What? A Civil war museum in Harrisburg? There was no major battle fought in Harrisburg, what kind of museum would be located in Harrisburg? Those and many more questions filtered through my head as I was looking for places to visit while we spent an overnight trip in Harrisburg, PA. The museum had very good reviews so I put it on the list of possible places to visit while we were in the area. When it came time to choose our destinations, the National Civil War Museum was actually at the top of the list of places to visit, simply because we like history and the Civil war is always a fascinating subject. Admittedly, I was still a bit skeptical about how good this museum was actually going to be but it blew me out of the water! This place was incredible. From the grounds to the building to the displays, the National Civil War Museum is incredible!
The Park at the National Civil War Museum
The museum is located within the Reservoir Park in Harrisburg, PA. In fact, while the museum of course has an actual street address, the website actually advises that if you are using GPS that you type in Reservoir Park. That is exactly what we did and we had no problem! We entered the park through the gates and began to wind up a hill. The roads are well marked at each intersection and there was absolutely no confusion as to how to get to the Museum. This is in an active park with signs for various recreation facilities. We did not explore, we were single mindedly heading to the museum. Around and up we went. We could see the museum building looming above us. It was an impressive building sitting high on the hill. The parking lots are on a lower terrace from the museum proper, with only a short flight of steps to take you to the proper level. There was plenty of parking on the day that we arrived. It was quite hot outside, so we quickly made our way to the museum.
The building is quite impressive. The grounds are well maintained and there is an air of authority as you walk to the entrance way. We pushed open the doors and entered the building and the authority faded away to a feeling of grandeur. The atrium was quite impressive. A grand staircase curled gracefully in the center of the large open space.
To the right we could see a gift shop visible through a windowed wall. We made our way into the gift shop and awaited our turn. The clerk was helpful and in no time at all we had purchased our tickets and been given all the important information about the museum.
The National Civil War Museum Tour
The museum tours are self guided and begin on the second floor and will wind you around the upper level before bringing you to a set of stairs (there is elevator access) to allow you to traverse and explore the lower level of the museum. After a quick stop at the immaculately clean bathrooms, we headed up the stairs to officially begin our visit. The second floor of the building is divided into two parts. The right side of the building appeared to be offices, conference rooms and areas for administration needs. The left side of the building was the actual museum. We quickly pushed through the doors and into the museum rooms. Immediately we step back into time, a time immediately preceding the war and as we walk through the museum we traverse through the many months and years of the war and through to its culmination.
The museum is full of a variety of different things on display. You will encounter many showcases of artifacts from the time period. I was especially intrigued with the hat box that housed Abe Lincoln’s famous top hat. But there were artifacts that I had never seen the likes of before in this museum. There are television monitors scattered around the museum that filmed filmed segments with actors giving us a glimpse into the times before, during and after the war. There are life sized scenes showing aspects of the war. You will move from thing to another with amazement and awe.
My Perception of the National Civil War Museum
As I toured this museum I was particularly intrigued with the content of their artifacts and displays. The museum clearly outlines the war and the quest for freedom through battles. But it did not dwell on the large battles that we all know so well. It talked about some of the smaller battles for sure, but it also focused on the social aspect of the Civil War. By this, it was giving us a glimpse of life during that terrible time in the United States. The level of detail into these various aspects of the social history was amazing. One full room was dedicated to the clothing and accouterments of the soldiers, both North and South. You will see items such as playing cards and intricate bone carvings that are the remnants of the activities that helped the soldiers occupy their time in camp. There are displays that highlight every aspect of camp life for a Civil War Soldier, medicine, food, music, it’s all there for you to peruse.
This museum far exceeded my expectations in every way. The information is presented in a way that is pleasing and easy to understand. The displays are spread out and the area is well managed so that we were never made to feel overcrowded. The website for this museum indicates that a visitor usually spends between two and four hours at the museum. Their estimate was exactly correct as we spent about three to three and a half hours. The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg is top notch and if the opportunity presents itself, I wouldn’t be adverse to visiting again.
On a recent hike in the Catoctin Mountain Park, we hiked the Charcoal trail. It was super informative and sparked our interest in the industry. We had stumbled upon the preserved Catoctin Furnace a few months earlier while we were the way to the Catoctin Zoo. We hadn't explored to deeply, so we decided to go back and check it out and see where the charcoal that we created up on in the mountains was used.
The signs along the road are unobtrusive, announcing the 'historic Catoctin Furnace District". I had driven by them numerous times and paid them no attention, but when I finally drove down that road, a whole new world of history opened up to me.
The Catoctin Furnace was in blast and operational as early as 1776 when it was instrumental in providing munitions to George Washington and his men. The furnace remained in operation, under different ownership until 1903. The grounds are well maintained and where applicable, beautifully restored. The Catoctin Furnace complex is spread out throughout the historic district but is all within short walking distance
The Catoctin Furnace Museum
The Catoctin Furnace Museum is housed in a restored iron workers house. This free museum is bright and cheery and the volunteers were quite friendly. As you walk in, a map of the complex is affixed to the floor allowing you to get a clear view of where you are and what there is to see as you explore this historical site.
The museum has a good number of artifacts on display. There are both items that were used at the iron works as well as items that were created and manufactured at this site. The displays are informative and interesting to see. The museum is not large. It only took us about 30 minutes give or take to view all it had to offer. Before we left, the volunteer manning the visitor center reminded us of the places that we should check out within the complex. We headed outside and started to explore.
Buildings at the Catoctin Furnace
The museum has restored two of the old houses in the area to use for museum purposes. The first building is a two story log cabin that was a colliers house. This home in particular housed two different families. Many times, these families would take in boarders to supplement their income.
The second house is the Forgemans house This stone house is absolutely adorable and has been renovated to include a working bathroom and kitchen. We were advised that we could peer into the windows but this building can be rented out for overnight trips.
The furnace is still standing and the historical society has rebuilt the shed that is connected with it. The size of the furnaces always enthralls me as I can only imagine the heat that must have emanated!
Catoctin Furnace Buildings in Ruins
Some of the buildings at the Catoctin Furnace complex are lying in ruins, too far gone to restore. One of these is the Iron masters Mansion. This mansion was built on a small hill so that the iron master could keep an eye on the workings of the whole village from the comfort of his own home.
It is hard to not stand at the ruins of what was once a large and grand house and not notice the difference between the iron master and the colliers houses.
Trails at the Catoctin Furnace
There are two main trails at the Catoctin Furnace. The first is a short interactive trail that is dotted with signs that give information about the history of the area and the ironworks. The trail ends at the site of an African America gravesite where workers from the ironwork lay. The gravesites were discovered during the building of the nearby route 15. In recent years, archeologists have worked to identify the remains in that are buried here and in the museum they have two busts that were created using the information that they discovered during their archeology expeditions.
The other trail that is on this property is a trail that meanders over streams and through the woods. It is also an interactive trail that has signs to give more historical information. This trail will lead you right to the Cunningham Falls State Park.
This small historical site has been well maintained and preserved. The history is rich and displayed in a manner that is interesting as well as easy to understand. Our entire visit took about 2 hours. That includes visiting all sites and hiking all portions of the short trails. It is well worth the visit!
To see where they made Charcoal to fuel this furnace check out the Catoctin Charcoal Trail post.
A big Snake and the Park Police
We were hiking in the Catoctin Mountain Park recently and I couldn't help but laugh about a situation we had about two years ago during one of our hikes in this gorgeous National Park system area. It was the day of the great big rattle snake!
The Rattle Snake
Our hike was over and we piled into the car, ready to get cooled down and relax on the drive home. We didn't have too far to travel. We lived somewhat locally and had both grown up in the general area surrounding this beautiful park. We hadn't gotten far from the parking lot when we saw a huge rattlesnake crossing the road. I had never heard the rattle of a rattlesnake and it had been discussed quite a few times that we wished that I would hear one in a safe environment so that I would immediately know what it sounded like were I to ever encounter one in the wilderness during one of our hikes. Without thinking we decided to stop the car and get out so that I could hear the rattle from a safe distance.
Very conveniently there was a pull off on the side of the road. I whipped the car into that pull off, watching the snake the whole time. We jumped out of the car and made our way to a safe distance from the snake. IT was watching us, but was never threatened enough to shake it's rattles in a warning. I snapped a few pictures but nothing. We were not going to push our luck, so we walked the few feet back to the car. That is when I realized my mistake!
Big signs dotted the edge of the turn around. The stated 'no stopping at any time' and big signs prohibiting any pictures being taken. Oooops! How could I forget that Camp David was nestled in these woods. I grew up in this area, I know about this fact but I had somehow just let it slip my mind in my quest to see the snake. We laughed about our snafu and quickly left the area and drove toward home.
The Park Police
We didn't even make it a half mile down the road before I saw a park police car sitting beside the road. I knew that they were there because of me. The pulled behind me and followed me. I laughed about how I could make a run for it and I could be out of the park before long. But I knew that was not to be. I knew that I was getting pulled over and furthermore, I knew that it wasn't REALLY the park police that would be pulling me over.
Sure enough, before long the lights flashed on. I was caught! I pulled over and remained calm. It was after all a mistake, even if it was a mistake at a federal level of security. Two 'park police' men got out of their vehicle. The were dressed for serious business. Flak jackets and numerous weapons, definitely NOT park police standard issue. One came up on each side of the car and they asked us to both put down our windows and I began to answer questions and I tried to not laugh when they tried to skirt the issue and use euphemisms instead of calling it Camp David.
"NO sir, I didn't pay attention to the signs until it was too late, my mind was elsewhere"
"Yes sir, I actually do know that there as you call it a 'military installation' in these woods'.
"Well you see sir, I was just trying to see a snake"
"Yes, I did take pictures with my cellphone"
They actually took my cell phone and inspected the pictures that I took. They could see when flipping through that we had been hiking on valid trails and to allowed places just a short time before. But it was still nerve wracking.
They finally let me drive away. It was obvious that I had just been thinking about one thing and not paying attention to my actual surroundings. We had a good laugh that day, but I know that in the future I will need to be careful. I am sure that my name is marked in some database system and a second infraction may not go as easily!
The Catoctin Mountain Park is managed by the National Park service and is one of the most visited parks in this area. Offering fabulous views, history, nature and some amazing hiking trails, this park is one of our favorites to visit.
The Charcoal Trail
We drove to the park on this hot summer day ready to tackle the trails and climb to a vista/overlook. We decided upon the Thurmont Vista loop. The parking lot had plenty of room to park and we hopped out into a light sprinkling of rain ready to begin. The parking lot has a few trailheads and while we knew that we wanted to hike the Thurmont Vista, we also knew that there was a short half mile interpretive historical trail off of this parking lot. We headed to that trail first thing!
The Charcoal trail is a very easy hike. The trail is well maintained and easy to navigate. Along the way there are signs that give historical information about how charcoal was made in this very area. We saw the remains of a cart to haul logs and learned about the process of burning the wood to create charcoal. We even saw a reconstructed hut that a collier would have lived in.
The charcoal trail was a neat jaunt through the woods and into an aspect of history that is not commonly discussed. I was happy that we did that short trail. But it was soon over and we were ready to head to Thurmont Vista.
Thurmont Vista Loop Trail
After our walk on the half mile Charcoal trail, we headed toward the Thurmont Vista. This trail was also well maintained. The trail meanders through the woods and eventually starts to climb. There are a few places where it became a bit rocky, but it was easily navigable for me since I had my trusty trekking poles with me. (I have a history of some nasty falls while hiking, so I always hike with my poles!)
We did pass some people on the trail, despite the rain that was falling. But after a mile we reached the vista and had the area to ourselves. The area was wide and would allow a few groups of hikers to relax at this vista. A bench has been placed to allow for some convenient resting after the climb.
We didn't linger long as it was raining and this was out in the open. We quickly headed back to the trail to continue on our looping hike. Very shortly after the vista we came to the turn off point for the planned loop hike that we were doing. Catoctin has their trails well marked and we could see that Wolf Rock was only three tenths of a mile down a different trail and Chimney rook only seven tenths. We decided to add a little spur trail to our hike. Off we went.
There were some areas of this trail that were a bit steeper and had to be traversed more carefully, especially in the rain. But it was still a well maintained and fun trail to hike. We quickly encountered the couple hundred feet of wolf rock and continued on to Chimney rock. The skies cleared for us just long enough for us to enjoy the sights at Chimney rock while eating our lunch.
After relaxing at Chimney rock we retraced our steps back to the Thurmont Vista Trail and headed further down the loop. The trail narrowed for a bit and was absolutely wonderful with it's cave-like greenery. Soon the trail began to descend. The trail maps mark this section of the trail as one of the most difficult trails in the park. We were heading downhill so it wasn't too troublesome. Once at the bottom of the trail we took the last leg of our loop back to the parking lot. This trail was quite rocky but not at all difficult to navigate.
All in all we hiked about 4.5 miles at the Catoctin Mountain Park that day. We had some wonderful views, saw some amazing geologic features and learned some neat historical facts. The Catoctin Mountain park was the perfect choice for a hot summer days activity!
Belief In Living
Travel with us as we explore!