Sunday, November 8, 2015

PA Horseshoe Trail, French Creek State Park

I want to hike all of the parks that the Horseshoe Trail passes through so I started this weekend with French Creek State Park about thirty miles north of Philadelphia. I did a big loop up and around Williams Hill where a State Lands Firefighting Unit is based, then down to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. I ran out of hiking time and drove the remaining four miles  St. Peter's Company Town (listed on the National Register of Historic Places). The day's total mileage was 8.5 miles, give or take a few tumbles.

The start of my French Creek State Park loop.

All the leaves that were on the trees last week are now on the ground. This made for some very tricky footing heading up and down Williams Hill. The trail follows old charcoal wagon roads and is deeply gullied in many places. That's bad enough as it is, but add a foot of fresh oak leaves to cover all the rocks and cobbles and you've got a heck of an ankle twisting hike. I stumbled and fell several times and would have done so a hundred times more if I hadn't been hiking with my poles. I met two groups on the hill trails and everyone was complaining about twisted ankles and pulled tendons.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

The sound of fresh leaves kicking up under foot was so loud that I had to stop several times just to listen to the quiet. I encountered several energetic mixed winter flocks, with the titmouse pair always in charge. A very active Ruby-Crowned Kinglet could have cared less about me being just a few feet from where he was foraging. My one good bird picture of the day!

Orienteering post.

Coming down off of Williams Hill, I heard a man yell. Like really loud. I couldn't tell where he was as the sound of leaves rustling under my boots made it hard to catch every bad word he was saying - loudly. I came upon the intersection of the Horseshoe and Boone Trails and found him there in the gully that is the trail with his running shoe off. With no ankle protection he rolled off a hidden rock and twisted his foot under him as he fell. OUCH! His wife was tending to a wrap of duct tape over a bandana to try to stiffen the joint for the walk down. He refused any more help (he was very embarrassed and taking out on her) so I continued on my way down. Within minutes I had pinched a tendon in my ankle, thankful I had my high topped backpacking boots on! It could have been a fall with more serious consequences.

Hopewell Lake.

Now on the Boone Trail I wandered into a group camping area with old CCC-era sleeping cabins and a beautiful camp hall and kitchen much like the one my mother managed when we were growing up on a summer camp property. My dad was the caretaker there and for nine months we had 600 acres of hills, cabins, the hall, great kitchen and creek to ourselves. We had wonderful family gatherings there in the off season including Thanksgiving dinners for a hundred people! When I came upon the hall at French Creek I was flooded with happy memories and stood there looking at it for a very long time.

A wonderful flood of memories when I came upon this camp hall and kitchen!

I reached a smooth gravel road and walking became easier on that sore right ankle. I met the couple from up top as he limped off the trail further down the road. He looked to be in quite a bit of pain. I offered to hike back to the parking lot with them and give him some Ibuprofen I keep in my car (hikers candy!) so we walked slowly along. He wasn't complaining as much, but clearly not having his best day. We arrived at the parking lot on the lake and I fetched the pills (and took two myself!). I said goodbye, then continued on to follow the lakeshore trail towards Hopewell Furnace. Like many of my hikes in Pennsylvania, I have to remember that these were industrial landscapes. Even without the historic buildings and wayside interpretive signs, the clues of this area's iron mining past are all around me.
CCC-built 1935 spillway to Hopewell Lake. Very birdy!

Out on the lake were buffleheads and mallards. Canada Geese came in to land by the hundreds! I crossed the spillway and found the cattail meadow below the dam to be very birdy with White-Throated Sparrows, Robins, Mockingbirds, Winter Wrens, more Kinglets, Juncos, Titmice, and a Fox Sparrow!  The path became another wagon road, but this one is kept well by the park and is wide and flat. The yellow blazes turned into yellow horseshoes as I entered Hopewell Furnace National Historic Village.

What would have been a busy crossroad is now a National Heritage Trail.

The path leads past many relics: an old anthracite furnace ruins, a collier's hut, the foundation of a charcoal house. Of course I had to explore e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I dawdled and wandered and poked my head in here and there. Great stuff this history business!  And great geology too! This hilly region is part of the complex of hills that connects to an earlier hike at Middle Creek WMA a few weeks ago. The iron ore region of South Central and Southeastern PA extends in an arc across the state and defines the south edge of a huge rift basin known as the Gettysburg and Newark Basins. The underlying rock types and geology have everything to do with the ecosystems of these hills.

Anthracite furnace ruins.
Anthracite ruins and the big blob of iron left in the middle of the furnace crucible.

There are mines, quarry pits, charcoal pits (or circles), tailings piles, borrow pits, cut stone waste, and old roads everywhere, but this is iron country through and through. Known as the Schuylkill Hills, this region was logged for its hardwoods, chestnut, red and white oaks, to make charcoal to fuel the iron forges and furnaces. Just inside the Hopewell Furnace NHS is a set of waysides that explain the charcoal making process (the old pictures shown here were taken from those panels). A collier's hut stands nearby.

Cordwood stacked to make charcoal.

Making charcoal involved teams of men - loggers, sawyers, drovers, and the collier and his assistant. This guy had to be one tough cookie! The cordwood was stacked precisely around a chimney, layer upon layer stacked leaning into the center, until the mound was twenty feet across. The collier would set the mound afire and allow it to burn hot for a short while before covering it with dirt and wet leaves. It was left to smolder, 'charring' the wood inside.

Colliers hut.

As the stacked wood slowly collapsed the collier would rake off some of the covering, very carefully. If the mound began to show yellow smoke up through the chimney it meant the wood was too hot, so it was covered again. This required the collier and his assistant to climb all over the mound risking a cave-in at any time to cover and uncover the mound, always watching for the proper blue smoke to indicate that charcoal was forming inside.

The last collier at Hopewell.

The collier and his assistant minded the pit day and night to keep it at proper temperature. A simple earthen hut was built at each set of mounds so that the men had a place to rest and eat their meals. No sleep for anyone until the mound was reduced to charwood, though. It was messy, smoky, and very hot work. The cool of the hut must have felt like heaven. When all was done the charcoal was raked open and cooled then shoveled cold into the charcoal wagons for the trip to the furnace. Acres and acres of oak were consumed every day the furnace was in blast - week upon week of roaring blast. It was loud and dangerous business. 

Water wheel pumping the bellows that fire the furnace.

The trail winds right through the iron furnace village, past workers homes, the iron master's home, the company store, and draft animal barn. Horses were the most important part of such a large operation. The hauled everything - wagons of slag away from the furnace, pig iron and castings to the forges and shops, ore, limestone, and charcoal to the furnace.Today there are two token heavy horses on the grounds as well as two big oxen, also very important to hauling and logging. 

This is one very heavy (and kissable) draft horse!
Charcoal wagons ran along the charcoal roads throughout the region.

 The Hopewell Furnace is one of the finest preserved examples of 19th century iron industry. It's covered walkway leads from the charcoal barn where the wagons would line up. Ore, limestone, and charcoal were dumped into the stack from above. Below the blast master maintained constant watch on the process. Explosions were not common but when they did occur, men died and buildings were destroyed. The eerie glow of blast at night filled the valley.

Hopewell Furnace House.

The hearth at the base of the crucible.

The sound of the large waterwheel cranking on its giant oaken axle and the whoooshing of the large bellows was a constant backdrop to the roar of the furnace. Men shouting, horses whinnying, the creak and crunch of wagons wheels on slag roads - it must have been deafening to work in close proximity to the furnace. Closest of all was the iron master himself, who lived in a fine mansion a few hundred yards from the furnace. When an emergency occurred he was right there to tend to it.

Iron Master's House and draft animal barn behind.

The day I hiked through, Hopewell Furnace was brimming with young Mennonite men and women. Unlike the 'English' visitors who seemed preoccupied with their smart phones and taking gads of pictures, the Mennonite men in particular studied every aspect of the village. The young women visited the workers homes and spend happy time with the heavy horses.

Mennonite boys inspect the sand casting area.

I thought about all the different kinds of people who must have worked here. The furnace operated from 1771 to 1883 and employed many free black men and women as well as slaves early on. Though the original Iron Master, Mark Bird, owned around 20 enslaved people, after 1780 slavery on the whole in Pennsylvania declined rapidly when the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered an emancipation that year. Quakers in the area assisted run-away slaves from the south through the area during the 1800s until the mid-1860s. Many took to living in the rocky hills near here where men found work in the forest as sawyers and colliers. There are several small African American communities nearby at Joanna and Six Penny Creek, remnants from freedman's communities of the late 1800s, and carefully tended cemeteries bear the headstones of the African American men and their families who worked in area quarries, mines, and at the furnace itself.

Tallus slope on the edge of French Creek State Park and Hopewell NHS.

Large oxen graze in the meadow. Beyond them is a railway.
The most notable item manufactured here at the village was the Hopewell Furnace woodstove. Every home and office, store and shop in the area had at least one. Many were sold in Reading and Philadelphia. I stopped in at the workers homes and the park Visitor Center to look closely at the fine castings that when assembled panel by panel became beautiful stoves.  The furnace buildings contain castings tables, frames, and mold boards. On special weekends the craft of sand casting is demonstrated.

Heating by wood in a workers home.

Cast panels for assembly into a variety of stoves.

A museum piece - Hopewell Stove at the Visitor's Center.

While at the Visitor's Center I did my time check and decided it was time to reverse course and head back around the lake to return to my car. The sun was getting low and I was a little worried about a tire that had gone flat on the day before. I'd had it plugged, but still - I didn't want to find out the hard way on a dark, narrow Pennsylvania road that might need to be replaced after all.

Under the surface of the leaves - a million rocks!

I stumbled and tripped back along a charcoal road, my ankle reminding me that I'd need to take another Ibuprofen before bed. I decided I had just enough late afternoon sun to make the few miles drive to St. Peter's Company Town. This is where all the local mines, furnaces, and forges sent their products to be shipped to the cities north, east, west, and south along the Wilmington and Northern or Delaware and Lancaster railroads that converged here. An industrial village since 1845, it ceased to be a mining and industry center in the late 1970s. Thankfully the forge and quarry owners had the foresight to preserve the town under historic ordinance and petitioned to have it added to the Register of Historic Places.

St. Peter's Company Town.

Up the hill behind the town is the great stone quarry pit, now safely fenced off, with one of its many derricks visible just at the top in the woods. As is true where I live in the slate region of southern Pennsylvania, the open quarry pits have been too attractive to local youth over the years. The cold waters of a deep quarry lake can be too hard to resist on a hot, humid summer day and some young folks have died diving here. Even though this pit is now fenced off with a nine-foot chain link barrier, there are dozens of smaller and remote lake pits scattered all over the region and its a talk that many parents have with their teenagers, to be safe and sober when exploring around them. I'll admit to having swum in the slate quarries of Delta in my high school years, but after losing a friend to a diving accident at one when I was twenty, I keep away.

The Big Pit at St. Peter's Company Town.

Iron forge and assembly plant at St. Peter's Company Town.

The sun was getting low (and I prayed my plugged tire was not) so I finished my exploring and headed back to the large parking area north of the town. I looked down into the French Creek Ravine where hikers explored the large diabase boulder field that almost blocks the river. An erosive landscape of ravine and down-cutting streams, the creek slowly ate away the surrounding soft rock that held the instrusive igneous dikes of magmatic trap rock during Triassic times, popping large boulders out of the ravine walls over millions of years and smoothing them over time with the weathering action of water and ice.

Diabase boulders, French Creek Ravine.

Now the creek bed is a maze of tumbled, jumbled boulders. Though fossils are hard to find in this area, there are some outcrops of plant and animal fossil-bearing rock within the park. 200 million year old dinosaur tracks have been found within the Gettysburg and Newark Basins not far from here. But looking down in to the ravine from the porches and ledge gardens of the quaint homes and beautiful inn and bakery here, I can imagine the fantastic animals that once roamed these hills.

Beautiful ledge garden over the ravine.

The geological and mining report for Hopewell Furnace and French Creek State Park can be found here. Very interesting reading!

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site webpage:

French Creek State Park. Print your trail maps from this website! There are no maps available in the park. There are over 30 miles of hiking trails available here and that link to other trails, including the Horseshoe Trail. You could spend a week in this park!

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