Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Harrisburg Jaw Droppers

Morning in the Senate, a few innings with the Senators and rollin’ on the river in the capital city

About the first thing we do in Harrisburg is drop our jaws. We’re in the state capitol building, and it’s a gilded age glory if ever we’ve seen one. We stand beneath the high rotunda and spin like a top. Around us it’s all golden glamour, blinding brass, marble this and granite that. Magnificent Mercer tile mosaics illustrate the lives of farmers and steelworkers, glass blowers and coal miners, teachers and revolutionaries. It’s the story of America itself, and it’s beautiful.

We climb marble stairs and horn in on one of the free guided tours already in progress. We learn that Teddy Roosevelt dedicated this grandest capitol in the country on its opening day in 1913. He proclaimed it “priceless.” Our tour guide tells us that it was actually about $13 million worth of glorious craftsmanship.

Compound the interest and account for inflation and today even a billion isn’t enough to build this uncommon monument to the laws of common men.

A peek into the House of Representatives and we gasp at grandeur. Across the way we exhale just in time to spasm again at the splendor of the Senate. Fabulous chandeliers shed light on the chambers below our peanut-gallery perch and we imagine ourselves holding forth, orating, and perhaps yielding with reluctance to the gentleman from Potter County or Mercersburg. We’re starring in our own fantasy version of Mr. Smith Goes To Harrisburg and loving every minute.

But we have a full day ahead, with a ballgame, a river to run and a belly full of feed-me-now. So we heed the sage advise of an ample local legislator and make a quick stop a couple blocks north of the Capitol. Here’s the Old Original Jackson House, home of what might be the best burger between two rivers. Dave Kegris has been slaving over a hot grill here for a good while now, and he’s pretty serious about what comes off it.

“Why do people settle for frozen patties!” Dave rails. He starts with a big scoop of fresh ground sirloin, like a XL meatball. It flattens out over the flames but stays juicy in the middle. Dave’s pretty ornery about his burgers, and it pays off with a need for extra napkins every time. He’s stubborn about his rolls, too. Every day a fresh truckload trundles in from a venerable South Philly bakery. (Don’t even get Dave started about the difference between sauce and gravy.) And if you’re really serious, order up a burger with the aged sharp provolone from the Italian Market. Close your eyes you can see 9th Street.

With a bag of the best from the Jackson House, we head to City Island to watch the Harrisburg Senators host the Rock Cats from New Britain, Connecticut. The local nine aren’t faring well (losers of their last seven) but inside their island bandbox the sun is warm, the beer is cold, and every day’s a brand new ballgame.

City Island sits in the middle of the Susquehanna, a river city park that’s just blocks from the Capitol and a stone skip from the swinging restaurant row of Second Street. On the west side is a concrete “beach” with a long bathhouse that once played host to hundreds on a weekend afternoon. Nowadays fewer folks worship the sun on this stretch, no doubt because of the party armada moored at the marina on the other side. Sunshine rains on more than 1,000 pontoon boats here. These floating-patios-with-motors are perfect for the shallow river; many are complete with couches and barbecues and hi-fis that send sound waves across the weekend water.

The fifth inning and the Senators’ lanky right fielder lopes after (and misses) another pop fly. We nod along as his manager chews him out from the dugout. It’s double-A ball and a perfect place to watch ‘em learn the perfect game, especially when they start tossing free hot dogs and t-shirts into the stands.

We say wait-till-next-year and skip out early behind the outfield fence and find the little shack with the green kayak on top. It’s Susquehanna Outfitters and Steve Oliphant and Jill Miller, partners on the river as well as in life, take us away from it all, just minutes from here. We leave City Island for islands in the stream, in the middle of the Susquehanna, the Capitol’s rotunda still in full view.

Not far upriver we paddle through a collection of small islands formed 100 years ago by coal spilled from barges, when the river brought America’s energy down from upstate mines. They feel like they’ve always been here; they feel Jurassic compared to the shoreline bustle.

Jill is ahead in her kayak; we’re back with Steve in a long canoe. It’s so quiet and the water is clear as gin. “A lot cleaner than when these islands were built outta coal. We gotta keep it this way,” Steve says. We glide close to Wade Island, the largest colony of nesting egrets and night herons in Pennsylvania. Ducks float along side and cormorants peel their eyes from nearby perches. Baitfish leap from the shallows. We can’t believe how beautiful.

Steve reads our mind. “There’s so much wildlife, so close on this river. And the more you love it and enjoy it, the more you’ll fight to protect it.” An eagle-eyed osprey with a wingspan big as our canoe soars overhead in agreement.

We land back at City Island just in time to walk across the Market Street Bridge with the straggling remnants of the ballpark faithful. It’s time to head upriver to our jazz-age mansion bedroom waiting at The Milestone Inn, where miraculously, the architect found a way to give every room in the house a river view.

We need a shower and time to reflect on such an eclectic day. Later, we dig into Osso Buco, glorious Bolognese and an adventurous (and reasonable) wine list at Char’s Bella Mundo. These people know how to cook and it’s without a doubt our favorite restaurant in “the ‘burg.” Tomorrow it’s the National Civil War Museum and a big appetite for exploration among the bars and beaneries of Second Street. And Steve and Jill wanna take us on a bike ride, which they promise to be as inspiring as our river run. Until then, we’ll see you around the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. For a complete map and photos of everything, stop in at www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.

The State Capitol

It’s our own Versailles, spectacular and inspiring like a great piece of art, and that it is. The rotunda itself weighs an astonishing 52 million pounds. And you thought the governor just had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Guided tours are free; check out www.thecapitol.com for a great introduction.

The Original Jackson House

Outrageous hamburgers, real cheesesteaks dripping with gooey goodness and everything on real South Philly rolls. Hand-cut French fries, too. Get your order in early. They’re only open for lunch, and when Dave’s done cooking for the day, you’re outta luck. 1004 N. 6th St. 717.238.2730.

The Harrisburg Senators

Catch the farm team of the Washington Nationals at cozy Commerce Bank Park on homey City Island. Every seat’s great, the hot dogs are hot (and the sausages spicy) and you can’t beat the price. Check the schedule at www.senatorsbaseball.com. Or ring ‘em at 717.231.4444.

Susquehanna Outfitters

Steve and Jill know the river like a pair of Susquehanna Huck Finns. Paddle a canoe or a kayak, count the egrets and enjoy the serenity. Then take a “greenbelt” bike ride through the parks surrounding the capital city. Who knew? Stop by their shack on City Island, visit www.susquehannaoutfitters.com or call 717.234.7879. Tell ‘em we sent you.

Pep Grill

Every roadtrip needs a good dive bar for an afternoon tap beer and a jukebox classic. This is ours. 209 Walnut St, and yep, the Pep’s online: www.pepgrill.com.

The National Civil War Museum

You can spend a whole day exploring America’s official Civil War museum. Fascinating films, amazing photographs and incredible dioramas bring to life the tales, tragedy and triumph of our nation’s most seismic moment. At 1 Lincoln Circle on the northeast side of town. Details and directions at www.nationalcivialwarmuseum.org.

The Milestone Inn

Sean Adams and Robin Clemens are the young couple behind a magnificent restoration of a 100-year old mansion. Think of the best luxury hotel you’ve ever dreamt of, and then boil it down to four very private rooms. (With breakfast recipes from Robin’s grandmother!) 2701 N. Front Street, on the river just north of town. Reserve your room at www.milestoneinn.com or at 717.233.2775.

Char’s Bella Mundo

Char Magaro makes it her personal duty to keep Harrisburg’s best kitchen (and best bartender, we might add) turning out plate after plate of mouth-watering meals. She calls it her “American bistro.” You’ll call it your favorite stop on the roadtrip. (Ask about the day’s risotto special; then order it.) 540 Race Street. Check out a menu at www.charsbellamundo.com. Reserve a table at 717.213.4002.

Let’s hear your road tales.
Drop us a line a shunpiker@visitpa.com and tell us what you’ve seen, where you’ve eaten, whom you’ve met. Until then, here’s to the road ahead.

Cruising Coal Country

Into the mines and hot on the trail of the Molly Maguires

The top is down and we’re riding through patch towns along the world’s largest anthracite coal ridge. Once thriving mining towns with plank houses and plain churches, most had a company store to which you’d owe your paycheck if not your soul.

On a sunny day the tough beauty of these hardscrabble towns belie the fact that at one time more men and boys worked underground than above it. They didn’t know from sunshine; we soak up every ray in the ragtop.

We pull up short in Ashland, along Route 61, amazed by the Mothers Memorial high on the ridge. She’s the world’s only 3-D replica of Whistler’s Mother and she’s been scowling down at the town since the Ashland Boys Association sat her up there during the Great Depression. The bronze matriarch sits on a granite pedestal etched with a goose-bump maxim of foot high letters: “A mother is the holiest thing alive.”

Across the street, in an old row house, we meet Jim Klock, who keeps the ghosts alive in the local historical society. He shows us sepia snapshots of Mother’s dedication day. He even has the sculptor’s original plaster-cast model of Mother herself. Jim’s a living walking tour of proud old Ashland. “I oughta know it,” he says. “Been here all my life and I’ll die here, too. My plot’s already bought and paid for.”

Mother’s park is surrounded by gorgeous WPA stonework. We sit at her feet munching crunchy little cheeseburgers with a potent homemade hot sauce from Danny’s Boulevard Drive In, a throwback shake shack up 61.

Just off the main drag, past Kitty and Dotty’s Flowers and a grand firehouse, we find the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine. Down the mine it’s 54 degrees year round, so we grab jackets from a collection of thrift store rejects. Zip up and hop aboard a clacking coal train and trundle through a timber shaft 300 feet below the surface of the earth.

Not that long ago the Pioneer was crawling with miners. Now folks come from all over for guided tours, and some leave their mark. We find cave-painting graffiti from a 1969 visit by Mercury 7 Commander Scott Carpenter: “Astronaut Was Here.”

Our guide hails from a long line of miners. “John Patrick Reese is my name,” he boasts. “I use the ‘Patrick’ so you know I’m Irish.” He shows us how to plant dynamite and how to load a cart with 16 tons of “black diamonds” and how to detect methane gas about to blow us all to kingdom come. And just to prove a point, he shuts off all the lights - even the light on his miner’s cap. It’s darker than dark. Some kid confuses our leg for his father’s and gives us a frightened pinch.

The lights are back and we spot an inspector’s report on the shaft wall that young Mr. Reese has signed tongue-in-cheek. “Inspected by Jack Kehoe,” it reads, with today’s date. “Blackjack Kehoe,” points a fellow tourist. “We saw him in that movie, The Molly Maguires.”

“Aw, that’s Hollywood,” scoffs John Patrick. “You want the real story, go to the Hibernian House and meet Jack’s great grandson.”

So we’re off to Girardville, where Joe Wayne still tends his great-grandfather’s Hibernian House tavern. “Black Jack” Kehoe was called the ringleader of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish miners fighting robber-baron owners. Corrupt Pinkerton detectives infiltrated the Mollies, and Jack Kehoe and 9 others were railroaded to a public hanging on a day locals still call “The Day of the Rope.”

“My great-grandfather was framed, and unjustly executed over in Pottsville,” Joe rails. “This is the door from his cell, and this cement anchor was shackled to his ankles.” The imposing iron door looms over the smaller man where Joe has installed these strange heirlooms behind the ancient Hibernian bar.

“I went before the pardon board 100 years after the execution. Won the only posthumous pardon of its kind in history. The board said I shoulda been a lawyer. Which is what my mother told me every day till they laid her in her grave.”

Joe takes us upstairs, past glorious murals of Jack Kehoe and fellow miners at work. The paintings glow like headlamps in the narrow stairway. He shows us cozy rooms for rent, which miners used to share in 8-hour shifts. In the old days, while one man’s at work, a second enjoys the tavern while the third roommate saws logs upstairs. When the colliery whistle blows, each man rotates to the next 8-hour position. Work, tavern, bed. “I can still see my grandmother washing bed linens every shift,” Joe sighs.

His Irish eyes smiling wide, Joe waves as we head out of town, looking for Rt 209 to Pottsville. As we approach the county seat, the enormous courthouse and ancient jail peer over the valley like medieval majestics. The scene of injustice committed 130 years ago, rectified long after by a hard won pardon.

We meet an off-duty jailer who offers confirmation. “Yup, this is where Black Jack was hung. It wasn’t right, but that’s what happened.” He tells us to follow the Molly Maguires’ trail and make sure we stop at Tony’s Lunch for a “screamer.” It’s Girardville’s favorite burger, with the hot sauce cooked right into it, just down the street from the Hibernian House. Now he tells us.

“It’s called Tony’s Lunch, but he doesn’t open till 8:30 at night,” he shrugs. “May seem weird, but we coal crackers don’t do anything easy.”

So maybe we’ll backtrack for a screamer tonight, but now there’s a Coney Island lunch grilling old-school tube steaks right down the hill. All this talk of hard time and coal mining works up an appetite, so we grab some Coneys for the ragtop. As we drill deeper into coal country we’ll look for you along the bends and back roads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. For a complete map and photos of all this, check out www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.

The Mothers Memorial
Put up in 1938 to honor Pennsylvania’s long-suffering coalmine mothers. Said to be the only 3-D replica of Whistler’s Mother in the world. One look at her sourpuss you know why. And check out the Historical Society across the street. Visit online at www.ashlandpahistory.org or by phone at 570.875.2632. Ask for Jim Klock.

Danny’s Boulevard Drive-In
This is the way cheeseburgers and fries and milkshakes used to be. Take home a jar or two of Danny’s homemade hot sauce. Dig their online jukebox at dannysdrivein.com. Order at the window or enjoy the counter at 630 S. Hoffman Blvd (Rt. 61) in Ashland. 570.875.0711.

The Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine
A steam train takes you through the woods and then down 300 feet in a real anthracite mine. Doesn’t sound like much till you consider it’s like 30 stories below ground. Right off the main drag in downtown Ashland. The website’s great: www.pioneertunnel.com. And they answer when you call at 570.875.3850.

Jack Kehoe’s Hibernian House
138 years ago, this was Black Jack Kehoe’s tavern. They called him “King of the Molly Maguires.” It’s still full of cold ale and conspiracy theories. Rent a room and revel in coal country lore all night.

Granny’s Motel
Definitely not your chain motel. Rocking chairs, antique lamps, doilies on the divans and a very weird statue outside. What is it about coal country that makes the mothers and grannies look so unforgiving? (What is it about calf’s liver and mac/cheese in Granny’s restaurant?) Rt. 61 in Frackville, right off I-81. Call 570.874.0408 or check in online: www.grannys-pa.com. Strange but true.

Schuylkill County Courthouse and County Jail
This is where it all went down. Worth it just to read the historical markers. And check out downtown Pottsville, where they still brew Yuengling Beer.

Eckley Miners Village
Preserved in its pure patch-town essence, this old village was the location for The Molly Maguires movie starring Sean Connery. Now a state museum, some old miner families still live here. Walk through a miner’s plank house, order a sack of flour at the company store, and check out a real coal breaker. Off the beaten path in Weatherly, PA and online at www.eckleyminers.org. A must see.

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to shunpiker@visitpa.com.