My Travel Memories: Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

As I recall, we just spent a day or so in Colonial Williamsburg, a sort of “living history museum,” but it felt to me more like a theme park experience of the colonial era.  The area consists of both original and reconstructed buildings that are made to look like they did/would have (as appropriate) looked during the Colonial era.  The residents dress in Colonial-style clothing and engage in Colonial-era skills and trades.

Since we didn’t spend a whole lot of time there, I don’t have much memory of the tradespeople plying their trades and things of that nature.  I was also just a little old for the activities that were targeted at small children.  I do remember at some point during social studies (since this is 1979, it was either fifth or seventh grade) being told that The College of William & Mary was the oldest public university in the United States, so when I realized that it was right there, I insisted on at least getting a glimpse of it. We stopped by quickly and my dad took a picture of one of the buildings.  It turns out to be the Brafferton Building, the second-oldest building on campus.  The Brafferton originally was the “Indian School,” and now is home to the offices of the President and Provost.  The original photo was entirely too blue, to I took a stab at making the colors look a little more like the building looks in the pictures I saw online.  I don’t know how close it is to the way the building looks in real life.

Brafferton Building, College of William and Mary
The Brafferton Building, College of William and Mary.

It is sort of fortuitous that I ended up in Williamsburg on this post, since a recent Cracked article talked about the town from the perspective of one of the residents: 5 Insane Realities Of My Life In A Fake Colonial Town. I honestly did not make this post just because that article reminded me of this visit. It was just a timely coincidence.

My folks went back to Colonial Williamsburg at least once since we were there as a family.  I, on the other hand, have not felt any such impulse.  Maybe someday, once I’ve been everywhere else, I’ll make a return trip.  It was nice, but it’s not in the top ten of places that I would like to visit again.

My Travel Memories: Assorted Places in Maryland

I can recall four places in Maryland that we visited during our 1979 vacation. I also seem to recall spending the night in a Holiday Inn in Baltimore at some point before our 1988 return to Baltimore (more on that later), so this may have been the visit when we did that.

The four places I recall more-or-less clearly were the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Barbara Fritchie House, the Antietam battlefield, and a cave.  There is no indication in the photo album which cave we visited.  It made an impression on me because the guy who gave us our tour looked to be only a couple of years older than I was, and he was *adorable.*

Elizabeth Seton was the first United-States-born saint (even though, technically, the United States didn’t exist at the time of her birth — she was born in 1774). When Seton’s husband was dying of tuberculosis, his doctor sent them to Italy, hoping the change of environment would be good for his health. It wasn’t, and he died. Seton converted to Roman Catholicism on the trip. As a widow, Seton needed a source of income, so upon her return home to New York City, she started a girls’ school, but this school failed because of anti-Catholic bias in New York.

Maryland was founded as a settlement for Roman Catholics.  It is, after all, right there in the name.  Seton was invited to move to Maryland and start a new school there, which she did.  This was St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, the first Roman Catholic school in the United States. These days, nearly all Roman Catholic churches have schools associated with them.  This tradition started with Seton and St. Joseph’s Academy. Seton was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975.

The campus of the shrine is beautiful, though I don’t know if we spent much time in the basilica on the site or not.

We also went to the Barbara Fritchie House and Museum in Frederick Maryland.  Fritchie is the subject of the Whittier poem about an elderly lady who interrupted the march of the Confederates by waving a Union flag at them during the Civil War. It is likely that this event never happened. Records show that Fritchie was sick in bed when the Confederates marched through Frederick and that the Confederates never marched down her street.  And to top it all off, the house that Fritchie actually lived in was destroyed during a storm and the museum is in a replica built in 1927.  It’s a lovely poem, however. Fritchie was also personal friends with Francis Scott Key, who wrote the poem which eventually became the national anthem of the United States.  I seem to recall that the guest room was made up as if Key were staying there, though I may be remembering a different house entirely, or maybe I dreamed it.  I have very vivid dreams.

We visited the Antietam battlefield because one of the tour guides, I think it was, or maybe it was someone who worked in one of the restaurants in Gettysburg, told us that Gettysburg was too touristy and that he always recommended that people go to Antietam instead. Now I’m wracking my brain.  The place, which I’m now reasonably certain was a restaurant, had something to do with snipers.  So after looking around, perhaps it was the Farnsworth House, which is a Civil War themed restaurant and the house was apparently a post for snipers. So that’s a good candidate.  I wonder what would happen if I were to call them up and ask about a man in period soldier’s costume who told us to visit Antietam. . .

He was right, though. Antietam, site of the battle known both as “Antietam” and as “the Battle of Sharpsburg” was relatively untrammeled by tourists (see the empty parking lot in the photo below).  The Battle of Antietam, which took place on September 17, 1862, was the first battle of the Civil War to take place in Union territory, and was the single bloodiest day of the war.  The Union more or less won this battle, as they only lost 16% of their men, versus 27% for the Confederacy.  “Only” 16%.  Eesh.  It was also “only” the fifth worst actual battle of the war.

Antietam Battlefield, 1979
Antietam Battlefield in 1979 from the 1895 Observation Tower.

It was very educational and the area where the battle took place was lovely, and is apparently becoming even nicer. The National Park Service is trying to restore the areas that were wooded at the time of the battle.  Every fall and spring since 1995, they have had volunteers come in and plant over 18,000 trees in hopes of restoring the appearance of the area to how it looked in 1862.  In the process, they hope to increase the ecological value of the land.

My Travel Memories: Washington, DC

I really need to return to Washington DC again. Alex and I went to D.C. in 2011, but I was only part-time at my job and hadn’t earned any vacation time yet, so we only had a long weekend.  As a result, we hiked up to the Lincoln Monument and did the tour of the Capitol building, but other than that, we stuck largely to the Smithsonian Institution that weekend.

My 1979 trip to Washington DC was probably the first time I took a subway (though I remember taking the “L” in Chicago when I was very, very little — I think it was when my dad’s brother first started dating the woman who eventually became my aunt). I was thrilled by the Metro.  The Metro stations were just awesome and the train was convenient and it was just one of the neatest experiences I had had pretty much ever at that point in my life.  In fact, my delight in the Washington DC Metro may well be part of why I am such a fan of public transportation nowadays (the fact that I can get to my destination without having to stop reading my book or put down my knitting is a plus, too).

We also went to Arlington National Cemetery.  Washington, DC was a planned city.  Originally both Maryland and Virginia gave up some land for the capital, which was a square more-or-less bisected by the Potomac River.  The government didn’t really do anything with the part of Washington that was on the Virginia side of the river, so  Virginia asked for that land back and got it.  Most, if not all, of that land is now part of the city of Arlington. Within Arlington, Virginia, is, unsurprisingly, Arlington National Cemetery. The centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery is Arlington House, which is also the Robert E. Lee Memorial. The house was built by the step-grandson of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter married Robert E. Lee.  Robert E. Lee considered Arlington House to be his home.

During the Civil War, the government confiscated Arlington House and its grounds in part to punish Lee for leaving the United States Army to lead the Confederate Army.  The grounds were turned into a military cemetery in 1864, and bodies were buried close to the house with a goal of rendering the house uninhabitable.  After Lee’s death, Lee’s son later sued the United States government and the Supreme Court ruled that the house had been illegally seized and the government ended up buying the house and land from Lee’s son. So, that’s why there’s a mansion in the middle of the cemetery.  The mansion was there first.

While at Arlington National Cemetery, we visited the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the graves of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. The Eternal Flame on John F. Kennedy’s grave has been upgraded since our visit.

We didn’t do much of the Smithsonian, though I remember visiting the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the National Museum of American History (more on those museums once I get around to 2011).  We spent most of our time on the National Mall visiting the memorials.  We climbed up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial twice, once during the daytime and once at night.  We also took the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument.  Some of the monuments that are there today, such as the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, weren’t there yet.

National Mall looking east
The National Mall from the Washington Monument looking towards the Lincoln Memorial, 1979.

My parents and I visited the White House, as well.  I seem to recall that we entered through the North Portico, and the light fixture there certainly looks familiar.  It looks like my memory might actually be accurate.  The White House website says that the North Portico was “(o)nce the principal entrance to the White House for both the family and the public.”  These days it looks like the visitor tours leave through that door. It was a house.  A very nice house, but a house.  Not so much with books and plants (the rose garden is supposed to be very nice, but I don’t think we spent much time there).

At some point we took a side trip to Mount Vernon, which was where George and Martha Washington lived.  It was another historic house. I do remember George and Martha Washington’s graves and being disappointed that so many of the outbuildings were reconstructed and/or replicas.

My Travel Memories: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

We took two non-North-Carolina-or-Florida trips in 1979.  I can’t remember which came first, though, and the photographs we have were all taken with a Polaroid SX-70, so they are completely undated.  So we’ll do the bigger trip first, and then move onto the smaller one later.

The bigger trip was Gettysburg, Washington, bits of Maryland (including Barbara Fritsche’s house), Williamsburg, and Jamestown.  Because of my parents’ thing about famous houses, we also fit Mount Vernon and Monticello (homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively) in on the trip. The order of that photo album has us going to Gettysburg, then the National Cemetery, then to Mount Vernon, then back to do the rest of D.C. and Monticello after Williamsburg and Jamestown, so that’s probably what I will do here.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is home to the aptly named Gettysburg National Military Park, which encompasses the battlefield, a national cemetery, assorted monuments, and a visitor’s center.  The visitor’s center is home to a museum, a “Cyclorama,” which is a circular panoramic painting, in this case, of the battlefield.

The Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, is thought of as the “turning point” for the Civil War.  Up until that battle, the Confederacy seemed to be doing pretty well, Gettysburg ended the Confederacy’s hopes of victory.  And, indeed, the war only went on for nine months and six days (by my count) after the Battle of Gettysburg ended. Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with over 50,000 casualties.

Devil's Den Gettysburg in 1979
The Devil’s Den, Gettysburg, circa 1979

We stayed in town in a hotel next door to the house where the only civilian casualty of the battle, Ginnie Wade, died.  Ginnie lived in the center of the town, and she had come to visit her sister on the outskirts of town at the time of the battle.  A bullet, either fired by a sniper, or a stray bullet from a nearby skirmish, passed through two doors and hit Ginnie, killing her instantly.   I looked at this area on Google Maps and I seem to recall more buildings in that area than there are today.

When we visited Gettysburg, there was an observation tower near the battlefield. The National Park has since seized the property under eminent domain laws and demolished the tower. The National Park Service apparently intends to restore the land to what it looked like in 1863, and since the tower had a very 1970s vibe to it (and, indeed, it could not have been built without access to computers to calculate the support necessary to build the tower with the minimum amount of steel), it had to go.  Ir’s kind of a pity, though.  The tower won an award from the American Council of Civil Engineers and was the subject of patent D227448.  The Visitors Center and Cyclorama have been razed and rebuilt in a more 1863-ish style since my visit, as well.  The new building looks more like a farmhouse and barn than the old building did.