O, say can you see? Stories of a national anthem

copyright Michael Lowery

copyright Michael Lowery

On September 13 and 14 Americans will commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore, a mostly forgotten battle in U.S. history… except that it gave the United States its national anthem. The song is a stirring tribute of the battle by a man inspired at the sight of his young country’s flag still flying in defiance over a fort after a long night of incoming bombs and rockets by the formidable British navy.

I had the privilege of working on a major project to preserve the flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, when I worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. At one point I experienced a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with this national icon. I remember putting my face within a foot of its fibers and feeling two distinct emotions: awe from the power of this historic object imbued with symbolism and shock at the flag’s worn condition. Today after years of conservation, the flag appears to float in space, resting on a large angled table in dim light. Its fragility remains obvious, but its power continues to stir patriotic American hearts.

My job was to develop a hands-on activity to tell the story of the Battle of Baltimore. I ended up focusing on a fascinating map from the National Archives, a large 3 x 6 ft. hand-drawn map, colored with watercolors, drawn by American military mapmaker James Kearney in 1814 and titled “Sketch of the Military Topography of Baltimore and its vicinity and of Patapsco Neck to North Point.”

I had been looking for a primary source that could tell five distinct stories of the battle — different perspectives on one event. The map was perfect. What my research uncovered was a fascinating story that most Americans don’t know. Here are five players in the story.

flag-houseA local seamstress named Mary Pickersgill sewed a very large flag. Major Armistead, commander of nearby Fort McHenry, placed an order with Pickersgill for two flags for the fort. A smaller storm flag to fly in bad weather and a large garrison flag (30 by 42 feet or one-quarter the size of a basketball court) to fly in good weather. Mary received $405.90 for the garrison flag. Her restored house in open to the public as a museum, the Flag House.

Motive. Why Baltimore? A shipbuilder named Thomas Kemp  owned one of the largest shipyards in Fells Point and built four of the most famous privateers, including the Chasseur, the pride of Baltimore. Privateers based in Baltimore had captured or sunk nearly five hundred British ships since the start of the war. In 1814 a British paper wrote: “There is not a spot in the whole United States where an infliction of Britain’s vengeance will be more entitled to our applause than on this sink of jacobinical infamy – Baltimore.”

Opportunity. The American navy was virtually nonexistent in the Chesapeake Bay, the local militias were in disarray… the British thought they could do whatever they wanted. After attacking and burning Washington, D.C., Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane of the British navy focused on Baltimore. Fort McHenry stood in the way of an easy attack on the harbor. He would bombard the fort and also direct a land attack from North Point. Oh, and he received a secret letter to help him plan. The letter still exists.

Defense. American Major General Samuel Smith was tasked with leading Baltimore’s defenses. He devised a brilliant plan to completely block the harbor.

With the scene set, the British commenced the attack. The log booksFort McHenry of the British ships still exist and one can read the scratchy writing from the HMS Erebus, specially modified for firing rockets. “Tues. Sept. 13, 1814, 5:45 – made sail for off the enemy’s fort. at 7 observed the bombs commence bombarding… fired rockets at the fort.”

KeyAnother person watching, from the deck of a British ship, was American lawyer Francis Scott Key. How he got stuck behind enemy lines is a story itself. He ended up being the inspired poet that twenty years later explained: “The song, I know, came from the heart… in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke; and ‘does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?’ was its question. with it came an inspiration not to be resisted.”

British midshipman, Robert Barrett, witnessed the bombardment and later wrote “as the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a splendid and superb ensign [flag] on their battery…” Which leads to a debate among historians. Was it the big or little flag that Key saw in the early morning hours?

In any case, Key’s poem was published several days after the battle and spread up and down the East Coast and eventually became the American national anthem in 1931. (And no, it was not set to the tune of a popular drinking song – more about that in this link.)

For much more of this story, read my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.

If you haven’t visited Fort McHenry or the Flag house, you should. You’ll have your own moment of inspiration.

Related posts: British Invasion at North Point; Mary, not Betsy; The house that disappeared 

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The only bike race of its kind in the U.S.

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Anyone who has read my book (A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History) knows of my past attempt to ride a high wheel bicycle. Imagine my glee when I heard about a high wheel race, the only one in the United States and supposedly one of only four or so in the world, taking place a short drive from my house. For this history geek, the race proved a few hours of great fun. The Frederick Clustered Spires High Wheel Race took place in Frederick, Maryland, founded in 1745. Its 50-block historic district features quite a few churches, hence the race’s name (from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier). The city’s historic buildings offered an appropriate backdrop for the thirty racers zooming by high above the street surface and many of them existed in the heyday of high wheelers.

When the word “bicycle” first came into P1040362common usage in the 1870s, the term referred to the high wheeler. A decade later, when a new style called safety bicycle came along, most Americans referred to a high wheeler as an “ordinary.” The British, with their creative word descriptions, called it a penny farthing, because the ratio of the wheel sizes was similar to that of a penny coin next to a farthing. Today people from most of the British Commonwealth countries still use that term.

The high wheeler craze began in Europe in 1870 and finally jumped the pond in 1876. That year visitors to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia saw several English high wheelers on display, and an English racing champion rode his bicycle around the fairgrounds. Americans had seen two-wheeled contraptions before—starting in 1819 with variations over several decades, the velocipede (commonly called the boneshaker)  had failed to spark the imaginations of the public and several versions faded from view. Pope bicycle adHigh wheelers proved different. One person who noticed those on display in Philadelphia was a Civil War veteran named Albert Pope. Within two years he started a business first importing and then manufacturing bicycles near his home in Boston. His company debuted its popular Columbia model in 1878. The “cult of the ordinary” quickly took root in Boston, home of the first American bicycle club, and spread around the country. A year later Washington DC, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Chicago all started clubs.

P1040378What was an extreme sport back in the 1880s could be considered the same today. I guess that’s why helmets are required. Many of the contestants rode reproduction bikes, but a handful rode original bikes from the 1880s. One man told me he only rides his original bike twice a year. The tallest bike stood at 58″ – that’s 4.8 feet above the ground!

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Racers of both genders and a wide spectrum of ages, from seven or so states and two countries, clad in anything really (a few attempted period accuracy, though most opted for comfort or color over accuracy), lined up at the starting line and made a “penny stack.” Arms intertwined and holding the handlebars of the bikes on either side, the bike line posed for photographers and then each rider carefully climbed down for the start. The course was a .4 mile loop in downtown Frederick, with an uphill grade and a downhill, hay bales stacked at the turns to ease a crash. The winner was the person who could ride around the course the most times in an hour.

The riders lined up inP1040357 rows of four and a barbershop quartet sang the national anthem . With a shout, they were off. As the race progressed they quickly spread out. After an hour, the female champion managed 38 laps and the male winner 41 laps.

 

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????I loved talking to the racers afterwards, hearing about their bikes and where they bought them, and celebrating their sportsmanship. All stayed calm during the race, no “cads on castors” in this bunch. I’m happy to see the cult of the ordinary is alive and well. You can bet that I’ll be in the crowd next year in Frederick cheering them on. And while I was tempted to request to ride one, I curbed my enthusiasm… this time. To learn more about high wheelers, read chapter 5 in my book! (and find out what Mark Twain said about the “graceful cobweb.”

Here’s information about the Kentucky Wheelmen.

Check this site to look up the closest group to you.

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One of the most powerful historic views

 

Field of Pickett's Charge from Union lines

Field of Pickett’s Charge from Union lines

With a little imagination, the power of place is palpable. Looking out over the tranquil fields today, a visitor to Gettysburg National Military Park can see the long line of gray soldiers moving forward and hear the pounding of the cannon.  The sweeping field of Pickett’s charge, the bold gamble on the part of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that failed utterly, is a stirring sight in any season. I was there recently, three or so weeks removed from the anniversary (151 years), the landscape rich in summer colors. The copse of trees, focal point for Pickett’s charge, sits protected by an iron fence. The only trees in the vicinity, the grove had to be fenced in for protection from souvenir hunters after the area became a symbol for the high water mark of the Confederacy at War’s end.

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One great price of the War is illustrated in friendships ripped apart, as told in the saga of Pickett’s Charge. Near the copse of trees is the monument to Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, mortally wounded in the charge, but successful in leading his troops against amazing odds to the Union line at the stone wall.  Nearby stands a monument to one of his best friends, Union Major General Winfield Hancock wounded as he defiantly rode his horse along the lines.

Devil's Den

Devil’s Den

I grew up an hour or so from the battlefield, so every visit conjures up layers of memories from past visits. The ugly tower no longer ruins the view, the ugly visitor center has been replaced by a large one that blends into the landscape. The cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge has been restored to its former glory and depicts the power of the moment. Devil’s Den, that small section of massive rocks that heave up from the Earth at the base of Little Roundtop, was a nest of sharpshooters during the battle and the interpretive panel with the mesmerizing photo of the staged  bodies that captured my attention as a boy still holds the same fascination.

Several years ago I went to the annual Gettysburg reenactment. I tell of my experience in my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.  I witnessed a battle reenactment of the storming of Little Roundtop, performed in a flat field. I watched a camp demonstration in the hospital tent. The staff carried in a wounded soldier, his leg bleeding profusely. The doctor explained the wound and decided he needed to amputate. As I recount in Grizzly,  “to the horror of the crowd, he took out his dirty saw and began sawing. As the blood spurted, his saw stopped briefly at what sounded like bone. He kept sawing. The leg dropped off, with blood gushing and appropriate screaming from the soldier. The action had a grand effect on the crowd, which gasped and stood riveted. As the program wrapped up and the soldier stood up all in one piece, I decided that including a little blood and gore proved an effective way to teach history.” Then I as I was walking through the concessions tent, I passed a reenactor who looked like General Grant. Any astute history student knows that Grant was in Vicksburg during the Gettysburg campaign. I whispered to him “General Grant you’re not supposed to be here!” He grinned and responded, in a whisper, “I’m not.”

Reenactment stories aside, the very earth at Gettysburg pounds with bravery and sacrifice, if the visitor cares to listen.

Read about another powerful history place, Lemhi Pass.

Have you been to Gettysburg? What was your experience there?

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A whalebone sidewalk and more

Custom House

While perhaps best known for its spectacular aquarium, its otters and Cannery Row, Monterey, California has a fascinating history that illustrates the turmoil of shifting power over many years. Monterey was the capital of the region of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule and the only port of entry for taxable goods on the California coast. Monterey State Historic Park today preserves many of the highlights of this past and a walking tour around the town offers a peek at an incredible rich area of history.

A short primer of California history may be helpful: the Rumsien native peoples first inhabited the area around Monterey. In 1542 the Spanish entered the picture when explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed into Monterey Bay and named it the Bay of the Pines. The Spanish originally thought California was an island. In 1601 Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino landed and planted the Spanish flag, naming the area for the Viceroy of Spain.

Royal Presidio Chapel - oldest building in Monterey

Royal Presidio Chapel – oldest building in Monterey

Fast forward to the early 1770s. Father Junipero Serra again claimed Monterey for Spain, this time settling the area and founding a mission. Spain was feeling threatened by Russian movement from the north, so the military built a presidio and   named Monterey the capital of Alta California in 1775.

Custom House

Custom House

In 1818 an Argeninian briefly seized Monterey for Argentina and three years later Mexico declared independence from Spain. With this came relaxed trade restrictions and the opening of coastal ports to foreign trade. The Mexican government built a large custom house in 1827  to facilitate trade from around the world. The restored custom house is considered the oldest government building in the state and its exhibits show goods from all parts of the world that passed through the port, including piles of hides, one of the main currencies of the area.

For nearly 25 years the Mexican flag flew on the Custom House flag pole, until in 1846 U.S. naval forces sailed into the bay and raised the stars and stripes, claiming over 600,000 square miles of California for the United States of America. They faced no opposition to speak of.

California never went through the process of becoming a an official territory of the United States. Only four years later, with motivation in part due to the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains nearby, California became the nation’s 31st state. San Jose was selected as the first permanent seat of the state government and commercial activity moved to San Francisco located closer to the gold fields.

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Casa Soberanes

Today Monterey claims the most preserved adobe houses west of Santa Fe, with the southern part of town referred to as an island of adobes. The sun-dried mud bricks were whitewashed to help with stability and supposedly rotten cactus was mixed in for this purpose as well. An architectural style known as “Monterey Colonial” combined Spanish building methods with New England architectural features and can be seen in various residences around town.

whalebone sidewalk

whalebone sidewalk

A walking tour of historic Monterey should include the old whaling station with its rare sidewalk made entirely of whale vertebrae cut into diamond patterns. A shore whaling industry grew in the nineteenth century and various businesses processed different parts of whales.

The early 1900’s brought a thriving fishing and canning industry and commercial activity shifted away from the center of town.

California’s Independence Hall, Colton Hall is a short walk from the custom house and should also be part of any visit to Monterey.

Monterey State Historic Park and other history organizations offer a variety of ways to explore the city’s past.

I visited in March and was fascinated to see so many plants in bloom at the same time. I’m used to springtime succession, but in Monterey it seems that camelia, azalia, irises, wisteria and rhododendron all bloom together.

Posted in 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, city/town, International, religion, West | Leave a comment

Think you know American history? You may be wrong.

Lemhi pass looking west

On the Lewis and Clark Trail, Lemhi Pass looking West, Montana-Idaho border

In honor of American Independence Day, enjoy these 4 myths, as told in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History

1)      Betsy Ross sewed the first flag.

Mary Pickersgill

Mary Pickersgill

She sits with the Founding Fathers on the Fourth of July parade float,in colonial costume, a mobcap on her head and a thirteen-star American flag draped over her knee. Most American children know her by name: Betsy Ross, the woman who sewed America’s first stars and stripes. But  historians have found no definitive documentary evidence to support the story that Betsy sewed the first flag at the request of General Washington. Yes, she was a well-known seamstress in Philadelphia at that time, and she knew various members of Congress. Yes, she sewed flags. But the crucial link to this notable first, a solid piece of historical evidence, a letter, receipt, newspaper article, is missing. If she were alive today, she would likely be surprised to hear her story. Historians credit her grandson, William Canby, with manufacturing the legend in 1870. Unfortunately Mary Pickersgill, another seamstress from Philadelphia, didn’t make the history books. She sewed the Star-Spangled Banner . Read more of the story here.

2)      Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

According to the popular story, in 1793 Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

invented the cotton gin, which successfully removed the seeds from short-fibered cotton. The machine transformed the agricultural south as cotton quickly became a profitable crop across the southern United States. Harvesting the plant remained labor intensive, and thus slave labor followed the gin. Given this story, two implications might seem obvious: first, before Mr. Whitney’s gin, people cultivating cotton around the world separated the seeds and fiber by hand, and second, prior to Whitney’s invention the British textile manufacturers relied on cotton ginned by hand. Yet these assumptions are wrong. For millennia prior to Whitney, cotton-producing cultures around the world were using something called a roller gin to remove seeds from cotton. Historical fact shows that cotton gins have been used in some form or another since the first century. Whitney invented a cotton gin.

3)      Sacagawea saved the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Signs along the Lewis and Clark Trail thoughout the west show Sacagawea, arm outstretched pointing the way as if she were giving the explorers directions to a restaurant. In reality, since they spoke different languages, Sacagawea and members of the expedition could not communicate directly. Sacagawea, Sacajawea, or Sakakawea (the pronunciation varies according to tribal affiliation) was a pregnant teenager when they met, wife of Toussaint Charbonneau. Lewis and Clark wrote that she was a Shoshone girl who had been captured by the Hidatsa in a war raid. They recognized her language skills and knew they would need to find and communicate with the Shoshones in order to obtain horses to cross the mountains. The journals record her various contributions to the group: identifying edible plants like wild artichokes along the way, gathering root foods, which provided a balanced diet, and, when the Corps finally reached her tribe’s homeland, recognizing various landmarks that could confirm their location. She helped secure horses, but was definitely not a guide. Historians just don’t know much about the woman, since she left no record. Currently on the dollar coin, Sacagawea remains a mystery. Read about the view from Lemhi Pass. Read about a recent Lewis and Clark anniversary.

Lewis and Clark statue, St. Louis, MO (Mississippi River at flood stage. The statue has since been moved farther from the river)

4)      The National Anthem is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Most Americans have heard of Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the National Anthem. During the War of 1812 as the British military commenced attack on Baltimore on September 13, 1814, Key found himself behind enemy lines with a front-row seat to the battle. Hired to facilitate the release of a friend captured by the British a few days earlier, Key and the U.S. government’s prisoner-exchange agent found the British fleet on the Chesapeake and enjoyed the hospitality of the British officers. When the release was finalized, the British detained them because they had undoubtedly overheard plans for the attack. The British promised to release the Americans when the military operation was completed. Forced to watch the naval battle unfold from a boat about eight miles downriver from Fort McHenry, Key could see barges firing bombs and whistling Congreve rockets into the sky. In the early hours of the morning, Key eagerly peered through a telescope and saw Mary Pickersgill’s American flag flying over the fort. Inspired by the sight, he began to write. Key published the poem, titled the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” in a broadside several days after the battle, indicating it should be sung to a popular British tune, “Anacreon in Heaven.” This tune was not a drinking song but the club song of an eighteenth-century gentlemen’s musical club, the Anacreontic Society. Newspapers up and down the East Coast printed the song and the Star-Spangled Banner grew in popularity, until it became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931. History mystery: what happened to Francis Scott Key’s house? Read here.  Read more about the battle here.

Check out my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History. cover 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, exploration, fort | Tagged , | 3 Comments

California’s Independence Hall

“It is not an edifice that would attract any attention among public buildings in the United States; but in California it is without a rival.”
— Rev.Walter Colton, alcade of Monterey (chief magistrate), 1849

Colton Hall exterior

Is it misleading to call Colton Hall in Monterey, California the state’s Independence Hall? On a tour of the building, that’s what my guide called it. The people of California didn’t exactly declare independence from Mexico. Then again, it is the site where in September 1849 the California Constitution Convention met to write a state constitution. So perhaps a parallel could be made with that other building in Philadelphia. 

Located south of San Francisco, the town of Monterey was on Mexico’s frontier in 1849. The Gold Rush was in full swing, but only 18,000 people lived in what is now the state of California.

Forty-eight delegates from various corners of Alta California were elected to meet at Monterey in Colton Hall, the largest public building west of the Rockies. It is notable that eight were native-born Californios, Spanish speakers who required interpreters. Over forty-three days they pounded out a state constitution. It borrowed from several state constitutions, especially from Ohio and New York, but in the end proved one of the most progressive constitutions among the states. It created a bilingual state, and was the first state to allow married women to own property and thus represent themselves in court. It also set up free public education in every county. It outlawed slavery and dueling and set San Jose as the state’s first capital.

Colton Hall, interior

A news story described the moment when the delegates signed the document. “At this moment, a signal was given; the American colors ran up the flagstaff in front of the government buildings, and streamed out on the air. A second afterward the first gun boomed from the fort… as the signing went on, gun followed gun from the first, echoes reverberating grandly around the bay, ’til finally, as the loud ring of the thirty-first was heard, there was a shout: ‘That’s for California'”

California officially became the 31st state in the United States a year later in September of 1850. About six months later, the state’s population had grown to 160 thousand.

Read about Independence Hall in Philadelphia. 

Posted in 19th century, city/town, military, West | Leave a comment

Crissy Field in San Francisco

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Crissy Field, San Francisco

I’m a planner, so when I travel I’m usually intentional about seeing places that relate to my professional history interests. But every now and then I stumble upon a place that was somehow off my radar. Such was the case recently when I visited a friend in San Francisco. It was a beautiful day and I had no agenda, short of getting outside and enjoying the weather and my friend’s company. He had not lived in the city long, so did not know it well. We decided to hike around the Presidio and take in views of the Golden Gate bridge and sailboats in the bay. We parked at Crissy Field. The broad expanse of grass along the bay was dotted with giant steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero, a temporary exhibition mounted by SFMOMA. At the edges of the field were low buildings that looked like airplane hangars. My friend’s wife had requested that he check out an indoor trampoline park located in one of them.

 

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Crissy Field, original hangar buildings

Only when I stopped to read a historic marker did it hit me. This is the famous Crissy field, the most intact 1920s Army airfield west of the Mississippi River. Minus the buzz of aircraft and cheers of crowds, the grass field and several original buildings offer a glimpse of the early years of aviation when “airmindedness” was the rage. Many of the pioneers of aviation passed through Crissy field.

Crissy Field 1920s

In 1919 the army sent 61 planes on a test flight across the continent. Fifteen planes left from this field heading east. Forty-six left Long Island, New York heading west. Only nine planes finished the flight, including Captain Lowell Smith, later commander of the world flight. Major Dana Crissy was among those killed in the attempt and the commander of the Presidio airfield, Major Hap Arnold, requested the field be named for Crissy.

220px-Lincoln_Beachey_cph.3a49742Crissy Field, completed in 1921, was constructed on the site of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Lincoln Beachey, called the father of aerobatics, thrilled Exposition crowds with his daring maneuvers. Sadly, he died in a spectacular crash during a show at the Exposition in front of almost 250,000 people.

 

World Cruisers at Crissy Field, San Francisco

World Cruisers at Crissy Field, 1924 National Air and Space Museum Archives

I’m currently writing a book about the 1924 Army Air Service round-the-world flight. Beginning in Seattle, the flight of four Douglas World Cruisers traveled west, becoming the first across the Pacific and the first across the China Sea, and ultimately the first around the world. Five other countries set out to challenge them and it became a race for national prestige. Flying long distances was no easy feat; one of the planes crashed into a mountain in Alaska (both crew members miraculously survived) and one ended up at the bottom of the North Sea (again, the crew survived). When they reached Boston, they began what was essentially a victory lap across the United States toward the finish line in Seattle. At Crissy Field, thousands of people greeted them.

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In 1925, the Navy attempted a flight to Hawaii. Two seaplanes left the bay by Crissy Field, one faced engine failure early and safely returned. The other ran out of fuel near Hawaii and eventually reached Kauai by sailing there with sails made from the plane’s canvas wings. Test your navigation acuity with an interactive about this flight from the National Air and Space Museum.

Today Crissy Field is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area run by the National Park Service. More information on Crissy Field at the National Park Service website.

My book about the grand adventures of the world flight is for ages 10-14 and will be published in spring of 2015.

Posted in 20th century, city/town, national park, West | 1 Comment

A Lewis and Clark anniversary

Two hundred ten years ago tomorrow, May 14, at 4 p.m. three boats loaded with enough supplies to fill three modern semi trailers and about forty-eight men, crossed the Mississippi River into the mouth of the Missouri River beginning a historic expedition. In honor of Lewis and Clark, I’m repeating a past post. Enjoy! You can read all about my experiences working on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition in my book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.

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Most fans of explorers Lewis and Clark expect to find traces of them in St. Louis, the start and end of their 1804-06 expedition.  The reality is that only a few sites in St. Louis evoke the explorers.  Lewis spent much time in St. Louis in the winter of 1803, while Clark drilled the members of the expedition across the Mississippi River in Illinois at Camp DuBois. A replica of the fort stands today near the actual site, across from the mouth of the Missouri River. St. Louis was French territory that winter. In northern St. Louis, Clark’s grave sits on a hill in Bellefontaine Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River in the distance. At river’s edge in the shadow of the Arch stands a statue called Captains Return depicting the triumphant return of the expedition. [I just learned tonight that the statue has been moved so it won't be subject to the Mississippi floods. Good idea!] In my opinion the best place in the St. Louis area associated with the explorers is St. Charles, a town on the Missouri River about thirty minutes west of St. Louis. With it’s tree-shaded brick streets and stone and brick buildings with real wood shutters, it feels historic. St. Charles was the first permanent settlement on the Missouri River.  The French founders called it Les Petites Cotes (little hills).  A sign in the town says it was first settled in 1769 (before the American Revolution) and officially founded in 1780 (a year before Yorktown).  It’s historic district running nine or so blocks along the river is filled with restaurants and shops of all kinds – antiques, collectibles, crafts, goods from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (couldn’t find goods from France!) and tsochkes of all kinds.  It oozes charm and character. When I lived in St. Louis and was missing access to the eighteenth century places I loved in the East, I decided that St. Charles was probably the closest thing to a Williamsburg I could find west of the Mississippi. William Clark arrived in town with his expedition on May 16, 1804. They stayed a few days awaiting Meriwether Lewis’s arrival from St. Louis. The journals record that “a number [of] spectators French and Indians flocked to the bank to see the party. This village is about one mile in length, situated on the north side of the Missouri at the foot of a hill from which it takes its name… This village contains about 100 houses… and about 450 inhabitants chiefly French, those people appear poor, polite, and harmonious.” During the brief stay, the town made them feel at home with dances and dinners. It was the last bit of “civilization” they would see until their return in September 1806.  Several of the men were disciplined for being absent without leave and insubordination. Today the town is proud of its Lewis and Clark connection. A huge boathouse on the bank of the Missouri holds the replica boats used by the area’s Lewis and Clark re-enactment group. A small museum explains the expedition. A large statue of the two explorers with dog Seaman sits in a spacious park along the river. The dirty river is wide at this point and rolls along at a decent pace, carrying debris collected on the journey from its source in distant western Montana. I like when history sites don’t require me to tax my imagination, when they offer enough genuine evidence from a time period to help the mind paint a picture of what could have been. St. Louis lost a lot of its historic core when the Arch was built. St. Charles managed to keep its historic buildings. It cares for preservation and those that seek Lewis and Clark will be rewarded in St. Charles. Have you been to St. Charles? What did you think?

Posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, city/town, exploration, West | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Story of a bad boy – Portsmouth revisited

Market Square by Joe Parks

Market Square by Joe Parks

I’ve rhapsodized a bit in a past post about how much I enjoyed a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and hoped to return. I got my wish and recently spent several days there teaching a workshop. One of the great things about my job is access to historic sites and in this case, the workshop was held at a grand eighteenth-century home– yes, one that President George Washington really did visit (in 1789).

Governor John Langdon House

Governor John Langdon House

The large white Governor John Langdon House sits two blocks from the center of town. Langdon, while not a name known to most Americans, was a signer of the U.S. Constitution and three-term governor of New Hampshire. Our guide called him the “founding father who didn’t make it into the history books.” In any case, he took advantage of the booming maritime economy in the 1700s and had his hands in the lucrative privateering industry during the American Revolution. The house was meant to show his status in society and is filled with amazing molding, handcarved pine meant to look like masonry, and wainscotting. Beyond the double parlor, other rooms in the house offer different stories. A rector and his wife lived in the house for forty years and rebuilt a fire-damaged section in the popular Greek revival style. At the end of the nineteenth century some Langdon descendants bought the house and added a large dining room designed by Stanford White, an exact replica of a room in another house in Portsmouth.

glossI often look for a book to read that is set in a place I’m visiting. I found the perfect book at the indie bookstore in town. The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1869 and described as a humorous, poignant yarn of one lad’s adventures. Sound familiar? It was supposedly the inspiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The book is set in the fictional town of Rivermouth, really Portsmouth. The town comes to life in this endearing tale of nineteenth-century boyhood. The protagonist, Tom Bailey, lives with his grandfather Captain Nutter, his sister and an Irish servant. Tom gets into all kinds of troubles as he interacts with the neighborhood kids. It’s considered one of the first in the “bad boy” genre of literature.

The Nutter house, where Aldrich lived, sits not far from the Langdon house. It, too, is restored and open to the public, part of Strawbery Banke, an excellent 10-acre outdoor museum featuring three hundred years of history. Alas, I had left Portsmouth by the time I learned about the Nutter house. I guess I’ll just have to return again.

Check out my past post about Strawbery Banke.

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A new covered bridge

 

Update: The Pinetown covered bridge featured in the blog post below, written a year ago, is now completely finished. I drove over it several times, admiring the fine craftsmanship. Here are some photos. I’m thrilled that Lancaster County Heritage added an interpretive panel to tell about the bridge’s history.

Pinetown Bridge over the Conestoga River, Lancaster County, PA

Pinetown Bridge over the Conestoga River, Lancaster County, PA

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Pinetown Bridge

Pinetown Bridge

I have taken covered bridges for granted my entire life. I grew up riding my bike on a 5-mile loop through two covered bridges. In the summer I’d put the canoe into the river at one bridge and float down to the take-out at the second bridge. It was normal to drive somewhere and go through a covered bridge on the way. This was Pennsylvania after all, the state that still has approximately two hundred of the wooden structures. And, the Pennsylvania county with the most, where I grew up, is Lancaster County, with 29. (The national winner with 31, according to Wikipedia, is Parke County in Indiana).

Utilitarian though they are, there is something about covered bridges (maybe like lighthouses) that offers a connection to the past. Covered bridges recall another era, especially when you see an Amish horse and buggy driving through one.

The ravages of flooding, usually caused by tropical storms and hurricanes, take their toll on covered bridges. One of my childhood bridges, the Pinetown Bushong’s Mill covered bridge, was built in 1867 by an active bridge builder named Elias McMellen (who was also a captain in the Union Army).  No doubt it survived many floods until Hurricane Agnes caused major damage to it in 1972. It might have been replaced with a “modern” bridge had not the local residents raised their voices in protest and the Amish community helped restore it. Then the rising river caused by Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 knocked the bridge off its foundation, bowing its timbers, making it unsafe for use. Though it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, I feared this was not enough to save it a second time due to the escalating costs of repair.

I eagerly awaited the decision about the bridge’s fate. My father kept me apprised of any news. Finally the newspaper reported the bridge would be restored and raised about 2 feet higher to spare it from future flood waters.  On a recent trip I surveyed the work in progress, fascinated by the placement of the cranes and the complex engineering involved.

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I’m so proud that Pennsylvania places such value in preserving its covered bridge heritage. I can still jump on a bicycle and take a ride through covered bridges or canoe the Conestoga River (in the valley where the wagons were produced) and relish a heritage that has still managed to transcend time.

Thank you Lancaster County and Pennsylvania for preserving the bridges! Soon the Pinetown Bridge will be restored to its former glory.

Hunsecker's Mill Bridge, Lancaster County, PA

Hunsecker’s Mill Bridge, Lancaster County, PA

True story: My father was almost run over by a buggy as he walked through this covered bridge. He had to jump up on a wooden beam curb to escape a crazed horse. Only in Lancaster County!

Check out another post about Lancaster, PA

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