Categories
Roadside America

Crystal Grottoes Caverns in Boonsboro, Maryland

Tour Maryland’s only show cave in this delightful throwback to America’s roadside attractions.

This small demonstration cave is Maryland’s largest cavern open to the public. It contains more formations per square foot than any other explored cave, and it’s among the most naturally preserved caverns in the world, with a constant temperature of 54 degrees.

Crystal Grottoes formed in Tomstown Dolomite over millions of years. The cellar is mostly horizontal and the corridors are generally high and narrow. Its floors are brown and red clay; sediment covers several passages within one to two feet of the ceiling. 

The 30-35 minute tour covers 900 feet of its passages, or about one-third of the total cave space. There are no streams, although steadily dripping water collects into a small “lake” or tub.

Categories
Mysterious America

The St. Omer “Witch’s Grave”

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

St. Omer Cemetery and the defunct village of the same name probably would have been forgotten a century ago had it not been for one unusual family monument and a misprinted date. As is often the case in Coles County, these peculiar circumstances gave birth to an obscure but enduring legend. According to local lore, Caroline Barnes, one of four people buried under the massive stone, was put to death for practicing witchcraft. It is said no pictures can be taken of her monument, and that it glows on moonless nights.

The Barnes family monument is difficult to describe. Some say it looks like a crystal ball mounted on a pyre. Conventionally, orbs in cemetery art represent faith, and logs, or tree trunks, are fairly common imagery representing growth and enduring life. This particular gravestone is rare, but similar monuments can be found in several central Illinois cemeteries, including Union Cemetery in northeastern Coles County.

Why do some people believe a witch is buried here? The only evidence for the legend seems to be the gravestone’s dramatic design, the way local citizens grow nervous whenever the story is mentioned, and most strikingly, Caroline’s impossible date of death chiseled in the granite: February 31. The monument also faces north-south, while most headstones are oriented east-west.

Categories
Photography

Most Charming Cemeteries in New England

These historic rural cemeteries are a treasure-trove of art, architecture, and sculpture.

Not only are the New England states among the most progressive in America, they were also the birthplace of the rural cemetery movement. These cemeteries were designed by some of the most prominent landscape architects of their day to be parks as well as sanctuaries for the remains of loved ones. Wealthy citizens contributed millions to create beautiful funerary art and sculpture that you can still see today.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mount Auburn Cemetery, at 580 Mt Auburn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the country’s first rural cemetery. Designed by landscape architect Alexander Wadsworth, it opened in 1841 and quickly became one of the most visited destinations in the country. Rural cemeteries were laid out like gardens, with winding paths, ponds, and hills, and many, like Mount Auburn, also serve as arboretums. Mount Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003. It is 200 acres and is the final resting place for approximately 70,000 people.

Categories
Historic America

Thunder on the Hudson

During the Revolutionary War, New York’s Hudson River Valley was the scene of numerous battles as both sides sought to control this vital waterway.

Before automobiles and paved roads, rivers were the highways of their day. Whoever controlled a major river could ferry troops and supplies back and forth over hundreds of miles. Control of the Hudson River in eastern New York was critical to British plans early in the Revolutionary War, but Patriots blocked passage by spanning the river with large iron chains at a narrow point near Bear Mountain.

After being pushed out of New York City in 1776, Gen. George Washington established his headquarters in Peekskill along the Hudson River. He considered the area critical for keeping the Continental Army supplied. Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought for control over this vital waterway.

Battle of White Plains

The Battle of White Plains was fought on October 28, 1776 during George Washington’s retreat from New York City. Washington positioned his depleted Continental Army on hills near White Plains, New York, east of the Hudson River. He established 3-mile long defensive positions, including two lines of earthworks, anchored by swampy land near the Bronx River on one flank and Chatterton’s Hill on the other.

Categories
Mysterious America

Abandoned America: Prisons and Asylums

Visiting a former prison or asylum is an eerie experience, knowing you are free to explore where hundreds were once trapped. Has so much suffering and loneliness left something intangible behind?

Most people avoid ending up in a prison or asylum, opting instead to experience it vicariously through television, movies, or books. When these institutions close, there’s not much that can be done with them. Some local communities, however, have figured out how they can profit from public curiosity by offering tours and events. It’s a unique experience, and thousands flock to see the empty corridors. Here are just a few of the former prisons and asylums I’ve visited over the years. Not all are open to the public, but most are.

Joliet Correctional Center

The former Joliet Correctional Center at 1125 Collins Street in Joliet, Illinois opened in 1858 and was originally called the Illinois State Penitentiary, Joliet. It was built using distinctive, locally quarried yellow limestone. It closed in 2002, but not before being used as a backdrop in several films, most notably The Blues Brothers (1980). It sat abandoned for many years, until being purchased by the city in 2017 and opened for tours. Ursula Bielski recently wrote a book about the institution called The Haunting of Joliet Prison.

Categories
Commentary

The Quartzsite Affair

When a small town reporter was removed from a public meeting and its mayor replaced by the chief of police, Quartzsite, Arizona showed how quickly democracy can devolve into dictatorship.

On the morning of July 11, 2011, residents of Quartzsite, Arizona, a small town of 3,677, awoke to find themselves in the midst of a bloodless coup. Sunday night, the five-member town council held a closed session in which they declared a state of emergency, ousted the mayor, and installed the chief of police as chief executive. Their alarming actions were the latest salvo in a battle over a woman who was arrested for speaking out at a Quartzsite town council meeting the previous week.

On June 28, Jennifer Jones, publisher of the Desert Freedom Press, rose during the “call to the public” section of the meeting, in which members of the public are invited to speak. Jones began to address rules that had been recently introduced by the town council, at which time one council member, a Mr. Joe Winslow, ordered her to relinquish the microphone. When she refused, Police Sergeant Fabiola Garcia attempted to forcibly remove the microphone from Jones’ hands.

Quartzsite’s mayor, Ed Foster, who was elected in May 2010 on a platform of fighting corruption, protested the removal and even told the officers that they were violating the rules of order. This was not the first time the mayor and the town council had been at odds. Mr. Foster had recently uncovered a ghost payroll totaling around $250,000 a year, and suspected the town council members themselves were involved with the graft.

Categories
Historic America Photography

Stories in Stone: Sir John Dill

Equestrian monument to British Field Marshal Sir John Greer Dill (1881-1944) in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Sir John Dill fought in the First World War and was promoted field marshal in 1941. However, he did not get along well with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sent him to Washington, DC as his military representative. This turned out to be a blessing for all involved, as Dill was enormously influential in fostering cooperation between the British and American armed forces in World War Two. He died in November 1944 never witnessing an end to that conflict. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote:

“His character and wisdom, his selfless devotion to the allied cause, made his contribution to the combined British-American war effort of outstanding importance.”