Valley Forge: A Winter of Misery?

✍️ 🕑 2020-2021 (Mostly) • Series: Attractions of Pennsylvania • Tags: philadelphia areaamerican historytoxic wastenational historical parkshanging with my momamerican revolutionary warpatriotic placesbird photography • Places: Valley Forge National Historic Park

Recent history leaving its mark in the historic park...
Recent history leaving its mark in the historic park...

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.

The National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge Park - Late 2021. A bajillion more photos follow.
The National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge Park - Late 2021. A bajillion more photos follow.

 


This element did not display properly. Do you have JavaScript enabled?

 


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.'"
--Ronald Reagan

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.

A statue of Baron von Steuben
A statue of Baron von Steuben open_in_full   info

When the British left Philadelphia the following summer, the newly educated troops were quickly able to secure and hold it.


Asbestos

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.

Trail Information
Name Joseph Plumb Martin Trail
Type loop (bicycle/pedestrian oriented)
Location Valley Forge National Historic Park
State PA
Country USA
Miles 5
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.

View of the National Memorial Arch from the parking lot, Fall 2020
View of the National Memorial Arch from the parking lot, Fall 2020 open_in_full   info

Hazy trail, August 2020
Hazy trail, August 2020 open_in_full   info
One of the replica log cabins, August 2020
One of the replica log cabins, August 2020 open_in_full   info
The sun peaking through the trees, September 2020
The sun peaking through the trees, September 2020 open_in_full   info

One of the replica log cabins, Winter 2020
One of the replica log cabins, Winter 2020 open_in_full   info
A sunny morning, Fall 2020
A sunny morning, Fall 2020 open_in_full   info
A red tree, Fall 2020
A red tree, Fall 2020 open_in_full   info

The Pennsylvania Columns, April 2021
The Pennsylvania Columns, April 2021 open_in_full   info
A Pennsylvania Column and the moon, September 2020
A Pennsylvania Column and the moon, September 2020 open_in_full   info
An ultrawide-angle view of the Pennsylvania Columns, September 2020
An ultrawide-angle view of the Pennsylvania Columns, September 2020 open_in_full   info
A bird atop one of the Pennsylvania Columns, June 2021
A bird atop one of the Pennsylvania Columns, June 2021 open_in_full   info

A unique sports car hanging out in a parking lot that boasts one of the park's public restrooms. September 2020.
A unique sports car hanging out in a parking lot that boasts one of the park's public restrooms. September 2020. open_in_full   info
My mother, modelling an early pandemic outdoor cloth mask.
My mother, modelling an early pandemic outdoor cloth mask. open_in_full   info

A lost monkey toy left near a reconstructed lock and groove wooden fence. Hopefully the owner found it. Winter 2020.
A lost monkey toy left near a reconstructed lock and groove wooden fence. Hopefully the owner found it. Winter 2020. open_in_full   info
Have I mentioned that the land here is gorgeous? August 2020
Have I mentioned that the land here is gorgeous? August 2020 open_in_full   info
The pathway gently sloping uphill. Winter 2020.
The pathway gently sloping uphill. Winter 2020. open_in_full   info
Spring flowers, April 2021
Spring flowers, April 2021 open_in_full   info

Another log cabin, July 2020
Another log cabin, July 2020 open_in_full   info
Ibid. August 2020
Ibid. August 2020 open_in_full   info
Ibid. April 2021
Ibid. April 2021 open_in_full   info
Ibid. Ibid.
Ibid. Ibid. open_in_full   info

Three cannons, part of the American Army's might! Winter 2020
Three cannons, part of the American Army's might! Winter 2020 open_in_full   info

The statue commemorating Baron Von Steuben. September 2020
The statue commemorating Baron Von Steuben. September 2020 open_in_full   info
Ibid. Winter 2020
Ibid. Winter 2020 open_in_full   info

Maurice Stephens House, from a distance. July 2020
Maurice Stephens House, from a distance. July 2020 open_in_full   info
A closer view of the Maurice Stephens House. This was also used for as a 52 Frames submission. April 2021
A closer view of the Maurice Stephens House. This was also used for as a 52 Frames submission. April 2021 open_in_full   info

Surrounding countryside (1). Fall 2020
Surrounding countryside (1). Fall 2020 open_in_full   info
Surrounding countryside (2). April 2021
Surrounding countryside (2). April 2021 open_in_full   info
Surrounding countryside (3). Fall 2020
Surrounding countryside (3). Fall 2020 open_in_full   info

Washington Memorial Chapel, Winter 2020
Washington Memorial Chapel, Winter 2020 open_in_full   info
This obelisk was erected by the Daughters of the Revolution in 1901. This photo was taken in Fall 2020. Almost a hundred years later.
This obelisk was erected by the Daughters of the Revolution in 1901. This photo was taken in Fall 2020. Almost a hundred years later. open_in_full   info

Signage lets motorists on the busy roadways know about road closures. (Asbestos related?) April 2021.
Signage lets motorists on the busy roadways know about road closures. (Asbestos related?) April 2021. open_in_full   info
This section of the park allows for a decent view of... a nearby water tower. July 2021.
This section of the park allows for a decent view of... a nearby water tower. July 2021. open_in_full   info

A thistle and a tiny bee. July 2020.
A thistle and a tiny bee. July 2020. open_in_full   info
Starlings atop a historic log cabin, Fall 2020.
Starlings atop a historic log cabin, Fall 2020. open_in_full   info
Different day, same starlings in the same place. Still Fall 2020.
Different day, same starlings in the same place. Still Fall 2020. open_in_full   info

National Memorial Arch, September 2020
National Memorial Arch, September 2020 open_in_full   info
Looking up under the National Memorial Arch, September 2020
Looking up under the National Memorial Arch, September 2020 open_in_full   info
Looking up---but also like pretty darn straight---under the National Memorial Arch, July 2020
Looking up---but also like pretty darn straight---under the National Memorial Arch, July 2020 open_in_full   info
Looking back through the National Memorial Arch, glimpsing the American Flag. September 2020.
Looking back through the National Memorial Arch, glimpsing the American Flag. September 2020. open_in_full   info
Also looking back through the National Memorial Arch, glimpsing the American Flag. July 2020
Also looking back through the National Memorial Arch, glimpsing the American Flag. July 2020 open_in_full   info

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.


Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info

Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info

Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info

Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info

Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info

Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info

Image On Where-Is-Steve
open_in_full   info
I love these red beetles that just happen to chill on milkweed all the time. They just pop with color! I also used this for a 52 Frames submission.
I love these red beetles that just happen to chill on milkweed all the time. They just pop with color! I also used this for a 52 Frames submission. open_in_full   info

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!!!

This post was part of a series:

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these 5 similar posts: