Impeached in America: William W. Belknapp

The only Cabinet member ever to be impeached was Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War. William W. Belknapp was impeached for corruption in 1876, a corruption that was closely intertwined with his marital affairs.

William Belknapp

Belknapp was a Civil War hero. He was a major in the Iowa Voluntary Infantry. During his active duty he participated in the Battle of Shiloh where he had his horse shot out from under him He served under General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Battle of Atlanta and joined Sherman’s march to the sea. It was Sherman who recommended Belknapp to Grant for the Secretary of War position.

Belknapp had married Cora LeRoy in 1854, but she passed away in 1862. Seven years later he married Carita S. Tomlinson of Kentucky.  In Fall of an Iowa Hero, L Edward Purcell describes the Belknapps’ lifestyle at the time. “Belknapp and Carita set up housekeeping in a fashionable home in Washington, where they entertained on a grand scale. The sumptuous furnishings of the house, including imported carpets, expensive furniture and the finest crystal and china, provided the setting for lavish dinner parties. The Belknapps were among the foremost Washington socialites, treating their guests with the best food and vintages.”

Sherman himself would later link this to Belknapp’s impeachment. He told a newspaper reporter in 1876, “Of course I do not know the cause of this demoralization, but having lived in Washington during his tenure of office, I can form a pretty good idea of it. In my opinion his downfall is due more to the vicious organization of Washington society than anything else. I refer to the ridiculous extravagance of those who move in the first social circles at the Capitol. Very few of the Cabinet officers are able to live within their salaries.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 5, 1876)

Here’s how the Belknapps supplemented that salary. Belknapp had established rules at the department that “sutlers,” appointed by him, would control all of the purchases at military forts in the West. This generally resulted in soldiers, many of them immigrants, paying much higher prices for things like boots. It also resulted in sales of guns to Native Americans, something that General George Custer resentfully testified about before a House committee investigating expenditures at the War Department. 

Carita Belknapp made contact with a contractor in New York named Caleb Marsh, who was the husband of one of her friends. She suggested that Marsh apply to be the sutler for Fort Sill, which was in the Native American territory that would later become Oklahoma. She would use her influence to assure that her husband gave Marsh the post. There was, however, already a sutler at Fort Sill, John S. Evans. No problem. Marsh and Evans worked out a deal. Evans would be allowed to continue to manage the trading post and in return would pay Marsh $12,000 a year in quarterly payments. Marsh, in turn, would send half of that Carita’s way.

Carita only received one payment before dying of tuberculosis after childbirth. Purcell describes what happened after that, based on Marsh’s later testimony before the House committee. “When Marsh came to Washington for the funeral, he was drawn aside by her (Carita’s) sister Puss, then a widow caring for Belknapp’s son. Puss artlessly informed Marsh she knew about the money due Carita and said it would go now to the child in her care, When Marsh agreed to continue payments, Puss suggested the money go directly to Secretary Belknapp. From 1871 to 1976, Marsh gave Belknapp more than $20,000, all of it from Evans payoff money.”

Three years later, Amanda Tomlinson Bower (Puss), became the third Mrs Belknapp. More than 100 years later a story in the Washington Post would suggest: “Puss Belknap’s gowns, emeralds and coral-beaded parasols were infamous in Washington, attracting attention and speculation that led to investigation into her husband’s department.” (First Ladies Amid the Fray)

The investigation in the House was led by Hiester Clymer, a Democratic congressman who had been Belknapp’s roommate at Princeton. Upon hearing that Marsh would be testifying before Clymer’s Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, he booked a meeting with Grant and offered his resignation. Writing for HistoryNet, John Kostner, chronicles Grant’s summary of that meeting: “He burst into tears and took hold of my hand.…I understood that he was expecting an investigation that he could avoid by resigning; that the facts, if exposed, would not damage him so much as his wife. He spoke of his dead wife, too. I told him that he had a great many friends and that they would help him out, but he said it was impossible; that he had shouldered all the blame and would be ruined. He insisted it would save me and the government a great deal of trouble if his resignation was accepted.…So I wrote him a letter accepting the resignation.” 

The resignation did not stop the impeachment. In fact, it was unanimous in the committee.

When the impeachment trial came before the Senate, Belknapp’s defense took the position that the Senate had no jurisdiction because Belknapp was no longer in office. The whole trial followed closely what we would see at Trump’s insurrection trial. The Senate first voted on whether it was appropriate to proceed with the trial and that was approved by a vote of 37-29. The vote to convict was 35-25 in favor, not enough for the required two-thirds majority. Twenty-three of the senators who voted against conviction said they thought he was guilty but voted they the way they did because they didn’t think it was constitutional to hold the trial after Belknapp resigned. (They must have been Mitch McConnell’s ancestors.)

Belknapp suffered some lean years immediately after his impeachment but eventually established a private law practice. Amanda, aka Puss, packed up her daughters and moved to Paris.

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A Wordless Wednesday gallery of public domain photos.

dog sleeping
(Thandy Yung)
sea lions sleeping
(Maria E. Mayobre)
woman resting
(Heman Sanchez)
woman sleeping on bench
(Guille Alvarez)
man reading book
(Lisa Fotios)
woman on hammock
resting with dog
(Drew Coffman)

(Photos downloaded from Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels.)

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Impeached in America: Old Bacon Face

The one and only Supreme Court justice to be impeached was a guy known to his compatriots as Old Bacon Face. Some say Samuel Chase’s unsavory nickname was a result of his reddish-brown complexion. Others say it was a result of his temperament, as he was always prepared to sizzle with indignation.

Samuel Chase

Chase was an Annapolis, Md., based lawyer who was a member of the Annapolis Convention and represented Maryland at the Continental Congress. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

But Old Bacon Face’s career was not without some bumps in the road. As early as 1862, one year after he was admitted to the bar, Chase got tossed out of an Annapolis debating club, the Forensic Club for “extremely irregular and indecent” behavior. That behavior apparently involved addressing some comments to a fellow member that were deemed “impious.”

Chase was a member of the Continental Congress, at least until 1878 when he was accused of using insider information gained as a member of the Congress to try to corner the flour market. He was part of the group that drafted Maryland’s Constitution, but when the U.S. Constitution came before the Maryland legislature for ratification, he voted against it out of distrust of central government. Around that same time Chase went bankrupt after some speculative business ventures failed.

None of this bothered George Washington enough to keep him from nominating Chase to the Supreme Court in 1796. Chase, by this time a Federalist, was a distinctly partisan Supreme Court justice. While on the bench he actively campaigned for John Adams.

So as you might imagine, when the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalist John Adams in the 1800 election, Chase fell out of favor. The feeling was mutual. It was Jefferson who initiated the effort to impeach Chase and in 1804, by a vote of 73-32, the House approved eight articles of impeachment against Samuel Chase. The articles of impeachment broadly focused on poor judgement on the part of Chase and on making judicial decisions based on partisan politics. At the time, Supreme Court justices also served as circuit court judges and it was Chase’s actions in these cases that were cited. In one case involving the charging of a Baltimore grand jury, Chase’s comments were characterized as “intemperate and inflammatory, peculiarly indecent and unbecoming, highly unwarrantable, highly indecent,” One of the articles of impeachment accused Chase of “tending to prostitute the high judicial character with which he was invested, to the low purpose of an electioneering partizan.”

When Chase’s impeachment came before the Senate, his defense was that he could not be removed for errors of judgement or behavior on the bench, neither of which was an indictable offense nor a high crime or misdemeanor, which is what the Constitution defined as grounds for impeachment. Despite the fact that of the 34 senators at the time, only nine were Federalists, Chase was acquitted on each of the eight votes. The closest vote was 18-16 for removal, not the two-thirds necessary. Chase would continue as a Supreme Court justice until 1811 when he died of a heart attack. 

The Chase impeachment has been cited as helping establish the independence of the judiciary. All future impeachments of federal judges have involved legal or ethical misconduct, not poor judgement or obnoxious behavior, both of which are part of Old Bacon Face’s legacy.

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A Wordless Wednesday gallery of public domain photos.

airplane cabin
(Hanson Lu)


(Public domain images downloaded from Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels.)

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Impeached in America: John Pickering

New Hampshire District Court Judge John Pickering was not the first public official to be impeached. (That honor belongs to William Blount.) But Pickering was the first to be convicted by the Senate and removed from office. His crime? Leaving aside all the legalize involved it appears to be that he was pretty much always rip roaringly drunk.

John Pickering

Pickering was a lawyer, a Harvard graduate, who after some time in private practice held numerous high positions in his home state. He was a member of New Hampshire’s constitutional conventions, served in both the state House and Senate and was president of New Hampshire (the equivalent of governor) in 1790. After spending the next five years as Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court of Judicature, he was nominated by George Washington to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire. 

Things started heading south shortly thereafter. In 1801, court staff urged that he be replaced because he was showing signs of mental deterioration. A year later a court clerk reported that Judge Pickering “exhibited every mark of intoxication; staggered and reeled, spoke in a thick way.” Pickering himself advised one attorney arguing his case “I shall be sober in the morning; I’m damned drunk now.”

One notable case that came before Pickering involved a ship called the Eliza that was confiscated by customs officials. The owner of the Eliza was a friend of Pickering’s and a fellow Federalist. Pickering immediately ordered the ship to be restored to its owner. Upon appeal the prosecutor noted the volume of revenue due the state. Pickering retorted, “damn the revenue, I get but a thousand dollars of it.”

By 1803, Thomas Jefferson, having failed to get Pickering to resign, sent information to the House of Representatives accusing Pickering of unlawful rulings, bad character and intoxication. The articles of impeachment that were passed by the House started: “That whereas for the due faithful, and impartial administration of justice, temperance and sobriety are essential qualities in the character of a judge, yet the said John Pickering, being a man of loose morals and intemperate habits…did appear on the bench of the said court for the administration of justice in a state of total intoxication.”

When the impeachment charges came to the Senate in 1804, Pickering was a no show. His son Jacob S. Pickering explained, “John Pickering is insane and could not, from the state of his health, attend without endangering his life, and therefore prays a postponement of the trial.” Jacob’s petition went on to explain “said crimes wherewith the said John stands charged…the said John was, and for more than two years before, and ever since has been and now is insane, his mind wholly deranged…” (National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, April 9, 1804).

So let’s get this straight. Pickering’s defense was arguing that he should NOT be removed from his position as district court judge because he was insane!

The Senate wasn’t buying it. He was convicted with a 19-7 vote and removed from office. He passed away a year later. 

Who voted against conviction and why? There were Federalists that made the argument that showing up in court drunk didn’t constitute a “high crime or misdemeanor” as specified in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. So the legal debate that Pickering’s impeachment and trial raises is whether bad character is sufficient grounds for impeachment and conviction. All successive impeachments have involved more substantial crimes (like inciting an insurrection). Surely if bad character alone could get you tossed, Trump should have been KO’d twice and one can make the case that Clinton was essentially impeached for bad character.

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A Wordless Wednesday gallery of public domain photos.

(Image by Ken Kistler)
(Image by Nathan Durnlao)
inner gears of time
(Image by Pavlofox)
old clock
(Image by Andrea Piacquadio)
(Image by Gahzi Ali)
pocket watch
(Image by Jimmy Chan)
alarm clock
(Image by Insung Yoon)
(Image by Tom Chen)
(Image by Murray Campbell)
(Image by PIRO4D)
(Image by Fabian Albert)
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Impeached in America: William Blount

Say the word impeachment and the name that immediately comes to mind is Trump. After all, he is responsible for 50% of the four presidential impeachments that have occurred in the country’s 242-year history. Aside from the four presidential impeachments there have been 17 other impeachments in U.S. history. The majority of those involved district court judges, but they have also included a senator, a cabinet member and a Supreme Court justice.

William Blount

The Constitution provides that the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But it didn’t take long for Congress to use this provision. The first person to be impeached was Tennessee Senator William Blount in 1798.

Blount has a few things in common with Trump. He was a real estate speculator and his purchases were on borrowed money, leaving him with a good deal of debt. He once lost a state election and challenged the result, claiming fraud. And he also was put on trial in the Senate after leaving office. 

Blount had founding father credentials. His great-grandfather Thomas Blount arrived in Virginia from England in 1660. He settled on a plantation in North Carolina  where William was brought up. During the American Revolution he was a paymaster in a North Carolina regiment. (At one battle he lost $300,000 of soldiers’ pay.)  Prior to independence, Blount ran for a seat on the North Carolina House of Commons. He lost. But he claimed fraud and had the election voided. He later ran for the seat again and won.

Blount was North Carolina’s delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. History records Blount as having showed up late, said very little, left early, and signed reluctantly. But back home he encouraged North Carolina to ratify. During this period, Blount helped foster an agreement whereby North Carolina ceded its western lands to the federal government to pay off tax debt. That land, which at the time was called the Southwest Territory, is what is now the state of Tennessee. Blount would end up being appointed by George Washington as governor of the Southwest Territory. He and his family packed up and moved west.

While this was going on, Blount, as well as his brothers, were actively accumulating land in the Southwest Territory, some 2.5 million acres of it. He also was instrumental in preparing Tennessee for statehood, something that became a reality in 1796. In that year, he was elected one of Tennessee’s first senators.

Things were looking up for Blount’s political career. Not so his finances. Land prices were depressed in the mid-1790’s and Blount had overcommitted, leaving him with a mountain of debt. With France winning a war against Spain in Europe, he was afraid the French would gain control of the port of New Orleans and decided that he and other Tennessee land speculators would be better off if England, rather than France, controlled the port. He then concocted the plan that would lead to his downfall. He schemed with two Native American tribes, encouraging them to join with the British to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans.

Unfortunately for Blount, his plan to start a war to protect the value of his landholdings was all spelled out in a letter that was passed from one hand to the next to the next until it ended up in the lap of President John Adams. He passed it on to the Senate and that body voted 25-1 to “sequester” Blount’s seat. Not a big loss for that body since he missed more than 25% of the roll call votes for the first half of 1797.

At the same time the House began impeachment proceedings. Those proceedings featured a fight between two congressmen of opposite parties. After trading insults for a bit, Matthew Lyon, Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, spewed a load of tobacco juice into the face of Roger Griswold, Federalist congressman from Connecticut. Griswold responded by beating Lyon over the head with his wooden cane. Other representatives broke up the fight and the two apparently escaped disciplinary actions by promising to behave. No such reprieve for Blount. The House approved five articles of impeachment. 

The Senate sent a sergeant-at-arms to Tennessee to bring Blount back to face trial. He refused to budge. Blount had originally stated that he was not the author of the incriminating letter. But, after two of his co-conspirators testified that he was, it was time for a new defense strategy. Blount’s attorneys argued that he was not a “civil officer” and that secondly, since he had been expelled from the Senate already, he was no longer an “officer of the United States.”

Enough senators bought that argument to get him off the hook. By a vote of 14-11, the Senate approved the following resolution: “The court is of the opinion that the matter alleged in the plea of the defendant is sufficient in law to show that this court ought not to hold jurisdiction of the said impeachment, and that the said impeachment is dismissed.”

Constitutional scholars have debated the issue of whether Blount was acquitted because you can’t impeach a senator, or because he had already been out of office. The latter, has implications as a precedent for the trial of Trump.

Blount Mansion
Blount Mansion, Knoxville, Tenn.

And there’s one other parallel between Blount and Trump. Despite being disgraced nationally, Blount remained popular among his base, the voters of Tennessee. Within a year he was speaker of the Tennessee State Senate. Tennessee has a county named after Blount, a grammar school and a high school, as well as a town named Blountville. He died in 1800 when an epidemic swept through his home town of Knoxville where the Blount Mansion is now a museum.

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I Was at Sundance Without Ever Leaving My Couch

With this pandemic continuing unabated, going on nearly a year now, it is harder and harder to find any bright side. But alas, in the last week I was able to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. No need to fly to Utah. No need to pay festival rates at the closest hotel I could find nor to compete for a shrinking number of dinner reservations.

I don’t much care about the parties, the awards, the networking, the celebrities, so from that perspective a virtual festival is fine with me. Surely I miss the big screen and the big sound. But at least I don’t have to wear a mask sitting on my couch.

The first movie that I watched virtually because of the pandemic that made live viewing impossible, The Pink Cloud, was a movie about quarantining, a lockdown. Not a benign sort of social distancing, mask wearing lockdown but a real shut the door and never open it lockdown. The culprit is a pink cloud over Brazil, a gaseous invader so noxious that you’re dead in 10 seconds of being outdoors.

Some people got stuck in the grocery store. One married couple was separated when the husband went to the bakery and never came back. Giovanni and Yago had just met. Likely they were alone in her mother’s apartment thinking of a night of sex. They never left. Because the pink cloud doesn’t get blown off by the next weather system, it’s here.

It’s very hard to review this film without spoilers, but assuming you’re going to be seeing The Pink Cloud in other festivals and eventually on a streaming site or two, I’ll keep all i’s secrets to myself. We see about ten years of Yolanda and Yago’s time together. In that time they go through everything you might expect in 60 years or so of hot and cold marriage.

Despite having a setting limited to a single apartment, the movie is beautifully and artistically filmed. The acting is brilliant and conveys a roller coaster of emotions. And while it might seem a little unnerving to watch while we’re in the midst of a pandemic, hey, it could be a lot worse.

After all this quarantine doom and gloom, I looked forward to the Spanish movie El Planeta. What it promised was fun. But I came away with nary a chuckle.

A young woman, Leo, and her mother are in the apparent last days before being kicked out of their apartment in Gijon, Spain. There’s no heat and not much food. Leo sits on the steps in the hallway in order to read because the electricity has been turned off. Now the fridge leaks, though it seemed to be used for little other than by mom to “freeze” her enemies. Sounds like a laugh a minute, right?

There is however a card and some merchants willing to run a tab so we see the pair in the mall buying clothes, at the beautician, and mom comes up with a box of pastries everyday or so. They even get to try the tasting menu at a restaurant named El Planeta.

The movie is filmed in black and white, adding to the stark appearance of the town where it seems most storefronts are papered over with a for sale sign in the window. The score is just as stark.

This is a debut feature for Amalie Ulsan. She also stars as Leo. Her mother stars as her mother. So many reasons I wanted to like this film. I just didn’t.


Kawzi and Mahmoud are The Captains of Zaatari. They are teenage soccer players. They play everyday. Their lives are focused on tournaments where they can be chosen for a traveling team. They dream of being the next Ronaldo. They are also Syrian refugees living in a camp in Jordan.

That camp is desolate and desperate. There’s no money, there’s no work and not much in the way of food. But they have dreams and the story of those dreams supersedes the rough edges of their lives.

Both are selected to be on a team called the Syrian Dream. They go to Qatar and play in an international under-18 tournament. It is their first time on grass, their first time with proper boots. They stay in a nice hotel and marvel at the availability of 24-hour Internet. Then it’s back to the camp in Jordan.

During a press conference after one of the tournament games, Mahmoud says: “refugees just need an opportunity, they don’t need your pity.” That is what this documentary is all about, but the filmmaker doesn’t beat you over the head with that message, he just lets you see it. If the boys’ story isn’t compelling enough there is also some stunning cinematography.


Dog Day Afternoon meets Y2K. I’ve watched dozens of movies during this pandemic. Prime Time might be the best. It’s New Year’s Eve 1999. There’s a game show on Polish TV. A young guy with a gun slips into the TV studio and takes the game show host and a security guard hostage.

Sebastian’s demand is air time, a slot to address the national TV audience right after the president gives a New Year’s speech. We don’t know what message he will deliver, nor do we know what brought him to this point. The only hint is the appearance of a prick of an estranged father who arrives on the scene and makes things worse.

The movie goes through every emotion: sympathy, hysteria, anger among them. There’s the hard core police, the soft-touch hostage negotiators and the arrogant TV executive. The outside cast of characters becomes polarized between the sympathizers and the would be attackers.

I hate to try to characterize a movie like this, but maybe psychological thriller is the best description. I barely even blinked while watching this one.


Life in a Day 2020 is just that. This ‘crowdsourced documentary’ was culled from videos sent in from 192 countries. Thousands of hours of mostly cellphone video clips became a 90-minute snapshot of what people were doing all around the world.

The day is July 25, 2020. For many it is a day like any other. A mom wakes up her sleepy kids, a girl milks her goat, babies learn to crawl, children learn to read, lovers meet and cuddle and kiss. For others it is a special day. They give birth and get married and bury loved ones.

There are signs that it’s 2020. A woman whose teenage son was part of the first Life in a Day movie ten years ago shows the urn that contains his ashes. He died from COVID. A young black woman tries to suppress her rage while telling us of her two brothers who were murdered in police custody.

But the overall impact is a celebration of humanity. It is as if the director Kevin McDonald has taken all the social media networks and boiled down their data feed to just the highlights: no marketers, no trolls, no conspiracy mongers or disinformation artists. Watch this movie and you can’t help thinking of cliches like ‘we’re all one human race.”


The first thing you notice about the movie Jockey is how absolutely beautifully and artistically it is filmed. Most scenes are dark with subtle back lighting and maybe a beam of light on the side of a central character’s face. Sort of like a classic Renaissance painting. Outdoor scenes are back lit by beautiful sunsets. Did they shoot this whole movie at sunset! It is in Arizona so maybe it’s too hot to shoot when the sun is high in the sky.

The second thing you notice about the movie Jockey is that you don’t want to be a jockey. These guys are beat up. Every locker room conversation is about broken bones, busted heads and damaged spines. And they don’t seem to be the ones making the money at the track.

As for the story. Jackson is a veteran and very successful jockey. He’s near the end of his career and he has more than one doctor tell him it’s over. He works for a trainer who he may or may not also have some romantic involvement with. And a young aspiring jockey pops on the scene who may or may not be his son from an earlier relationship.

For much of the movie the atmosphere takes precedence over the story. It is filmed at working race track. While the lead roles are played by professional actors and actresses  who are quite brilliant, many of the background roles are filled by actual jockeys and other racetrack personnel. In the end, it is the drama that demands your attention as the aforementioned threesome sorts itself out in one big race.

(The U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award went to Clifton Collins Jr. who played Jackson.)

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Wawayanda: A Century Before the State Park

Wawayanda Ironworks furnace
Wawayanda Ironworks furnace

More than a century before this area of Vernon, N.J., became part of Wawayanda State Park, a small village existed here built around the ironworks. William Ames built the furnace which is the lone standing structure remaining from the Wawayanda Ironworks. It was built in 1846 and was in operation until 1867. 

Iron ore, mined in the surrounding area was fed into the furnace and was formed into bars which were called iron pigs. The pigs were used to create various products. A nearby pond was dammed to produce the water power to run the operation. In 1860, 75 men were employed here and more than 1,000 tons of pig iron were produced at the site. 

At its height, Wawayanda Village included workers housing, a blacksmith and carpenters shop and a company office and store. There was also a sawmill and a grist mill. The foundations for some of the village buildings still exist. 

Wawayanda village footprint
You can still see pieces of some of the foundations of the buildings in Wawayanda village.
Wawayanda stamping mill site
There was a stamping mill in this area where iron ore was broken into small pieces to feed the furnace. This channel likely brought water from the dammed pond to the mill.
Wawayanda furnace

The area became part of Wawayanda State Park which was created in 1963. It covers 34,000+ acres in Vernon and West Milford, N.J. The park has extensive hiking trails, including the popular “Stairway to Heaven” that goes up 1,300-foot Wawayanda Mountain and overlooks Wawayanda Lake where there is a beach and boating dock. A 20 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail goes through Wawayanda State Park.

Wawayanda State Park stream
Wawayanda State Park
Wawayanda State Park stream
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A Wordless Wednesday gallery of public-domain images

Carving wooden shoes (Image by Raoul Ortega)
(Image by Lubos Houska)
glass blower
(Image by Quino Al)
(Image by Eddy Klaus)
(Image by Kevin Slater)
cappuccino maker
(Image by Daryan Shamkhali)
making a drink
(Image by Jeremy Christ Jordan)
Israeli factory
(Image by Remy Gieling)
(Image by Piotr Siedlecki)

(Images from, and

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