Black Dogs and Dynamite: South Mountain’s Washington Monument

First Washington Monument in the United States

The latest incarnation of the Washington Monument at South Mountain State Park, Maryland

I’m afraid that this post is a theoretical and tentative entry rather than the authoritative, know-it-all essays you have come to know and tolerate with an irritated roll of the eyes…. It is also a long post, and a rambling one, as I flit and rove through a number of issues. I have found that more questions were raised than answered, especially the old question of how much can news sources of the past be trusted? You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

The first monument dedicated to George Washington in the United States may still be found on a South Mountain summit called The Blue Rock or Monument Knob, near Boonsboro, Maryland. Built in a single day—4 July 1823–it is an imposing, phallic stone structure with an interior staircase leading to an observation platform on the roof. The tower looms over the Appalachian Trail, high atop the mountain, a lovely place to birdwatch or eat your gorp.

Michael Persinger, Paul Devereux, and other Fortean savants have written about “portal” or “window” areas, where strange events cluster. I’d like to suggest that South Mountain has similar “window area” characteristics, as related in folk tales and in the press. The location has a history of mysterious lights, a giant phantom wagoneer, ghostly soldiers, a stone tower which attracted destruction by dynamite and lightning many times over, a local wizard, a trance seeress, and a ubiquitous Black Dog known quaintly as the SnarlyYow—in short, all the Fortean fun one finds in a “Portal” area.

I was going to wade into the newspaper accounts from 1927 of the building of the tower, but then found this terrific summary of the site’s history, including a series of vintage pictures. I recommend you take a look before you proceed.

The tower has a long history of repeated fiery destruction and I found myself mystified by the chronology of ruin. If you believe the newspaper accounts, the monument was damaged by lightning multiple times (I’ve lost count and I’m not certain the journalists knew themselves.) and dynamited at least twice. No one seems quite sure how many times it was hit, or who wanted to blow it up.

Now, lightning strikes are no surprise—the tower is boldly situated at 1,200 feet, on a mountain top and lightning rods are not mentioned. But dynamiting a remote, already ruinous monument to George Washington? Another puzzle.

Here is a letter to the Hagerstown newspaper by the head of the committee who built the monument. Even given that the area has an abundance of rocks, consider that the original tower was of drystone construction and it was built to a height of 15 feet in a single day of labor.



Mr. Bell: Pursuant to previous arrangements, the citizens of this place, assembled at the public square, on the 4th inst. At half past 7 in the morning, to ascend the “Blue Rocks,” for the patriotic purpose of erecting a monument to the memory of him, whose name stands at the head of this article. This spot was selected in consequence of the great facility with which the materials were furnished. A little more than the foundation had been laid the day before, which enabled us to proceed without delay in the grand design before us…This monument is seated immediately upon the brow of what is called the ‘Blue Rocks,’ which have been already described. It is fifty four feet in circumference at its base, and fifteen feet high—(we contemplate raising it thirty feet, after the busy season shall be passed. [This was done in the fall of 1827.] The wall is composed of huge stone, many weighing upwards of a ton, with the whole centre filled up with the same material. A flight of steps, commencing at the base, and running through the body of the fabric, enables us to ascend to its top, from whence the most beautiful prospect presents itself that the eye can possibly behold…To the summit of this mountain there is a rugged path, but the view will afford a rich compensation for the labour. Twelve feet from the base, upon the side fronting Boonsboro’, was inserted a white marble slab, with the following inscription—“Erected in memory of Washington, July 4th, 1827, by the Citizens of Boonsborough;” at the laying of which, several revolutionary soldiers ascended, and three rounds were fired from its top.

“As it was raised in much haste, we cannot boast the regular accuracy of perfect beauty, yet it possesses both solidity and durability, two important qualities—It has such strength as I think will preserve it for ages…. By request of the Committee, George I. Hardey, Boonsboro’, July 8th, 1827. Torch Light [Hagerstown, MD] 12 July 1827: p. 3

Alas, Mr. Hardey was too sanguine about the monument’s strength. Well before the Civil War, the elements had badly damaged the tower. It was used as a signal tower during the War, had crumbled to ruins by 1872, then was rebuilt by the Boonsboro Odd Fellows in 1883. [Source: Evening Star [Washington, DC] 25 August 1883: p. 2]

An article of 1902, illustrated by a photo of a heap of rubble, gives more details. It also begs the question: why did a weather observatory not have a lightning rod?

The patriotic people of Boonsboro and Hagerstown, Md., will repair the ruins of the historic Washington monument located about three miles from the former place. This was the first memorial which public affection dedicated to the Father of His Country. Standing on Blue rock of South mountain in the first county named in honor of Washington, it overlooks three counties and is on the great national highway in which he was so much interested.

When dedicated, July 4, 1827, the monument was a circular tower of untrimmed stone about 15 feet in height and 54 in the circumference of the base. In 1882, when the memorial had crumbled to a mound of masonry, the Encampment Order of Odd Fellows collected money to rebuild it. The height was raised fifty feet, an iron cupola was added (!!) and white stucco was coated over the stonework to protect it from the weather. In the presence of about 5,000 people the monument was rededicated on Aug. 13, 1883. The local weather observatory was stationed in the tower, and the monument seemed to be entering upon a new era of popularity when in 1898 it was demolished by lightning. Saginaw [MI] News 17 October 1902: p. 6

Enter the lightning/explosion motif….

Actually this theme had appeared in 1896, in a mystifyingly ambiguous article.

 Monument to Washington Wrecked

Hagerstown, Md., Sept. 25 The monument on South Mountain a few miles from Boonsboro, Washington county, erected to the memory of George Washington by the citizens of Boonsboro in 1827, was either struck by lightning or dynamited a few nights ago and badly shattered. A large portion of the structure fell in a mass at the base. Some years ago an attempt was made to destroy the monument by dynamite and the pile was much weakened. The work of the lightning or of vandals a few nights ago has completed the work of destruction. Jackson [MI] Citizen 29 September 1896: p. 6

I have searched every newspaper archive at my disposal and have been completely baffled. I can find no original/contemporary accounts of this early monument to Washington being dynamited. I am displaying my ignorance here, but would it have been that difficult to tell a lightning strike from a man-made explosion? I wonder if someone got their monuments mixed up?

The iconic Washington DC obelisk monument, begun in 1848, was a source of long-standing public controversy.. There were construction difficulties, the money ran out, the country had a Civil War, and the structure was found to have unstable foundations. Construction was halted in 1854. The half-finished pillar was considered an eyesore and an embarrassment. Building resumed in 1876 and the monument was dedicated in 1885.

Yet, in the papers we find statements like the following: “Out of respect for the memory of the Father of his Country, that awful monument should be polished off with dynamite.” Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 12 February 1877: p. 4

and “A crank declares his intention of jumping from the top of the Washington Monument for the sake of the sensation and threatens to blow it up with dynamite if foiled in his desire. We advise the Monumental Association by all means to let him jump.” [Philadelphia Record.] New York Herald-Tribune 10 December 1884: p. 4

Were memories of this explosive animosity somehow remembered as threats against the South Mountain Washington Monument by later journalists?


The Washington monument on South Mountain is again in ruins. It was struck by lightning several years ago and so badly shattered that about half of the structure fell toward the Frederick county side. The late Major Josiah Pierce, of the Topographical Survey of Baltimore, son-in-law of Mrs. Dahlgren, widow of Admiral Dahlgren, was so deeply interested in the restoration of the monument that he had secured the co-operation of many who were willing to contribute to the expense of rebuilding it. His own death, however, caused these plans to fall through. It was later rumored that one of the patriotic societies contemplated bringing the subject before Congress with a view to having that body take up the matter and have the monument rebuilt….Baltimore [MD] Sun 23 December 1906: p. 14

A lengthy 1924 article spoke, not only of the origin, destruction and rebuilding of the monument, but of the mysterious Black Dog and a local man known as “Wizard” Zittle, of whom we will hear more in a moment.

J. Huber Smith owns the land adjoining. It came to him from Michael Zittle, whose surviving daughter had given the tract where the monument stands to the Society for the Protection and Rebuilding of the First Washington Monument, formed in 1907, with Harvey S. Bomberger, State Senator, president…

The original dedication stone, broken by the dynamite, is in Smith’s possession… [There’s that dynamite again. It is “explained” below. Or does it refer to the attempt to destroy the monument “a few years ago” in the 1896 article?]

He knows all of the lore of the mountain. Some folks claim, he said, they’re seeing the Black Dog again, an omen of evil, which hasn’t been active for ten years. ‘Tis a phantom of huge proportion, which stalks along the roadside or jumps from peak to peak in the hills. Few admit having met him, but all know those who have.

The beast is oftenest seen at a spring at Zittlestown on William H. Kline’s property. Kline knows a man who, he said, once cut the spectre in two with an axe, but it merely went on prancing without the body joining again for several minutes. When he recovered from his surprise, the thing jumped over the near-by church and faded from sight.

Smith asserts he’s seen a real dog there, bigger than a large calf, black all over and hard to catch. This, he believes, to give ground for the stories….

Intriguingly, the author says there was an attack on the monument with dynamite at the beginning of World War I:

Lightning again shattered the upper fifteen feet of the memorial [after the restoration of 1884], and at the beginning of the World War, further damage was done by some one supposed to be an alien enemy, who exploded dynamite under one portion of the base and made a large crack up the side. He was never caught. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 2 March 1924: p. 66

Articles in 1911, 1912, 1914 feature senators dithering about appropriations, the shame of letting a monument to the Father of Our Country go to ruin, and announcements of rebuilding the monument momentarily, although nothing was actually done except a coat of whitewash in 1915 to allow tourists to locate the ruins from the National Road. The tower site was bought by the Washington County Historical Society in 1920 and was deeded to the State of Maryland as a state park in 1934.

“A replica of the monument, which was hollow in the middle and resembled an old-fashioned bean pot, was built in the same site by the civilian conservation corps and dedicated on July 4, 1936.” Register-Republic [Rockford, IL] 28 February 1948: p. 10

(Actually earlier images of the tower are quite primitive and suggest a Celtic broch or an iron blast-furnace, rather than the current bean-pot.)

Now about the Black Dog, also known as the Snarly Yow. Much of the folklore of the creature was collected by Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren [1825-1898], in South Mountain Magic, published 1882. You can read the entire book here.

I confess that Mrs. Dahlgren’s empurpled prose about “lunar orbs with opaline light” and inquiries about “decaying ligneous particles of an inflammatory nature,” palled after less than a paragraph. But she lived in the area (albeit as a summer visitor from Washington) and does chronicle the varieties of phenomena found on South Mountain. In the interests of brevity, I will omit her descriptions of the will-o-the-wisp, the phantom soldiers, and the giant “waggoner,” and concentrate on the Snarly Yow, Black Dog, or Dog-Fiend.

The Snarly Yow and the Were-Wolf [possibly the same creature?] are found guarding the pass “descending the western slope, where the declivity is most romantic, and the National Road is cut in…At times, indeed most frequently, of canine form and black in color, of a mystic shining; now waning, now increasing, it crosses the ravine, or disappears like a light suddenly blown out.” (You see my point about the author’s style…)

Mrs. Dahlgren is impressed that everyone reports the Black Dog in virtually the same locations and dismisses the idea that it is a real wild beast. It is often seen at a local spring. Then things get a little more interesting, as the author seems to have interviewed the locals about their Black Dog sightings. I quote just a few examples:

“Our first narrator, and a credible witness, is William L___e. He is a good type of a sturdy mountain man. A sober, laborious, strong, and trustworthy young man, of perhaps thirty years of age. He is married, and lives with his little family in the first cabin on the brow of the hill that overlooks Glendale. His hut is not over a quarter of a mile from the alleged habitat of the Black Dog.
“One night about ten o’clock, as he was returning from the village of Boonsboro… he encountered the Black Dog. It was clear starlight, and the ungainly form of the beast could be distinctly traced. It was black and bigger than any dog he had ever seen; and, as he came nearer, the object intercepted him, and stood guarding the road in such a way as to forbid his crossing. So, to use his own expression, he “fit him.” That is, nothing daunted, he fought at him.
But, to his confusion, as the creature was attacked, it “grew longer” and presently seemed to extend across the road, making no noise, but showing a very wide and very ugly-looking red mouth; while, all the time the thick and heavy blows rained down upon it, the sinewy arm of the woodsman met with no resistance, but rather seemed to beat the air. Presently the still lengthening shadow passed onward, and then the man, not a little flurried at the strange nature of the vision, went home; — nor did he receive the least bodily harm from this ominous combat…

[The changing of size is often noted in the folklore of Black Dogs of the British Isles.]

“Another man, who can see farther than most other men, once saw the mythical dog beyond its usual route, and coming out of a tumble-down old stable higher up on the road. This man was seized with a sort of “color blindness,” as the vision assumed various hues, at times “coal black, then again changing into great spots of white…
Mr. W___y, who is considered”a sure shot,” relates to have met it crossing the road. He carried his ever-ready rifle with him, and feeling sure of his aim, shot at it with steady hand when within a few paces. To his speechless amazement, the well-directed shot went right through the animal without effect. Again and again the sharp crack of the trusted rifle was heard, as it was sent with deadly accuracy, and went whizzing through and through the shadow, leaving no mark. Overcome with dread at the uncanny sight, the huntsman fled, nor stopped to see if the shade retreated or pursued…

“The wife of a farmer who lives on the summit beyond South-Mountain-House, and who is a woman of physical strength and nerve, as well as of very good judgment and what is called common sense, told us that, coming up the Gorge one night with her husband in a sleigh, the moon being well up and the night bright, she distinctly saw the animal standing near the spring; that it was of much larger size than any dog she had ever seen, but looked, as it stood against the snowy bank, brown in color; that, as they approached it, the horse snorted, and was so restive as to demand all her husband’s attention, and that she was afraid to point it out to him, as she knew, from his fearless character, that he would insist upon stopping to attack it. As they passed on…she looked back, and there it stood, just as she had first seen it…
“We have selected the foregoing instances, among others, because we personally know all these people, and we believe that they would not readily be daunted by meeting any object, however terrifying in aspect, if they could have accounted for the vision as being in the natural order of things… As for ourselves, our province is to narrate the circumstances attending this spectral apparition, be it illusive, delusive, or of real purport, as they have been told to us. Certainly a number of persons have met the vision, and their accounts do not materially vary….” South Mountain Magic, Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren,1882, pp. 71-3 and pp. 75-87

To state the obvious, in England, Black Dogs have a strong connection with water, often following the paths of underground streams.  Here in Maryland the Dog is often found by a spring. They are also linked with spook lights, either having fiery, saucer-like eyes or the ability to turn themselves into balls of light. And, in history and folklore, they are associated with lightning. Here is a quick summary of the Black Dog of Bungay legend. Similar stories are told from other locations of Black Dogs appearing with storms or exploding when touched. What is the link–or is there a link? between a tower with a magnetic attraction to lightning and fiery explosions and the habitat of a Black Dog?

Adding to the roster of local Forteana, the Boonsboro/South Mountain area was notable for several people with strange powers. In the 18th century, it was “St. Rozo Vitozo,” as she was mystifyingly dubbed in a contemporary account: Miss Rosa Orndorff/Orendorff, a young woman who “was subject to attacks of the singular disease known as catalepsy. Probably a majority of reported cases of this disease are impostures, but this seems to have been a genuine one. No copy of the published description of her case is known to exist but the descendants of the family say that in her trances, she seemed to be entirely insensible to any pain, so that pins could be stuck into her flesh without producing any effect upon her; and that hundreds of visitors were anxious to experiment upon her, and a strict watch had to be maintained over her to save her from being converted into a pin cushion. It appears that she was a Spiritualist and while entirely unconscious of all her surrounding would converse with spirits and bring messages from the spirit world to those who wished to communicated with their departed friends.” History of Washington County, Maryland, Vol. I, Thomas John Chew Williams

In the 19th century Mrs. Dalhgren wrote of Michael Zittle Jr. (1799-1877), son of the man who founded Zittlestown, Maryland, and known as “Wizard Zittle.” He had a mysterious Black Book called “The Friend in Need or Secret Science,” a copy of which he had printed in Boonsboro in 1845. It sounds very much like John George Hohman’s “Long Lost Friend,” the Pennsylvania Pow-Wow doctors’ manual. Zittle was known as a healer, although Mrs. Dahlgren in South Mountain Magic was disgusted by his “Black Arts” and “blasphemous” incantations. As Zittle was dying, he supposedly transferred his powers and his magic book to a relative who carried on the tradition until he lost his magic by charging a fee for his services. Harry Warner, “Tales Of Early Residents With Strange Powers,” Daily Mail, Hagerstown, Maryland, 26 Feb 1974, p. 5

The tradition of Fortean weirdness continues to today. Examining internet sources, we also find a haunted Inn, a Spook Hill, and a “Top Secret Government Facility” as seen on Google Satellite View.

It’s been a long and winding post with no real conclusions, just a collection of possibly unconnected facts and folklore. A Black Dog tradition, a phallic tower on a high hill dedicated to the Father of our Country, lightning, explosions, a wizard, a cataleptic channeler, spook lights—it’s all too much for me to sort out. But if any of you know about the dynamite attacks on the South Mountain monument or have seen the Black Dog, please let me know.

Chris Woodyard is the author of A is for Arsenic: An ABC of Victorian Death. The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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2 Responses

  • Stormeye says:

    Mr. Woodyard:

    Thanks for posting this. I have a great interest in werewolf and Phantom Black Dog lore and find the description of the Snarly Yow fascinating. It is interesting how exactly this being matches the descriptions of PBD in Great Britain.

  • It really is fascinating how Black Dogs are pretty much the same the world over. There are just fewer of them over here in the states. Not sure why–it’s like people left their fairies and Black Dogs behind when they packed their trunks….
    Thanks for reading my post and your comment!