Reflections

Crossing the Rappahannock: A Pilgrimage to Freedom

Posted on: October 15th, 2012 by Rob Nieweg

 


Crossing the Rappahannock, September 2012.

It is a privilege to witness grassroots preservation in action, discovering nearly forgotten historic places and raising public awareness of almost-lost chapters of our shared heritage. On Saturday, September 22, 2012, I joined some 300 people along the banks of the Rappahannock River near Remington, Virginia, to commemorate the extraordinary courage of the enslaved women, children, and men who freed themselves from bondage during the Civil War.

The public event was hosted by the new African American Heritage Alliance and co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Between 1861 and 1865, more than 500,000 enslaved people liberated themselves and, thereby, influenced the wartime public debate about slavery and hastened the formal Emancipation Proclamation.

They did not wait to be freed; instead, these self-emancipators risked their lives to liberate themselves. Unfortunately, little has been written about the Civil War-era freedom seekers, and most Americans are unaware of this part of our heritage. And, too little has been done to preserve and interpret historic places associated with emancipation. That is beginning to change, and the National Trust is doing its part.

Preservation magazine’s May-June 2011 issue covered Fort Monroe and other historic places that are beginning to be recognized for their associations with the end of slavery. In May 2011 the National Trust convened 75 experts at President Lincoln’s Cottage to discuss ways in which emancipation sites can be interpreted to tell the unvarnished truths of this chapter of American history.


Crossing the Rappahannock, August 1862.

Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run on Virginia’s Rappahannock River is one of those historic places along the road to freedom whose meaning for American heritage merits our attention. One hundred and fifty years ago, on August 19, 1862, a group of five fugitive slaves was photographed crossing the river and entering Union Army lines in Culpeper County, where they would have found freedom and relative safety.

The 1862 photograph is a rare and evocative record of enslaved people escaping to freedom -- one of many millions of acts of resistance against the injustices of slavery. As historian John Hennessey has written:

“The men, women, and children who crossed the river -- people whose names were not recorded, whose lives have rarely been honored -- helped force a wayward nation onto a path that permitted greatness. It was the slaves themselves who by simple acts helped unleash a heroic struggle for liberty and equality that has overspread the world, enriched the life of every single American, and continues still.”

The 1862 image is well-known to Civil War scholars. Until very recently, however, no one realized that the historic photograph had been taken at Cow’s Ford or, importantly, that the riverside landscape of the historic ford itself survives today unchanged since the war.

The public commemoration on September 22 -- the first ever on this hallowed ground -- was organized by Howard Lambert and Zann Nelson, co-founders of the African American Heritage Alliance, and was convened on the original historic site with the gracious permission of the private property owner. After remarks by historians Clark Hall, John Hennessy, and Dianne Swann-Wright, and with the strains of traditional gospel hymns echoing across the Rappahannock, a group of people entered the river to retrace the footsteps of the fugitive slaves.

It was an honor for me to participate in the river walk. Next year, the African American Heritage Alliance hopes to repeat and expand the Rappahannock River celebration on August 17, 2013 (tentative). In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Arlington National Cemetery where almost 4,000 self-emancipators lie buried. (More than four million people visit Arlington Cemetery each year. How many know about the Cemetery’s connection to the Civil War-era freedom movement?)

When you visit Section 27, one of the oldest parts of Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll note that there is a regrettable lack of public interpretation offered by the cemetery, generally, and virtually nothing said to explain why thousands of civilian women, men, and children -- freedmen and contrabands -- rest there. Someday, perhaps, Arlington National Cemetery will recognize the sacrifices and struggles of the Civil War-era freedom seekers buried in Section 27.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg is a Field Director & Attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He leads the National Trust’s Washington Field Office, which works to save historic resources in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He has worked as a preservation advocate since 1989.

 


Alcatraz's main cellblock at night.

I admit, I hesitated before boarding the ferry to spend the night in a prison cell on “the Rock.” Over the summer, the volunteers restoring the Gardens of Alcatraz (partially funded, incidentally, by a National Trust grant) were offered the chance to sleep over on the island as a “thank you” for their hard work. Being the “history guy” and all, I was invited as the guest of a gardener friend.

It didn’t exactly sound like a relaxing Saturday night. But when another friend looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You can’t not do this,” I decided to hop on the boat.

Alcatraz is a four-acre sandstone island, jutting 130 feet out of San Francisco Bay. First fortified by the military to defend California’s gold rush riches, it became the nation’s most feared and secretive federal penitentiary from 1934 until it closed in 1963. With no media permitted, it was a place of great fascination to the American public. And with approximately 1.5 million visitors each year to the island, now managed by the National Park Service, it still is.


National Park Service staff lead a night tour.

At Alcatraz, the human imagination is forced into gear as soon as one steps off the boat. Its architecture and design was devoted to maximize the government’s control over some of the most dangerous felons. The visitor must ask: how would I fare if confined to the narrow walls, iron bars, extensive fencing, and 24/7 surveillance with hundreds of other inmates who have done things far outside of acceptable moral standards?

And, as you might imagine, Alcatraz after dark provides even more fodder for the mind. On the night tour offered to the public that evening, we heard stories of attempted escapes, notorious prison personalities, and the monotony of daily life behind bars. You know, kind of like the ghost stories at summer camp -- except real.

After the public left on the last ferry, we overnight guests were free to choose our accommodations. I inspected, but opted against, the solitary confinement cells in the D block. Instead, I chose to sleep in the cell of Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”


Then and now (r. to l.): a historic photo of Stroud in his cell, and the cell as it looks today (with the addition of Brian's sleeping bag).

Stroud kept birds while in the pen in Leavenworth, but he was prohibited from keeping them after he was transferred to the Rock. Because of his “unpredictable and violent outbursts,” Stroud spent six years in solitary, and the remaining eleven of his life isolated in the hospital wing cell where I stayed. Despite his antisocial behavior, he published two landmark books on bird illness while in jail.

I rolled out my sleeping bag on the cold, concrete floor and stared at an old picture of Stroud during his incarceration in the same room. That's when history started coming alive. Unsuspecting heritage travelers, take note: August on the San Francisco Bay is brutally cold. That night, while the rest of the country sweltered under heat, Alcatraz had whipping winds driving a dense fog. Old, creaky pipes rattled incessantly. The wind tunneled through the corridors that seemed to be almost deliberately designed to accentuate its howls.

When the lights shut off, Alcatraz’s isolation was fully apparent. I glimpsed the deep loneliness the prisoners must have felt. There was no way out. The waters are not only frigid and constantly turbulent, but guards also convinced prisoners that sharks circled the island. (They don’t, but it helped thwart any notion that escape was possible.)


Camping out in Alcatraz's operating room.

At 5:30 a.m., proud to have made it through the night, I woke up my friend who chose to sleep in the prison’s operating room. Yes, the operating room -- in which the main object is a lone surgical table. We put on warm layers and went to take photographs and watch the dawn break. At the top of the island’s lighthouse we gazed upon the sensitively-installed 1,300 solar panels recently installed on the cell house roof.


A view of the solar panels (minus the sun) atop the main cellblock.

After returning home the next day I read about the lesser-known inmates of Alcatraz, the stories that challenge its infamous reputation. There were those who are redeemable in history’s eyes: a conscientious objector to the First World War, and a group of Hopi Indians who refused to send their children to government boarding schools. Other inmates defied the violent stereotypes; they tended gardens and even babysat the children of guards.

So, even though I left knowing that the conventional image of Alcatraz is sensationalized, I was still quite glad to have an escape.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Brian Turner is an attorney in the National Trust's San Francisco Field Office. He is an enthusiastic advocate for the protection of the nation's cultural and natural heritage.

Thoughts from the Summit at Green Mountain Lookout

Posted on: August 10th, 2012 by Brian Turner 5 Comments

 

Upon first gaping at the precarious perch of the historic fire lookout on the summit of Green Mountain, my backpacking companion captured the sentiment exactly:

“Yep, those old timers were crazy.”


The precarious perch of the lookout above a steep ledge.

The Green Mountain lookout stands on the crest of a volcanic ridgeline more than seven grueling miles and 5,000 feet higher than its nearest trailhead in the Cascades of Washington State. It was built in 1933 by a hardy work crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps who first carted its heavy wood windows, planks, and support beams on the steep climb up the mountain. Today, it remains a marvel of human ingenuity and backcountry engineering.

Since a federal court ordered the lookout removed from the mountaintop last April (background on the situation here), its future has been in limbo. Legislation was recently introduced to save it from demolition, but its passage is far from certain. So I decided to set out to see the site in its original setting, to see if the debate -- whether all traces of human influence should be removed from designated wilderness areas -- held up.

I began in Darrington, an old logging town two hours northeast of Seattle. Scott Morris, a volunteer with the local Darrington Historical Society, graciously offered to accompany me. It was not an easy hike. Road closures have made what was once a popular day trip to the lookout now require at least one night of camping on the journey.

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We began on an old, unmaintained path at the confluence of the Suiattle River and Downey Creek and scrambled for three hours with our backpacks over downed logs, frequently losing and re-finding the trail. By early afternoon we reached the maintained trail that leads to the summit of the mountain with another 4+ miles of uphill ahead.

As we climbed higher, the rewards were tremendous. Near the wilderness boundary we spotted a black bear foraging on young huckleberries. A golden eagle sailed the ridge, hunting for unsuspecting marmots sun-bathing on the rocks. Fields of brilliant wildflowers greeted us in the high country, freshly emerged from the melting snow drifts.

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At the summit of Green Mountain, we were in a cloud, the surrounding world barely visible. We found the lookout in its winter dormancy; the heavy wooden shutters that protected its paned glass windows were strapped down with an oversized belt. We opened them to the elements -- a seasonal ritual -- propping up the shutters with iron bars and inspecting damage to the catwalk caused by heavy snow loads. After setting up camp inside, we ate a warm meal and tried to forget about how terrifyingly close to the ledge we actually were.


Tufts of wildflowers and Glacier Peak visible from the lookout entrance.

By dawn the clouds had sunk below us and the tops of the high peaks of the Cascades appeared as islands in the sky. By the time we closed the lookout, the clouds had dispersed entirely, revealing expansive forests in every direction. During the entire trip we saw not another soul. I found it no wonder that some of America’s most influential environmental thinkers were inspired by their solitary summers in the lookouts of the Northwest: Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, to name a few.

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In some cases, a competing public policy may offer a compelling reason against keeping a historic place in wilderness -- when a historic dam threatens a rare species, for example. But the only thing at risk with the Green Mountain Lookout is an ideology, the mistaken notion the land must be clear cut of any tangible remain of human influence, regardless of how small of an impact it has on natural values.

In contrast, the relatively small amount of historic sites in our America’s wilderness are irreplaceable assets with potential to foster even greater environmental awareness -- to appreciate how land was used (and misused) over time. While some may see these places as an expression of ego, others are likely to be humbled by how small mankind really is in comparison to the vastness of the wilderness beyond.

In a mere flash of geologic time, natural forces will erode the Green Mountain Lookout from its perch, as they have already for many of its kind. Until then, it is a great privilege (for those who can bear the hike) to see those forces in action. In my view, keeping the lookout intact and accessible not only honors the hardy individuals who labored for it, but sustains a popular part of the American identity that takes pride in the careful stewardship of the spectacular land we inherit.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Brian Turner is an attorney in the National Trust's San Francisco Field Office. He is an enthusiastic advocate for the protection of the nation's cultural and natural heritage.

My American Road Trip, Part 8: Last Stop

Posted on: July 5th, 2012 by Lauren Walser 5 Comments

 

Two weeks and about 4,500 miles later, Blaise and I have limped across the finish line to Los Angeles, exhausted and glad to be home. But in between Portland and here, we made one final stop: Blaise’s hometown of Davis, California.


The Davis Amtrak station, built in 1913.

After two weeks of exploring brand-new places together, it felt nice to be back in familiar territory. While we spent a good deal of time recovering from our drive (there’s nothing like a home-cooked meal and a place to wash your clothes), we also spent some time downtown. And as we were walking around, Blaise, inspired by our two weeks of exploring historic sites, pointed out some of the older buildings in his own turf -- buildings I’ve walked by many times before, but never really studied. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

A Holiday in New York's Thousand Islands

Posted on: July 5th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya

 

Ahh, vacation. It’s a lovely word. It is a time where you kick off your shoes and stop thinking about anything related to work. Unless, for example, you love history and you’re vacationing along the St. Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands in upstate New York -- where I was last week.

Being there reminded me of a college seminar that took me along the James River in Virginia to look at plantation houses. The houses were built in such a way that visitors coming by boat would be treated to the homes' best faces as they floated by. At the time (and really, even now) I secretly wanted to live by a river -- not only because it seemed incredibly decadent, but also because the views epitomized inspiration.

I experienced this firsthand with my trip to Thousand Islands, where I stayed in a 1890s cottage in Thousand Islands Park just steps away from the river. Even when the temperatures soared you could cool down by standing outside and letting the breeze off the water wash over you. Perfection may be too strong of a word, but it was definitely close. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.