Friday, January 29, 2010

Stone Mountain Park - Atlanta, Georgia

Stone Mountain on the outskits of Atlanta has been an object of fascination to me since I first saw it as a kid with my parents.

Once incorrectly billed as the largest granite monolith in the world, the mountain definitely looks like it should hold that title. The sight of the huge granite dome rising above the trees as you approach is unforgettable. There is a reason the old phrase "as solid as Stone Mountain" has such meaning in the South. The mountain has given up its rock for many of the finest courthouses, capitols and monuments in the South.

Stone Mountain has also witnessed a remarkable amount of history. Ancient Native Americans erected unusual stone walls on its crest that are thought by archaeologists to have served ceremonial functions. The walls are gone now, but are interpreted by displays atop the mountain. The mountain was one of the few major Georgia landmarks that Sherman couldn't destroy. One column of the Union general's army camped within site of Stone Mountain during the March to the Sea. With the smoke and flames rising from Atlanta dominating the western horizon, numerous soldiers paused from their work of burning, foraging and generally "making Georgia howl" to admire the beautiful mountain.

It was during the early 20th century that the United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the idea of permanently honoring three Southern heroes - Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson - with a massive carving on the face of the mountain. The project was begun by the sculptor who went on to create the huge carvings of the presidents on Mount Rushmore and took more than 50 years to complete, but stands today as the largest carving of its type in the world.

To learn more about the history of Stone Mountain and the beautiful park that now surrounds it, please visit

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Restored Streetcars of Fort Smith, Arkansas

One of the most enjoyable historic sites in the South is actually one that moves. The Fort Smith Trolley Museum in Arkansas gives visitors to the historic city a chance to step back in time with a nostalgic ride on a 90-year-old electric streetcar.

For 50 years, streetcars provided transportation for the people of Fort Smith. The first three cars were mule drawn, but by 1890 they were replaced with electric streetcars. Initially platform cars that could make for a chilly ride during the winter, they initially were refined to become quite outstanding ways to travel.

The streetcars, often duplicated in style by modern trolleys seen in many cities, were powered by electricity and rolled along rails that once spread out into a web of more than 30 miles in and around downtown Fort Smith. They gave way to modern buses, however, and for nearly 60 years vanished from the landscape of the city.

Thanks to the hard work and efforts of volunteers and supporting individuals and businesses, however, a historic streetcar line has been brought back to life in Fort Smith. The beautiful old cars roll again along 1.5 miles of track in the historic frontier city.

To learn more, please visit

Monday, January 18, 2010

Moss Hill Methodist Church - Washington County, Florida

One of the most beautiful old structures in the South can be found in the rolling hills of the Florida Panhandle. Built in 1857, Moss Hill Methodist church is one of the oldest standing rural churches in the Sunshine State.

The church originated in the earliest days of the American settlement of Florida. It began as a mission of the South Carolina Methodist Conference and is known to have been active as early as 1823, just two years after the cession of Florida from Spain to the United States.

The early years of the church were turbulent as is demonstrated by the fact that the congregation met in a fort or blockhouse that stood just a few hundred yards from the structure that stands today. This log fort slowly deteriorated and the members of the church voted to build a new frame sanctuary that was completed in 1857.

Local tradition holds that the church was only the second structure in Washington County, which then included an empty expanse where today's popular resort of Panama City Beach now stands, to have glass windows.

Moss Hill Church played a key role in the War Between the States and stones in the nearby cemetery preserve the memory of a number of its members who were taken prisoner while serving with the local home guard. Carried away to Northern prison camps, they died there far away from home and never returned.

To learn more, please visit

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Historic City of Van Buren, Arkansas

If the streets of the beautiful Arkansas city of Van Buren look familiar, there probably is a good reason.

The Arkansas River community doubled for Biloxi, Mississippi, in Matthew Broderick's popular film "Biloxi Blues." The movie made use of numerous settings in and around Van Buren and nearby Fort Smith, including the Boston Mountains, downtown Van Buren and the Arkansas River.

First settled as a trading post and timbering community, Van Buren gained its present name in 1831 when a post office was established there. The name honors Martin Van Buren, who ironically had not yet become President of the United States when the town was named for him.

A stop on the famed Butterfield Overland Stage Route in the years before the Civil War, the growing town saw its commerce all but die during the war years. Occupied by Confederate troops for the first two years of the war, Van Buren played an important role in both the Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove campaigns and the graves of scores of Confederate soldiers can be seen in the city's Fairview Cemetery.

Actual fighting reached the city when it was attacked by the Union Army of the Frontier on December 28, 1862. The attacking force arrived so fast that the citizens of Van Buren were stunned by cavalry riding and fighting along their main street as they watched from the wooden sidewalks.

Today, Van Buren is a charming and prosperous city with a beautiful downtown area. It boasts numerous historic sites and is popular with visitors. To learn more, please visit

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Isaac C. Parker, the Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Arkansas

The years following the Civil War were a time of great violence and turbulence in the Indian Nations of today's Oklahoma.

Hundreds of outlaws converged on the Nations, convinced they would be safe there from apprehension by law enforcement officers. They preyed on the innocent citizens of the Nations with impunity, also striking across the borders of Arkansas, Texas, Kansas and Missouri to rob, rape, murder and pillage.

To bring law and order to the region, a former militia officer and Congressman from Missouri was named the U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. His name was Isaac C. Parker and he became remembered in Western lore and legend as the "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith.

Parker recruited a brave and daring team of deputy U.S. marshals who rode far and way through the frontier region to bring justice to the unfortunate people preyed upon by the outlaw gangs. These lawmen were memorialized on the big screen in such films as "True Grit" and "Rooster Cogburn" starring John Wayne and "Hang Em High" starring Clint Eastwood. The Hanging Judge was a key figure in all three of those films, as well as in many others.

Parker earned his legendary title because he sent more than 70 outlaws to the gallows in Fort Smith, more than any other Federal judge in U.S. history. Most people do not know, however, that the judge was actually an opponent of capital punishment. Parker didn't believe that it stopped crime, but he imposed the sentences because under Federal law of the time, death was the only legal sentence for many of the crimes tried in his court. Modern generations have also all but forgotten that more than 60 of Judge Parker's officers lost their lives in the line of duty.

The legend of Judge Isaac Parker remains very much alive in the charming and historic city of Fort Smith today. His gallows have been reconstructed and numerous artifacts from the judge's battles against such outlaws as the Dalton gang, the Rufus Buck gang, Cherokee Bill and even Belle Starr can be seen today at Fort Smith National Historic Site. To learn more, please visit

Sunday, January 10, 2010

C.S.S. Chattahoochee - The Last Wooden Confederate Gunboat

On a walk through the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia, the sheer size of the exhibit containing the wreck of the ironclad C.S.S. Jackson is so astounding that it is easy to walk past the next without recognizing its dramatic significance.

Sitting next to the wreck of the Jackson is a section of the stern of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee, the last surviving Confederate wooden warship. The rest of the ship still rests covered with mud on the bottom of the Chattahoochee River, for which it was named, but the stern section was raised at the same time as the hull of the Jackson and is now on exhibit in the museum.

The C.S.S. Chattahoochee was commissioned on January 1, 1863, at the Confederate Navy Yard in Early County, Georgia. She was then a ship of high hopes. Richmond had sent Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, fresh from his historic service as commander of the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimac) in its battle with the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, to take complete the new vessel. Jones brought with him a number of other officers and men who had served in the Battle of the Ironclads at Hampton Roads, a clear indication of the importance the Confederacy placed in the C.S.S. Chattahoochee project.

Armed with a powerful 32-pounder rifle, a 9-inch gun and four 32-pounder smoothbores, the Chattahoochee had three retractable masts and two independently operating steam-powered propulsion systems that allowed her to be maneuvered around sharp river bends. The vessel was the most powerful Civil War warship ever to operate on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River system.

Unfortunately, she was also the victim of the worst Civil War naval accident to take place on Florida's inland waters. On May 27, 1863, the Chattahoochee was raising steam at Blountstown, Florida, as an early season hurricane swept in from the Gulf of Mexico. One of her gauges was malfunctioning and water was poured into a boiler that was already red hot. It vaporized instantly and exploded through one of the pipes leading into and out of the boiler. Sixteen men were scalded to death where they stood and others were severely injured. Panic followed and the ship was intentionally sunk to the bottom of the river out of fear that the gunpowder in her magazines might explode.

The C.S.S. Chattahoochee was raised a few months later and towed up to Columbus, Georgia, where she was refitted. When Union troops attacked the city in April of 1865, she was set ablaze by her own crew to prevent her capture. The wreck remained in the river for 100 years until it was discovered during a search for the C.S.S. Jackson. The stern was raised at that time and constitutes one of the two original warships now on exhibit at the National Civil War Naval Museum.

If you would like to learn more about the career and horrible explosion aboard the Chattahoochee, please visit You can learn more about the museum at

Friday, January 8, 2010

Albert Pike's School House - An Arkansas Reminder of the Father of Modern Freemasonry

This little log one-room school house in Arkansas holds a unique place in American history.

Its one-time teacher was Albert Pike, who later became a Confederate general and is remembered today as the father of modern Freemasonry.

Pike came to what was then the western frontier from Massachusetts in 1831. An avid explorer, he took part in several hunting and trading expeditions into Texas and New Mexico, walking over 1,100 miles on foot. Exhausted by such rigors, he came to the frontier city of Van Buren in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1833. He took a job teaching in the little school house that still stands today, educating the youth of rural mountain country in America's time honored way. They sat on wooden benches and wrote on slates as he instructed them in reading, writing and arithmetic.

From here Pike went on to command troops in battle during the Mexican War. He developed a strong attachment to Masonry during the 1840s and in 1859 was elected as the Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern Division of the Scottish Rite. In 1871, in fact, he published Morals and Dogma, which is considered one of the principal public documents of modern Freemasonry.

Although he opposed secession, Pike stood by his adopted region and was appointed a brigadier general by the Confederacy in November of 1861. He commanded in the Indian Nations of what is now Oklahoma and led troops in battle at Pea Ridge.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grave of one of DeSoto's soldiers? - Van Buren, Arkansas

One of the most unexpected historic sites in the South can be found in the old section of Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren, Arkansas.

It is called the Mystery Grave and local legend holds that is the burial site of one of the men who explored Arkansas with Hernando de Soto and his expedition of Spanish conquistadors in 1541. The origin of the story is not known, but it probably has much to do with the eroded appearance of the stone slabs from which the grave is made and various theories that DeSoto might have made it as far up the Arkansas River as Van Buren during his travels west of the Mississippi.

Another more recent theory is that the Mystery Grave is actually the burial place of a Viking explorer. This unusual theory revolves around claims that Vikings actually lived in Oklahoma more than 1,000 years ago and left such markers as the Heavener Runestone. Self-taught Viking researcher Gloria Farley believed that strange carvings on the Mystery Grave were actually inscriptions left by ancient, unrecorded explorers.

There are markings on the grave, but it appears more likely they are Masonic symbols which provide a probably clue as to the true origin of the unique historic site. So what is the real story of the Myster Grave? Please visit for a possible answer.