Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Secret Connected Pasts

A recent (6/9/24) Sunday drive took us (Mom and I) to High Rock and Fort Ritchie. We'd been to both places before. High Rock is a scenic overlook in South Mountain State Park, off the Appalachian Trail. Fort Ritchie is a former mountaintop military base in nearby Cascade. Who knew they shared a secret past. 

Our first stop was Pen Mar. It was crowded so we drove onto High Rock. High Rock was crowded, too. There was even a biker "gang" there. It was a beautiful spring day. Clear as a bell. The view from atop the rocks was awe-inspiring.  Sadly, I've gotten used to all the graffiti on the rocks. But this was the first time I witnessed the defacing. Parents were giving their children cans of spray paint. Still, I took pictures. Amazing colors, especially with the graffiti (I admit it).

I knew that High Rock has a history. It used to be a popular site for hang gliding. It was part of Pen Mar, a popular resort from the 1870s to 1930's. On our last visit to Pen Mar, we visited the museum and learned about the Pen Mar Resort. There used to be an observation tower at High Rock. Because of the views it offers, during the Civil War, High Rock was used by Union soldiers as a lookout. Many notable troop movements were witnessed atop High Rock.

Finger Buildings

Fort Ritchie's secrets only came out within the past few decades. Fort Ritchie was a training site for the US Military to teach soldiers the art of interrogation and physiological warfare. The soldiers were dubbed the Ritchie Boys. The Ritchie Boys were responsible for gathering a lot of the intelligence that helped the Allies win WWII. After the war, Fort Ritchie served as a communication center in support of the very secret Sire R (Raven Rock Mountain Complex; alternate military command center). The base closed in 1998. But what about all its secrets? What happened to them?

Because it was such a beautiful day, I started taking pictures at Fort Ritchie, of the same buildings.  I told Mom that every day is different when you're taking pictures outside:  different season, different light, different cloud cover, etc. I was taking a picture of the church at Fort Ritchie, when a man invited us inside to see the church. As part of the Ritchie Revival, the church is being reopened, non-denominational, as it was when the base was open. All military churches are non-denominational. The man and his wife had just celebrated their marriage.

His wife (Angela) greeted us and we began talking. She was native to Smithsburg and knew a lot about the area and some of its secrets. She told us that High Rock had been affiliated with the US military. She said that the military moved a lot of the rocks there, that it's not a completely natural rock formation. She said High Rock was used as a communication site. The military used to parole the area. I already knew about a communication site somewhere near there. Of course, communications was the function of Fort Ritchie after the second world war.  

So many interesting places in Washington County. She told us there was a house in Smithsburg that still had a cannonball embedded it its window. Smithsburg saw some action in the Civil War. We couldn't find the house and there isn't much mention of it on the web. Who knows what Mom and I will learn next as we take our weekend drives, in and around Washington County.

Side bar
I just watched two programs about the Ritchie Boys:  a 2004 documentary and a 2022 episode of 60 Minutes. Both programs featured Ritchie Boy Guy Stern, who died December 2023 at the age of 101. He was the only one from his Jewish family to get out of Germany. He had colorful stories to tell about his time as a Ritchie Boy. He would impersonate a Russian officer to get German POWs to talk. The Germans were deathly afraid of being turned over to Uncle Joe. Mom and I both agree that Hollywood needs to make a movie about the Ritchie Boys, so more people learn about their heroism and contributions to the war effort. 

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