We are surrounded by history.
Whether we're conscious of it or not, the same ground on which we tread has been walked on by generations before us, whether or not they are traditionally acknowledged in history books. History extends to the natural history of other species' before man, and geologic history before that.
And from that rousing paragraph of platitudes, we bring ourselves to... Valley Forge.
If the Philadelphia suburbs should boast any site of historical mythmaking, it's most certainly Valley Forge, the location of an encampment where General George Washington and his troops spent the winter of 1777-8.
Apocrypha & Actuality
Valley Forge has legendary status in the American consciousness, or at least, the consciousness of the Eastern Pennsylvanian. This was where Washington and his troops waited out an especially harsh winter, freezing, hungry, and downtrodden with tattered uniforms. In some versions of the narrative, conditions were dire enough that...
"George Washington knelt in prayer at Valley Forge and in the darkest days of our struggle for independence said that 'the fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.'"
The legend of Valley Forge differs from the history in a few very particular senses.
For starters, the winter of 1777-8 wasn't particularly harsh. Temperatures generally remained above freezing. It snowed relatively infrequently. The soldiers constructed log cabins, which kept them warm.
That said, there were other reasons for suffering to occur: supply chain crises, malnutrition, and cramped quarters were all problematic. There were around 2,000 deaths.
More troops died here of disease and malnutrition than at many battles in the war. But, Washington made sure to give the troops smallpox inoculations to help curb the further spread of illness. (What a strange tale to not have in the popular consciousness circa the COVID era.)
The park guide claims that the troops were not downtrodden, but merely tired, and goes onto add:
"The romantic image that depicts the troops at Valley Forge as helpless and famished individuals at the mercy of winter’s fury and clothed in nothing but rags renders them and their commander a disservice. It would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which the leader of a popular revolution stood by while his men froze and starved."
So, yes, please remember that you personally are insulting George Washington and the troops whenever you get any of these details wrong. (And, yes, I'm speaking to you, Ronald Reagan.)
During the long winter at Valley Forge, the troops were retrained by Baron von Steuben, who taught them new methods with quick results.
When the British left Philadelphia the following summer, the newly educated troops were quickly able to secure and hold it.
After George Washington and the troops left Valley Forge behind, continuing to fight the Revolutionary War for another five years, their wooden cabins eventually rotted away, and life continued unabated in the village of Valley Forge. There was no push for historic preservation until at least the mid-1800s. Around this period, writers started to romanticize the harsh winter of Valley Forge, which attracted tourists who were rather disappointed to see... nothing but vegetation where Washington's encampments once stood.
Given the presence of the word "forge" in the name, it's probably not too shocking that the area has a long history of iron production. The name Valley Forge was used by a local forge that refined iron brought over from Warwick Furnace. That valley forge was burnt by the British in 1777, but other forges were built and used in the area, as well as a fair number of limestone quarries.
In the late 1800s, a company then known as the Ehret Magnesia Company bought many of these quarries. Up until the early 1970's, they combined magnesium carbonate from the quarries with asbestos to create a number of insulation products. A byproduct of this process was a toxic asbestos slurry that the company then dumped back into the quarries.
Contaminated land was part of the initial Valley Forge State Park, founded in 1893, and the entire Ehret plant site was later added to the Valley Forge National Historic Park in the 1970s. (Obviously, the plant buildings were torn down -- only reconstructed log cabins and statues of barons are allowed within park grounds!!)
Contamination was only first discovered in 1997. A more detailed survey found nine park areas "that contained levels of contaminants including asbestos, semivolatile organic compounds (specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and three metals (lead, mercury, and arsenic) that may cause unacceptable risks to humans and/or ecological receptors."
After much surveying, planning, and bureaucratic gnashing of teeth and budget spreadsheets, the Pennsylvania State Government and the United States National Government agreed on a schema for sharing the costs of a large scale remediation plan.
Soil is being removed from areas where asbestos contamination is within three feet of the surface, and being replaced with non-contaminated soil from outside. If you notice closed roads and fenced off park areas, this is why.
The park website also has a thorough page on this topic if you want to read more.
My Winter of Misery
So, where is Steve?
I'm over here with a camera, obvi.
I visited Valley Forge Park quite often during the "Pennsylvania Pandemic" years of 2020-2021. All but once, I believe, accompanied by my mother.
Or, perhaps I should say, my mom visited Valley Forge Park quite often during those same years. Often accompanied by yours truly.
Rain or shine, generally early in the day, we would walk the five mile loop together.
Without fail, my mom would always walk faster than me. Of course, I'm taller than my mom, and physically capable of walking faster, but I tended to bring a camera along with me. And, all it takes is a couple of seconds of standing still for your average speed to plummet.
What I enjoyed doing was playing around with different lenses, different focal lengths, different perspectives. Couple that with the changes in the weather, the changes in the scenery, and there was always something nice to be distracted by.
And if there wasn't, there were plenty of opportunities for fresh air and pleasant conversation.
|Name||Joseph Plumb Martin Trail|
|Type||loop (bicycle/pedestrian oriented)|
|Location||Valley Forge National Historic Park|
|Check out the trails index for information on more trails!|
A Walk for All Seasons (And A Photograph Too)
With all those pesky words typed up, I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. The following set of photographs were taken throughout 2020 and 2021 at various points, and have been arranged so that they roughly chronicle the Joseph Plumb Martin Trail from the National Memorial Arch to the ceremonial National Memorial Arch. Any geospatial inaccuracies are due to my poor memory. 😉
All photos are JPEG's straight out of camera, even if I have better edited versions elsewhere. I'm disorganized enough that you should be amazed I was able to just find these and stick them in one place.
Birds & Beetles
As you may have gathered from my photos of starlings earlier, the park is also a fantastic spot for nature. Much of the surrounding area is quite developed, so the parklands are a relative haven for a variety of species, from white-tailed deer to pretty much any local bird.
Since the park is also pretty heavily trafficked, most of the birds are also pretty habituated to humans. That allowed me to get relatively close and take all of the following photos, all from various points along the very same loop trail. Flycatchers, sparrows, bluebirds, birds of prey, red-winged blackbirds, the previously mentioned starlings and even some lovely red beetles are amongst the animals I have photographed here.
To wrap things up, Valley Forge Park is an American and a Pennsylvanian Treasure. You can come for the history, and stay for the birds, or just go on a lovely, lovely five mile walk with your mom.
Speaking of which, Happy Mother's Day!!!
Thanks for reading!
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