Mondays in Maryland: Taking a Peek at the NSA


The National Security Agency’s DC-area headquarters is an open secret. Motorists pass its clearly delineated exit on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway every day, the exit ramp limply barricaded with orange traffic cones and a sign admonishing visitors. You get the sense you’re on camera for those few seconds as you speed past, your license plate scanned, tallied, analyzed.

In this area, you’re bound to run into the NSA eventually. I once went looking for an abandoned asylum, only to be rebuffed by a security guard who gleefully told me the NSA was buying up land around the area. “At night, they fly weird-looking aircraft overhead.” Then, an afterthought–“I probably shouldn’t talk about this.”

You hear whispers of the organization when out for a walk, at a party, meandering around town. We don’t tell ghost stories around the campfire, we gossip about the NSA. It’s our dreaded boogeyman, lurking in the shadows to tape our phone calls and read our email.

So it’s a bit odd to willingly go to the NSA on a snowy Saturday morning, but that’s just what I did this past weekend.

Picture the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, USA

The National Cryptologic Museum is as close as most of us will get to the NSA. Open to the public since 1993, the museum is dedicated to the history of cryptology.

And there’s so much to see. Code-breaking machines from WWI and WWII, rare 16th-century cryptography books, a hallway dedicated to African Americans and women who contributed to American cryptology.

Picture of an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, USA

Picture of an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, USA

Picture of an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, USA

The exhibits are enthralling and full of interesting information. There are ingenious spy tactics, like invisible ink used during the US Revolutionary War. And there are occasions the US got burned, like how it took seven years to discover a gift given to the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union was fitted with a hidden microphone.

Picture of an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, USA

The museum is also great for families. Most of the exhibits are interactive, and free activity books teach kids about simple codes and ciphers.

I was expecting something a little unwelcoming, and I instead found an engaging museum loaded with fascinating tidbits. The docents were friendly and knowledgable, the exhibits modern and fun. And I didn’t once feel like I was being secretly recorded!

If You Go
The National Cryptologic Museum is -not- at the restricted entrance exit off of 295. Please don’t take that exit unless you work at the NSA. Everyone else should follow the directions here. The museum is about 20 miles from either Baltimore or DC and is not easily reached by public transportation. Hours are 9AM-4PM Monday-Friday and 10AM-2PM on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Admission is free.

There is also an adjacent Vigilance Park that houses real spy planes. I didn’t make it to the park as I had inadvertently stumbled into a blizzard. The planes looked pretty impressive as I drove past, but to be honest I was mostly just trying to keep my car on the road.


Mondays in Maryland: Civil War Roundup

From the Underground Railroad to the battle that saved Washington, Maryland is awash with Civil War history.

There are an astounding number of sites waiting to be explored, and I’ve covered many of them in previous posts. These are my favorites:

1. Antietam
Sharpsburg, MD

Picture of Burnsides Bridge at Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, USA

On September 17, 1862, this peaceful-looking bridge was at the epicenter of the bloodiest day of fighting in American military history. The US Civil War had been raging for nearly 18 months, and the Confederate Army was moving north through Maryland. Union forces met the invaders at Sharpsburg. After 12 hours of fighting, more than 17,000 soldiers were dead, the above creek running red with their blood.

It is difficult to picture such horror when visiting Antietam today. Instead, it is a peaceful place that begs for quiet contemplation of the nature of war and solemn recognition of lives lost too soon.

If You Go
The Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center is at 5831 Dunker Church Road in Sharpsburg, Maryland, and is open daily, 9AM-5PM. Antietam must be driven to and is about 70 miles from either Baltimore or Washington, DC. Single adult admission is $4; families are $6. The visitor center’s introductory film is fairly long but does a good job of explaining the battle. It is shown every 30 minutes.

2. Monocacy
Frederick, MD

Picture of the Best Farm at Monocacy battlefield in Maryland

Though few people have heard of it, Monocacy was the battle that saved Washington, DC. And it’s likely that even those few wouldn’t have heard of Monocacy at all, if not for the battle’s impression on a young boy who watched the fighting unfold from his basement.

When I first blogged about Monocacy, I was a bit dismissive, writing that it had been difficult to connect with a site about which I had previously known nothing. But, in the months since, I find myself thinking of that little boy from time to time. It’s far easier to comprehend the horrors seen by one child than it is to comprehend Antietam’s staggering casualties.

If You Go
The Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center is at 5201 Urbana Pike in Frederick, Maryland, and is open daily from 8:30AM-5PM. It is about 50 miles from either Baltimore or DC. Monocacy is a bit more public-transporation-friendly than is nearby Antietam, but the battlefield is very spread out and works best for tours by car. Admission is free.

I recommend reading up on Monocacy before you go and also swinging by Glory Doughnuts (storefront opening in April) on your way home.

3. Fell’s Point
Baltimore, MD

Picture of Fell's Point in Baltimore, Maryland

The Baltimore neighborhood of Fell’s Point has seen numerous historical events since its establishment in 1763, from the death of Edgar Allan Poe to shipbuilding during the War of 1812. It also played a pivotal role in one of the Civil War’s most-famous institutions, the Underground Railroad.

For 12 years, Frederick Douglass worked as a slave on the Fell’s Point docks. Harriet Tubman, too, passed through this neighborhood, and she met her first passengers on the Fell’s Point waterfront. The neighborhood’s 18th-century buildings and cobblestone streets quickly transport visitors to the Civil War era, and it is impactful to just walk around the area imagining Douglass’ and Tubman’s daily life. But for a more robust approach, stop at Fell’s Point’s Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park.

If You Go
Fell’s Point is easy to reach either by car or by public transportation. The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park is located at 1417 Thames Street and is open from 10AM-4PM Monday-Friday and 12PM-4PM Saturday-Sunday. Adult admission is $5.

There are endless food and drink options around Fell’s Point; I recommend V-NO for a casual glass of wine.

Mondays in Maryland: Farmhouse Cidery

With the vast number of wineries and breweries dotting the Eastern Seaboard, it is no wonder that purveyors of alcohol are looking to branch out into other markets. Enter hard cider (or just “cider,” if you live outside the US). This fermented drink–most commonly made from apples–is gaining popularity stateside, and one of the best places to sample it is a small cidery in Monkton, Maryland.

MillStone Cellars has been producing the drink since 2011. Using Old World techniques, heirloom apples are fermented in used barrels–repurposed from the wine and spirit industries–and then blended to create unique combinations of aromas and flavors.

Picture of MillStone Cellars in Monkton, Maryland, USA

Like wine, this cider changes as it ages and also varies from year to year. But, like craftbrewers, the folks at MillStone are constantly experimenting with their product. They make both cider and mead of all possible combinations–when I visit, they are attempting to blend kombucha with fermented honey.

Picture of kombucha mead at MillStone Cellars in Monkton, Maryland, USA

Those unfamiliar with hard cider should note that this is not like the sweet stuff you can buy by the jug at the grocery store. This cider is acidic, tart, and decidedly adult. It is also surprisingly complex–Spicebush, a mead made with blueberry honey and the titular bush’s berry, tastes strongly of black pepper and finishes with a soft, nutty flavor.

Picture of tasteroom at MillStone Cellars in Monkton, Maryland, USA

Perhaps just as interesting as the cider and mead is the location itself, an 18th-century mill that is available for tours.

Picture of MillStone Cellars in Monkton, Maryland, USA

Picture of MillStone Cellars in Monkton, Maryland, USA

The mill’s character is enchanting, and staff seem just as passionate about the old building as they are about the drinks it helps produce.

MillStone is an inventive place that feels at once both Old Word and New Age. It’s perfect for those looking to expand their palate, soak up some local history, or simply waste away a Saturday in the most delicious manner possible.

But, a quick word of caution–the only bathroom is in the dilapidated-looking farmhouse next door.

If You Go
MillStone Cellars’ old farmhouse and tasting room is at 2029 Monkton Road in Monkton, Maryland. They are open on weekends, Saturdays from 12-6 and Sundays 12-5. Shockingly, both tastings and tours are free–visit early on a Sunday to beat the crowd.

Vegans should note that, while the majority of MillStone’s offerings contain honey, a few are completely free of all animal products. There is also some tasty raw vegan chocolate available for sale–I can personally vouch for the orange-infused raspberry and brazilnut flavor!

Mondays in Maryland: The Medical Museum

“All specimens of morbid anatomy.”

For more than 150 years, the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, has collected objects of a peculiar medical nature.

This collection began during the Civil War. Just like today’s medical personnel, nineteenth-century doctors were eager for any new knowledge that could improve how they cared for and treated patients. And so the US Army Surgeon General issued a directive to gather “all specimens of morbid anatomy” from the war’s battlegrounds so that they would be preserved for future study.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine–then called the Army Medical Museum–was established with the mission to acquire photographs, anatomical specimens, bullet fragments, and other objects related to wounded soldiers that might prove educational to medical professionals.

The NMHM has continued this mission for the last 150 years, with today’s collection containing more than 24 million objects that range from human remains to antique prosthetics. The vast majority of these holdings are open only to researchers, but regular folk still have the opportunity to view and learn about some of the museum’s most-important objects.

Picture of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

I will warn you, visiting the museum is not for the faint of heart. There are dozens and dozens of jars with body parts floating inside. One case contains the skeletons of real children. There are diseased lungs, and brains, and limbs.

But these specimens are not there for shock value. Beyond appealing to a certain macabre fascination, such exhibits educate visitors on the body’s different structures and teach about what happens when those structures become abnormal. Before we can treat disease, we have to first understand what it is doing to the body.

And the museum is also not all human remains, which I’ll admit I personally shied away from. There are immense holdings of historical medical objects, from a seventeenth-century microscope to early prosthetic limbs.

Picture of exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Picture of exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

The Civil War exhibit was particularly illuminating.

Picture of exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

A ship model taught me that watercraft were used as floating hospitals during the Civil War–obviously the wounded soldiers had to be moved off of the battlefields, but it never occurred to me that giant steamships floating down the Mississippi were the method of such removal.

Picture of exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

There are rows of what I at first thought were snail shells but turned out to be bullets, their sheer size giving me a greater appreciation for the trauma experienced by the soldiers they wounded.

Picture of exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

And another piece of ammunition literally dropped my jaw: the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln.

Picture of exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Although there are sections where you may need to advert your eyes, the NMHM is a fascinating place. It yields some surprising facts–like the sophisticated technique of eighteenth-century facial reconstruction–and offers hope that we will be able to combat diseases of the future.

It’s a bit morbid, yes. That said, anyone with even the slightest interest in health, medicine, or history should make the trek. Just maybe don’t bring the kids.

If You Go

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is located at 2500 Linden Lane in Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of Washington, DC. Parking is free, and it is also just one mile from the Forest Glen Metro Station (Red Line).

The NMHM is free and open every day but Christmas. Hours are 10AM-5:30PM. Flash photography is not permitted (hence the deplorable state of the above photographs).

Mondays in Maryland: The Shot Tower

Although the skyline is now dominated by contemporary buildings, this 215-foot tower was once the tallest building in the United States.

Picture of the Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore, Maryland

The Phoenix Shot Tower in downtown Baltimore soared beyond any other structure for almost two decades, its supreme height not due to an architect’s vanity but rather vital to its purpose.

Picture of the Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore, Maryland

The name implies a connection with ammunition, and indeed it was here where hunting shot was made. Molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top of the tower. As the lead pieces fell, they would spin, forming balls. A vat of water at the bottom of the tower caught these balls, where they would cool and solidify in shape.

Picture of the Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore, Maryland

Picture of the Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore, Maryland

The Shot Tower churned out more than 150 million pounds of shot over the nineteenth century. But, like all technologies, this way of making shot eventually became obsolete, and the factory shut down in 1892.

Today, it is one of three surviving shot towers in the US. Visiting in person, one imagines how impressive this structure must have been upon its completion in 1828. No other building in America would top its sheer size for another eighteen years.

Picture of the Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore, Maryland

But, inevitably, its height would be topped, and its relevancy would fade. Like the C&O Canal in western Maryland, the Phoenix Shot Tower now serves both as a historical relic and as a testament to the continuous forward push of technology.

If You Go

The Phoenix Shot Tower is located at 801 East Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore. It is open for tours on Saturdays and Sundays, with tours departing from the nearby Carroll Mansion at 4 PM. Adult admission is $5. There is street parking (free on Sundays); the closest subway stop is Shot Tower Station.

Mondays in Maryland: Babe Ruth’s Baltimore

The Great Bambino. The Sultan of Swat. The Colossus of Clout. You likely know Babe Ruth for his career with the New York Yankees or his “Curse of the Bambino” on the Boston Red Sox, but did you know Ruth started life in Baltimore, Maryland?

George Herman “Babe” Ruth was born in 1895 in his grandparents’ Baltimore rowhouse, just a few blocks from what is now Camden Yards.

Picture of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

Ruth was apparently a difficult child, and when he was seven he was shipped off to the Baltimore-based St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys to learn shirtmaking. It was at this boarding school where Ruth learned to play baseball and was ultimately signed to the Baltimore Orioles minor league. You probably know the rest of the story.

In 1974, the rowhouse where Ruth had been born was converted to a museum dedicated to his memory. For a time the house served double duty as both a shrine to Ruth and the official museum of the Baltimore Orioles. In 2005, the Orioles museum moved to its new home at Camden Yards; the house’s only focus now is the Bambino.

Picture of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum of today is more-or-less divided between the rowhouse’s rooms and its hallways: the rooms are decorated as Babe Ruth would have seen them as a young boy, and the hallways are dedicated to exhibits on Ruth’s time in baseball.

The historic furniture in the rooms is certainly aesthetically pleasing, but I imagine only truly die-hard Babe Ruth fans will really enjoy seeing chairs and beds once belonging to Ruth’s relatives.

Picture of exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

Picture of exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

The back hallway opens up into a larger space, adjoining properties having been used to expand the original rowhouse’s footprint. It’s auditorily amusing to step from the new to the old–the back hallways lack the front rooms’ time-appropriate creaks of well-worn floorboards.

The hallways hold exhibits much more engaging than staged furniture. There’s a short video explaining why the US National Anthem is played before baseball games (the tradition started during the 1918 World Series in which Babe Ruth was playing). There are rows of sports memorabilia, including rare Ruth trading cards and autographed baseballs.

Picture of an exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

Picture of exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

Picture of exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

There’s also a plastic case catering to my tactile nature–partially enclosed within are two baseball bats, one actually used by Ruth and the other by Cal Ripken, ready to be touched.

Picture of exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

The make-your-own-souvenir-penny machine has only the most tangential connection to Ruth, and yet it also succeeds in grabbing my attention (and my 50 cents).

Picture of exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, Maryland


Overall, the museum is far more captivating than I expected it to be. There are enough neat mementos and fascinating tales about Ruth to entertain both fervent baseball fans and casual spectators like me. But even though I run into a few families, I wouldn’t call the museum particularly child-friendly. Consider leaving the little ones at home for this one.

If You Go
The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum is at 216 Emory Street, Baltimore. There are a few street parking spots, but the easiest option is to take the Light Rail to nearby Camden Station. If you’re coming from DC, take the MARC Camden Line from Union Station to Camden Station. Note that the Camden Line does not run on weekends.

Admittance to the Museum is $6 for adults; there is also a combined ticket offering admission to both the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum and the Sports Legends Museum for $12.

The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10AM-5PM. Starting in April, it will be open on Mondays as well.

Mondays in Maryland: First Bloodshed of the Civil War

It was April 1861, and the US Civil War was beginning.

Fort Sumter in South Carolina had just been abandoned by Union troops after a 36-hour battle with Confederates for control of the strategic stronghold. Miraculously, neither side had sustained a single casualty in the skirmish.

Five days later, Union soldiers were en route by train to Washington, DC.

They arrived in Baltimore on April 19. Some weirdness in the way the tracks were operated meant that to get from their current point to their connecting train, the troops would have to disembark and continue through downtown Baltimore on horse-drawn cars.

They disembarked at President Street Station and boarded the horse-drawn cars. On Pratt Street minutes later, a mob of Confederate sympathizers and, ironically, anti-war protestors blocked the road. The soldiers decided to continue on by foot. The mob followed after them.

It didn’t take long for the altercation to turn violent. The mob attacked with bricks and stones. The soldiers responded with gunfire.

Picture of exhibit at the Baltimore Civil War Museum

And so it was that the first casualties of the Civil War occurred not on a battleground but in downtown Baltimore.

In the end, at least sixteen people were killed and countless others injured.

Not too much of this history remains today, though Pratt Street of course still cuts through downtown. Part of President Street Station, too, has been saved for future generations, and it is here that the Baltimore Civil War Museum makes its home.

Picture of the Baltimore Civil War Museum

The Baltimore Civil War Museum is a small, crowded space. The ample gift shop takes up almost a fourth of the floor, forcing exhibits into nooks that seem otherwise not open to the public. The entrance is overwhelmed with tourism brochures, the welcome counter slowly fusing into a pile of clutter.

When I arrive, an older volunteer is crouched in the middle of the exhibit floor, a dismantled train set spread out on the carpet before him.

But in all its chaos, there is a bounty of fascinating information to discover. A knowledgeable volunteer helps to break it all down, from the station’s role in the first bloodshed of the Civil War to its other remarkable history.

Picture of exhibit at the Baltimore Civil War Museum

It is from this volunteer that I learn that newly elected President Lincoln arrived at President Street Station in secret after detectives foiled an assassination plot. That runaway slaves used the station to escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. And that today the station is the oldest railroad terminal still standing in a major US city.

The exhibits do a serviceable job of explaining the Civil War timeline and Baltimore’s role in the conflict, and it is fascinating to see the building and its sliver of train track.

Picture of train tracks at the Baltimore Civil War Museum

Picture of the Baltimore Civil War Museum

But it is the volunteers who bring passion and excitement to the retelling. Be sure to ask them for an overview when you go; you won’t regret it.

If You Go
The Baltimore Civil War Museum is located at 601 President Street; there is paid lot and street parking nearby. The museum is open Thursday-Monday, 10AM-5PM. Adult admission is $3. Afterward, consider hitting up the nearby James Joyce Pub for happy hour.

Mondays in Maryland: Exploring the Universe with NASA

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Thanks to classic films like Apollo 13, most people have heard of NASA’s space centers in Houston, Texas, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. But not many know that NASA’s first space center is housed in a sleepy commuter town in central Maryland.

Goddard Space Flight Center was established in 1959 in Greenbelt, a suburb of Washington, DC. Why here? Economics and politics: the land was cheap and the location convenient to NASA’s DC headquarters.

Unlike its more-famous cousins, Goddard focuses on nonhuman space exploration. And in its 55-year-history, it has enormously contributed to our understanding of the universe. Its COBE mission confirmed the Big Bang theory through detailed measurement of cosmic radiation. The SWAS program discovered that water is prevalent throughout space. And its Hubble Space Telescope continues to provide us with achingly beautiful pictures of our universe.

Goddard itself is a sprawling campus locked down by road blocks and razor wire. More than 9,000 people work here, their daily life enhanced through perks like on-site restaurants, weekly farmers’ markets, and belly dancing lessons.

The public unfortunately doesn’t see this bustling mini-city. Instead, we plebs are directed to the visitor center, a welcoming building just outside Goddard’s fenced-in grounds.

Picture of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The visitor center is interactive and entertaining for both children and adults. Touch-screen displays explain space phenomena like black holes and solar flares, while hands-on exhibits teach about magnetic fields and plasma.

Picture of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Climb into a life-size model of the Gemini capsule and marvel at 1960s ingenuity while fighting down a claustrophobia-induced panic attack.

Picture of inside of Gemini capsule at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

While at a model of the Webb telescope–the Hubble telescope’s successor, set for a 2018 launch–I wonder about other missions going forward. NASA’s budget is notoriously low for what they want to accomplish, and even though Goddard does important work, it’s not nearly as flashy as the manned programs overseen by other space flight centers.

That said, there is still some pizzazz to be found at Goddard. In addition to interactive exhibits and spacecraft models, genuine artifacts pepper the building. Spacecraft from the 1950s Vanguard program hang from the ceiling. A moon rock, brought back to Earth on Apollo 14, sits in a heavily alarmed display case.

Picture of moon rock display at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Picture of moon rock at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

It’s undeniably cool to see something that was once on another celestial body now just a few inches away.

Outside, a handful of large artifacts overlook the Goddard campus. Some, like the sounding rockets, have actually made their way into the heavens.

Picture of rocket at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Picture of launch vehicle at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Picture of launch vehicle at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Others, like the Apollo capsule, were used for testing and training purposes.

Picture of mock Apollo capsule at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The visitor center packs an enormous amount of things to see into its relatively small footprint. The staff are knowledgeable and eager to answer additional questions. The only real disappointment is the gift shop, which is unapologetically sold out of “astronaut” cinnamon apple wedges.

When I arrived, my car was nearly alone in the parking lot. When I leave, the place is filled with families, gleeful boys and girls scurrying from exhibit to exhibit. It’s a welcomed sight in this time of NASA budget cutbacks–only public support will get NASA the funding it needs to continue its critical exploration.

If You Go
Goddard is located at 8800 Greenbelt Road in Greenbelt, MD. Ample signage directs cars to the nearby visitor center. The visitor center is also accessible by public transportation from DC.

The visitor center is free and open Tuesday-Sunday. Exact hours depend on the season; check their website for details.

In addition to regular hours, the visitor center is also open for special events. The model rocket launches, held the first Sunday of every month, are particularly popular.

Mondays in Maryland: Body Snatching in Baltimore

Dissecting bodies was a risky endeavor in the 19th century. Schools relied on the technique to teach anatomy to budding doctors, but the public found human dissection to be barbaric. Not helping public relations was the regular practice of body snatching–stealing recently deceased corpses for public and private dissection.

Nevertheless, physicians continued to rely on dissection for anatomical knowledge. In 1807, Baltimore doctor John B. Davidge constructed a small building to house anatomy lessons. Only one week later, it was partially destroyed by a rioting mob.

The riot perhaps helped the Maryland General Assembly to recognize the need for a proper medical-training facility, as later that same year they charted the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Davidge Hall–by what the anatomy building would become known–was built in Baltimore in 1812. It is the oldest building in the US continuously used for medical education.

Picture of Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Public dissections occurred in the aptly named Anatomical Hall, a small domed room on the third floor. This European-style anatomy theatre would have been filled to capacity as eager students listened to lectures and observed dissections. The large oculus and skylights would have filled the room with natural light; circular seating would have provided every student a prime view.

Picture of Anatomy Hall in Davidge Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

A plaque in the middle of the floor notes that it was on this spot that the Marquis de Lafayette received an honorary doctorate.

Picture of plaque in Anatomy Hall in Davidge Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

Today it is in a shockingly dilapidated state.

Picture of Anatomy Hall in Davidge Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

A fine dust of fallen plaster covers every seat, while parts of the walls have rotted away to reveal the wooden frame. The beautiful rosette patterns curling over the dome are black with water damage.

Picture of Anatomy Hall in Davidge Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

But the decay almost adds to the appeal of the room, even if I cannot fathom why I was permitted to walk around in it. This quiet, crumbling theatre seems like a natural spot for something a bit unseemly.

Picture of Anatomy Hall in Davidge Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

The really unseemly stuff, though, occurred in a room just outside the Anatomical Hall.

Picture of hallway around Anatomy Hall in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Before dissection of unclaimed bodies was legalized, cadavers were brought to this room for dissection in secret.

The Hall janitor, Frank, would procure the bodies from nearby cemeteries and bring them up a back staircase.

Picture of staircase in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Frank became so good as body snatching that his services were hired out to other medical universities along the Eastern Seaboard. The bodies would be smuggled out of state in barrels of whiskey.

Picture of room in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimore, Body-Snatching Capital of America…who knew?

This area is as creepy as you would expect. A single light fixture illuminates the oddly shaped room, and a few historic photos on the walls depict medical students posing with skeletons. Another item, which I declined to photograph, completes the nightmare: an actual mummified corpse.

Picture of room in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

When rioters would inevitably appear at the front gates of Davidge Hall, faculty and students would escape down the same staircase by which cadavers were smuggled in.

Despite the Hall’s more-nefarious side, the education it provided was crucial to the understanding of human anatomy and medical procedures. Cases full of historic medical instruments line the narrow walkway around the Anatomy Hall.

Picture of artifacts in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Picture of artifacts in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

Picture of artifacts in Davidge Hall in Baltimore, Maryland

The artifacts on display reportedly constitute one of the finest medical museums in the US.

The wonderful artifacts, creepy past, and historical importance make it such a terrible shame that Davidge Hall is not better maintained.

On my way out, I looked around for a donation jar. All I found was a bust of Davidge himself, jauntily decorated for the holidays.

Picture of bust of Dr Davidge in Davidge Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

200 years ago, Davidge Hall provided a cutting-edge medical education to students. Today it is now mostly used to house the alumni association, who provide the audio tours for public visitors. It is worth a visit for those in the medical field or those who, like me, have a soft spot for the macabre.

Tour the rooms, consider yourself lucky you will never be on the receiving end of those ancient medical instruments, and slip a five under the alumni door so they can get some repairs.

If You Go
Davidge Hall is located at 522 W Lombard Street in Baltimore. There is plenty of paid parking–both street and lot–nearby. The hall is open to the public Monday-Friday during regular business hours; to gain entrance, you must buzz up to the Alumni Association through the intercom at the main entrance. Audio tours are free, but you will need to leave an ID until you return the audio system.

Mondays in Maryland: Finding Fossils in Suburbia

110 million years ago, dinosaurs ruled Maryland. And one of the best places to discover them is a small park midway between Baltimore and Washington, DC.

Located in Laurel, Dinosaur Park houses land that has been revealing fossils since 1858. It was here that the second-ever discovery of a dinosaur fossil in the United States took place, and more than 100 years later the land continues to expose ancient treasures.


But it wasn’t until 2009 that the land became formally protected, and the recentness of its designation shows. The tiny site is within, of all things, a business park, with a steady line of grey warehouses serving as uninspiring breadcrumbs on the road to prehistory.


There’s a steady drizzle when I arrive. The handful of interpretive signs and four-car parking lot are equally disappointing. This part of the park is open from dawn-dusk every day, but I can’t imagine anyone coming on a day the fossil area is closed to visit just it.




Just off the path from the parking lot to the fenced-in fossil area, I spot a disembodied deer leg, the gnawed-on knee bone shimmering in the rain. This does not bode well, I think to myself.

The protected site stretches for 41 acres, but the public area is a tiny fraction of that: a shed, a small pavilion, and a giant mound of dirt.




110 million years ago, that mound of dirt was a lake bed. Partially connected to a nearby river, the lake caught dead plants and animals as they floated downstream. In time, the lake and river disappeared, but the fossils remained.

And it is astounding how many fossils there are. Despite the park’s modest appearance, the site is considered the most-important dinosaur deposit east of the Mississippi. And they have found not only dinosaurs, but also early mammals, trees, flowering plants, sharks, crocodiles, and turtles.

Visitors are given a brief spiel on the history as well as an overview of the types of fossils typically found. The most common are ancient pine cones and lignite, the latter being so prevalent that staff refers to it with a hint of disdain.

Digging is not permitted. Rather, visitors are encouraged to walk around looking for fossils made visible by recent rains. Unfortunately, looking in the rain is less encouraged–I’m told that with everything wet, the glint of a fossil will just look like reflecting water.


I set off anyway, and one of the guides takes me to the top of the dirt mound to escape the thickening mud at the bottom. Nobody is very optimistic that we’ll find anything as the drizzling rain steadily turns to a downpour.

But I do find something, glinting in the dim light. At first, I think it’s fossilized coral. But as I wipe the mud away I begin to realize it’s a tooth.


I consider pocketing it. Instead, I do the right thing and give it over to the paleontologists.


They’re not quite sure what it is. Probably the tooth from a Cretaceous-era crocodile. Possibly the tooth from a Cretaceous-era dinosaur. They package it up and prepare to send it to the Smithsonian for analysis.

And this is a really cool thing about Dinosaur Park: while you don’t get to keep what you find, your name is listed with your discovery on on-site displays and an online directory. You might even find your fossil showcased in the National Museum of Natural History!

The other cool thing is that you are working alongside actual paleontologists at Dinosaur Park. If I had found that tooth on my own, I never would have realized it dated from the Cretaceous, and I certainly wouldn’t have the Smithsonian at my disposal to tell me what it was.

I’ll find out in a few weeks just what it is I found. In the meantime, I’m planning my next trip back to Dinosaur Park. It may not be the prettiest place in Maryland, but it is certainly one of the most interesting.

If You Go
Dinosaur Park is located at 13291 Mid-Atlantic Boulevard in Laurel, MD. It’s a quick drive from either I-95 or I-295. The open house days are the only time the fossil area is open to the public–these days are free and are offered on the 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month from 12-4 PM.

The park is also available to rent for school and private groups.