Maps, Markers, and Meandering: Place Matters
When we moved to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania, it took some adjustment, but mostly that went smoothly. I’ve been here almost three years and have become comfortable. Besides the joy of having my Grandbuddy down the block, I’ve found some other treasures. One of them is that you can’t swing a dead cat anywhere near me without hitting a historical marker, remarkable old building, or fascinating fact. Drop me in the middle of history and I’m like an addict. I can’t get enough.
In the process I relearned something I ought to have remembered. Place matters. It isn’t enough to read something. Sometimes you have to walk it. Or drive it. Or just stand and survey the terrain.
When I first came here, I drove to work every day along the sort of zigzag route that baffles a Midwesterner. I moved from the land of the north/south/east/west grid to the land of the meandering road. One of the turns took me over a slight rise, past a stone church, and down to a stop sign. One day while waiting for a preschool class to cross I took a moment to read the marker. “Lafayette Hill.” Lafayette may have been familiar, but the hill certainly was not, and the church looked much more recent than the Marquis’ lifetime.
That sent me into a frenzy of research until I came up with something that bowled me over: a map. I recognized my route to work immediately. The main roads I crossed were there. The road past the church was there, although the church on the map must have been a predecessor. The map, now in the Library of Congress, was in French and dated to 1778. Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, Lafayette’s cartographer, created it after the Battle of Barren Hill.
The battle itself, in which Lafayette managed an orderly retreat in the face of oncoming redcoats, was an obscure action during the Revolution. As du Chesnoy describes it:
..a detachment of two thousand two hundred men under G’al LaFayette was surrounded by the Army under the English G’als Howe, Clinton and Grant May 28 1778
Lafayette used a smaller road, known to the Americans and somewhat concealed from the British, a road I also used, to escape across Matson’s Ford, just about the spot of my place of employment. To this day I can’t cross Ridge Road or Germantown Pike without visualizing the redcoats marching up in an orderly column.
Standing where an event happened fuels the imagination much faster than simply reading about it. I’ve had other similar experiences:
- Standing the Emmitsburg Road at the foot of Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg, I realized how exposed the 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry had been during the battle. I could see them take withering sniper fire for three days. I finally understood their role in that fight.
- Standing in the ruins of the forum in Rome I stood on the steps of the Senate and could see Julius Caesar fall in my mind’s eye. I almost heard Cicero speak.
- My ancestors came to New France from Amiens. When I walked the medieval quarter of that city, I could see the canal run blue from the woad dye manufactures and wonder whether they were hunger, desperate or just fed up with blue dye!
- Sailing the Thames to Greenwich past the ramains of warfs and docklands, my mind’s eye filled with sailing ships and small craft even before we turned the bend and the Cutty Sark came into view. That’s a sight I’ll never forget.
Old roads hold a particular fascination. History writ large is politics, boundaries, and wars. Much of history of ordinary folks is more migration and travel, people just trying to better their lives and feed their families, played out along roads, rivers, and canals. I’ve walked along the remnants of the Natchez Trace and wondered about the feet that beat it down. I’ve followed the National Road and wondered about the people that used it to settle the Ohio country—and the brave souls who crossed the same mountains before the road. I’ve driven along the Detroit River, the Great Lakes and Niagara and envisioned the voyagers who drove the fur trade.
Church Road, a main road a block from my house, meanders along a route no surveyer would have created. I suspect it follows a deer path laid down centuries ago. It passes houses built over a 325 year span. It passes near rail stations built by wealthy families in the gilded age to serve their own summer homes. It crosses the Interstate highway built to accommodate commercial growth.
Sometimes I look out my window and smile. I imagine and I write.
For more on Barren Hill then and now see: