A young man named Jeff contacted me regarding extending his research on the Thomas Viaduct and its environs at the time of the Civil War. He had spent previous times being escorted around the area by an Elkridge local and had also hiked on his own with his camera in tow. Of course I was more than happy to show him our collection at the Elkridge Heritage Society and in particular, the late 1930’s painting of the Viaduct by artist Stephens Berge, which is like a map of the local landscape little changed since the war.
This is a detail of the painting:
From it, Jeff was able to pinpoint locations and clarify names of Union camps, talk about the hillside cliffs, and about the Viaduct Hotel.
It is always great to learn from another one better well-versed in perspectives of local history. And what was even more exciting to me was being asked to hike with him to see a camp site. Not shown in the painting, this site would be where Camp Essex and Cook’s Boston Light Artillery “Bouquet Battery” was behind Claremont mansion, known as Claremont Overlook over Lawyers Hill. I had read about Rebecca Penniman Dobbin refusing to give the Union soldiers hay unless they paid for it, and Camp Essex was mentioned in her Civil War anecdotes. So what I was going to see would put a face to what I had read.
We drove to the 895 overpass arch over Levering Ave. and parked the car underneath. Across the street, I found that the entrance to the beginning of our climb just led to the tracks. I must say I don’t shy away easily, but it was a bit weird of a climb because there was absolutely nothing to cling to if you had to. Once up on the tracks it was a whole different vista which I had never seen before and I could pinpoint where Lawyers Hill Road at one time crossed the tracks down to Levering Ave. on the same steep flattop I had struggled up. Jeff had no problems managing inclines, ’cause like I mentioned before, he’s a young man.
The view looking up and back along the tracks themselves I hadn’t seen since Hurricane Agnes and not from the location where we stood on a curve. Once we crossed the tracks, we were to go up an old access road to Claremont, along the embankment of woods paralleling the left side of Lawyers Hill Road going up. Jeff said that even since he’d been there last, a lot more of the access road had washed out and was mostly unrecognizable as such. I took his word for it because I’d never been there before except once when I was much younger many moons ago with my dad when we looked at that same road as a place for him to teach me how to paint a landscape, but decided against it. The landscape was very different even then in the late 1950’s. And even, living on Old Lawyers Hill Road, I had never traipsed back there again, until with Jeff. I guess I had no reason to.
On the left side, we faced huge boulders at the base of the hill and what had been the side of the road — boulders that looked like pink quartz and granite – but I don’t know my rocks well. They were BIG and white peach in color maybe from the rusty soil. Where the road was washed away was all split down the middle — a ravine peppered in stones, leaf piles and roots of the trees from on the high ledge of the bluff. Beginning to climb up the ravine, we were at the base of the overlook, where high above in the 1860’s, cannons were placed to protect the Viaduct.
Jeff led the way of course and I gingerly walked on the rocks he stepped on as much as I could. It was hot out and I had no idea of what to expect in the way of extreme heat intolerance from exertion that I have nor what I should have worn. I knew in the woods there would be ticks and so I wore a long sleeve white shirt, white pants and shoes, white hat AND white gloves. You’d have thought I was a lab worker in a chemical plant. All I needed was a helmet face cover, but my big sunglasses made up for that. No tick was going to land on me and have me not see it!
Well, roots stuck out every which way with loose stones underfoot and leaves to shuffle through all the way up the ravine’s incline.
Watching where I was stepping with all caution, to my horror, I suddenly saw that I couldn’t quite lift my shoe high enough over a root and knew my next view would be a selfie landing on hard rocks — in slow motion — and much in the manner of a sack of potatoes.
I am glad Jeff decided not to take a picture. I’ve illustrated my own.
Fortunately, my free fall worked to my advantage. Portions of fat cushioned the impact, and my arms, which braced me from the rocks, only received bruises. Thank goodness I was wearing my gloves because even though they were thin, they protected my hands from gashes. I have to admit that a choice word from my mouth lightened the emotional load. I didn’t know I had that kind of sailor in me, but in times of stress, apparently the Navy comes in handy.
Well, Jeff helped me up and was concerned that we turn back if I was hurt. After apologizing for my outburst (I think), and checking to make sure nothing important was broken, I assured him we could go on.
We went slowly ahead, me more so than him. The sides up to the top were just as steep but were crumbling dirt of lose soil rather than solidity. He found the place he’d said we should ascend and though slippery, it was manageable. We walked to a lower outcropping of the overlook by dropping down to a ledge of smaller elevation via clinging to the trees and their root systems (see photo below). It’s a place you don’t want to trip because the only things directly below the cliff were pointed rocks, more pointed rocks, and the ravine. If one flew past those, you’d be on the tracks.
Meanwhile, Jeff explained how the overlook had changed drastically from the historical illustrations of it, one being from the June 1, 1861 issue of the Harper’s Weekly magazine.
He took a photo of me standing on the lower ledge next to a tree, for the comparison of human scale and depth of the lower ledge from the top one — similar to the old photo:
Though you can’t see it for the trees, behind me is a partial view of the Viaduct. More of it’s in sight as it curves up towards Relay. But the majority of it is blocked by the view of the concreted 895 overpass, looking monstrously and other-worldly out of place amongst the treetops and vista.
Back out on the top level again were trees and scrub bushes — a little forest and weeds from the back end of the ticky-tacky Ryan Homes.
So this is where General Butler came! I can’t imagine how they got horses up here — if they needed them. I don’t see how horses could have ever drawn the weight of cannons up the cliff side. There must have been a more level route from another side. In my minds eye, I can also see where Butler might have spied the next higher ridge over which held a forest of big trees growing on Dobbin’s land, and how straight to the cliff overlooking the Viaduct, Dobbin’s land ended. I can sense why Butler tactically wanted to mow down all those trees for his guns. But I’m glad the Dobbins fought for their trees and won. No matter what the reason, there was a change of mind which spared the trees.
I came out of my reverie. Standing in any one spot and looking around where the Battery encampment was, one can think of dropped utilitarian items such as metal cups, pans, chains, spades to dig latrines, uniform buttons or parts of weaponry. At least I did. But I didn’t see anything remotely interesting like that poking up from the ground on the off chance I could dig it up with my fingers. Jeff, on the other hand, said that he thought most everything to be found was already likely found. I remarked that Ryan Homes probably dug up a lot of stuff or buried it under leveled top soil. He agreed with me. With all the barrenness and scrub, it really looked desolate — like a dirty back lot behind an outdoor movie theater.
But what we were standing on was an encampment area. That was history.
The way down again from the top was only easier because it was all downhill. But I still took it slower. Towards the end, up on the boulders I could see fast food trash and bottles stuck in the crevices. That meant that people hang out. An ugly reminder. I keep a garbage bag in the car for such a purpose, but didn’t expect I could have used it for this nonsense here.
On the tracks, as we walked across them talking about where the train depot and gate once were in relation to Berge’s painting, I spied a coin on a rail. It was a penny flattened by a train. I had to laugh because wherever I hike, I seem to be greeted by finding a coin or two and this time was no exception.
What I didn’t find was a tick.
After our trek, I drove Jeff up to Old Lawyers Hill Road to the end and tried to pinpoint its ending in its relation to its connection with the Viaduct. I see that there is a road leading down I guess to the old Carriage House and I believe that road was the connection to the Viaduct. But of course from Lawyers Hill Road, any entrance to the Carriage House on that steep hill either never was or is well covered. Even the horse watering basin fed by a hillside spring and which was there when I still lived in Elkridge, seems to have disappeared entirely.
It was difficult explaining all this to Jeff while I was driving.
I’m grateful for Jeff’s interest in Viaduct history, his sharing two of these photos, and for the opportunity to hike with him. You can see for yourself online his collection of historical photos and his writing about the Viaduct during the Civil War, at:
http/thomas-viaduct-relay-maryland.blogspot.com/2014/06/civil-war-history-of-thomas-viaduct_4967.html If you have any problems with getting into the site from here – just Google “Jeff Lang.”