"THIS IS A memorial to people who went to war not to fight but to write about it," the father was telling his small children.
The remark, overheard on a Western Maryland hilltop, neatly summed up one of America's most curious and least known monuments.
The War Correspondents Arch at the summit of Crampton's Gap is not likely to win any architectural honors.
It has been repeatedly vandalized over its nearly 100 years.
It is decidedly off the beaten track.
The 135-acre state park surrounding it has been virtually shut down in recent years for lack of funds.
Still, visitors like the father and his children continue to make the side trip from nearby Antietam National Battlefield to see the 50-foot-high, four-arched structure of purple and gray stone. It is also a stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through the park.
Meanwhile, there is debate about the park's future. Should it be a shrine to the pioneer journalist who dreamed up the arch, a monument to correspondents of all wars, or a memorial to the Civil War skirmish that was fought there?
The monument was erected by George Alfred Townsend, war correspondent, novelist and pioneer Washington columnist. He dedicated it to "the Army correspondents and artists, 1861-1865, whose toil cheered the camps, thrilled the fireside, educated provinces of rustics into a bright nation of readers and gave incentive to narrate distant wars and explore dark lands."
In its glory days, the arch was the centerpiece of a baronial estate built by Townsend after he came upon the site on a buggy ride while doing research for one of his novels, Katy of Catoctin.
As the novel opens, its young hero stands on the spot and thinks, "What would I do if all this was mine? My castle I would put on the South Mountain, right here where I stand."
Townsend stopped short of a castle, but bought 105 acres and built, by most accounts, nine buildings on them.
In 1904, he deeded the monument and the trapezium-shaped fifth of an acre on which it stands to the federal government. The National Park Service now maintains it.
After Townsend's death in 1914, the surrounding land and buildings were sold for $9,500 and suffered looting and decay. They passed through several hands before being sold in 1938 for $600 in back taxes.
In the late 1940's, nine historically-minded residents of Frederick County, Md., bought the property for $3,500 and sold it to the state for $10.
It was deeded to Maryland on the condition it be maintained as a memorial to Townsend. The Division of Forests and Parks restored three of the buildings, marked the ruins of others, and maintained a museum and self-guiding trail until the park was closed in a budget crunch four years ago.
But the gap was also the site of a significant Civil War engagement in the fall of 1862. Confederates atop the ridge held off a Union attack from the Middletown Valley to the east, allowing Stonewall Jackson time to capture Harper's Ferry and strengthening the South's position for the coming Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg.
Timothy Reese, a former volunteer historian with the National Park Service who lives in nearby Burkittsville, wants the federal agency to take the park over and develop it as a battlefield site.
This was apparently Townsend's original plan, before he thought of the Correspondents Arch. He talked of a "contemplation pike" for horse-drawn carriages, running along the ridge of South Mountain to Turner's Gap, the scene of another prelude to Antietam. The plan was thwarted when his rural neighbors, resentful of his lavish lifestyle, refused right of way.
"I frankly think the state is wasting a site," said Reese, who is writing a book about Crampton's Gap. "It rightly should go into federal hands, who have a far better idea of what to do with it."
However, Susan Moore, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield, said, "The budget being what it is, we would not be in a position to wish it transferred to us. …