stop along the Underground Railroad. For many, many years the pastors of the church hid, nurtured, and transferred escaping slaves to the next stage of safety along their road to freedom. 

Our guide began our tour with a digital “playing” of the old organ (complete with a heraldic horn section). The congregation’s organist is also an organ tuner and builder, and he’s adjusted the equipment so it can be played digitally or manually; from the back of the room or from the front (during special musical events). It was pretty awesome.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was the talented son of Charles Tiffany, the jewelry store owner. L.C. Tiffany was an interior designer in the mid-1800s, when his interest turned toward the creation of stained glass. He opened his own studio and glass foundry because he was unable to find the types of glass that he desired in interior decoration. He wanted the glass itself to transmit texture and rich colors, and he developed a type of glass he called “Favrile,” which he patented in 1892. Favrile glass has a superficial iridescence, which causes the surface to appear to shimmer, and “collects” light from that which surrounds it. “It is distinguished by brilliant or deeply toned colors . . . iridescent like the wings of certain American butterflies, the neck [feathers] of pigeons and peacocks, and the wing covers of various beetles” — according to Tiffany himself.

PeaceDove2268
While this image appears blurry (and it was, in fact, taken from a long distance, but with the camera solidly on a firm surface) I think it is a technique used by Tiffany to affect a “painting” or brush stroke with the glass. I may be wrong, but I think it’s made of streamer glass. The phrase “streamer glass” refers to a pattern of glass strings affixed to the glass surface, to represent twigs, branches, and structures like feathers. Streamers are made from molten glass that is vigorously swung back and forth to stretch into long, thin strings which rapidly cool and harden. These are pressed onto the molten surface of sheet glass during the rolling process and become permanently fused.
Triptych2265
This Tiffany triptych is not backlit. Instead, it’s made using many, many layers of glass, to “shadow” areas, and to leave other areas able to capture the ambient light and direct it—as with using lighter-colored paints—to illuminate the areas in the scene that either show light or reflect it. Here the light comes off the actual torch raised above the saint’s head, and the glass gathers light where the torchlight hits the martyrs bodies in the scene.
BirthWindow2263
Another Tiffany window one might think is backlit, but it is not. There are many layers of glass in the darker portions to create the many, many shades of blue throughout. It is an incredibly heavy window.

One of the stories told by our guide involved the integration of the church, just after the American Civil War. Some of the former slaves had been “raised” to be Catholic, but when they got to the north (Maryland was actually a slave state prior to the ACW) they were not welcomed to attend the Catholic Church’s services. One of the white friends of the Catholic congregation asked the Episcopal priest if the former slaves could attend his church (same fellow who ran the underground railroad stop) and he said, of course. There was an upper concourse set aside for the black folks—but even then, some of the Catholic blacks would not attend a non-Catholic service.

BalconyGone2264
Along this wall above the main floor was once the “blacks only” balcony. In the mid-twentieth century, it was reserved for the choir. And finally, it was removed and renovated as it appears today.

Windows2261

Later in the tour, we saw the original drawings for a cross and candelabra, also designed and made by Tiffany for the church. None of the pix I took of the golden items nor the drawings turned out, I’m afraid.

As we entered and exited, I was interested in the patterns of the limestone slabs in the walkways, after years and years of erosion. They looked a bit like those relief maps of the ocean floor.

After admiring the “above ground” amenities of the structure, our guide took us downstairs, into the tunnels. There were rooms, narrow stairs, thin “runways” and low-hanging structural elements everywhere. It was frightening to think of a live person with black skin coming here for refuge and respite after a long, dangerous trip from Georgia or Virginia. Afraid every second that he or she would be betrayed. Near starvation or looking over the edge toward starvation at every moment. Too tired to sleep—too afraid or hungry or sick or injured to rest.

The fort’s ammo magazine and all the protective below-ground structures were made by erecting wooden forms and filling behind them with clay and rocks from the river. Those hardened and, with the exception of a few river rocks that have come loose over the centuries, the walls have held up to this day.

Our guide told us that, while the fort used long, underground tunnels to access water for the fort’s uses from Wills Creek and the Potomac, by the time of the underground railroad, the same tunnels were used to get human cargo from the “bad part of town” (the red light district, near the waterfronts) up to safety, nourishment, and rest under the church, and then off to the north and across the Mason-Dixon Line, a mere 10-ish miles by crow flight from Cumberland; Milepost 20.5 along the actual rail line that is now the GAP trail; and freedom for the escaped slaves.

There was much more to Cumberland that we did not see, including the structure out of which George Washington worked, and the Visitor Center. But we had a shuttle to catch at 2PM.

And we were off to West Homestead, a suburb of Pittsburgh. 

It was every bit of a 2-hour drive up interstates and toll roads, but we made it without too much problem, except for missing a turn during Pittsburgh rush hour.

But the hotel we occupied, Hampton Inn, was right on the trail and the Monongahela River (the GAP trail heading east follows the Monongahela until McKeesport, where it turns to follow the Youghiogheny River (pronounced Yawk-a-gain-ee, or the Yawk for short). Milepost 150 of the GAP trail is at what the city calls “The Point” where the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers come together to create the Ohio River. 

View2285

Homestead was once known as the Steel Capital of the World, symbolizing Pittsburgh’s dominance in the industry. Our city guide (tomorrow) reminded us that, at its peak of production, Pittsburgh was commonly known as “Hell with the lid off.”

Homestead’s flagship complex of US Steel was shut down in 1986. At that time, it had 450 buildings on 430 acres, and employed 200,000 workers throughout its years of making unprecedented amounts of steel.

PreservedRelics2286

West Homestead is a mere 10 miles from Pittsburgh’s Point, and along with other suburbs of the city, is re-making itself as a shopping and recreation/tourism draw. Bravo to Pittsburgh and environs for making progress cleaning up and re-focusing the city.

We took a quick shake-down ride to assure our bikes made the trip in good shape (about five miles) and then got cleaned up to walk across the road to an enormous shopping area, with beautiful plantings and flowers everywhere, and more shops and restaurants than you can imagine, including Rockbottom Brewery.

Our group dinner was at Bravo Cucina Italiana, and it was excellent and fun.

Desserts2610

As we walked back to the hotel, we noticed a poster, but couldn’t quite get the idea of Indoor Axe Throwing into our heads.

AxeThrowing2617

Tomorrow, Pittsburgh and a grand bicycle tour of the city!