BOONSBORO -- Two dramatic elements of American and Maryland history, including one of the nation's darkest hours, will be illuminated tonight in the mountains and valleys of Western Maryland.
Atop South Mountain, citizens, community and business leaders will gather to light up -- after a darkness of 15 years -- the Washington Monument, a Mason-jar-shaped structure that is the nation's oldest monument to the first president.
In the valley below, 23,110 candles are scheduled to flicker -- depending on the weather -- across the Antietam National Battlefield in a now-annual ceremony honoring Union and Confederate soldiers killed, wounded and missing during the bloodiest day of the Civil War.
The illumination of the monument, a 34-foot-high stone tower built in 1827 by Boonsboro residents to mark Independence Day and honor the first president, is a source of pride for many in this Washington County town who have donated time and money for the project.
"There's been real community spirit here," said Harold Hoffman, director and vice president of Friends of Washington Monument State Park Inc. "People have really come to the park's aid. The monument is a unique part of the park, and we want people to enjoy it."
The monument was illuminated on holidays and special occasions from the 1950s to the 1970s and was visible from Boonsboro, Antietam National Battlefield and Interstate 70 up to 10 miles away.
Vandalism and an outdated lighting system prompted officials to turn off the lights, and the state has never had the money to replace them.
Now, 1,000-watt high-intensity lighting units will shine on the monument, much like the lights that illuminate the Washington Monument in Washington. Metal enclosures have been installed to prevent vandalism, said John Barr, whose company, Ellsworth Electric of Hagerstown, donated the fixtures and made wiring and other repairs.
"This monument is the first to honor our first president. It should be illuminated and maintained," Mr. Barr said.
During tonight's fifth Memorial Illumination of the Antietam National Battlefield, 23,110 candles will honor Union and Confederate soldiers killed, wounded or missing during the September 1862 battle, which has been described as the bloodiest day of the Civil War.
"It's extremely moving," said Superintendent Susan Moore. "It really brings home the horrors and casualties of the war and helps people understand the tragedy. It's a very emotional experience."
Weather permitting -- and the outlook is for rain -- about 10,000 people are expected to drive a five-mile stretch of the battlefield from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. If rain drowns out the event, organizers say they will try again next Saturday. A decision will be made about 9 a.m.
About 950 volunteers are to spend several hours today assembling and lighting the luminarias -- candles in paper bags -- and placing them in rows across the battlefield near Sharpsburg southern Washington County.
Antietam's event has had its problems, Ms. Moore said.
The first year, snow and wind postponed the ceremony. During the rescheduled event, a driver suffered a heart attack, creating a brief traffic jam.
In other years, candles have burned out well before midnight (park officials have since had special long-lasting candles made), and rain and high winds have caused postponments.
"We've endured everything, but we're the only battlefield to continually have an illumination ceremony," Ms. Moore said.
The first illumination, which drew about 6,000 people, was organized by about 150 volunteers. The event is conducted in December, instead of September, because darkness falls earlier, allowing time for all the visitors to see the display.
It is hoped that the relighting of the Washington Monument, which stands on a knob in Washington Monument State Park along the Washington-Frederick county line, will serve as a beacon, luring others to help maintain the monument and the 225-acre park.
"We hope to increase public awareness and increase our membership so we can acquire the resources we need to keep this park the way it should be," Mr. Hoffman said.
The monument has sustained vandalism and damage from the elements and has been rebuilt at least twice. The tower, which affords a sweeping view of the valley below and four states on a clear day, served as a lookout for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Volunteers have worked the past several months to clean up felled trees and branches.
Mr. Barr and others would like to see the park, now open only Friday through Monday, open daily again.
"This [the illumination] is something the community has wanted for a long time," said Kenny Wuertenberg, volunteer coordinator for Volunteer Maryland. "The Washington Monument and the park have undergone a lot of trials and tribulations. This effort has been a real good example of partnership between community, businesses and state government."
Ceremony featuring various speakers begins at 4 p.m. today. Monument lighting is set at 5:15 p.m. Free. Rain or shine.
Directions: Interstate 70 west to Frederick. Get off at Exit 49 and follow Alternative U.S. 40 several miles west through Middletown and up South Mountain. Atop the mountain, turn right on Monument Road -- opposite South Mountain Inn -- and follow to the park.
Begins at 5:30 p.m., continues through midnight. Free. Decision in case of rain will be announced after 9 a.m. Rain date is next Saturday, Dec. 11. Information: (301) 432-5124.
Directions: Interstate 70 west to Frederick. Get off at Exit 49 and follow Alternate 40 through Middletown and over South Mountain to Boonsboro. In Boonsboro, turn left on Route 34 and follow south to Sharpsburg.
Visitors should line up along the shoulder of Route 34 from Sharpsburg to Boonsboro. The trip through the battlefield will take about 45 minutes. Best bet is to arrive late.