A Drive Through History on South Mountain
One of the things my husband and I love to do is explore local history. On a particularly gorgeous Sunday several weeks ago, we decided to follow a driving itinerary prepared by the Friends of Rural Roads. This group, which is dedicated to preserving Frederick County’s scenic, historic roads, has several turn-by-turn tours available on their website, including the one we selected that day, which followed Catoctin Creek and explored the 1862 Battle of South Mountain.
With our four-legged travelers Bear and Ava in the back seat, we headed west on Alternate 40 out of Middletown—a historic town in its own right—and turned right on Shank Road.
We discovered the meaning of the phrase “rural road” right away. We were on a narrow, curvy path that wasn’t paved. But in our mind, that made the adventure all the more interesting. The landscape was unspoiled, and we were curious to see what each turn in the road might reveal.
Around one of those curves was a picturesque farm that, if not for the John Deere in the driveway, could have been plucked from the 1800s. A sign informed us that this privately-owned farm was the Koogle Farm, and a quick Google search gave us its history. The original log house was built by wheelwright John Magruder around 1830, and several outbuildings and barns add to the property’s quaint charm.
The Koogle farm joined the Frederick County Register of Historic Places in 2021, thanks to its role in the Civil War. Preceding the Battle of South Mountain, Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart used the house as his headquarters after giving orders to burn the nearby covered bridge spanning Catoctin Creek in order to slow the advancing Union Army.
We wound through the mountains of Turner’s and Fox’s Gap Historic District, where the Union troops advanced on Confederate positions. The beauty of the scenery along this stretch is unrivaled. Wildflowers bloom everywhere, framing country lanes and fields with grazing cattle. Panoramic vistas of the mountains and valleys take your breath away. Views like these are clearly why Sunday drives are so popular, and we plan to return when the leaves change to see the same landscape awash in color.
As we returned to Alternate 40—also known as the Historic National Road and worth its own road trip—we noted that our backseat canine passengers were growing restless. The itinerary led us to a trailhead for the Appalachian Trail, and it was time for a hike.
We parked at the historic South Mountain Inn. (Although the restaurant in that building is now closed, we still parked in the spots designated for hikers.) Built right on the National Road, the inn served as a resting place for two centuries of travelers heading west. Like all antebellum buildings in the area, the Inn has its own Civil War stories—it was captured in 1859 as part of the John Brown Raid, and three years later served as Confederate General D.H. Hill’s headquarters during the Battle of South Mountain.
We picked up the iconic Appalachian Trail behind Dahlgren Chapel. Towering over the National Road, this English Gothic Revival chapel was built in the early 1880s by Madeline Vinton Dahlgren, the wealthy widow of Civil War Admiral John A. Dahlgren. (Her book South Mountain Magic: Tales of Old Maryland is a fun read for local history lovers.) Today, the chapel is maintained by the Central Maryland Heritage League.
We hiked a short distance north on the AT, stopping frequently so the dogs could smell every tree, rock, and root. Since our dogs are older, we didn’t go very far, but more energetic hikers could continue up the trail to visit the South Mountain State Battlefield and Washington Monument State Park.
As we returned to the car, we had a decision to make. We could continue to follow our itinerary, proceeding south on Fox Gap Road for visits at South Mountain Creamery and the Catoctin Creek Nature Center. We decided to save that for another day, because we wanted lunch.
Back in Middletown, we were seated on the outdoor patio of The Main Cup. We dined on salads and sandwiches, while the dogs rested their paws and vigilantly monitored the floor for scraps. As we returned home, the contented snoring emanating from the backseat confirmed Ava and Bear had enjoyed the day as much as we had. Fortunately, with the wealth of history Maryland has to explore, our next Sunday road trip is only a week away.
Lead Photo: Heidi Schlag
About the Author
Heidi Glatfelter Schlag is a marketer, history lover, and traveler who can often be found exploring museums, parks, small towns, and farms. She founded Culture-Link Communications, where she helps local nonprofits and small businesses build their brands. Heidi lives in Frederick, MD, with her husband and two dogs.