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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.

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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.”

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Historic America

Williamsburg Gunpowder Incident: The Spark that (Almost) Ignited the Revolution

In 1775, the ‘shot heard ’round the world’ almost occurred in Williamsburg, Virginia and not Lexington and Concord. Cooler heads prevailed.

Most people are familiar with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. However, seemingly few people are familiar with the Gunpowder Affair: a near simultaneous outbreak on a second front in Virginia the very next day. Today, you can visit a reconstruction of the magazine where it all happened.

By April of 1775, tensions were high. The Intolerable Acts, a series of laws that closed the Boston port, transferred greater control to Royal governors, and allowed quartering of British troops among other things, had drawn ire throughout the colonies. Meanwhile, word had spread at the First Continental Congress of General Thomas Gage’s removal of gunpowder from an installation near Boston, further exacerbating tensions.

In Virginia, opposition to British rule was hitting a fervor. Patrick Henry’s famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech in March of 1775 led Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore to grow weary of the presence of militias. He hatched a plan to remove gunpowder from a magazine in Williamsburg under the shadow of nightfall.

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Historic America

Second Winchester Battlefield in Frederick County, Virginia

In the first major infantry battle of the Gettysburg Campaign, Confederate forces dealt a crushing blow to Union designs in the Shenandoah. Today you can visit the remains of a fort where they fought.

The battles of Second Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot were fought from June 13 to 15, 1863 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy and Confederate forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell in Frederick County, Virginia during the American Civil War. These dramatic Confederate victories in the Gettysburg Campaign’s opening phase cleared a path through the Shenandoah Valley for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, allowing it to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. Taken together, the battles were among the most lopsided of the war, with 4,747 total casualties, mostly Union prisoners.

On June 1, 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia slipped away from the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, and headed north to invade Pennsylvania. Gen. Robert E. Lee intended to use the Shenandoah Valley as a corridor to invade the north, with the Blue Ridge Mountains hiding his movements from the enemy. To do so, he first needed to clear the 8,324-man Federal garrison commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy at Winchester, Virginia. He entrusted his Second Corps commander Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell with the task.

Milroy had occupied the area around Winchester since late December 1862, digging fortifications to protect his supply depot as well as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad farther north. On June 12, Ewell took his three divisions and one cavalry brigade, for a total of 19,000 men, through Chester’s Gap into the Shenandoah Valley. He sent one division under Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes northeast to cut off the Federal retreat and his other two divisions under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early and Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson to directly attack Milroy at Winchester.

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Photography Roadside America

Antiques & Oddity Shop

Antiques & Oddity Shop, E Old St in Petersburg, VA. I love this old building near the Appomattox River. You can still see some of the faded brick ads advertising produce and poultry. Petersburg dates back to 1750, and this building sits in its oldest area.

Categories
Photography Roadside America

Neon Twilight

How can you not love the way the neon lights at the Silver Diner, 6592 Springfield Mall in Springfield, Virginia, glow just before dawn? The Silver Diner is a chain of 1950s style diner-restaurants founded by Bob Giaimo and Ype Von Hengst in 1989 in Rockville, Maryland.

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Mysterious America

Haunted Mansions of Dixie

A decaying manor frozen in time, the trappings of opulence stubbornly refusing to fade. It’s the stuff made for Southern Gothic.

The American South has a long and tragic history, where wealth was obtained on the backs of slaves and the scars of war lasted for generations. Relics of the antebellum South are natural incubators for ghost stories, and nearly every mansion and plantation home is believed to have a ghost or two. The following are a few of the Southern mansions I’ve visited over the years. Who can say what lurks there after dark?

Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi

Otherwise known as Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library has an interesting history. It was built in 1852 by a wealthy plantation owner named James Brown. Ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis did not reside in the house until 1877, twelve years before he died. His daughter Winnie continued to live there until her death in 1898.

The Jefferson Davis Soldiers Home opened on the grounds in 1903 and operated until the 1950s. It was home to around 1,800 Civil War veterans and widows of Confederate soldiers. Roughly 780 of them are buried in the cemetery located on the property. Several visitors have reported encountering someone who they assume is an actor playing Jefferson Davis in the gardens.