Spring has finally come to the mid-atlantic states as we begin to move north. Forsythia, cherry trees and tulip magnolia are in bloom. Night time temperatures seldom go below 40 any more and we can sit outside after dinner. It feels good. We are spending twelve days in New Jersey just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The closest RV park we could find was Timberlane, one of the few commercial parks we’ve used. It is very busy at this time of year as snowbirds head back north. We’re glad we made reservations well ahead. The people parked next to us, Dave and Barbara, are full time RVers like ourselves, who started out last July. We spent several evenings together sharing experiences and favorite spots to stay. Hopefully we will keep in touch and see each other in Florida next winter.
After two days of laying low when Chari was “under the weather”, the three of us were anxious to be out and about. The Philadelphia area is loaded with historical sites and other points of interest. Far more than we can do in one trip. Guess I get to say “when we come back….” High on the priority list were the five National Park Service sites. Three of them are located in downtown Philadelphia and the other two are in the Valley of the Forges.
Pennsylvania attracted early settlers away from the coast because of its rich farming land and mineral wealth. Large deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone along with numerous rivers made this area a natural for mining, charcoal production and iron foundries. The area became known as the Valley of the Forges. While ruins of furnaces can be seen in many locations, the best preserved one is a NPS National Historic site called Hopewell Furnace. It operated as a working iron furnace for over 100 years. Ore was provided by three Hopewell owned mines. In the 1930s the land and buildings were offered to the National Park Service. The buildings had become dilapidated but through the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps they were restored. Hopewell Furnace is located about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The day of our visit was cool and overcast so no postcard photos to show off. We hope the ones we picked will just give you an idea of what is there. This pastoral setting would have been much different in the early to mid 1800s when it was at peak production. There would have been lots of smoke and heat from the furnace and noise from people and animals.
The process from ore to finished iron product was a lengthy one. First the ore and limestone had to be mined. Then trees had to be cut and burned to produce charcoal for the furnaces. Hopewell required 7000 cords of wood annually to supply its charcoal requirements. Almost 40% of the employees were involved with wood cutting operations. Converting wood to charcoal was a two-week process overseen by men called colliers. Colliers would live next to the fire pits and keep watch to make sure the fires didn’t go out. Then the furnace would go into blast. A 22 foot waterwheel created the power to operate bellows that gave a blast of air to raise the temperature in the furnace above 2800 degrees. Lastly iron molders would make the finished product. Iron molders were considered the most skilled workers and the best paid. Hopewell Furnace became known for its high quality stoves in the 1840s. Use of anthracite coal was tried for a short period as a replacement for charcoal but proved too expensive to transport. Iron production moved to western Pennsylvania where anthracite mines were located. Hopewell Furnace still needing the time consuming charcoal for fuel could not compete. The Park service demonstrates the production of charcoal throughout the year. They were preparing for a demonstration the following weekend when we visited. If you visit in the Fall you may pick apples from over 200 trees in the orchard that predates establishment of the furnace.
There is African American history here too. Mark Bird, the original builder of Hopewell Furnace was a slave owner. Pennsylvania legislated gradual emancipation beginning in 1780. Even when freed, many black Americans continued to work as woodcutters, teamsters or colliers at the furnaces. A black community formed in the area and became a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves.
We’ve talked about how interesting it is to see the connections between the various NPS sites we visit. Hopewell Furnace began operation in 1771. Mark Bird like many other iron masters supported the Patriots cause. Although furnaces in the colonies produced 15% of the world’s iron they had never made munitions. They were prohibited from manufacturing ordinance by England. They had to “learn by doing” to supply cannon, shot and shell during the Revolution. Hopewell played a critical role in supplying Washington with needed supplies at Valley Forge, made cannon for the Navy and cast mortar shells used at Yorktown. Mark Bird was never able to get the money he was owed from the Continental Congress and lost all his holdings.
A short film at the Visitors Center gives you an overview of the ore to finished product process. Once again we are made aware of the skills that have been lost as we have become dependent upon machinery and technology to produce our goods. The site is a self guided tour through the furnace, charcoal pits, charcoal barn, iron masters home, livestock barn and nearby church.
Before we knew it time had slipped by and it was 3 o’clock. It was too late to visit Valley Forge. As it turned out that was a good thing. If we had gone on a weekday we’d have missed the Ranger tour and the living history actors. We didn’t feel like going straight home either. French Creek State Park was close by so we drove over there to check out possible campsites for a return visit. We picked up a campground map and marked off sites where our trailer would fit. Like most Pennsylvania State Parks there is electric service but you must use water from your RV tank and pets are restricted to certain sites. We felt this location would be just as convenient to Philadelphia so we’ll probably stay here next time.
Looking at a map we saw that the Daniel Boone birthplace was just 6 miles away. We had just missed the last guided tour but we were able to do a self guided walk. The park is privately run so there is an admission fee. The actual site of the original Boone cabin only has the cellar foundation remaining. The building that stands there was built on top of it. A cabin belonging to Daniel Boone’s mother’s family was moved to the site. This represents how the Boone cabin probably appeared. Daniel Boone moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina when he was 15 years old.
I planned to include our visit to Valley Forge in this post as well. However, my hands are tired from typing and this seems as good a spot to stop and hit the Publish button as any. So stay tuned for Part 2.