Maryland's Washington Monument was the very first monument in the country to George Washington. It also made a cameo in the Civil War, and now it makes a great place for birdwatching.
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MILLS KELLY: If you hike north on the Appalachian Trail from Harpers Ferry, just under 20 miles from the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy you crest a ridge and there in front of you is a 30’ tall stone structure.
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KELLY: It looks kind of like a big old-fashioned milk jug. That jug-like structure is the world’s first monument to George Washington. It was built in 1827.
RALPH HEIMLICH: The monument was the result of a very raucous Fourth of July celebration in Boonsboro I guess in those days, people celebrated the Fourth of July bit more vigorously than we do today, and some genius decided, we need to build a monument to the father of our country General George Washington, President George Washington, and they all trooped up the hill there and proceeded to start piling stones. And there was no lack of building material because there’s a scree field right there where they built the monument.
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KELLY: That was Ralph Heimlich, a trail maintainer for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Ralph’s been in charge of the trail from Turner’s Gap just south of the Monument all the way up to the Monument itself since 1985.
KELLY: The original stacked stone structure lasted several decades. By the Civil War it was a partial ruin. But that didn’t stop the combatants from making good use of the old structure.
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HEIMLICH: It served as a signal tower for both the Union and the Confederate troops during the Civil War because it allowed a view out over the western edge of the valley.
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HEIMLICH: And you know they could put signallers up there with semaphore flags or whatever and get signals sent rather quickly.
KELLY: South Mountain, where the monument is located, is reasonably close to the Antietam Battlefield where the Union and Confederate armies met in September 1862. Three days before the Battle of Antietam, elements of the two armies fought on South Mountain near the monument, making this section of the trail one of the few that passes through a Civil War battlefield.
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KELLY: After the war, the good people of Boonsboro rebuilt the monument again. But before long it had once again fallen down. The problem was they were just building it out of stacked stones with no mortar to hold them fast.
KELLY: We found an old silent movie in the archives of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club that shows PATC members picking their way around the rubble at the base of the monument in the early 1930s, and we’ve posted that in our show notes and on our YouTube channel. Be sure to check it out because it offers the only images of the monument in such disrepair that we’ve been able to find.
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KELLY: As the Appalachian Trail was moving toward completion in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps helped build a number of sections of the trail, especially in Maine. And CCC members also built a number of trail shelters, some of which still stand along the trail. In 1936, a CCC crew rebuilt the Washington Monument and this time instead of just re-stacking the stones they used mortar. As a result, the old monument is just as solid today as it was on July 4, 1936, when they rededicated it.
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KELLY: As you walk toward the monument, it might look like a big empty milk jug, but don’t be deceived.
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HEIMLICH: It’s not hollow. People look at it and think that it’s a you know it’s hollow, but in fact there’s a spiral staircase that goes up to the top that takes up most of the room.
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KELLY: If you listened to our episode about danger along the AT, you’ll know that the Washington Monument is not where you want to be in a storm. In 2016, two hikers took refuge from an electrical storm inside the monument and were quite literally blown out the door when it was hit by a bolt of lightning. You can hear the full story in Episode 4 of our show.
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KELLY: A much better use of the monument is as a hawk-watching spot. According to Ralph, during the fall and spring hawk migrations, the platform at the top of the monument is a perfect place to watch hawks riding the thermals up from the valley below. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a lot more fun than being blown out the door by a bolt from above.
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KELLY: Lots of you have been sharing our show to your social media and we really appreciate it. And here’s another way you can help. We’re looking for Green Tunnel Podcast ambassadors. If you’re planning to hike on the AT in 2022, whether as a thru hiker, section hiker, or day hiker, apply today on our website to be a part of our ambassador team! There’s some swag in it for you.
KELLY: As always, the Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Today’s episode was produced by me. Abby Mullen is our executive producer and she also did the audio production for this episode.
KELLY: A special thanks to Ralph Heimlich for sharing his knowledge of the Washington Monument with us. And don’t forget to check out our show notes where you can see that old movie of the monument that I mentioned earlier. Those notes are posted on our website: greentunnel.rrchnm.org.
KELLY: That’s it for today. Our next episode will be out shortly. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you again soon!
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Ralph Heimlich is a trail maintainer for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. He has been responsible for the AT in Maryland from Turner’s Gap to the Washington Monument since 1985.