Sunday, May 29, 2016

O is for Oldtown

O is for Oldtown (click here for map).
My road trip consisted of 2 ½ hours of interstate driving coupled with a relaxing ½ hour drive through the scenic Green Ridge State Forest. Shortly thereafter, I arrived in a small town located along the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal. Lately, towns located along the canal have piqued my historical interest and Oldtown proved to be no exception.

Oldtown is an unincorporated community and census designated place in Allegany County. The town has a population of 86 and encompasses a land area of 0.1 square miles. According to William Harrison Lowdermilk (1878) – History of Cumberland, MD, Harvard University (press): Oldtown was founded in 18th century colonial times and was initially called "Shawanese Old Town" because it was the site of a Shawnee Amerindian village abandoned about a decade earlier. In later years, the explanatory prefix was dropped from the name and the place became known simply as "Oldtown".

It did not take long for me to find the
Irvin Allen/Michael Cresap Museum when I arrived to the town, which was the first thing I wanted to see.  According to the museum’s site, this stone house was built in 1764 by Captain Michael Cresap, the first white male born in Allegany County and the son of Colonel Thomas Cresap. Michael was a bold continental militia volunteer who proved himself on the western frontier and when called upon after Lexington and Concord led one hundred and forty riflemen from Oldtown to Boston, the first southern troops to report to General Washington. Enroute home from Boston he died of a fever and was buried in the Trinity Church graveyard in New York. The brick portion of the house was built by Reverend John Jacobs in 1781. The house was saved from destruction by Reverend Irvin (Cy) Allen in 1961 when it was about to be demolished. Over the years Reverend Allen restored it and filled it with artifacts.

The museum gives tours by appointment only, but I was unable to obtain one. I visited this town on Memorial Day weekend, so the few volunteers who manned the museum were not available. However, it appears this could be an incredibly fascinating historical tour. I encourage anyone who plans on visiting Oldtown to call ahead for an appointment.  

I had a few other places to visit in this town,
but I was hungry
Schoolhouse Kitchen
so I ventured over to the Schoolhouse Kitchen. From the outside it looked like a school, and that my friends, is exactly what it was…..a school! A woman who worked there told me the school opened in 1925 with only 3 people in attendance – attending and graduating (Kindergarten through 12th grade). 1976 saw the largest graduating class - 56 students. Eventually, the school closed in 2000 (with 20 graduating students).

A graduate from Oldtown’s Class of 1977 bought the school shortly thereafter and turned it into an inexpensive restaurant (where the school’s cafeteria once was) and a classic automobile restoration shop (where the classrooms once were).

I ordered my lunch and sat down to take in everything around me in the school’s converted cafeteria. Lining each wall along the ceiling were the many years of framed pictures of Oldtown School’s graduating classes. There were a couple of trophy cases with the school’s memorabilia, a black board, and bookshelves filled with books. The lights above and the shiny green floor were reminiscent of my elementary school days.
Finally, the woman I had been talking with showed me a picture depicting the four stages the Oldtown School went through before its closure.

Lunch was excellent and “hit the spot”! I thanked the woman for the education (get it?) and good food and just as I was ready to pay, I was informed it was a “Cash Only” restaurant. Not to worry – they had an ATM, as well. Then I smiled as I left the restaurant - I realized I had paid my bill and still had money left in my wallet because the mean kid didn’t take my lunch money!  

Not long after I left the restaurant, I happily found the sign leading me to the C&O Canal, which in Oldtown is the C&O Canal National Historical Park. I was happy for two reasons – Lock 70 and Lock 71. By lock, I mean
canal lock. There are a total of 75 locks on the C&O Canal, which was built in 1828 and parallels the Potomac River. The canal had several kinds of locks: lift locks, river locks, and guard locks (also called Inlet locks).
Lock 71 (Last Composite Lock on C&O)

Locks 70 and 71 were
considered to be lift locks and they were made of composite material – in fact, Lock 71 was the last of its kind.  This means they were built of rubble and undressed inferior stone because there was a scarcity of good building stone in the upper Potomac.  Since the stone was undressed, that made a rougher surface, so the interior of the lock had to be lined with wood so as not to damage the boats in the lock.  

Lock House #70

I walked over to Lock 70 and found it actually had a lock house I could walk though. I could only access the main floor, though. There were large partitions housing photos of the workmen and canal activities from its active days. It was a small room roughly 12' x 12' in size.  I found the photos very helpful to paint a fairly accurate picture of the history of the lock. 

Lock House #71

A very short walk up the towpath landed me at Lock 71. The lock house was not marked as such, though – the marker was missing.  However, the map of the area indicated this was probably Lock 71.  I was just happy to have seen two historical locks on this engineering masterpiece (C&O Canal).  

On my return to Lock 70, I saw a little boy and his parents fishing from the banks of the canal. I decided to ask them about the annual fishing event occurring in the month of June (
The Fishing Rodeo) – an event for children 15 years old and younger. Additionally, this is the oldest and biggest youth fishing rodeo in Maryland. Per Dave Long, author of the article, Fishing Rodeo is the Greatest Show in Oldtown, “this area is known as Battie Mixon Ponds in honor of Maryland Natural Resources Police Officer Battie Mixon, who led the effort to clean out the canal and provide fishing opportunities many years ago.” 

I asked the boy’s father if he had further information on the event. He explained the area between Lock 70 and Lock 71 (Battie Mixon Ponds) will be stocked with fish just prior to the event in June. He told me his son was entering the contest and that every child who enters would receive a free fishing rod and reel along with a landing net, courtesy of the town’s Catfish Club (and many others). The gentleman went on to tell me that for many of the kids this is the first time they may catch anything. I asked him if he knew how many fish they stock the area with.  He was not sure of the amount this year,

Fishing Docks - C&O Canal
but in years past the area was stocked with over 1,000 Channel Catfish and close to 600 Bluegills. I asked him if there were a lot of entries. He told me it is usually close to 1,000 participants. I wished his son luck, thanked the gentleman for the impressive information and kept walking back to Lock 70. 

I remembered seeing the sign for the
The Oldtown Low-Water Toll Bridge, which is located on the North Branch of the Potomac River. This is a “Cash Only”, privately owned (one of the few in the United States),
Toll Bridge
300 foot long toll bridge connecting Green Spring, West Virginia and Oldtown, Maryland.  I wanted to go across the bridge for one reason, which I will happily explain to you in a moment. I had forgotten it was “Cash Only”, but luckily I had some money left over from my awesome lunch. The man took my $1.25 and I started my trek over the one lane bridge. Not only was it one lane, but the water was literally two feet from the top of the bridge AND no rails!!

Thankfully, I encountered NO gusts of wind! 300 feet later and I was on the other side and 100 yards later I was in West Virginia. I turned the car around to go back over the bridge relieved I had another $1.25 for my return trip. When I got to the toll booth to pay, the big moment had arrived!  On that particular side of the toll booth, the window was positioned as such the man could not reach my money as I reached out to him. So, he brought out a long-handled silver cup. When I saw it, I exclaimed, “There it is!! The cup!!”

Toll Booth Cup
He handed the whole thing to me and asked, “Ha! Do you want it?” I laughed and said, “No. However, I would like a picture of it.” I apologize for this picture – the sun was in my eyes and I could not see what I was taking a picture of. I really didn’t want to pay another $2.50 roundtrip to get another picture of the cup.

I looked at the time and decided I had enough time to see the
Town Creek Aqueduct. This aqueduct is #10 of 11 aqueducts on the C&O Canal. However, how far down the towpath is it? Is it only accessible from the towpath? When I looked at the map over by Lock 70, it looked like it was some distance, but it had an Oldtown address, so how far could it be, right? Apparently, it was about ½ mile before Lock 67. With water in hand, I began my journey walking down the towpath.  

The canal was on my left, and occasionally, I could see the peaceful Potomac River peering at me though the trees on my right.  With the exception of two individuals passing me on bikes, I was the only one on the towpath. It was an amazing experience. The sunshine, countless birds singing, dragonflies, butterflies, and gorgeous flowers adorning the towpath were very memorable.  But probably the most unforgettable thing was my “stalker”. No….it’s not what you are thinking. It was a Bullfrog. I think it stayed with me the entire time I was on the trail – his croaking voice never faltered!  He actually kept me smiling. The Potomac made me smile, too.  I kept seeing bits and pieces of it, and then it made a sharp turn, disappearing with a field taking its place. 

As I said earlier, the aqueduct was just prior to Lock 67 – milepost 162.3. I figured I had already walked about 4 miles when I finally reached Lock 68 – milepost 164.8, which is actually the
Potomac Forks Hiker Biker [H/B] Campsite.
Potomac Forks H/B Campsite
This is one of the campsites along the C&O Canal which is remote – no vehicle access. The H/B campsites have a water pump, Jiffy John, grill, and picnic table. Officially, these sites are "First Come, First Serve" and only one group is permitted at each site (up to eight persons). 

When choosing H/B campsites, you should consider the distance to the nearest "access point". Some may want easy access (for equipment "drops"), while others may want a remote location for "peace and quiet". Also some sites are located next to a railroad or interstate, so don't expect a good night sleep at these locations.

Fires are restricted to fire rings and grills in all H/B campsites. Portable off-ground grills are also permitted, but coals must be removed from the park after use. Dead wood may be collected solely for use in campsite fires. Wood cannot be removed from the park.

Looking at the time and with the sky suddenly becoming populated with dark clouds, I decided it would be in my best interest to give up my quest and unhappily turn around – I walked 4 miles out, I still had to walk 4 miles back.
To quote Steve Maraboli (Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience), “To embark on the journey towards your goals and dreams requires bravery. To remain on that path requires courage. The bridge that merges the two is commitment.” I felt sad to have to turn back because I honestly felt committed to finding the aqueduct – I was just running out of time.  

As I started back towards Lock 70, I approached three men who were fishing from the banks of the canal. Just as I walked up, one of the men caught a fish! Photo op!   I congratulated him, wished all of them luck, and kept walking. 

A few moments later, I had another, more somber photo op. I looked off to the left (remember, the canal is now on my right), and saw a little American flag on a little stick next to a grave marker. I wished I was able to get closer to see the name and date of death, but a little standing water and high grass separated us, and that little voice inside me was saying, “There could be snakes and you are by yourself”. So, I heeded that voice and decided to pay my respects from a safe distance.  
Thank you for your service
I reached Lock 70 (and my car) tired. Even though I did not make it to the aqueduct, I really had an awesome day. I looked at the time and realized it was earlier than I thought. So, I set out to look for an Alpaca farm I had heard about, which was located in Oldtown. I was on my way and after 5 minutes, what did I see? The sign for the Town Creek Aqueduct!!! Jackpot! I quickly parked and walked down to the magnificent structure.

Now, about the aqueduct I was to visit. According to the National Park Service, “The C&O Canal system included eleven stone aqueducts designed to carry the canal across the major river tributaries that drain into the Potomac River along the canal's route. Today, the C&O Canal is the most intact canal resource of the 36 major canals constructed in the United States between 1806 and 1850. The C&O Canal's chief engineer, Benjamin Wright, is considered by many as the father of American Civil Engineering. He was the lead engineer on the Erie Canal prior to engineering the C&O Canal.”  

To better explain, in many spots along its route, the canal had to cross other rivers and streams. At these locations, aqueducts carried the canal over the stream. Culverts, barrel-shaped channels, carried small streams under the canal. Turn-around and pull-off basins allowed boats to unload cargo, make repairs, stay the night, or simply turn around.

The Town Creek Aqueduct on the C&O Canal was completed in 1850 and, as mentioned earlier, is #10 of 11 aqueducts along the C&O Canal. What you are looking at is the 60 foot limestone arch of the Town Creek Aqueduct.

Town Creek Aqueduct
The area around the aqueduct was a heavily wooded area where one could just sit on the banks and be one with nature (and with history). As on the towpath, I was the only one visiting the aqueduct, and I could not believe I was actually here staring at this engineering marvel. 

I wish I could have stayed longer, but I needed to leave. I still had enough time to go to the Alpaca farm. I got back on the road, found the entrance several miles from the aqueduct, but the arm of the gate crossing the driveway (and the big STOP - NO TRESSPASSING sign attached to it) led me to believe I really should not be there. I could have called, but reality suddenly hit - it was getting late and I still had a 3 hour drive ahead of me. I decided not to visit the farm and started my journey home.

Oldtown is another small town in Maryland that was a strong contributor to growing and shaping this Nation. I am fairly certain the residents of Oldtown know of their town’s historical significance. I am happy Oldtown opened its door to discovery for me – I could not have appreciated it more.