Photos by Joseph Insalaco
In the fall of 2015, bicyclists from York County, Pennsylvania, undertook a six-day ride to raise support for completion of the Grand History Trail (GHT). The GHT is a 300-mile regional trail network that provides a circular tour through 250 years of American history via Washington, D.C.; Baltimore and Annapolis in Maryland; and York, Hanover, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. (The GHT’s web site can be found at www.grandhistorytrail.org/.)
In June 2016, Joe and I cycled a slightly modified GHT. We started in Falls Church, VA and our first history stop was The Falls Church, the church that gave the town its name. The church dates back to the early 1700s. During the Civil War the building served as a hospital and then a stable and barracks for troops of both sides.
Leaving Falls Church, we headed west towards Leesburg, VA, a historic town we added to our tour. In doing so, we substituted the GHT’s route on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail (C&O) with the Washington and Old Dominion Trail (W&OD). The W&OD is a 45-mile long paved trail that goes from Shirlington,VA to Purcellville, VA. It is built on the rail bed of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, which operated from 1859 to 1968.
Our next stop on the W&OD was Vienna, VA; where, just off the trail, we passed the Vienna Inn. The Inn is 60 years old and has been a favorite stop for cyclist since the trail opened. We also cycled by the unique and award winning “Bikes at Vienna” that specializes in 2 and 3 wheel recumbents and folding bicycles. East of Leesburg, we stopped to view the cavernous Luck Stone Quarry, a favored rest stop for cyclists. Entering Leesburg we saw a vibrant downtown with lots of shops, restaurants, and history. Originally named Georgetown after King George, the name was later changed to Leesburg, in honor of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
In Leesburg we stopped at George C. Marshall’s home. He was the architect of the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) at the end of World War II. The house retains many of its early 19th-century architectural details. In addition, we stopped at the Loudoun County courthouse, erected in 1895; the Thomas Birkby House, circa 1770; and the Lightfoot restaurant, constructed in 1888 in the Romanesque Revival Style and housed a bank for many years.
On local roads, we cycled out of Leesburg to Whites Ferry, VA. White's Ferry is the last of many ferries that operated on the Potomac River. Our barge, named after the confederate Civil War General Jubal A. Early, carried us across the Potomac River into Maryland.
We next cycled on the C&O Canal Trail. Operating for nearly 100 years the canal was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River as coal, lumber and agricultural products floated down the waterway to market. The C&O Canal trail is 184.5 miles long, but we only cycled on it for about 9 miles. This section was mostlysingle-track with packed gravel. We saw canal locks and a lock house. Once we exited the C&O, we headed north on country roads to Frederick, MD.
Frederick’s downtown contains many unique restaurants and shops. Frederick was an important stop along the Great Wagon Road that came south from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and continued down the Appalachian Valley. It was also a stopping point on the westward migration to cross the Appalachian Mountains. We also noted that Frederick briefly became Maryland's capital in 1861.
Frederick is home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the Roads and Rails Museum, and the wonderful Carroll Creek Park. This park began as a flood control project in late 1970s but now includes pedestrian paths, water features, shade trees, pedestrian bridges, and a 350 seat amphitheater. Interesting public art is incorporated into the park.
Unlike our first day’s ride with 90 degree temperatures, day 2 started out in the 60s. Google’s best route out of Frederick indicated that we should cycle through Fort Detrick, MD. While very skeptical that this could be done, we cycled to the gate only to face the inevitable rejection. However, the ride-around did not take long.
Once out of the city, our route was mostly country roads with farms and orchards. At Catoctin Furnace, MD, we had our day’s first photo stop. Catoctin Furnace is a sleepy village at the base of Catoctin Mountain. The village got its name from the iron furnaces that were built in the 1770’s, making tools and household items. During the American Revolution, they made military shells. After the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, PA the furnace hired both Northern and Southern troops escaping the war.
From there, we went thru the town of Thurmont, MD (founded in 1751) and close to Camp David, the Presidential retreat. We soon crossed 2 covered bridges. The first, the Utica Road Covered Bridge crossed over Fishing Creek. The bridge structure was originally built in 1834 and spanned the Monocacy River. An 1889 flood damaged the bridge and the surviving half was moved to Fishing Creek in 1891. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 23, 1978
Next we cycled through Emmetsburg, MD (founded in 1785) and through Mount St. Mary’s University. There we saw the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, and the Basilica and National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was the first native born United States citizen to be canonized as a saint. We soon passed the National Emergency Training Center campus, which includes the Emergency Management Institute, the National Fire Academy and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Like Fort Detrick, we could not enter this facility.
Before getting to Gettysburg, we crossed the second coveredbridge. The Sacks Bridge is reportedly haunted by Confederate soldiers that were hung from its rafters. However, our passage though the bridge was peaceful. The Sachs Covered Bridge was built around 1854 and in 1938 was designated Pennsylvania's most historic bridge.
Near Gettysburg, we passed the Eisenhower farm which was the home and farm of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The farm also served the President as a weekend retreat and a meeting place for world leaders. Next we toured the Civil War’s Gettysburg Battlefield where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his short, but famous, Gettysburg Address.
We stayed in downtown Gettysburg at the Federal Pointe Inn. The Inn was created inside a 1900’s renovated school house. Whether our next day’s “late” start was attributable to the hotel’s comfort or us being tired, we cannot say. After breakfast, we leisurely headed back through the battlefields where Joe took a few more pictures of the many historic homes we passed. Considering how brutal the battle was, we were not surprised that many of those homes served as hospitals during the battle.
Next we headed to the town of Hanover, PA. While the initial part of the route was on a 2-lane road with some traffic, we cycled on a reasonably wide shoulder. After Littlestown, PA we diverted onto very rural roads with one gravel section. We soon arrived in Hanover which was first settled in the early 1700s and contained some interesting old buildings. However, our focus was on a late morning pick-me-upper at a great soft ice cream stand. The cones were large and refreshing. Refreshed, we headed to the Snyder’s of Hanover for a tour of their pretzel factory. In contrast to all the “old stuff” we enjoyed on our tour, we were impressed with the amount of robotics used in the production, packaging, and shipping of pretzels.
Before leaving Hanover, we stopped for lunch at The Original Famous Hot Wiener restaurant. Since it was famous, it had to be good; right? Our waitress liked cyclist and posed for a close-up photo. She recommended and we accepted the house special; a wiener with onions, mustard, chilly.
After lunch we cycled to York, PA on 2-lane roads with traffic and not much of a shoulder. Most drivers were patient when they could not pass. Downtown York was easy to cycle and a good portion of our route allowed us to take a full lane. We stayed in the heart of the downtown in the Yorktowne Hotel which was within walking distance of many restaurants and close to the rail trail that would take us to Baltimore, MD.
In York we saw several notable houses, including the Golden Plough Tavern (1741), the General Horatio Gates House (1751), and the Barnett Bobb House, also known as the Old Log House.
On our forth morning, we headed south on the York Heritage Trail (now called the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail). Since the trail shares its right-of-way with a railroad it is called a “rail-with-trail.” The trail was built in 1999 but steeped in railroad history. During the Civil War, the railroad was a target of the Confederate Army before the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederate Army’s troops tried to isolate the Union by damaging the railroad, telegraph wires and bridges. In November 1863, President Lincoln traveled on the railroad and stopped at Hanover Junction before giving the Gettysburg Address.
The Heritage Rail Trail has a slight incline as it heads south to the Maryland border and has a crushed stone surface. The trail has some interesting “trail art”. In York we enjoyed some industrial looking sculptures and in Hanover Junction we photographed an interesting horse and boy sculpture. The town of Glen Rock (which is a national historic district) had a mural depicting the town’s history. We also posed with some very large “bone shaker”bicycle trail art. In the town of Seven Valleys we saw a sign that claimed the first commercially manufactured ice cream in the United States. Unfortunately, none was to be enjoyed as we passed through the town.
During our ride on the Heritage RailTrail we endured gentle rain showers all the way to New Freedom, PA. This was the end of the Heritage Rail Trail and the beginning of the North Central Trail in Maryland. New Freedom houses an excursion train. John, one of the volunteers that keep the train
operating, gave us a tour of the rail cars and allowed us into the engine house to view the steam locomotive. At the edge of town is the former Summers Canning Company. A large mural, depicting scenes of the cannery, is displayed on a building next to the trail.
Leaving New Freedom on the North Central Trail, the rain gotheavier but we enjoyed the trail’s fast down-grade as we headed south. The faster we went the wetter and muddier we got. By the time we reached the end of the trail we were a mess. We found some large water puddles in the trailhead’s paved parking lot and washed our legs and then our bikes. We were like two kids playing in the water.
Cycling on the roads took us from a wooded environment to an urban one. We stopped for lunch in a family run Greek restaurant and were treated like part of the family. After lunch we rode into Baltimore, MD, passing McCormick’s Hunt Valley plant, Pimlico Race Track, and the Timonium Fairgrounds. We cycled through historic Lutherville and Mt. Washington, and cycled by theBaltimore Zoo and the Trolley Museum. We were on the Jones Falls Trail where we met Chris, a local cyclist. We stopped to chat and he volunteered to be our tour guide as we headed to our hotel. Chris, works nights as a surgical nurse and was out riding a vintage bicycle. Chris shared local lore and pointed out many sites.
On our fifth morning we left our Baltimore hotel under the gloom of dark skies and wondered how soon we would get rain. Wecycled by the Inner Harbor area on our way to Fort McHenry, a historical American coastal star-shaped fort. It is best known for its role in the War of 1812, when the Fort successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from an attack by the British Navy. A large flag was flown over the fort during the British bombardment. The sight of this flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that was later set to music and become the Star Spangled Banner.
We had rain for about an hour, but the skies soon cleared as we got on the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Trail. This trail is 10 miles long and goes from Lanham to Odenton in Maryland. It runs on the former right-of-way of the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway.
Next, we transitioned to the Baltimore and Annapolis Rail Trail which took us most of the way to Annapolis. The trail is 13 miles long and goes between Annapolis and Glen Burnie, MD. Just prior to Annapolis, we were greeted by Jon, the president of the Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Bike Advocates. He filled us in on route options and things to see. Once in Annapolis, we left our bikes and gear at the Gibson's Lodgings (a B&B), and took a walking tour of the town.
Annapolis is the capital of Maryland and is situated on the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Severn River. The city served as the seat of the Continental Congress in 1783–84. We walked passed the Maryland State House which is topped by the largest wooden dome built without nails in the country. We passed St. John's College (founded in 1789) and the United States Naval Academy (founded in 1845). At the harbor we saw the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley memorial which commemorates the arrival point of Alex Haley's African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, whose story is told in Haley's book, “Roots”.
All week the weather forecasts for our last day’s ride indicated severe thunderstorms for most of the day. With this in mind, we spent some time during the evening going over our options: riding in bad weather, spending an extra day in Annapolis, or renting a car. The storms hit late that evening but at 3 a.m. we woke up to the sound of silence. Outside the weather was nice. At 5 a.m. we checked the weather forecast and saw that it had changed to just the possibility of storms in the morning. So we packed our bikes and headed out. While we cycled around some downed trees and other storm debris, it turned out to be a beautiful day.
We followed the East Coast Greenway route from Annapolis to Washington, DC. The route meandered over back roads and trails. More direct routes exist, but this one optimized safety and off-road trails. As we approached DC, we cycled on the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Closer to DC we were treated to a “flyover” of Coast Guard aircraft celebrating their anniversary. However, there was little to photograph until we hit Washington’s Mall. From DC, we cycled on George Washington Parkway Trail passed Washington National Airport where we took the Four Mile Run Connector Trail. This trail quickly led us to the final leg of our route on the W&OD trail to Falls Church.
So how many off-road miles did we cycle on the Grand History trail? Capturing the larger trails and ignoring the many smaller ones and the asphalt paths paralleling busy roads; about 40 percent of our tour was off-road (130 miles out of the 321 miles that we cycled). More detailed information about out trip can be found in our daily blog (http://grandhistorytrail2016.blogspot.com/).