“The Year Jupiter didn’t align with Mars”
Banksy, Woody Allen, the widow’s lover in Thomas Tryon’s book Lady, and people in witness protection might appreciate the cleverness by which a patch of land, roughly 33 miles in circumference, exasperated, confused, and pulled the proverbial wool over my eyes for decades. It required advanced skills in prestidigitation, camouflage and the art of illusion, Government interventions, and the cooperation of a legion of folks to maintain the illusion—to hide in plain sight what should have been obvious. This oblong of earth, rock, water, and sometimes fiery hot or frozen air bothered more than it bewitched, perturbed more than it assuaged.
I dubbed it Severed Mountain, but most knew as South Mountain, a forested and gently populated expanse of sandstone, limestone, quartz, and sedimentary rocks in Western Maryland (MD). It housed springs and ponds; a variety of trees, flora, and fauna; a few rumored caves, and blood soaked earth. The mountain extends for 70 miles, and is the northern most part of the Blue Ridge range; one of 60 rather modestly sized mountains in MD The abundance and types of rocks and stones that compose South Mountain proved to be a key to uncovering secrets the mountain hid, though I didn’t realize that when I moved there at age 17, nor when I returned 30 years later for what I thought was a final farewell. It would take nearly five decades to penetrate its layers and find the core of knowledge the mountain held.
It seemed to be a benign enough habitat when you read about the surrounding area and its lore—land where indigenous people lived before ‘moving on.’ A locale where several revolutionary era war skirmishes and four civil war battles were fought. There were marvelous crystal caves nearby, a South Mountain wizard who effected cures—and curses, and a giant black dog, the Snarly Yow, usually seen near a spring off Zittlestown Road. It also had a mythic beastly creature called the Snallygaster (think Mothman/Jersey Devil) rumored to be guarding stolen jewels; assorted ghosts seen in and around South Mountain Inn (aka Dahlgren’s sky manor); and another alleged wizard, who billed himself as both a prestidigitator and necromancer. Did I mention the cunning folk, witches, flickering orbed saxon lights, and a nearby rocky ridged creek referred to as devil’s backbone for 100s of years?
The sloping hollow where my father deposited his family, after decades of crisscrossing the country, was the place where two and a half decades later, he would die—unexpectedly and most assuredly. It was the same mountain I’d written about fleeing (The Road That Led to Roam), barely a year after moving there, via a jaunty gingerbread’esque sprint (with baggage) from summit to foot. I migrated to Washington DC, the place where a semi-famous former mountain inhabitant had spent her winters and early springs eighty years earlier.
I didn’t much like the girl that fled the mountain in 1970, nor the frumpy, conceited woman, the widow of Admiral Dahlgren, that summered (and occasionally wintered in the late 1800s) at her stone sky manor atop the same mountain. This abode has served as an inn/tavern, trading post, war hospital, and alleged brothel in its various incarnations. It aroused my curiosity when our family dined there and a garrulous waiter further piqued my interest by telling us a few stories about South Mountain Inn.
My mid-term school assignment was write a paper about a notable person that lived in the area in the 1700-1800s. I decided to write about Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren, one of the current inn’s former owners. I grudgingly accepted a grade of B, rather than the A I felt I deserved, because I chose to write about her notable flaws and prejudices instead of a few positive things she accomplished. She was an anti-suffragette, racist, prude, superstitious religious zealot who used the royal we, and a writer who composed sketches, poems, and novels in a stilted style. The teacher that graded my paper wrote Dahlgren was a ‘paragon of virtue for the time in which she lived.’ We were both correct; I’m still miffed about the B. My research was diligent; my reporting accurate. I even added footnotes.
I vowed to redeem myself. The next assignment was to write about someone that helped the local community. I chose (locally famous) Michael Zittle (junior), the Hexenmeister Wizard of South Mountain. Dahlgren had written about him in an out of print book called South Mountain Magic, Tales of Old Maryland. She had even examined his Black Conjuring Book and devoted the final chapter in her tome to describing the ‘superstitious’ healing and cursing spells practiced by Zittle and other mountain denizens. The book had been lost for over 90 years. I had to know more and researched other accounts of the wizard and his little black book on library microfiche reels and volumes of The History of Western Maryland. For my art project, I decided to re-create the black book. As the new girl in town, people already claimed I was strange, a weirdo witch. I told them my horse had pawed the ground near the bottom of Zittlestown Road. On a hunch, I dug there and unearthed an old tin. The conjuring book was inside, wrapped in waxed butcher paper.
I’m pleased to report I received an A for my art project. At a used bookstore, I found a thin black book, cira 1822, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Queen Mab. In nine cantos, he described a utopian world at the edge of the universe, ruled by Mab, the original Sandwoman. Shelly was 18 when he wrote Queen Mab. I was 18 when I turned Shelly’s work into a faux conjuring book by dripping wax over the cover and disguising printed pages with pasted on, slightly crumpled squares of brown grocery store and tissue paper. I age stained pages with tea, water color paints, and ink; added hand drawn occult symbols I’d copied from grimoires and words in German from Pow Wow books. I used a fountain pen to copy the SATOR square and a few of the spells Dahlgren posted in her book. For added pizazz I drilled a small hole in the front cover and glued a piece of sparkly quartz into the hole. I am still devastated I got another B from the teacher. She failed to see his significant contribution to the community—or my contribution to the wizard’s legend.
Because the history of the area was foreign to me, and curiosity was part of my DNA (determined, nosey, atypical), I continued to study and accumulate Frederick and Washington County lore, folding facts and conjecture into other papers I wrote. Even then, I sensed the history of its native people was being ignored; they were forced from where they’d lived for 1000s of years. I wrote about Iroquois Kanastoge (anglicized to Conestoga) being slaughtered, evicted, infected, and chased out at musket point. Over a period of 100 years, their ranks were reduced from 5,000+ to a few hundred. They joined and intermarried with Tuscarosa, Delaware, and Shawnee tribes. A few of them made their way to Indian territories in Oklahoma. The rest were forgotten.
Bad tempered Scotsman General Edward Braddock, who cursed the colonies, marched over South Mountain the summer of 1755 enroute to a fatal foray. He’d expected locals to provide cattle, transportation, and soldiers. They refused unless they were fairly paid. The recruits he got were ill trained and equipped. Still, they managed to cut a path across Pennsylvania’s (PA) Alleghany mountains. Their task was to capture Fort Duquesne (Pittsburg) and help end the French and Indian Wars. Eight miles short of the fort, Braddock was ambushed and mortally wounded at the Battle of Monongahela. Braddock died at Great Meadows (Farmington, PA). A 900+ foot mountain adjacent to South Mountain was named for him.
A youthful Lt. Colonel George Washington was among Braddock’s entourage. He survived this last major French/Indian war battle. George also surveyed land around South Mountain for Lord Fairfax. In 1827, a phallic shaped monument was erected on a high South Mountain hill in his honor. A 1924 newspaper suggested abolitionist John Brown rendezvoused at the summit of the mountain. Famous visitors to the South Mountain Inn (at Turner’s Gap) included Daniel Webster, Clara Barton, and Franklin Roosevelt. I was mildly impressed, though still not convinced my dad hadn’t brought us to the end of the world.
I reminded my dad Togotolisa, chief of Conestoga, warned against settling in the valley beyond or slopes of South Mountain in a 1732 letter to the colonial governor. His advice was dismissed—traders and immigrants kept swarming over this mountain pass—despite native raiding parties ambushing locals, trying to regain stolen land. Clear title to the lands west of South Mountain were granted at 1744 Treaty of Lancaster. John Turner, for whom this ‘gap’ between mountains is named, purchased acres atop and on the slopes of it. He built an impressive H shaped stone house and lived there till he sold it in 1769. It had 10 fireplaces, a rooftop observatory, and verandas with grand views. Its inhabitants observed French & Indian, Revolutionary, and Civil War activities. Madeleine Dahlgren, twice widowed, mother of three and daughter of a Senator from Ohio, bought the inn in 1876 and converted it into her private summer sky manor (as I related in my under-appreciated term paper) .
The bloody, tragic Civil War Battle of South Mountain was fought at Crampton, Fox, and Turner’s gaps in 1862—and in forested hills, lonely hollows, and open fields. Perhaps it was General Lee’s Rubicon crossing of the Potomac into union territory that made what was to come inevitable. His aims were many, to best the damn Yankees, keep a supply line open, destroy the PA railroad, and prove his somewhat ill equipped army was superior. Lee split his Army into four segments. Stonewall Jackson was the first to cross Turner’s Gap, headed to Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry. Both confeds and locals used the monument built to honor George Washington as lookout and signal tower. General Hill, part of Stonewall’s command (and his brother in law) served as rear guard. They watched 20,000+ Union soldiers amass from the East. Lee (his hands bandaged) and his remaining Army descended Turner’s Gap and waited in Boonsboro.
Locals observed the rebel Army was tattered, many were barefoot. The road’s hard surface bruised their feet. Lee sent a majority of his troops to Hagerstown, under the command of General Longstreet. Hill’s men were moved to Boonsboro to guard Turner’s gap and watch for Union troops coming from Harper’s Ferry. Major Jesse Reno commanded the Union’s Ninth Corps; he was killed during one of the battles that raged that day. McClelland’s Yankees marched from Frederick over Braddock Mountain, but were halted by Jackson’s rebels, who then withdrew to Middletown on horseback. Two future President’s fought in this battle, Rutherford B. Hayes (who was wounded) and William McKinley.
Stories are still told that Lee’s Order 191 was intercepted, enabling McClelland to know where Lee’s forces were. He led a large contingency over the mountain to capture Lee. A southern sympathizer learned of the interception and alerted rebel Jeb Stuart near or at South Mountain Inn. Stuart got word to Lee, and noted with trepidation the large number of union campfires burning in the dark in the valley. Lee told Hill to hold Turner gap. Stuart moved to Crampton’s Gap, joining Colquitt who’d positioned his weary troops further down the east side of the gap. If union troops approach from the south side of the mountain, Hill had few men to fight and hold the gap. Union troops at Fox’s Gap had orders to take the mountain. Ernest battle began near Fox’s Gap; 3000 Yankee Ohioians attacked 1000 NC rebels. The air grew heavy with the sulfur scent of gunpowder, fear sweat, and blood.
Hill, atop the mountain, later wrote he felt ‘deserted by all mankind.’ Fighting continued until darkness fell. The inn became a field hospital. But in the morning (September 15) Lee and his troops were gone. Only those men too injured to travel (~500) remained behind; others lay bleeding where they’d fallen. The dead presented a horrific tableau, piled next to stone walls, draped over wooden fences, in trees, in pieces, in rigor… Reports say there were 2,346 dead Union soldiers and 3,434 dead Confederates—roughly 5,700+ dead and many more wounded. A few days later, in nearby Sharpsburg, the death toll would be much higher. Antietam Creek would run red with the life blood of those who survived the Battle of South Mountain. The water tidily carried the blood to the Potomac River.
The Government paid locals a dollar/each to bury the rotting dead. A story is told of a man named Wise that threw over 50 bodies down a well. Others were buried in shallow graves near where they died. Decades would pass before most bodies were identified and properly interred. Ghostly sightings increased—at the inn, the woods on multiple slopes of the mountain, in the towns soldiers marched through, hid in, ransacked. Hikers still report stumbling across holographic imageries of men fighting, natives hunting, pioneers camping next to the clear springs that pocket the mountain.
As I wrote in Road That Led to Roam, teen me gave little in depth thought to the ‘people that had traveled these road in previous decades and centuries—farmers, hunters, soldiers, explorers, trappers, slaves seeking freedom, hikers, indigenous tribes…’ Nor did I marvel at the ‘geological arcana’ of the region, especially trees, which are tied to the spirit world. I should have. I did note many people had German surnames and ancestry. There were supposed to be many Scot-Irish families that settled here, however, I found little evidence. Was the prevalence of Germans a source of my uneasiness, having read dozens of books about WWI & II and the Nazi mindset, as well as lore on superstitious customs they introduced? German settlers built home and churches here, encouraged by Lord Baltimore’s offer of 200 acres of land for 4 pounds sterling/year for every 100 acres of land settled and cultivated. In the mid-1700s, 1000s of Germans from the Palatinate (SW) region settled in nearby hamlets. They farmed and made furniture, built grain and paper mills, established glassworks and a furnace factory, opened bakeries and breweries, built schools and shops, and defended their new homeland. The fields they cleared and roads and communities they built changed the landscape.
My world was rapidly changing too: in August, 1969, an American walked on the moon; nearly 400,000 gathered at Woodstock in upstate NY for three days of rock n roll; videotape technology was introduced; and though most weren’t aware, ARPANET was born. In 1970, there was talk of détente between the US and Soviet Union. I liked this $10 French word, indicating an easing of tension. Unfortunately, in our house on Michael Road, tensions and a different sort of cold war continued. The mountain only changed seasons and diligently registered comings and goings, not unlike the newly introduced video technology. South Mountain’s methods for recording memories were non-erasable and readable, if you used the right tool at the right time.
Part II of Outing the Mountain, or the year ‘living dreams of visions and mystic crystal revelations’ didn’t dawn coming next month
It’s been too long! Self-isolating while I wait for test results, so will consume this over the weekend, thanks!
and no, I’m still figuring out my commenting debacle…
You’re most welcome…my blast from the long ago past. Still miffed I can’t find a way to leave comments on your site–have reinstalled everything, still get error message… hmmm
It must be frustrating given that the usual suspects all manage to leave theirs; you are part of the WP community, what happejns when you try to comment via the reader fuction at the top of your page? That seemed to work for the masses….in the meantime, not all Scotsmen are bad tempered, so can I redeem my race by awarding you an A for their educational diatribe; Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren would be proud!
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That’s such a colourful sweep of the South Mountain landscape Jo: personal and historical. My favourite detail was the Civil War legacy of ghostly images and holograms. What a parade of characters you cite……I wonder what a Johannigan of 100 years’ hence would say about the early 21st century human terrain?
Thanks! Apologies for not replying sooner. Needless to say I’ve not been enjoying some seasonal celebration events, extra guests and cooking, and have managed to annoy 1/2 a dozen festive folks! Once I started writing, I was surprised by how much I recalled and what the mountain evoked.
Jo 2051–I can imagine 30 years hence–will still be asking questions and battling the American predilection for imploding the past and reinventing farcical scenarios. The mountain will record and retain it all. Almost done with Part 2…