By Matthew Heusser
Braddock Heights, Maryland is an unincorporated community and US Census Designated Place (CDP). It sits atop Braddock Mountain, a foothill of the Appalachians, that separates Frederick, Maryland from Middletown. The area got its name from General Braddock, a British commander during the French and Indian War, who once marched through the pass with his Red Coats, along with an attached unit of Colonial Militia led by a colonel from Virginia named George Washington.
Braddock Heights is real, as is the story. You can google it. I consider myself a son of Braddock, having spent my entire childhood living on South Clifton road. Clifton is the easternmost edge of Braddock. History tells us that it was from the township of Clifton that John Greenleaf Whittier walked into Frederick. Indeed, last summer, when I was allowed to take pictures from Mr. Lebhertz’s backyard. It was from that view, or one very much like it, that Whittier came up with those immortal lines from his poem Barbara Frietchie:
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Mr. Lebherz passed last year. I got permission from his son to visit the grounds. I like to think this story, which is true, is for Mr. Lebherz, his grand daughter, Jasmine, Patrick Boyne, and the other friends and family who had to enjoy a wonderful childhood at the end of the 20th century on the mountain.
But I digress. This is not a story of Barbara Frietchie, and Frederick, which may need to wait for another day. Instead, this is the story of a story of old Braddock, or thereabouts, right on the line between Frederick and Washington counties. And I do mean literally on the line, because this is a story about the battle of South Mountain – specifically Crampton’s Gap.
Now if you take Clifton Road, where I was raised, and you head South-West, it turns into Cherry Lane, turn left when Cherry ends, and right when that ends, and you’ll hit the township of Jefferson, where Tori Steinmeir once got lost trying to find my house. Take 383 out of Jefferson and you get to Burkittsville, the point of our story. Here, I’ll google maps directions from my old house to Spook hill for you; it is only 14 miles. Yes, Burkittsville, the land of the Blair-Witch project. Many of us know the Blair Witch project is a setting for a story, but the film was actually shot closer to Baltimore. Blair Witch was a “viral video”, the first of the “found footage” variety. Groundbreaking in its time, the movie was one of the first to use websites and the social media of the day to confuse the audience as to how “real” the footage was.
Still, why Burkittsville as a backdrop, especially if the footage was actually Seneca State Park in Gaithersburg and Wheaton, Maryland?
Because Burkittsville has a civil war legend that actually passes one of the hardest tests for the supernatural – something called empirical validation. Because before there was a “blair witch project”, Burketsville had Spook Hill.
Now, Spook Hill.
Spook Hill is Real. Observable. Phenomena.
When I was in high school, the cool thing to do was to take your car to spook hill in Burkittsville, put it in neutral, and watch your car go backwards, uphill, up the hill. This is a real, if unexplained, scientific phenomena that you can read about in roadside america. It actually works.
Now, by scientific, I mean “repeatable experiment.” You can dunk ivory soap in water a thousand times and see that it floats, concluding that ivory soap floats in water. Or, at least, it is not worth conducting additional experiments. That doesn’t tell you why, which would be the science of buoyancy. Likewise, we know cars seem to roll up spook hill, not why. Most people speculate it is some kind of illusion, some trick of the eyes. In high school, the rumor was that it was the ghosts of the dead civil war artillery soldiers, who believe they are moving canons.
As ghost stories go, this one is plausible. The range of a civil war cannon is 1,500 yards or so, about 4,500 feet, around 0.9 miles at max. As luck would have it, the battle of Crampton’s gap is about 0.3 miles away from the spook hill spot. It is literally true that civil war soldiers at least marched through that spot. Confederate troops actually occupied Burkittsville in September, 1862, and tried to march through Crampton’s gap, only to be defeated — Spook hill is on the way between the two locations. Given the distance and information on battle, it is possible artillery pushed equipment up that hill.
There was, of course, a very special high school story – what happens on Halloween night. According to legend, while Linus was looking for the great pumpkin, the actual physical form of the soldiers became visible, as they pushed the cars uphill. Again, this is a rumor. Legend. But this legend was, like the other … sticky. People who were otherwise sane claimed to have seen it. Skeptics gave it a try and claimed to have seen it.
Thirty years later, I may have figured it out.
In Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania there are still infantry reenactors that, for fun, take long walks in the woods. The only woods left is the Appalachian trail, which cuts through that area, with antietam nearby and south mountain just up the road. Burkittsville offers places to camp, along with historic buildings with the kind of things reenactors appreciate, such as hand pumps for water, open fields, friendly farms.
It’s not surprising that some reenactors like to have a sort of little party on halloween. Some of them may even do a “war drill”, where they do not light any fires, lest the enemy see them and send snipers. Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the encampment, comes a drunk college kid, perhaps with a girl, to see some entertainment.
What better thing does the Civil War Reenactment battery have to do at midnight on Halloween, but to show up and push the car silently?
As it turns out, for Civil War Reanactors, Spook Hill is a running joke. It is sort of like cow tipping for them … and I may have solved one of the minor mysteries of the internet.
I do believe that is what actually happened. Still, some year, when my youngest daughter is old enough to come with me, perhaps, I may have to go to spook hill at midnight on halloween and find out.
It beats hanging out in a pumpkin patch with Linus.
About the author
As he said, Matthew Heusser grew up on South Clifton Road in Frederick, Maryland, where he was a member of Boy Scout troop 278, camping on South Mountain, at Antietam and Gettysburg. As a Cadet in Civil Air Patrol, Matt went rappelling at Harper’s Ferry and was part of a ground team that found a distressed crash near Sideling Hill, Maryland. As an infantry soldier in the army 119th separate infantry brigade (before combat arms was deactivated in the reserve), Matt’s unit was based in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, before he transferred to the Blue and Gray of the 29th Infantry Division. Today Matt is a member of American Legion post 49 in South Haven, Michigan and remains a Civil War armchair historian. It has been said that Matt is “often right, occasionally wrong, but never boring”, a reputation he does not deny.