A ship, an adventure, and a treasure

Recently Kitco News published an interesting article about a hoard of sunken gold coins to be recovered from a shipwreck later this summer. What follows is the story of a ship, an adventure, and a treasure. Let’s start with the Kitco article, which notes that salvage efforts are getting ready to begin:

Another season of shipwreck salvage operations is kicking off with Endurance Exploration Group1 in the spotlight this year as the company prepares to salvage £10,000 in gold coins from a 154-year old site.

After two years of research, the company announced, in a press release, Tuesday, it is moving forward with its mobilization plans and expects to start salvage operations between July and September.

Since 2013, Endurance has been surveying a wreck off the New England coast, which is believed to be the S.S. Connaught. The 380-foot iron-hulled side-wheel steamer sunk … on its way to Boston from St John’s Newfoundland, the second leg of its journey from Galway, Ireland.

– Neils Christensen, Sunken Gold Coins To Be Recovered Off Of New England Coast This Summer, Kitco News, 19 May 20152

The Ship

ConnaughtThe S.S. Connaught sank on 9 October, 1860, after a leak sprung and a fire broke out during a storm. She was a brand new ocean liner at the time, having been launched earlier that year at Jarrow on Tyne, in northeast England. The ship departed Galway, Ireland, on 25 September, 1860, bound for Boston and carrying 50 first-class passengers, 417 steerage passengers, and a full crew of 125. En route to Boston, the Connaught put in at St. Johns, Newfoundland, where she “was quietly loaded with £10,000 in gold coins, possibly bound for a visiting member of the royal family.” There’s a great article from io93 about the ship’s sinking and the daring rescue of her crew and passengers by the brig Minnie Schiffer, which was accomplished without loss of life. A contemporary Richmond Dispatch article4 reported that the British government was so gratified by the rescue that it awarded a gold chronometer to the Minnie Schiffer’s captain, a valuable telescope to the mate, and £10 to every member of her crew.

Anyway, to move on to the next part of our story, the “visiting member of the royal family” could only have been 18-year-old Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), more familiarly known to family members as “Bertie.”

Bertie’s Big Adventure

Visiting1860Canada had wanted Queen Victoria to visit since the Crimean War, and invited her to visit Montreal in 1860, for the opening of a railroad bridge across the Saint Lawrence5 to be named after her; then the longest bridge in the world. Having no interest in an Atlantic crossing, Victoria declined the invitation and instead decided to send the heir to the throne, Bertie, who was then on vacation from Oxford. Bertie was not known as a brilliant scholar, particularly by the Queen, and some of his not-so-private hijinks had landed him in both the newspapers and in royal disfavor. Victoria’s husband Albert, the Prince Consort, just so happened to be casting about for ways to demonstrate the monarchy’s relevance, and the invitation led him to a solution that would both increase visibility of the royal family and get Bertie out of town: a Royal Tour of British America and the United States.6  It was to be the first royal visit to the United States since the American Revolution.

Bertie arrived at St. Johns, Newfoundland, on 23 July, 1860, and toured several cities in Canada and the United States. After his last stop, a 3-day stay in Boston, he traveled by train to Portland, Maine, where he departed for England on 20 October. Given this last stop in Boston, it is plausible that the gold coins aboard the S.S. Connaught were intended to arrive in Boston in time to settle debts incurred during Bertie’s visit. And debts there surely were: while some of his stops in Canada were contentious, Bertie proved to be wildly popular in the United States, and he was greeted by cheering crowds at every stop. Bertie loved ballroom dancing, and while in New York, so many guests thronged a ball thrown in his honor that the temporary dance floor collapsed!7

Punch10Nov60While Bertie’s first tour was a success, it actually amounted to not much more than a series of balls and parties, and foreshadowed his years to come. It would be over forty years before he ascended the throne as King Edward VII in 1901, at the age of 60. During the intervening years, lacking any political authority, he continually reprised the rather empty ceremonial role he played during his first tour, visiting India in 1875 and attending this or that grand opening or dedication ceremony. Unfortunately, having shed the chaperones of his teenaged years, some of his subsequent travels gained him a reputation as a lush and a playboy, and you can research details about that for yourself.

The Treasure

What sort of coins might be in the S.S. Connaught’s cargo? I imagine gold American eagles and half-eagles were exchanged pretty freely over the Canadian border for sovereigns and half-sovereigns, at least before the Civil War, but I am of the opinion that most of the coins are likely the latter. The contemporary story by The New York Times, an American newspaper, reported that the Connaught “had £10,000 in gold on board, Government money,”8 which suggests the coins were British pounds rather than American dollars. The British pound (£1) equaled one gold sovereign (or two half-sovereigns) in 1860, so £10,000 in gold coins adds up to quite a lot of gold sovereigns! In U.S. dollars, the 1860 exchange rate was $4.77 to £1, so the coins were worth $47,700 then. Five years later, at the end of the U.S. Civil War, war debt and the printing of so many greenbacks would debase the U.S. dollar to $7.90 to £1! And as long as we’re discussing debasement and changes in value, it’s worth noting that £10,000 in 1860 would have the same relative value as about £840,000 today, in terms of purchasing power.

From a numismatic standpoint, an important consideration in the potential value of what might be recovered is the fact that the Royal Mint conducted a very large recoinage during 1842-1845. The recoinage withdrew £14,000,000 of light gold (i.e., older gold coins that were worn to the point that they were too light), which amounted to about one-third of the total gold in British circulation at the time. Another £500,000 of light gold per year was removed after 1845.9

1860x400The upshot is that many of the gold coins that went down on the S.S. Connaught may have been minted not long before she sank, and are almost certainly Victoria shield sovereigns and half sovereigns. The years involved, 1838 to 1860, include some of the most rare and sought-after sovereign variants: the 1838 and 1843 Narrow Shield variants, the 1841 low mintage key date year, the 1848 First Young Head, and the 1859 Ansell, to name a few. Finding more examples of these would be welcome to collectors, of course, but in the instance of the narrow shield varieties, if a significant number of them is found, it may cause some revision in thought about whether they were patterns; or were a design in general use, most of the examples of which were destroyed during normal recoinage.

Keep your eyes peeled for progress updates on the salvage later this summer: the recovery of up to 10,000 shield sovereigns from the S.S. Connaught may rival the recovery of the cargo of the R.M.S. Douro,10 and has the potential to turn the market for gold Victoria shield sovereigns upside down!


  1. Endurance Exploration Group, Inc., http://www.enduranceexplorationgroup.com/
  2. Neils Christensen, “Sunken Gold Coins To Be Recovered Off Of New England Coast This Summer,” Kitco News, 19 May 2015. http://www.kitco.com/news/2015-05-19/Sunken-Gold-Coins-To-Be-Recovered-Off-Of-New-England-Coast-This-Summer.html
  3. George Dvorsky, “Wreck Of The S.S. Connaught Discovered Off The Coast Of Boston,” io9, 3 October 2014. (The illustration of the launch of the S.S. Connaught, originally from the Illustrated London News, is from this article.) http://io9.com/wreck-of-the-s-s-connaught-discovered-off-the-coast-o-1642205479
  4. The Daily Dispatch, “The brig Minnie Schiffer,” Richmond Dispatch, by Cowardin & Hammersley, 3 December, 1860. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0160%3Aarticle%3Dpos%3D74
  5. Wikipedia, “Victoria Bridge (Montreal),” not dated. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Bridge_%28Montreal%29
  6. J. Castell Hopkins, F.S.S., The Life of King Edward VII, W.E. Scull, 1910 (Project Gutenberg). (The illustration of ‘Bertie’ visiting Canada is from page 57.) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25112
  7. Robert C. Kennedy, “On This Day: The Imaginary and the Actual Prince,” The New York Times Company and HarpWeek, 2001. (The dance floor collapse anecdote.) https://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0922.html
  8. (No author cited), “DREADFUL ACCIDENT AT SEA,” The New York Times, 10 October 1860. http://www.nytimes.com/1860/10/10/news/dreadful-accident-sea-burning-steamship-connaught-passengers-crew-mails-all.html
  9. Michael A. Marsh, The Gold Sovereign. Cambridge, the Jubilee Edition, 2002, page 28.
  10. bigjarofwasps, “The true story of the RMS Douro,” Gentlemen’s Military Interest Club, 11 March 2005. http://gmic.co.uk/forums/topic/418-the-true-story-of-the-rms-douro/
  11. The “Latest from America” cartoon from Punch, November 10, 1860, can be found at the House Divided Civil War Research Engine at Dickenson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/31338.
  12. Photo of the 1860 sovereign is by the author.
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Three A weekend

All three events last weekend had something to do with the letter “A”, and I didn’t even notice until now! (It wasn’t supposed to be some sort of Sesame Street theme.)

Arsenal of Democracy Flyover

The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover took place in the skies over the National Mall in Washington DC on May 8, 2015, the 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Fighting DC workday traffic to hang out with a crowd in the noontime heat on the National Mall didn’t sound too appealing, though, and when I found out the flight path would take the participating aircraft downstream along the Potomac River from Washington and over the Wilson Bridge, watching the flyover from there just came natural.

As it turned out, a couple of the formations deviated from the flight path and didn’t come down the Potomac. Most did, though, but I admit the photos are a little less than spectacular.

Incidentally, I thought “Arsenal of Democracy” was a well-chosen title, because it highlights that there can be more than one kind. By itself, an arsenal is a set of inanimate objects; it is a tool. Like any other tool, it has no inherent quality of good or evil — it can be an arsenal of democracy, as in this case, or an arsenal of tyranny. But an effective arsenal is a necessary tool: as Joe Pappalardo observed, when commenting on war in a recent article:

Despite our best wishes and peaceful intentions, someone else with a gun can shape the future. A coalition of the willing can build schools in Afghanistan, but a couple of jerks with rifles and a can of gasoline can reduce it to ashes. Sometimes, meeting violence with more effective violence is what it takes to give peace a chance.

During World War Two, our arsenal enabled us “to roll back aggression and deter aggressors, to end dictatorships, to stop genocide, [and] to protect the supply of commodities central to the nation’s interest.” Unfortunately the time needed to build an effective arsenal had to be purchased by the precious lives lost at distant places like Bataan and Guadalcanal.


A visit to the National Arboretum is a “must do” event every year around Mother’s Day, and it’s best to go really early in the morning and hopefully not on Mother’s Day itself. Accordingly, we visited the day before at 8 am and were rewarded with cool temperatures and scant competition to admire the azaleas.

This year was notable in that bald eagles are nesting atop Mount Hamilton, so some of the paths leading through the azaleas were barricaded off to prevent visitors from disturbing the eagles. (And conversely, to protect visitors from the eagles. I’m not sure how aggressively eagles defend their nesting sites, but it’s not something I’d care to test, either!)

It’s a good thing these eagles chose to nest here. Had they chosen to nest near a wind farm they would have little to no protection, because of an Interior Department’s eagle “take” rule finalized last December that would allow wind farms to kill eagles for up to 30 years. How they manage this rule is beyond me, given the fact that the bald eagle is protected by federal laws, including the Migratory Bird Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently announced it was suing the administration over the new rule.

Accotink Creek

Sunday we took an easy stroll through the woods along one of the Accotink River’s tributaries, Long Branch. An early treat was a small herd of deer relaxing by the stream, that reluctantly got up and moseyed along as our group came up. As the morning went by we ran into quite a few other folks out for a morning stroll on Mother’s Day.

During the summer months to come we’ll have to come back to the Accotink a few times. The relatively flat trails are easily accessible and provide cool, shady relief from late summer heat.

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Further along

We’re moving further along through springtime; another week and we’ll be halfway done. (Spring vernal equinox was March 20; summer solstice will be June 21.) My nose tells me we have quite a way to go, and if that isn’t enough discomfort, the snowdrifts of tree pollen forming everywhere offer visual confirmation. Despite this, mid to late spring is a great time for urban hiking around the DC area. All the cherry blossom tourists have left town, but schools are in session and vacation season has not yet arrived. The combination means you can see some of the interesting sights without struggling through crowds of folks with similar objectives, and the mild spring temperature doesn’t heat up the pavement and stone enough to force a retreat to shadier trails. Here’s a couple of urban hikes we took during the past two weeks.


We first did this hike last year to explore some of the landmarks of Capitol Hill centered on the Eastern Market area. The hike encompasses the area from First to Thirteenth streets (east/west) and M St SE and C St NE (north/south). In addition to a Google map, there’s a print map describing some of the landmarks here.

One of the landmarks we passed during the hike is Christ Church, near the Navy Yard at 620 G Street S.E. On the day of our visit the church entrance was hung with a black sash, just as it was for the 30 days following Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865. Lincoln’s assassination posed a unique challenge for the parish, because while the congregation was pro-Union, it turned out that one of the assassination conspirators, David Herold, was a member of the parish. Herold rode with John Wilkes Booth during his escape from Washington after shooting the president on the night of April 14. Twelve days later, on April 26, Union cavalry cornered the pair in a tobacco barn at Bowling Green, Virginia. Herold surrendered, but Booth was shot and killed. During the subsequent military tribunal, Herold admitted his guilt, and the only defense offered by his attorney was that Herold was “feeble minded,” and a member of Christ Church parish testified to that effect. Christ ChurchThe defense must have seemed weak, though: in addition to helping Booth escape Washington, Herold led co-conspirator and former Mosby Ranger Lewis Powell to the home of William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, and held Powell’s horse while Powell attacked and stabbed Seward five times. In any case, Herold and the other conspirators were executed by hanging at the Washington Arsenal (now Fort McNair) on July 7, 1865.

 Roosevelt Island and the Netherlands Carillon

Roosevelt Island by itself is too small for a hike, and parking there is next to impossible (the lot is usually taken up by the cars of bicyclists using the Mount Vernon Trail), so when someone suggested a hike there, the only logical course was to start somewhere else and combine it with something else to generate a pleasant two-hour hike. The Rosslyn Metro Station is fairly convenient, so our route led from there to Roosevelt Island, and continued downstream along the Potomac to the Arlington Cemetery Visitor Center for a break. Our return to Rosslyn took us past the Netherlands Carillon, the US Marine Corps War Memorial, and Dark Star Park. For some reason the carillon bells did not sound at noon, but the tulip garden was already looking good, just in time for Dutch Liberation Day on May 5.

There’s a few more familiar urban hikes to squeeze in over the coming weeks: a visit to the fountains and gardens in the east end of the National Mall, a tour of the mansions and landmarks of the Dupont-Kalorama District, and a hike through the Palisades District a little farther west.

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Rites of Spring

Spring has finally arrived, and it’s always great to be able to get out on the trail for a couple of hours without having to spend almost an equal amount of time bundling up for the occasion.

Cherry Blossom Festival

We always put a couple of visits to the National Mall to enjoy the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC. This year the peak bloom period just happened to coincide with Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (April 13), so it was as if the Jefferson Memorial was especially decorated for the occasion. Our visit was only a couple of days earlier, and after the hike many went on to enjoy the parade along  Constitution Avenue.

There is a downside to it if you happen to be an allergy sufferer, because while it’s wonderful to get out and enjoy looking at and smelling all the cherry blossoms, you’re going to pay for it in spades afterwards, in the form of congestion and headaches that last for days. (I am, and I did.) Maybe it’s not so bad, though: presidential inaugurations also take place in Washington DC during the spring, but the headaches from those last for at least four years.

Savage Mill

Savage Mill is a historic cotton mill on the Little Patuxent River in Maryland that has been  converted into a complex of shops and restaurants.  Adding to the attraction is the adjacent Bollman Truss Railroad Bridge, one of the oldest standing iron truss bridges in the US. Finally, there are two nice hiking trails extending from the Savage Mill location, the Savage Mill Trail to the south, and the Patuxent Branch Trail to the north. The combination of these and the location’s close proximity, only 12 miles from the I-495 Capital Beltway, made it a nice destination for our weekend morning hike.

There are a couple of more springtime events to come over the next few weeks, but those will be topics for future posts.

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Tugwell’s Dream

Good heavens, it’s been a month and a half since I last posted! It’s not for lack of hikes, certainly: we’ve been doing two just about every week since my last post. Maybe it has more to do with the gloomy winter weather than anything else. I have a lot more trouble waxing eloquent about gray skies and slush than I do about blue skies, green fields and singing birds. But before moving onto some of the current hikes, it’s worth backing up to one we did on the last day of February, just because it was something new and a little out of the ordinary.

Historic Greenbelt

On the last day of February we went hiking in historic Greenbelt, MD, to have a look at the Federally planned and constructed community that was established there in 1937. The project was principally the brainchild of Rexford Tugwell, the head of the Resettlement Administration during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and a member of FDR’s so-called “Brain Trust.” The community was a utopian social experiment in urban development that sought to construct a new self-sufficient city and provide housing for young government workers. Greenbelt and FDR’s New Deal are inextricably intertwined.

The name Greenbelt was taken from the book “Garden Cities of To-morrow,” by Sir Ebeneezer Howard, which described his concept for a turn-of-the-19th Century English social experiment in idyllic urban planning, intended to provide a more healthful environment than the inner cities of the day. However, the true driving inspiration for the Greenbelt community and indeed, for the New Deal itself, came from the visit of Tugwell, as part of a US Trade Delegation, to the Soviet Union in 1927. One of the delegation’s other members, economist Stuart Chase, published a glowing report in 1932 entitled, “A New Deal,” and it is from that book that the legislative agenda undertaken by the FDR administration during his first 100 days in office got its name. Indeed, a quote from the end of Chase’s book sums it up: “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking a world?”

Unfortunately, the idyllic state the delegation saw during their 1927 visit was a fleeting calm before Stalin’s consolidation of power. By the end of 1927 Stalin had eliminated most of his rivals and implemented the first of his Five Year Plans. During the period from 1928 to 1933 over a million and a half so-called “kulaks” (from Polish kulak; ‘fist’ or ‘tight-fisted’; i.e., supposedly well-off peasants) were exiled to concentration camps known as the Gulag, and an estimated 2.5–7.5 million Ukrainians had died of deliberate starvation in what is today known as the Holodomor. Even more unfortunately, there was no feedback mechanism to inform those in the West that the “fun” of remaking the world was not going according to plan. The only information filtering out was a combination of Soviet propaganda and enthusiastic reports from apologists like Walter Duranty and Louis Fischer, who denied that any famine was taking place. To make a long story short, the worker’s paradise that inspired Tugwell’s dream was nothing but a lie.

Happily, while Greenbelt may have been inspired by a false ideal, the subsequent events did not come to pass here. The layout of the town was designed by Tugwell himself, assisted by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a team of architects and planners. Social engineering had a central role: applicants for residence in Greenbelt were carefully screened for appropriate age, race, religion, income, health, family size, financial reliability, clean living habits, and community spirit. African-Americans were excluded until 1963, and wives were not permitted to work, being expected to stay home and take care of children.

Our hike route started outside the Greenbelt Library and took us roughly clockwise not quite 5 miles through the historic district, circling manmade Greenbelt Lake, walking through one of the pathways designed purposefully to wind between the backyards of the residences, before popping out into the town center. The town center was designed to be more or less the center of community activity, but instead of privately owned businesses it featured a cluster of community cooperatives, including a theater and gas station, and administration, library, recreation, and school buildings.


Of particular interest is the community center, originally the elementary school and community center. Like many of the structures in historic Greenbelt it was built in Art Deco style. The building features a series of friezes by Lenore Thomas Straus along the south wall. But while Art Deco emphasizes bold designs and emphasis on luxury and glamor, these friezes feature recurring depictions of workers and class, so are more akin to Socialist Realism than Art Deco. The friezes depict scenes that supposedly represent phrases from the preamble of the US Constitution; or at least that is what is chiseled on them. Because they are so noteworthy, it’s worth taking a look at each of them, to see how they depict the phrases they represent.

We the people [of the United States]…

We the peopleIn the center is a family unit, centered around not a hearth or home as you might expect, but around the Federal government, as exemplified by the Capitol dome. On each side of the family are figures representing occupational classes of American society; a doctor or scientist, a farmer, a woman apparently doing secretarial work, and a miner. (The women’s’ roles in all of these friezes seems to be limited to family and clerical work, or in one instance, gardening. This seems curious, given that the sculptor was a woman.)

 [In order] to form a more perfect union…

IMG_3551On the left are apparently two people performing  administrative tasks, operating a typewriter and a filing cabinet; while on the right, a farm worker deposits a basket of what appears to be apples. In the center, two men are shaking hands, one in a business suit and the other in overalls. Apparently we’re to believe that the “perfect union” described in the preamble to the Constitution involved a perfect union between business administration and workers. But even a casual reading of The Federalist Papers demonstrates that this is a completely wrong interpretation: the “perfect union” the preamble refers to is that of the individual states (e.g., Maryland, Pennsylvania, etc.), united as one.

1776 Benjamin Franklin, in the reverse design for the 1776 Continental Dollar (at right), provided an excellent depiction of the concept. The design featured a ring of thirteen interlocked links forming a chain, each named for the state of the union it represents. In the center is the American Congress, defined and empowered by the Constitution, and the bold statement “WE ARE ONE.” Subsequent designs discarded the chain as potentially being evocative of slavery, but as a conceptual design representing the union of sovereign states, it’s hard to beat.

Establish justice…

IMG_3552In this frieze we again see representations of class. Members of society, represented by a student; an industrial worker of some sort, carrying a wrench; a mother and her child, and a farmer or construction worker with a shovel. All are all queued up to receive justice from a man in a business suit sitting at a desk, presumably a judge.

IMG_1908This is certainly a departure from the more familiar Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding a balance, who is often used to represent the impartial dispensation of justice, and it’s a far cry from James Earle Fraser’s “Contemplation of Justice” (at right) which was sculpted during the same time frame and graces the Supreme Court steps in Washington DC.

Insure domestic tranquility…

IMG_3553This frieze seems to depict some sort of happy balance or relationship between agricultural and industrial workers, while the domestic tranquility referred to in the Constitution had more to do with the amicable resolution of quarrels between states. Nice lunchbox, though.

 Provide for the common defense…

IMG_3554This frieze depicts a worker and his family being defended by a rank of soldiers, who curiously are facing them rather than facing outward, toward any enemy. But the image lacks the original context of a union of states: that the states are better able to defend themselves united, in common, than they would be able to separately. The classic depiction of strength in unity is the fasces, or bundle of rods, in which rods bound together are stronger than each rod would be separately. This imagery can be found in the Great Seal of the United States, in the form of the bundle of 13 arrows clutched in one of the eagle’s talons.

Promote the general welfare…

IMG_3555The 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary gives us a good sense of what the framers meant by “general welfare” as it applied to states: “Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applied to states.” However, apart from the usual class representations of workers’ implements and garments (shovel, wheelbarrow, overalls), this frieze probably represents general welfare as it was popularly understood in the 1930s.

Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…

LibertyThis is the most telling omission of them all — the depiction of liberty is completely absent! Returning to Webster’s dictionary of 1828, liberty is “Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind.” Considering the strict criteria imposed on prospective citizens, in terms of meeting  age, race, religion, income, health, family size, financial reliability, clean living habits, and community spirit requirements, there were all sorts of restraints imposed and a distinct absence of liberty. Perhaps this absence of individual liberty is in line with the thoughts of Lewis Mumsford, one of the leading critics of urban architecture of the day. As Michael J. Lewis noted in “Ego, vanity & megalomania,” “By early 1932 Mumford was becoming skeptical about capitalist individualism, writing that ‘communism seems to me to grow inevitably out of our lives today in communities… . Such individualism as we shall develop must now be expressed through the collective enterprise.'”


As is no doubt apparent, I’m not very fond of Straus’s sculptures, either aesthetically or conceptually. But regardless of whether you’re a fan of Social Realism and/or the New Deal, Greenbelt is still worth a visit. Aside from the Federal government intervention at the community level, the curious imposition of monopolistic community co-ops, and intrusive and racist social engineering, many of the design features found here such as walking paths and small community parks can be found in later planned communities in the area like Fairlington or Reston, VA, and serve the community well.



The difficulty I had writing about Greenbelt was what to put in and what to leave out. There is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of related fragmentary information floating around, and I’m sure others have done more research and covered it better.

It is a mystery to me how Lenore Thomas Straus, who is politely described as a “self-taught” sculptor, landed the contract to sculpt the freizes, if contract there was, and why such great lengths were taken to create an aura of constitutionality for what seems so clearly to be an extra-constitutional overreach of Federal authority. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that her soon-to-be husband, Robert Ware Straus, was a Special Assistant in the Information Division of the Department of the Interior, headed by Harold L. Ickes. (Not to be confused with his son, Harold M. Ickes, who served as deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and later as special advisor to Hillary Clinton while she served as Secretary of State.) The Straus family lived in Accoteek, MD, where the Robert Ware Straus Ecosystem Farm today bears his name, and they were fond of hosting birdwatching get-togethers for their friends, many of which included Mr. and Mrs. Alger Hiss.

Hiss, of course, was later accused of being a Soviet spy and convicted of perjury in connection with this charge in 1950. His conviction remains the object of contention today, despite the fact that after the 1995 release of the heretofore classified Venona Project files, the bipartisan Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, chaired by Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, concluded that, “The complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled.” Moynihan later wrote that, “Belief in the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss became a defining issue in American intellectual life. Parts of the American government had conclusive evidence of his guilt, but they never told.”

What does this have to do with Greenbelt? Maybe nothing; maybe a lot. It’s clear that information from the Soviet Union formed the initial inspiration for its construction, so it would not surprise me if the information flow wound up being a two-way exchange.

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The second week

Last week was the second week into the six more weeks of winter Punxsutawney Phil predicted we will have to slog through back on February 1st, and I hope it doesn’t get any worse than this. Folks living up in New England or wherever would surely scoff, but here in the Tidewater area, 20 degrees below freezing is pretty darn cold. If folks around here wanted it like this all winter long, they’d move to someplace further north.

Washington’s Birthday

No, it’s not President’s Day in Virginia, it’s Washington’s Birthday, and rightly so. That’s the official Federal holiday designation, too — it’s only some of the states that refer to “President’s Day.” Personally, I think having an undifferentiated  holiday for all of the presidents is a Bad Idea: more than a few presidents are not particularly memorable.

The great thing about Washington’s Birthday around here is that everyone is invited over to his place to help celebrate: admission to Mount Vernon is free, and it opens two hours early to accommodate the rush. Accordingly, we all piled over to Mount Vernon at 8 o’clock and were among the first to enter the Texas Gate. Good thing, too, because despite the 8-degree F temperature at opening time, busloads of tourists were pulling up within the hour.

The "necessary"Speaking of the 8-degree temperature, one of the little buildings you pass by on your way to the mansion is the “Necessary.” (You know, the privy.) It’s pretty rough getting up to do your business in the morning and finding ice on the surface of the seats, so George and his family must have had a hard time staying “regular” during a cold winter. It calls to mind this anecdote about a side effect of cold winters and icy toilets:

“Constipation has sometimes produced the bloodiest scenes. My grandfather, who died a centenarian, was Cromwell’s apothecary; he has often told me that Cromwell had not been to the toilet for a week when he had his king’s head cut off.”
– Voltaire, Count Chesterfield’s Ears, 1775

Despite its size, it’s difficult to get in much more than about a 2-mile walk around Mount Vernon, although I think we bumped it up a bit, returning to the New Tomb to observe the annual wreath laying ceremony.

Huntley Meadows

The day after Washington’s Birthday someone reminded me that Thursday was the Chinese New Year. It was a little late to plan anything, and most folks have to work on Thursday’s anyway, but I thought it was a really great reason to have a belated New Year’s luncheon the Saturday after at my favorite Chinese restaurant. Huntley Meadows is just around the corner for a nice walk, so that settled the matter. Although I go to Huntley Meadows all the time and could almost hike the route blindfolded, given the snow and ice, I figured I’d better go snoop around on Thursday afternoon. As it turned out, Thursday was reasonably sunny — on Saturday another round of snow hit just as we were hiking, which is always a treat. These photos are from Thursday.

The bad news is, there’s still four more weeks to go. The good news is, at the end of it is the Cherry Blossom Festival! 🙂

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A brief reprieve

Consulting the weather forecast is always a good idea when planning hikes (or any outdoor activities), but especially during the winter season. Even then, you just never know what you’re going to get.

A couple of weekends ago we were getting intermittent rain, so to avoid muddy trails, we went on an urban hike through Alexandria, tracing the line of Civil War fortifications from Seminary Ridge to Shuter’s Hill. There’s little left to see of most of the fortifications today: except for Fort Ward, which is nicely preserved, there are only faint outlines on the ground where Fort Ellsworth once stood, and the Fort Williams and Fort Worth are gone altogether. Nevertheless, it made for a nice hike up and down the hills that dominate the approaches to the city of Alexandria along VA-236 (Duke Street).

While we were doing that hike someone suggested going to Burke Lake the next weekend. A great idea, but with one reservation: since there are fewer visitors during the winter, many parks, including Burke Lake, sometimes lock all their facilities up. (I guess the reasoning is that the few visitors willing to brave the cold are also willing to pee in the woods.) To get around this we hiked from South Run Park, which has a nice recreation center with an indoor pool. Starting from there adds 3 miles onto the 5-mile hike around Burke Lake, but on the bitter cold, windy day it turned out to be, nobody minded the extra distance.

This past weekend was a study in contrasts. The forecast was for a clear, sunny Saturday, so without muddy trails to worry about, a hike along Billy Goat Trails B and C in Carderock would be just the thing. As it turned out, Saturday was a cold day, with children playing ice hockey along one stretch of the C&O Canal.

Sunday was supposed to be colder and rainy, possibly icy, so an urban hike through the Woodley Park and Woodland Normanstone districts in Washington DC seemed to be just the thing. Our route took us through Tregaron Conservancy and Dumbarton Oaks, as well as a nice stretch through Rock Creek Park. Dumbarton Oaks’ gardens are free to visit during the winter, and its museum, in addition to having fascinating exhibits of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, is a nice place to warm up. But Sunday’s temperatures soared above 60 degrees — a brief but glorious reprieve from winter!

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Blue skies and the perils of hiking backwards

We closed out last year with a visit to National Harbor, Maryland, a 6-mile hike across Wilson Bridge and back from Jones Point Park in Virginia. The sunny skies’ brilliant blue, reflected in the glassy calm of the Potomac River, made for a picturesque hike. Only two weeks later, and about twenty degrees colder, we returned to Jones Point Park and saw quite a different picture when walking along the Old Town Alexandria waterfront. The Potomac River was still pretty calm all right, but it was also a sheet of ice in many places.

In between the two, on New Year’s Day, we visited Sky Meadows, which certainly lived up to its name. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park, and leads through several hilltop meadows that yield beautiful views and big blue skies.

This past Sunday we went for a winter hike clockwise around Georgetown, covering stretches of the C&O Canal, Foundry Branch, and Archbold and Whitehaven Parkways along the way. Only a week or so ago I reconnoitered the last three areas (Foundry, Archbold and Whitehaven), except I was hiking the route counterclockwise. Hiking the other direction on Sunday’s hike, I took a fork in Whitehaven Parkway that I hadn’t even noticed on my earlier visit and found myself unceremoniously dumped into an alley off W Street! After a few turns through side streets we were back on the planned route again, but it’s a reminder that reconnoitering a hike in one direction, and then doing it with a group backwards in the other is a Bad Idea.

On the plus side, temporarily straying off course led us to a nice mural on a set of steps along W Place NW at Tunlaw Road NW. The mural is dedicated to Charles C. Glover, the prominent Washington banker who was instrumental in the construction of the National Cathedral, Rock Creek Park, and the National Zoo. (If you want to see an eye opener, take a look at the steps before the mural was painted. Area beautification continues…) Carlton Fletcher wrote an interesting bio of Glover, and his role in assaulting members of Congress and changing the Washington DC landscape, as well as a companion bio of Anne Archbold, who donated some of the land that comprises today’s Glover-Archbold Park.

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Hiking the holidays

Actually, this post is about hiking over the entire month of December, to date! But given that merchants, the media, and accompanying decor shift into Christmas holiday mode the very second after the Thanksgiving feast is served, I figure I’m on solid ground. Here’s a few selected hikes from the past month.

Historic Vienna and the W&OD Trail

The first weekend in December were taken up with a hike at Buzzard Rock, which I wrote about reconnoitering earlier, and a hike along the W&OD Trail in Vienna, Virginia. The W&OD Trail can be rather uneventful, since it’s flat, paved, and relatively straight. However, these disadvantages are positive virtues when rain is in the offing and you don’t want to be caught slogging around in the mud on a rainy December morning. Starting from the Vienna Community Center, our route took us past the historic train station to the “Terror by the Tracks” historical marker and back, with sidetracks to visit Salsbury Spring, which once provided drinking water and cooled the milk for a 250-acre dairy farm, and Freeman (Lydecker’s) Store. All told, 5.5 miles of smiles, finishing up just as the rain began!

Christmas in the City

A lot of folks take off the last couple of weeks in December to fly home, so the second weekend in December was the last opportunity for a hike around the National Mall in Washington DC that you could expect most folks to be available to attend.  Starting from the Smithsonian Visitor Center, our 4-mile route took us all around the Mall to check out the National Christmas Tree, the US Capitol Christmas Tree, and visit the US Botanic Garden, which was decorated especially for its annual “Season’s Greenings” display. Almost 200 folks took the time to enjoy the hike!

Old Town Holiday Lights

Wish I could take credit for this idea, but it wasn’t mine. A walk around Old Town Alexandria to look at the Christmas decorations? What else would the Alexandria Walking & Hiking Group be expected to do but visit Old Town? I guess it was a blinding flash of the obvious that just never occurred to me. o_O In any case, we had a nice 4-mile walk from King Street Station to the Potomac waterfront and back, detouring near the end to visit the Alexandria Holiday Market!

Only one weekend left to hike in 2014, but those hikes are the subject for a future post!

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Buzzard Rock

Had a great time yesterday reconnoitering a hike on Buzzard Rock, just southwest of Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s an easy to moderate 4-mile hike with a 650-foot elevation gain, and offers a nice climb and spectacular views in exchange for an hour’s drive from the Vienna Metro Station in northern Virginia.

To get there is simple: you drive west on I-66 for almost 56 miles, take exit 6 to US-340/US-522, drive south about a mile, then turn right onto VA-55 W/ W Strasburg Road and drive about 5 miles. At a historical marker for the “State Fish Hatchery” you turn left onto State Route 678/Fort Valley Road, follow it for a bit over a mile, and turn left again onto State Route 619/Mountain Road, at a sign for the “Virginia Fish Cultural Station.” (Seems like another way to say fish hatchery, but whatever.) After driving just over a mile you’ll see the trailhead sign on your right. The approximate address is 3134 Mountain Road, Front Royal, VA 22630, GPS = 38.937690, -78.288351. Here’s a Google map of the drive: http://tinyurl.com/p3arh9b  

The trailhead is on the south side of the parking area, which is big enough for a dozen cars or so. The first mile and a half of hiking is pretty easy going: follow the white trail blazes as the trail winds around through the woods and over a couple of sparse rivulets, until you reach the rather abrupt final ascent to the north ridge overlook. The overlook features wonderful views to the west, north and east, so a short break is in order to catch your breath and enjoy the view.

From there you just face about and continue south and up along the ridgeline, continuing to follow the white trail blazes, for another about another half mile to the top of Buzzard Rock North, enjoying views from the cliffs on either side along the way. This portion is very rocky and narrow, with sheer cliffs on both sides, so if you have difficulties with depth perception, this stretch is probably best avoided.

The white-blazed trail continues down into a saddle and on a couple more miles to Shawl Gap, but for this hike, it’s time to turn around and retrace your steps to the parking area. Here’s a Google map of the hike: http://tinyurl.com/k9xxh3l 

H/T to Hiking Upward for their overview of the hike.

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