The Lost POW Camp


Let’s see: Rumors of a secret World War II prisoner of war camp hidden away in the mountains of Pennsylvania. How could any self-respecting historic explorer not try to find what’s left of it? And so I set off on Labor Day for another BMW Z4 tour of south-central PA, with the POW camp as the featured attraction.

I started in this trip in Hanover. Not far outside of town, I decided to check out Oil Creek. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew I was on this nameless road, toward an unknown destination, and admiring the effect of the early morning light.

There’s not a rural road in America that doesn’t have something interesting alongside. In this case, I met an old fellow whose favorite retirement project has been restoring this old Pennsylvania Railroad caboose—which just happens to sit in his side yard. (I should have asked him how he got it there; the official tracks were 100 yards away.)

Just outside of Spring Grove, the view of this pond was marred a bit by the P.H. Glatfelter Co. factory in the distance. I shouldn’t complain, however, since the factory started operations way back in 1864, manufacturing printing paper right up to today. In fact, the current President, George H. Glatfelter, is the great-great grandson of the original founder, Philip H. Glatfelter.

This was P.H.’s residence, built in 1887 right across the street from the factory.

While exiting Spring Grove, I spotted this stately Chevrolet sedan being polished by its owner. The owner’s father bought the car new in 1951, and it’s been garaged and carefully maintained ever since. It has never been restored—or even repainted—and it looks like it rolled right off the showroom floor. Nice!

It’s entirely likely that the ’51 Chevy drove across Conewago Creek on this bridge more than once. The bridge’s traffic-carrying days are long gone, although it got me safely across the creek and back on foot. And yes, that reddish tint is “solid rust.” Visit it while you can…

You see a lot of abandoned-looked historic houses in the Pennsylvania countryside. This one featured a For Sale sign, with an asking price of $175,000 (including the 1.5-acre lot).

I’d never been to York Haven before, but it proved to be a tiny, beautiful little town right on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Downstream, there was a coal-fired electricity generation plant. This massive old hydro-electric plant lay upstream.

The plant’s operators generously allow visitors to venture out over the river on this catwalk. It was probably a lot sturdier than it felt…

Did I mention what a gloriously beautiful day it was? Plenty of sun, scenic clouds, and a temperature of 75 degrees. Perfect!

Leaving Goldsboro, I happened across this overgrown barn. The farmhouse across the road was in much better shape—and was accompanied by a beautiful young blond woman who exited the house, hopped into her BMW Z4 2.5i, immediately put the top down, and gave me a friendly wave and smile as she motored by.

Speaking of Z4’s, here’s mine parked in front of a small church with the most colorful window treatments I’ve seen in a long time. (Cheaper than stained glass, too.)

Die Frieden Kirche (“Peace Church”) in Camp Hill, PA was built in 1798 and operated through 1866. It’s still used for special services, and its adjoining cemetery was mammoth.

Driving the Z4 from point to historic point was more fun than I can easily describe. As noted, the weather was perfect, and traffic was light. Moreover, the roads twisted this way and that and (with rare exceptions) were free of gravel. The Z4 leapt from corner to corner and went around each one as if on rails. Absent any of the historic and scenic sights along the way, it still would have been a blast.

My next stop was Boiling Springs. Ironically, I’d been there before and found the largest of the 30-or-so springs in the area (see The Lost Town of Pandamonia, PA, but I hadn’t made it to the historic—and really beautiful—part of town. On this trip, I didn’t even realize it was the same town at first! Regardless, it proved to be one of the most enjoyable places I’ve seen in a very long time. First settled in 1737 and officially laid out by Daniel Kaufman in 1845, it featured one of the country’s first iron furnaces. Back in the mid-1700s, such furnaces were banned by the British, who didn’t want any upstart colonials building cannons, ammunition, or other Implements o’ Destruction. Boiling Springs did so surreptitiously, and this striking mansion was built in 1797 by the ironmaster, Michael Ege.

The beautiful “Children’s Lake” was originally created as a source of water to power the ironworks. I was sorely tempted to sit there admiring the view for an hour or more, but there were many other things to see in Boiling Springs, not to mention my other planned destinations.

In the late 1800s, Boiling Springs became a popular tourist and day-trip attaction, with dances, picnics, and (reportedly) the State’s best fly-fishing. The trolley from Carlisle cost 5¢.

Ege’s Bridge crosses my old friend, the quiet Yellow Breeches Creek. On the day I visited, incidentally, there was no shortage of fly fishermen and women trying their luck in the creek and by the lake. After taking this photo, I almost literally bumped into Patricia Roland-Mateya as she was walking her dog on a nearby path. Patricia is a writer for the Harrisburg Patriot-News and enthusiastically told me about Boiling Springs’ history. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, with escaping slaves aided by Daniel Kaufman—one of the only such people ever arrested, jailed, and fined for providing assistance. Patricia’s own property was recently identified as the site of Kaufman’s barn, where the slaves were hidden during their journey, and it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

This mammoth grist mill survived a fire in 1897 and now serves as apartments for some of the town’s 15,000 residents.

What a perfect, historic town. The only thing that could make it even better would be if the original iron furnace had managed to survive. Yep, it’s right there (and a lot easier to find than it was under British rule). And, naturally, it produced armament for use against the British in the Revolutionary War.

Despite his $4,000 fine, Daniel Kaufman appears to have done well in life: This was his home from 1880 on.

While I was chatting with Patricia, she told me about an article she had written on “brick end barns.” I had never heard of this type of barn, which is rapidly becoming scarce, but back on the road I quickly spotted one in a distant field. The use of brick for just the ends of the barn saved substantially on construction costs and allowed creative designs for the ventilation openings necessary to keep the hay from spontaneously combusting. This particular barn, as it happened, did not have any patterns. (I’ll keep looking, Patricia!)

Many of the farms in this part of Pennsylvania are thriving, thanks to the arduous efforts by the Amish. This farmhouse, however, was not among them. But the barn complex across the road still looked serviceable.

Proving that West Virginia has nothing on Pennsylvania when it comes to having Odd Things in Front Yards, check out this one: Someone decided that it would be a good idea to take an old wagon, strap a boat on top of it, and then fill the whole mess with miscellaneous wood. Now, how could that idea be improved upon? Well, why not park an old lawn mower underneath? There you have it. I do not exaggerate these stories.

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to drive by an abandoned farm with scenic old buildings and a convenient place to make my car a part of the picture. When I got home and looked at the picture, I kept thinking that it reminded me of something, but what was it?

Eventually, I realized that the composition was reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World.” With appropriate apologies to the late master, here it is for comparison.

So, did all these rocks end up in this little creek as a result of a major flood, major erosion, creative Ice Age, or some other explanation?

I happened across quite a number of barns on this trip, not surprisingly, but this is the only round barn that I encountered.

This is the upper loft of the barn…

…and this is the old gas pump outside. Here’s their website, in case you’d like to visit sometime: The Historic Round Barn & Farm Market.

In Fairfield, the classic Fairfield Inn and Restaurant has been going strong since 1786(!).

This unidentified, abandoned church, however, was a sad sight. Its sign showed only the plaintive message, “Pews for Sale.”

Yep, a photo-op around every corner.

So far, no sign of the prisoner of war camp—but patience, faithful readers, it’s coming. As I worked my way toward its vicinity, my next stop was the Renfrew State Park east of Waynesboro. The park is named after the two young Renfrew sisters who were massacred there in 1764 by Indians during the French and Indian War. The park features a beautiful setting and several historic buildings dating from the early 1800s.

These youngsters were having a great time playing by Antietam Creek, vigorously transferring stones from the bank to the creek. I assume they were unaware of the story of the Renfrew girls!

With the clouds getting denser, and the day drawing late, I charged off to what I hoped would be the site of the POW camp. But I couldn’t resist stopping for a picture of the Emmanuel Chapel at the Mont Alto branch of Penn State University. It’s been there since 1854 and was the last place that John Brown worshipped before his famous raid on Harper’s Ferry just before the beginning of the Civil War.

Oh, and I also stopped for a picture of this pavilion at Mont Alto State Park—the oldest state park in Pennsylvania and once host to as many as 15,000 visitors a weekend. The pavilion used to covered a carousel, and the original South Mountain Sanitorium Camp was located nearby.

Okay, finally, what about the POW camp?? It’s located near the Pine Grove Furnace State Park, on route 233 in Pennsylvania. I’d gone by Michaux Road any number of times without investigating what might lie nearby. This time, armed with information from Lee Schaeffer’s incredibly fact-filled website, I knew that—somewhere—there were the remains of the camp. The area started life as a farm in the mid-to-late 1700s. In 1931 the Civilian Conservation Corps built a camp for young men who, among other things, helped improve the Appalachian Trail in this area. The CCC camp closed in 1941 and, in 1943, it was taken over for use as an interrogation center for captured German officers. It was a closely guarded secret throughout its operation, and even local residents were unaware of its existence. One of the prisoners painted this view of the facility (historic pictures courtesy of Mr. Schaeffer’s website):

After World War II, two local churches tore down the prison fences and watch towers and converted what was left to a youth fellowship camp. It petered out in 1972 and has sat vacant ever since. The property reverted to the Michaux State Forest, and the State of Pennsylvania helpfully tore down all of the buildings shortly thereafter.

I found what I hoped was the main entrance to the camp and, with the sun setting and the woods growing dark, I set off down a faint trail to see what was still left of the camp. Very soon, I spotted these stone steps and the foundation of the Michaux Lodge, which served as the interrogation center during the POW years. I was on the right track!

This old photograph shows the prisoner mess hall and the surrounding security fence. If you look carefully in the center of the picture, you’ll see a stone fountain built by the CCC boys. (The path leads directly to it.)

The path is still there, although rather overgrown these days. And, remarkably, the fountain has largely survived as well.

The bright blue, glass-like stones surround the fountain are pieces of slag from the Pine Grove iron furnace.

Further on, I found this flat circular stone, with numerous faded markings. I couldn’t make them out, but subsequent input from Vince Montano, an amateur historian on the POW camp, revealed that the stone was placed there when the POW camp closed. The markings indicate “Third Service Command” and “Pine Grove” at the top, and the Third Service Corps insignia is shown in the center (the triangle-shaped part). Below that are the letters “P.O.W.” and the opening and closing dates of the camp. (Many thanks, Vince, for this information and for providing other information and corrections about the area!)

Lee Schaiffer was a student delegate at the church camp in 1961 and took this picture of a Young Lovely (who is sitting on the words “Pine Grove,” with the W in “P.O.W.” just visible to her right).

The foundation of the mess hall is still easy to spot, complete with its spooky openings. (Support beams and a supply of leftover lumber are visible inside.)

There were any number of other artifacts visible on either side of the main path, including the foundations of other buildings and what later proved to be the base for the main gate into the prisoners’ holding area. Eventually I also found the camp’s water supply system, which I mistakenly thought was “the old swimming hole,” which the CCC built by placing a dam on Tom’s Run and concrete liners around the pool. This is the water supply (thanks again, Vince)—and now I need to return to find both the old swimming hole and the later swimming pool that was built for the church campers.

Looking down the spillway. The little footbridge was all of about 18 inches wide, and it gave noticeably when I placed a little weight on it. Although I’m not afraid of heights or bridges, I couldn’t bring myself to cross it! Instead, I scrambled down the bank of the spillway, crossed on the slippery moss-covered rocks, and then crawled up the opposite bank. Next time, I’ll take the bridge—after I watch another 200-pounder cross over first!

With the woods definitely getting dark, I retraced my steps back to Michaux Road. I was excited by all that I’d found, but I was still looking for one more item. I’d seen a photo of what looked like a massive stone prison wall, complete with bars in the windows. I even had a purported location for it, but there was nothing to be found. With the sun very low on the horizon, as shown in this “self portrait,” I decided to give it one last try.

The last try involved taking a blocked-off section of the Appalachian Trail. The signs indicated that one really ought not to go down this part of the trail, but the pile of brush blocking the way wasn’t very high, so, off I went. And, sure enough, only 200 yards in I found this:

Although it was next to, and not on, the POW camp grounds, this had to be part of the prison facilities, right? Especially with the brick bars still in place in many of the windows?

Well, it wasn’t. Even by the time of the POW camp, this building was already a ruin, with only this wall remaining. (The wall is visible in the upper-right corner of the camp painting, above.) It turns out that this is one end of a huge barn, believed to have been built shortly after the Revolutionary War by captured Hessian troops. The wall is 3 feet thick and has stood for over 200 years, although the rest of the barn is long gone. And the bars in the windows? Well, my guess is that they represent an early colonial version of the same brick end barn ventilation holes that Patricia wrote about.

I completed the last 30 miles of my route back to Hanover in the dark, wondering what other marvelous landmarks I was missing. I arrived back home after 15 hours of extremely enjoyable motoring, exploring, photographing, and talking with interesting and knowledgeable residents. It was so much fun that I’m planning to head back soon to find the other 20 or 30 remnants of Camp Michaux before the forest reclaims them all.

Rick F.

PS: My overall route came, once again, right out of RoadRunner Magazine, the best motorcycle touring mag I’ve run across. If you’re a subscriber, you can download the articles and GPS routes right from their website. If not, you can purchase them for $5.00. All of their routes feature fun roads and beautiful scenery. It always pays to experiment some, however, which is what led me to the caboose, Children’s Lake, and Camp Michaux.


Written by Rick

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