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

No comments:

Post a Comment