In a warm summer day in July 1827, the patriotic citizens of Boonsboro decided to erect a monument to the father of our country -- thus helping to perpetuate George Washington's place in history and, at the same time, ensuring their own.
The tower they began that July 4 was the first monument dedicated to Washington's memory. And while the one in Washington may be more grand and the one in Baltimore may be more of a landmark, nothing can take that distinction away from this Western Maryland town.
Today, visitors can climb 34 steps to the top of the reconstructed monument -- vandals and severe weather had left it as little more than a pile of rubble by the time it was restored in 1882, under the sponsorship of the Odd Fellows Hall of Boonsboro, and again in 1934, by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Along the quarter-mile walking trail to the monument, wooden plaques describe milestones in George Washington's life, from his birth in 1732 to his death at Mount Vernon in December 1799.
"It's a historic and cultural site," says Dan Spedden, park manager of the South Mountain Recreation Area, which includes the 40-acre Washington Monument State Park. "The story of the man is very well told in the monument and the trail."
Of course, the pomp that marked July 4, 1827 may never be matched. That morning, marching to the beat of a fife-and-drum corps and led by the Stars and Stripes, most of Boonsboro's 500 inhabitants made the two-mile trip to the summit of South Mountain. The day's festivities ended with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and a three-round salute fired from atop the tower by three Revolutionary War veterans.
Work on the 34-foot-high monument was completed the next fall.
The park receives about 36,000 visitors a year, many of them travelers on the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through just a few hundred feet from the monument. One recent visitor was Ralph Byers, a Boonsboro native who admits only to being in his 60s and uses the climb to the tower's summit as a way of rehabilitating his damaged hip -- much as he used it in 1947, when it was his right knee that needed help.
"Lots of Boonsboro people don't come up here anymore," says Mr. Byers, who moved to Hagerstown several years ago. "They live right on top of it, and yet people that live far away are coming up here all the time."
Marylanders should heed Mr. Byers' advice and not take the monument for granted. Besides the tower itself -- a striking image that photographers should love, particularly at sunset -- Washington Monument State Park has plenty to offer.
The park also includes picnic tables, a playground for children, a campsite that can be reserved by youth groups and three open-air shelters that can be rented for $35 a day and are ideal for ensuring your cookouts aren't canceled due to rain.
A trip to the park can also be used as a jumping-off point for any number of side trips into Western Maryland. Antietam, one of the best-preserved of America's Civil War battlefields, is less than a half-hour away. Harper's Ferry, W.Va., another renowned Civil War site and, from the heights above the Potomac River, home of one of the East Coast's loveliest views, is about 12 miles farther south.
Those who appreciate fine Victorian-style homes should drive through Middletown, about 10 miles north on Alt. U.S. 40. Crystal Grottoes Caverns, which advertises itself as "Maryland's premiere natural phenomenon," is about 1.5 miles south of Boonsboro on Route 34 (they don't allow one-person tours, however, so be sure to take a friend). Lunch or dinner can be
bought at the Colonial-era Old South Mountain Inn, at the intersection of Monument Road and Alt. U.S. 40.
Boonsboro itself, a few miles west of the park, is a charming little town with a handful of antiques shops, a museum of the town's bTC history and a few restaurants (including the Cafe Berlin, where Marcel and Brunhilde Wenker serve up what must be the finest wurst in Washington County).
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting there: I-70 west to exit 49. Then head west on Alt. U.S. 40, through Middletown. Take a right on Monument Road; you're about one mile from the park entrance. Watch for the signs to Washington Monument State Park.