Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ghost Stories of Fort McHenry

Here is a the information I published on this site several months ago about ghosts of Fort McHenry in Balitmore, Maryland.  Happy Halloween.

This past week I viewed an episode of the television show “Haunted History” that retold some of the ghost stories of Baltimore, Maryland.  One story was of the ghost of a soldier that has been seen walking along the outer battery at Fort McHenry located at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor.  This has been the site of a military fort since 1776 and today is a National Monument and Historic Shrine managed by the National Park Service.

Fort McHenry is also where I started my career as a National Park Ranger.  I was stationed there from June of 1975 until September 1977.  During that time there were at least two reported sightings of the ghostly specter as described in the “Haunted History” show.  One was by a fellow park ranger and the other was by several members of another employee’s family who lived in the park.  In both instances the ghost was described as if marching on guard duty along an area of the Fort known as the outer battery that provides emplacements for the very large Rodman Guns that were installed during the Civil War.  The figure was dressed in older period military uniform and shouldering a rifle.

Once these reports were shared amongst the staff theories began to develop as to whose ghost this could be.  The first impulse was that it must be the spirit of Lt. Levi Claggett who was killed by a bomb bust during the famous Battle of Fort McHenry and inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner.

A second theory as presented on television was that the ghost was that of William Williams an escaped slave who was able to enlist in the US Army by a recruiter that did not ask too many questions.  Williams was also killed during the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814 while in a trench with his unit just outside the Fort walls.
I was not so sure about either theory since both men had died in battle a somewhat glorious death for a soldier.  From what little knowledge I had, most ghosts were thought to be the result of more unjustified violence.  Not being an expert on haunting, I felt my counter theory was as good as any.

Sometime after this debate I was conducting research in the park library known as the HARP.  Much of the library consisted of microfilm copies of any documents that were found in the Library of Congress during a research project conducted in the 1950’s.  Much of this documentation had simply been copied without being read or analyzed.  Even in the 1970’s much of it had not been reviewed.  Several rolls of film I found contained the Monthly Medical Reports that were obviously required of the military post Doctor.  These monthly narrative reports were for the most part pretty dry and spoke of facts and figures.  The reports covered a period for almost the entire history of the military garrison.  The reports described how many men were sick and what injuries were treated the previous month.  The biggest medical problem on all the reports appeared to be sexually transmitted diseases from the brothels of Baltimore.

One monthly report stood out from the rest in its detailed account of an incident that occurred sometime in the 1850’s (unfortunately after all this time I no longer have a copy of the report or the subsequent paper I wrote about it).  A soldier had been found asleep on guard duty on the newly constructed outer battery of the Fort.  He was immediately placed under arrest and thrown into one of the cells of the guard house adjacent to the main gate to await trial for dereliction of duty.  Shortly thereafter while replacing the straw in his cell the prisoner was able to steel and the then hide a loaded rifle.  The prisoner then used the rifle to commit suicide.

The medical officer’s report is quite detailed in the description of the body and splatter of blood and brain matter on the wall of the cell.  Obviously this incident had quite an impact on this hardened Army Doctor.
Since the outer battery did not exist during the battle in 1814, this soldier was found asleep on duty in that same area, and that he met such a gruesome demise at his own hand I always felt that this was who was still performing  guard duty.

But then, this is a just another theory
Although I never witnessed this ghostly apparition myself, I did have my own experience with the afterlife while working at Hampton House National Historic Site.  You can find a vivid description of that experience in my book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.

Climate Disruption Affecting Our National Parks

A new report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization outlines the affects of human altered climate disruption's affect on the National Parks in California.  For information, go to the link below.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ghost Story - "A Park Ranger's Life"

As Halloween approaches interest in ghost stories are heard all around us.  You can read about the ghostly experience I had while protecting Hampton House in Towson, Maryland in my book "A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks."
Hampton House in Towson, Maryland

Friday, October 22, 2010

Questionable Future of Blue Ridge Parkway Concessions Operations

Private concession companies work as partners with the National Park Service providing services to visitors across the country.  These services include restaurants, lodges, hotels, horseback riding, and other accommodation related facilities.  These operations are conducted within the parks under contract to and supervision of the National Park Service.  These contracts at one time were issued to companies for as long as thirty years.  The length of these contracts in many cases has been reduced to ten years.

A combination of factors including the slow economy, the termination date of many concession contracts, the future cost of infrastructure improvements, and construction projects limiting access to some concession facilities for extended periods are all resulting in an questionable future for many facilities.

As an example the contract that Forever Resorts has had for Mabry Mill and Doughton Park areas on the Blue Ridge Parkway are expiring.  Decreases in their profits and closing of sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway for rebuilding of roadway guide walls are prompting the company’s decision not to renew their contract.

The company that operates the Peaks of Otter Lodge and other facilities on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia has also had their contract expire.  The original contracted company was bought out by a larger one and they have stated that they are not interested in renewing a contract for only ten years.  Such a short period would not enable the company to make back their investment for needed facility improvements.

The consequence of this situation is that there may not be the accommodations, food, and other services available to visitors on the Blue Ridge Parkway and other parks throughout the country that most have learned to expect.

For more information on the situation at Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway go to:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

National Parks Face Budget Cuts - Again

Although National Park visits increased by over 11 million in 2009, the budget proposed for operating and maintaining our parks next year is $22 million less than this year.

During this period of economic downturn the visitation to many National Park Areas is on the increase.  Our parks not only provide a place for an inexpensive family outing or vacation; they provide a source of escape from the burdens and stresses of everyday life.  Many parks located near centers of population are seeing the most significant increases in visitation.

To some the specific cuts to parks may seem insignificant, but most parks are already running on or below necessary operational levels on skeleton crews and with deteriorating facilities.  At present funding levels the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia is already leaving 58 full time positions vacant.  There is no money to pay for these employees.  Even the slightest decreases to funding in parks results in positions being left vacant, services being cut, the continued degradation of resources, and ultimate visitor dissatisfaction with their expected experiences.  

You can read more at this link:

Here is a report on how the proposed budget would affect National Parks in Minnesota:

For a detailed report with specific impacts on individual parks, you can read this document put together by Environment America:

Monday, October 18, 2010

National Park Ranger Training

I have been asked by several people lately about what type of training National Park Rangers receive.  This varies based on the specific position a person is hired for.  Most park ranger positions fall into the categories of interpretation or protection.  Here is an overly simplistic explanation of where most park rangers start their trail of training.

An interpretive park ranger’s focus is the telling of the story of the park they are assigned to.  This is done through formal presentations, working visitor centers, writing, leading walks, designing school programs, and many other skills used to communicate a story and foster an interest in park resources.  Solid base resource knowledge is an essential starting place.  This is supplemented by Park Service training in interpretive skills.  For a first year seasonal most parks provide one to two weeks of basic interpretive training followed by a busy summer of on the job training and audits by more experienced rangers to help improve their performance.  Once in a permanent position interpretive park rangers can improve their abilities through mentoring, formal training, and movement through a certification system where their programs are evaluated by experienced managers.

Those wanting to start as a seasonal protection National Park Ranger are required to complete a law enforcement academy that offers a curriculum approved by the National Park Service.  This must be accomplished on the individual’s own time and expense.  For information on these schools you can go to:

Once one of these schools is completed, most parks will provide onsite training and then a first year seasonal protection park ranger will work with more experienced rangers obtaining vast and fast amounts of on the job experience.

Once a person obtains a permanent protection park ranger position they will attend a basic academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Center (FLETC) near Brunswick, Georgia.  This is then followed by a Field Training assignment at a park other than the one they are working for.  This three month experience places the individual in a high work load environment working with experienced and specially trained park rangers giving them a chance to use all the skills they learned at FLETC.  Once a park ranger completes this challenging program, they return to work in their home park.

Additional training is offered at different levels in search and rescue, emergency medical services, the incident command system, Wildland fire, structural fire, and a wide variety of other public service and safety topics.

In truth a National Park Ranger spends their entire career in training.  Developing new skills, updating old ones, keeping up with changing technology, laws, policies, and the world around us are essential to a park ranger maintaining proficiency in the job.  During my 32 year career I attended and helped instruct thousands of hours of training.  These only served to supplement the experience and knowledge gained by years of working in National Parks.

A Park Ranger's Life is an education in itself.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Best National Parks to View Fall Colors

The National Park Foundation has released a list of the top ten National Parks to view fall colors.  You may note that the first listed is The Blue Ridge Parkway.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fall Color In Those Mountains

A few quick shots taken today on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Blue Ridge Parkway Shooter Goes To Federal Court

Ralph "Leon" Jackson who is accused of shooting two people on the Blue Ridge Parkway on April 5 will now be going to Federal court to answer for his alleged crimes.  State charges have been dropped and Jackson has been indicted by a Federal Grand Jury.  His trial will now be conducted by a Federal District Court Judge.  According to The News Leader this decision was made since Jackson may face stiffer penalties in the Federal system.

Jackson is accused of shooting Timothy P. Davis and Christina S. Floyd on April 5, 2010.  Davis and Floyd were fired upon with a shotgun as they sat in the Rock Point Overlook enjoying the sun set.  Four days later Davis died from his wounds and complications after falling off the overlook as the result of the shooting.

For more details check out the link below to The News Leader:

Ralph "Leon" Jackson

Suspect Sentenced in Assault on National Park Ranger

A man accused of assaulting a National Park Ranger at Independence National Historic Park last year was sentenced in Federal court.  For details see the link below.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Park Ranger Tips for Fall Color Season Travel

If you are planning a trip to the Southern Appalachians for the fall color season and want to stay in hotel or lodge accommodations, have reservations in advance. Many times I have seen travelers on the Blue Ridge Parkway during October thinking that they would just take a leisurely drive and find a motel room at the end of the day. In many cases they would find no room at the inn. I have seen people drive seventy five miles or more away from the park to find a vacant room.  

October is the peak visitation season for this region of the country and a pretty weekend can see huge crowds in the parks and surrounding communities.  Many small towns and rural areas will be hosting festivals and art events that draw hundreds if not thousands of people.  

October is also college football season. Colleges also sponsor their family and alumni weekends durng the beautiful fall weather. Such events can fill hotels for miles. You can check college web sites for their schedules. Some of the key colleges that may affect hotel availability are:

The University of Virginia
Virginia Military Institute
Washington and Lee University
Virginia Tech
Appalachian State University
University of North Carolina At Asheville

Competition for hotel rooms can be almost as exciting as some of the football games.
Traffic in prime viewing areas may also become congested which will result in slow downs and delays. So make sure your plans for the distances to travel are reasonable and attainable. Allow a cushion of time in your planning for heavy traffic. Come the end of the day you do not want to be hundreds of miles away from your planned stop for the night.

When ever possible travel during the week. Weekends are always the peak traffic times. Hotels rooms are also more easily obtainable on weekday nights.

"A Park Ranger's Life" at The Peaks Of Otter

I will be returning to the Peaks Of Otter Lodge this Friday October 15 for another book signing.  We will be in the Lodge lobby starting at 5pm.  Stop by and enjoy the fall foliage, hiking trails, and a delicious seafood buffet.  There is nothing like the Blue Ridge Mountains on a fall evening.

Abbott Lake and the Peaks of Otter Lodge at mile post 86 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Bedford County, Virginia
Just a reminder that I will be in Charlottesville, Virginia for the authors event on November 19.

Meet the Authors Book Signing Event
Friday, November 19, 2010
Holiday Inn University - 1901 Emmet Street
(Hydraulic Rd. and Rt. 29)
11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Free Admission
The Holiday Shopping Season is fast approaching!  Over 35 Virginia authors will be in attendance...anxious to meet the public and sell/sign their books.  30 local companies have signed up to sponsor the event !  You will notice the event advertised on NewsPlex TV stations 16,19,27; NBC Channel 29; WINA radio; Victory FM radio; Daily Progress 11/14 Sunday circular, 11/14 and 11/17 Lifestyle ads; the Sun Trust digital sign; and The Hook and C-Ville Magazine community calendars... all starting Sunday, Nov. 14.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"A Park Ranger's Life" In Roanoke, Virginia

This Saturday October 9 I will be in Roanoke, Virginia for a book signing at Ram's Head Book Shop. The Shop is located in Towers Mall and I will be there from 1pm to 4pm. If you are in the area, stop by.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Wildfire That Chased the Park Ranger Part III Conclusion

See the posts below for parts I and II

I did not see where I could move right or left on the slope to get away and the steep rocky grade did not provide a good location to deploy my aluminum foil like fire shelter.  I quickly decided on my only choice and started to stumble as fast as I could upslope directly in the path of the fire.  I remember thinking to myself, “How stupid of me to get myself caught in such a situation.”  As the flames literally licked at my heels I started to doubt that I would make it off this mountain alive.  My life did not flash before me; there was no time for that.  I was pumping as hard as my legs and lungs would let me toward the crest of the ridge, hardly the best tactical place to be with a fire rushing up slope behind me.

I was one hundred feet or so from the crest of Tory Ridge when abruptly the wind changed and hit me in the face pushing the fire behind me back down slope and back toward the black initially burned area.  I fell to the ground my lungs aching and my heart still pounding trying to recover my composure and giving thanks for that wind change.  I had scrambled over one hundred yards up hill.  The atmosphere was still not settled on what it wanted to do and again the wind direction switched coming from my left and pushing the fire toward the original direction I had seen it moving.  I guess it was finished playing with me for now.

I half walked half crawled the rest of the way to the top of the mountain and came out on the Tory Ridge Trail.  On the opposite side of the trail was an even steeper mountain side dropping into an area known as Big Levels.  My knowledge of the area kicked in and I recalled that Big Levels was a tinder box of wildfire fuels after several years of gypsy moth defoliation and pockets of standing dead white pines killed by beetles.  If the fire made into this drainage there may be no stopping it before it left the National Forest Lands and threatened homes and farms at the foot of the mountain.

I started down the trail working my way back around the base of the fire when I came upon a single firefighter coming toward me.  It was one of the Division Supervisors from Incident Command Team and he was alone and like myself without any tools having given his away that evening for sharpening and repair.  We agreed that we needed to keep the fire from making its way over the ridge top and crossing the trail.  He and I then spent more than two hours scraping the existing trail bed clear using tree limbs for rakes.  In places where the fire crept up to the trail edge we used our heavy leather boots to kick the embers back.  Luckily for us the winds kept constant and did not make another run toward us.  It took several hours for a fire crew to finally make its way to our location and relieve us.

Our efforts were successful in keeping the fire from jumping the trail and igniting Big Levels.  I was so exhausted by the time I made it back off the mountain that I sat in the driver’s seat of my Blazer and slept fitfully until the sun came up.  When I awoke in the early down light I found the limb I had used to clear leaves off the trail sitting in the passenger seat next to me.  I kept that piece of forest for years and used it several times as a walking stick and a reminder of that night I almost did not make it home.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Who Wants To Be A Park Ranger?

In a recent interview, Actor Zac Efron, start of the recent hit movie "Charlie St. Cloud"  was asked what he would have rather done for a career.  His answer was interesting.

Asked what he would do if he wasn’t an actor, he said: “I imagine I’d probably go and do something in the outdoors, the wilderness. I had a friend who was a park ranger in Yosemite and that seemed like an awesome job, so something in the outdoors.”