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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

EXPLORATION: Harmonist Cemetary - Pennsylvania

Every once in a while, the hand of fate wraps its cold fingers around the wheel, wrestles it from your grasp, and steers you away from the hustle and bustle of highway traffic. It's touch might come as an ache in your back . . . a stiffness in your legs . . . a thirst, at the back of your throat . . . or a gentle pressure, building slowly, then suddnely crying for release. Regardless, those who listen close, who heed its advice, are often rewarded with sights from the road less travelled.
Such was the case one sleepy Sunday morning upon a featureless stretch of highway in Northen Pennsylvania. We hadn't been driving long when we felt the touch, the guiding hand of fate directing us to a nondescript single-lane exit. There was nothing to catch the eye, nothing at all to promise it'd be worth our while to delay our arrival back at home. We hit the exit anyway, drove a few miles into farmland, took a few random twists and turns, and then we saw it -- a wall of stone, with arched gates, surrounding an empty field of grass. It looked so odd, so out of place, I had to check it out.
According to the historical plaque aside the road, fate had drawn us to the Harmonist Cemetery. Over 200 years of history lay inside those 150 year-old walls, with not a single tombstone to be seen. That mystery alone was enough to peak my interest. Had it not been, the sight that greeted my eyes upon ascending the hill would certainly have sealed the deal.
Those pitted, pockmarked, chipped, and faded doors absolutely defined the very idea of finding beauty in ruins. They were like a pair of matched tombstones, standing nearly six feet high, and set upon an invisible pivot, set deep into the stone. The ancient iron press-plate had clearly seen better days, and looked as if it might even be locked. I pressed my hands against the stone. Nothing. I pressed harder. Nothing still. I shifted my hands to the very edge of the gate and leaned into it.
Lo and behold, the gate swung inward, as smoothly and silently as if it had been greased that morn. I stumbled into the courtyard and stared at the hillside swath of grass, bordered on all four sides by a wall that kept the outside world at bay. Feeling very much like an intruder, an interloper, a defiler of sacred ground, I stepped out into the yard. I watch the ground as I walked, with one eye searching for half-buried markers of old, and the other watching for the first bony hand to emerge from the dirt and wrap its cold, dead fingers about my ankle.
I reach the bottom corner unmolested, and unrewarded by a gravemaker of any kind. Looking up, across the yard, towards the gate, was very surreal. Had I not pushed my way in, I would have sworn I was on the outside looking in. As cemeteries go, it was strangely empty. Dissapointed, I started making my way back up the hill.
And then I saw it.
A single, lonely tombstone lay propped up against the wall, clealy mended where it had been split in two. Who Johannes Rapp was, I have no idea. Why he, of all those souls buried within those walls, deserved a stone, I don't know. What I do know -- or, at the very least, strongly suspect -- was that he didn't want me there. Quite literally, the moment I laid my hand upon the rough, cold flowers embossed upon the stone, a peal of thunder descended upon me. Startled, I looked up. Where I expected to find heavy clouds of grey, I saw instead the same white puffy clouds of ealier, with patches of blue between them.
Amused at myself, I forced myself to reach out once again and allow my fingers to trace the (presumably) Dutch lettering of the stone. There were two centuries of history in those groves, laid down by one man and traced by another, 196 years removed. Feeling a chill, I stepped back to take a picture. I'd no sooner touched my knee to ground, and the rain began.
By the time I made it back to the gate, it was absolutely pouring. There were still patches of blue above, but I was already soaked to the bone. Thunder ushered me back through the gate, and lightning marked my hurried attempt to push it closed once again.
It took us twice as long to find the highway as it did to lose it. The rain pounded us so hard, so fast, we had to stop twice because we simply couldn't see the road. Having steered us to a bit of history, the hands of fate seemed determined to wash away all trace of our discovery.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

EXPLORATION: Third Welland Canal (part 2)

Beyond Lock 19 lies the towering ruins of the Pumphouse. In an ironic nod to the past, 'Siren Sounds' stands silent sentinel over the slumbering locks of the Third Welland Canal. Chipped and worn by time, its walls lie permanently stained by decades of mold and mildew, while the wooden sluice gate stands fast against the darkness inside.
Sitting several stories above the base of the canal, the Pumphouse itself is but a shadow of its former glory. Its windows are bricked over, it's doors cemented shut, and vandals have spray-painted every inch within their reach. Only a single access door remains, it's solid steel secured by both key and combination, protected by a second gated door, itself padlocked against intruders. Intimidating, well-intentioned, and - on this day, at least - susceptible only to the hand that reaches out . . . and finds it all unlocked.
Inside, the Pumphouse retains little of its original equipment, but what remains provides an interesting glimpse into history. In one corner lies a floor-mounted winch, still connected to the wooden sluice-gates far below.
Not far away, a motorized system sits atop the two spillways, dirty and rusted for sure, but not entirely neglected. High atop it all, an antique series of pulleys and chains hang from the ceiling, wanting only a shot of oil and a strong hand to return them to life.
Now, step back outside and take temporary solace in the sunshine. Having traveled from end-to-end, from the ruined beauty of Lock 12 to the unlocked interior of the Pumphouse, it is now time to descend into one of the canal's best kept secrets. Well off the beaten path, far below the Seaway Haulage Road, lies the ruins of the Grant Trunk Railway tunnel.
713 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 18 feet high, the tunnel once carried trains from one side of the canal to the other, sending them under those very same boats from which came their cargo. Abandoned in 1915, the tunnel has been buttressed against the crushing weight of the canal itself, yet it remains a cold and damp, perpetually dark, and prone to flights of imagination.
Stepping into the tunnel is like stepping into another world, especially once you make the first turn into total darkness. Old railways ties, slick and slippery from years of dampness and decay, provide an uncertain footing. As you stumble carefully along, the temperature drops rapidly, so cold you can see your breath and literally watch as your body heat escapes into the air. Above you, water drips from the ceiling, forming a curtain of rain that slowly freezes itself into a wall of icy stalactites over the course of the winter. What's more, those who brave the long, dark journey do so only to find their progress abruptly halted by a a few feet of mud and water.
With its tragic history of 2 men killed just 100 yards from the tunnel during a 1903 railway accident, and an even more morbid tale to follow -- multiple graves from the St. Peters Church graveyard not moved, but left to be quite literally washed away when the Pondage reservoir above was created in 1923 -- it's no wonder that these conditions prompt visitors to see ghosts in the mist and orbs in the water-laden air. For this reason, the GTR is far more commonly known as the BGT, or Blue Ghost Tunnel.