You never know what a BMW/Z4 road trip will lead to. My latest one involved missing shadows, ringing rocks, a beautiful young Mexican cliff diver, The Blob, and a search for Indian Hannah and the Stargazer’s Stone, which sounds suspiciously like a Harry Potter novel. And, of course, the usual historic ruins and tragedy.
On September 6 I fired up the ever-willing Z4 3.0i and headed northeast up I-95 and then across the Susquehanna River on top of the Conowingo Dam (saving an $8.00 toll in the process—it seemed like a bit much for the privilege of driving 45 minutes on the interstate). My first stop was at the Hopewell, Pennsylvania historic district, near Oxford, PA.
The Dickey family, who emigrated from Ulster, Ireland in the 1730s, founded Hopewell. They experimented with innovative methods of farming, integrated their farms with water-powered grist and textile mills, and substantially advanced Chester County’s educational system starting in the early 1800s. Here we have (i) Ebenezer J. Dickey’s 1830 farmhouse, which has been beautifully restored from what had been virtually a ruin; (ii) the 1810 Hopewell general store and post office (now a residence); (iii) the 1815 textile mill, which used water power to run weaving looms; and (iv) a Wee Gray Burro who politely held still for a 3-exposure HDR photograph.
A key goal was to find the Hopewell Academy, which was founded in 1820 by Colonel David Dickey and operated by Jesse C. Dickey. It taught Latin, Greek, mathematics, science, history, literature, and grammar until the outbreak of the Civil War, when the institution closed. I had this 1930s photo from the Library of Congress, but the building’s specific location was not clear. After driving back and forth and hiking through a meadow without success, I finally bit the bullet and motored up a steep driveway, eventually finding myself on someone’s farm that was clearly not the academy. On my way back down, however, I spotted the former academy! I was pleased to see that the building not only still existed, it has been extensively renovated and is now an impressive private residence. (Look carefully, and you’ll see that this is indeed the same building, from the front side.)
Almost all of my meanderings on this trip were in Chester County, PA. After crossing the Pine Grove Bridge, however, I was temporarily in Lancaster County. Pine Grove was built in 1884 by the respected and prolific covered-bridge builder Captain Elias McMellen, who had 35 other bridges to his credit in Lancaster County alone. Pine Grove comprises two end-to-end burr arches and is the longest covered bridge in either county. This bridge and the original ford were an important part of the national stagecoach highway from Washington, DC to New York City. (Drawing by the Historic American Buildings Survey.)
If you slide down the bank of Octoraro Creek, walk under the bridge, and hop across a rivulet on some stones, then you reach the following sight, including the Octoraro Water Company and dam from 1904. Did I mention what a perfect day it was?
At one time, the state of Pennsylvania had approximately 1,500 covered bridges. About 225 of these survive—which is more than in any other state or, for that matter, any other country.
In 1854, the Rev. John M. Dickey cofounded the Ashmun Institute in Oxford, the first college for African American students in the U.S. It has been in operation ever since and is now known as Lincoln University. The university’s first African American President was Horace Mann Bond (1904-1972), who graduated from Lincoln at age 19 and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He was the father of well-known civil rights activist Julian Bond. Dr. Mann is shown here in 1946, awarding an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University to Albert Einstein.
Knowing none of this history on September 6th, I blithely parked my ever-willing Z4 in front of the Bond House at Lincoln. Subsequent research revealed that it was built in 1891 and later named for Horace Mann Bond. It was used as a dormitory for many years and is currently awaiting renovation.
Lincoln’s main campus is immediately across the street, and its enrollment is currently about 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students. As with the other colleges I’ve visited, no one seemed to mind a gawky old photographer wandering about, and I received warm greetings wherever I went.
I found the Hosanna Meeting House immediately next to the campus. It was built in 1843 and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1864, famed abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth (who was also an advocate for women’s rights) made impassioned speeches here in support of the Union, prompting a number of free blacks in Chester County to join the Union Army.
My next destination was the historic community of Doe Run, PA. I stopped along the way to view the house in which Cyrus and Abbie Hoopes lived and worked as farmers for over 50 years. The portion on the left was built in about 1825 by the Barnard family, with the rest added by the Hoopes in 1860. Among other notable features, this house still retains an original 1800s bathroom, complete with a tin bathtub set in marble. The entire setting, barn and all, looks very much like the old drawing from the mid-1800s.
The Hoopes farm is still active, as evidenced by this corn crop.
A Native American village originally stood on what became the town of Doe Run. A colonial settlement developed here in the 1700s, followed by significant industry in the 1800s. Not a lot has changed since then, other than all of the industry going out of business. This is the oldest surviving home in Doe Run, having been built by Nathan Hayes in 1796.
This old duplex housed workers for the nearby paper and grist mills. It dates from 1820.
The rather more modern-looking house shown in this photo was built in 1845 and is also a duplex. It served as the original office of Mutual Fire Insurance of Chester County—the first insurance company in this area. Business grew beyond anyone’s expectations, and by 1870 the company had more than $30,000,000 of fire insurance in force.
And that brings us to the ruins of the Highland Dairy. The three-story Phipps paper mill stood here in the late 1700s, and it was later converted to cotton production, then wool. In the 1880s, the building was reborn as a creamery on the first floor, with the upper stories used for a school, the town hall, and a community center. By 1941, the Highland Dairy had moved in and occupied the entire structure. Following a major fire and rebuilding, Highland also moved on in 1955, and this odd building has sat abandoned and deteriorating ever since. It’s impossible to know exactly which sections did what things at different times, but the National Register of Historic Places indicates that the town hall is still in there—somewhere.
Doe Run had other mills as well, this one being the three-store stone grist mill built by William Harlan in 1744. As for that third story, it disappeared in the fire of 1884. (You begin to understand why a fire insurance company was so badly needed…)
There was a surprising amount of traffic on the main road through this forgotten village. I parked where I could (and hoped for the best).
I left Doe Run via Covered Bridge Road (of course), expecting to cross Buck Run on the Speakman Covered Bridge No. 1. It’s there, all right, but it was closed for repairs following flood damage. Still, it was nice to find an original, unrestored covered bridge, even if it meant a lengthy detour.
Besides, any detour in this area will automatically take you by other scenic, historic, or interesting places. In this instance, I happened across Rokeby Hollow, which offered further proof that “everyplace is interesting.” Although I’d stopped only because it was scenic, I learned that 220 years ago Isaac Pennock built the nation’s first iron rolling and “slitting” (cutting) mill here, using power from the site’s 14-foot high waterfall. The fabricated iron was used to make barrel hoops, wagon wheels, and other products, and by 1841 the mill was working 400 tons of boiler plate a year. The Federal Slitting Mill was lost to time—until Don and Joan Silknitter bought the property in 1980 and discovered its ruins in the underbrush, along with many artifacts. Subsequently, they built a replica of the original slitting mill, which generates electricity for their own use and to sell to the local power company.
I mean, who knew? Isaac Pennock, incidentally, went on to start the Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory in nearby Coatesville, using the power of the Brandywine River. His daughter, Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens, operated the mill and built it into the area’s largest and most successful iron mill. Today, the Coatesville mill is the oldest, continuously operating steel mill in the country. And Rebecca is considered the first female industrialist and CEO in America.
Eventually I detoured around the Speakman Bridge and located the Old Stone School. It dates back to 1846, with 27-year-old Benjamin Buckwalter as the first schoolmaster. It may be the oldest one-room schoolhouses in Pennsylvania still in its original configuration. (The historical photo is from the National Register of Historic Places and shows the opposite side of the school.)
Just for my Baptist friends Cathy and Kim, here is the Hephzibah Baptist Church in all its glory. The present building was constructed in 1889, replacing earlier meeting houses from 1720 and 1793.
However… In the Hephzibah cemetery, there are clearly prominent shadows cast from a couple of objects outside of the photo. But not one of the gravestones appears to have a shadow. Most peculiar. Can you think of an explanation (other than the obvious “it’s a Baptist thing”)?
I stopped to look at the ruins of a house alongside Strasburg Road, in East Fallowfield, only to see yet more ruins through one of its windows. I tell ya, there’s treasure everywhere.
While looking for the Ercildoun Meeting House, I mistakenly thought that this old building might be it. A local woman at a church yard sale corrected my error and also mentioned that this house used to be a school for young women and that it had been badly damaged for a tornado in the 1800s. A Full Description of the Great Tornado in Chester County, Pennsylvania, by Richard Darlington, Jr., provides all the details. (Darlington was the principal of the Ercildoun Seminary for Young Ladies when the tornado struck.) The historical photo from this article shows a side view of the seminary after the tornado had ripped off its fourth story.
Nearby was the Lukens-Pierce Octagonal House. Mr. Pierce was a prosperous nurseryman, and he built this unusual dwelling in 1856. Inside, there are four large rectangular rooms and four small triangular ones, with a circular stairway in the center. As seen from the historical photos, the house originally had a large porch that enveloped five of the eight sides. (Yet another place where I’d like to live!)
Edward Dougherty was from Donegal, Ireland. A shop- and innkeeper, he built this stone Federal house in about 1795 (but sold it in 1798). Efforts appear to be underway to stabilize the house and possibly to renovate it, which is always nice to see.
It was easy to find the old railroad station in Parkesburg, since it was right next to the railroad tracks as one might naturally expect. It continues to serve passengers as an Amtrak station. Remember the early scene in the movie Witness, where Kelley McGillis and Lucas Haas are going to take the train to Philadelphia? It was filmed here.
By comparison, finding the old railroad station in Honey Brook wasn’t all that easy—mostly because the railroad doesn’t go through the town any more, and the tracks are long gone. Nonetheless, this is it. The building now serves as the town hall. Honey Brook, incidentally, used to be called Waynesburgh in honor of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, a Chester County native and hero of the American Revolution. “Honey Brook” is a loose translation of the Welsh word “Nantmeal,” as in Nantmeal Township, PA.
I have no idea who built or used to live in this house—but I loved its mixed Federal and Victorian appearance.
One of my primary goals of this trip was to find the ruins of the massive Isabella iron furnace. I was expecting an overgrown set of foundations, hidden among trees, so imagine my surprise when I easily spotted this well-maintained, park-like setting. The ruins of the furnace stack are on the lower left in the photo, with the 1870 machine shop at the upper right. The building to the right of center was the 1835 “wheel house,” where molds for casting railroad wheels and other iron products were created. The 1880 brick steam engine house is just visible on the far right.
The Isabella furnace was built in 1835 by Henry Potts (the great-grandson of the founder of Pottstown) and operated by his younger brother David. It prospered until the 1850 recession, at which time it was sold to investors outside of the Potts family. Following his retirement from the presidency of the Empire Transportation [railroad] Company, Col. Joseph Potts (David’s son) desired to return to the happy scene of his childhood at Isabella, and he repurchased the property. It continued to operate until shortly after the Colonel’s death in December 1893, making it one of the last such furnaces in Pennsylvania.
In this 1959 photo, the furnace stack is still standing. It collapsed without warning in the 1980s. Notice, too, that the machine shop has no roof; the metal roofs were removed during World War II and sold for scrap. In the early 1970s, the Lieberman family purchased the property, rebuilt the machine shop as a residence, and generally stabilized and restored many of the other buildings. The huge charcoal house—which is roughly three times the size of the machine shop—is not shown in either photo, but it still stands proudly, complete with an unusual integrated railroad trestle.
Given Pennsylvania’s later role as the world’s leading producer of steel, I suppose it’s no surprise that its early industry included a great many iron furnaces, large and small. Chester County seemed to have an unlimited supply, including the Reading Iron Furnace from 1736. Although the furnace itself no longer exists, the owner’s property continues to do well. Unfortunately, the 1744 mansion was out of site behind trees at the top of a ridge. I did manage to photograph the 85-foot-long stone “shed” and, on the left, the 1736 company store.
The James Mill was built between 1783 and 1785 and ground flour for the community until 1968! It has since been converted to a residence and is still owned by the James family.
What looks like an even larger mill, on the adjacent Warwick Furnace Farm, is actually a barn I believe. But my real interest was in the Warwick Furnace. Unfortunately, it collapsed some years ago, and the best I could do was this photo of what’s left of the furnace office, languishing in the underbrush. Warwick Furnace was built in 1737 by Mrs. Anna Nutt and operated through the 1860s. It’s notable for having cast the first Franklin Stove and for producing the iron used to build the USS Monitor, the Union’s first iron-clad warship. (Against all odds, I have now visited the furnaces used for both the Monitor and the Merrimac within the space of about a month.)
While having a pleasant conversation with the Warwick Furnace Farm’s security patrol, who wanted to ensure that I didn’t hop the fence and search out the furnace ruins (perhaps my reputation preceded me…), I learned that there was yet another grist mill just down the road. I located the Hockley Mill without difficulty—and promptly recognized the nearby iron bridge over the South Branch of French Creek, which I’d seen on an earlier trip (A Ride to Virginville and the Scariest Place Ever). Small world.
Henry Hockley came to America from England sometime in the 1720s. He married Anna Nutt’s sister, Esther, and established a milling business that largely provided services related to the Warwick Furnace. The existing mill was built in 1805 on the foundations of Henry’s original mill and is almost completely original.
Using a clever technique that I’ve developed over the years, I found St. Peter’s Village by following St. Peter’s Road. This was an 1850s “company town” for a major mining operation near the Falls of French Creek. Over time, it also became a popular tourist destination, in part because of the boulder-filled creek immediately adjacent to the town. The village itself was charming and merited a much longer visit. Some years ago, Cookie used to own and operate the general store here.
The huge boulders in French Creek are a little ways downstream of this photo, but I couldn’t get a good shot of them. Accordingly, I’ve borrowed Steve Scheutz’s excellent picture from Flickr, which nicely illustrates the scene.
By the 1880s, St. Peter’s turned its attention to quarrying black granite (technically, “subvolcanic diabase,” in case you were wondering). This quarry started in 1880 and didn’t reach bottom—over 100 feet below today’s water level—until 1970. Cookie tells me that the black granite from this quarry was used for the AT&T Building and the Whitney Museum in New York City. Ditto for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Library in Hyde Park, NY and many others. French Creek is also one of only three sources in the world for super-high quality black granite that can be used to make exceptionally stable and accurate industrial “surface plates,” used in producing aerospace systems and other precision equipment.
A hotel called Excursion House was built here in 1881. Now known as the Inn at St. Peter’s, it looks like a great place to stay for a longer visit.
And in case Cathy or Kim is interested in a visit, the town’s First Baptist Church will be happy to accommodate them.
My favorite place in the village proved to be the old general store that Cookie used to run—perhaps because it is now the St. Peter’s Bakery. Since it was 4:30 in the afternoon and I had skipped lunch, this was a mouthwatering sight. And I can objectively report that their coffee cake was the best I’ve ever had.
I made a point of driving through Birdsboro, PA, primariliy to see if Bridge Street—an odd little yellow brick road that turned sharply off of Route 345 in the middle of a tall bridge—could possibly still be there. (See From Amish to Nuclear: A Tour of the Lancaster, PA Area.) Veteran readers will remember this 2009 photo. At the time, I suggested that anyone wanting to see this turnoff should go sooner rather than later, since it threatened to collapse at any time. Well, I was right. Ninety percent of Bridge Street is gone, because it either fell down or was torn down in the process of building a new bridge across the Schuylkill River. Too bad.
Elsewhere in Birdsboro, I found St. Michael’s Episcopal Church after several tries. It was built in 1853 and was long considered one of the finest and most original of the Norman-Gothic churches in the country. Along with its striking design, it featured beautiful stained-glass windows and a Johnson & Son pipe organ with stenciled pipes. Unfortunately, church attendance dwindled as the Birdsboro Steel Corporation faltered, and the church closed its doors in 2002. A scandal erupted the following year when the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania removed the windows, pipe organ, pews, and altar and some of these items appeared for sale on eBay. And that beautiful pipe organ? Cannibalized for parts. After several years, the ransacked church reopened as the First Baptist Church of Birdsboro. (Photo of original pipe organ courtesy of P.J. Murphy Organ Builders and Associates Inc.)
When I stopped to get the church photo above, two young fellows on bicycles came roaring up and peppered me with the usual questions, including “How fast will your car go?” I answered “150 miles per hour—but not here.” Then I asked them how fast their bicycles would go, and the younger one replied “forty hundred miles per hour” with great enthusiasm. (Okay, so we both exaggerated!)
Abraham Lincoln occasionally referred to “my Pennsylvania ancestors,” but it’s unlikely that he knew very much about them. His great-great-grandfather, Mordechai Lincoln, lived on the outskirts of Birdsboro. Against all odds, Mordechai’s stone house is still there (and in pretty good shape, following renovation in 1987). The righthand portion in this photo was built in 1733 and has a walk in fireplace that’s 7 feet wide. The other section was added in 1760. A separate summer kitchen was built in the early 1800s. Mordechai, incidentally, was partners in the Coventryville iron furnace with Samuel Nutt—Anna’s husband, in case you’re keeping track. He also served as a justice of the peace and militia captain.
This old aqueduct was part of the “Schuylkill Navigation” and carried the canal over Allegheny Creek from 1824 to 1928. It continued to hold water until 1967, when it was drained by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to facilitate building a nearby road. It’s been largely neglected since then but does not appear to be deteriorating too rapidly.
Since I’d promised Cookie that I’d arrive by 7:00 PM, it was time to shortcut my route and head for Linfield, PA. There I found my welcoming bed & breakfast and a good dinner at a nearby restaurant. After all I’d seen so far in Chester County, could there be anything further for the next day?
Well, yes, actually—I’d only scratched the surface. I’ll start with the Shearer Elegance Bed & Breakfast (now a private residence). The magnificent Victorian mansion was built in 1897 as (believe it or not) a farmer’s house. Cookie and her husband bought the place about 30 years ago, and she threw herself into renovating the mansion from top (where birds were living happily in the attic and third floor rooms) to bottom (where the basement held 3 feet of water). The transformation was stunning.
While I loved every square foot of the mansion, I was particularly taken with the elegant wooden staircase and the stained-glass windows:
Here is my host Cookie in the dining room, enjoying a rare moment of relaxation. About 60 guests for a bridal shower were due in 3 hours, but she handles things like that in stride.
My room was gigantic, running the entire width of the second floor. All of the built-in woodwork was done in bird’s eye maple. The armoire alone was bigger than some motel rooms I’ve stayed in! Each of the rooms at Sheerer Elegance is furnished with antiques and has a theme. For the “Charlotte” room, the theme is hats; there were at least 30 antique hats, along with a number of drawings and prints of elegant ladies wearing hats. (I don’t think there was a BMW-themed room, I’m sorry to report…)
After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and fruit, it was time to continue the adventure. Cookie had told me about an interesting county park where she went roller-skating as a teenager, so I added it to the itinerary. Getting from Linfield to Pottstown involves going through Limerick, PA, home of a major nuclear generating plant. Don’t worry, that’s just steam escaping from the twin cooling towers. Probably…
I found Ringing Rocks County Park exactly where Cookie left it. Normally, you would see a huge field of rocks and boulders like this at the bottom of a hill, having washed down or collapsed from above. This field lies suspiciously at the top of the mountain. Hmmm… Possible explanations range from the disintegration of a huge vein of rock, through thousands of years of freeze-thaw cycles, to more interesting ideas involving meteorites, magnetic fields, comets, or (everybody’s favorite) the supernatural. I report, you decide.
The field of boulders stretches on for 7 to 8 acres. What really makes it unusual is that if you hit the rocks with a hammer, the majority of them will ring almost like a bell. I had a great time whacking away at them with a large crescent wrench from my toolkit and seeing which rocks would ring and which would have just an ordinary dull thud. The ringing property apparently results from a just-right content of iron and aluminum, and such rocks have only been found in a few places throughout the world. A good demonstration is available at YouTube: Ringing Rocks Park.
How many of you have heard of Duryea automobiles, produced in Reading, PA during 1900-1914? The company’s founders, brothers Charles and Frank Duryea, insisted that every vehicle produced had to be tested by driving it up the switchback turns to the top of Mount Penn—in high gear. The test road, now called Duryea Drive, is still there, and the Z4 made it to the top just fine, thank you. (However, I’ll admit that I didn’t try it in sixth gear…)
An entertaining video of a race-prepared Sunbeam Tiger (on cold tires, apparently) racing up Duryea Drive as part of the Mount Penn hillclimb, is available at Tiger at Mount Penn. Near the top of the hill is the iconic Reading Pagoda.
The pagoda also offers a great view of the city of Reading, far below.
As I drove down Spook Lane on the other side of the mountain, I couldn’t resist turning off on Castle Lane to see if there might just be a castle there. Well, there was one, of sorts. George Baer Hiester built Stokesay Castle in 1931 as a wedding present for his wife Anne. He used the finest materials and spared no expense, but Anne didn’t like the place, and it was only ever used occasionally as a summer home prior to their divorce in the late 1930s. (You gotta admit: even in her wedding photo, Anne didn’t look very happy.) Since 1970, Stokesay Castle has been a restaurant and wedding hall.
Eventually I got to the bottom of Mount Penn, fully intending to make up for lost time, but was promptly sidetracked by the Bahr Mill and its associated farmhouse, smokehouse, pig sty, general store, and other buildings—all of which have been owned and operated by the Gable-Bahr family for more than 195 years.
This scenic 1930 Ford Model A pickup was lurking behind the family barn. It’s for sale in case anyone’s interested.
And that brings us to Boyertown. You know the various safety features that are present in public places, such as emergency doors that open out, not in, clear signs indicating fire escapes and emergency exits, etc.? One might expect that such features were developed ahead of time, by prudent and thoughtful worriers, and installed long before any catastrophes had a chance to occur. But one would be wrong. These and other safety requirements were implemented in response to the tragic Rhoades Opera House fire. The Opera House was situated on the second story of his building in Boyertown. On January 13, 1908, 312 people—or about one-seventh of the entire population of the town—were there for a performance of “The Scottish Reformation.”
In-between acts, the theatre put on a novel photographic slide show, where one image would fade out and be replaced by the next, using a stereopticon (“magic lantern”) projector with calcium lights. H.W. Fisher, the projectionist, inadvertently moved a lever on the machine in the wrong direction, causing a very loud hissing noise, which startled the actors and audience. Members of the cast darted out from behind the closed curtain, knocking over a lamp and immediately igniting the long, shallow tank of kerosene that was used to feed the stage’s footlights. A massive fire erupted, and the fleeing audience could not escape through the main doors—which opened inward. Although two of the windows led to steel fire escapes, they were not marked. By the time the holocaust was over, 171 men, women, and children had died, and another 75 were injured.
The building was reconstructed in the same style as the original. Today it houses a real estate office, book store, and an upstairs gym and offices. The 1908 tragedy led directly to adoption of fire safety measures throughout Pennsylvania and, subsequently, the rest of the country.
With somber thoughts, I left Boyertown and continued my route, passing once again through Linfield. A sign outside of this abandoned 192-acre industrial complex proclaimed “Coming Soon! The All New Linfield Business Park.” The sign was dangling at an angle, the post having given away and fallen against a fence. I couldn’t find a good way into the facility, which was just as well since I later learned that the soil is laced with PCBs, lead, arsenic, cadmium, trichlorobenzenes, and cyanide—some of which was found to have leached into the nearby Schuylkill River in 1992. Let’s add environmental protection regulations to the approved list, along with fire safety.
On the other side of the Schuylkill, a canoeist named Eric helped me locate the old Parker’s Ford Tavern. The tavern was built in 1766 by Edward Parker and served travelers who followed the “Great Road” from Philadelphia to Reading and crossed the Schuylkill River here. In early September, 1777, George Washington and the Continental Army forded the river here on their way to what became the Battle of Brandywine. Washington used the tavern as his headquarters while the army passed through.
Eric and his family live in this stone house near the tavern; it has had some Victorian elements added over the years.
Edward Parker’s son Henry, and Henry’s wife Susannah, built this home in 1801. The remains of the Schuylkill Canal run immediately behind both houses and alongside the river.
Eric also told me where to find the ruins of an old aqueduct that carried the canal across Pigeon Creek. He added, “If George asks what you’re doing on his property, tell him Eric said it was okay.” I didn’t see George, but I did find the ruins, which were almost invisible within the trees and shrubbery.
Chester County has so many covered bridges that after a while I stopped taking photos of them. (Sacrilege!) But the Kennedy Covered Bridge was sufficiently distinctive to merit an exception. It was built in 1856 across French Creek, survived the flood of 1884, and its appearance has remained unchanged ever since.
While looking for the ruins of Prizer’s Mill nearby, I ended up on a very narrow, very rural little road pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Prior research had led me to believe that the mill would be set back from the road and down a steep embankment. When I spotted a woman walking along, I stopped to ask her where the mill could be found—only to discover in mid-question that Prizer’s Mill was quite obviously right behind her! We both had a good laugh about it, although she seemed to have some trouble stopping her laughter… (I get that a lot.)
Anyway, the grist mill was built in the late 1700s, originally as a one-story structure. Over time, the business prospered, and in 1867 Benjamin Prizer expanded it to three stories along Mill Lane and four stories in the back. It closed in 1950, and, as of 1987, its roof was still in place and the walls were intact, but the subsequent 36 years have taken their toll.
Benjamin Prizer’s first and second houses are still standing in good condition. This is his second one, from 1878. It’s 3 ½ stories, with first floor windows that are 10 feet high. The historical photo shows the house, mill, and associated buildings (courtesy of History of Chester County, Pennsylvania, by J. Smith Futhey and Gilbert Cope, 1881).
From Prizer’s Mill it was a short drive into downtown Phoenixville. Unusually attentive readers will recall that I’d encountered the Phoenixville Bridge in Virginia on an earlier trip. It had been a railroad bridge but was converted to automobile use, and it was named for the Pennsylvania city in which it was built. As luck would have it, my route took me right through Phoenixville, and it proved to be quite a interesting place.
This was the Gay Street School from 1874 to 1964. The section closest to the camera was built first and comprised two classrooms on each floor. The taller center section and far end were added in 1883, with ten additional classrooms. Today, the school is an apartment building, almost unchanged from its original appearance except for the fire escapes and the fact that the bell tower has gone missing. The clock is still keeping excellent time.
How many of you remember Steve McQueen’s first leading role in a movie? That’s right, it was The Blob in 1958! (No Willis, I’m not making this up.) In a pivotal scene, the Blob oozes into the Colonial Theatre, consumes the projectionist, and then has a field day with the audience, which was watching a midnight showing of Daughter of Horror. Well, here’s the Colonial Theatre, in downtown Phoenixville, right where this scene was filmed. It started out showing vaudeville acts and plays in 1903 before converting to moving pictures. Harry Houdini and Mary Pickford both performed here, among many others. It’s the only such theatre left in Chester County—and it still shows movies.
And the annual Colonial Theatre BlobFest looks like a lot of fun!
As for Steve McQueen, he chose to be paid with $3,000 cash, rather than 10 percent of the earnings (which, as it turned out, would have totaled $400,000). I’m told that he went on to bigger and better Hollywood success in subsequent years.
The foundry building of the original Phoenixville Iron Works wasn’t as interesting as The Blob, but it’s been beautifully renovated.
So, too, has the old Phoenix Column Bridge, which used to allow workers and materials to easily cross over French Creek from one part of the iron works to the other. It was built circa 1880 and was also used to showcase the company’s products.
This is a photo of French Creek, with the iron works’ dam in the foreground, the Phoenix Column Bridge further on, and the Gay Street bridge in the distance.
I was determined to find the oldest railroad tunnel still in use in the United States. The Black Rock Tunnel was built in 1835 and runs right underneath Phoenixville. It was not to be, however, since getting within sight of either entrance would have required scaling a tall steel fence and walking along active train tracks for a quarter mile or more. (I would have done it if there’d been a discrete place to park the Z4. Next time!) Anyway, here’s a postcard of the view I was looking for, where the tracks exit the north side of the tunnel and immediately cross the Schuylkill River.
There’s not a lot left of the Schuylkill Navigation, which was completed in 1827 and operated for 108 miles from Port Carbon to Philadelphia. About 62 of these miles were man-made canals, with the remaining 42 using “slack water” sections of the Schuylkill River itself. The sole remaining lock in working condition is just outside of Phoenixville, near the village of Mont Clare, and this portion of the old canal has been rewatered for about 2 ½ miles.
Did I mention that Mont Clare was the birthplace of one Harry Alonzo Longabaugh in 1867? He moved west at an early age and became better known as the Sundance Kid. Here he is, with his girlfriend, Etta Place, just before leaving the U.S. for South America with Robert Leroy Parker (a.k.a. Butch Cassidy).
The lockkeeper’s house is still in good condition.
So, too, is Lock 60—although the water could use a little more circulation.
Whilst taking these photos, I heard the sound of falling water coming from farther north. Canals generally need a system for keeping the water at the right level. This section of the canal opened from the Schuylkill River at the Black Rock Dam, with the canal flowing south to Lock 60, and a spillway on the western side diverting excess water back into the river. Kind of like this:
Walking a little further north, I found the spillway, with its approximately 25-foot-high stone channel and numerous signs proclaiming “No jumping! No diving! No swimming! No having fun of any sort!!” Or words to that effect.
Shortly thereafter, Andrew and Andrea appeared, sopping wet and apparently having Prohibited Fun. They had met only two weeks earlier and were clearly very much in love.
Andy, as she prefers to be called, is from Mexico. Not only does she like to have fun, she is totally fearless!
After swimming down the spillway and climbing back up a path to the top, she insisted on a rather wet hug for Yr Fthfl Srvnt. Best wishes to them both, and here’s to Adventure in all forms.
I was anxious to get to Valley Forge, so I reluctantly said goodbye to Andy and Andy and drove back down the towpath to civilization and Route 23. Of course I immediately detoured to see if I could spot Moore Hall, the 1730 home of Judge William Moore, an Englishman and British Loyalist. During his 40 years as Judge of the Chester County Court, there were numerous complaints and petitions regarding his “tyranny and injustice.” The Assembly eventually imprisoned Moore for several months, but the British King restored him to his position.
In 1775, our friend “Mad Anthony” Wayne forced Moore to retract a number of derogatory statements about the Revolution. But Moore’s artfully worded “retraction” was actually full of sarcastic remarks about the Revolution and Mad Anthony in particular. Moore continued to live in his mansion throughout the war, even though it was often occupied by officers of the Continental Army. In fact, a committee of the Continental Congress met at Moore Hall for three months in early 1778 and named George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the army. William Moore died at age 84, three months before the end of the Revolutionary War. Moore Hall was extensively renovated in 1930 and is once again a private residence.
I eventually made it to Valley Forge and did a whirlwind tour of the park where the Continental Army of 12,000 men spent the winter of 1777-1778. Despite bitter weather and severe shortages of food, the army drilled diligently, practiced various attack scenarios, and learned to be a capable, professional force. The troops lived in hundreds of small cabins such as this recreated one.
Here is General “Mad Anthony” Wayne in all his glory. He was a bold and generally successful commander during the Revolution, and he later won the pivotal Battle of Fallen Timbers that ended the Northwest Indian War in 1795. The resulting Treaty of Greenville gave the territory that is now Ohio to the United States. Gen. Wayne died in 1796 while returning to Pennsylvania. He was buried in what is now Erie, PA, but his son Isaac later had him disinterred and carried his father’s bones in two saddlebags (well, as many as would fit) back to Pennsylvania. Modern Route 322, which follows Isaac’s path, is said to be haunted by the ghost of the General, looking for his lost bones.
Before long, I found myself in the former resort town of Yellow Springs. Its iron, sulfur, and magnesium springs made it a popular spa as early as 1722. Since then, the village has gone through a series of significant events. Following the defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, George Washington and the Continental Army first retreated to West Chester but then circled back to Yellow Springs on September 16-17, 1777. There, Washington established the first purpose-built military hospital in the U.S., where up to 1,300 individuals could be accommodated at a time. Previously, wounded soldiers were treated in homes, churches, barns, or any handy open field.
Washington was aware of the importance of cleanliness in hospital facilities, and the soldiers treated here had much better recuperation rates than were generally experienced at this point in history—or during the Civil War 85 years later, for that matter. (All historical photos are courtesy of Historic Yellow Springs.)
After the American Revolution, Yellow Springs returned to its spa activities, hosting such luminaries as Presidents Madison and Monroe, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and “America’s Nightingale,” Jenny Lind.
The spa closed again—permanently this time—as a result of the Civil War. After this war, the State of Pennsylvania used the spa buildings and facilities for a Soldiers’ Orphans School. It operated through 1912, by which time all of the orphans had grown up and were on their own. The strict life at the school may not have agreed with all of the students. In 1902, one of them, Joseph Cripps, tore up a dictionary and set it on fire in a closet of Washington’s old military hospital, which was being used as a residence and classroom building. It was destroyed but was quickly replaced. The replacement burned in 1964, and only the original stone foundations remain today. Other fires destroyed the original 1750 inn building in 1876 and the Lincoln Building in 1899. Both were rebuilt shortly afterwards and remain to this day.
After the Orphans School closed, Yellow Springs became home to summer residential classes of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The art school was very popular, and classes were held for four months each summer from 1916 through 1952. Students lived and worked in the rebuilt spa buildings and hospital, and a former stable was converted to the Chester Springs Studio. (As best I can tell, the names “Yellow Springs” and “Chester Springs” have been used almost interchangeably throughout much of the town’s existence.)
After the art school closed, a movie company called Good News Productions was created by Irvin Shortess “Shorty” Yeaworth, Jr. The company made roughly 400 films, with most of them intended for Christian groups—but it also filmed The Blob and The 4D Man the following year, with a 12-year-old Patty Duke.
All in all, it was a lot of history in one relatively small village. Virtually the entire place is a “living museum,” with visitors welcome (with the possible exception of any of Joseph Cripps’ descendants…) This is the Washington Inn as it looked on the day of my visit…
…and this is the Lincoln Building, which now houses the library.
Uwchlan Township was started in 1700 by Quaker immigrants from Wales. (“Uwchlan” means “land above the valley” in Welsh.) They built the Uwchlan Meeting House in 1756, in what is now Lionville. It served as a hospital during the Revolutionary War and a stop on the Underground Railroad. (To facilitate the passage of escaped slaves, the meeting house and the popular Red Lion Tavern are said to have been connected by a tunnel.)
This one-room schoolhouse was built by the Quakers in 1859, and African American children were taught as equals alongside their white schoolmates. The initial roster of students listed 53 boys and 49 girls. The school is now a museum, named in honor of Edith P. Moore who was the beloved teacher for the last 26 years of the school’s operation.
As with most of the towns in Chester County, Downingtown is practically dripping with history. This log cabin was built here in 1701 and is probably the oldest surviving building in the county.
Even more important is the Downingtown Diner, which featured prominently in The Blob. In the movie, Steve McQueen and the townspeople hid in the basement of the diner when it was engulfed by the Blob. There are conflicting stories about whether the original diner was heavily modified in the 1960s or replaced by a different one (with the original reportedly sent to Hollywood). Either way, the basement is the original, as used in the movie.
As the day was wearing on and the sun getting lower in the sky, I realized that I had not yet made any progress on Indian Hannah or the Stargazer’s Stone. Thus, I left Downingtown in a cloud of Bridgestone dust, heading for Embreeville. On the way, I naturally stopped briefly in Marshallton to look at the 1750 blacksmith’s shop…
…and the ruins of Martin’s Tavern. It was built in 1764 and, over the course of its long existence, served as a tavern, hotel, post office, and boarding house. From 1970-2004, however, it was abandoned and deteriorated substantially. The community rallied to preserve what could be saved of the old place—which wasn’t much, given the comparison of the 2004 photo and the current site. The original tavern walls were identified and retained. A favorite beverage at the tavern was “cider royal,” made of hard apple cider and apple brandy. Gruel and cornmeal mush were also served, which might be why the cider royal was so popular.
At long last, I reached the Embreeville area and, at the far end of a field, spotted this small stone wall.
As I suspected, the low wall surrounded exactly what I was seeking—the Stargazer’s Stone. This stone was carefully placed in January 1764 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. They used it as the critical reference for measuring the latitude of 39º 43’ 26.4″ N, which fell exactly 15 miles south of the then-southernmost point of the city of Philadelphia. This position had been agreed upon as the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Penns and the Calverts had been disputing this border for 80 years before agreeing to settle the issue by hiring Mason and Dixon. The British surveyors returned repeatedly to their “observatory” during their 4 ½ year operation and always used the Stargazer’s Stone to establish and confirm their critical measurements.
A very interesting account of the survey and its subsequent role in slavery and racial integration in the U.S. is available from A brief history of the Mason-Dixon Line, by John Mackenzie of the University of Delaware. As Dr. Mackenzie states, the hard-drinking surveyors “spent the winter at Harland’s farm making astronomical observations on clear nights and enjoying local taverns on cloudy nights.” His paper also discusses the notorious Patty Cannon, who kidnapped free African Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line and sold them to the south. After her capture, “Cannon died in jail before trial, reportedly a suicide by poison. Her skull is kept in a hatbox at the Dover Public Library. It does not circulate via inter-library loan.”
About one-third of a mile east of the Mason and Dixon’s marker lies another stone, dedicated to Hannah Freeman (1730-1802). The Native American Lenni-Lenape tribes, also known as the Delaware Nation, had lived in this part of Pennsylvania for 10,000 years. They were treated fairly by William Penn, but, following Penn’s death in 1718, his sons swindled the Lenape out of much of their lands. Subsequently, the 1758 Treaty of Easton forced these tribes to leave Pennsylvania and Delaware altogether and to resettle in Ohio. (They were later forced out of Ohio as well.)
The last surviving member of the Lenni-Lenape in Chester County was known as “Indian Hannah.” She was born on the grounds of what is now the Pierre DuPont estate at Longwood Gardens in 1730 or 1731. From an early age, she would help farm families in exchange for room and board, and her handmade baskets and brooms were in great demand. On November 12, 1800, she could no longer maintain her itinerant lifestyle and became one of the first residents of the Chester County Poorhouse, dying there on March 20, 1802. All I could find of the poorhouse was the photo below; the building itself no longer exists. However, I tracked down its location to the now-defunct Embreeville State Hospital (previously called the Chester County Asylum for the Insane).
I was searching for Indian Hannah’s final resting place, in “the cemetery located near the poorhouse.” The Embreeville Hospital is carefully guarded by a tall fence with barbed wire on top (and occasional patrols from the State Police barracks next door), but an extensive review of satellite photography showed nothing looking like poorhouse ruins or a cemetery. However, I learned of the Poorhouse Bridge over the Brandywine River, approximately one-half mile south of the hospital site.
At the bridge, a local family told me that the Poorhouse Cemetery, known as Potter’s Field, is located another four-tenths of a mile away in this photo, near the power lines. I didn’t have time to hike there on this day, but subsequent online snooping confirmed the location of the cemetery, with 264 small, numbered headstones.
I’ll visit Potter’s Field on my next trip to this area. In the meantime, however, Black Horse Paranormal Research (of all organizations) reports that they believe the actual poorhouse cemetery is not at Potter’s Field and is instead close to the ruins of the poor house itself. (I’ve written to them, asking where that might be.) Somewhere, Indian Hannah is resting in peace, the last of the Lenape in Chester County.
Old Embreeville was founded by a brewer named William Embree in 1822, and it hasn’t changed much in the last 191 years. Back in the day, it boasted a thriving industry, including a large grist and saw mill that still stands. This was the village’s general store, which was built in 1822…
…and across the street was the storekeeper’s house (painted the same color), a small barn, and the diminutive Cadwalader House from 1840.
I wasn’t sure who this was in the window, sporting a number of men’s hats. To me, he looked a lot like Jefferson Davis—but why would anyone in Pennsylvania be honoring the president of the Confederacy?
As my tour came to a close, I managed to locate the abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge across the West Branch of the Brandywine River. This nearby diesel locomotive was rather easier to find.
My long-suffering Z4 had performed flawlessly throughout the two days, alternately trundling around in second gear while I searched for various historical sites or roaring to redline through the gears as I tried to make time and find everything before dark. It’s always a joy to drive and never fails to attract compliments from people young or old, male or female. In appreciation of the Z4’s faithful service, I’m always careful to park it in a safe and secure location. Okay, almost always…
Happy Fall, and be sure to take your BMW out to enjoy the colors!