Thursday, October 9, 2014

Map 6 to Map 5: Crossing Over

We are steadily crossing from summer to full-on autumn here in the Mid-Atlantic. So, I decided to dedicate this post to the crossing of  Maps 6 to 5. Remember that we are hiking the maps in reverse order from #10 to #1 in the set. Today we crossed paths with Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon west of the Susquehanna and we crossed  the official halfway point of the trail, so it's a pretty important moment in our hike, so here's to a map crossing!

The Blue Man, near Broad Creek, MD

We made it to the west shore of the Susquehanna River two hikes ago and today we were heading steadily north towards the Pennsylvania line. The trail itself does not follow the actual Mason Dixon Line, the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania,  but on this section it will intersect their historic route. This was a highly contested and bloodied region during the mid-1700s. As I've explained in past posts, the history of the Mason Dixon Line is full of science, politics, natural history, and colonial era troubles. But when they made the river crossing to the western shore, they were worried for their safety. Mason and Dixon, two Brits, one an astronomer, one a surveyor, were hired by Maryland and Pennsylvania to establish a true boundary, that not only ended the violence between the colonies but in effect, divided the slave-owning South from the Freeman's North.  Violence, however, was not just waged amongst homesteaders eager to stake and defend their claims to newly opened lands...

This woods road approximates the width of the West Line, near PA/MD border.

Gangs of whites who called themselves the Paxton Boys (thugs really - no other way to describe them) slaughtered the last of the peaceful native farmers who resided in Lancaster County, PA, the year before Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon made it to the east bank of the Susquehanna.  During the winter's rest of 1864 Mason rode through Lancaster County to visit the places where Susquehannocks had been hunted down and butchered by these marauding thugs, hell-bent on eliminating Indians wherever they found them. Mason was very disturbed by these events and wrote about them in his journal. He tied the violence against Indians to the violence amongst the colonials themselves. During the winter break of  1865 he rode into Tidewater Maryland and Virginia to explore the lands to the south. During one day's ride he witnessed a farm slave being brutally whipped and beaten in the streets of a southern Maryland town. He dismounted, took the whip from the overseer and offered aid to the beaten man. He carried the whip with him from then on, as a reminder of the violence he witnessed and the violence that gave cause for the multi-year project of establishing boundaries.

It is difficult to imagine so bucolic a landscape scarred with violence and bloodshed. Peach Bottom Township, PA

With the importance of their work becoming more clear to them, Mason and Dixon cut the West Line from the three-way boundary corner at Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland and worked their way west. From that marker, the West Line was measured in miles and chains. By the early winter of 1864, they had come to the Susquehanna's eastern shore and stopped for the season. In early summer the West Line work resumed. I mentioned in the last MDT post that I wondered how Mason and Dixon and their enormous surveying crew made the river crossing. The river was a full mile wide here, and the ferry had to negotiate between rocky ledges and swift current. Back in 1765  cable-drawn or poled flatboats were the only way to cross. There were no bridges and often the river was in flood or too low so timing was everything. Today the Conowingo Dam pond has flooded the ledge-filled crossing route.

Looking across at Lancaster County, PA - near where the large survey crew would have been ferried across in 1866.

Map 6 crossing into Map 5 finds us in the middle of a most beautiful countryside full of farms, woodlands, orchards, and the high river hills and rocky bluffs that make this area so scenic. On the summer solstice of 1765 the survey team with their heavy wagons, draft horses and oxen, and dozens of assistants and hired hands, stood on the opposite bank of the Susquehanna in the Village of Peach Bottom, awaiting dawn. The group included candle men who marked the next day's path at night according to celestial direction-finding , camp cooks, tree cutters, chainmen, camp hands, drovers, tent and equipment keepers, all the precision surveying and astronomcal equipment of the day, wagons of food, a library, and trunks of personal supplies and tools.  That morning the river was placid and smooth and they crossed into what is now Peach Bottom Township, York County. The party began immediately to cut the West Line that had been begun the previous year just south of Philadelphia at 'The Post Mark'd West' into some of the most rugged country thus far.

Much like it was in 1865, Peach Bottom is still productive, settled farmland of German and Scot descent.

As the great teams of horses, oxen, and wagons lumbered up the ferry road to the high plateau above, Mason observed how settled the land was, mostly with German and Scot farmers and English tradesmen. This was the center of the embattled territory, war-weary from decades of violent attacks, murders, arsons, and bloody scuffles between Pennsylvania and Maryland woodsmen, gangs, and settlers who all declared lands for the expanding colonies of Maryland or Pennsylvania west of the great river.

The sight of the survey team created such excitement and celebration among the farmers, however, that work was put aside for two days so that families could follow the tree cutters and chainmen who laid the eight yard wide path. The West Line would put an end hostilities. There were no signs of the murderous Agnew gang, the feuding  Black family, or the thuggish Eddy boys. Instead, the Scot farmer McKinney learned he was now an official resident of Pennsylvania, the German orchardman Greer learned he now paid his taxes to Maryland. The schoolhouse was two chains north, the church three chains south. There was great relief across the land as the large team made it's way west, crossing the Gunpowder River in July and reaching Piney Run by August.  Mason's journals made note of all the settlers within a mile north and south of the 8 foot wide path. "At 30 Miles 42 Chains Mr. James McKenleys  House 3 Chains to the North..."

Railroad cuts of the late 1800s and early 1900s long abandoned on  PBAPP property.

As we hiked the trail we encountered many kinds of paths -  powerline right-of-ways, camp access roads, abandoned railroad cuts, beautiful gravel lanes that are happily still unpaved, landings for loggers, foot paths leading to remote cabins, hunter's trails flagged in orange tape. Our actual paved road walking (complete with speeding traffic) was minimal on this stretch, offset by winding trails through the woods, steep scrambles up and down, and skirting a police gun range and police dog training center, and the ever-scenic Peach Bottom Atomic Power Plant (it really is!). My favorite stretches were the old woods roads that followed pretty creeks and streams,some of which we had to wet-foot to cross. We crossed the West Line, now called the Mason Dixon Line, when Tabernacle Road (MD) became Cooper Road (PA) marked by a small metal sign "End of Harford County Maintenance" on the shoulder. To think that these old hill farms were witness to the passing of the survey team gave me a shiver.

A woods road followed this pretty stream for some distance.

It was during this section from the river crossing to deep into Piedmont hill country that the surveyors began to use an innovative new and time-saving method called triangulation that would become standard-use ever after in American surveying. On July 12 they crossed the dusty York Road that connected the colonial crossroads of York to the port city of Baltimore. The days were sweltering, nearing 100 degrees, and the nights thick with humidity. The eight-foot wide path kept to its course, marked by candle and marker men at night, following the shouted measurements of Jeremiah Dixon, and cut by day by axe men, loggers, and chainmen guided by the terse calls of Charles Mason.  Luckily we were having a different weather day, breezy and cool with winds coming from the northwest announcing autumn in full swing!

A series of step-falls on Michael's Run furnished our lunch break view.

Pretty Cooper Road in Peach Bottom Township, PA

The highest point of our hike was across Bald Hill, a serpentine woods where trees are stunted (see previous post on serpentine barrens) and great gobs of maiden hair fern grew.  Like Goat Hill Preserve in Lancaster County, the forest on Bald Hill has a very spare understory, carpeted in the signature grasses of the barrens.  As a forested grasslands it supports large herds of deer and a few bears. This is rugged country up here. The people who keep cabins down on the river must walk a steep path down the cliffs to get to their places if coming in by foot.  Most, I would assume, come in by boat.

Bald Hill serpentine forest, part of the serpentine belt that arcs through the Mid-Atlantic.

Crossing Broad Creek in Harford County, MD - walking north to the PA Line.

Kim looks up and sees the halfway marker high in a tree!

The leaves on tulip poplars and maples are beginning to turn and fall, but so too are the 'evergreens.' Though not as obvious as their deciduous cousins, the pines and hemlocks will shed about a third of their needles each fall. Needles live on the tree for about two years and when it's time to get ready for fall the oldest needles will turn a light gold and drop. I've always wanted to put a time-lapse camera on a pine stand for a whole year so I could see the very subtle color changes through the seasons. Though we call them 'evergreen' the pines and hemlocks do shed and turn colors.

Tulip poplars really pour on the color, but hidden in the leaves are golden pine needles, too.

I was encouraged to see the Wildlife Habitat Council sign at the entrance to the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station. This is a great organization that works with corporate landowners, like Exelon to improve and manage their lands for the benefit of wild things. They've been around a long time and are one of the more quiet conservation groups that works behind the scenes for sustainable and ecologically functional natural and human landscapes. One of the best things they do is to offer an annual conference and monthly in-service academies for corporate landholder management staff that focus on habitat improvement, conservation strategies, and stewardship practices. Its'a  avery science-based, hands-on organization. It's certainly clear that the land management staff at PBAPP has taken the WHC's work to heart. The top of the hill is managed as a beautiful grasslands and in our trek across we saw wild turkeys, kestrel, deer, and flocks of sparrows that are now migrating through. I suggest a good look at their website to learn more - it's worth a visit:

The plant does it's part to be a good wildlife neighbor!

The MDT crosses the top of the substation and tower hill.

I gawked up at the many towers that spring high over the grasslands and thought about how technology in communications, energy production, and land management has changed just in my lifetime.  Can you imagine what Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon would think if they could somehow revisit this landscape 250 years later? And then, how I would have loved to have seen for myself the spectacle that colonial farmers here witnessed as the surveyors from England climbed the steep ferry road to the broad rolling plain that is Peach Bottom Township with their enormous wagon train.  To know that peace was finally achieved in their passing made me smile and love this landscape even more. 

We started this hike on Memorial Day Weekend and are now well into fall!


Kevin Kenny. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn's Holy Experiment. (Oxford University Press, 2009)   - A good history of the Paxton Boys and the attacks on the Indian settlements in South-Central PA. I have it on my Kindle and read through it now and then to remind myself of what happened just miles from my backdoor.

Edwin Danson. Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. (John Wiley and Sons, 2001) - I'm a science and engineering geek as well as a naturalist and historian, so this book hits all the buttons for my desire to know all the how's and why's behind the history of the survey.

Hughlett Mason. Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 76. (American Philosophical Society, 1969) - One of my most favorite trips to Philadelphia was to hold this book in my hands and to see some of Charles Mason's actual journals!

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