Road Trip 2017 #3 – La Brea Tar Pits

On our first full day in California, we headed – with the extended family – to the La Brea Tar Pits.  This was something I had always wanted to do in LA yet had never actually gotten around to doing so I was really looking forward to it.  The Tar Pits are actually free to visit but we paid for entry tickets so that we could also visit the on-site museum.  It is, therefore, a bit like visiting a very cool, unique public park.

The tar pits are a result of natural asphalt rising up from the earth and seeping through the surface.  These same tar pits have been bubbling and oozing in this way for millennia.  Back in prehistoric times, this gloopy tar would trap animals who got too close and found themselves stuck.  It was explained that while herbivores might become stuck, they would then be joined by carnivores who were opportunistically hoping to devour the trapped beasts but would then themselves become trapped.  In my mind, I envisaged a pyramid of Ice Age creatures all glued together with black sludge.  The black lakes of asphalt would then swallow these corpses down only to burp them back out again millennia later as fossils.  Because the oils would be absorbed into the bones, they acted as a preservative.  This means that not only has La Brea provided paleontologists with amazing finds of large mammal bones but it has also provided them with tiny fossils of rodent bones, plants, and seeds.

DSC_0161

While people were obviously aware of the tar pits during that whole time period – the local indigenous people using it to seal their boats and ranchers losing livestock in them – it was not until the early 20th Century that any effort was made to excavate the pits and record the fossil finds.  We were able to visit one such excavation pit and could also spectate as volunteers picked through sludge from barrels of tar searching for fossils.  I thought it was pretty cool to be visiting a site still being actively excavated and researched after a century.  Little me had considered being a paleontologist until I spent a day with a paleontologist and learned how much science was involved in the process.  I did not and still do not possess a scientifically wired mind.  I still find the whole subject fascinating though.

DSC_0157

What was great about the tar pits being in a park was that my feral kids could run around and climb to their heart’s content while we adults moved more slowly from pit to pit (which are safely fenced off) taking time to read the information boards and really look at things.  In one area, the tar was really bubbling.  Cousin J and I found ourselves staring, mesmerised by the continuous formation and popping of gloopy black bubbles on the shiny surface of the tar pond.  I think if I owned a tar pit, I would find it rather calming.  The kids meanwhile were rather enjoying clambering all over the full-size statues of giant sloths and other prehistoric critters.  They also found areas of grass where tar was seeping through the surface.  Immediately, all five kids would find sticks to poke into the tar.  If they thought they might pull out a mammoth femur, they were sadly disappointed.  Simply poking the sticks into the black sludge seemed to occupy and entertain them, however.

DSC_0169

DSC_0171

DSC_0184

DSC_0202

One of the big features of the La Brea Tar Pits is a lake.  From a distance, it looks like an ordinary lake, albeit muddy and unappealing looking.  Up close, however, it is clear that the oil and asphalt beneath the surface are mixing with the water to create a slick and bubbling pool.  What was interesting to me was the way the slick scum of the surface would gather at the edge of the water, creating rippling rings.  There were models of adult mammoths and a baby at the shoreline to illustrate the “nature red in tooth and claw” point about creatures getting sucked in and mired in the tar, stuck there for eternity – or until a paleontologist scoops them out of a barrel millennia later at least.

DSC_0214

After a quick lunch of fresh fruit, we headed into the Museum.  The kids enjoyed a 3D movie about the tar pits, showing mammals getting gulped down as they wandered across the treacherous landscape.  For me, however, the highlight was getting to see so many reconstructed fossils from the site.  There was a colossal mammoth (if that isn’t a tautology), a giant sloth, prehistoric horses, sabretooths, a cave lion, birds, some sort of archaic bison, and dire wolves galore.  If memory serves (which it possibly doesn’t, not reliably anyway) then I think I read that more dire wolves have been discovered at La Brea than any other mammal.  This is perhaps because wolves hunt in packs so if one wolf ran into the tar then probably a whole lot of its chums did too.  There was a neat diorama showing dire wolves running as if on the hunt with the wolves depicted in different stages of reconstruction, from bare fossils to fur-covered, taxidermy style.  There was also a vast wall of brightly coloured, lit boxes each showcasing a single dire wolf skull.  While there, a museum docent let the littlest Pict touch the skulls of a coyote, a modern wolf, a fox, and a model of a dire wolf skull.

DSC_0264

DSC_0259

DSC_0242

DSC_0238

I am so glad I finally made it to the La Brea tar pits.  It was a really cool and interesting place to spend a few hours in LA.

Harpers Ferry

After our day spent at Antietam Battlefield, we spent Memorial Day at another site important to the history of the Civil War: Harpers Ferry.  We had actually attempted to visit Harpers Ferry last Summer as part of our road trip.  That plan had to be abandoned because of torrential rain.  This was our second chance to visit and we hoped we would not be rained off again.

The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park.  As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town.  We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town.  It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town.  The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation.  It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet.  All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry.  Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal.  It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.

Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge.  This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights.  The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage.  We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal.  The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal.  We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views.  Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain.  Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.

DSC_0117

DSC_0123

DSC_0134

Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort.  The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion.  Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure.  They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house.  It all went horribly wrong from there.  The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege.  They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time.  That brought the raid to an end.  Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War.  The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times.  Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II.  In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.

DSC_0147

DSC_0143

2017-05-29 11.17.00

That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town.  The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines.  The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries.  I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings.  We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.

2017-05-29 10.36.47

DSC_0157

DSC_0178

We then popped into a confectionery shop.  This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history.  The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history.  The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties.  There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards.  I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section.  Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras.  We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.

DSC_0171

DSC_0169

DSC_0168

Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car.  Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side.  It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch.  The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town.  I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit.  The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal.  We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water.  The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.

DSC_0192

DSC_0199

DSC_0202

 

 

 

 

Antietam

Last weekend was Memorial Weekend here in the United States.  Memorial Day commemorates members of the country’s armed forces who have died in service.  As such, it seemed apt that we spent Memorial Weekend touring Civil War sites.  Our first stop was Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Confederate General Robert E Lee moved his army from Virginia towards the north and into Union territory.  Around the same time, Union General George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, Maryland.  On 17 September 1862, these two forces collided on the Antietam Creek in what would be the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War – and indeed the bloodiest day in American military history.  Of the approximately 100,000 soldiers involved in the battle, there were 23,000 casualties.  Ultimately Lee was repulsed back into Virginia and the Union held the area.

We started our tour at the Visitor’s Center where we chanced upon a small reenactment group marching and firing guns.  The Visitor Center itself offered a useful synopsis of the battle as there was a short movie to watch and some exhibits.  I found both to be particularly handy since – as I have explained before – I am not all that keen on military history.  The documentary fixed the broad stroke events of the day in my head while the exhibits in the small museum helped me engage with the subject through seeing things like medical field kits, uniforms, and drums.  What I learned (or relearned since Mr Pict has told me this several times) is that Antietam was a pivotal battle in the Civil War and not just because of the Union victory.  It was also significant because it led to Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and prevented Britain and France from getting involved in the conflict.

DSC_0018

Mr Pict decided to lead us around the site according to the chronology of the battle.  We, therefore, started at what was once woods and cornfields.  I look at the landscape of a battlefield and really cannot engage with it.  It’s just landscape to me.  I need features and clear narratives.  I need the human side of things rather than tactics.  I, therefore, left Mr Pict and the kids to wander around the fields while I headed into the Dunker Church.  The Church, belonging to a pacifist German sect, had been on site for just ten years before it became a focal point of the bloody battle.  Being inside I was reminded of what I had read of the townspeople.  They hid in basements and caves during the battle and emerged to find their properties destroyed (one deliberately) and scenes of horrific slaughter.  While there was not a civilian casualty in the battle, the soldiers malingered in town long enough to spread disease to the civilian population.  Always finding the social history angle on the military history.

DSC_0025

DSC_0046

DSC_0041

DSC_0048

Our next stop was the dramatically named “Bloody Lane”.  This was a sunken road that cut through the farmland.  The Confederates were using the built up land around the road as a parapet and were able to fire down upon the Union soldiers who were moving across the farmland and were funneled into the narrow sunken road.  The result was absolute carnage as illustrated by the photographs of Alexander Gardner.  Knowing those photographs as I do, I found it quite haunting to be walking along Bloody Lane.  I could actually visualise the horror of the scene.  We emerged from the sunken road at an observation tower.  As much as I appreciate a good view, I took one look at the narrow and open iron staircase inside and decided against ascending.  Instead, I waved from the bottom at my husband and children at the top.

DSC_0062

DSC_0071

DSC_0074

DSC_0075

DSC_0083

I would have loved to have moved on to the National Cemetery because I love cemeteries.  However, it started to rain hard.  We were wearing our raincoats so were largely protected from the rain but the grass was slippy under foot and it was muggy and sticky which feels gross when wearing waterproof layers.  And everyone was protesting about visiting a cemetery so there was that too.  We, therefore, hoofed it back to the car and drove to the next destination and battle point: the lower bridge, also known as Burnside Bridge.  Once there, 50% of our troops refused to trek down to the bridge so Mr Pict, the 10 year old and I plodded on with our reduced numbers.  On the day of the battle, the bridge was being held by Confederate troops (from Georgia if I am remembering the video accurately) who were able to pick off the approaching Union soldiers with ease from their position on the bluff overlooking the bridge and the road approaching it.  After being in the sunken road, it would appear that the theme of the day had been carnage in narrow spaces.

DSC_0090

DSC_0093

The highlight of my 10 year old’s trip to Antietam was “befriending” a millipede.  At least, unlike his brothers, he actually saw all three key sites.  I have decided that one day they will look back and appreciate that their father and I dragged them on all of these trips to historic places.

DSC_0101

DSC_0102

Mother’s Day in Batsto

 

DSC_0015

Trigger Warning: This post contains a single photo of a spider.

It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and, as my Mother’s Day treat, I wanted to go and explore somewhere new.  This Spring has been totally drecih –  a good Scots word for dreary.  It has been chilly, grey, and wet, and not very conducive to getting out and about.  Between the weather and a too busy schedule, I felt like I was getting cabin fever from not getting out and about and exploring.  So Mother’s Day was the perfect day for going for a wander somewhere new.  We chose to go to Batsto, an abandoned town in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  I learned about the existence of Batsto from Richard Lewis’ wonderful photography blog.  Rich was actually kind enough to let me pick his brains about things to do and places to explore in the Pine Barrens.  My boys are good walkers with great stamina but we have learned from experience that they enjoy themselves a lot more and whine a lot less if we provide some sort of focus to our hikes, rambles, and wanderings.  I felt that exploring Batsto Village as a prelude to hiking a trail would be a great day out.

Our first port of call was the Visitor’s Center.  This was primarily so we could use the restroom after our drive from the Philly ‘burbs but it also provided a useful introduction to the history of the town.  Interpretative boards and exhibits informed us that Batsto was founded in the mid-18th Century – though the Lenni Lenape lived in the area before.  It was a chap named Charles Read who set up the first ironworks there, using the bog ore found in the area and trees from the woodland for the smelting furnaces.  That Batsto Iron Works changed hands a few times and had a boom period during the Revolutionary War as it provided a range of products, including munitions, to the Continental Army.  Then, in the mid-19th Century, as the iron works declined, Batsto became a glassworking area, particularly renowned for its production of window glass.  The village came under state ownership in the 1950s and the last resident left in the 1980s.

DSC_0010

A little bit of history absorbed, we ventured outdoors to begin our explorations.  We saw a pile of bog ore and the remains of a wooden ore boat, used to transport the raw ore from the lake.  We also saw the ice house where food provisions could be stored.  Huge chunks of ice would be cut from the lake and packed with saw dust inside the ice house so that the food could be stored there without it spoiling.  I am old enough to remember some people still having cold cupboards in their houses rather than refrigerators but it was a good opportunity to explain to my kids how things were done before electricity and the advent of domestic appliances.  Another outbuilding contained carriages, some of which looked like carcasses picked clean by carrion.  Other barns would have housed different farm animals.  In the wheelwright and blacksmith workshops, the many and various tools of the trade were on display.  I could almost imagine the blacksmith and wheelwright wandering in, picking up the equipment, and setting to work.

2017-05-14 13.00.04

DSC_0035

DSC_0049

DSC_0058

DSC_0051

DSC_0070

The younger boys enjoyed playing inside the mule barn.  Unfortunately, rather than taking inspiration from the actual setting and playing a game of old-timey farmers, they decided to turn it into a horror game in which they had to stay steps ahead of some malevolent ghosts who were tracking them down.  There were some genuine shrieks when they found themselves squeezed into thickly webbed corners with spiders.  Thankfully no other visitors were within earshot at the time.  While they spooked each other, I took my time studying the Corn Crib.  I had never seen such an agricultural structure before and its strange shape really appealed to me.  It was as if a wonky pentagon shaped barn had had a tunnel bored through its centre.  This was where corn was stored and shucked.  The machinery that did so was powered by a water turbine attached to the adjacent Gristmill.  This was another building the boys enjoyed exploring because there were multiple accessible levels within it.  The basement layer was also thick with dusty grit which enabled them to scrawl spooky messages to each other – and any visitors who followed after us.

DSC_0086

DSC_0084

2017-05-14 13.22.41

DSC_0100

DSC_0130

DSC_0105

DSC_0120

DSC_0126

In the middle of all of these agricultural and industrial buildings were a mansion and a general store.  I absolutely loved the architectural design of the mansion because it was so utterly crazy.  There were a variety of shapes and angles on every facet of the house.  There were also windows of every shape and style.  Maybe I liked it because it was quirky.  Maybe it was because it was the type of house I might end up drawing with no symmetry or organised pattern to the design.  I would love to take a tour of its interior some time.  We could go inside the general store which was fun.  The interior contained a display much like customers would have encountered upon entering the store.  I am a sucker for things being stored in little drawers and little pigeonholes.  I have fond memories of selecting penny sweeties (candy) from wooden drawers when I was wee which might be part of it.  I, therefore, particularly liked seeing the drawers of spices.  Mr Pict liked the veranda outside the general store.  It put him in mind of westerns.  I think he could imagine sitting in a rocking chair watching the world go by from that veranda.

DSC_0284

DSC_0145

DSC_0054

DSC_0033

DSC_0110

DSC_0133

DSC_0135

DSC_0138

DSC_0141

DSC_0142

We took the path past the lake and a weir roaring with water.  This brought us to the area where the iron furnaces once stood and the site where the glassworks would have been.  Little or no trace remains of either.  The sawmill was still standing, however, and we could see how the trees from the surrounding woodland would have been turned into lumber products, including shingles for the exterior of houses.

DSC_0157

DSC_0148

DSC_0161

DSC_0180

DSC_0194

DSC_0198

DSC_0207

DSC_0212

Just a little way off from the sawmill were all the remaining village houses.  These were houses, built in the early 19th Century, that occupied by the village workers.  A few of them were open so that we could go in and see the rooms and some mock ups of how they would have been furnished.  I always like to imagine how people would have lived in the past, being much more interested in social history than industrial history.

DSC_0241

DSC_0231

DSC_0252

DSC_0276

DSC_0280

Our intention had been to take one of the nature trails that leads off from Batsto.  However, the children were getting hungry which makes them grizzlier than bears.  We knew that setting out on a trek was inviting disaster that would start with grumbles and escalate to snarls.  We, therefore, determined that we would walk through the woods to the church that once served the people of Batsto and is still in service today for the local community.  Half way down the trail, however, we discovered that the path ahead was flooded with no obvious way around.  It had rained hard all day the previous day so this was not all together surprising but it was disappointing.  Mr Pict and I decided not to push our luck with the kids and their stomachs so, with a sigh, we turned around and headed back through the woods, through the village, and back to the car.

DSC_0256

DSC_0262

Rich had recommended a few places to eat in the area so we headed to one of these.  I love to eat out for Mother’s Day as it means I don’t have to cook or clean.  I love it even more if the food is especially delicious.  The Vincetown Diner did not disappoint.  It had the relaxing, laid back atmosphere and spaciousness of a diner but the food was a step up from regular diner food (though I am actually a fan of diner food).  I had crab cakes with garlic mash and lemon aoli which was packed with flavour and stuffed me to the gunnels.  My eyes were bigger than my belly and had scanned the dessert case on the way to our seats so I still went ahead and ordered the chocolate volcano cake.  I was only able to eat one mouthful of it so I boxed it up and had it the next day.  Still scrumptious.

2017-05-14 16.48.28

We had a superb day out exploring the Pine Barrens.  We will likely return to Batsto again, maybe in a different season, and we would also like to explore more of the surrounding area and trek along some of the trails.  I also hope the dreary weather has ended now so that this can be the first of many weekend wanderings.  We have been cooped up for too long.

A Bunny Timeline of European History

This week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt was Time which was ironic because it took me the entire week to find the time to even sit down at my art table.  I was, however, thinking about the prompt all week and had all sorts of ideas running around in my head.  I initially thought of time travel and HG Wells.  My 9 year old Steampunk fan was very keen on that idea but just the thought of drawing all sorts of cogs and gizmos made me feel stressed.  After that, I had all sorts of different ideas.  It was, however, a chat with a friend about our shared love of ‘Blackadder’ that led to what finally appeared on my journal page.  The idea of taking a character and plonking them in different periods of history combined with my habit of drawing funny bunnies.  I decided to limit myself to eight drawings and to European history so that it did not become a crazily big project.  Once I had the idea and some time at my art table, I was able to whip through the illustrations really quickly as they are just ink and watercolour.  I chose to depict a bunny as a neanderthal, Roman, Viking, in a Medieval costume complete with codpiece, as an Elizabethan with a large ruff, as a Regency dandy, as a Victorian gent, and as a World War One Tommy.

7a Bunny European History Timeline

7b Bunny European History Timeline

7c Bunny European History Timeline

7d Bunny European History Timeline

 

Eastern State Penitentiary

Thanksgiving is one of my favourite things about living in America.  Of course, I am glossing over the horrible history of European colonialism and the acts of oppression and genocide towards the indigenous population that are enshrined in the mythology of Thanksgiving.  My husband and kids may be Mayflower descendants but we still don’t truck with that whole lore of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around peacefully and munching corn and turkey as an act of friendship.  No, forget the mythologising.  What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that not only celebrates gratitude but also togetherness.  We have four solid days together as a family to just relax and enjoy each other’s company – and eat a disgusting quantity of delicious food.  As the mother and chief organiser of any festivity or event, I am also thankful that Thanksgiving involves minimal preparation and stress.  No gifts to buy or wrap, no decorating to be done, just food to be purchased, cooked, and feasted upon.  And that enjoyment of a stress-free, low-hassle holiday is precisely why – despite my thriftiness and love of a bargain – I don’t participate in any Black Friday madness.  I loathe shopping at the best of times.  Fighting through frenzied crowds in the hopes of finding things I actually wanted or needed at a much lower price is not the best of times.  This Black Friday, therefore, we steered clear of any shopping and shoppers and instead headed into Philadelphia to absorb some local history.

Our destination for the day was Eastern State Penitentiary.  The prison is an imposing building of thick stone walls in the centre of Philadelphia.  We entered through the original entry way and were directed into what was once the guard’s armoury to purchase our tickets and pick up our audio guides.  A few steps later and we found ourselves in the grounds of the prison and all sense that we were in the middle of a major city melted away.  The thickness and height of the walls meant that barely any sights or sounds from the city outside intruded on our wanderings and we could immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the historic prison.

DSC_0001

DSC_0005

DSC_0007

DSC_0121

The building of the prison was completed in 1836 and was modelled on a wheel-spoke design.  A central, octagonal rotunda served as the hub of the building while the corridors containing the cells radiated from this hub so that guards could more easily observe what was happening and navigate the prison.  It is an architectural design I have seen in old British prisons and asylums but I don’t know which side of the Atlantic developed the idea first.  The cells were obviously now in a state of ruin but we could see from the recreated cell that they would have always been very spartan but spacious enough.  While the only light was through a hole in the ceiling – known as the “Eye of God” – the cells did have a rudimentary system of flushing toilets and pipes that filled with hot water to keep the cells warm in Winter. We were able to wander along most of these corridor spokes and poke our noses into the decaying cells, many of which were in ruins all while listening to Steve Buscemi relate the history of the prison through our headsets.

DSC_0012

DSC_0020

Eastern State Penitentiary had instituted what was a novel approach to corrections by insisting that all prisoners held within its walls be subjected to what essentially amounted to solitary confinement.  There were initially no doors into the cells from the corridors, just hatches to allow food to be passed in and for guards to observe the prisoner.  Access to each cell was gained through a door from the exterior, via the exercise yard.  We learned that if prisoners were being moved around the prison they were made to don hoods over their heads which both prevented them seeing their fellow inmates and their fellow inmates being able to identify them.  Obviously with the benefit of hindsight we know this to be harsh treatment but this model was actually very enlightened for its time and was motivated by a desire to improve the experiences of prisoners and their quality of life and inspire them to true penitence.  Nevertheless, knowing what we now know about the awful psychological impact of that degree of isolation, I felt quite chilled.  This insistence on solitary confinement ended in the early 20th Century not because reformers were concerned about mental health but because the prison was so overcrowded that it was no longer feasible to keep all the inmates separated.

DSC_0029

DSC_0045

DSC_0049

DSC_0091

We emerged from one spoke out into the exercise yard.  There was a playing field for sports and also a greenhouse and gardening area.  In the middle of the scrubby baseball diamond, a large bar graph was used to illustrate how rates of incarceration in the US have rocketed in recent decades and how the US imprisons far more of its population than any other country in the world.  This was not news to me but seeing it presented in such a way, through a simple but dominating sculpture, and within the context of the stone walls of a prison really made the message quite stark.  Some areas of the penitentiary were being used as exhibition spaces for various art installations, some permanent and others revolving.  One, for instance, was used to recreate the cells found at the detention camp at Guantanamo.  Another had been made by a former prisoner while incarcerated and comprised panels made from sections of his bed linen.  He had apparently mailed each little piece of fantasy landscape home upon its completion so that it was only once he was released that he could piece the whole thing together.  All pieced together, it covered the walls of one particular cell.  Another cell had walls glowing with flecks of gold paint as the artist had added fragments of gold leaf among the pieces of peeling, flaking paint on the walls.  I thought that suggested not only something about the possibility for redemption and rehabilitation but also something about the importance of finding value and beauty in the ugly and ruined, preserving history and the importance of places even with such superficially awful histories as prisons.  Plus I love gold, shiny things.  The most arresting of the art exhibits to my mind, however, was a cell containing monochrome portraits suspended from the ceiling.  Each portrait depicted a person who had been murdered by one of the inmates of the penitentiary.  While I had been feeling a strong sense of pity and sorrow for the prisoners who had been held in the prison from its opening right up to 1970 when it really must have already been deteriorating, that exhibit punchily reminded me that some of those people I was pitying had committed despicable and violent crimes.  My kids were especially taken with a display in one cell which would not have looked out of place in a museum of natural history.  It was a collection of specimens gathered within the confines of the prison – insects, birds, and even a mummified cat.

DSC_0080

DSC_0085

DSC_0094

DSC_0112

DSC_0114

I enjoyed the glimpses into everyday life at the prison.  One cell contained a barber’s chair and I could well imagine prisoners gathering there to have their hair cut and chat and gossip just as would happen in any other barber shop.  I was also able to pop into the beautifully restored synagogue that was nestled between corridor spokes.  We also got to see Al Capone’s cell with its recreation of his home comforts.  Eastern State Penitentiary was the site of Capone’s first prison experience and I don’t think it was altogether miserable for him.  Apparently, while the media made much of Capone receiving special treatment while he was imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, he was probably being treated not vastly differently from the average inmate in that era of the prison’s life, maybe just a few simple perks. Recent research, we were told, explains that the radio he had in his cell was purchased from its previous occupant and also indicates that Capone had to share a cell when surely not having to share would have been one of the first luxuries insisted upon if in receipt of special treatment.

DSC_0104

DSC_0098

DSC_0070

DSC_0117

It truly was a fascinating place in and of itself but also in terms of the wider context of penal history and attitudes towards punishment and rehabilitation.  I could easily have spent another hour or two wandering around the Penitentiary, listening to every last morsel of the audio tour.  However, our kids – especially the 11 year old – had had enough and were at the threshold of what they were willing to tolerate.  We, therefore, chose not to push our luck and to depart while the going was good.  I was very pleased to tick off another historic Philadelphia landmark from my list of places I must visit.

DSC_0141

DSC_0055

Laurel Hill Cemetery

Peculiar though it might seem, for my birthday trip I chose to go for an explore of Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Although I don’t think I qualify as a taphophile, I have always loved cemeteries.  Along with museums, art galleries and libraries, they are my favourite places to visit.  Cemetery trips feature not infrequently on this blog as a result.  It is only surprising, therefore, that it has taken me three years of living in the suburbs of Philadelphia before visiting one of its historic cemeteries.

2016-11-06 12.15.36

Laurel Hill Cemetery sits on a hillside above the Schuylkill River and covers a huge expanse of land.  With all the Autumn colour in the trees, it was a rather beautiful spot for a wander even regardless of the history and funerary sculpture.  The cemetery was founded as a garden cemetery in 1836, originally rural but soon eaten up by the growing city.  In some ways it was reminiscent of the huge municipal London cemeteries I always loved visiting (Kensal Green being my favourite) but it was a little more organic in design and not as regimented in its organisation.  Happily, I had done my usual over-planning thing.  I had printed off a map of the cemetery and used the Find A Grave website to plot the location of the graves I was particularly interested in visiting.  This proved useful because not only were the individual plots not numbered but neither were the different areas of the cemetery.  Thanks to my map, however, we were able to locate almost every grave we were searching for.  Annoyingly one of the graves I missed was that of Scottish born John Notman, the architect who had designed the cemetery.

DSC_0036

We began our trip by popping into the office where a helpful young man provided us with a bigger version of the map I had printed out and some scavenger hunt activities for the kids.  The scavenger hunt was a great idea as it not only kept the kids occupied but also engaged them with subjects such as the symbolism of monumental masonry.  Directly opposite the Gatehouse was a sort of grotto containing a statue depicting Old Mortality, his horse, and the author Sir Walter Scott – plus a bust of their sculptor.  In Scott’s story, Old Mortality wanders around Scotland preserving the memories of Covenanters by carving the inscriptions on their headstones.  Thematic connection to tombstones aside, it was a tad obscure.

DSC_0017

Just behind the statue was our first famous grave of the trip.  In the shrubbery was the Deringer family plot, including the grave of Henry Deringer, the innovative gunsmith known for the Derringer pistol.  Just a short wander away, I found the unassuming grave of Sarah Josepha Hale.  An author and activist, Hale is now principally remembered for two things: it was she who wrote the nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ and who successfully campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday.  Although I am not American, I love Thanksgiving so I shall be sure to raise a glass to Hale in a couple of weeks’ time.

DSC_0018

DSC_0047

I visited the graves of a couple of photographers because one of my nerdy interests is the history of photography (partly because I am descended from a Victorian photographer).  First up was Frederick Gutekunst, one of the most famous American photographers of his era.  His studio particularly boomed as a result of the Civil War as soldiers, including Generals such as Ulysses S Grant, stopped in to have their portraits taken.  I was more excited, however, to find the grave of Robert Cornelius.  Cornelius was a photographic pioneer who, while experimenting in order to perfect the daguerrotype, in 1839 took a self-portrait which is the first photographic portrait.  Cornelius’ grave was small in its own right but was especially small compared to the grand tombstones in that particular area of the cemetery.  I was, however, able to spot it from a distance precisely because of that famous selfie because a small oval copy of it was stuck to the fascia of the grave marker.

DSC_0117

My 11 year old is currently learning about Explorers at school so I dragged him down a few flights of steep stairs past lots of marble mausoleums to find the tomb of Elisha Kent Kane.  Kane, a naval medical officer, was part of two Arctic expeditions launched (in vain) to locate and rescue explorer Sir John Franklin.  The second search led him to travel further north than anyone had previously managed, thereby paving the way for those Arctic explorers who came after him.  Sadly, the site of Kane’s tomb was overgrown and rather neglected.  This was because it was positioned right by the roadside on a fairly steep slope and was, I assume for safety reasons, fenced off from the rest of the cemetery.

DSC_0055

DSC_0061

DSC_0066

When Laurel Hill Cemetery was in its infancy, the founders found it a challenge to attract business.  People were too used to being buried in graveyards next to whichever building they attended for religious services.  They, therefore, had the interesting idea of having the remains of some famous Philadelphians exhumed and then reinterred in the cemetery.  As a business practice, that is a tad ghoulish.  It meant, however, that I got to see the grave of Thomas McKean, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and David Rittenhouse, astronomer, surveyor, and first director of the US Mint.

DSC_0070

The cemetery contains many military graves, including those of over 40 Civil War Generals.  As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he was particularly interested in spotting the Civil War graves.  The two most significant of these that we visited were those of Generals Meade and Pemberton.  General George Meade was a career military man involved in many conflicts but he is known to me for his part in Gettysburg where he led the Army of the Potomac, helped secure the Union’s victory, and contributed to that turning point in the war.  Because Mr Pict takes us all off to Gettysburg at least once a year, Meade was one of the Generals I could have named from the top of my head.  John Clifford Pemberton, on the other hand, is the only Confederate General buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Despite being a northerner and having two brothers fighting for the Union, Pemberton had chosen to fight for the Confederacy for personal reasons.  As a Confederate, his internment in Laurel Hill had been controversial.  Among those who campaigned against his burial there were the family of General Meade.  Ultimately he is there, albeit in a far flung corner of the cemetery.

DSC_0111

DSC_0078

DSC_0157

Finally, we visited the graves of several people associated with the sinking of The Titanic.  I almost literally stumbled over the plot where Lily and Olive Potter, who survived the sinking, were buried.  We then found the Widener Mausoleum on the stretch of the cemetery known as Millionaire’s Row.  The Mausoleum is actually dedicated to Peter A B Widener, the wealthy Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist.  His son, George, and grandson, Harry are also commemorated there.  Both men drowned when the Titanic sank and their bodies were never recovered.  George’s wife Eleanor survived and she established Harvard’s famous Widener library in memory of her son, a passionate collector of rare books.  Lastly, we found the mausoleum of William Crothers Dulles.  Dulles’ was one of the few bodies recovered from the Atlantic and identified, this due to his monogrammed tie clip.

DSC_0131

DSC_0150

DSC_0155

I recognise I have filled this blog post with the potted histories of dead celebrities.  This is because that is something I find it interesting to do when pootling around in cemeteries.  I like the way cemeteries and graveyards intersect with history, whether that is family history, social history, national or global history.  It is in large part because I am a history nerd that I love to visit cemeteries.  However, I also love cemeteries simply because they are lovely spots of wander around in, an oasis of calm and serenity away from the hustle and bustle of the town or city.  Laurel Hill had plenty of that to offer too.  The views across the river and to the rest of the city were pretty impressive, especially when we got onto higher ground, and the Autumn colour in the trees was magnificent.  The boys particularly enjoyed playing in a huge pile of orange leaves.  They rolled around in them, threw leaves in the air, jumped into piles of them, and made “leaf angels” in them.  My 9 year old also made several insect and invertebrate friends on his travels.

DSC_0118

DSC_0079

DSC_0089

DSC_0091

DSC_0095

DSC_0120

The kids also enjoyed having the freedom to roam.  Normally on trips into the city, I have to rein them in a bit in order to keep an eye on them and stop them getting lost.  But in a quiet cemetery, it was possible to let them wander around and explore and be their feral little selves so long as they didn’t wander too far.  Them having a bit of freedom also afforded me the opportunity to seek out the graves I was interested in and also enjoy the monumental sculpture in the cemetery.  One of the most impressive of these was the sculpture on the Warner grave.  The sculpture depicts a soul emerging from the tomb which is being opened by a female figure.  The tomb was sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, fellow Scot and originator of the Calder sculpting dynasty.  The other tomb I really liked was one for a family named Berwind which is marked by a beautiful figurative sculpture titled Aspiration by another local sculptor, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth.

DSC_0103

DSC_0062

DSC_0108

DSC_0173

As you can no doubt discern, I was in nerdy cemetery heaven at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Had I been on my own, I could have kept meandering around the vast cemetery for hours longer.  As it was, Mr Pict and the Pictlings were very tolerant and allowed me plenty of time to explore, locate graves, and take photographs.  After the cemetery, we headed into the city centre for my birthday meal.  We ended up ditching the booking Mr Pict had made at one restaurant because we were too early for the full menu to be available and instead ended up at a Chinese restaurant where we had an amazingly delicious feast and the boys sampled and enjoyed things they might otherwise have not tried.  All in all, therefore, it was a very successful birthday trip.

DSC_0141

DSC_0165