There was a book, then a movie called "The Bridges of Madison County." The story was set in Iowa and the bridges refrenced were covered. The plot involved a love affair or so I’ve inferred from summaries. I neither read the novel nor saw the film because I never felt I was part of the target audience I supposed. Nonetheless I thought about the title and stole it for today’s Twelve Mile Circle. The rest of the article had no relation whatsoever.
I felt a bit skeptical when a friend invited me on a 50-mile bike ride through northern Frederick County, Maryland one recent Saturday morning. I’m an urban biker primarily — with one notable recent exception — and I try to stick to paved off-road trails. I tend to stay away from actual roads unless they have dedicated bicycle lanes for fear that someone might plow into me while texting behind the wheel or something. Traffic is heavy and dangerous where I live so I wasn’t sure how I felt about an extended ride on streets, even rural ones. I’ve been converted, though. The roads east of Thurmont were exceptionally well maintained with minimal traffic. They were better than my local trails. I think I saw more bikes than cars during the ride.
My friend chose a route that featured four of Frederick’s historic bridges. The map above showed their relative placement although that wasn’t the actual route we biked. I’m not sure where we went exactly, to tell the truth. We meandered around until we hit the desired distance; I simply played follow-the-leader. The course involved a roughly counterclockwise oval north of the City of Frederick and east of U.S. Route 15, crossing paths with the bridges in succession as the morning unfolded.
We first encountered the LeGore Bridge over the Monocacy River (map). A steep downhill led to a pull-off where I stopped for photos. The website Historic Bridges noted that James LeGore built this bridge around 1900 to provide a convenient path to his nearby stone quarry. Naturally, owning a quarry, he favored stone construction for his imposing five-arch structure. There was also one horrible twist of fate involved. His son George jumped from the bridge, committing suicide in 1930.
Had I taken this photo maybe 3 or 4 seconds later, I would have captured a scary bicycle wreck. Some guy barreled way too fast down the steep rightward slope approaching the bridge and couldn’t hold the curve. He flew across the opposite lane and whacked into a guardrail immediately behind me as I stood there taking pictures. He spilled onto the deck, tumbled a couple of times and somehow suffered only a bent wheel plus an unpleasant scrape on his forearm and damage to his pride. His fancy multi-thousand dollar bike might have been toast too. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out after making sure he was okay. It was entirely his own fault. He ignored the ominous road signs leading up to the bridge.
Roddy Road Bridge
We rambled on for awhile until we approached the Roddy Road bridge over Owen’s Creek (map). This marked the first of three covered bridges in Frederick County, with only three or five other bridges like that in the entire state of Maryland (sources vary). The most direct automobile route could be found on the county’s Historic Covered Bridges Driving Tour if one wanted to take the easy way out.
The Roddy family built their bridge across Owens Creek circa 1856. It was the smallest of the three covered bridges in Frederick, only 40 feet long. Rumor had it that "Confederate General JEB Stuart and his cavalry crossed Roddy Road Covered Bridge on July 5, 1863 during the Gettysburg campaign of the Civil War." Of course, just about every spot in this corner of Maryland had a Civil War connection. Troops routinely traipsed through here between major campaigns like Antietam and Gettysburg. I imagine I could draw a mile-wide circle anywhere in the county and find something of Civil War significance there.
Loy’s Station Bridge
If JEB Stuart crossed the Roddy Road bridge then one shouldn’t be surprised that Union general George Meade allegedly crossed Loy’s Station Bridge over Owen’s Creek a few days later in pursuit of fleeing Confederates after the battle (map). This would have been a new bridge at the time, having been constructed circa 1860. Unfortunately an arsonist torched the structure in 1991. The rebuilt bridge incorporated as many elements as possible from the original bridge, including "hardware, rafters and braces."
This was probably the most impressive of the bridges we saw during our ride. It looked like what would be expect of a covered bridge, and placed in a beautiful setting with an adjacent park.
Utica Mills Bridge
Near the end of the ride we rumbled through the Utica Mills bridge over Fishing Creek (map). This structure had an interesting history. A bridge had been built nearby on the Monocacy River sometime around 1850, however it washed away during the same deluge responsible for the horrific Johnstown Flood of 1889. Wood salvaged from that earlier bridge was recycled to form the Utica Mills crossing. It was getting a fresh coat of red paint the day we cycled over its planks.
I think I’ll have to return to northern Frederick County for further biking adventures sometime soon.
Mouth of Wilson. I used it as a waypoint during my recent county counting quest and otherwise put it out of mind as I drove through an expansive rural corner of Virginia. It came to mind once again as I passed a sign for another town about an hour farther north and east, Meadows of Dan. How unusual, I thought, to encounter two locations in relatively close proximity to each other with the word "of" embedded in their names. I remembered a similarly concocted town a few miles away from my childhood home called Point of Rocks, sitting just across the Potomac River in Maryland. I tucked the notion away until my return. Interestingly, all of them became known predominantly for something other than the piece-parts of their oddly constructed names.
Mouth of Wilson
Waterfall in Mouth of Wilson Virginia by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr (cc)
Mouth of Wilson presented a couple of obvious questions. Who was Wilson and why the preoccupation with his mouth? Fortunately answers revealed themselves quite conveniently in Grayson County: A History in Words and Pictures.
When the Frye [sic.]-Jefferson party surveyed the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1749, a young surveyor named Wilson died. His body was carried to the bank of a nearby creek for burial, hence the name Wilson’s Creek.
Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson surveyed uncharted corners of Virginia including its border with North Carolina, resulting in the definitive map of the colony from that era. Apparently Wilson, whoever he was, never got to see the fruits of his labor. He lived-on in a way many years later when a town grew at the confluence of Wilson’s Creek and the New River. That spot marked the mouth of Wilson’s Creek and the name shortened nicely to Mouth of Wilson.
Nobody much remembered Fry or Jefferson or especially Wilson, although maybe some people had heard of Peter’s son Thomas Jefferson. If by chance people ever caught wind of Mouth of Wilson it had nothing to do with 18th century cartographers. It was for basketball. Here, nearby Oak Hill Academy (map) built a basketball dynasty over three decades. The school never had more than about 150 students at a time and yet it produced a crazy number of professional basketball players. The school’s utter domination of the sport at the high school level continues today (e.g., "The Middle of Nowhere: Oak Hill Academy, the Best Basketball Program on the Planet").
Meadows of Dan
Mabry Mill in Winter by Sheila C. on Flickr (cc)
Flowing waters also underpinned the etymology of Meadows of Dan although there wasn’t ever some guy named Dan to serve as an inspiration. There were beautiful meadows however, and they were found near the upper reaches of the Dan River. One part of the name derived from a 1728 expedition mapping the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina (prior to Fry and Jefferson who improved and extended the line) led by William Byrd. According to the Danville Historical Society,
The surveying party began marking the line at the mouth of the Currituck River on the coast of Virginia, and went westward toward the mountains. When they reached this area, Colonel Byrd and his party encountered "the South Branch of the Roanoak River the first time, which we call’d the Dan."… Colonel Byrd never explained his choice of name for the river. However, the biblical limits of Canaan were "From the Dan to Beersheba." Because the northern limit of North Carolina was in question, "Dan" seemed to be an appropriate name for the river which at that time fixed the boundary in this area between the two colonies.
That likely explained Dan. The meadows portion joined the name much later, as explained by the community of Meadows of Dan,
This broad high mountainous area was settled in the early 1800s, mostly by German and Scotch-Irish settlers that traveled down from Pennsylvania… The Langhorne family, one of the few of English descent in the community, held a land grant that contained much of what is now considered Meadows of Dan… The Langhorne patriarch is credited with giving the area the name "Meadows of Dan". He settled on the headwaters of the Dan River, and grist mills in the Langhorne name were built along the stream.
Few people would know much about Meadows of Dan if it weren’t for two fortunate happenstances. First, Edwin Boston Mabry, a local resident built a wonderfully iconic mill in 1903 (map). Second, the Blue Ridge Parkway ran directly past the mill after its construction as a Depression-era jobs project in the 1930’s. Maybry’s Mill quickly became one of the most heavily visited and photographed spots along the entire parkway.
Point of Rocks
Point of Rocks, Maryland by Bob Wilcox, on Flickr (cc)
I didn’t need to conduct any research to determine the source of the rocky point inspiring a town called Point of Rocks in Maryland. Literally, just west of town stood a point of rocks that I’d seen many times with my own eyes. The cliff might be a notable landmark for bikers on the C&O Canal trail, or to boaters on the Potomac River. Most everyone else would remember Point of Rocks for its nostalgic train station (map), built in 1873 at an important junction where trains routed either to Baltimore or Washington. Of course I’ll always remember Point of Rocks more for the drive-through liquor store of my youth.
Upon Further Consideration
It occurred to me that there may be many more "of" towns. Yet, I couldn’t find them using my usual search techniques and I couldn’t recall any others from memory. Sure, there were a billion examples tied to geographic units, for instance the City of London, District of Columbia, Commonwealth of Virginia, United States of America and the like. Those were all too mundane even to mention. I wasn’t interested in finding more of those. I wanted additional mouths and meadows and points and other strange yet appropriate descriptions of things. I imagined there were probably many very obvious instance that somehow fell into my mental blind spot. What am I missing?
The final day, like the end of all great adventures, was bittersweet. Nobody wanted to stop and yet we all had our lives to get back to and our responsibilities awaiting us that needed attention the next day. Most of the day’s ride would fly noticeably downhill. All of the gradual elevation we’d earned over many strenuous hours would come back to us in a 23-mile joyride into Cumberland. All we had to do was reach the final crest a few miles farther down the path. Mother Nature envisioned one more little trick. Prevailing winds cranked up to a sustained 20 mph with gusts even higher, and blew from the opposite direction than usual. Heading out of Meyersdale going uphill with a strong headwind after riding so many miles seemed unusually cruel.
Eastern Continental Divide
Which Way Will the Water Flow?
A little wind couldn’t stop us though. It felt like conditions that I’d biked through all winter long so I pushed forward to the highest point along the trail, the Eastern Continental Divide (map), and waited for my companions. Loyal followers of Twelve Mile Circle will understand my excitement. This was a genuine geo-oddity of some significance. Water poured directly atop the divide would roll either towards the Gulf of Mexico or towards the Atlantic Ocean; two very different locations determined solely by the simple fate of how it teetered along a razor-thin line. I sacrificed a small stream to the Geography Gods from my water bottle and wondered about the journey it would take. Actually it probably evaporated on the spot although I didn’t want to spoil my little fantasy moment.
The keepers of the GAP Trail obviously understood the importance of the Divide too. The small tunnel at this pivotal spot included an elevation map (photo) as well as several murals outlining the history of the area and the trail.
Now the well-deserved downhill sprint could begin.
Big Savage Tunnel
Big Savage Tunnel
Remember my long list of worries during the planning? The Big Savage Tunnel (map) was right near the top. I didn’t have a fear of tunnels even though this one was particularly long, and the longest on the trail at 3,300 feet (one kilometre). Rather I feared it might be closed. There wouldn’t be an easy detour if its imposing steel doors were padlocked.
Its restoration took two years and $12 million so the Allegheny Trail Alliance wasn’t in any hurry to go through the trouble again. They closed the tunnel every winter to prevent ice damage. The tunnel would open again in early April or "sometime" in April or definitely before May, according to various websites I consulted. We’d had a particularly cold winter and I figured it might delay the schedule. I watched the trail alerts anxiously until I saw an announcement saying it had opened for the season on April 3, 2015; two weeks before we would need it. I could relax.
The tunnel was in great shape, well lighted and a smooth ride.
Mason & Dixon Line
Mason & Dixon Line
Another fascinating geographic division appeared just after we passed the landmark tunnel, the renowned Mason & Dixon Line (map). Twelve Mile Circle readers should be well acquainted with the line so I won’t go into great detail (e.g., surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon circa 1763-1767, the traditional dividing line between north and south in the United States, the state boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland). For me, it provided a great opportunity to take a bunch of photographs of our bicycles in two states at the same time. Shouldn’t bikes get a little geo-oddity love too?
It was bound to occur. Oddly the first and only bit of misfortune during our entire trip happened a mere fourteen miles from our goal. One of our group ran over a twig at the exact same time as a gear shift. A twig hitting at that vulnerable point must have acted as a lever, twisting the chain and locking the pedals. Even so we were lucky in adversity. This happened right before the Frostburg trailhead. We walked our bikes into town, had lunch, and made arrangements for a bicycle shop in nearby Cumberland to pick up the bike for repair while dropping-off a rental for the remaining few miles. We lost very little time, thankful that it hadn’t happened on an earlier day several miles from the nearest town.
Finishing the GAP
Mile 0 in Cumberland, Maryland
On the Maryland side, the trail followed active tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Active, yes, although not very frequent. The WMSR was a weekend excursion line operating only during the warmer months. I would have been overjoyed to see a vintage steam engine chugging up the mountain directly next to the bike trail. I’m not sure I’d have felt the same way if I’d been in the Brush Tunnel at the time — bikes and trains share the same tunnel (photo) — although seeing an antique train in general would have been nice. Unfortunately the first train of the season wouldn’t run for another couple of weeks.
I pedaled past the town of Mount Savage (photo) which I mentioned in an earlier article, Savages. It was pretty enough sitting way down in the valley although we were on a mission at that point, nearly finished and I kept going. One last attraction did entice us to stop, the Bone Cave only four miles from our destination. Workers constructing a railroad cut stumbled upon the cave in 1912. They found fossilized bones from Pleistocene-era animals dating back 200,000 years. Fossils included cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and wolverines, some forty different species according to a marker placed at the entrance.
Finally the surface turned from gravel to asphalt, an oddly quiet situation after riding on rougher road for most of the last four days. People began to appear on the trail in abundance for the first time; walkers, joggers and recreational bikers. This offered another tantalizing clue that civilization couldn’t be too far ahead. Cumberland appeared on the horizon and we rolled into town for our final mile. The trail ended at Canal Place, back where we’d caught our shuttle four days earlier. The countdown to Mile 0 finally ended. We offered congratulations to each other, took plenty of photos as evidence and headed towards our cars. Two hours later I was back home, still feeling great and wondering when I might be able to do something like that again.
The Great Allegheny Passage articles: