For all the times that I’d driven, ridden, or towed race cars to Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, I never realized that at least five of George Washington’s relatives had lived within 10 miles of the track. Nor had I known that the infamous Wizard Clip had terrorized an entire nearby town in one of the most well-documented ghost stories in the country. My mission on this day was to track down these (and other) stories.
Of course, it’s always good to get an early start.
The first goal was to find the ruins of St. George’s Chapel. It was an English church, built during 1771-1774, when the momentum for the American Revolution was building. Some combination of weak construction and anti-British sentiment may have been responsible for its relatively early demise. After 1811, there are no records of any further services. In this 1877 sketch by David Strother Hunter, the chapel was already in ruins. Note the stones protruding from the southwest corner column (the one on the right in this sketch), about halfway up.
Further deterioration is evident in this later drawing or photograph. The southwest corner is now closest to us, and the stones are still protruding. The church was originally called Northborne Chapel, and, at the time, it was a marvel of engineering since there were very few two-story stone buildings with no interior supporting walls. The name “St. George” came later, when the ruins had become a popular tourist spot in the mid-to-late 1800s.
As recently as the early 1970s, six of the eight corner columns were still standing. Today, this is it: But the southwest corner remains, protruding stones and all.
As for the Washington homes in this area, here are four of them: (1) Harewood, the 1770 home of Samuel Washington (George’s younger brother) and site of James and Dolly Madison’s wedding; (2) Cedar Lawn, built in 1825 by John Thornton Augustine Washington (grandson of Samuel); (3) Claymont Court, Bushrod Corbin Washington’s 1840 home; and Blakeley, the 1820 home of John Augustine Washington II (great-nephew of ol’ George), who later inherited Mount Vernon. Incidentally, Samuel Washington is one of the relatively few Washington relatives whose burial place is not known. It is thought, however, that he may have been buried at St. George’s Chapel, since he was its first Senior Warden.
As I left Blakeley and continued on in search of Wizard Clip, I had the feeling that I was being watched. Sure enough, these silent spectres were everywhere:
A few miles further on, I arrived at the town of Middleway, WV. There was so much interesting history all in one place that I ended up doing the full walking tour—which I highly recommend to any history and/or ghost-story buffs. This is the main road through town, with the Gilbert House in the background, the last of the pre-1800 stone houses in the village. In the foreground is the pump for one of the two wells used by the town throughout the 1800s and up until 1970.
Now, Middleway was the scene of the Wizard Clip’s demon activities in the late 1700s. The full story can be found here: Legend of the Wizard Clip, and it’s quite a read. The short version is as follows: A stranger knocked on Adam Livingston’s door late one night and asked for a room. During the night, the stranger fell ill and asked for a Catholic priest, but none was available in the little town. He was found dead the next morning and was buried in a field nearby. Immediately, strange happenings occurred through the village, accompanied by the sound of scissors clipping. Clothes, curtains, and even leather boots were found with crescent moon-shaped pieces cut out. The heads of ducks just fell off, neatly clipped by an invisible force. Livingston’s barn burned, logs jumped out of burning fireplaces, and dishes flew out of kitchen cabinets. Eventually, a Catholic priest was brought to Middleway, he performed an exorcism (and reburied the stranger’s body with a proper ceremony), and the strange events ceased. The story of the Wizard Clip was well-documented at the time and remains one of the strangest episodes in Virginia/West Virginia history.
Oh, and Adam Livingston donated land for a Catholic retreat, known as Priest’s Field, which still operates today. A local resident told me that there is a statue of Livingston on the grounds—and an empty grave and headstone, placed in honor of the stranger… 😮
Middleway saw a lot of action during the Civil War. This building was originally a home, later served as a general store, and was one of the numerous makeshift hospitals following the Battle of Antietam.
As I continued the tour, I suddenly encountered this fellow. Despite his appearance, he seemed to be made of solid flesh and blood. He even said his name was Mark Dudrow and that he was on his way to Antietam. I hope he made it through the day safely…
Returning my focus to the historic buildings, I found the 1852 Masonic Lodge…
…and, at the other end of the graveyard, the Grace Episcopal Church, complete with a minié ball still lodged in the chancery door!
This was Daniel Fry’s home, Middleway’s first postmaster. It’s built of logs underneath the board and batten exterior.
Some of the houses in Middleway are fast disappearing. You might want to tour the village sooner, rather than later.
The owners of this log home removed the later siding during renovation, allowing the original late-1700s logs to be seen. In this form, it is representative of most of the original Middleway houses.
Reluctantly leaving the town and Mr. Clip behind, I pressed on for Bunker Hill. Along the way, I spotted the perfect place to send your kids to play when they’re misbehaving… I have no idea what it was originally, but it wasn’t a treehouse or anything like that. A high-rise chicken coop, perhaps?
The overcast skies and occasional drizzle couldn’t dampen the beautiful scenery in this area. The Bunker Hill Mill sits between a pond (the mill’s water supply), a barn, and, on the right, exactly one-third of a log springhouse. (Do you hear a clipping sound??) The mill was built in 1738 and rebuilt in 1890.
The mill is very unusual, in that it has two water wheels, driven centrally by a single water source. (And faithful readers, I just wanted to let you know that getting this picture required hopping over a ledge, scrambling down a steep bank, and standing beneath a dilapidated, dripping, rusty tank holding roughly 500 gallons—or over 2 tons—of water!)
The Mill District community was large enough to support its own one-room schoolhouse, which remains in remarkably good shape:
Bunker Hill Antiques features this nifty 1951 British AEC double-decker bus, shown with its proud owner. It has a Mercedes-Benz engine but could use a bit of restoration.
Bunker Hill was founded by Colonel Morgan Morgan in 1726, making it the oldest permanent settlement in what was then western Virginia. Fourteen years later, Col. Morgan built Christ Church on this spot. (It was replaced by the current Episcopal church in 1851.) He is buried in the cemetery here, somewhere… I looked, but couldn’t find his headstone. Morgan Morgan accomplished a great many things during his 78 years, including founding a militia in 1735—which continues to this day as the 201st West Virginia National Guard! Two of his sons, David and Zackquill, founded Fairmont and Morgantown, respectively.
Halloween’s coming, right? As I drove along in search of Morgan Morgan’s cabin, I spotted this perfectly good haunted house lurking in the woods. Actually, they were everywhere I turned.
Col. Morgan’s cabin has been reconstructed, using many of the original logs. It didn’t look particularly haunted, although his grandson James was shot and killed here by British loyalists during the Revolutionary War. In fact, he was tied to the springhouse door and shot 17 times—in front of his wife and children. As a result of this incident, the area is now known as Torytown.
I know nothing about this history of this dwelling, but I had to wonder: Was it constructed over time from left to right, or right to left?
Remember the part about haunted houses being everywhere around the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia? Well, here’s another one. It may have housed an electronics repair shop in its final iteration, as there were old amplifiers, tape decks, TVs, and other gear scattered all over the place.
Hedgesville is yet another of the many, very old towns in West Virginia. It started life as a stockade fort during the early Indian wars. A young George Washington worshipped here at the predecessor of the current Mt. Zion Episcopal Church.
The nearby Snodgrass Tavern dates back to 1740 but is now a private residence. It was a popular stopover for people traveling to the hot mineral baths at Berkeley Springs, as evidenced by this diary notation: “Dispatched my wagon (with the baggage) at daylight and at 7 o’clock followed it. Halted at one Snodgrass’s on Back Creek and dined there.” (George Washington, September 5, 1784.)
Next up was Martinsburg, WV. Back in my high-school basketball days, we played Martinsburg regularly, and even then it was known as a rough town. With its continuing economic demise, it’s gotten even rougher, I’m afraid. I’m usually welcomed on my various tours, but I got more than a couple hostile glares in Martinsburg. (Maybe they remember that Frederick High whupped them at b-ball in the mid-1960s?)
Anyway, I was looking for the ruins of the B & O Railroad roundhouse, which was burned by General Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War. Sure enough, they’re still there… In addition to destroying 42 locomotives and 300 railroad cars, the Confederates dismantled several locomotives and dragged them by 40-horse-teams back to Virginia—where they were reassembled and found to be too wide for the narrower southern railroad tracks.
Right next to roundhouse ruins is the replacement roundhouse that was built shortly thereafter and is still usable today. A strike here by railroad workers in 1877 brought out Federal troops, and an ensuing gun battle between the troops and the strikers resulted in a number of deaths. The Martinsburg strike helped precipitate the first national labor strike in the country’s history, with further loss of life and substantial economic disruption. Eventually, the railroad workers were “shot back to work,” as one of them put it. A fascinating story of the times is available at Remembering a Worker Rebellion.
And it looks so peaceful today.
Across the tracks from the roundhouses and maintenance buildings, the Caperton Station Hotel now serves as an Amtrak station and visitor center.
The story of Martinsburg’s Belle Boyd, Confederate spy and subsequent London actress, will have to wait until another day (since her house and museum wasn’t open on Sundays). Here is Belle’s garden, however, as a down payment.
This imposing stone mansion was the home of Adam Stephen, the founder of Martinsburg in 1778. He had served as second-in-command to George Washington during the French and Indian Wars and later as a general in the Revolutionary War. Counter-intuitively, he was later court-marshaled for “behavior unbecoming an officer.” (Well, he was from Scotland…)
And speaking of inappropriate behavior, I don’t think one is supposed to park here.
After a quick look at Martinsburg’s stately courthouse, which seemed to belie the city’s general downturn, it was time to move on.
The Van Meter Ford bridge over Opequon Creek was a near-identical cousin of Burnside’s Bridge at the Antietam battlefield. But you can still drive across this one, for the moment. A modern bridge will allow the old one to be retired.
My next stop was Shepherdstown, a place I’d visited on a couple of previous R1200GS excursions. It’s right across the Potomac River from Sharpsburg, MD, the site of the Battle of Antietam. Following the battle, all of Shepherdstown became a hospital (indoor and outdoor) for as many as 8,000 wounded troops.
German Street is dominated by McMurran Hall, the first building for the college now known as Shepherd University and previously the Jefferson County courthouse after the Civil War.
Actually, just about every house and building along German street was worthy of a careful look.
At least seven springs in and around Shepherdstown combine to form “Town Run,” which meanders all through the town for 2 miles before emptying into the Potomac River. Town Run never floods and never freezes.
The Entler Hotel is now a wonderful little museum. I managed to arrive shortly before closing time and was enthusiastically welcomed by the two docents. (Well, it was their first day on the job). Inside, I found this mail delivery wagon…
…Abraham Shepherd’s copy of The Spectator (dated 1776, if I remember my Roman Numerals correctly)…
…and this downright scary-looking medical device. The oval-shaped cups were placed over a patient’s eyes, the machine was started, and then the machine performed its therapeutic service. Except, no one knows what it was designed to do!
The only other equally scary device in Shepherdstown was this motorcycle. Only the very brave need inquire further.
The oldest wood-frame house in all of West Virginia can be found, with some effort, behind a modern industrial park near Kearneysville, WV. It was built in 1751 by Peter Burr, the uncle of Aaron Burr—who, while serving as the third Vice President of the U.S. in 1804, famously shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, in a duel. When he wasn’t shooting people, Aaron Burr also introduced James Madison and Dolly Payne Todd to each other. (It seems to have been a small world back then…) Anyway, here are pictures of the Peter Burr House before restoration and how it looks now:
When I visited, I happened upon this couple painting one of the other buildings on the site. They very graciously offered to open the house for me, but I didn’t want to interrupt their work.
This older photo shows what a part of the 8-room, 2-story house looked like inside before its restoration. It’s survived so well in part because the house sits up slightly above the ground.
I stopped briefly in Shenandoah Junction to see if I could find a photogenic train station. I couldn’t but settled instead for the town’s official post office…
…and one of its official friendly cats.
In the middle of nowhere on my way to Halltown, I found this perfect “old and new” setting. (Note that the skies had clouded over again, heightening the dramatic effect and raining enough to make me put the top up.)
My final goal for the day was to find the Beall Air mansion, home of Colonel Lewis William Washington, great-great-nephew of George and target of abolitionist John Brown. Colonel Washington was taken hostage by John Brown’s men, after their raid on the Harper’s Ferry armory prior to the start of the Civil War. In the process, Washington’s prized sword was taken for Brown, who had apparently coveted it for years. It had been given by Frederick the Great to George Washington and was inscribed “From the Oldest General in the world to the Greatest.” Ironically, when the armory was later raided by Federal troops, the belt buckle for the stolen sword’s scabbard prevented Brown from being run through by a sword-wielding lieutenant.
My pre-trip research had indicated two possible places that the Beall Air mansion might be, but neither one proved accurate. In desperation, I stopped at a rundown house that had two women and two young children on the front porch. I asked the closer woman if she knew where the Beall Air mansion was. Without saying a word, she got up, went indoors, talked with an unseen man, and emerging, pointed to the other woman on the porch and said, “I don’t, but she does!”
The other woman came over and gave me directions to “Belair.” She didn’t sound terribly confident, and, as I thanked her and walked back to the car, I heard the man’s voice from inside say, “He ain’t never gonna find it, not with them directions.” But, I followed her instructions, which led more-or-less directly to the Beall Air mansion! And what a sight it was, nestled in among a growing modern housing development:
Since I never would have found the mansion without her help, I stopped on my way back, bought a box of donuts, and returned to her house. The family was quite pleased with my thank-you present—and the woman was probably even more pleased that “them directions” had proven to be accurate, despite her husband’s dismissal. And she very graciously asked me if I needed any more directions to find my way home.
PS: Also ironically, not long after his captivity by John Brown, Lewis Washington—now a Confederate Army officer—led his own raid on Harper’s Ferry, capturing machinery and other equipment and sending it to Richmond.
PPS: The sword from Frederick the Great (and a pair of dueling pistols, given to George Washington by General Lafayette and also taken from Lewis Washington by John Brown) are now at the New York State Library in Albany. As for safekeeping, the sword was damaged in the State Capitol fire of 1911 but was later repaired.