Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Winter Mockingbird

Every species on earth survives where it can. Sometimes, to ensure survival in that place, a living thing may defend its territory with tooth, claw, or song. To ensure the future of its kind, a mother may defend her young or a father defend his mate. These actions are primal and understood with or without any kind of scientific reasoning. Where my scientific mind hits the wall, however, is how to understand the violence that humans inflict upon each other in the name of ideology and greed. We build fortresses around our beliefs and values, bombs and explosives to destroy the lands and homes of others, and pound our chests with indignant righteousness while destroying our own kind. Meanwhile my winter mockingbird sings from the holly tree  belting out his summer songs no longer useful for protecting territory but just for the fun of it, I think.

I had breakfast with dear friends over the weekend, the kind of late morning affair that lasts long into the afternoon. They are citizens of the world. We talked about the fortresses of the heart. Their daughter lives in Paris, just down the street from the concert venue in which so many lost their lives and loves. They told me the story their daughter relayed to them, shaking voice over the phone, long silent moments to catch breath and stifle long sobs aching to come. "He laid in pools of blood for three hours until someone could come get them, both the living and the dead. He leaked blood for three hours." Mockingbird chats it up outside the kitchen window. Look at this day! Here is my song! I picked this little ditty up while staying Maine, can you tell? I spent time learning the calls of murres and brought them here to you for the winter. The mockingbird declared ah-gla-ergggg-ow-ow while I listened to stories of the utmost pain and unimaginable loss. 

There are these fortresses along the Atlantic Coast, these big imposing cement hulks that once held huge coastal guns, towers that stand in the dunes where men would watch for the conning towers of enemy submarines, bunkers built deep into the ground that held shells, powder, radio equipment, men. I used to sneak into the bunkers and towers when I was young, flashlight in hand. Nowadays you can pay for a tour. Someday, I hope, the rising seas will sweep them away, tours and all. "What do you think will happen next?" I ask. My old friend grew up in London during the war, bombs and all. Never did make it to the country with the other kids. He saw a lot. "Oh, I suppose we'll visit Turkey again this year - it is the most beautiful country. The people are the most beautiful people. You should see the mosques!" The mockingbird keeps singing songs of the coast of Maine and throws in a red-shouldered hawk - maybe to warn of something he sees overhead?

"Listen to that bird!" my friends say. The conversation ends. No more talk of Paris bombings or trips to places too beautiful to imagine. It's us and the mockingbird. He cries "Hawk!" and feeder birds dive for cover in the mountain laurel. He flies to the corner of the house, just beyond our line of sight and says nothing. A long while passes. We waited. The juncos waited. Then as if defending the house and yard and forest and the breakfast plates he starts with a most heart-warming song of summers on the coast of Maine and winters in the Maryland hills and assures us he's there to protect and defend it all from hawks. 

Winter Mockingbird.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

PA Horseshoe Trail: Misery and Joy at Valley Forge

After two Sunday HST middle section hikes I have come to the trail's beginning in Valley Forge National Historical Park. This famous landscape (1777-78) contains a long history of geography, geology, paleontology, and agricultural use and even includes caves that once held the bones of  giant sloths, mastodons, short-faced bears, and saber toothed tigers - and as a few visitors remarked today (somewhat surprised) that Valley Forge was a real forge, one of two. The area was the center of a bustling industrial iron-making village similar to some of the forge and foundry sites I've already visited along the HST.  But to see the area now, it quickly becomes clear that nothing is as it once was - on purpose.

The plaque reads 121 miles, but the trail today is thirty miles longer.

Though I set out to hike the HST from its start at Washington's Headquarters at the site of the former iron town for several miles west towards the Great Valley, I was held up behind a long line of equestrians gathered for a huge trail ride. It was clear I'd have to settle for a short scamper up Mt. Misery on the HST then divert to another trail to avoid the horses. Oh well. I normally don't hike on Saturdays but today I did because I had an important commitment on Sunday. The west end of the park at Valley Creek is framed by the two quartzite hills Mt. Misery and Mt. Joy. No one knows for sure when or why they earned their complimentary names,  but the creek provided plenty of water on a decent downhill gradient to run a small factory town for over a hundred and fifty years. 

The village of Valley Forge at the mouth of Valley Creek and Schuylkill River, 1890.  Credit: Library of Congress.

The equestrian event was starting out so I decided to wait my turn and explored the park valley near George Washington's HQ. The stone building stands prettily in an open grove of oak and white pine almost alone save for a restored stable, a reproduction train station, and a few stately old homes selected to represent what had been a busy valley crossroads. Looking out over an expanse of scrub that had once been the large impoundment pond that powered the mills and forges, a wooded field thick with maples, sycamore, and old back cherry trees now filled the broad bottom.

Present day view where the bustling iron-making town Valley Forge once stood.

The village had been burned by British troops as the Continental Army retreated across the Schuylkill River in 1778, but it had been rebuilt in later years to hold textile mills, a crusher mill for stone quarried nearby, and a coal train wayside for the dozens of trains each week that brought anthracite downriver to Philadelphia in the 1800s. Stables, workers homes, factories, a church, inn, and taverns filled the Valley Creek bottom by 1860. As the Civil War came to an end, and in the spirit of reunification, state and local leaders began to notice the historical significance of the area with regards to how Pennsylvania had served as the first seat of a new nation. Plans were underway to redesign the landscape: to unmake its history of industry and agriculture and replace it with a stylized version of a national shrine.

Only a few widely scattered and restored structures remain. Washington's HQ on the right.

By the late 1890s the area in and around Valley Forge was filled with symbolic significance that overcame the local community's ability to resist calls for land clearances and relocations. The town of Valley Forge again was wiped away, this time not by a red-coated enemy but by fellow citizens with designs in mind to create a new patriotic landscape. In the early 1900s the area became a state park and tens of thousands of trees were planted to fill the open fields and slopes of the former winter encampment. Touring roads were built. Memorials erected. No trace of the area's industrial and farming past remained.

At the time of the winter encampment, Washington's HQ was part of a larger industrial village.

All structures built after the Revolution or those with no direct connection to the events of that winter were demolished and the land on which they stood scrubbed of foundations and debris. Farmers were sent packing. Thousands of acres of productive wheat and pasture land was claimed for the park that changed to federal ownership under FDR. More touring roads were built, parking lots installed, bathrooms, waysides exhibits, and picnic shelters were erected. These thoughts clung to me like beggar's tick as I climbed the HST behind the large trail ride group. Now in stick season that I can see through the weeds and woods, I noted the many dams and short sections of walls that remain, hinting at the area's disappeared past. One 20th century ruin was left standing, the Colonial Springs Bottling Plant and it was fun to explore. Stopping here gave me a break from having to hop my way around the piles of horse poop that made the trail fragrant as well as a bit of an obstacle course. 

A post-Civil War ruin to explore.

I spotted several charcoal pits or hearths - I see them everywhere along the HST - and a few borrow pits for road stone. After about a mile I came to the intersection with the Mt. Misery Trail and swung left ending my shortest stretch yet on the HST! I hiked through a forest thick in poplar, hickory and  oak, through banks of laurel thickets, and an open understory - a sure sign of lots of deer browsing down the woods.

Colonial Springs Bottling Plant (1908 - 1930s) ruins along the HST.

Some big houses were close by defining the edges of development hard against the park boundaries. So I wondered what the area would have looked like without the protection the park afforded the landscape? Sure, people lost their homes, farms, businesses, and livelihoods - but look what we all got in return - restored forest, brilliantly hued and vast meadows (the largest meadow restoration in the nation), and Valley Creek running the cleanest it's run in 300 years. In my opinion, especially this close to a major East Coast metro area, the trade off for a natural landscape was worth it, but I was longing for a clearer sense of what was lost in the process.

Oak/hickory forest on the HST.

My questions began to find  answers when I ran into a gentleman and his wife walking Odie the Beagle. They were coming up from the creek from the development I saw earlier. They advised me to not go the way they'd come on the Mt. Misery Trail as a large section of trail was taped off with yellow caution tape. A recent series of floods had damaged the historic covered bridge upstream and eaten away at the bankside where the trail made its return to Washington's HQ. The gentleman informed me that the creek was a highly rated trout stream (!!) but that widespread residential development in the upper watershed had increased the severity and speed that flooding events occurred. The damaged bridge, made unstable by a serious vehicle collision and the eroding trail were suffering badly from flash floods.

Steep descent to Valley Creek along Mt. Misery Trail.

We walked along together on a downhill slope towards the creek avoiding the closed section. Turns out they were both members of the Valley Forge Trout Unlimited Chapter. TU in Pennsylvania is a very active if not aggressive conservation organization ( I'm a member of the Muddy Creek Chapter) so I knew they knew what they were talking about when they agreed that citizens who cared about the natural landscape that is now Valley Forge should be working together to not only restore but to build resilience within the entire Valley Creek watershed. "Valley Creek and West Valley Creek, its main tributary, are considered by many people to be the problem - as if the creeks were tough guys, bad apples," said Jean holding Odie's leash. Ralph continued her line of thought, "But it's the people who have used and abused this watershed who are to blame. The creeks don't 'unleash' their wrath upon us - it's the other way around."

Valley Creek downstream from the Upper Forge site (now gone) and upstream from disappeared town of Valley Forge.

We continued down along the trail, past the site of the Upper Forge, while Odie sniffed every stalk of grass and clump of leaves. Jean, a professor of history at Rutgers, explained that 300 years ago up until the 1910s, the waters of the creek and the surrounding hillsides (besides being denuded of trees) were suffering from a long history of pollution that made the valley nearly uninhabitable for fish, fowl, animal, or people. One thing that people in Pennsylvania are really good at, she explained, was organizing for a common cause. So behind the historic preservationists came the conservationists who were riding hard on native son Gifford Pinchot's new brand of conservation work as Governor of PA with his New Conservationism of the 1920s. "It's a legacy and level of activism that we still take pride in today," she said, "And if the Valley Forge TU Chapter is any evidence of that legacy, the action is intense and ongoing."

1920 discovery of the Valley Forge under seven feet of silt and mud.

Odie and his family swung to the left at the bottom of the valley to continue on the HST to their home on the mountain. I swung right to return to Washington's HQ to explore more of the valley and to find the next trail up Mt. Joy.  I stopped in at the replica train station to look at historic displays and met a Chinese family. The elderly man, carefully coming down the station's large set of stairs grinned at me then asked "You a walker? George a walker!" His daughter about my age, laughed and explained that they'd just visited the statue of George Washington and she'd translated the wayside sign for him that said Washington preferred his walking stick to his sword. I offered one of my poles to her father so that he could steady himself on the slow steps down. "Democracy means a lot to him," she said as she returned the pole and her dad made his way to the HQ building and a ranger program happening there. "We come here almost every month," she said, "I can't tell you how many times I've read these signs to him. He should know them by heart!"

George and his favorite walking stick.

So now I've got a few things rolling around my head as I looked out over the Schuylkill River from the train station platform. At the time of the preservationists action in the 1920s to invent a new landscape, the river was a toxic cesspool of industrial and human waste. Now trout fishermen lined its far bank and a family in three canoes paddled around the wide bend of the Pawlings Farm.  The Commonwealth's core democratic principles rest upon its regard for natural resources as reflected in Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution:

A right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people. 

The historic connections between preservationists, even if there plans were stylized, and the activities of 20th century conservationists were becoming clearer to me but I wasn't happy with the view quite yet. I began my hike up Mt. Joy and pondered it some more.

Mt. Misery (right) and Mt. Joy (right) from the Mt. Joy trail looking up Valley Creek.

Like many Pennsylvania mountain landscapes, the view from the top of Mt. Joy was typical and expected: two mountains riven by a creek, paralleled by a road  in the valley below.  The creek, wilder now than its been in centuries, bordered by the paved road became a bit of metaphor as I continued along the crest of the hill. More dogs on leashes, more joggers, mountain bikers, a lost college student following the wrong map. The trail became crowded around eleven and I had barely four miles done. So much for my expected ten. I dropped into the valley in hopes of finding the bones of a giant sloth or maybe to spot a short-faced bear emerging from some collapsed cave. But again, disappointed.

A re-imagined landscape.

Scattered around the dolostone-floored valley were replicas of the winter quarters of thousands of Colonial troops who wintered here in 1777-78. The scenes were bucolic, as the park planners of a century ago had envisioned. At the time of encampment, however, the valley would have been a sea of such cabins built by the soldiers themselves using the timber from the hills beyond. The hills at the end of the winter camp were stripped of their forests, down to the last shrubby laurel or sapling hickory. By the spring mud season the army lived in squalid conditions where mud mixed with the excrement of horses and humans alike.  Disease was a persistent concern as waves of typhoid fever, dysentery, small pox, and pneumonia swept through the camps. Today joggers and walkers plied the paved trails that linked parking lots with scenic views. Forests surround the valley once more.

Redoubt No. 4

Valley Forge remained a winter encampment for all the years of the war, though none of those years would be as challenging as 1777-78. When the conflict ended and peace was declared between Britain the United States, farmers were quick to reclaim the land. Trenches and redoubts were filled, leveled, and the land replanted in corn, wheat, flax, and hay. In a few years the valley returned to full agricultural production and no trace of the winter quarters remained.

Cooper's Hawk playing with Crows. No, really - playing!

As families grew more prosperous they added larger barns to their holdings and extra floors to their homes, some of it with reclaimed timbers of the soldier's cabins. With profitable markets in Philadelphia and an export trade in agricultural products growing by the year, area businesses and farms expanded to claim their share of a booming economy. According to Melissa, a living history interpreter stationed at the Varnum farmhouse, the whole valley "sort of forgot" what had happened here and went about their business. Though there was some early interest in the preservation of Valley Forge as a national shrine to new nationhood, it wasn't until the next war, the one that threatened to tear north from south, that an appreciation for the valley's significance developed in a big way.

Former agricultural land now the nations largest Eastern meadow restoration.

I hiked the paved paths that connected restored farmhouses and stone cottages with reconstructed redoubts and winter cabins feeling a little out of place in my backpack, hiking boots, and poles.  Women in running attire flitted past me wearing ear buds attached to their iphones. Slim men in Lycra on racing bikes zoomed by talking loudly about financial forecasts. I plodded along missing the yellow blazes quite a bit. I watched a Cooper's Hawk play with a family of Crows. The hawk barrel rolled and zipped up, down, in tight circles, teasing and taunting the gregarious black birds. It made no attempt to flee their attentions, but seemed to enjoy the game. It was a fake air battle, all fun. Not a feather was ruffled. The air show moved into the woods above the slopes of Mt. Joy. Looking over the vast valley I thought 'Is this what the planners envisioned?"

Varnum house additions still show the original outline of the house as it stood in 1777.

When early preservationists began to eye Valley Forge, they encountered two thousand acres of German and Scots-Irish farmers working the land and called it 'neglected.' (1) The wounded landscape had been fully reclaimed by 1810 but the idea that farmers (remember, George Washington was one of those!) were nothing but rough occupiers of hallowed space annoyed the keepers of what was becoming a national origin mythology. In 1817 when the elderly John Adams, second POTUS, learned that John Trumbull's huge commemorative painting "Declaration of Independence" was being moved to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the artist was given a written thrashing by the former President/Signer/Foreign Diplomat/Farmer. The work was contrived and inaccurate at best, suggested Adams who then wrote forcefully:  Do not let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license!  (2)

Melissa, living history interpreter, history student at U. Penn, and member of Friends of Valley Forge.
I asked Melissa at the Varnum house what had the planners thought to do with all of this land?  "They wanted to create a backdrop for a story that by the early 1900s had become somewhat glorified - no, really glorified.  The land was to be a park in the sense of what we think today a park should be. A place for pleasant walks and picnics but studded with cathedral-looking shrines surrounded by impressive monuments and sweeping landscapes of indescribable beauty - that's all. (giggle) Their visions had little to do with the reality of the actual encampment. But you know what? NPS has stopped mowing all this land and now its the largest natural Eastern prairie in the country complete with biologists and ornithologists, entomologists and botanists! I don't think the planners could imagine it now as a park now known for its  biodiversity!"

General James Varnum's upstairs room in the house he shared with farmers.

So there's that - some Joy.  And the Valley Forge Trout Unlimited Chapter - more Joy! Misery - a long plod back to Washington's HQ in hiking boots on paved paths where I ignored all the annoying history stuff and my aching feet and looked instead for more birds to add to the playful Cooper's Hawk and tumbling Crows. I wasn't disappointed as I tacked about twenty species on to my list for the day including a Great Horned Owl that glided across the river to the Pawlings Farm and watched my progress from a sycamore tree.

A  Great Horned Owl perched in a sycamore on the Pawlings Farm across the Schuylkill River.

As I made my way down the path to the parking area I noticed some old state regimental monuments almost swallowed up by four foot high oceans of Big Bluestem and Turkeyfoot, with no discernible path to reach them. So there they are, tens of yards away from the joggers and nature buffs with no one to read them. Seems the lofty goals of the preservationists got mixed up somehow with the aims of conservation because the NPS decided to stop mowing. Save money on fuel costs, seed the ground, attract butterflies and birds. Mythologies do that.
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:


 (1) See Miller's massive Pennsylvania: History of the Commonwealth for several mentions of the origins of Valley Forge as a national symbolic shrine. (199)

(2) Many 'Founding Fathers' history buffs will have watched the 2008 HBO mini-series  John Adams the film based on David McCullough's book of the same name. Like Valley Forge, the film has similar misrepresentations including a scene where Adams is brought to see Trumbell's painting. See Jeremy Stern's critique,

Valley Forge Mountain Community Association (to which Odie the Beagle's mom and dad belong):

Geologic History of Valley Forge

Monday, November 16, 2015

PA Horseshoe Trail: Warwick County Park and the Memory of Landscape

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places and desecrated places.  
- Wendell Berry

This week I hiked a section of the Horseshoe Trail in Warwick County Park south of St. Peter's and five miles southeast of last week's trek through French Creek State Park.  The Horseshoe Trail runs from Valley Forge near Philadelphia to the Appalachian Trail at Stony Mountain north of Fort Indiantown Gap for a total of 140 miles.

140 miles from Valley Forge to the AT - Iron Country.

With a tight weekend schedule of writing, revising, and a predicted winter/spring defense of my environmental history dissertation, I know my weekend hiking dates will be limited so I figured I'd organize my hiking dates along the HST by hiking in the parks that it passes through. By concentrating on the parks I can learn more about those particular environmental histories as compared to just passing through. I decided to start in the middle at French Creek State Park last week and work my way southeast then northwest through the fall and winter. 

Entrance on County Park Road. Warwick Woods on ridge behind.

The path of the HST is much like the Mason Dixon Trail in that it traverses well-populated as well as wilder remote areas. Some road walking, lots of woods walking, and most of it across a vast hilly foothill region that helped forge a nation. Emphasis on the word forge. Everywhere you drive in this area of Chester County there are forge and furnace ruins! Several iron masters mansions loom over the valley at several rural crossroads. It's a big part of our colonial and post-colonial history!

Thomas Lightfoot, surveyor, Warwick Iron Plantation Tract. Credit: Pennsylvania State Archives

This is a landscape that had been transformed from wilderness to full-on industrial to a kind of semi-wild. Clues abound in this landscape as to its former uses. But people think differently about landscapes depending upon their experiences of them. I happen to love the human-nature history interface, and (though some people find it odd) I am very interested in how industrial landscapes revert to nature. I hiked out from the park office at Warwick County Park along the HST to the forge marker at Coventry, then looped back along the North Loop Trail, retraced my way a little bit on the HST, then bobbed up the Charcoal and Iron Heritage Trails for the return.  It was an 8 mile hike that covered the whole park.

My turn-around point at the marker for Coventry Forge.

My early start meant  I was the only one in the park except for park ranger Lisa. She said that some visitors come here to experience the park's industrial history and carefully look for ruins of mills, bridges, quarry pits, and old roads, while others are here to enjoy the natural history. "People from urban environments may think it "untouched wilderness" or "pristine" while others may see it as managed or manipulated," she said, "I just find it fascinating that every trail follows a path previously made by someone else for some other purpose. No new trails were built here except for the paved nature trail for handicapped accessibility."  

Yellow blaze on the wagon road to the forge.

I agreed with her. The land speaks differently to everyone. The theme for me today (although an unintentional one)  was how people move through this landscape - on an old railroad bed, charcoal roads, auto roads, deer trails, farm lanes, logging paths, river trails (dating back thousands of years). How we move through a landscape often influences how we come to know it, orient to it, and learn of its past. Who decides how we move through a landscape determines the penalties for misusing it. Judging by the fleet of law enforcement vehicles parked at the office, it was pretty clear who enforces the rules!

Horseshoe Trail - Iron History Trail - Charcoal Trail intersection.

I fitting a new pack so to work on the adjustments I took the paved nature trail first. It took me down to French Creek and a nice fishing dock. These are cold trout waters. Bluebirds were everywhere and a red-tailed hawk that they noisily announced. Once I had the straps and buckles adjusted, I headed up the hill to find the HST and a well-marked system of other trails. 

Fishermen's trails follow the edge of French Creek.

The loggers here now are beavers and an attentive trail crew.

I wondered what residents and workers of the 1700s would have thought about this valley becoming a park? Busy roads transformed into walking paths. An equestrian trail? Weren't all roads for horses back then? Horses were the real muscle behind the iron industry, so the idea that a special trail just for them (and us hikers) may have been a stretch of the colonial imagination - all roads were for horses!

Pony cart drive on a lovely Sunday morning.

Pennsylvania as a governing colonial body played a big part in promoting and encouraging forays into the wilderness to establish the major extractive industries in lumbering, mining, and stone quarries.  During the Revolutionary War and in the century that followed, no other state offered as much in mineral and natural wealth as did Pennsylvania towards the building of a new nation and world power. I could only imagine the sound of hooves and wagons pounding these roads, day and night. A  cart driver and his partner told a story about a third great grandfather who was the Coventry Village doctor. "He used the pony cart all the time. It was the quickest way to maneuver these heavily traveled woods roads to get to some of the more remote farms and homes."

Draft horse and sawyers. Photo: Hopewell NHS Archives.

Just a few miles of where I hike today, one hundred Continental 'Great Guns' were produced at Hopewell Furnace. At the end of this valley where the Warwick Furnace was once located (its all ruins now) the cannon shot for those cannons was made. Considering many of these furnaces and forges were in operation decades before the Revolution, the early and long-term impact on these foothills is extensive but nearly invisible to the untrained eye.  I happened to see a photo-essay of WWI battlefields in France as they look today - shut off from public use and farming because of high levels of arsenic and unexploded munitions. I wonder how the Iron Hills landscape fares three hundred and fifty years later - whether there are toxins and chemical legacies still to contend with?

Charcoal pit - one among dozens where nothing grows.

For those not used to spotting centuries-old relics of the industrial landscape, Warwick County Park has erected a wonderful set of wayside interpretive signs to tell the story and mark locations. I found it interesting that nothing grows in the old charcoal hearths called 'pits.'  I passed dozens of unmarked pits on the way to Coventry Forge, circles of flat land thirty feet or so in diameter. I dug a little with my hiking poles and quickly found charred ground and bits of charcoal. A good hearth pit was used for generations.

Collier and assistants, from a Iron Heritage Trail wayside.

The wayside signs made envisioning the valley at its height of industry easy. One only had to look at a picture or sketch, turn all the way around and study the landscape, and land forms pictured on the signs aligned with the photos and renderings. I continued down the HST with my minds-eye full of a full of colliers and sawyers and surveyors. A yellow-shafted flicker, brown creeper, and downy woodpecker had me pulling up my binoculars and suddenly I was back in a 21st century forest!

Collier (on top) and assistants. Photo: Hopewell NHS Archives.

Stacking cordwood for a burn. Photo: Hopewell NHS Archives.

At my snack break at the Coventry Forge marker, I studied a larger map of the region. Besides the physical alterations of the land (charcoal pits, quarries, ore banks, furnaces) what invisible but environmentally persistent features might there be? Abandoned mines leach toxins into hydrological systems altered long ago for mill races, canals, wells, and mill ponds. I got a little chill thinking about these recovering forests that are never as sedately 'natural' as a heritage park would have you believe. This is where those informative wayside interpretive signs are very misleading. And, the defunct 20th century  iron industry landscape is dynamic, still in transition. The Warwick Furnace in 1900 was a much different operation than it was during the Revolution, with all its attendant toxic legacies.

Horseshoe Trail on a mill race path - race is to the left.

Backtracking from the forge site I realized that the HST was following an old mill race path. The hand-dug race was snug up against the path and in places where the race must have burst through the embankment, the trail was a slog. Lots of rock hopping and a failed attempt to cross the creek sent me back the way I came.

North Loop Trail follows the Sowbelly Line RR bed for about a mile.

I circled back and found the blue-blazed North Loop Trail. The first mile is on the old bed of the Sowbelly Railroad, a small line that connected iron villages like St. Peters Knauertown, Coventry, and Kimberton. The little short line was all that there was of a largely unsuccessful Delaware River and Lancaster RR that never seemed to raise enough money to complete tracks to NYC. So local entrepreneurs like Davis Knauer bought one of the finished sections and put it into rural service in 1890 but it quickly succumbed to the national agricultural depression of 1893 and closed. Each section of the trail system in the park has its own story and place in history. 

French Creek overlook from the North Loop Trail

The park has reclaimed many of the old pastures along the North Loop, planted them in native Eastern prairie grass and wildflowers. Big bluestem grass was punctuated by thick stands of milkweed, critical for the monarch butterfly. I heard a report just the other day that the precipitous decline in monarch numbers appears to be reversing as hundreds of thousands more butterflies are being observed in their wintering grounds in Central America. The radio report claimed that planting milkweed has made a huge contribution in this recovery.

Old stone house ruin.
Locust tree in full thorn armor!

Another two miles on the North Loop and I road-walked back to the HST intersection and backtracked a little bit before jumping on to the white-blazed Charcoal Trail. Those interpretive signs are really beautiful!

Great interpretive signs along the Iron Heritage Trail

The trail climbed a steep pitch to even out just below the ridge on a charcoal road carved into the slope. Someone was burning leaves up on the Warwick Furnace Road and it gave the air a blue tint that I can imagine was fifty times as thick during the charcoal burns. Now high above the valley at about 500' I could see through the forest to the French Creek bottom below. An eagle flew above the red and chestnut oaks flashing his bright white tail in the low-angle sunlight.

A charcoal road that connects a dozen pits.

In decline since the 1860s, new technologies replaced the old charcoal-fired furnaces and cheaper product could be made at the larger anthracite forges in Steelton and Reading. Some local furnaces like the the Warwick Furnaces transitioned to newer technologies, too, but as the huge ore mines opened in the Upper Great Lake states to feed the giant plants in large port cities, inland furnaces suffered. So when I looked across the valley from the Warwick Woods I wondered where the memories go when an industry hundreds of years old retires? There are lots of historical societies, archives, and museums around to tell the factual chronological history, but what about the memory of landscape? 

Polypore on oak stump.

In 1810 alone these Iron Hills produced 27,000 tons of iron and consumed 4,100 acres of forest. The age of the iron plantations was at its pinnacle.  Anna Nutt, a strong and very smart Quaker business woman, built the Warwick Furnace in 1737. By the pinnacle years of the early 1800s this valley was thrumming. These were her woods and largely to her credit were some of the most carefully managed forest lands in the region.

B. Henry Latrose on his travels through Pennsylvania painted this watercolor of Warwick Furnace in 1803. Warwick Woods is seen on the ridge behind (Warwick County Park).

Surveyors carefully cordoned off sections to be timbered each year with no cutting bordering on another. The woods were harvested in a checkerboard pattern so that logged over acres could recover over many 'rest' years with seed stock coming from mature plots  nearby. Following the Revolution, her furnace produced the Franklin home heating stove and during the Civil War the iron plates used in the battleship Monitor were cast here. But unlike many once wooded regions that fed the industry to exhaustion, the Warwick Woods actually retained its woods!

A closed charcoal road.

The downriver Conventry Forge, in operation since 1717, and the Warwick Furnace upstream would sometimes cast the entire valley in a red-orange glow at night.The eerie blue smokes of the charcoal hearths combined with the fiery skies of the blasts at Hopewell and Warwick must have been spectral. By the end of the century the Warwick Furnace was in full industrial production and all of the smaller furnaces and forges out of business unable to compete against this iron-making giant that used modern technology, fuels, and machinery.

Warwick Furnace, circa 1900, Chester Co. PA.  Credit: Pennsylvania State Archives

Now, under clear blue skies I finished my hike in the midst of a strong, vibrant forest. But I couldn't just walk out without looking back.  I realized that the memory of the landscape is  held in the lay of land, the robustness of these woods, and in the dip-and-glide flight of the woodpeckers that seemed everywhere all at once. Though the sun was setting fast, I stood for some time and just enjoyed the view.  Looking down into the valley below I wrote in my hiking journal:

The quality of light is intense, piercing.
We're now in 'stick season' and I can see through these thick woods
to the creek below.
Everything is reflected back to me.

Road from Coventry Village to Knauertown through the Warwick Woods.


Horseshoe Trail website:

Fellow doctoral candidate in environmental history, John Baeten, has started his own blog of industrial landscapes and their environmental histories.  These are the Great Lakes ore landscapes that put the smaller Pennsylvania industries out of business.