We dipped our paddles into the rippled waters of the Susquehanna River, and paddled back in time. Continue reading
Seafaring is a dangerous business. Be they sail or steam, passenger or cargo, many ships have gone down along the Atlantic Coast over the centuries. Powerful storms and strong, tricky currents make navigating harbors a challenge that in darkness is nigh unto impossible.
Which is why man made lighthouses.
Towers topped with bright lights visible for miles dot the coasts and Great Lakes of North America. Sandy Hook Light has guarded the southern entrance to New York Harbor since before the American Revolution. In 1828, help arrived: the Navesink Highlands Light Station, otherwise known as the Twin Lights.
The name says it all – there are TWO lights to this light station. Rebuilt of local brownstone in 1862, the towers are linked by keeper’s quarters. They stand 64 feet high atop a 200’ hill overlooking the Shrewsbury River.
At night, the two beacons, one fixed and one flashing, were easy to distinguish from the light at Sandy Hook.
They were also easy to see. The Twin Lights were the first in America to use the revolutionary Fresnel lens design, when two of these beehive shaped lights were installed in 1841.
The South Tower’s beehive light was replaced in 1898 with an electric-arc bivalve lens. This light could be seen 22 miles out to sea, the brightest light in the U.S. at the time. It was so bright the North Tower light was taken out of service.
Now a National Historic Landmark, this life-saving light station reminds us of the years it stood watch over the harbor, its beacons a comfort to all who passed.
HOEK (Dutch): Corner, angle; spit of land.
The long spit of land known as Sandy Hook, comprised of beaches, dunes and maritime forest, is a recreational wonderland. It serves a higher purpose, though. For centuries the spit has guarded the entrance to New York Harbor. The peninsula, owned by the federal government since 1814, has long been essential to the safety of mariners and the defense of New York. There’s a lot of history resting on the shifting sands of Sandy Hook!
New York Harbor is one of the busiest in the nation. Seafaring is always treacherous, and many ships foundered off the Jersey Coast. In the 1870s, the U. S. Life-Saving Service was established, to watch the coast and rescue stranded seamen. Life-saving stations like this one were built along the coast. Spermaceti Cove Station No. 2, built in 1894, housed a six man crew of “surfmen” and their rescue equipment.
The Spermaceti Cove station was used by the Life-Saving Service and subsequently by the U.S. Coast Guard until the 1940s. It has served as the Visitor Center for the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area since the 1970s. Damaged in Hurricane Sandy, it’s now closed, to our deep disappointment. We could only admire the old girl from the outside.
Also guarding the harbor is the Sandy Hook Light.
Sandy Hook Light is still in operation 24 hours a day, using an automated, fixed 3rd-order Fresnel lens. When it was built in 1764, water lapped the shore just 500 feet away. The light now stands a mile and a half from the tip of Sandy Hook.
Sandy Hook’s location at the mouth of New York harbor made it the perfect place to build a fort to defend the harbor and New York City.
A wooden fort called Fort Gates served during the War of 1812. Fort Hancock replaced it in the late 1800s.
A view of Fort Hancock from the lighthouse. This is Officers Row, a group of yellow brick residences. Enlisted men lived in barracks and a small village of supporting buildings sprouted up over the years. The population of Fort Hancock peaked during World War II at nearly 12,000 military personnel.
Much of the fort’s defenses centered on concrete gun batteries using the most powerful cannons of the day. After WWII, the fort’s mission shifted to an array of Nike air defense missiles. At the end of 1974, Fort Hancock was officially decommissioned. It now is part of Gateway National Recreation Area.
Near Sandy Hook, in Atlantic Highlands, is Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook. Perched at 266’, the highest natural elevation on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, it offers sweeping vistas of Sandy Hook, Raritan Bay and New York City. You get a feel for the strategic importance of Sandy Hook to the defense of New York and the safety of seamen traveling into the harbor.
Throughout the weekend, from every high point and lighthouse, we searched for the Statue of Liberty. Throughout the weekend, from every high point and lighthouse, Robb claimed to see her.
Atop the Sandy Hook Light, Robb declared that he could see the Statue. Again,
After two days of following Robb’s guidance, to no avail, I sought the aid of other visitors to Mount Mitchill. Within minutes, thanks to them, I had found what I was looking for.
And guarding her flanks, Sandy Hook, ever vigilant.
BUCKS COUNTY, 1781… A band of ruthless outlaws known as the Doan Gang rob the Bucks County Treasury in Newtown of 1,300 pounds sterling. It was one of many crimes committed by five Quaker brothers and their cousin. Loyal to the British crown, the Doans made a career out of robbing Colonial tax collectors, stealing horses to sell to the British and even spying for the Redcoats. According to numerous legends, the gang amassed a small fortune, and stashed the loot in one or more caves in the hills of Bucks County.
BUCKS COUNTY, 2016… A band of intrepid explorers go in search of the Doan Gang spoils. The most well-known of the caves is rumored to be along the banks of Tohickon creek. The only clue to its whereabouts is a small dot on a Bucks County map labeled “Doan’s Cave.”
Well, that and a few Internet photos and postings that serve as a signpost to the impossible-to-miss cave.
Conveniently, there’s a State Park, and a trail.
The latter was a scenic walk along the creek, with a couple of tricky crossings over steep banked runs that fazed our daring adventurers not one whit. Soon enough, rock outcroppings began to appear on the hillside above them. Just the place for a cave.
The first such outcropping held no cave, but sported an impressive covering of lichens and moss. It was also an irresistible place for some camera-mugging by the irrepressible Major Robb, not seen here.
Left, and down, to the base of the rocks.
Our fearless fortune-hunters, finding no gold or silver, went off in search of other types of treasure. This they found in spades on the far side of the creek. The footpath led over a covered bridge, which was in fact not covered at all. A faux bridge.
The creek-side path yielded a bumper crop of wildflowers. This was a source of boundless amusement for Major Robb, who busied himself attempting to identify each one. Conveniently for the rest of the expeditionary party, it got him out of their hair.
Whilst Major Robb was so occupied, the others found their way across a dry gully onto an island of cobble and pebbles. Here a tree was actively swallowing a large rock. In another hundred years, it might well succeed in digesting this stony meal.
Corporal Kim was suddenly startled by the sight of a large snake at her feet, slithering away from her with all due haste. Seems the plucky lass had unwittingly trod upon its tail. Upon reaching the water’s edge, it forgot its annoyance and fear, and posed quietly for a series of photographs.
Tired, hungry, and quite bereft of treasure of any monetary value, our bold band of explorers bid farewell to Tohickon Creek. Quite content were they with the joys of a day well-spent amidst the natural splendors of Bucks County. Whatever secrets Tohickon Creek yet harbors, she guards them well.
For many visitors, including my friend Don and me, you start at Cades Cove. Scenery, wildlife and history – Cades Cove has it all, in one 11-mile driving loop. That’s where we spent our first full day at the Park.
We arrived at the Cove early on a nice morning with blue skies. It would be the last rain-free day we had for a week.
A “cove”, by the way, is Smoky Mountain parlance for a flat valley between mountain ridges. At Cades Cove, the overlying rock has eroded to expose a valley of limestone. Meadow grasses and plants thrive on limestone soil.
While some of Cades Cove is wooded, much of it is open, making for some great views of the mountains beyond. In the five hours we spent there, I never got tired of those mountains. Click for the full effect.
There was a lot more to see than just mountains and meadows though. Wildflowers abound, and we saw some interesting wildlife. We also got a real sense of the history of the place.
Cades Cove was first used by the native Cherokee who hunted deer, elk, bison and bears. The first white settler arrived in this idyllic place before 1820, finding fertile soil and abundant game. A self-sufficient community flourished here for generations, with grist mills, blacksmiths, distillers, stores, churches and schools.
Since the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, the area has been maintained as an historic district. Some of the original buildings are still in place, and we stopped to explore them as we drove the loop road. The cabin above was the home of John Oliver, the one of the first settlers of Cades Cove. It’s a simple one-room log cabin, with doors on three sides and a loft above.
The people of the cove were religious folk. We came to three churches in succession, two Baptist and one Methodist. The Baptists argued over missionary activities and split into two churches; the Methodists argued over Civil War loyalties, and likewise split, although Hopewell Methodist Church no longer stands.
All three churches are spare white frame buildings with a bell tower on top. Inside are rows of pews, and a pulpit. Outside each church is a graveyard, which gave Don and me a change to indulge our interest reading old tombstones. Here Olivers, Tiptons, Shieldses and Cables abound. Many young children were buried in these graves, some too young to even have names. Life could be harsh in Cades Cove.
After circling the cove, we decided to take the adventurous route home. We drove Rich Mountain Rd, a one-way gravel road that runs up to the top of Rich Mountain, then descends out of the Park into Tuckaleechee Cove. It was a lot of fun winding around the endless twists and turns. Mother Nature’s roller coaster!
Wait, what about that wildlife?
That, my friends is a tale for another day.
My merry band of adventurers caught wind of an abandoned mine deep in the wilds of the Wissahickon Valley, and quickly signed up for a tour. We set off one day for an easy stroll down Forbidden Drive where it borders cool, green and leafy Wissahickon Creek.
Further along, a staircase led down the embankment to a small dam in the creek.
One of our group is a talented professional photographer who is generous with his photographic wisdom, and I soak it all up like a sponge.
At the dam, Ned gave me a homework assignment: photograph the water flowing over the wall at different shutter speeds.
The Roxborough Mining Company, consisting of a handful of German immigrants, excavated this manmade cave with hand drills and black powder. According to legend they were searching for gold, but having found none, soon abandoned the endeavor.
Another legend claims this cave was a hidden storehouse of grain during Revolutionary days. Today it holds only tourists like us. Though the cave goes back some distance, the roof is low; here you can see the entrance is half a Robb high.
It’s also dangerous. Too many people are tempted to jump from rocks up to 20 feet high into a pool that is just 5 to 7 feet at its deepest. Drownings are not unheard of here. Frequently polluted water adds to the list of hazards.
Like any urban area, Philadelphia is crowded, noisy, and paved-over. Yet within the city limits, in the Wissahickon Valley, Nature holds on as tenaciously as ferns cling to life in a rockface. Definitely urban living on the Wild Edge!
It was the winter of 1777, the heart of the American Revolution, when General George Washington decided my home provided everything he needed for a safe place to encamp his troops for the winter: easily defensible high ground, proximity to Philadelphia to pressure the British, the river nearby for transportation.
I watched as 12,000 men marched into the valley on December 19, weary, bedraggled, but with their heads held high. They swiftly pitched tents as temporary shelter, then busily set about building log huts. They would complete nearly 2000 of these huts, chinked with clay and laid out along military avenues.
Some of the officers made quarters in the houses of local farmers. It was more cramped than it may appear today. When General Henry Knox lived in the house above, it was half this size; expansion came after Revolutionary times. General James Varnum occupied only one room on the upper floor of this dwelling, below; the owner’s family continued to live in the rest of the house.Many of the officers, including Knox and Varnum, would later move into huts to be closer to their men.
I have seen many winters in my long life, some mild, some harsh. That winter at Valley Forge was neither. Typical of a Philadelphia winter, there were occasional snowstorms, followed by thawing, rain, and then refreezing. The resulting mud and ice interfered greatly with supply shipments. Heavy snow in February was followed immediately by heavy rain, and mud made roads impassable for a time.
This was the real hardship the troops faced; not the weather, but the lack of supplies, particularly clothing adequate to the winter conditions. The lack of a true Quartermaster made the situation worse. Sanitation was also an issue. Springs and streams provided water, but were frequently fouled.
Relief arrived with better weather, an early shad run on the Schuylkill, and the appointment of General Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster.
When they weren’t building, serving as sentries, or hunting for wood and food, they were engaged in military drill on the Grand Parade. In February, Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived in camp, and was given the job of reforming the Army’s training and discipline. He began with the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards, and quickly won them over with his methods. The enthusiasm spread outward as ever large groups of men drilled and maneuvered skillfully. He also greatly improved the sanitation in camp.
After France entered into an alliance with the United States, the British would abandon Philadelphia for New York. On June 19, 1778, Washington would lead the Continental Army out of the camp in pursuit. My valley returned to a place of peaceful farmsteads.
Not a shot fired was fired at Valley Forge in battle. Yet the encampment marked a turning point in the war. France threw in its lot with the Americans. Conditions hardened the men. Von Steuben molded a skilled but inconsistently-trained army into a cohesive professional fighting force. Truly the Army that left Valley Forge was not the Army that arrived six months prior.
Many generations have come and gone. Yet I stand here still, my old limbs weary, honored to be a silent sentinel watching over the valley that forged a nation.