Monday, January 28, 2013

Q&A with author Garrett Peck

Garrett Peck

Q: Your new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, will be published next month. What were some of the most surprising things you learned while researching the book?

A: The Seneca quarry is such a fascinating and long-forgotten site. It sits in the woods right of the C&O Canal about 20 miles up the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. -- and yet almost no one knows it's there. It was the place where they quarried the distinct red sandstone for the Smithsonian Castle and hundreds of other buildings around the nation's capital. But the story is about much more than just a bunch of rocks -- it's the story of boom-and-bust, a national scandal involving the Grant administration, and a place where former slaves toiled after the Civil War while adding significantly to the architectural skyline of the nation's capital. The quarry closed in 1901 and nature took over. 

The biggest surprise to me was a scandal I uncovered involving the Seneca Sandstone Company and Ulysses S. Grant. It made national headlines in its time, and The Baltimore Sun called it the "Seneca stone ring scandal." The company was terribly financially mismanaged and undercapitalized, and when it collapsed in 1876, it helped bring down the Freedman's Bank, exacerbating poverty among the former slaves for decades. I pieced together the scandal from newspaper articles and Congressional testimony -- none of Grant's biographers have covered it, so this is really original research. And it's a rather jaw-dropping story of crony capitalism gone wrong. 

Another big surprise was that there was this treasure trove of photos showing the quarry in action in the decades after the Civil War. I had to dig through a number of archives to collect them, but it's an amazing collection. Many of the photos show African American workers at the quarry. 

Going into this project, I had no idea how extensive the ongoing preservation of the Smithsonian Castle is. The Smithsonian replaces 25-30 stones on the Castle each year, as redstone is a layered stone and it can peel like an onion if moisture gets into it. I interviewed people involving the building's preservation, and traced the history of the Renwick Gate, which was built in the 1980s using recycled original Seneca redstone. 

Lastly, seeing the site of Seneca quarry is an ongoing surprise to me and the tours I lead through the quarry. It's dilapidated, overgrown with brush and trees, but also surprisingly preserved. The stonecutting mill where they cut the stone for the Smithsonian Castle is still there (at the moment a giant sycamore tree has fallen on it, causing a lot of damage). Wandering through the quarry and scaling its walls is really something. I can only hope that a quarry visitor park can someday be created out of this -- it'd be a dynamite addition to our local parks. The land itself is protected in the C&O Canal National Historical Park and Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland.  

Q: In your book The Potomac River, you write, "The Potomac is the nation's river." How does the Potomac's history link to that of the entire country?

A: Our nation grew up along the Potomac River. Captain John Smith ventured up the river in 1608 from Jamestown, and George Washington was born, lived much of his life, and picked the site for the nation's capital along the river. It served as the de facto boundary between Union and Confederacy during the Civil War, and many of the most dramatic moments in the war took place along its banks, including John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry and the Battle of Antietam -- two events that set the stage for the end of slavery. The book covers hundreds of historic sites that are accessible to the public and offer recreation possibilities. I love to hike almost as much as I love history! 

One site I discovered during my research was Seneca quarry, but there's no historic marker or anything; you just have to know it's there. I fell in love with the quarry, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to write about it. And so I produced The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, which is in essence a sequel to The Potomac River

Q: You have written two books about Prohibition, one of which focuses on Prohibition in Washington, D.C., and is subtitled "How Dry We Weren't." What got you interested in the history of Prohibition, and how was it enforced (or not enforced) in the nation's capital?

A: I come from a Methodist family, and the Methodist church was once the leading church in the temperance movement (shocking, I know, as most Methodists now drink). What happened to my church and family is what happened to the country: we once demonized drinking alcohol to the point of changing the Constitution to ban it, then ultimately embraced it after Prohibition failed. Two-thirds of American adults now drink (myself included), and it's simply recognized as part of our culture now. The temperance movement lost the culture war against drinking and was discredited by the failure of Prohibition. 

My first book was The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet, which traced just how America got over Prohibition to become a country that worships at the altar of craft beer and single malt Scotch. It is, to my knowledge, the only book that has examined how Americans drink after Prohibition ended. 

I live in the Washington, D.C., area, and in researching the book, I uncovered a great deal of content about how Prohibition unfolded in the nation's capital. Washington was expected to be the "model dry city" for the country, but it turned out to be anything but. We had up to 3,000 speakeasies, and Congress even employed its own bootleggers such as George Cassiday ("the man in the green hat"). Once the nation learned just how widespread drinking was in Congress and in the capital in 1930, it significantly undermined the national will to enforce Prohibition. The tour served as inspiration for my second book, Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't. 

Q: You also offer Temperance Tours of Washington, D.C. What are some of the highlights?

A: As I was writing my first book, I put together a fun and quirky tour of Prohibition-related sites in the nation's capital. The tour hits places that even most Washingtonians have never seen. Did you know we have a Temperance Fountain, right across from the National Archives? People walk right past it without even noticing it -- in fact, I quiz people about the meaning of "temperance," and most people simply don't know. It's one of those words like anarchy, comstockery, communism and the gold standard that just aren't part of America's cultural vocabulary anymore. 

We also visit Calvary Baptist Church, where the Anti-Saloon League had its first national convention in 1895, and the Woodrow Wilson House, which has an amazing Prohibition-era wine cellar. Wilson was the president when Prohibition began, and he was the only president to retire to D.C. You can read more about the tour at

I should also mention that I lead tours of Seneca quarry in the winter, which is the one time you can actually see the site, when the trees and wild rose are dormant. There's a Facebook page for The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry so readers can learn more about upcoming events. 

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Indeed, I am. The working title is The Lost Decade, and it's a journalistic summary of the past decade in American history. The decade was bookended by two economic crises: the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and the financial meltdown caused by the housing bubble bursting. In between we witnessed the election of George W. Bush, 9/11, two wars, Hurricane Katrina, an aging population, an emerging gay community, the dominance of the Internet as our new national pastime, and the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I'm actually looking for a publisher right now. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm happy to talk to people about my books and tours! People can contact me at 

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