Thursday, May 26, 2011

Army Heritage Days at the AHEC

This past weekend (May 21st and 22nd) was “Army Heritage Days” at the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Sheila, Meaghan, and I went on Saturday, of course, along with about four thousand fellow military history buffs. It was awesome.

The event was held mainly on the Army Heritage Trail, that I recommended you visit last September. However, the AHEC Foundation also unveiled a new building at the complex that houses a multi-purpose meeting room, and new museum area, and…wait for it…a museum shop and bookstore!

This event drew reenactors from every era of American Military History. Some, naturally, were better than others. But everyone did a great job and shared their enthusiasm for their favorite period of history. My special favorites were the World War I reenactors. Why? First, they were not overweight, [sorry reenactors, you’ve got to look the part, there are way too many chubby Civil War soldiers out there.] Second, they were dirty, [if you are bright and clean, you are not looking realistic, unless of course you are reenacting being in a parade or something.] And third, they really knew their subject [some of you German soldiers were a little weak, hit the books!]

I have traveled around quite a bit, and I have never encountered another place like the Army Heritage Trail, where people can look at, climb on, and immerse themselves in, military history like this. The WWI trench is my favorite; I also like the Vietnam Firebase. I also get to look at a WWII era tank destroyer, which I encountered in my research for my book on the 509th Parachute Infantry during WWII, but had never seen one before.

AHEC Under Threat of Closure

So why would someone want to close this facility? That’s right, the AHEC has been placed on a list for consideration to be closed. The archive materials would go to the Center for Military History at Fort McNair (who says they don’t have room for it) and the museum collection would go to the planned Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir (which hasn’t been built yet and still needs to raise close to $50 million in additional funds to complete). If the AHEC is indeed closed, it will take effect in the 2013 budget year.

Normally, I try very hard to not be political. Oh, I have opinions, but I don’t like to debate because I find that most people argue with their emotions and are pretty short on facts. I must make an exception in this case, however. It is true that I am biased in favor of keeping the AHEC open. I do research there. I enjoy visiting there. But there are valid reasons to protect this facility from the budget ax.

The AHEC provides jobs for Cumberland County. The AHEC brings tourist dollars to Cumberland County. Moving the research material to congested downtown D.C. is in fact inhibiting access to it. Removing the exhibits on the Army Heritage Trail will sadly remove a valuable, one-of-a-kind education resource. Here’s one more for you: It reportedly costs $6 million a year to operate the AHEC. In the recent spending cut mania our country finds itself in, it sounds like that would be big savings. But as the DOD budget goes, that’s like one of us regular folks buying a pack of gum. We’d be able to run the AHEC for years if we would just bring our forces home from Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, a few days early. Why are people crying out to save a few dollars by closing facilities that add to the quality of life, yet ignore our troops overseas and the massive debt we are piling up in order to accomplish…what?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal

I’ve talked a lot about the C&O Canal on this blog, but that’s because with 184.5 miles of trail, there’s a lot to see. One of the locations I’ve waited all winter to go see is the Paw Paw Tunnel. The spring weather finally arrived and I got in a few bicycle rides to get back to the level of shape I was in last fall. It was finally time to go for a big ride last Saturday.

The Paw Paw Tunnel lies between mileposts 155 and 156, near the appropriately named town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. The builders of the canal decided to cut the tunnel through a ridge to save 5 miles of canal and towpath rather than follow all of the switchbacks of the Potomac River known as the Paw Paw bends. Construction on the tunnel began in 1836, but it took twelve years to complete due to the financial problems of the company and different episodes of labor unrest. After the workers punched through the mountain, it took another two years to place the approximately 5,800,000 bricks that line the tunnel.

The tunnel is about 3100 feet long, or three fifths of a mile. It is only wide enough for one canal boat to transit the tunnel at a time. Therefore, the Paw Paw Tunnel caused a few traffic jams in the heyday of the canal. Boats going down stream would have to yield for those going up river. Before entering the tunnel, a boat would hang a white lantern on their front and a red lantern on the rear, so others would know which way they were going.

You can get to the Paw Paw Tunnel by car. It’s about a half an hour drive from Cumberland, Maryland or an hour from Hancock, Maryland. Plenty of parking is available in the campground just across the river from Paw Paw, West Virginia. Let Google Maps tell you how to get there. For my bike ride on Saturday, I had Sheila drop me off in Hancock. The 32-mile ride along the towpath was full of pretty scenery, but for the most part the several locks and aqueducts on this section of the trail are not nearly as interesting as Williamsport’s aqueduct over the Conococheague (mile 99.6) and Lock 44 (mile 99.1) with its restored lockhouse. The towpath trail narrows as you climb a slight rise into the gorge leading to the tunnel. A boardwalk was built into the side of the gorge and small waterfalls are spilling onto the trail. When you go to visit the tunnel, BRING A FLASHLIGHT or a headlamp. It is mad dark in there and you are going to want a light.

Visiting the Paw Paw Tunnel is definitely worth an afternoon. For all practical purposes, there are no facilities in the town of Paw Paw…a couple of diners, a gas station that sells sodas and snacks, but that’s it. It is a pretty drive through West Virginia and there is a nice park there to eat a picnic lunch. I, of course, recommend riding your bicycle. It is about 28 miles by bicycle from Cumberland and 32 miles north from Hancock. Or bring your bikes with you and take a little ride up and down the towpath. I was pretty happy having my ride home waiting for me on the south side of the tunnel. And that Subway sandwich after the ride was pretty good too. ;-)

Reference for the history of the Paw Paw Tunnel, and mileage locations are from The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High (John Hopkins University Press, 2000).

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