Tuesday, December 31, 2019

MD Soldier's Delight Natural Environmental Area

This five + mile hike was done over two days while I was visiting a family member who is in a physical rehab center nearby.  Knowing that I must at all costs get in at least 3 miles a day, I snuck off during his PT time to walk the very muddy trails at Soldier's Delight Natural Environmental Area. Afterwards I snuck back in to to see how his PT went and to say goodbye and head home. The second day I was so muddy the reception desk lady almost made me shed my boots before going up to see Poppy but when I showed her how muddy my socks were she said "Oh, never mind!" 

First day hike on the Serpentine Trail - wet, rainy, muddy.

The protected area encompasses several hundred acres and contains over 30 rare, threatened, and endangered plants. This is a little depressing considering that barrens ecosystems once occupied over 300,000 acres in Maryland and Pennsylvania. There's been a decades-long battle with developers and zoning to get as much of this eastern prairie conserved. Still - the developments are closing in.

Big 'ole hunk of serpentine, several hundred pounds of dense, heavy chromite ore.

Like the Nottingham Serpentine Barrens close to where I live in PA, the thin, nutrient-poor soils make living here tough unless you are a pitch pine, post oak, or a native grass like Big Bluestem. Being the middle of winter, however, not much was green or growing except the rugged little pines and blankets of moss and reindeer lichen (Cladonia), but without the tall cover of grasses it was easy to see surface mines, pit mines, and serpentine formations. From the mid-1800s valuable chromite  was processed out of the serpentine and sent to the steel mills of Baltimore. At one time the mines of northwestern Baltimore County served as the world leaders in chromium production.

Thin soils barely cover outcrops of serpentine.

The trails were flooded by two days of steady rains. I gave up trying to avoid the pools and mud pits  and just hiked right on through. The downhill trails flowed with water. At the bottom of the hills, the trails were indistinguishable from several busy little streams. Though not the right season to see them, many rare wildflowers have been found in these bottom wetlands where serpentine sands and clay wash off the hills and fill the streambeds with silt and fresh fragments of rock. It's a raw environment where water sheets off the exposed slopes.

Bottom-land stream

Human management of the land dates back to Native American hunting cultures when fires were set regularly to discourage the pitch pine and oak intrusions, keeping grasslands open and attractive to large herbivores. The burning continues under the direction of the state ecosystem restoration team but the only large herbivore left in this area, however, is the ubiquitous White-Tailed Deer, now forced onto shrinking ranges due to extensive housing developments that are closing in on the barrens.  The State has opened up a bow hunting season here to cull the herds that threaten to eat the rare plant communities. I wore my hunter's orange cap today as bow season ends at the end of January.

White-tailed Deer tracks.

Choate Mine, last used 1917-1918.

Chromite from the Choate Mine was used to produce paint pigments and I fondly remember my oil painting classes at Maryland Institute College of Art when instructors warned us "Don't lick your brushes!" But the chromium colors were spectacular on canvas and I can't tell you how many tubes I bought for classes from the college's art supply store.  Chromium reds, yellows, blues ...

Surface pit.
Cladonia macrophyllodes, Large-leafed Cladonia, showing off its little cups.

Minus all the green, growing things, my attention was turned to low-growing mosses and lichens. I really miss not using my macro lens and camera set up today. I guess one of my New Year's resolutions will have to be to get the old Canon cleaned and repaired and back in working order. The tiny cups of the Large-leafed Cladonia lichen made such a great show among the arched, withered grasses and I wished could have gotten some close-in shots.

Bracket fungi.

In some areas, the reindeer moss was so thick and wide it reminded me of the "grey meadows" of Prince Edward Island National Park. In other places I had to use my hiking poles to push apart the thick patches of Greenbrier in order to see the dark mossy ground below. Though DNR has done a great job ridding some of the natural area of this scourge with burning, Greenbriar overtakes much of the wooded landscape to the point it is impassable, closing in even on the trails.

Cladonia portentosa, Reindeer Moss, in a small "grey meadow"  

After hiking through water-filled gullies that looked more like streams than trails, I finally did reach Red Run, a sweet little stream that meanders through a bottom valley. The woods are thick with White and Red Oak and the Sassafras actually has height and girth as compared to the "stick-Sass" on the serpentine bluffs. I watched as small minnows darted out from under ledges and congregated in pools below ribbed-rock riffles.  Finally, the sun came out full force and the deep blue sky reflected in the stream.

Red Run

One of the greatest influences on my young naturalists life was Miss Jean Worthley who produced a public television show for kids called Hodge Podge Lodge. She grew up in this area and was fascinated in her youth by the prairie ecosystems of the barrens. Miss Jean was one of the leading advocates for the preservation of Soldiers Delight. I sang a little "thank you" song on my way up to the last great view across the Bluestem barrens prairie for having such a cool (though wet) place to explore.

The sun finally comes out!

Serpentine Trail (2.5 mi) and Choate Mine Loop (3.2 mi) 


Good history on the Friends of Soldiers Delight -  https://soldiersdelight.org/article/soldiers-delight-barrens-preservation-of-a-rare-ecosystem/

A short film from MPT that includes Miss Jean!

Monday, December 16, 2019

MD Rocks State Park: Boulder Field Hollow

Just across the Mason Dixon Line in Harford County is Rocks State Park which is known mostly for massive outcrop cliffs and meandering Deer Creek. It is not unusual to see the parking areas for the King and Queen Seat and the picnic groves on the creek quite crowded in summer and fall. I wait until winter to visit, however. One of my favorite places to explore is a small wooded, boulder-strewn  valley that sits a mile or more behind the cliffs. It's where springs seep into the hollow and becomes a tiny stream.

Mountain Laurel in the freeze-thaw talus boulder field

Anyone driving through the park can observe the freeze-thaw talus slopes. These moss and lichen covered tumbled-down boulder fields are found on the north facing shoulders of the big ridge. Relics of the Pleistocene, the boulder fields originated at a time when glaciers had reached their maximum sixty miles north and began their great melt. The environment was much colder and harsher than it is today and this form of freeze-thaw-shatter boulder making, a type of mechanical weathering, is a beautiful and biologically important habitat in the PA/MD Piedmont region for mosses, lichens, ferns, and amphibian life.

Black Walnut in the old farmstead.

The entrance to the hollow is on a small nature trail loop across the road from the Hills Grove Picnic Area. A farm once stood here and the ground was cleared for livestock pasture. A signature tree of the old farmstead are the Black Walnut and Tulip Poplar, overtaking the flats where a barn and house once stood. Higher up are the White Pines that today are shushing in the wind. 

Tulip Poplar where a cattle shed once stood.
White Pine in the old cow pasture. 

The trail climbs up into the hollow as boulders crowd the landscape. White Pine and oaks dominate the woods beyond the reach of the old farm's clearing and the elements of a wetland forest begin to take shape. Mountain Laurel thickets, twisted and old, grow boldly on the boulder field while Witch Hazel occupies the seepage that mark springs.  

A very old Mountain Laurel.

Witch Hazel, the last (or first) flower of the year. 

This is where I leave the trail and pick my way higher into the hollow, careful to weave through the mossy boulders and not lose my step and I am only partially successful at this and come down hard on both knees - thankfully on moss and not stone. It is a maze of frost-shattered rock. 

Sphagnum Moss.
Plume Moss

Crustose lichen in a "dead bed" 

Where boulder mosses have dried up or gone dormant and formed  a "dead bed," crustose lichens find a niche. I poked my sketching pen into a dead bed on the top of a boulder and it went in several inches before hitting rock. This must have been hundreds of years of top growth sealing the rock beneath.

Hair Cap Moss.

Ground Pine Lycopodium.

The boulders are so tightly packed that there little space for a tree or shrub to put down roots.  But there's plenty growing in between. Fallen leaves trapped in the angles and gaps between boulders make rich habitat for clubmosses and ferns. Matted leaves also make bowls to hold water that seeps up from the cavities. A Carolina Wren splashed and bathed in a leaf bowl just below me. Broader mats of leaves between boulders form steps of water that overflow into the crevices and begin to trickle downhill.  

Seepage pools atop fallen leaves and begins to run downhill.

I sat in the upper reaches of the boulder field as the sun dipped behind the ridge and listened as water dripped and slipped under the mossy rocks into the fold of hillside that becomes a tiny stream in the valley. The micro-habitats of the boulder field are mostly dormant for the winter now. There's nothing left of the luxurious fern groves of summer, just stems of fronds and root clumps. And where the trees can grow, they push through the rocks in clumps of hangers-on where roots can penetrate. The freeze-thaw cycles of bitter arctic temperatures have long ago stopped working on the ridge and the boulders have been settled in place for millions of years, but on this afternoon - closing in on winter solstice - the low sun illuminates the violet-hued air breathed out from the buried springs and seeps, rich and cold and ageless.   

Notes:  Science Friday has this cool little video "This Field Rocks" about mechanical weathering and the creation of the Hickory Run Boulder Field about two hours north of Rocks State Park. Though the mechanics of freeze-thaw of seep water operated in the same way to make boulders,  the Rocks talus slopes are older and well grown over.   https://youtu.be/higFSvxyKRo

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Walking Meditation in a Pennsylvania Woods

As a student of pilgrimage and environmental history there is so much to learn about the intersection of the inner and outer landscape. In the context of human history, this intersection is laid upon the physical environment. Environment influences or directs the path of history and cannot not viewed as insignificant or "background."  Humans have only been "modern" for a thousand years and industrial for only a few hundred. Our natural environment is still our mental and spiritual home even though we have done our best to tame, control, or destroy it. Learning to walk in meditation is not only a spiritual practice but a process of pilgrimage.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Trappist monk and contemplative who lived in the Abbey of Gethsemane, Kentucky, explored the intersections of religion and nature. He began a dialogue in the form of travel and letter writing having direct engagement with other faith practitioners.  His personal pilgrimages into the interfaith dialogue included raising moral questions of social and environmental justice. A fierce if not radical anti-war activist, Merton tackled some of the most pressing issues of the sixties and understood that harm to the environment was direct harm to people. At a time when the Viet Nam War was raging he reached out to brothers of faith in Southeast Asia who lived and worked in those war-torn landscapes. Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn responded by coming to Gethsemane from his sangha in Viet Nam in 1966. It was the only time they met but their lives and activism became entwined over environmental injustices caused by the war.

In a trip to present a lecture to religious leaders at a monastic conference in Thailand, Merton was found deceased in his room after his morning presentation. There are conflicting reports about the circumstances of his death with substantive reports that he was being watched by American intelligence at the time. I'm no conspiracy theorist but given the political atmosphere at the the time and the spate of assassinations that occurred that year, we can be sure that Merton's anti-war activism and his growing affinity for Asian religious traditions raised concerns among some sectors of government  in the U.S.

So why is Merton on my mind on this early Saturday walk in the near-peak Pennsylvania  autumn woods?  I was reading Merton's essay "Fire Watch" written on the night of July 4, 1952, from his book The Sign of Jonas the night before and it was fresh on my mind. He was imagining the time and circumstances of his own death as he crept silently around the abbey on night watch until he comes to the door to the catwalk...

And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars? (1) 

In the conclusion to his lecture to religious leaders the morning of the day of his death, December 10, 1968, seemed nothing but a radical call for cross-cultural understanding.

And I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and graces and other things that have been manifested in Asia and the Christian liberty of the gospel should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals—and mere this or that. I will conclude on that note. I believe that the plan is to have all questions for this morning's lectures this evening at the panel. So, I will disappear.  (2) 

I hadn't planned on walking far this morning but I did want to walk slowly. In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn, I took deliberately slow steps along the shoulder of the old dirt road in walking meditation. Thich's birthday was October 11 and he is now 93 years old (!). Their friendship was short, lasting only two years until Merton's death. The two monks exchanged letters and engaged in activities that  would bring their cultures together through visitations and conferences. In his essay "Thich Nhat Hahn is My Brother," Merton writes,

I have said Nhat Hanh is my brother, and it is true. We are both monks, and we have lived the monastic life about the same number of years. We are both poets, both existentialists. I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and I do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity and a new brotherhood which is beginning to be evident on all the five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program. This unity of the young is the only hope of the world. In its name I appeal for for Nhat Hanh. Do what you can for him. If I mean something to you, then let me put it this way: do what for Nhat Hanh whatever you would do for me if I were in his position. In many ways I wish I were. (2) 

Walking slowly along, I was thinking about Merton's fire watch and looking into the great, dark forest of his imagined transition. I wasn't thinking about making time or miles, but making observations. A cloud bank filtered the sun - it will rain later. In the subdued light the dark trunks of trees were backlit by warm yellow, fading green, and orange. The forest floor nestled under a rich brown blanket. Breathe in. Walk four steps, exhaling. I came across a stump that sheltered a little gang of mushrooms looking all the world like tiny monks gathered for choir. It was a giggle-worthy moment and Amos, not very happy with the slow pace of this walk up to this point, stopped and investigated them cocking his head and wagging his tail.

Walking meditation is a process and a practice. It helps not to have an energetic coonhound tugging at the end of his leash, but it's possible. It's deliberative and focuses the mind on the physical act of walking. Lift a foot, swing it forward, place it down. Walk several paces, breathe. Rest, breathe. Notice the breath. Proceed. Lift a foot, step forward...

Thinking about walking and the great forest all around me, I could feel the words I'd read the night before rooted in the soft earth, supple and fragile. Transitory. If my mind wandered I would bring it back to the fire watch, shortening my steps, slowing my pace, looking through the door of my busy mind. Thich Nhat Hanh developed the practice to bring us back to earth and to reaffirm our connections with it. "Breathing in I know Mother Earth is in me. Breathing out I know Mother Earth is in me."  You can't help but smile while doing this.

I only walked a little over three miles in two hours. Amos had some tug-and-jog time but most of our walk was spent at a snail's pace. He was happy carefully checking out every tiny scent and snuffling through clumps of leaves. Our turn-around point was a vertical stone that marked some forgotten property boundary and it warranted a long visit since it seemed alone and a little lonely. It was so quiet I could hear the leaves falling. I studied the landscape around the stone and saw that it marked an intersection of an old woods road and the dirt road I was following. It reminded me of the crossroads stones in Northern Spain, some now surrounded by busy traffic intersections, but most I encountered were solitary posts that marked a crossing point where there were no signs or traffic lights. Tall enough to cast shadows east and west, these markers were directional as well as way points between villages and meeting places and most were marked with yellow arrows for the pilgrims on their way to their destination. In the genre of pilgrim literature, however, the journey was not made by the destination but by who and what they met along the way. Sometimes the vertical stones were holy men, sometimes they were radical monks.


(1) Thomas Merton. The Sign of Jonas. (Abbey of the Lady of Gethsemane, 1953).

(2) Patrick O'Connell. Thomas Merton: Selected Essays. ( Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2013)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

MD Fair Hill Big Elk Creek Loop Trail in Old New Munster

We sort of jogged this winding unmarked but well-used trail on the east bank of Big Elk Creek. It twists and turns through the ruins of old farmsteads, mills, and abandoned roads with few blazes or trail marker. Some of it is wild and might have looked a lot like it did when a wave of Scots-Irish immigrants first arrived in the early 1700s at the invitation Maryland land grant holder Colonel George Talbot, a Catholic immigrant from the Ulster region. Some of it is groomed and landscaped - and marked - managed much as it was when William DuPont, Jr. owned the land for his riding and fox hunting interests during the 20th century. In any case, "walking" the trail(s) proved an interesting look back at nearly three hundred years of land use albeit at a clip.

Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area - DuPont's fox hunting range

In the late 1600s, Colonel Talbot recruited fellow Scots-Irish immigrants to help him settle colonial lands that bordered William Penn's colony to the north.  He called this 6,000 acre tract New Munster. He had a plan to "spill" into the unmarked and murky colonial boundary lands to lay claim for Catholic Maryland with those Irish settlers. But William Penn, too, had a plan. He promoted Quaker, Scot, and German settlement into the same murky boundary and lay claim for the Commonwealth. Thus was set in motion an 80 year simmering war ended only with the demarcation of the Mason Dixon Line.

Carriage Road at Fair Hill.

Today the landscape that was New Munster still holds many of the place names given to it in the early 1700s but most of this land eventually became the property of William Dupont, Jr. in a spectacular land grab during the 20th century. Economic depression and worn-out soils made once-industrious farmers unproductive and desperately poor. Foreclosed farms were a dime a dozen for the wealthy DuPont. He assembled a vast land holding and managed it for fox hunting, fox hounds, and horse racing.

Ruins of the mill complex, Scotts Mills. 

After DuPont's death in the early 1960s, the state of Maryland eventually came into ownership and it is presently undergoing a major renovation to become a national/international equine sports facility. The wilder sections of the Fair Hill tract contain all kinds of riding trails, carriage roads, and hiking/biking paths. For this hike I was being pulled along a 5-mile loop of mixed carriage roads and forest trails at the end of Amos' lead, tho' he did sit politely as equestrians and bikers crossed our path. After the first mile, while stopped at the mill ruins I realized I was getting agitated with him.

Big Elk Creek, a major source or power for a thriving number of mills in the 1800s.

I've left a lot of miles on the trail this year recovering from broken bones and damaged soft-tissue injury from a steep fall last October. As I lunged along after Amos I realized how careful I was trying to be, almost sub-consciously afraid to take a big leap or scramble down a hill, complaining. Really it was me who needed to loosen up. I've been stretching, running treadmill, doing yoga, and taking lots of "safe" walks or bike rides this year but finally I had to just accept that I was ready to push it. Past the old mill ruins I started jogging behind him, taking bigger strides, hopping over logs, high-stepping up the steep bits.  Once I readjusted my attitude I started to have a lot of fun.

DuPont's "Super Fence"

The trail passed through DuPont's "Super Fence," a fourteen mile-long concrete and chain link barrier built to keep hounds and horses from crossing into areas of roads and other human hazards where they might be injured.  Though unfinished, it stands as a reminder that the world "out there" was a dangerous place for highly trained and valuable animals.  Amos jogged me down steep embankments and across old abandoned roads that, in their day, were busy with traffic. The cracked asphalt barely showed through fifty years of weeds and forest duff.

Jackson Schoolhouse Road was outside the Super Fence. 

There was a hulk of a car lying on its side down an embankment by an old washed out bridge. It had fins and heavy chrome bumpers (!) that shone through the brush.  Rotting white-walled tires were strewn in the weedy ditch along Jackson Schoolhouse Road. Amos just powered along on his trail, following switchbacks, snaking through ruins, and galloping down the old lanes. He let out one tremendous coonhound bay and I thought for sure he'e found his quarry, but no, we just kept tracking. I could hear the loudspeaker from the equestrian event across the river and came a reply to Amos' call from some foxhound on the other side.

Barn ruin of Redbank Sandstone.

We came across an old mine pit. At the time of the Civil War, the Fair Hill/New Munster region was home to almost 80 mines where feldspar, chromium, and iron were dug. Irish immigrants worked the mines and dug the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal to the west and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the south. Away from their New Munster homes, the Irish workers lived a rough life and were considered expendable labor at the canal sites. 

Old wagon path  (Beechdrops Orchid). 

Ten thousand micks they swung their picks to dig the new canal
but the cholera was stonger 'n' they
and twice it killed them all. 

"The pay was low, there were no benefits, and the death rate astronomical," Erika Sturgill wrote for the local paper The Cecil Whig (see Notes). "African American slave labor was used, but not as extensively as Irish workers, because at that time slaves had a dollar value while an Irishman did not." The New Munster area. however, proved a place where Irish settlers laid down roots and built hundreds of farms and businesses. "It was as good a place to come home to as any could imagine after a season in the canals." As we passed back through the Super Fence onto the abandoned Jackson School House Road and skirted along a modern street with pretty homes, he found a carriage road leading back into the DuPont section and finally Amos began to slow down.  

Tulip Poplars roadblock. 

I never did figure out what it was that Amos was tracking but I'd like to think he was determined to drag me along until I finally surrendered to having a good trail run. I was pretty sore the next day (so was he) but without the concern I may have re-injured something. There are so many trails to explore at Fair Hill that I know we'll back soon and maybe I can stop more along the way to take pictures. I didn't get many chances this time out!

GPS tracking app traced Amos' wild hike!

A very happy Black and Tan Coonhound - Amos.


Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area is managed by Maryland DNR. https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/central/fairhill.aspx

From the Cecil Whig:

A very (very) short history:

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

PA Northwest Lancaster County Rail Trail

The landscapes of the Mid-Atlantic can hardly be described as wild. Almost every square foot of mountain, forest, and river bank has been mined, logged. farmed, or altered by an industry in the last two hundred years. The truth is, there are few places in our six or seven state area that survive in their natural state - untouched by exploitation. But, as I try to convey with the title of my blog, there are substantial portions of our region that have recovered as semi-wild state - maybe approaching wilderness.

Early 20th century scene of the Mussleman-Vesta Hot Blast Furnance, Marietta. 

Riding the Northwest Lancaster County Rail Trail (NLCRT) really gives a sense of the industrial history that formed these landscapes and which nature is not-so-slowly reclaiming. I must admit I was off my bike as much as on it in order to take all this in. Bainbridge, Marietta, and Columbia are beautiful river towns on the Lancaster side of the river and, minus the smoke, noise, and dust of their industrial pasts, are wonderfully walkable and fun to explore.  So many hidden treasures and so many reasons to find it a little wild.

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I started the rail train at the Columbia Crossing Center, the new visitor and programs center on the bank of the river. The center is a major investment in transforming an industrial town into a center of arts, museums, music, parks, and vibrant small businesses. I could see how much excitement there is for the "new" Columbia by just how fast three parking lots filled up! Glad I got there early.

Columbia Crossing Center. 
At about the time large-scale mining, milling, and manufacturing reached their peak in these towns during early 1900s, there were movements afoot in Pennsylvania that encouraged town and city folk to invest in greening their urban landscapes.  Mira Dock, a trained botanist and Harrisburg resident, became a one-woman movement for tree planting in towns and cities not for beautification but because trees "make us healthier." She was passionate about the cause and provided the science behind it. "Trees produce oxygen! Trees filter the air we breathe!" Susquehanna River towns like Bainbridge, Marietta, and Columbia  participated in her tree planting efforts and many of those early 20th century trees still grace town streets and parks.

Who doesn't love a tunnel to ride through? 
Past the nearly hidden ruins of the 19th century St. Charles Foundry Stack, I zipped through the  Point Rock tunnel blasted out of underlying metamorphosed  mud shales that in some places still show the ripple marks from a silty-sandy seabed. Thin layers of mica embedded in bands of shale-turned-phyllite gives the rock a shimmery look.

Chickies Rock

Chickies Rock looms large ahead. The 100' quartzite anticline formation is very resistant to weathering and may be one reason for the dogleg in the river where the Susquehanna bends sharply around this height of land. It's a favorite destination for rock climbers and by the time I returned at noon the site had filled up with climbers and curious onlookers. In the early morning light, however, the great rectangular joints and blocks were great to observe. These were caused by intense pressure due to the collision of continents that formed the nearby Appalachian Mountains.

Ripple marks on Chickies Rock quartzite 

The trail crosses several creeks and dry washes on wood plank bridges. This past year has been a record-maker for precipitation in Lancaster County and viewing the gullies and creeks from above made it really obvious that flash floods are more frequent events. Creek banks are scoured of summer vegetation. Dry washes show signs of recent and major rock movement with crush and scrape marks on boulders that have been pushed along by fast-moving flood water.  The scoured bed of Chiques Creek once held a large dam that fed water to a large saw mill here. The dam was removed in 2015 to free fifteen miles of upland creek for American shad and eel. Dam removal at these former industrial sites is an important conservation strategy to reunite migrating fish with their historic spawning creeks, but I wondered what the effect the flooding has had on spawning this year.

Chiques Creek is now free of its old dam, a big win for native fish conservation.
By the time I arrived at the outskirts of Marietta, I was well aware that the woods, fields, and riverbanks have all been under extensive transition from 19th industrial sites to the park-like setting we see now. The rate of change is astounding. How quickly nature takes it all back when given the chance. At  Musselman-Vesta Iron Works an almost spooky setting of encroaching forest and hulking tressle ruins tangle on the site of the large blast operation.

From the Marietta Restoration Associates website:

According to George Miller, a local Marietta resident who had worked at the furnace for 16-years before it closed, ten carloads of scrap iron and manganese ore were fed into the furnace each day to produce a daily output of 80 tons of ferromanganese. Miller noted that the manganese ores came from all over the world, and its ferromanganese product was shipped by rail to steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, Coatesville and Pittsburgh. The furnace burned coke (five carloads per day) which came from Connellsville in western Pennsylvania. By that time, the furnace had four hot blast stoves which preheated air to 1300-degrees Fahrenheit, two large blowing engines, a gas washer and dryer to precondition gases before they were sent to pre-heaters and boilers and an elaborate pumping system to bring water from the river to the steam engines. New stock sheds and new railway lines on concrete piers were also added. Remains of the pump house, piers and other foundations are visible today among the undergrowth on the site.

The remains of one of four high-blast furnaces.

This was a beast of a furnace and under its last owner, E.J. Lavino, it was put into high grade metals production in support of the war effort in 1917-1919. After the war it ceased operations and fell into ruin except for the small square office building that holds a fantastic small museum. I counted six species of butterflies on the low round remains of the smoke stake that once stood over a hundred feet high.

Concrete piers that supported a railway that delivered anthracite coal to the the furnace. 

I stopped in at the museum and the docent there told me to leave my bike and take a walk around town.  I looked for some of the old grand street trees planted in Mira Dock's time and I found so much more. Restorations, lovingly done to public buildings, churches, homes, and businesses, were abundant. When I returned for my bike I asked how this town was so picture perfect despite economic downturns.  He explained that as was the case with many Lower Susquehanna River towns the clean-up from the historic flood of Tropical Storm Agnes ushered in a period of restoration and renewal funded by large recovery grants and rebuilding investments. "The town really took the time to decide what it wanted to be in its next life and money was used wisely. Marietta took this imperative to heart and the town really is a gem."

Early 20th century worker's homes lovingly restored. 

Past a row of restored workers homes, the trail dips steeply down a loose gravel embankment. I stopped again and explored the shady banks. The shores are silt-covered in several inches of brown muck that obliterated any chance of summer growth. Only a scum of algae had formed on the dried crusty plates that crackled underfoot.  The woods were quiet - fall migration has begin and the birds have moved on.

Silt plates.

Young Sam Haldeman would have roamed these woods and riverside in the early 1800s.  His interests in nature and natural history led him on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He worked as a state geologist and university professor for Delaware College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Monarch cat on milkweed

"He loved each thing for the thing itself," wrote J.P. Lesley, an early biographer. "He was the most trustworthy observers—one of the most accurate naturalists that ever lived." Haldeman literally wrote the book on eastern mollusks and Charles Darwin found much of interest in his papers on comparative zoology and freshwater species and wrote to his friend Charles Lyell about Sam's work.  The National Academies of Science recognized him as one of America's first scientific naturalists.

Sam Haldeman by Mathew Brady, (National Archives)
The bike trail was originally a hiking trail, the Charles Greenway, that connected Bainbridge and Marietta which explains the rolling and rambling section along the river that in sections was part of the Main Line Canal towpath. Modern trails like this can usually be traced to some previous use - even our big interstates were once native paths for seasonal migrations and trade routes. In 2010 the Greenway was upgraded to paved multi-use recreational trail. Even the grand old bridges can be traced back to old ferry crossings and shallows where people found it easiest to cross.

Shocks Mill Bridge, a 28-span stone arch railway bridge built in 1905.

The walk-around is a little tricky - best to slow way down or better yet, walk your bike. 

In the early 1700s the Susquehanna posed a serious obstacle to westward migration. A good ferry and skilled ferryman were necessary to carry people, animals, and freight across this rocky and sometimes nasty stretch of river. During the 1800s when the Underground Railroad was operating through Pennsylvania, some of these old ferry routes offered ways to move people fleeing slavery across with having to access a bridge and thus capture from southern bounty hunters who frequented them. I had heard this was true for the old Vinegar's Ferry site and I again hopped off my bike to investigate.

Vinegar's Ferry depicted in the early 1800s. 

An old river approach
Riding into Bainbridge to the end of the paved section of trail (there is another 4-mile stretch of proposed rail trail yet to be finished), I had to stop at the odd but wonderful White Cliffs of Conoy. These are no White Cliffs of Dover but simply an impressive pile of limestone quarry tailings - industrial waste. Though now in public ownership, there's not much but a sagging orange plastic fence to keep someone from sliding off the overlook. More fascinating to me was that this quarry operation had its own town of 1,000 residents. Nothing of it remains except for some factory ruins in the woods across the railroad tracks. The quarry pit out of sight on the bluff across from the tailings pile is easily seen on Google Maps. It is now a scuba center. You can see, too, Sam Haldeman's home while you are taking in the satellite view.

White Cliffs of Conoy

A mile or so more on the path and I came to the end of the paved section, stopping at Koser Park along the water front. I sat and had lunch looking across the water to nearby Haldeman Island with the tall stacks of the Brunner Island Electric Station showing above the trees. The whole area in and around Bainbridge was once a series of native villages, occupied in succession by the Shenk's Ferry, Susquehannock, and Conoy people. The island camps and the shore villages would have been busy this time of year with fishing and harvesting crops, putting up food for the long winter ahead. The dogwoods and locust are just beginning to show some color and autumn is just arriving.


For more on Mira Dock, see: Ellen Stroud. "Dirt in the City: Urban Environmental History in the Mid-Atlantic." Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 79, No. 4, Autumn 2012.

Marietta Restoration Associates http://www.mariettarestoration.org/history.html

J.P. Lesley. Memoir of Sam Stedman Haldeman, 1812-1880. Monograph read before the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/haldeman-s-s.pdf