Footnotes to the nation's past: History of Green Ridge peoples forest setting

July 11, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FLINTSTONE -- The forest of maturing oaks, maples and hickories that cover the rugged mountains of eastern Allegany County afford refuge for wildlife and seasonal armies of hunters, hikers and campers.

But the near-pristine picture that Green Ridge State Forest paints for visitors contrasts with the landscape of its 40,000 acres a century, or even just decades, ago.

Decaying tombstones and crumbling stone foundations nearly hidden among weeds provide clues to the past of Green Ridge, the second-largest forest in Maryland. Only Savage River State Forest in Garrett County is larger.

"The present forest is related to the past," says John Mash, a hunter, fisherman and forester who has spent 15 years researching and writing a 900-sheet manuscript chronicling the extensive forest's varied history.

Mr. Mash's yet unpublished work, titled "Land of the Living" after an early land tract that is now part of the forest, may be the first work focusing on a single Maryland state park or forest, state Department of Natural Resources officials said.

"We are unaware of any others," said Michael O'Brien, a DNR spokesman.

While chapters on the fauna, flora and prehistoric history of the forest are included, Mr. Mash speculates that most visitors to the area will be more interested in the forest's rich folklore and relatively modern history.

Much of Green Ridge's history, he points out, could provide footnotes to Maryland's and the nation's past.

George Washington roamed through these parts, even spending a night at Oldtown. He owned land near here -- along a bend of the Potomac River in what is now West Virginia.

In the 1860s, Union soldiers came, standing sentinel at a Potomac River overlook for Confederate saboteurs. Union re-enactors came to the same spot, known as Point Lookout, two years ago for the filming of the opening scenes of the movie "Gettysburg."

During World War II, German prisoners-of-war came. They planted trees, cleared fire trails and did other maintenance in the park.

But much of the history of the land -- once cleared and covered with a million apple trees -- is entwined with the nation's westward expansion.

Mr. Mash, deputy regional manager of forests and parks in Western Maryland, spent hundreds of hours going over land deeds, photographs, court records and even bills of sale relating to Green Ridge.

"It's something nobody had ever written about before," Mr. Mash says. "Allegany County's written history has been Cumberland, Frostburg and George's Creek. This book completes the history of Allegany County."

Dale Sipes, owner of Little Orleans Campgrounds adjacent to the forest, speculates that historians and others have overlooked Green Ridge because its past is not well known.

"People come and write about Little Orleans all the time," says Mr. Sipes, a native of the area.

Little Orleans -- at the forest's eastern edge -- is a popular stopover for hikers, bikers and others visiting the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Potomac.

Besides poring over documents, Mr. Mash talked to old-timers -- most of them gone now -- who were descended from the mountain country's early settlers.

They shared tales of moonshine, murders and everyday life here in the ravines and valleys of the Allegheny Mountains.

They told him how many of the overlooks, creeks, trails and bends acquired names. Peddler Hill, for instance, was named after a man peddling pots and pans who was killed there.

Much of the forest lies on land that was once owned by Richard Caton and William Carroll, son-in-law to Charles Carroll, one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence.

They pursued ventures involving iron ore and timber, which failed. A crumbling structure, known as the Carroll Chimney, still stands. It was part of a steam-powered sawmill in the 1830s.

"It was the end of one era and the beginning of another," Mr. Mash says. "It was the end of fixed sawmills. Sawmills went into the woods."

Mr. Mash hopes to have the structure -- a popular picnic site in the late 19th century -- placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Later, came Irish and German immigrants whose back-breaking work moved the nation west. They built the C&O Canal, laid railroad tracks and logged the forest.

Some remnants are still there.

Occasional stone foundations of homes or other buildings can be seen in the woods.

Cemeteries scattered through the forest are filled with McCabes, McKnights, McCuskers -- names that can still be found on mailboxes and in the pages of the phone book.

Their villages are gone now. Some of those places, such as Green Ridge Station, were home to as many as 15 to 20 families. Now, there are none.

At the turn of the century, a family by the name of Mertens cut, burned and converted the forest into apple orchards, claiming to have the "largest apple orchard in the universe."

The business failed, though, and the Mertens family went into bankruptcy in 1918.

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