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.

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