Catoctin Mountain Park
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Four:
The Eve of Acquisition


In the Catoctin Mountain area, the first three decades of the twentieth century witnessed a continuing shift away from an emphasis on industry and farming toward recreation and tourism. The village of Catoctin Furnace, for instance, once a bustling center of industry, increasingly became a quaint tourist stop. By the 1920s, thanks in part to frequent visits to the area by President Herbert Hoover, the Catoctins were gaining a national reputation as a desirable vacation site. The number of local boarding houses steadily grew. Outdoor enthusiasts purchased land, especially along Hunting Creek, for recreational use. On the eve of acquisition, mountain landowners were a diverse lot. But traditional subsistence farms continued to operate, even as pressure gathered for change.

The End of Industry on the Mountain

Following the worker-initiated shutdown in 1903, the formerly bustling village of Catoctin Furnace sat vacant for two years. Many residents of the village, without steady income, descended into poverty. Some turned to looting the roughly 10,677 acres associated with the furnace. In the absence of real furnace ownership, locals viewed the area as a "no-man's land." [1] Looters destroyed fences, took timber for firewood, even stripped the brass from an idle steam shovel. [2]

On February 19, 1906, at noon, a small crowd gathered in Catoctin Furnace to witness the U.S. District Court-ordered auction of the holdings of Blue Mountain Iron and Steel Company. The auction included over 10,000 acres of land, the furnace, office buildings, the company store, the manor house, and the roughly sixty tenement houses in Catoctin Furnace. That day, Joseph E. Thropp, a former congressman and owner of an iron works in Everett, Pennsylvania, stepped forth and purchased the enterprise for $51,135. Following the bidding, Thropp briefly addressed the gathering. First, he threatened any looters, proclaiming that he "would prosecute to the full extent of the law anyone taking or destroying any property even if its value be but 15 cents." Then he promised to rebuild the enterprise, and vowed "to pay 100 cents on the dollar for every dollar I contract." The small crowd applauded in appreciation. [3]

Whether Thropp ever intended to act on his promise to reopen the furnace is unclear; but iron was never again produced at the site. Thropp, however, did reopen the iron ore mines, located to the south of furnace, along present-day Route 15. He shipped ore mined from the Catoctin grounds to his still-operating iron furnace in western Pennsylvania. Local residents were disappointed as it slowly became clear that the iron industry would not be revived. The Catoctin Clarion lamented, "Mr. Thropp . . . does not seem to be going to do anything toward engaging in active work." [4] In 1912, Thropp shut down his operations entirely. Those living in the former company houses continued to pay rents of two dollars a month to Thropp and continued to view the furnace land as a "no-man's land" from which firewood and booty could freely be extracted. Most of the former employees either went to work in the quarries or in the timber industry. For many in the town of Catoctin Furnace, life was hard, and survival required ingenuity. Residents made handkerchiefs from the large sugar bags sold at Henry Farley's Catoctin Furnace General Store. And many families sold chestnuts to pay for winter cloths. [5] Some relief came in 1915 when a Pennsylvania company started a stave mill near the Catoctin Furnace trolley station, which made use of local timber reserves. [6]

"Pleasure Seekers": Growth of Tourism

While the large-scale iron furnace was no longer a presence on the mountain, tourism continued to expand. Hundreds of "pleasure seekers" flocked each summer and fall to the Catoctin Mountains. By the early twentieth century the popularity of larger resort hotels, often owned by railroad companies began to wane. In a movement one historian called "private pastoralism," an increasingly urbanized population began to look for more remote, less expensive lodging. [7] Positioned along a major railroad line, with good scenery, and flowing creeks of fresh water, the Catoctin area was well situated to appeal to the ever-growing herds of excursionists and vacationers.

To make ends meet, a farm wife, on a well-situated plot of land, might open up her house to summer boarders. Attractions would include healthy water and air, trails for hiking, and good cooking. Often a wife and children from Baltimore or Washington DC would arrive for several weeks during the summer and be joined by the husband and father on weekends. The boarding houses assumed fancy names, such as "The Milburn," "The Catoctin," "Idlewhile," and "Aurora Cottage." At one point in the summer of 1906, Aurora Cottage, operate by Miss Florence Geesey, entertained 18 boarders, including one from Brooklyn, New York. That same summer, the boarding house operated by Mrs. W.W. Zimmerman lodged a visitor from Indianapolis. [8] According to a 1913 account, "the favorite point in the mountains for excursionists is Hunting Creek Falls (Cunningham Falls)" as well as Chimney Rock and neighboring Table Rock. [9]

Transportation remained a concern in the mountain area. Tourists, of course, could arrive via the Western Maryland Railroad, which published a yearly guide entitled "Summering on the Western Maryland Railroad," listing boarding house locations and prices. In hopes of helping out farmers and "developing excursion resorts and summer boarding businesses," local politicians and businessmen began exploring the possibility of an electric railroad or trolley to run from Frederick north to Thurmont. [10] No doubt the success of a similar trolley line from Frederick to Braddock Heights built in 1898 encouraged the Catoctin version. [11] Over the years, the Monocacy Valley Railroad, connecting Catoctin Furnace to Thurmont's Western Maryland Railroad Depot, had expanded to connect with the Northern Railroad Company's line between Frederick and Lewistown (built in 1898). This created a direct line between Thurmont and Frederick. After a few years of negotiations, the Potomac Edison Company purchased and electrified the line, and in 1909, the Potomac Edison Railroad enjoyed its maiden voyage. [12] The new electric railroad handled both people and freight, making it, according to some sources, the first railroad line in the country to handle freight. [13]

Facilitated by the new trolley system, ten boarding houses operated in Thurmont by 1913 and eleven took boarders in Sabillasville. Among the houses was the Crow's Nest, located just to the east of the present-day park and operated by Joseph Gernand. The Crow's Nest took on weekly boarders at a weekly rate of six to eight dollars. [14]

These such boarding houses offered the women of the area a rare opportunity to operate businesses. One such women was Bessie Darling, a Baltimore resident who owned and ran a summer boarding house and who later became the area's most famous murder victim. Darling had served as a personal secretary to a well-known professor at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore. In 1917, following a failed marriage that produced a son, Darling purchased from Mary E. Lent a tract of steep land on the north side of the mountain near Deerfield. A large house, built in 1907, sat on the land. There, Darling set up a summer hotel called the Valley View Manor (see Map 4). She generally managed the hotel in the summer and returned to Baltimore in winter, where she used her considerable social contacts to drum up summer business for her hotel. Her skill at cooking and baking, as well as the scenic site helped build her a solid clientele. [15]

World War I, no doubt, interrupted the development of the tourist trade in the Catoctins. The 1920s, however, brought yet another form of tourism to the mountains, based on a new form of transportation--the automobile. In 1910, there existed roughly 500,000 cars in America, but by 1920, eight million automobiles packed American roads. The proliferation gave rise to a new form of tourism--autotouring. Independent of the railroads, with their set timetables and routes, millions of Americans, camping out as they traveled, took to the roads. Of the new "motor gypsies," one journalist waxed: "A tourist automobile is like a little yacht on wheels. You have your provisions and equipment, your maps and compass, your eager consultation with other mariners, your dangerous Cape Horns, your snug, cozy harbors." [16]

Often seeking out "picturesque villages" and, when not camping, staying at quaint inns and boarding houses, autotourists sought areas off the beaten track. Catoctin Furnace, now largely idle, became a favorite destination of the autotouring crowd. The Baltimore Sun in 1925 reported that motorists in "increasing numbers are visiting the old Catoctin Iron Works." Many, according to the story, then went on to visit Chimney Rock. [17] Reports in 1927, spread by a booster of local tourism, of a silver mine shaft high in the mountains, supposedly dug by Jonathan Hager in the eighteenth century, added to interest in the area. In 1930, American Motorist ran a piece on Catoctin Furnace extolling its historical past and picturesque present. Spurred, no doubt, by locals ready to tell a good story, the article described at length the apocryphal stories of Jonathan Hager's silver mine, the furnace's contributions to Rumsey's steam ship, and to the U.S.S. Monitor. [18]

Not every auto excursion proved enjoyable, however. On July 20, 1920, a group of "pleasure seekers" arrived in the mountains to enjoy a Sunday afternoon. The "auto party" consisting of three women and two men, drove a "big Buick." West of Thurmont, along Hunting Creek, the car got stuck in a dip in the creek called "Little Sandy Hole." Unable to extract the car, the group sought the aid of farmer George Bussard, who chained the car to his team of horses. Still unable to pull the Buick out, Bussard sought out another team from postmaster and boarding house keeper Joseph Gernand. Eventually, the group turned to a tractor, and finally, after midnight, the car was freed. [19]

As autotourists began to tire of camping in open fields, a new sort of lodging establishment emerged aimed at motorists--the motel. In 1929, Wilbur Freeze erected three simple cabins and opened the Cozy Inn in Thurmont (see Map 4.5). Advertising a "home for night for a tourist," within two years, the camp grew to fifteen cabins and a store to serve lodgers. An aggressive promoter, Freeze painted his cabins bright colors and made sure that flowers were always in bloom in the gardens. He also built sea-saws, and other playground equipment for children. The largest cabin, named "Betty Lou," featured two bedrooms and a kitchen. [20]

Alongside the autouring phenomenon, some Americans sought more vigorous recreation. Inspired by Theodore Roosevelt and other advocates of a return to the "rugged life" enjoyed by American pioneers, recreational hiking clubs sprang up around the country. In 1910, Maryland hikers formed the Wanderluster Hiking Club. Later a group of Washington outdoors fanatics organized the Red Triangle Club. A key member of the early outdoor movement was Benton Mackaye, a forester, regional planner, and philosopher, who joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Envisioning a mammoth trail running north to south through the eastern United States, Mackaye devised a plan for the Appalachian Trail in 1921 (see Map 4). Construction began in 1923 on the first stretch of the trail, which ran through New York state. In the Middle Atlantic states, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, founded by Myron Avery in 1927, raised money and chartered the course of the trail. While Mackayne provided the grand vision, Avery did much of the grass roots work for the trail. Endlessly committed, Avery raised both money and publicity for the trail project. During the New Deal period, Avery arranged to obtain some public sponsorship for trail construction and improvement. [21] The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for instance, constructed two road shelters on the Appalachian Trail near the park. [22]

A major component of the "rugged life" movement aimed to rescue children from unhealthy city living, even if it was for only a few weeks during the summer. In 1924, a Jewish youth organization purchased land at the foothills of Catoctin mountain and established Camp Airy, still in existence today. The camp represented the beginning of organized youth recreational use of the area. A few years later in 1931, the Boy Scouts established a camp north of Catoctin Manor on Hunting Creek. The scout camp, set on 258 acres, featured a number of halls, and a 2000 square feet dammed-up swimming area on the creek, featuring a 35-foot waterfall. [23] The camp operated for roughly two years, then closed due to low enrollment and the washing out of the pool's dam. [24]

In the 1923, Lancelot Jacques, whose ancestor had been among the original investors in the Catoctin Furnace, purchased the furnace manor house and a large amount of surrounding land. [25] Jacques apparently planned to develop the land as a deer park, complete with a scenic pond constructed from the former iron ore pits. Apparently inspired by the Florida land boom at the time, Jacques hoped to attract hunters to his preserve and hired local resident William Renner as custodian. [26] The extent to which Jacques actually developed the full "deer park" he envisioned is unclear. In 1929, Jacques set up the "Potomac Development Corporation" with himself as president. His apparent aim was to develop the area between Catoctin Furnace and Hunting Creek into a vacation resort. The same year he formed his corporation, however, the stock market crashed, setting in motion the Great Depression.

In 1927, Jacques sold roughly 1,800 acres of his holdings to a wealthy Washingtonian named Lawrence Richey. Richey hoped to establish fishing camp on Hunting Creek for his and the use of his guests (see Map 4.5). [27] Among his friends was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. When, two years later, Hoover became president, he appointed Richey as his secretary. A fishing enthusiast, whose ancestors had been among the settlers of the area, Hoover became a frequent guest at the Richey Camp. At first, the president and his entourage would stay in tents, but eventually the proprietor constructed cabins for his guests. Richey hired Charles Anders, a Catoctin Furnace local, to prepare fishing equipment and food for the guests. In contrast to the president's aloof public image, Anders found a relaxed man of good humor. He called the president "chief," and Hoover nicknamed Anders "Jack." Mrs. Hoover occasionally accompanied her husband and was also warmly remembered by Anders. [28]

After several visits to the Richey camp, Hoover, by 1930, began frequenting another camp on the Rapidan River near Madison, Virginia. The large crowds and media that frequently joined him in the Catoctins may have bothered the president. Whatever the reason for the Hoover move, his visits to the area helped bring notice to the region as an outdoor recreational oasis, and established the area in some minds as a presidential retreat.

By the early 1930s, the upper Catoctin region was known throughout the middle Atlantic states and beyond as a desirable vacation and leisure spot, featuring boarding houses, fishing camps, and mountain scenery fit for a president.

The Wreck of the Blue Mountain Express

On June 25, 1915, the Western Maryland Railroad's Blue Mountain Express, Number 15, heading west, arrived late for its scheduled 5:10 PM stop in Thurmont. The express consisted of a Pullman Parlor Car, three coaches, and a baggage car. [29] In Thurmont, the train stopped briefly to take on water and drop off Baltimore's afternoon newspapers for delivery. The express then pulled out from Thurmont toward Sabillasville, where it entered onto the roughly 2.2 miles of the line which became one track--the portion of the railroad that conductors considered to be the most dangerous. With roughly twenty passenger trains passing through the area each day, local residents could keep time by the train whistles. At roughly 5:30 PM, the Blue Mountain Express let out the expected whistle, but then--to the alarm of all within earshot--the whistling continued. Locals knew something was wrong. [30]

As the express crossed over the scenic high bridge above Owens Creek, it had crashed head-on with engine number 203, an eastbound mail train (see Appendix 9 and Map 4.5). The impact of the crash tossed the westbound wooden baggage car a hundred feet to the creek below. A handicapped woman on a stretcher and her son, both of whom were ridding in the baggage car, died in the plunge. Remarkably, the two engines involved in the head-on crash locked together, appearing as almost one engine to the horrified rescuers who quickly gathered on the scene. Had the engines ricocheted off of one another, there undoubtedly would have been more causalities. Roughly one hundred people convened on the scene to aid frightened survivors, care for the injured, and insure that no further disasters occurred. Among the first to arrive was Dr. Morris Birely, who worked into the night with the aid of gas lanterns. The Western Maryland Railroad sent two special trains, one from each direction to aid in the calamity.

In the end, six died in the crash of the Blue Mountain Express and twelve suffered serious injuries. An investigation revealed that a mix-up in the all-important right-of-way orders issued from Hagerstown had caused the crash. No doubt, troubles keeping scheduling that day contributed to the tragedy. [31]

Fire and Fire Control

The train wreck was certainly the greatest tragedy that ever beset the mountain area, but the threat of forest fires remained a perennial concern. In the summer of 1914, fire destroyed half the town of Creagerstown. [32] In April 1920, efforts to clear land for huckleberry growth resulted in a forest fire that destroyed ten mountain acres near the old saw mill once owned by John Rouzer. [33] The next month, a much worse fire began in the Phillips Delight area, west of Catoctin Furnace (see Map 4.5). According to the local paper, the initial destruction was confined to an area that "has been burned over many times and at this time contains very little timber of any value." [34] This area, known as Salamander Hill, had belonged to the furnace and locals apparently had cut most of its best timber. High winds fanned the fire that quickly spread and threatened more valuable land to the north. Under the direction of fire wardens, between 75 and 100 men set up a thirteen-mile fire line to control the burning. Finally after two days, fire fighters had the blaze under control. [35]

The presence of the fire wardens on the scene at the Salamander Hill fire was symptomatic of the increasing organization and effort devoted to controlling the forest fire threat. By the early-twentieth century, the state of Maryland had organized a state Board of Forestry, under State Forester F.W. Besley. [36] Besley began a statewide program of fire prevention and forest conservation. The advent of the chestnut blight, beginning roughly in 1910, complicated his work. The blight, which attacked and destroyed the bark of the chestnut, began on Long Island and quickly spread. The once-abundant chestnut trees of western Maryland quickly fell victim. By the early 1920s, nearly all the chestnut trees in Frederick County were gone. [37] The chestnuts blight represented a major loss for the mountain area. The trees had provided valuable timber, and nuts from the trees were an important food for hogs and wildlife. [38] To rebuild the forests, Besley distributed seedlings and ran programs encouraging reforestation. [39]

Alongside the chestnut blight, Besley identified and attempted to address other forest-related problems. He saw his mission as reversing "destructive agencies, which for 150 years have been operating in the forests. Chief among them are forests fires, destructive cutting practices, excessive grazing, and the ravages of insects and fungus diseases." Successful conservation meant changing longstanding attitudes and practices. Of particular concern in Frederick County was the custom of "repeated cutting." For "generations," complained Besley, mountaineers "cut over their woodlands at frequent intervals, taking out the best and most saleable products, with little or no thought to succeeding growth and future productiveness." "Repeated cutting," he warned, inevitably led to an "inferior species." [40]

Besley issued pamphlets and gave frequent talks promoting new conservation measures. When it came to forest fires, advances in technology allowed for real progress. Phone lines, airplanes, and watchtowers allowed for early detection. In Foxville, Karl Brown (tract 156) and H.L. Hauver served as fire wardens for the district, while G.A. Willard served in Catoctin Furnace (see Appendix 10 and Map 4.5). [41] The advent of the automobile allowed for improved response time. Soon the local Thurmont newspaper could report that, with the arrival of new initiatives, forest fires henceforth would "lose much of their horror." [42]

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2003