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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Trail Trials: Dahlgren Chapel to Washington Monument

Yesterday, despite the bitter cold and howling winds, I decided to venture out and hike along the Appalachian Trail from Dahlgren Chapel to Washington Monument (and no, it's not the actual Washington Monument). This stretch of trail is approximately 2.8 miles out-and-back and runs outside of Boonsboro, Maryland. While the hike was a nice way to get some exercise, it was also a chance for me to try out my new Canon EOS Rebel T6 camera! Hopefully you all will see some positive changes in terms of picture quality :)

My starting point, Dahlgren Chapel, is located in a very historic area called Turner's Gap. The significance of the gap can be traced back to the 1750s when Robert Turner first purchased the land. By 1790, Turner was the owner and operator of a popular inn called the "Mountain House," which still stands today! The inn--which featured 21 rooms, bathhouse, and bowling alley--was the perfect stop for travelers headed west into then-frontier territory. The road passing through Turner's Gap eventually became part of America's first federally-funded highway in 1837, known as the Historic National Road (US Alt 40) today.

Washington Monument

During the Civil War, the road was used by the Confederate Army to mobilize troops during the siege of Harper's Ferry. On September 12, 1862, Generals Lee and Longstreet marched through this pass on their way to Hagerstown while General D.H. Hill and his men protected the gap in Boonsboro. On the evening of Septermber 13, Union General George B. McClellan, having caught wind of the Confederate movements, ordered his troops to cross South Mountain following dawn. That same evening, Hill ordered the placement of artillery regiments along South Mountain's ridge. Garland's Brigade, Bondurant's Alabama Battery, and Lane's Battery took up positions near Turner's Gap. On September 14 at 9 a.m., members of the Union Ninth Corps encountered Garland and his men and a brutal engagement ensued, resulting in the death of General Garland. With their commanding officer dead, Garland's Brigade dispersed, allowing Cox's Division of the Union Ninth to take the crest of the mountain. Around mid-afternoon, the Union line, having received reinforcements from Willcox's and Sturgis' Divisions, advanced along the ridge of the mountain. They were met by a strong Confederate resistance and neither side was able to gain ground for the rest of the day. As the battle was coming to a close, Major General J.L. Reno, commander of the Union Ninth Corps, was mortally wounded. The engagement resulted in Union control of South Mountain and Confederate line of retreat from Boonsboro to Sharpsburg.

During the 1870s, Madeleine Dahlgren, wife of Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, inventor of the Dahlgren Gun, purchased the inn at Turner's Gap. In 1881, she ordered for a private family chapel to be constructed on her property. The project would take three years to complete and most of the material used to build the chapel came from Dahlgren's property (with the exception of an Italian marble altar). On July 29, 1884, St. Joseph's Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was consecrated by Archbishop Gibbons. The chapel is an English Gothic Revival that seats eighty people, features a forty-foot bell tower, and contains the Dahlgren family crypt. Madeleine, herself, was interred there following her death in 1898. While the chapel doesn't provide year-round services today, it can still be rented out for weddings and other ceremonies.

Dahlgren Chapel

The trail runs behind the church grounds and parallel to the road leading into Washington Monument State Park. Hiking this portion of the AT isn't really difficult at all. The trail begins winding up the hillside with a steady, manageable grade. Once on the ridge, it goes flat, making for easy hiking (essentially walking at this point). The trail then descends into a grove of pines and crosses a road into the state park. After entering park grounds, the trail works its way uphill the rest of the way to the monument. This is the steepest portion of the trail. Depending on how fast you hike, this will take 35-45 minutes one way.

The Washington Monument was constructed in 1827 by the citizens of Boonsboro during their Independence Day celebration. On July 4th of that year, over five hundred people paraded up the mountainside to dedicate this monument to first president and founding father George Washington. The monument took only two days to complete and originally done so without mortar. Upon completion, the monument stood 30 feet tall and prominently overlooked the Pleasant Valley below. During the Civil War, the Union Army used the monument as a signalling station. Over the years, the monument fell into disrepair and was basically a pile of rubble by the turn of the century. In the mid 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps restored the monument and made the surrounding property a state park.

View from the Monument

The trail leading up to the monument is well-maintained and rather short. Along the way, there are signs commemorating the milestones and achievements of George Washington's life. Once at the top, you realize just how high up you really are. The view from the monument is very impressive. You can see out into the valley for at least 30 miles. The monument, itself, is much bigger in real life than you'd expect. While entry into the monument isn't allowed, there's an observation deck that allows you to walk around the structure and see the view.

The hike from Dahlgren Chapel to Washington Monument was really enjoyable and should take you around two hours to complete. The duration and difficulty of the trail is doable for hikers of all ages and experience levels. Make this part of your morning or afternoon when visiting South Mountain. You really couldn't ask for an easier hike with a view as spectacular as this! Trail Rating: 8.5/10


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