Things to Do

You Can Explore Obscure DC History and Culture on Saturday

The north ditch of Fort DeRussy. Photograph by Flickr user Mr.TinDC.

Exploration doesn’t have to mean trekking through Southeast Asia or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. There’s plenty to explore in your own city.

That’s what Obscura Day, an event of 160 mini adventures in 31 states and 26 countries, is encouraging us to do on Saturday. Started by the digital media company Atlas Obscura, an online collection of historical curios like 15th-century witchcraft manuals, nail-biting explainers like “Why Do We Even Have Toes?”, and an atlas of hidden wonders, Obscura Day is hosting ten outings throughout the Washington area.

“Very important to the DNA of Atlas Obscura from the beginning was the idea that wherever you are in the world, around the corner from you is some place that will surprise and delight you,” says David Plotz, the company’s CEO.

On Saturday, Plotz is leading a sold-out tour of Fort DeRussy, a Civil War-era fort in the middle of the Rock Creek Park woods. In 1864, after the Confederacy had just suffered a bad loss in Gettysburg, the Confederate army tried a last-ditch effort to capture Washington. Along with Fort Stevens, Fort DeRussy was one of the forts that repelled the attack, driving Confederate forces away with cannons and rifle fire. It’s the only time a U.S. president was under attack from direct enemy fire. While Abraham Lincoln watched the battle from atop the fort wall, an officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., scolded the president, saying, “Get down, you damn fool!”

While the fort is listed on the NPS website and marked on a park trail, you probably wouldn’t stumble across it if you didn’t know where to look. “You walk about 50 feet into the woods and all the sudden there’s this moat and earthen wall that rises 30 feet above you,” Plotz says. “It’s all totally overgrown—this unrestored, totally magical place in the woods.”

Another part of that tour is a look at the Capitol stones, a patch of abandoned stones from 1950s renovations on the Capitol facade, also in the Rock Creek Park.

Other DC-based Obscura Day events include an interactive presentation of Harry Houdini’s legendary history and a re-creation of his stunts, a faux leg amputation using Civil War-era surgical tools, and an educational tour of the world’s only dedicated LGBT section in a cemetery at the Historic Congressional Cemetery. The so-called “gay corner” of the cemetery began in 1988 as a way to memorialize gay rights advocates.

Tickets for the Saturday events range from free to $75, though most are in the $10 to $20 range.

Web producer/writer

Greta started as an editorial fellow in January 2016 and joined as a full-time staff member that August. She now works as a web producer and writer. She was previously an intern at Slate and National Geographic and graduated from the University of Missouri’s Journalism School. She lives in Adams Morgan.