Posts Tagged ‘Maryland’

Francis Scott Key Park

Francis Scott Key Park

The small but formal park and memorial located at 34th and M Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood was the destination of this bike ride. It is named Francis Scott Key Park, and is adjacent to the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which traverses the Potomac River to connect Georgetown to the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington in Virginia. The park honors the man who wrote the poem about the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814 which was turned into a song called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1931 became our national anthem.

Francis Scott Key Park features gardens with floral and other plantings, a bronze bust of Francis Scott Key, and a a tall flagpole.  A flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, a replica of the one that flew over Fort McHenry back on that fateful night in 1841, flies night and day in the park.  It opened in 1993, and was designed by Friedrich St. Florian, the same architect who designed The National World War II Memorial located downtown on the National Mall.

Key was originally from nearby Carroll County, Maryland, where he was born on August 1, 1779. While he spent a lot of time in Baltimore, Key lived a good number of years in Georgetown, where he and his family moved in 1803. They lived in a house at the corner of 34th and M Streets, where the park is now located. Unfortunately, the house was demolished in 1947.

While living in D.C., Key served in the Georgetown field artillery unit.  After the British burned Washington in 1814, Key traveled to Baltimore to help negotiate the release of American prisoners. It was during this trip that he wrote the Star Spangled Banner.

In addition to being an amateur poet, Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer and author. He was a successful as an attorney in D.C. for many years. Upon returning to D.C. after the war, Key assisted his prominent lawyer uncle Philip Barton Key, including in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr, and the expulsion of Senator John Smith of Ohio. Key’s extensive trial practice flourished, as did his real estate practice as well. During his time as a lawyer he went on to help negotiate with Indian tribes, assist President Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general in a case in which he appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, and serve as the attorney for Sam Houston during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives for assaulting another Congressman.

Key’s legal career culminating with his appointment as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, serving from 1833 to 1841.  It was during this time as U.S. Attorney that he prosecuted Richard Lawrence, the person who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson.   He also handled private legal cases as well during this time.

It was also during his tenure as U.S. Attorney that Key, a slave-owner himself, used his position to suppress abolitionists.  Key purchased his first slave in 1800 or 1801, and owned at least six slaves by the time he became a U.S. Attorney.  Mostly in the 1830s, he represented several masters seeking return of their runaway human property.  However, Key also manumitted several enslaved persons, and throughout his career he also represented for free several slaves seeking their freedom in court. Key was also a founding member and active leader of the American Colonization Society, the primary goal of which was to send free African-Americans back to Africa.  However, he was later ousted from the board as its policies shifted toward abolitionist.

There is much more to Francis Scott Key than most people know, just like there is more to D.C. than most people realize. Francis Scott Key Park is an example of this. And just like the man, the park is worthwhile in getting to know better.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Mary Surratt's Gravesite

Mary Surratt’s Gravesite

Mary Surratt was a D.C. boarding house owner who was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Sentenced to death, she was hanged on July 7, 1865, alongside three men who were also convicted of playing a part in the plot to assassinate the 16th President, thereby becoming the first woman executed by the United States federal government.

Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born in Waterloo, Maryland, raised by her mother after her father died when she was still a toddler, and schooled in a Catholic female seminary. She married John Harrison Surratt at age seventeen, and they bought approximately 300 acres of land in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where they built a tavern and a post office.  There they raised three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr., on the property which became known at that time as Surrattsville.

After the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Maryland remained part of “the Union,” but the Surratts were Confederate sympathizers. Isaac Surratt left Maryland and traveled to Texas, where he enlisted in the Confederate States Army, while John Jr. quit his studies at St. Charles College and became a courier for the Confederate Secret Service. And during the war, the tavern was thought to have doubled as a safe house for rebel agents and spies in the Confederate underground network.

When her husband suddenly collapsed and died in August of 1862, Mary found herself in dire financial straits and decided to move to D.C., where she lived in a townhouse her husband had previously purchased. The 39-year old widow rented out the family farm in Maryland, and converted the townhouse’s upper floor into a boardinghouse. Through renting the farm and operating the boarding house, Mary managed to eke out a modest living.

While debate among historians still continues over the role Mary and her boardinghouse played in Lincoln’s death, it is widely accepted that she hosted and possibly attended meetings about the conspiracy convened there by John Wilkes Booth and her son, John Jr.  Mary herself denied any involvement during her trial. After her conviction, attempts were made, particularly by her daughter, Anna, to persuade President Andrew Johnson to commute Mary’s death sentence. He refused, stating, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

On this bike ride I chose to stop by some of the locations in D.C. that were part of both her life and her death. First I rode to the boarding house which she owned where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices met. The building is still standing, and is located at 605 H Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. Although the building has retained much of its original character, it is no longer a boarding house. The building is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll. An historic plaque next to the restaurant’s door reads, “A Historical Landmark, “Surratt Boarding House”, 604 H Street, N.W. (The 541), is said to have been where the conspirators plotted the abduction of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Plaque by Chi-Am Lions Club.”

I also rode to the location where Mary was hanged.  At the time it was the Parade Ground of the U.S. Penitentiary at 4th and P streets (MAP), fronting the Washington Channel in southwest D.C.  Today it is part of Fort McNair, and the courtyard where the hanging occurred is now a tennis court.

Lastly, during today’s ride I also rode to her final resting place, which is in Mount Olivet Cemetery, located at 1300 Bladensburg Road (MAP) in northeast D.C. This was the most interesting part of the bike ride. When I got to the cemetery I stopped at the front office to ask where Mary Surratt’s grave is located. Upon being told by the manager that they do not give out that kind of information, I assumed she did not recognize the name. So I explained that Mary Surratt was the Lincoln assassination conspirator who had been executed nearly 150 years ago. She said that Mary’s grave continued to be vandalized, even to this day, and that the family had specifically asked that information about the location of her grave not be given out.

However, because I was already there anyway, I decided to look around a little before I left.  I knew from researching it that she was buried in Section 31 of the cemetery.  A map at the entrance showed the different sections of the cemetery, but there was no Section 31 listed. So as I was riding around aimlessly looking at the very decorative gravestones of what must have been very wealthy and prominent people of that time period, it occurred to me that Mary Surratt would have been out of place among them. Having been a working class woman who was executed for her role in the assassination of the President, they would not have wanted her to be buried among them in that area of the cemetery. So I rode over to the other side of the cemetery – as far away as I could get from the most ornate gravestones in the cemetery. There I saw a small, very plain-looking gravestone that looked almost out of place for the cemetery. When I went up to it I saw that it read, simply, “Mrs. Surratt.”

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Note:  Historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

National Harbor

National Harbor

On this bike ride I decided to go on a longer ride than usual, and made the 30-mile round trip out and back to National Harbor in Maryland. National Harbor is a 300-acre multi-use waterfront development on the shores of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Maryland, south of D.C. near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Its official address is 165 Waterfront Street in National Harbor, Maryland (MAP).

The land developed for National Harbor was previously the site of the Salubria Plantation. Originally built in 1827 by Dr. John H. Bayne, the site was renowned by local historians for its connection to Black history and to the Civil War. It was on the Salubria Plantation in 1834 that a 14-year-old slave girl named Juda, thought to have possibly been influenced by Nat Turner’s slave rebellion a few years earlier, poisoned her master’s two sons and infant daughter, and attempted to burn the house down, as an act of resistance to slavery. She is listed in the Maryland Archive as the first Maryland woman who was reported to have resisted slavery. She was tried and hanged in nearby Upper Marlborough, thus earning the dubious distinction of being the youngest female ever executed in the United States.

Despite the murders of his children, Dr. John Bayne became a Union officer in the Civil War, and went on to help convince the state of Maryland to compensate slave owners to free their slaves. He also later worked to provide public education to freedmen.

Despite being called “Hallowed African American Ground” in a headline by The Washington Business Journal, the site lost its historical designation and opportunity to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places when the plantation house burned down in 1981. Despite Prince Georges County being a majority Black county which ranks as the most educated and affluent Black county in the United States, a vote was taken by the Historic Preservation Commission to take away, not to nominate it for the national register. The remains of the plantation were then offered for sale along with the surrounding land. It sold in 1984, and was subsequently rezoned for mixed-use development.

Now known as National Harbor, the site has a convention center, six hotels, restaurants, condominiums, museums, stores, and an outlet mall. The site also has amusement rides, including a children’s carousel, and the Capital Wheel, a 175-foot ferris wheel on a pier that extends out into the Potomac River. National Harbor also includes a beachfront, where an outdoor sculpture entitled “The Awakening” currently resides, and a walking path. And an MGM-branded casino is expected to open at National Harbor within the next couple of years. It also hosts outdoor activities such as a culinary festival, famers markets, concerts by local artists, an annual ice sculpture exhibition, and an annual international Beatles festival.

However, access to National Harbor remains an issue. National Harbor has road access to Interstate 95/495 (the Beltway), Interstate 295 (Anacostia Freeway), and Oxon Hill Road. The state of Maryland has funded over a half a billion dollars in road improvements in order to handle the number of vehicles expected to drive daily to National Harbor. Since National Harbor is not accessible by the Metro, the Washington area’s rapid transit system, the state of Maryland also pays approximatley $312,000 annually for bus access to National Harbor from the Branch Avenue Metro station. A water taxi line run by the Potomac Riverboat Company also connects the National Harbor to Alexandria, Virginia. The City of Alexandria also runs shuttles from the water taxi terminal to the King Street/Old Town Metro station. The service costs the city almost a million dollars each year. Despite the government subsidies, National Harbor remains difficult to access via public transportation. I did, however, find it to be accessible by bike via the separated bike lane that crosses the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but lacking in secure parking and storage facilities for your bike once you arrive.

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The Metropolitan Branch Trail

The Metropolitan Branch Trail

On this ride I explored the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which is an eight-mile trail that runs through the middle of D.C. (MAP), from Union Station downtown all the way to the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Station in Silver Spring, Maryland. Seven miles of the trail are within the city limits, and one mile is in Maryland. The trail gets its name from the Metropolitan Branch Line of the B&O Railroad, which the trail parallels. It is technically considered a rail-trail conversion because a key section of the trail is on former B&O Railroad right-of-way.

The urban trail takes cyclists past graffiti, industrial sites, train tracks, a brewery, and a touch of greenery as it passes through several of D.C.’s vibrant and historic neighborhoods, including the NOMA, Edgewood, Eckington and Brookland neighborhoods. Used much more for utilitarian purposes than for recreation, the trail is an important transportation route providing connections to homes and work, as well as access to seven Metro stations, and the National Mall.

However, the Metropolitan Branch Trail currently remains unfinished.  Plans for the future include connections to the area’s trail network such as the Capital Crescent Trail, Anacostia Trails System, and integration into the East Coast Greenway.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

The Awakening

The Awakening

On this bike ride I went to see “The Awakening.”  The Awakening is a 70-foot sculpture depicting the arousing of a bearded giant who is embedded in the earth.  The sculpture was created by J. Seward Johnson, Jr., and owned by the Sculpture Foundation, a group that promotes public art.  It was part, along with 500 other pieces, of a city-wide public art exhibition in 1980.  After the exhibition it was subsequently loaned to the National Park Service for almost thirty years, who placed it on display at Hains Point in East Potomac Park in southwest D.C.   However, the sculpture was sold in 2008, and the new owner moved it to its current location at National Harbor in Prince Georges County, Maryland (MAP).

The Awakening consists of five separate cast aluminum pieces partially buried in the sand on the shores of the Potomac River.  Cumulatively they create the impression of a distressed giant emerging from the earth.  The left hand and right foot barely protrude, while the bent left leg and knee jut into the air.  The right arm and hand reach the farthest out of the ground.  The giant’s bearded face, with the mouth in mid-scream, appears to be concurrently angered and distressed as he struggles to free himself.

There is also a copy of the same statue just west of the Chesterfield Mall in West St Louis, Missouri, but that is a much longer bike ride from D.C.  So despite the move from Hains Point to National Harbor making the ride to see The Awakening a longer one than it used to be, it’s still the shorter of the two options, and was worth the effort.

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The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath

If you’re out for a bike ride in downtown D.C. and you find yourself wanting to get away from the frenetic activity of the city, one of the quickest  ways to escape is to head over to the Georgetown neighborhood where the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O ) Canal and Towpath begins (MAP).  Then, use the towpath to ride west.

A towpath is a road or trail on the bank of a canal, river, or other inland waterway that allows a land vehicle, mules or horses, or a team of human pullers to tow a boat, often a barge.  This mode of transport was once commonplace in areas where sailing was impossible or impractical due to rapid currents, obstructions like tunnels and bridges, or unfavorable winds.  After the Industrial Revolution, towing became obsolete when engines were fitted on boats and when railway transportation superseded the slow towing method.  Since then, many towpaths, like the one along the C&O Canal, have been converted to multi-use recreatonal trails.

The C&O Canal and towpath is located along the northern bank of the Potomac River, and runs 184.5 miles starting in D.C. and ending in Cumberland, Maryland.  The canal was built between beginning in 1828, and was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River.  It operated sporadically between floods, until it became obsolete in 1924, after which it was abandoned.  Today, much of the canal has been drained of water and reclaimed by the forest.  However, the entire towpath remains.

Three decades after closing down, in 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas organized an eight day hike up the canal’s towpath in an attempt to draw attention to its potential as a recreational area, and to save it from being converted to a parkway, as was being planned by Congress at that time.  His efforts succeeded and the canal and towpath were saved from development, eventually to become the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.  The park was established as a National Monument in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in order to preserve the neglected remains of the canal along with many of the original canal structures.  Further ensuring preservation efforts, portions of the towpath are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The C&O Canal National Historical Park now receives more than three million recreation visits annually, and is a favorite of bicyclists like me, as well as hikers, joggers, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, and others.

Most recently, in November of 2013, the C&O Canal Towpath was designated as the first section of U.S. Bicycle Route 50, which is part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System.  The system is a developing network of interstate long-distance cycling routes in the U.S.  And with the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage Trail from western Pennsylvania to Cumberland, it is now possible to ride a continuous 339 non-motorized vehicle-free miles from D.C. all the way to Point State Park in Pittsburgh.

So I caution you to be careful when you’re in D.C. and decide to go for a ride on the C&O Canal Towpath.  It is such an enjoyable and peaceful environment for riding that, if you’re not careful and paying attention, you may end up finding yourself in Pittsburgh.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

The Old Spring House

The Old Spring House

I enjoy riding around the city with no destination in mind so that I can explore and find new things that I did not previously know about.  On one such recent bike ride I discovered what is most likely the oldest existing structure in the D.C. area, “The Old Spring House,” which was built by English colonists in 1683.

Located within what is now the historic Fort Lincoln Cemetery at 3401 Bladensburg Road in Colmar Manor, Maryland (MAP), The Old Spring House is one of the few area relics of the Colonization era.  By comparison, the Old Stone House in the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C., which is the oldest unchanged Pre-Revolutionary building in D.C., was not built until 1765, a full 82 years later.   And the century-old cemetery in which the house is now located was not founded until 229 years after The old Spring House was built.

The historic marker next to the house helps explain its history.  The inscription on the marker reads, “This venerable building dates back to the year 1683, when one of the early colonists built his home on the overlooking hillside. The spring still feeds cool water to the trough inside the spring house. This was the only method available in those days for cooling milk, butter and other dairy products.

“This land was a part of the original grant from Lord Baltimore to George Conn, and remained in the Conn family for more than 200 years. This is one of the oldest buildings standing in the state of Maryland.”

There is also an historic plaque affixed to the house which provides additional information, it reads, “This old spring house was built by English colonists who in the late years of the 17th century had established a residence close by, climaxing an ocean voyage which ended on the banks of the nearby Eastern Branch.

“Erected about 1683. The spring house is among the oldest structural relics of the American Colonization Era.

“The old oak tree according to qualified judgment was more than 125 years old when the spring house was built.

“This venerable old tree has come to be known as ‘The Lincoln Oak’ because of traditional conferences under its spreading limbs, between President Lincoln and the commanding officers of the nearby fortifications.

“It is not a fanciful belief that upon such an occasion, the Civil War president drank of the cooling waters which spring from among its roots.”

The stump of the “Lincoln Oak” next to The Old Spring House is also the subject of its own historic marker, the inscription on which reads “This gnarled and ringed stump, attesting to its age, is all that remains of the majestic oak tree that once shaded the old Spring House.  Steeped in history, it was put to rest by the forces of nature.  Its passing will never be forgotten and its existence will be remembered forever as a sentinel over these historic grounds.”

The greater D.C. has such a rich past that t is not that unusual to find this much history while going for a bike ride.  And with all the history that’s currently being made in the present, there’s an almost endless supply of interesting things to explore and discover.

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[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

The Infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

The Infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

On a recent excursion I rode to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.  They were the busiest dueling grounds in America during their time, even after the laws against dueling were tightened in 1839.  The grounds are located just on the other side of the northeastern D.C. border, on 38th Avenue in Colmar Manor, Maryland (MAP). The small strip of land is adjacent to Dueling Creek, formerly known as Blood Run, which is a tributary of the Anacostia River.

In 1839, Congress passed legislation barring the practice of dueling in D.C.  The passage of the law was inspired by a duel the previous year in which a Congressman was killed in a duel with another Congressman.

In February of the previous year, a Congressman from Kentucky named William Graves killed Jonathan Cilley, a Congressman from Maine, at the infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.  Graves was a stand in for James W. Webb, a New York newspaper editor who was offended by some remarks Cilley made in the House.  He assigned the duel to Graves, who was his friend as well as a noted marksman.  At dawn on the appointed day, Graves showed up with a more powerful rifle than Cilley, but he was allowed to use it.  When ready, the men fired.  No one was hit.  They fired at each other a second time, but still no one was hit.  Those present tried to end the confrontation, but Graves would not consent.  The third time Cilley was hit in the leg.  Because a main artery was severed he quickly died, bleeding to death in front of some of D.C.’s most prominent citizens and politicians.

The House, choosing not to censure the surviving Graves or two other Congressmen who were also present at the duel, instead presented a bill to “prohibit the giving or accepting within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight a duel, and for the punishment thereof.”

Beginning in 1808, the grove witnessed approximately fifty duels by gentlemen, military officers, and politicians, settling “affairs of honor.”  Despite the passing of the law outlawing duels in 1839, the last known duel was fought there in 1868.  A formalized set of rules dealing with dueling etiquette referred to as a Code duello was usually enforced by the duelers and their seconds, even though dueling was illegal in D.C., and in most American states and territories.

There is an historic marker at Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.  The inscription on the marker reads:  “On this site, now part of Anacostia River Park, more than 50 duels were fought during the first half of the 19th century.  Here, on what became known as “the dark and bloody grounds”, gentleman of Washington settled their political and personal differences.  One of the most famous disputes was that between commodores Stephen Decatur and James Barron which was settled here on March 22, 1820.  Commodore Decatur, who had gained fame as the conqueror of the Barbary pirates, was fatally wounded by his antagonist.  Although Congress passed an anti-dueling law in 1839, duels continued here until just before the Civil War.”