Taken cumulatively, it might be the most historic stretch of mountaintop in the Mid-Atlantic. From the Interstate 70 footbridge south along the spine of South Mountain, the ridgeline has seen an extraordinary amount of American life (and death) go by.
In 1755, British Gen. Edward Braddock scratched and clawed his way through a rocky pass in South Mountain with an army of British soldiers on his way to disgrace, defeat and death in a scrap with Indians and French soldiers at modern-day Pittsburgh.
Fortunately for America, he would get better.
Washington and just about every other leading American would have spurred their horses through Turner’s Gap, where the great National Road passed by the venerable South Mountain Inn, which is older than the nation itself and was a favorite haunt of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
When Washington crossed South Mountain, he couldn’t have known that 75 years later, on the Fourth of July, his memory would inspire the townsfolk of Boonsboro to scramble up to the mountain’s crest and begin work on a 34-foot stone monument that would predate the one in D.C. by more than 50 years.
The monument has lived a rough life. It was in bad shape when spectators climbed it in 1862 for a better view of the Battle of Antietam, before being scattered by a platoon of suspicious rebels. And its condition worsened when — the Father of our Nation be damned — it was dynamited by an outraged father who discovered that the tower was a rendezvous point for a local boy and his daughter.
It was the Civil War, of course, for which South Mountain is most famous. It’s the spot where the namesake of Reno, Nev., was killed and site of the homestead where Union soldiers disposed of 60 Confederate dead by chucking them into the farmer’s well, slipping him $60 for the inconvenience.
Covering the early stages of the war was a young man by the name of George Alfred Townsend, aka Gath, who followed the Yankees up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond and then, like so many Union soldiers, became too sick with southern fevers to carry on.
He was, however, able to cash in on the experience by sailing to Europe where he described to packed theaters the horrors of the American Civil War.
The David Muir of his day, he returned to America in time to cover the Lincoln assassination for the New York World.
Twenty years later, he was ready to settle down, and from his war travels he recalled an idyllic setting in what is known as Crampton’s Gap, where he commenced to build an imposing yet mirthful estate called Gathland, composed of nine stone buildings, some of which still stand, on 100 acres.
Sitting in a rail car where The Herald-Mail is today, he noticed the pleasing architecture of the Antietam Fire Company across the street and incorporated it into an eclectic stone arch dedicated to the memory of war journalists. He loved the solitude, but his wife Bess did not, considering the pastoral scene in much the same light that Mrs. Douglas considered Green Acres.
Gath wrote several books, including “The Entailed Hat,” based on the life of Maryland’s Patty Cannon, a savage woman who bossed a sizable gang that kidnapped free blacks and sold them south. She slaughtered upward of 11 people of all ages, including one little boy whom she beat to a pulp with a stick of wood. Finally tracked down by the law, she poisoned herself in prison and her skull now resides in a hatbox in a Delaware library.
Gathland was the first estate in the area to have gas lamps and at night farmers in the valley would gaze in awe at the glow emanating from the mountaintop.
It is greeted with similar awe today. Seven years after the death of Gath, a Harvard-educated forester named Benton MacKaye went looking for a way to incorporate urban dwellers into the folds of nature.
He didn’t think small. MacKaye looked for a way to link farms and wilderness camps, a schematic he detailed in a regional planning document that is better known today as the Appalachian Trail. Hikers spilling out into Gathland can’t help but gawk at the odd stone arch and its accompaniments.
If any of this sounds interesting, it would be well worth the short trip up South Mountain to the new, splendidly designed visitor centers at Washington Monument and Gathland state parks. Connected by the Appalachian Trail, they are accessed separately, but both tell amazing stories that intersect many times over.
There’s something special about mountain history; everything comes harder in the rocks and on the slopes. People are often tougher, and events are more interesting. It’s life, literally, on the edge, and we are blessed with a front row seat.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.