Monday, August 28, 2017

PA Horseshoe Trail Williams Hill Loop - French Creek State Park

I traveled back to the Iron Hills Region to hike a short six-mile loop around Williams Hill and add another section of Horseshoe Trail to my 'done' list. I started my loop at the Scotts Run Pond kayak launch where there is a small parking area. No matter when I come to French Creek State Park, it seems not many people come to this small pond. It can be crowded in the main park yet only a few cars parked here with a sprinkling of users. But don't tell anybody. I was greeted at the pond's edge by a Great Spangled Fritillary on a stand of Joe Pye - a great start!

Great Spangled Fritillary with a 'bird bite' on the left hind wing.

I followed an unmarked trail from the spillway, down Scotts Run to the main road through the park, turned right on the road, crossed the stream bridge, and found the yellow blazes just a few hundred yards ahead. There is a smart new "Trail Crossing" sign so you can't miss it. The Horseshoe Trail climbs up, mostly on an old wagon road around the shoulders of Williams Hill and never quite makes it to the top unless you elect to take a side trail to the summit. There are no views, however. The hill (a remnant of a mountain, actually) is completely forested.

Old wagon road.

Like much of the Iron Hills Region through which the Horseshoe Trail travels, this was once an industrial landscape. It was first logged for its oak and pine in the mid-1700s, then cut over for the charcoal wood needed for the many iron furnaces during the Revolutionary Period. Some historians claim that the iron that came from this region was instrumental in arming the Colonial forces to win our independence from England.

Maple Leaf Viburnum

Even though the furnaces have been silent for over a century there is still much to see of the furnace and forge industry. Remains of iron plantations can be found across the landscape. To the east is Hopewell Furnace, a National Park Historic Site, with its impressive furnace and remains of its company town. To the west is the Joanna Furnace Village, an impressively conserved plantation town. Both offer seasonal festivals that offer reenactments of  the life of the iron plantations once so vital to the economies of Berks and Chester Counties. But there's plenty to see, too, for the observant hiker on this heavily forested hill if you know what to look for.

Massive White Oak along Scotts Run.

With the forest recovered, it is now hard to imagine how busy this place was for nearly a century. Ore and lumber wagons crossed the mountain from Hopewell to Joanna. They carried limestone, iron ore, and most importantly, charcoal -  a constant stream of raw materials to prepare the furnaces to blast. Joanna Furnace was especially busy when it entered full blast operation that happened at least once a year. Several times Joanna Furnace was in blast operation for two to three years at a time - the sound of blast was heard all through the valley.

Even when a single track trail, the Horseshoe Trail follows an old wagon road.

The observant hiker will see charcoal black in several sections of the trail as the path cuts through old charcoal pits. Colliers cut, stacked, charred the cordwood  and lived on site in rough cabins near these cleared circular "pits" - really, just flat spots in the hillside about 25' in diameter. The smoldering charcoal mounds could not be allowed to get too hot nor go out. A blanker of oak leafs was raked on and off by the collier to allow air to flow down a stacked log chimney. It was dangerous, dirty work. When the heaps of cordwood had charred properly, the collier raked the charcoal out in the circular clearings to cool. The wagons arrived with fresh cordwood to unload and filled up on the fresh charcoal to be delivered to either Hopewell or Joanna.

Ramariopis laeticolor - common through the hike.

Now the forest is maturing again. White oak, tulip poplar, hickory, maple, and beech blanket the hillsides. It's hard to imagine this area as an industrial complex. The entire forest is declared an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Audubon. Most of the park's nearly 8000 acres is under forest canopy, making it the largest area of conserved forest between New York and Washington D.C.

Purple Cort, Cortinarius violaceus.
Black Earth Tongue - Trichoglossum sp.
Hen-of-the-Woods, Grifola frondosa

Squealing Fungus - named for the kids who found this.

There's been a lot of rain in this area in the last few weeks so fungi were everywhere. My favorite specimen was found with an explosion of squeals that erupted on the trail just ahead of me as a family of young children with their mom happened upon an enormous growth at the base of a dead tree. Each child had his or her picture taken with it. I offered to take a group shot with everyone and the fungus. They squealed and laughed! We officially named it "The Squeaking Fungus." Worth the unexpected rest stop to watch the entire family celebrate their find.

Virginia Knotweed

Coming around the western shoulder of the hill the dry woods gave way to a cooler section of wet swales and spring beds. Walking further along the trail became sandy and dry, and I noticed that the forest composition had changed as well. As I slowed to take notice of the change in light I realized I had entered a chestnut forest - a stump-sprouted shrub layer of chestnut saplings fighting for their lives against the fungal blight, Phytophthora. It was pretty clear that they weren't doing so well beyond a certain diameter. I counted nearly a hundred stump-sprouted trees but none over an inch or two in diameter before they are fatally scarred by the fungal invader.

Stump-sprouted Chestnut.

The chestnut forest was once America's grandest of the grand, spreading across two million acres of land from the Appalachian states across to the Mid-West. It fascinates me that now, a century after the blight hit, we are using plant breeding techniques usually employed for domesticating and refining traits for agricultural crops With the chestnut we are attempting to bring the species back to the wild. Back-crossing and inter-crossing techniques each involve laborious hand-pollination of flowers on resistant stock.

As far as the eye could see - green but all with dead stems.

This work has been happening using blight resistant Chinese chestnut and by using pollen from some of the 300 mature survivor trees that still exist in the wild. Many botanists agree that there may be hundreds more survivors, but given the thick cover of a restored Appalachian forest (minus its majestic chestnut) and so few people actually looking, that we will probably never know how many mature trees actually survived into the current century. But there are many survivors out there.

Living and dying together.

We walkers and hikers need to know what to look for and who to report our finds to. The American Chestnut Foundation maintains state chapters in most of the chestnut's native range and their website offers a reporting link. I searched the canopy with my binocs for quite some time but to no avail. This was a vibrant sapling stand but no survivors to be seen from my vantage point on the Horseshoe Trail. It occurred to me that I've seen many stump sprouted chestnuts on all of my PA hike this year, but wouldn't it be great to find an old survivor no one has yet discovered?

Chestnut woods - all small understory trees under Black Gum canopy.

The side trails that lead to the summit, Ridge, Boone and Turtle, are blazed blue and red. These intersect a few times with the loop around the hill. There's an old park map that still shows the original path of the Horseshoe Trail coming close to the summit along the north shoulder of Williams Hill but it has since been re-routed. You could make a loop using the blue-blazed Boone trail that skirts north of Scotts Run Pond, but I stuck to the yellow blazes and came back to the pond across from the parking area.

A sunken road with wheel ruts.
A cord wood road, or "corduroy" would have been laid in this wet crossing.

I completed the loop in about three hours and sat at a picnic table on the pond for my packed lunch. It always amazes me to look across a view such as this and try to imagine an industrial landscape in place of what we see now. In a way, the change in view gives me hope that we can address some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, but I wonder how much of that change will be influenced by shifts in technology and economic response as happened in the Iron Hills during the late 1800s? With regard to fuels of today, how will landscapes change as a result of their replacement?

Scotts Run Pond at the finish.


Joanna Furnace is just west of Williams Hill and is owned and maintained by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association.

American Chestnut Foundation  offers a reporting link if you think you've found a mature survivor. Remember that these trees are found in dense forest and that trees in yards or towns that seem at first to be American Chestnut may be Chinese or European Chestnut or hybrids.

No comments:

Post a Comment