Civil War Profiles: Townsend’s ‘mysterious estate’ on South Mountain

Date Published: 
August 8, 2014

It is human nature to seek a refuge from life’s daily routine, a place that fulfills our craving for relaxation and privacy. Few, however, can afford a place that is secluded yet a reasonable distance from their work environment. A Delawarean by the name of George Alfred Townsend would manage to have the best of both worlds.

Townsend, born on Market Street in Georgetown, was a newspaper reporter during the Civil War (see article on Townsend, Coastal Point, June 15, 2012; series on Townsend’s reporting of Lincoln’s assassination, Dec. 13, 2013 to Feb. 21, 2014).

Like Ernie Pyle would in World War II, young George Alfred spurned descriptions of battles and tactics in favor of homespun stories about common soldiers slogging through mud and surviving on inadequate rations. In the post-war years, he became a renowned journalist who adopted the nom de plume “Gath,” and a novelist of some note, as well.

Success had its recompense. Ruthanna Hindes relates in her biography of Townsend that, over the years, he became wealthy enough to purchase land for an estate at Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain west of Frederick, Md., relatively close to Washington, D.C. He described his discovery of this property for Lippincott’s Magazine:

“I first saw the land in Crampton’s Gap, Friday, October 17, 1884, riding from Harper’s Ferry in a buggy. The next Monday, 20th, wrote to David Arnold inquiring the price … Dec. 15th the deed was signed by Arnold and others and I received it December 18.”

Townsend explained his motivation for acquiring the land for a hideaway in an article for the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“The necessity of some place of retirement for even two or three days, while pursuing an extensive correspondence for the press, with incidental student life and some attempts at literature, became apparent to me from the time I commenced to publish, 35 years ago.”

The property was about 100 acres, which George Alfred named “Gapland.” The first building to go up was a modest home, “Askalon.” Four others would follow; one a 15-room Den and Library, and “The Hall” with 11 rooms. At least nine structures would grace the estate, including a barn, carriage house and two lodges for guests.

An article, “George A. Townsend: 19th Century Literary Cosmopolite” by John Murphy, describes the estate “that lifted him from fame to legend” being of stone construction with “terra cotta busts, medallions, rambling verandas, mansard roofs and turrets” that reportedly cost $500,000 to build — a princely sum for that period.

The fact that Townsend lived in one house, his wife in another, and his daughter and family in a third, Murphy contends, “was enough to raise eyebrows” among the public. In other words, “He built a unique, lavish, and (considered by some) mysterious estate.”

Gapland was a haven for Townsend to write syndicated political columns and pursue his aspirations as a novelist. It was here he finished writing “Katy of Catoctin,” a story of the Civil War period that became popular at the time and is still in print today.

Turner tells us that Townsend was a friend to people in high places, and his estate played host to “the witty and polished people of Washington, Baltimore and New York, and the intelligentsia of the Victorian and early post-Victorian Era.” His reputation was such that his counsel and views were sought by national figures and European statesmen, as well.

George Alfred, in tribute to his fellow Civil War correspondents, sketch artists and photographers, set aside a portion of his land for construction of a memorial. This 40-by-50-foot arch, dedicated in 1896, is classic Townsend — unconventional design bordering on the eccentric. It must be seen to be appreciated.

Unfortunately, after Townsend’s death at 73 in 1914, the estate was allowed to deteriorate. Today, only Gapland Lodge and The Hall, plus the ruins of the barn, remain.

The Maryland State Park Service maintains these structures as part of Gathland State Park, in Townsend’s honor. The two buildings serve as the park’s museum, which features artifacts from Townsend’s life, career and estate, as well as artifacts from the Battle of South Mountain — a prelude to the bloody Battle of Antietam during the Civil War.

The museum is open seven days a week from May through September. The National Park Service maintains the memorial arch. For information, call 1-800-830-3974.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.