Sunday, December 27, 2009

Along the Edge of Two Empires - A Road Trip Into the Past - Part 2

Well, here it is. The final posting of 2009. My last posting a couple weeks ago, in the wake of a road trip up into western Pennsylvania, described the early stages of the confrontation between Great Britain and France as these two European empires attempted to establish hegemony over the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. So here is the rest of the story.

The French won the first round when they defeated George Washington and his colonial militia at Fort Necessity (Great Meadows) in early July 1754 and forced Great Britain to abandon, at least temporarily, its claim to the lands along the Ohio River. That autumn colonial Virginia decided once again to pursue its claim by sending a significant military force to the area of contention, including the Forks of the Ohio.

Although war had not been declared by the spring of 1755, despite the confrontation at Fort Necessity the previous summer, both the British and the French were planning for round two. The British continued to develop a strategy by which it could confront and eventually defeat the French forces situated along the entire frontier separating their respective North American territories - a limited war. The French were more interested in defending their territory than encroaching on British holdings. They consolidated their control in the region with the building of forts and outpost along the various rivers feeding into the Ohio, including Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh). After the first encounter in July 1754, the French improved Fort Duquesne to withstand a siege by a superior British force; the original stockade was replaced and it was protected by water on two side as well as by a maze of defensive trench works.

Great Britain decided that it could not rely solely on colonial militias to get the job done, and so it began to assemble the largest and most potent military force ever seen in North America - an expeditionary force of two regiments (approximately 2400 British regulars) supported by 1100 militia troops from Virginia, Maryland, New York and South Carolina, some of whom had seen action at Fort Necessity the previous summer. In command was General Edward Braddock, a veteran of 45 years in the King’s service, most of it as a member of the Coldstream Guard, although a neophyte when it came to wilderness fighting. George Washington, who was by now well acquainted with the area beyond the Allegheny Mountains, served as Braddock’s aide-de-camp. British strategy called for this force to cross the Appalachians and defeat the French at Fort Duquesne, the keystone to French defenses in the Ohio Valley. They would establish a permanent British presence at the Forks of the Ohio before moving north along the Allegheny River toward the Niagra frontier in an attempt to cut communication and supply lines between New France (Canada) and the Louisiana territory.

Braddock and a thousand British regulars arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in early 1755. They disembarked at Hampton Roads on February 10 and eventually bivouacked in the vicinity of the colonial Virginian capital at Williamsburg. One of the first tasks to be accomplished was to determine which routes across the Appalachians afforded best access to the Forks of the Ohio and the Ohio River drainage beyond. Lieutenant Colonel John St. Clair, Braddock’s quartermaster, found only two principal roads through northern Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge. One was what is now Leesburg Pike running through Leesburg and then crossing the Blue Ridge at Vestal’s (Keyer) Gap, then across the Shenandoah River south of what is now Harper’s Ferry. The other route went west from Winchester, then northwest across the Cacapon Mountains and the Cacapon River, then across the South Branch of the Potomac and northwest to Wills Creek, now known as Fort Cumberland in honor of the Duke of Cumberland, the youngest brother of King George II. Both of these routes were muddy and in very poor condition as the result of winter snowmelt combined with the spring rains. They would have to be improved in order to accommodate the movement of troops and equipment across the mountains to Fort Cumberland. Rafts would also have to be constructed in order to ford the many streams and rivers paralleling the mountain ridges. The original British deployment plans called for troops and equipment to move up the Potomac by bateau, not realizing this river was much too shallow and full of obstructions to permit passage all the way to Fort Cumberland.

St. Clair was bivouacked at Enoch Camp, on the Cacapon River, by early April 1755 and reported to Braddock that road construction in the direction of Fort Cumberland was finally underway. General Braddock and part of his expeditionary force set out from Alexandria and marched southwest toward Frederickburg where they bivouacked for a week. There he met with Benjamin Franklin, then postmaster for the Pennsylvania colony, to discuss supplies and reinforcements supposedly coming from Philadelphia. Other units of the expeditionary forced departed Alexandria and crossed the Potomac into Maryland and marched along the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Frederick. From there they would join up with militia troops arriving from Philadelphia after which they would cross the Blue Ridge Mountains in order to join up with Braddock’s force at Fort Cumberland. In late April this later force left Frederick and marched west across the Blue Ridge, crossing the Potomac and back into Virginia on its westward trek. St. Clair moved up to Fort Cumberland to consolidate forces with those militias from Maryland, New York and South Carolina, before moving westward toward the Forks of the Ohio. Braddock and his force finally arrived at Fort Cumberland on May 10, 1755; it had taken over three months to move the British expeditionary force to the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains although the artillery was still in transit and would not arrive for another couple of weeks. The supply wagons and horses sent from Pennsylvania at the behest of Benjamin Franklin also arrived and it would take another month for Braddock to prepare for the crossing of the Alleghenies on the way to the Monongahela River and Fort Duquesne. Along the way they would have to improve the route Washington and his men cut through the wilderness the previous year, widening it so it could accommodate supply wagons and artillery pieces.

Once he had arrived at Fort Cumberland, Braddock quickly realized that the countryside there was completely foreign and unknown to the inhabitants of lower parts of Maryland and Virginia. Strategies would have to be developed and revised in order to successfully pursue British military goals beyond the Alleghenies. On June 10, 1755, Braddock left Fort Cumberland with roughly 2000 troops - British regulars and colonial militiamen along with a few sailors to man large artillery pieces taken off a Royal Navy vessel. Following the same route used by George Washington during his 1753 and 1754 expeditions to western Pennsylvania, they moved very slowly as they improved the original route to handle the supply wagons and artillery. It took a week to advance just over 20 miles beyond Fort Cumberland. In order to expedite the advance toward Fort Duquesne, Braddock then divided his command and continued toward the Monongahela with approximately half his force along with some of the supply wagons and the artillery. Unfortunately this strategy failed. Braddock and the advanced elements of his force passed the ruins of Fort Necessity, burned by the French the previous summer, on June 25. From there they hacked their way across the remaining 50 miles, arriving on July 8 among the steep hills and valleys along the eastern bank of the Monongahela, not far above the confluence with the Youghiogheny River some ten miles below Fort Duquesne where 200 French soldiers and 600 Native Americans were bivouacked. The rest of the British force remained some 20 miles in the rear and out of effective range to support or reinforce the advanced column.

Surprised that they had not encountered any French patrols, Braddock and his men forded the Monongahela on July 9, returning to the western bank a few miles south of Fort Duquesne. They advanced northward in more favorable terrain to avoid possible ambush by the French troops. They then recrossed the river to the eastern bank with direct access to the fort. The British force was a mile-long column as it advanced toward the northwest and the fort. Soon alerted to the approaching British force, and realizing they did not have sufficient manpower to adequately defend the fort, a French contingent dispersed into the surrounding forest hoping to catch the British in an area where a smaller French force would have the high ground advantage. They quickly surprised and surrounded Braddock and his men and after a series of rather intense skirmishes lasting a couple of hours, the French forced the British into a chaotic and panicked retreat with very heavy casualties, including the mortally wounded Braddock who was carried from the field. At this point the British resolve evaporated and the battle turned into a rout as the British troops fled eastward into the woods, abandoning their supply wagons and artillery pieces. Washington, who came through the encounter unscathed, led the remnants of the British force back across the Monongahela in the direction of Great Meadows.

Four days later - on July 13, 1755 - General Braddock died of his wounds not far from Great Meadows and the ruins of Fort Necessity. He was one of almost 500 British dead. Washington buried Braddock in an unmarked grave in the middle of the road they had cut through the forest. The rest of the British dead were left to molder on the battlefield where they fell. More would die during the retreat to Fort Cumberland. The French suffered far fewer casualties; only 28 died during the fighting along the Monongahela. The British retreated to Fort Cumberland, and eventually back across Pennsylvania to a winter encampment near Philadelphia. The French remained in complete control of the lands beyond the Alleghenies.

Between 1755 and 1757 the British suffered a number of embarrassing defeats, but by 1758 they were gradually overwhelming the French on all fronts. That spring, a British force of almost 1400 regulars and 3600 colonial militiamen, almost twice the size of the one led by Braddock in 1755 and now under the command of Brigadier General John Forbes (and with St. Clair once again serving as quartermaster general), departed Philadelphia and crossed the Allegheny Mountains for a third time, finally capturing the Forks of the Ohio and driving the French out of the Ohio country for good. The original plan called for this force to march to Fort Cumberland and then follow the same route used by Washington and Braddock. But this route had proved unsuccessful in the two earlier attempts, and Forbes, at the recommendation of St. Clair, marched his forces directly across central Pennsylvania, cutting a new route over the Allegheny Mountains in order to attack Fort Duquesne from the east.

By July 1758, an advance British column had pushed forty miles beyond the eastern front of the Alleghenies, to Loyalhanna Creek where Fort Ligonier was constructed some 40 miles east of Fort Duquesne. In September, while Forbes and the main element of his expeditionary force moved across the Alleghenies toward Fort Ligonier, an advance reconnaissance in force was sent to within five miles of Fort Duquesne and its approximately 2000 French defenders. In response, French raiding parties were sent out to dull the British advance and once again skirmishes with heavy British casualties ensued; an almost carbon copy of the Braddock defeat three years earlier as the British staggered back to Fort Ligonier. The French subsequently attacked that fort in October 1758 before the British could regroup and lay an effective siege to Fort Duquesne. The confrontation was brief, but the French showed that they still held the upper hand even if they were becoming increasingly isolated in their citadel at the Forks of the Ohio.

Forbes and the remaining British troops arrived at Fort Ligonier in November 1758 and began to plan for a concerted and final advance on Fort Duquesne. Unfortunately, winter had come to the mountains of western Pennsylvania. As difficult as it would have been for Forbes to lay siege to the French fort, its defenders, without adequate food and supplies, were equally unprepared to withstand a lengthy siege.

On November 24, 1758, an advanced British force, including George Washington, having constructed a road to the banks of the Monongahela River near where Braddock was defeated in 1755, heard explosions coming from the direction of Fort Duquesne only a few miles away. It was discovered the following day that the French had abandoned and blown up Fort Duquesne and retreated up the Allegheny River or down the Ohio toward territory still firmly under French control. A small British contingent was left to defend the Forks while Forbes and most of his expeditionary force returned to Philadelphia in early 1759. Although Forbes survived the campaign, he was no luckier than Braddock. He died shortly after returning to Philadelphia.

In 1760, the British established Fort Pitt at the site of the former Fort Duquesne, fearing renewed attempts by the French to regain lost territory and strategic advantage in the west. Instead the French opted to protect their vital interest in the south and north. Great Britain believed that by defending its colonies against French encroachment it would guarantee their fealty to the crown. No one knew at that time that 21 years later, George Washington, who had been a key participant in Britain’s three attempts to defeat the French in western Pennsylvania, would stand at the command of the Continental Army as it prepared to drive the British out of North America once and for all . . . with French support.

NEXT: It’s Time to Bone the Duck

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year !!!

Wishing everyone a festive holiday season and all the best in the coming new year. May 2010 be a good year for everyone.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Check Out "Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret" - A New Literary Commentary Blogspot Series

Today I posted "Books, Books, Books," the first of an occasional literary commentary on a host of topics that strike my fancy. I hope you will share your thoughts and comments. Please check it out at

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Along the Edge of Two Empires - A Road Trip Into the Past - Part 1

I recently described our road trip into the western Maryland mountains over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. There is still more to that story, and this time around I am putting on my historian’s cap. The final day of our visit began with bright and sunny skies and it looked like our first taste of winter was going to be short lived as the temperatures began to climb above the freezing mark and the winds continued to buffet the Appalachian Plateau; the fields that were white the previous day were turning green again. After a country breakfast along the banks of the Casselman River, we set off along U.S. Route 40 to follow the route that George Washington and General Edward Braddock followed over 250 years earlier during the waning years of colonial America. What happened here were the earliest chapters of what would become a monumental clash between two European empires that would eventually spread across the globe and involve all the major Europeans states in a world war. We know this conflict as the French and Indian War, which began in 1754, but in fact, this conflict in North America provided the opening salvos in what would become the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

A few miles west of Grantsville, Route 40 and the National Road turn toward the northwest and traverse the ridges and valleys of the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. There are a few small towns here, but this is mostly rural country. Just a couple miles past the village of Farmington we came to Fort Necessity where the first major confrontation of the French and Indian War was fought in July 1754. This expanse of the Appalachian Plateau, which prior to the mid 18th century was the bastion of trappers and mountain men - mostly French - and Native American woodland tribes, was just one region of North America where the colonial British and French spheres of influence overlapped. Great Britain and Colonial Virginia found these new lands alluring and potentially rich, and they believed this territory rightfully belonged to them. France, on the other hand, saw it as a key link between its holdings in what is now eastern Canada, and its Louisiana territory which extended from the Gulf Coast to the western Great Lakes. The British and the French also sought advantage over trade with the indigenous Native American tribes, predominantly the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, inhabiting this region.

Colonial Virginia interests established the Ohio Company in 1749 to facilitate the settlement of these western lands by surveying and constructing a road from Virginia, across the Appalachian Mountains, to the Forks of the Ohio where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River joined to form the Ohio River. At the same time the French were attempting to consolidate their control over this strategic area by building forts and outpost along the rivers. The Iroquois, on the other hand, traded with both while trying to stem the tide of British and French encroachment. Thomas Cresap, a Marylander who lived near the confluence of the South Branch with the main stem of the Potomac River, was well acquainted with the lands west of the Appalachians, and he and a young Virginian by the name of George Washington, conducted the survey up to Wills Creek, the site of the present-day city of Cumberland, Maryland, while Christopher Gist surveyed the old Amerindian trail known as the Nemocolin Path west of Wills Creek to Red Stone Creek, where it flows into the Monongahela River, in southwestern Pennsylvania.

By 1753 the French had fortified the Forks of the Ohio, mostly with militia from New France (Canada) and the Louisiana territory along with a few French regulars, while pressuring British settlers to leave. That autumn Colonial Virginia sent a delegation lead by George Washington and guided by Gist into the French-held region beyond the Allegheny Mountains to strengthen the British claim by constructing a fort near the Forks of the Ohio while asking the French to leave. They also met with the Seneca chief Tanaghrisson to gain the support of the Iroquois Confederacy for the British claim. The French rebuffed this appeal in December 1753 and instead constructed Fort Duquesne at the Forks (at the site of the present day city of Pittsburgh). Washington returned to Williamsburg to make his report.

The French continued to consolidate their control of the lands west of the Allegheny Mountains with a series of fortifications and outposts. The following spring the colonial governor of Virginia appointed George Washington, then only 22 years of age, to command a small contingent of the colonial militia, and they set off from Alexandria in April 1754 with 132 men to cut a road through a hundred miles of wilderness from Wills Creek to the Monongahela River and there construct a fortification to counter the French presence at Fort Duquesne. In late May, Washington and his men pushed beyond the Youghiogeny along the Nemacolin Path and arrived in an area then referred to as Great Meadows, lying in a valley between Chestnut and Laurel ridges, in the vicinity of present-day Farmington, Pennsylvania and 50 miles from Fort Duquesne. It was here Washington met again with Tanagharisson who detested the French and who pledged his and his followers’ continuing loyalty to the British.

At Great Meadows Washington also learned from Native American scouts that a French patrol sent to confront the British intruders was located seven miles to the northwest. On May 28, Washington led forty men along with Tanaghrisson and a band of Native Americans against the French patrol. There remains to this day some debate as to who fired the first shot, but after a short yet intense skirmish, 10 French soldiers lay dead, including their commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, who was killed by Tanagharisson. An additional 21 Frenchmen were taken prisoner and sent back to Wills Creek. Washington and his men returned to Great Meadows having lost only one man in the fray, and they set about constructing a palisaded stockade roughly 50 feet in diameter which they christened Fort Necessity . . . necessary because Washington knew the French retaliation would be swift and deadly.

Reinforcements of Virginia militia and British regulars from South Carolina arrived at Wills Creek, bringing British troop levels up to 400 men, and on June 8, 1754 and they began to move westward toward Great Meadows to support Washington. In the meantime, his militia continued to cut their road toward the Monongahela while using Tanaghrisson in an attempt to cultivate their own Native American allies in the face of the French threat. By late June, Washington learned that a sizeable French force with Native American support and commanded by François Coulon de Villiers, the late Jumonville’s brother, was advancing on the British position at Great Meadows. He assembled his troops at Fort Necessity to prepare for its defense.

The French expeditionary force from Fort Duquesne numbered almost 700 strong and outnumbered Washington by nearly two to one. It arrived in the vicinity of Great Meadows on the morning of July 3 and both sides prepared for battle. Attempts by Washington to draw the French into a confrontation on open ground failed, and unable halt the French frontal assault from the surrounding woods, Washington ordered his men to retreat to the stockade and the defensive trenches surrounding it. De Villiers laid siege to Fort Necessity for the rest of the day and into the night as a heavy rain fell. British casualties mounted as the trenches flooded and conditions inside the stockade became untenable. As darkness fell, a quarter of the British troops laid dead or wounded and de Villiers invited Washington to send a emissary to his camp to discuss a cease fire and surrender; a rather ironic situation considering that a state of war did not yet exist between their two countries. The British were forced to capitulate, abandoning their position and returning from whence they came while promising they would remain east of the Allegheny Mountains for at least a year. French prisoners taken during the skirmish in late May were released. Washington also had to take personal responsibility for the "assassination" of Jumonville although this was not his clear understanding when he signed the terms of surrender (a fact that would haunt him for many years). The British quit Fort Necessity the following day, July 4, 1754, and began their five day march back to Wills Creek. The French burned the stockade before returning to Fort Duquesne. After reporting to Williamsburg, Washington returned to his newly-acquired farm at Mount Vernon. As a result of this early confrontation at Great Meadows, there was no effective British presence west of the Allegheny Mountains.

But our story does not end here. After Washington’s retreat, colonial settlers in the area were defenseless against French and Native American raiding parties and many began to move east. A year after the defeat at Great Meadows, and in the midst of ever growing tension between two great colonial empires in North America and elsewhere, the British would return to the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland and Pennsylvania in force to capture Fort Duquesne and drive the French out once and for all.

NEXT: Along the Edge of Two Empires: A Road Trip Into the Past - Part 2

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Winter Arrives in the Alleghenies

Sally Ann and I took advantage of the long Thanksgiving weekend to escape the rigors and routines of life in the environs of Washington, DC and to travel into the mountains of western Maryland. We had originally planned to spend the holiday weekend on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, on Maryland’s Atlantic shoreline, but the remnants of Hurricane Ida, coupled with a fierce nor-easter off the Mid-Atlantic coast, eroded the beaches and flooded the wildlife refuges we hoped to visit. So it was off to the mountains instead.

Maryland is a fascinating state. Ranked 42nd in area (almost a fifth of it covered by water, thanks to the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States), it stretches nearly 250 miles from the Atlantic coastal plain and the Delmarva Peninsula, in the east, to the Appalachian Plateau, in the west. Our trip would afford us an opportunity to sample this geographical diversity.

The sun was shining as we departed home, and it looked like it was going to be a nice day as we drove northwest toward Frederick and into the Maryland Piedmont. But as we approached the parallel running 1000-foot ridges and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond Frederick, the sky turned partly cloudy and then completely overcast by the time we reached Hagerstown situated at the far northern reaches of the Shenendoah Valley and the easternmost ridge lines of the Appalachian Mountains. Here we traveled beyond autumn’s final gasps of color. The leaves had fallen and the bare branches of winter mixed with the mountain spruce. Beyond Hagerstown we moved in the Valley and Mountain Appalachians where summits reach 2000 feet in elevation. Sprinkles began to spot the windshield as the surrounding mountain tops began to disappear into the mist.

When we reached Hancock, where Maryland narrows to just over a mile between the Mason-Dixon Line delineating the border with Pennsylvania and the Potomac River and the boundary with West Virginia, the rain began to fall harder and there was the telltale tick of ice crystals on the windshield as we passed across the excavated notch through 2300-foot Sideling Hill six miles west of town. The rain remained with us as we continued west through a succession of valleys and across cloud-covered ridge lines, past Cumberland until we arrived at Frostburg, a few miles farther west. Here the rain gave way to snow showers as we arrived in the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian Plateau. We stopped for lunch on the rooftop of Maryland.

We ate at the Princess Restaurant, on Main Street. Beyond its rather nondescript fascade, this long, narrow wood-paneled establishment, a luncheon counter with fixed stools down one side and several wooden booths outfitted with individual small jukeboxes along the other, has been a fixture in downtown Frostburg since 1939. The place still looks very much like it did on June 21, 1953, when former President Harry Truman and his wife Bess, on their own road trip from their home in western Missouri to Washington, their first since he left office in January 1952, stopped here for lunch. The booth they sat in is marked with a photograph and a small metal plague on the wall above it. We sat at the counter across from the presidential booth and enjoyed a hearty and reasonably priced meal while I flipped through a copy of Matthew Algeo’s recently published Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure (Chicago Review Press, 2009) which I had just purchased in a bookstore across the street. It details the Truman’s trip from Independence, Missouri to Washington and return, including an interesting chapter on their mealtime sojourn in Frostburg.

Afterwards, we explored the Hotel Gunter on Main Street. Originally built in 1886 and opened the following year as the Hotel Gladstone, it was a grand hostelry in its time with 100 rooms and a host of services available to its guests, including its own jail in the basement where prisoners being transported were held while their guards stayed upstairs. There was also a cockfighting arena which later gave way to a speakeasy during Prohibition. The hotel went through hard times and was sold to William Gunter in 1903, and named in his honor in 1925, but it never again experienced the grandeur of its past as it fell into disrepair. Purchased by its present owners in 1986, it underwent massive renovations and it now has 17 hotel rooms and 19 apartments. As we wandered through the various rooms, all of which were decorated to the nines for the holidays, one could begin to sense what it must have looked like in its heyday. There are not many places like this left in small town America.

The snow showers continued as we departed Frostburg and the ground turned white as we climbed the eastern elevations of 2600-foot Big Savage Mountain marking the Eastern Continental Divide. Passing across more valleys and ridges we soon arrived at the Casselman River (formerly known as both the Little Youghiogheny and Castleman’s River). Here, on June 19, 1755, British General Edward Braddock, along with Colonel George Washington of the colonial Virginia militia, forded the river at what was then called "Little Crossings" with elements of the largest British army ever assembled in North America for what turned out to be an ill-fated expedition from Fort Cumberland, on the upper Potomac, to force the French and their Native American allies out of Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to form the Ohio River) some 60 miles to the northwest.

The snow was falling in earnest as we walked across the 80-foot stone bridge erected at the ford in 1813. It was the longest single span stone arch bridge in the world when it was part of the National Road, the first federally financed road constructed in the United States in the early years of the 19th century. This road was authorized by Congress in 1806 and construction began in 1811. The first section ran from Cumberland to Wheeling, West Virginia, and the National Road was eventually extended to Vandalia, the old state capital in central Illinois. The bridge remained in use until 1933 when Route 40, as the National Road was then called, was improved and rerouted over a new bridge just a river stone’s throw away. The old bridge now links a small riverside park with an artisan village made up of log buildings from the colonial period. It was easy to go back in time as we wandered those snow-hushed paths through the village and across the bridge.

The nearby Casselman Inn, just up the hill in Grantsville, was our home away from home for the next two nights. The historic Federal-style section of the inn was constructed in 1824 and has been providing lodging and meals to travelers along the National Road/Route 40 since then. We found shelter from the gusting winds that produced occasional white-outs as the snow continued to fall and accumulate.

The snow had ended when we awoke the following morning; almost five inches had accumulated overnight. The winds continued to gust and here on this high, exposed ridge line there was little to stand in its way. We joined others for a pleasant country breakfast on the ground floor of the inn, and afterward we set off to explore the snow-covered countryside as we made our way into the southern sections of Maryland’s Garrett county. This area has long been beyond the pale as far as the rest of Maryland goes. Other than the National Road though its northern region, what remained of far western Maryland did not develop until the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed through these mountains in the mid-19th century bringing immigrant families to cut timber and to work the local coal mines. The coal and timber industries have now largely been replaced by small family farms, antique stores and tourism.

We eventually passed though Oakland, the county seat and the "metropolis" of western Maryland. It holds the distinction of being home to the coldest temperature ever recorded in Maryland . . . -40F . . . in 1912. From there we traveled down into the far southwestern corner of Maryland’s panhandle and the western slope of Backbone Mountain, the state’s highest point at 3,360 feet above sea level. The mountain’s southern slope is situated mostly in neighboring West Virginia (Hoye Crest, Maryland’s high point is located on a few hundred feet inside the state boundary) where we passed through the small community of Silver Lake, home to the purportedly smallest church and post office in the Lower 48 states. We continued back up the mountain where we came across the Mountaineer Wind Farm. Here 44 giant wind turbines reach well over 300 feet into the wind currents sweeping over this prominent ridge of the Potomac Highlands. These turbines generate enough electricity to light up over 100,000 homes. Developers are saying that as many as 1,000 similar wind turbines might one day dot Maryland's mountain ridges. There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground here and the trees were coated in a white, icy glaze and stood in stark contrast to the vivid blue sky.

As we crested the final ridge we pass by the site of the original Fairfax Stone at an elevation of 3,140 feet. This surveyor’s marker was placed here in 1746 to determine the boundary of colonial Maryland and Virginia when these lands were largely unsurveyed. Here begins the headwaters of the Northern Branch of the Potomac River which forms the boundary between Maryland and West Virginia, and later Virginia, before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout (the South Branch rises at the southern end of the Highlands near the present-day boundary between Virginia and West Virginia). A line running north from the stone to the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania marks the western boundary of Maryland. Also nearby are the headwaters of the Youghiogheny River, which flows north and west until it joins the Monongahela River south of where that river joining the Allegheny River, in Pittsburgh, to give birth to the Ohio River which then flows to the Mississippi.

We drove along the banks of the North Branch of the Potomac on the northern fringe of West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands which constitutes most of that state’s "panhandle. We passed through small, unincorporated former mining and timber towns like Kempton, Henry, Bobbin, Bayard and Gormania; bitter reminders of the mostly defunct coal industry which at one time was the bread and butter of the families that continue to people this hardscrabble landscape where unemployment approaches 25%. About the only industry left along this section of the river is the large paper mill located several miles farther down river at the "Tri-Towns" of Luke and Westernport, Maryland, and Piedmont, West Virginia. Quite a contrast to the ski resorts and other tourist destinations located nearby. At Gormania we crossed back into Maryland on U.S. Route 50 and traveled back over the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of just over 3000 feet along the northern ridges of Backbone Mountain. Soon we had returned to Oakland on our way to Deep Creek Lake a few miles to the north.

Deep Creek Lake, while beautifully situated among the hills and valleys of western Garrett County, is a tourist destination gone amuck. Most of the shoreline is stacked with large and rather ostentatious (read "ugly") "cottages." Route 219 has become a hodgepodge of strip malls, pizza parlors, ski shops (the Wisp ski resort is located above the lake), shoreline condominiums, land and realty offices, along with restaurants and sports bars servicing the seasonal migrants to the area. We were happy to return to the more sedate environs around Grantsville. Much of the snow that had fallen previous day and overnight had melted.

The next day we knew we would have to fight the holiday traffic as we returned home to the Washington area. At least we would not have to worry about the weather. Winter had arrived in the Allegheny Mountains and just as quickly the snow had disappeared. Before heading home, however, we took advantage of a beautiful day to explore deeper into the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, following the route of General Braddock and George Washington as they sought to send the French packing and to establish British hegemony over the area (more on this next week).

As it turns out, we did not have to drive into the far western mountains of Maryland to experience the onset of winter. A fast moving coastal storm swept through the Mid-Atlantic this weekend bringing up to six inches of snow to some places. Between two and three inches fell in the great DC metro area, and we drove through some particularly heavy squalls on our way to and from Annapolis yesterday evening. Much of it will melt today as the warmer temperatures return, but for a brief magical time it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

NEXT: Along the Edge of Two Empires: A Road Trip Into the Past

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Celebrating the First Anniversary of Looking Toward Portugal

It was a year ago today that I launched the Looking Toward Portugal blogspot series. Since then I have posted 41 weekly "Random Thoughts From the Edge of America." Thanks to everyone who has supported this labor of love. Check out Miles David Moore's very generous and kind tribute at
I hope you will continue to read my future postings.

To celebrate this occasion, I am also launching Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret, a new blogspot series featuring literary commentary on a host of topics that strike my fancy. I trust you will find these of some interest.

Finally, as we approach the end of another year (and the first decade of the 21st century), let me take this opportunity to wish you and yours and very festive holiday season.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Evening Among Gentlemen

After four days of almost constant rain and wind - the results of a gargantuan nor’easter off the Mid-Atlantic coast that developed when the remnants of Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Ida passed through the Washington, DC area, the weekend finally brought a break in the bad weather. Well, at least it stopped raining, but what persisted in the storm’s wake was a boggy and muddy landscape. These otherwise potentially inimical conditions did not deter a hearty group of gentlemen from gathering around a lucullan fire pit to partake of a potpourri of wild game dishes. This was a very select group indeed - "No Women, Children or Green Vegetables" - although our number included a couple of rather young gentlemen. We faced no time limits and had nowhere else to go, and so when it was all over I thought I may have just died and gone to heaven. So allow me some moments of ambrosial reflection. The names and places have been changed, redacted, or otherwise obscured to protect the satiated and bleary eyed.

Upon invitation to join this blue-ribbon event, I began to contemplate how best to comport myself in such refined company and I was immediately reminded of the father of this great nation of ours. During his early teen years, George Washington undertook to compose a list of hard and fast "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." I figured, if these rules, which are based on similar caveats coined by French Jesuits, were good enough to guide young Washington to the acme of our national consciousness, then they should stead me well during this evening among gentlemen. As it turned out, Rule #56 would be key to my overall success in this endeavor. Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company. Although I knew one of these gentlemen before that evening, I was quickly reminded that everyone in attendance was of the highest caliber. These were gentlemen with discriminating palates and a yen to savor the finest food and spirits.

Rule #93: Entertaining anyone at the table it is decent to present him with meat; undertake not to help others undesired by the master. This was the chief purpose of our carnal communion; to present and partake of various meats and their natural accouterment. The evening began with a very buttery textured paté d' foie gras. I know this is not the most politically correct culinary offering these days, but when you consider the rest of the evening’s menu, you can easily understand why it made its way to this company of gentlemen. While various dishes were cooking over open flame and glowing embers of the fire pit – roasted wild Muscovy duck and pheasants skewered on Argentinian meat forks, "French Rack" of wild boar, elk steaks, a troika of freshly slaughtered venison dishes (the "Fish" removed from the back-strap and cooked in a cherry reduction sauce, venison sausages, and, finally, sliced tenderloin wrapped with side meat and lanced with fresh rosemary) - we enjoyed other offerings simmering on the pit’s perimeter – bona fide Cowboy Chili, "Must-Have French Fries," risotto with porcini mushrooms, and artisanal garlic bread. It was hard not to hover, but I was reminded of Rule #91: Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals; feed not with greediness; cut your bread with a knife; lean not on the table; neither find fault with what you eat. No problem with the latter; who could find fault with anything being served up for our enjoyment? But the rest of his rule offered some gray area as it proved difficult not to devour the dishes as quickly as they were offered. Rule #92 was equally problematic: Take no salt, nor cut your bread with your knife greasy. What is wrong with salt in reasonable measure? And seldom did I bother with a knife, greasy or otherwise, to cut my bread. Rule #97: Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big. OK, I guess this one makes sense. "One cannot savor what one eats too fast." George did not come up with that rule; that is one of my own, but I think it fits right in with the others. After all, there was plenty of food to go around . . . and then some! Rule #104: It belongs to the chiefest in company to unfold his napkin and fall to meat first, but he ought then to begin in time & to dispatch with dexterity that the slowest may have time allowed him. I think we respected that rule pretty well.

Along with the wonderful food, we enjoyed spiced, mulled wines heated with blazing pokers along with an offer of "Everything in the World to Drink." Well, we did not have quite everything, but surely more than enough to keep folks as well greased as they chose to be. There was plenty of beer and wine and a fine bourbon to take the nip out of the evening air. Rule # 99: Drink not too leisurely nor yet too hastily; before and after drinking wipe your lips; breath not then or ever with too great a noise, for it is uncivil. Looks good on paper, but it doesn’t always work that way. "If you gotta ‘breathe,’ you gotta breath." That’s another one of my own rules. How can one sit around a fire after good food and drink and not "breathe" occasionally?

As the evening progressed and we moved from one dish to the next, it suddenly became quite clear to me that these rules of civility and decent behavior did not fully apply to the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Rule #95: Put not your meat in your mouth with your knife in your hand; neither spit forth the stones of any fruit pie upon a dish nor cast anything under the table. Oh, come on! We were not even sitting at a table. One need not be so positioned in order to comport one’s self as a gentleman. Rule #96: It is unbecoming to stoop too much to one’s meat. Keep your fingers clean & when foul, wipe them on a corner of your table napkin. Nope, no napkins either. And why, within a community of gentleman, should one not eat his meat with a knife in hand? And is a napkin really necessary when one has a perfectly fine shirt and/or jacket sleeve or pant leg to remove any fouling of fingers? I don’t need no stinkin’ napkin! So, as we sat around the fire conversing and otherwise sharing in the delights of a cool autumn evening, I decided that other rules were clearly not applicable. Rule #9: Spit not in the fire, nor stoop low before it. Neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it. Rule #90: Being set at meat, scratch not; neither spit, cough, or blow your nose, except if there is a necessity for it. I think George was getting just a little too high on his horse. I recall what Josiah Bartlet, my favorite, albeit fictional, president once commented upon reading young Washington’s rules. "What a tight-assed little priss he must have been."

Perhaps this is not fair. Perhaps I should cut George a little slack and take his Rule #105 to heart: Be not angry at table [even though we didn’t have one] whatever happens, and if you have reason to be so, show it not; put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humour makes one dish of meat a feast. We laughed through the evening so perhaps George had most of it right. We certainly had more than one meat dish to savor, and the humor and good conversation among this company of respectable gentlemen made our communal feast all the more enjoyable. We finished off the evening with good Cuban cigars. Luckily, Washington had no particular rules for the civil and decent enjoyment of a good smoke. "Smoke em, if you got em" has always been my own rule of thumb.

The bewitching hour approached as the glowing embers of our once blazing pyre were graying to ash at the perimeter stones. My boots were caked with caramel-colored mud and my clothes were permeated with the sweet perfume of wood smoke and the heady aroma of a good cigar. It was finally time to think of home. I bid this company of gentlemen a fond farewell for I had miles to go before I slept.

NEXT: Wishing everyone a festive and happy Thanksgiving holiday!!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Have All the Corn Dogs Gone?

Back in May and June I used this forum to expatiate on my love of various cheeses, including curds which are a key ingredient for "une maudite poutine," yet there is still another favorite delicacy deserving of special tribute. It goes by different names depending where you encounter it, but growing up in the upper Midwest I have always known it simply as the corn dog (or corndog). My wife, a native Floridian, also recognizes it by this rather definitive sobriquet. A corn dog is, after all, nothing more than a hot dog (wiener, weenie, frankfurter, or frank) impaled on a sharp stick and then plunged into cornbread batter and deep fried to a golden brown. There are some that are satisfied with factory-prepared, frozen, and ready to eat corn dogs after you warm them up. I guess, if that’s all you have, then this will do. But nothing tastes better than a freshly-cooked hot dog dipped into freshly-made cornbread batter, and then fried in freshly-heated oil. That’s a corn dog in my book!

Hot dogs in their many local variations have been served throughout the United States since the late 19th century, and now they have adapted to the tastes of other countries as well. Corn dogs, however, did not emerge until the late 1930s and early 1940s - the Texas State Fair claims to be the first place to serve corn dogs - and from what I can tell, they seem to be found almost exclusively in this country (although I have eaten a Canadian variant known as a "Pogo Stick" and have heard of sausage dipped in batter containing large chunks of fried potato served as Korean fast food). Processed corn dogs are found in grocery stores just about anywhere in the USA, and I have been known to eat them, but their consumption has not produced in lasting memories. I will order a freshly prepared one whenever I can, but they seem few and far between. I am not sure why this is, but take my word, they are not easy to find.

My earliest encounters with corn dogs were limited to the store-bought kind. I don’t really recall eating a made-from-scratch corn dog until my days as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Just outside of the campus’ Main Gate, at the corner of East University Boulevard and North Park Avenue, was a tiny hole-in-the-wall corn dog shop. You would place your order at a small service window and then the individual working inside the cramped quarters would cook the corn dog to order. They also served cheese on a stick dipped into the same batter, and a tall cup of soda with ice made for a perfect three-course lunch. Once Sally Ann, who worked at the campus library across the street, and I discovered this place, we frequently gravitated to its beck and call at lunchtime. Add to this the fact that the food was cheap - less than a buck for a quality corn dog - and we were poor made the draw even more attractive.

These corn dogs were such a hit that we began to prepare them at home in our tiny apartment. We did away with the necessity (and expense) of serving sticks and instead cut the hotdogs into small, bite size servinsg which we then dipped into the batter using long fondue forks before submerging them into the fondue pot for cooking. That pot, which we still have and use occasionally, turned out to be a favorite wedding present as we quickly discovered that we could have corn dogs - or in this case, corn puppies - any time we wanted. What fond memories. Life was good!

Perhaps I was a bit hasty when I stated that I have no lasting memories of the ready-to-eat corn dogs I have eaten over the years. These were found rotating on those ubiquitous roller grills found in gas stations, quick-stop markets, movie theaters and sports arenas across this great country of ours. Usually what you find there are your standard hot dogs, bratwursts, Polish sausages, kielbasas . . . but every once in awhile you are lucky enough to stumble across a golden brown corn dog. The only problem with these, however, is that the breaded coating is sizzling hot, yet the dog inside is still stone cold, a fact you don’t discover until you have taken your first bite. But that’s another matter. The consumption of these parvenu corn dogs can evoke strong memories, but these are usually associated more with the circumstances in which said corn dog is consumed and not the corn dog in and of itself. Perhaps it was eaten while on a memorable road trip, or while watching a favorite movie, or during a game in which the home team took it to the visitors. In Gainesville, Florida we discovered a place that prepared a half-way decent processed corn dog at a food court and we would order a couple before going to see a movie. Again, memories in which a corn dog played a key role.

A couple years ago Sally Ann and I were on an extended road trip exploring the Great Plains. We had spent a night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and the next morning we drove westward past miles of dormant cornfields to Mitchell, SD, the home of the Corn Palace, formerly known as the Corn Belt Exposition when the original building was constructed in 1892. This place - the current Corn Palace was erect in 1921 and expanded in 1937 covering almost an entire city block - must be seen to be believed. Each autumn over a quarter million ears of corn in various colors are used to create a thematic mural on the entire exterior facade of the building. Much of the interior decoration also consists of ears of corn. Even though it was only mid-morning and nothing was going on when we arrived and toured the place, we were pleasantly surprised to find the "Corncessions" stand open. There, on the top of the menu, were corn dogs served using homemade cornbread batter! Breakfast was only a couple hours behind us, and lunch time seemed far off, yet we ordered a couple corn dogs - real honest-to-goodness corn dogs from the heart of America’s Corn Belt - which we savored there is the bowels of the Corn Palace. Big, fat corn dogs at $1.50 each! Hmmmmmm. I can still taste them.

As much as the corn dog is primarily an American innovation, I am somewhat perplexed and saddened that I am unable to find a good corn dog in our Nation’s Capital . . . my home for the past 30+ years. Sure, there are the dirty water hot dogs and half smokes sold by downtown street corner vendors. And there is Ben’s Chili Bowl, that venerable institution up on U Street, which offers fantastic half-smokes served with a generous helping of chili and cheese. But no corn dogs! I did score a couple of factory-produced corn dogs at the Washington Nationals’ new stadium when Boston was in town earlier this summer. They were soggy and lukewarm and like everything else there highly over-priced. I did get to see my Red Sox play, but it would have been nice to have better tasting corn dog to go with the game! So the search continues for a good local corn dog; I will let you know if I ever find it.

NEXT WEEK: An Evening Among Gentlemen

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ever Faithful and True: A Dog Named Sideways

A couple of weeks ago I paid tribute here to my dad who had recently passed away. In my brief recollection of his life, I noted that he began his college career at the University of Michigan, in 1942, only to be drafted into the army the following year. He served in Patton’s 3rd Army as it fought its way across Europe, from Cherbourg, France, to the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, to near Pilzen, Czechoslovakia by the time VE Day finally rolled around. After seeing a lifetime’s worth of death and destruction, he was only 22 years old when he was able to resume his studies, this time at the Michigan Institute of Technology, during the fall term of 1946. He and my mom moved to Houghton, at the northern tip of the Keweenaw - that small finger of land pointed into the heart of Lake Superior - on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they lived in a small house trailer along the banks of Portage River. Perhaps this would have been an ideal out-of-the-way place to live after surviving combat during World War II. But the Keweenaw is perhaps the snowiest place in the continental United States, where temperatures well below zero are common throughout the winter with annual snowfall upwards of 300 inches and lake-effect storms off Superior can last for days. So, after a winter scraping frost off the walls of their snow-bound trailer, my mom decided four years of this was above and beyond the call of duty, even for native Michiganders. Dad agreed to seek out warmer climes and applied to Georgia Tech and the University of Alabama. Tech won out and my folks moved to Atlanta in the late summer of 1947 and remained there while Dad earned his bachelor and master degrees in industrial engineering. After graduating, Dad took a job in Chicago and my folks moved there in the autumn of 1950. I was born the following spring.

Fast forward to October 1960. I recall it being a cool, crisp autumn weekend in Atlanta. My family had traveled down from our home in Asheville, North Carolina to attend Dad’s 10th college reunion at Georgia Tech. We spent most of that weekend on the Tech campus, and I recollect my folks talking with lots of people they seemed to know. None of this interested me. But then there was the big homecoming parade which included what appeared to me a myriad collection of "Ramblin’ Wrecks" - old cars and trucks redesigned and reconfigured by the engineering students. I was intrigued. Of course, the intended highlight of that weekend was the big homecoming game at which the Tech Yellow Jackets (5-5 that season) routed the Green Wave of Tulane (3-6-1) with a score of 14-6 (nothing like the 1916 game again Cumberland College which Tech won 222-0, scoring nine touchdowns in each of the first two quarters alone. At least Tech beat Tulane; that was important.

The game, and the parade that preceded it, certainly made an impression on me as a nine year old kid, but the thing I remember most about that weekend in Atlanta is the story of Sideways, the small dog that for a short time in the late 1940s was the beloved mascot of Tech’s students. As we were walking across the campus to Grant Stadium before the game, my dad took me by the hand and led me to a small grassy patch near the Tech Tower, probably the most prominent campus landmark, where he showed me Sideways’ well-tended grave marked by a small memorial bearing a black and white photograph.

Ever Faithful and True
Companion of Student Body of Ga.Tech.

Even though Sideways had been dead for three years when Dad arrived on campus, he soon learned the story of this beloved terrier and he told it to me as if he and Sideways had been bosom buddies. I never had a dog when I was growing up and so I did not understand how important such a relationship can be for some people. Even on that crisp autumn day in 1960, ten years after Dad had left his college days behind him, the memory of Sideways was still very much alive for him, and now for me. Tech students still knew who he was and what he meant to those who came before them. The memory of Sideways was long even though his time on campus was short.

As the story goes, the little black and white dog with a distinctive black patch around one eye, had originally lived at a boardinghouse on North Avenue and for reasons unknown was thrown from a car in front of the nearby Varsity, the well-known student hang-out, on March 1, 1945. She was rescued by a group of students who took her back to the campus and nursed her back to health. Unfortunately, the injuries were serious enough that she would walk through the rest of her life at her own unique sideways gait. If she did not have a name before she came to Georgia Tech, she had one now, a name still spoken with reverence. Whether Sideways was always faithful and true may be debated. Dad told me how she would spend the night in different dormitory rooms, depending on who offered her the best food secreted out of the campus dining hall. Other times she would be "invited" to dine at one of the fraternity houses. During the day she would follow students to their classes; an interesting lecture would hold her attention while a boring class would quickly put her to sleep. No wonder the students grew to love her as she proved to be a reliable barometer for what classes to avoid, if at all possible. Sideways frequently led the Tech football team onto the field at Grant Stadium and was so beloved that she was once briefly kidnapped by some students from the arch rival University of Georgia ("To Hell With Georgia"). Despite the love and care shown to her on campus, Sideways managed to somehow ingest some rat poison and died on August 14, 1947. She was buried with honors in the shadow of Tech Tower.

A few years ago I happened to be in Atlanta on business. At the end of the day, and having no where else to go, I caught a cab to the Georgia Tech campus and headed directly over to Tech Tower. My memory of that autumn day in 1960 was still strong, but I had to walk around a bit before I found Sideway’s grave; it was pretty much where I remembered it from my visit four decades earlier. A professor walked up to me and asked me if I needed help finding where I was going, but I had found what I was looking for. He told me that more recently the grave marker had been realigned several degrees from when I first saw it in 1960 . . . to symbolize that little dog’s sideways cant through life. Today, over 60 years after her death, Sideways is still fondly remembered.

So how could such a little dog evoke such a strong memory for so many? And why did this story have such an impact on me? Perhaps because Sideways was like so many of us; maybe we are all going through life a few degrees off the courses we have set for ourselves. Dad’s life, while long and eventful, and ultimately successful, did not go the way he planned. There were victories and failures, peaks and valleys. Heaven only knows my own life has gone in directions I never intended or planned for. We can only hope that our time on this planet, however long or short it might be, will serve some bigger purpose. And we can hope that others, reflecting on that time, will in the final determination, recognize that we were faithful and true to the best of our intentions. Quite a lesson from a little dog that walked sideways into the hearts of so many.

NEXT WEEK: Where Have All the Corn Dogs Gone?