This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website, https://ccupublichistory18.wordpress.com, for more information.
By Gert Hynes
In September 2017, a hurricane evacuation from South Carolina took me to family in Pennsylvania. While there, in an attempt to use our time wisely, we visited Valley Forge National Park, which was a first for me. I was shocked and amazed at the size of this American treasure, and embarrassed that as a former “northerner” I’d never been there. It covers nearly 3,500 acres and is a short 12 miles outside of Philadelphia.
As we explored the grounds, it was easy to understand why Washington chose this place for his headquarters. It sits high upon a mountain overlooking the valley below – an excellent spot for surveillance of enemy maneuvers. Approaching this amazing building, you get a sense of admiration, not only for the architectural integrity of the structure itself, but for the wisdom of the “Father of Our Country.” Visitors are free to examine the rooms inside which include an office with a drop-leaf table where business was conducted, circa 1740, a simple but elegant bedroom for George and Martha Washington, complete with a mahogany and maple bed, circa 1770’s, and a second bedroom that served as an additional office or room for guests if needed.
Outside, visitors can wander into primitive soldier’s cabins, explore the nearly 30 miles of hiking trails or enjoy the manicured lawns. We took advantage of a warm sunny afternoon with a picnic lunch. Leashed pets are welcome, and my dog Henley enjoyed her time there as well. The park has many educational opportunities in the form of an interactive walking tour with a Park Ranger, trolley tours, and tales of bravery, spies, and heroism given by professional and amateur “storytellers.”
In 1993, a monument to the “Patriots of African Descent” was erected at Valley Forge National Park in recognition for the African soldiers who fought with Washington at Valley Forge in 1777. This “monumental” monument was sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter.
The park is also home to numerous wildlife species, including deer, foxes, Eastern cottontails, and even coyotes. Birdwatchers have identified over 225 species of birds, including the bald eagle, osprey, and peregrine falcons. The creeks abound with trout, bass, and catfish, and the meadows and forests attract not only butterflies, but a multitude of other insect species.
It all seems wonderful, however, nothing in this world is perfect, and amid the history and educational opportunities, problems also prevail. In the late 1960’s a manufacturing company disposed of asbestos waste into sections of the Schuylkill River and quarries that became part of Valley Forge State Park. After years of site clean-up, in March 2018 the National Park Service inspected the area and found it poses no risk to the ecology or humans, and tree replacement and site work was scheduled to be completed in late 2018. https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/management/asbestos.htm
Bridge and road construction projects have closed several park trails, one through 2020. Mt. Joy, a “social” trail has developed a major problem involving erosion and damage to earthworks constructed by the Continental Army. Continuous hiking and steep hills have left much of the area vegetation unable to grow and soil is being washed away. Some sections of the trail intersect re-forested areas and allow invasive plants to eliminate natural rebirth of native plants. https://www.nps.gov/vafo/planyourvisit/conditions.htm
Climate change has also put this historical site at risk. Recent intense storms have sharpened awareness of the damage flooding, wind-broken trees, and erosion can cause. https://www.nps.gov/vafo/getinvolved/climate-change.htm
I think we should take a hard look at the past to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes with our future. The time is now to face the truths about climate change, pollution, and development, and the effects of abuse they’ve instilled in our country. These are sacred lands that our forefathers laid their lives on the line to protect – it’s ou turn to recognize our obligations to deal with the salvation of our heritage.
Photo information: George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge (1777-1778)