Sometimes, the roundabout way we learn things is amazing.
It was quite by accident that I discovered Pennsylvania is home to an impressive collection of antiquities once owned by Christopher Columbus—yes, that Christopher Columbus—the one who sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two.
Last year, I embarked upon a trip to the Hemingway House in Key West, Fla. When I sat down to write an article about the place where the famous author derived his inspiration, I realized that I needed just a few more details. So, I picked up the phone to reach out to the contact listed on the website.
The lady who answered soon discovered that I lived in Pennsylvania. She then shared that she hailed from the Boalsburg area and asked me if I was aware of the astounding collection of Christopher Columbus artifacts tucked away in her small corner of the world. I was not.
Boalsburg is home to fewer than 4,000 residents, but has the distinction of being known as the birthplace of Memorial Day—a fact I also learned from my Hemingway House contact. It’s amazing how little I knew about the historical importance of Boalsburg, let alone the fact that a king’s ransom of priceless artifacts lies just beyond the tree line off Business Route 322.
Within two hours after leaving Harrisburg, I was making my way up a long, gravel driveway to the 200-year old Boal Estate and poking around the rustic grounds, which are home to the Columbus Chapel and the Boal Mansion.
A docent greeted me and led me through the mansion, offering up a great deal of information about the Boal family, beginning with David Boal, a Scottish-Irish pioneer. Boal, in his quest for inexpensive land and freedom, founded the village and established a popular tavern nearby. The mansion began as a simple log home and evolved over time into the grand structure it is today.
David’s son, George, became a farmer and advocated for those who worked the land after securing a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and founding the Centre County Agricultural Society. Visitors who tour the mansion will view original furnishings belonging to the Boal family, along with portraits, tools, weapons, place settings and other artifacts.
The Boal family was well connected, and it shows. Among the varied collection are five different original presidential signatures, a lock of Napoleon’s hair and items signed by the astronauts from Apollo 11. Additional artifacts on display contain items from King Tut’s great-grandparents’ tomb, courtesy of George Jack Boal, who married a woman whose brother-in-law was the Egyptologist who made the discovery.
The elegant Boal Mansion ballroom was added in 1898 by Theodore Davis Boal and features a piano once owned by Dolly Madison.
Located just a short walk from the mansion, the Columbus Chapel is said to contain “the most significant collection of Christopher Columbus artifacts in North America.”
For this, you can thank Mathilde de Lagarde, the wife of fourth-generation son, Theodore Boal. De Lagarde inherited the collection from her aunt, Victoria Columbus, who died childless and willed the chapel to her niece. Boal initially wanted to transport the chapel itself to Boalsburg, but the Spanish government said no. So, he decided to build an exact replica on the Boalsburg mansion grounds and moved all of the chapel’s contents to the property.
The anticipation of what lies beyond hung heavily in the air as the docent fiddled with the lock on the metal security cage. Finally, it was time to reveal the original entrance to the chapel. An ornately carved, centuries-old heavy wood door opened the way to the collection within.
There’s a sense of reverence inside the cozy structure that touts an array of ancient artifacts, like a well-used admiral’s desk that Columbus pressed into service on his four journeys to the New World, 15th-century paintings and various statues ranging in date from the 14th to 17th centuries. The Columbus family tree and coat-of-arms are displayed above on the choir loft.
The docent opened drawers of an oversized bureau to reveal silk religious vestments crafted with gold embroidery that date back more than 500 years. A yellow robe, embellished with a skull-and-crossbones, caught my eye. I was told they were funeral vestments.
A silver reliquary was stored inside a leather case and is said to contain two pieces of the “true cross” of Jesus Christ brought back from the Crusades. On the wall hangs a manuscript attesting to its authenticity as certified by a Spanish bishop.
Hidden behind large confessional doors are 165,000 pages of Columbus family papers and archives dating back to 1451. One wonders if they shouldn’t be hermetically sealed in some manner, but I was assured they’ve been cataloged for posterity by Penn State.
Making the call to Key West that day opened up doors to a priceless collection of American history. I guess you never can tell where one call will lead.
The Boal Mansion Museum and Columbus Chapel are located at 163 Boal Estate Dr., Boalsburg. Tours are conducted daily through Oct. 30. For more information, visit www.boalmuseum.com.