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Posts from the ‘Harpers Ferry’ Category

Robert Morris Pittsburgh to D.C. Bike Ride – Day 5

From May 26-31, a group of Robert Morris University staff members, students, alumni, and friends embarked on a group bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with stops in Ohio Pyle (Pa.), Cumberland (Md.), Hancock (Md.), and Harpers Ferry (W. Va.). The following is an account of the fifth and final day of the journey as experienced by RMU Senior Writer Valentine J. Brkich.

DAY FIVE – Harpers Ferry (W. Vir.) to Washington, D.C.

Day Five. The final day. Sixty miles to go. Two-hundred and eighty in the bank. What would this final day be like? Would it be like Day Two, dodging hail storms and lightning bolts? Would it be like Day Three with mile after mile of rancid slop? Or would it be a cakewalk like Day Four? No one knew for sure.

The one thing we did know was that there wouldn’t be anywhere to stop for food or water until we hit Great Falls, 45 miles down the trail. So, the night before, I stocked up on Gatorade and ordered a pizza, which I wrapped in aluminum foil to bring along for the ride. No matter what the day might bring, at least I knew I’d have more than Fig Newtons to sustain me.

The forecast was calling for temperatures to rise into the 90s by early afternoon. So we thought it best to hit the trail early. I was up by 5 and on the trail by 6, along with Todd and his dad, Ed.

As we cruised through Harpers Ferry to get back to the trail, we passed professor of economics Dr. Eschenfelder, who was out for a pre-ride run. A PRE-RIDE RUN!?!?

I, on the other hand, chose to warm up with two slices of cold pizza and a Benadryl.

When we hit the C&O, I was happy to find it in premium condition—bone dry and rock hard. That didn’t necessarily mean the ride was going to be easy, but it did mean that we wouldn’t have to struggle through quick-sand like mud, which is always nice.

By 9 a.m., we had put 30 miles behind us. The bus back to RMU wasn’t due to pick us up in D.C. until 3:30 or so, so we had plenty of time to conquer the final 30 miles, whatever obstacles or surprises we should encounter. The only thing that slowed us down that morning was a family of geese crossing the trail. Luckily we got by the hissing daddy goose before he was able to peck us or bite us, or whatever geese do. (Can you get rabies from a goose??)

It was around this time when another group of riders caught up with us: Amanda, a 2011 graduate of RMU’s nuclear medicine technology program; Tom, an elementary education major; Mike, who due to a sore Achilles, had to ride the last 60 miles STANDING UP; and, last but not least, Jamie. Remember Jamie? The girl who had the wreck and nearly passed out on the first day? Yeah, she was still going strong.

This is when we really started making some time.

Amanda, who was a star volleyball player at RMU, led the way as we all got in line behind her, drafting like a team of racers in the Tour de France. She was nice enough to clear all the spider webs for us as she led our train of rubber and spoke down the trail. It was awesome. We tour down the path at 13 mph, each pedal getting us closer to our final destination.

Somewhere around this time I veered off the trail a bit and brushed into some evil plant that made me feel like I’d been stung by a jelly-fish. “Oh yeah,” said Todd, “that happened me to me too. Don’t worry…it will only burn for an hour or so.”

A round 20 miles out, things started to get a little dicey as we encountered more and more hikers and bikers out on the trail for Memorial Day holiday weekend. Tom, however, a.k.a. the Human Snowplow, paid little mind to the other people on the trail, shouting out “On your left!” a millisecond before we went wooshing by in the other lane. OK…maybe his trail etiquette left something to be desired, but I could understand his urgency. We were on a mission. The end was so close we could smell it. Or maybe that was just my grimy, putrid, mud-caked shoes. (Photo: My grimy, putrid, mud-caked shoes)

Finally we hit Great Falls, just 14 miles outside of D.C. Although we were chompin’ at the bit to finish this crazy adventure, we couldn’t pass up a chance to see this natural wonder. (Photo: Our last refueling stop, at the Great Falls concession stand)

After a quick stop off at the Great Falls concession stand, we hopped on our bikes – gently, very gently – for the final time, determined not to stop until we hit D.C. As we slalomed through the throngs of sightseers and casual riders along the trail, we rejoiced every time we passed another mile marker. Then, with just around four miles left, we hit pavement—lovely, wonderful, smooth-as-silk pavement! This was it—the home stretch! Todd rode ahead with the camera to capture the moment as we crossed the finish line. (Photo: RoMo at Great Falls)

There are certain moments in my life that I will always remember: graduation day; my wedding day; the birth of my first child; the birth of my second child; and this one—the moment when I reached the end of the trail and completed my bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. I have to admit, it was somewhat anti-climactic. There were no bands or throngs of people waiting to congratulate us. There was no ribbon to ride through. It was just the end of the trail, with Georgetown University up on the hill to our right and the Potomac River off to our left. But it was still a great moment, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

One by one the other riders trickled in as we toasted our accomplishment with champagne and sparkling grape juice, compliments of Mrs. Hamer, who met us at the finish line. I looked over at Todd’s odometer: 342.03 miles. Unbelievable.

And you know who ended up being the first person to complete the ride? Jamie. The girl who I thought would never make it past the first day. She certainly showed me.

During the five-hour bus ride home, I had a chance to think about the experience and what it meant to me. Was it hard? Yes. Way harder than I ever imagined? Yes. Were there times when I wanted to give up? Absolutely. Would my rear-end ever be the same? Probably not. But despite the difficulty, I can sincerely say it was an amazing, life-changing experience.

I rode my bike to D.C.

Thanks to all of you who joined me in this experience. And thank you, the reader, for following along on our adventure. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

By the way…anyone want to buy a bike, slightly used?

For more on RMU’s Pittsburgh-to-D.C. bike ride, visit the university’s Flickr page.

Robert Morris Pittsburgh to D.C. Bike Ride – Day 4

From May 26-31, a group of Robert Morris University staff members, students, alumni, and friends embarked on a group bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with stops in Ohio Pyle (Pa.), Cumberland (Md.), Hancock (Md.), and Harpers Ferry (W. Va.). The following is an account of the fourth day of the journey as experienced by RMU Senior Writer Valentine J. Brkich.

DAY FOUR – Hancock (Md.) to Harpers Ferry (W. Vir.)

When Annie sang “The sun’ll come out tomorrow…” I used to think she was full of crap.

(Yes, I’ve seen Annie. Twice.)

But you know what? After one of the most miserable days I can remember, the sun really did come out the next day, and my ride to Harpers Ferry, W. Vir., turned out to be best day thus far.

Following the misery of the previous day’s ride, I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to get out of bed let alone ride another 60-plus miles along the muddy, skeeter-infested C&O Canal Towpath. But rather than mope about my situation, I decided to get up early and try to get some good miles in before lunch.

Down at the local convenience store I stocked up on Gatorade and bought a couple sausage and egg burritos for fuel. I ran into Ethan and Mark, who like me wanted to get moving while it was still somewhat cool out. So at 6:30, the three of us hit the trail together.

After slogging it through the fetid mud and slop from Cumberland to Hancock, starting the day off on more than 10 miles of paved trail along the Western Maryland Rail Trail was heavenly. Yesterday I had struggled to keep a pace of 8-9 mph. Today, right from the start we were wooshing along the smooth asphalt track of the rail trail at a brisk 13-mph clip. We were moving so fast, in fact, that we missed the connection to the C&O and ended up riding a couple miles down the road to Ft. Frederick State Park, where we were able to reconnect. We had 25 miles in the bank by 9:30 a.m.

When we finally made it back on the C&O, we were elated to see that most of the mud and water had dried up, creating a firmer surface that was much easier to ride on. For once I was actually enjoying myself out on the trail, taking time to appreciate our remote surroundings, wedged between the old canal and the rushing waters of the Potomac River. At one point we saw a deer up ahead, and we followed it for quite some time as it bounded down the trail ahead of us before disappearing into the brush along the side. (Photo: One of the many new friends I made along the ride)

Things were going great!


Part of the trail was being repaired at the time, so they put us on a six-mile detour around the work, along some nicely paved but hilly Maryland back roads. At first I welcomed the change, enjoying the cool breeze as I glided down a lengthy hill along the road. But of course, what goes down must come back up, and I soon found myself pushing my bike up the hills as the midday sun radiated off of the black asphalt underfoot.

Riding your bike along the road can be a humbling experience, too. You don’t realize how slow you’re really moving on a bike until a motorcycle whizzes by you effortlessly at five times your speed.

Now I know how the Amish feel.

Eventually the detour came to an end and we were back along the C&O. I was still feeling pretty good but I noticed I was running low on water. So, a few miles down the trail, as Mark and Ethan decided to take another break, I told them I was just going to push on alone and try to make it to the next town as soon as I could. (Photo: Mike Yuhas conquering a downed sycamore along the C&O)

That next town was Shepherdstown, about 12 or so miles outside of Harper’s Ferry. After carrying my bike over a couple downed sycamores and navigating some washed-out parts of the trail, I took the exit to this lovely college town and headed straight for the nearest eatery, the Sweet Shop Bakery. Other than people staring at me like I was a leper, I had a wonderful lunch outside of the bakery as the normal, showered masses went about their daily business. (Photo: Sweet Shop Bakery in Shepherdstown)

I rode the rest of the way into Harpers Ferry alone, rolling into town around 2 p.m. as the temperatures hovered in the low 90s. I didn’t find out until about an hour later that I had been the first person to arrive! It was an amazing turnaround. The previous day I had barely survived, and here I was the first rider to reach our Day 4 destination. When the others got into town and saw me sitting there sipping on an iced coffee, they looked at me as if I were a ghost come back from the dead. Which, in a way, I guess I was. It was one of my prouder moments.

Later that evening we chowed down at The Anvil Restaurant (I actually ate an order of something called “Crab Balls”) and then we walked back into town for some ice cream.Spirits were high. We only had one more day to go in our adventure. Just 60 more miles to D.C.!

Was this nightmare…I mean, adventure really coming to an end?

(Photo: The RMU crew enjoying ice cream outside John Brown’s Fort)

Robert Morris Rides to D.C. – Day 4

The following is a post by Valentine Brkich, RMU senior writer, who along with 27 other RMU staff members, students, alumni, and friends, is taking part in a 300-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Over the next two days, leading up to and in honor of Memorial Day, Val will be writing about each stop along the way and its connection to the Civil War, which began 150 years ago…

Hancock (Md.) to Harper’s Ferry (W. Va.)

Harpers Ferry is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia all come together. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters is also located here, making it one of the few towns that the Appalachian Trail passes through directly.

Surrounded by rocky, higher ground, Harpers Ferry is a picturesque town that is best known for John Brown’s raid on the local armory in 1859. This doomed attack served as one of the precursors to the Civil War.

Because of the town’s strategic location, it was coveted by both the North and South during the war. In fact, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times from 1861 to 1865.

During the war, as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces moved north into Maryland, the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry decided to stay and try to hold the town because of its strategic importance for Union supply lines. Confederate forces under Gen. Stonewall Jackson converged on the town on Sept. 15, 1862, and placed artillery on the heights overlooking the town. Recognizing that his position was defenseless, Union commander Col. Dixon S. Miles, who was mortally wounded in the battle, surrendered his more than 12,000 troops. From here Jackson led most of his men to join with Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md.

This is my second time in Harpers Ferry (my first visit coming in May 2010 with RMU’s Civil War Study Tour), and I’m still taken by its natural beauty and the power of the town’s storied history.

Well, this is it. Just one more day to go. Next stop Washington, D.C.!



Day 5 – Gettysburg

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, everyone thought it would be over in a matter of months. It ended up lasting four years. By the time it was over, the lucky ones – those who had survived – had certainly seen enough war to last a lifetime. And I’m sure they were all ready to go home.

As Thursday morning dawned, the 14 Civil War Study Tour students and I were nearing the end of our own Civil War journey. We were all pretty tired and looking forward to heading back to Pittsburgh that evening. In five days, we had seen Harpers Ferry, Richmond, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Antietam. Now we were at the final stop on the tour – Gettysburg – where many say the tide of the War turned for good, although it would continue on for another bloody two years.

Our day began with a two-hour bus tour led by Bruce Rice of the National Park Service. As we picked him up at the visitor center, throngs of middle school students were everywhere. Like us, they were here to visit the battlefield just before the end of another school year. I watched them running around the parking lot, laughing and fooling around and doing what middle-schoolers do, and I wondered if they could truly comprehend what happened here 147 summers ago.

Bus driver Bruce fired up the bus and drove past Cemetery Hill, home of Gettysburg National Cemetery, the final resting place of over 3,500 Union soldiers. Here, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered the address that would immortalize him.

The bus snaked through the bustling town, which the Confederates controlled during the three-day battle, and which, in 1863, was home to around 2,400 people; today, more hand 8,000 live here.

We then drove up Seminary Ridge, one of the main parts of the Confederate battle line. Turning onto Reynolds Avenue, the immenseness of the battlefield suddenly became clear, as vast fields stretched out before us.

“We are now travelling along one of the first U.S. Infantry lines of the battle,” said tour guide Bruce, as he pointed out many of the regimental monuments that were placed here in the 1880s by their surviving members.

Next, we passed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters and then the Lutheran Seminary, one of the more recognizable features of the battlefield. During the fight, it was used as a hospital for both Northern and Southern wounded.

As the bus pulled off to the side and came to a stop, we filed off and stood next to the monument for the 11th Mississippi, where Bruce spoke of the incredible impact that the battle, and the War in general, had on thousands of communities throughout the country. “Entire towns were decimated,” he said. “If you want to try to comprehend what these casualty counts would mean today, comparing the size of the population then to now, just multiply the numbers by 10.” Using that math, if Gettysburg happened in modern times, there would be over 530,000 casualties; if you take the entire War into account, there would be over 6,000,000.

Continuing the tour, we crossed over the Emmitsburg Road to the Peach Orchard, site of some of the battle’s most furious and deadly fighting. Then we drove through the infamous Wheatfield and the Devil’s Den, where casualties were high as well.

Turning left, the bus slowly climbed up the rocky hill known as Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain led the 20th Maine on its legendary bayonet charge on the battle’s second day, saving the Union left flank and, effectively, the entire army.

It was a perfectly clear and sunny day, and as we looked out from the top of the hill, you could literally see for miles. The entire battlefield stretched out before us. Some of the students stood atop one of the massive boulders that dotted the hillside, the same ones that Union soldiers had taken cover behind almost 15 decades earlier.

Following the proper battle line of the Northern army, we made our way across Cemetery Ridge and past the massive Pennsylvania State Monument, the largest on the field. “More than half of the entire U.S. forces were made up of men from either Pennsylvania or New York,” said Bruce.

Our final stop was the spot known simply as “The Angle,” the focal point of Pickett’s Charge, which marked the climax of this three-day battle. As Bruce described the legendary attack, where some 13,000 Confederate soldiers marched three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of deadly Union fire, far off in the distance a group of middle-school students were retracing the steps of the Virginia Brigade. It was chilling to see them slowly approaching our position carrying a Rebel battle flag, and it made it all the more real.

In the actual battle, those few Confederates who were able to make it all the way to the stone wall at the Angle engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Union men in what must have been a terrible scene. Just ten minutes later, however, the fight was over and the Northern lines had held. In that fateful charge, Southern forces lost over 6,000 casualties.

We stood there for a few moments, looking out onto the field to let it all sink in. The students were uncharacteristically silent, which either meant they were in awe of the moment, or just really tired. Probably a little bit of both.

When the tour was over, Dr. Barr gave the students the afternoon to explore the town on their own. Elise and Matt walked right back to the battlefield to look for the monument for Matt’s re-enactor group – the 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C. “We climbed over split-rail fences and hiked through knee high grass to get there,” said Elise. “It was awesome!”

Jordan, Rich, and Eric hit Lincoln Square and perused some of the town’s many Civil War relics shops. Eric purchased a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag to go with the cavalry sword he picked up in Richmond. Rich bought his own War memento – a leather-handled Confederate officer’s sword.

The rest just explored, got some lunch, or relaxed in the warmth of the spring sun.

I decided to do a little solo exploration and browsed through every shop I encountered in and around Lincoln Square. It wasn’t long, however, before I had my fill of Civil War relics and chotchkies. There’s just so many minie balls, rifles, bayonets, and sequined Confederate battle-flag vests you can look at in one day. (I’m not kidding about the vest, either. See the photo.)

As I walked around trying to find a quiet place to sit and have a cup of coffee, I realized just how loud it is in Gettysburg. No matter which way I went, I couldn’t escape the endless line of busses, trucks, motorcycles, and cars that passed through this busy terminus. In today’s Gettysburg, you don’t have to dodge bullets, but you do have to watch out for automobiles.

It was then when I thought of how ironic it is that the best thing that ever happened to Gettysburg was the terrible battle that happened here nearly 150 years ago. What would’ve become of this town, if not for the War? Would it still have thrived, or would it have faded into obscurity like so many similar small towns have?

As I sat on a bench in Lincoln Square, trying to make sense of it all, a semi slowly navigated the busy roundabout, hauling a brand-new, sand-colored tank. It’s a good thing Lee didn’t have any of those, I thought.

Just then, Jordan, Rich, and Eric, turned the corner and sat down next to me, all looking exhausted.

“All in all, I thought it was a good trip,” said Jordan. “But I’m ready to go home.”

I wonder how many of the soldiers who fought here were ready to go home, too?

After briefly walking through the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed the night and completed writing the Gettysburg Address, the 16 of us walked the couple or so blocks back to the bus.

Our Civil War journey had ended.


The overall response about the tour was positive.

“This was by far one of the most educational experiences I’ve had at Robert Morris University,” said Elsie. “Being able to actually see where certain points in the Civil War took place was fascinating.”

“This trip was a new way for me to learn about Civil War history,” said Sara. “Being able to see the battlefields and better envision what the Union and Confederate troops were doing was a great experience.

“My favorite part was probably Fredericksburg. I liked how our tour guide tied in Revolutionary War history with that of the Civil War and even western Pennsylvania.”

Kristen summed it up the best.

“For me, history is like a vast jigsaw puzzle,” she said. “Everyone has gaps or holes in their puzzle, where the pieces are missing. One or more missing pieces can be pivotal, and are required to make sense of a whole event. This tour helped me learn about the Southern perspective, military strategies, geography, topography, civilian life, a soldier’s camp life, social customs, economics, river and canal systems, the lack of hygiene and mortuary services, and more. These are all major pieces that have fit together to form a vivid picture of the Civil War.

“It was like someone handed me a gift.”

–Valentine J. Brkich

DAY 1 – Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

What happened here?
On Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men on a raid on the federal arsenal in order to acquire weapons, with which he planned to arm slaves for a war against slavery in Virginia. The raid was quelled two days later by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown and seven of his raiders were later hanged, following trial for treason. This was also the site of the Battle of Harpers Ferry (Sept. 12–15, 1862), where Confederate soldiers under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson fought and captured the Union garrison in order to secure a line of supply for Lee as his army moved farther north.

Legacy and Aftermath
John Brown’s failed raid did much to put an already divided nation on a path to war by striking fear in Southern slave owners and by creating a martyr for Northern abolitionists. The battle for the town, almost three years later, was a major victory for the Confederates, who inflicted 217 casualties and captured more than 12,000 Union soldiers, as well as a large cache of weapons and supplies.


I really shouldn’t have gone running yesterday, I thought to myself, as I slogged my way up the steep, rocky trail to Maryland Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

We left Robert Morris University in the early morning and rode through a driving rainstorm all the way to this historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah River. On the tour bus I was joined by 14 students in RMU’s Civil War Study Tour class, taught by Dan Barr, Ph.D., associate professor of history.

As we made our way down the PA Turnpike, I introduced myself to a woman named Kristen, a part-time student from Allison Park and the mother of four: a son, 17; and three daughters, 22, 14, and 12.

I asked her why she signed up for the class and tour.

“I hope to learn as much as I can, rather than in the classroom,” she said.

Kristen admits she knows very little about the Civil War. “I would consider myself a Civil War novice,” she said, sharing how the 2003 movie “Cold Mountain” had piqued her interest by giving her a look at the war from the home-front perspective. “That made it real to me,” she said. “I hope I can do the same for my own students some day.”

Like many of us, Kristen is intrigued by the war’s ability to still captivate us almost 150 years later. “I think our society is still obsessed with the Civil War because it was all about us,” she said. “It went to the heart and soul of who we were, and it continues to shape who we are today.”

We arrived at Harpers Ferry in the early afternoon, and within seconds of stepping off the bus, we knew we’re in the South. The muggy air smacked us in the face as gnats buzzed incessantly around our heads.

Our tour guide, Bill Sagle, seemed amused by our reaction to the heat. “You think this is bad,” he said, “you should come here in July.”

For the next two hours or so, Bill gave us an insider’s look at the town, going hour by hour through Brown’s raid and sharing details you won’t necessarily find in your text book. At one point we were all sitting inside the famed Engine House, a.k.a., John Brown’s fort, where the abolitionist held over 40 captives before being overtaken by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee.

When Bill finished his talk, we mentioned our plans to hike up the trail to Maryland Heights, where in 1862 fierce fighting took place in the Battle of Harper’s Ferry. “Good luck,” he said. “I highly suggest bug spray and snake repellent.”

That got the attention of some of the girls in the group.

“Snakes!” they exclaimed. “There’s snakes up there?” I’m not sure if it was fear of disturbing a sleeping rattler or just the stifling heat, but several of the students decided to forego the climb to the heights and instead explore the town. The rest of us took the footbridge across the Potomac to begin our ascent. Our group included one girl, Brie, the president of RMU’s History Club, who was wearing flip-flops and carrying a Prada bag.

On the way up the trail I got to talking with Matt, a grad school student currently doing his student teaching at Western Beaver. It turns out he’s also a Civil War reenactor with the Beaver County-based 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C.

“This is nothing,” Matt told me, as we started the 2.1-mile climb. “Last year we hiked Camp Allegheny, 12 miles, in full gear.”

I asked him his opinion on protecting history in places like Harpers Ferry. “Historic preservation is key,” he said. “It’s protecting what your ancestors did for you.”

As a future teacher, Matt sees the value in trips such as these. “You have to get out there and get your hands on history,” he said. “So many students think history is boring. But when you get them out there, and they can see it and feel it themselves…that’s how you can get them excited.”

Forty minutes later, we we’re at the top of the mountain. We paused briefly to catch our breath and gaze down at the rivers and town far below. Of the 10 of us who started the climb, seven make it all the way to the top, including Brie in her flip-flops.

On the way back down the hill, I started talking with Jordan, who is just finishing up his freshman year at RMU. I asked him how it went.

“Good,” he said, “although, my experience was a little different than the average freshman.”

Jordan joined the Army right out of high school and was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana. A cannon crew member in a field artillery unit, he spent 10 months in Afghanistan, returned home for one year, and then spent another 15 months in Iraq. He still serves in the National Guard today.

When Jordan came back from Iraq, he started looking around at different schools. That’s when he found out about RMU’s program for veterans and how, through the Federal Yellow Ribbon Program, he could attend the university for free. “That’s all I needed to hear,” he said.

Soon we were back in town and ready to call it a day. So we climbed aboard the bus to head down to Thornburg, Va., for the night.

Next stop, Richmond – the capital of the Confederacy.

Stay tuned…