The Story of Valley Forge Mountain

By Michael Bertram (2010)                                                  

The story of the Mountain begins about 500 million years ago when the area was on the edge of the North American continent. Near the shore, banks of sand were raised and compressed into sandstone. Later this sandstone was further compressed and heated and transformed into quartzite.

About 450 million years ago there was still sea in the area, but the environment (probably a warm, shallow sea) allowed sea creatures to proliferate. When these creatures died their shells and skeletons accumulated on the sea bottom. These deposits were then solidified into limestone.

The quartzite is much harder than the limestone and has eroded less, forming the ridge (also known as North Valley Hills) that ends in Mounts Misery and Joy. The Great Valley has limestone as its foundation.

The Ice Ages: The continental ice sheets of the Ice Ages did not reach the Mountain; the nearest they got was the Poconos. During these periods, it was too cold for trees to survive, and the area was tundra, such as now exists in Alaska.

In the 1860s, while quarrying for limestone in what is now part of Valley Forge Park, an ancient sinkhole was uncovered. At the bottom of the hole, the remains of many animals from this era were found. There were 5 different species of ground sloth, mastodon, short-faced bear, tapir, wolf, and other smaller mammals. Later, in another cave, the bones of a saber-toothed tiger were found.

It was probably near the end of the Ice Age that humans first appeared in the area. The Native Americans must have used the Mountain while hunting, but they left little in the form of remains. A number of Native American sites have been found in the Park, mainly near the river.

By the time European settlers appeared the local animals included black bear, timber wolves, cougar, and perhaps wood buffalo. This fauna would soon change with the influx of people into the area.

The Original Land Grants: William Penn inherited a large financial claim against King Charles II from his father, Admiral William Penn. He petitioned the King for a grant of land in the New World as payment of the debt and received a land title in 1681.

The original grants split the ownership of the Mountain into two tracts. These grants were separated by the Welsh or Bilton line, which is now the Schuylkill-Tredyffrin township boundary. The Manor of Bilton consisted of the area west of Valley Creek bordering the Schuylkill River, and north of the Welsh line. It was given to William Penn’s sister, Margaret Lowther and her family in 1681. Tredyffrin was part of the Welsh Tract or ‘Barony’, originally reserved for Welsh settlers. They hoped to continue to use their own language and customs, and be self-governing.

Tredyffrin, created in 1707, meant "town in the valley" to the Welsh Quakers who named the township. By that time, Tredyffrin's population was large enough for it to be incorporated as a township.

The name, Charlestown, honors Charles Pickering. Drowned on a voyage back to England before 1700, Pickering willed his land to sixteen friends. The acreage was combined with that of John Grey and of Penn's sister, Margaret Lowther, to become Charlestown Township in the first official survey of 1738. This included both the Schuylkill Township and the Borough of Phoenixville areas.

Early Industry on the Mountain: In 1742 Stephen Evans and Daniel Walker purchased land on the east side of Valley Creek and started an iron works. In 1756 the pioneer industrialist, John Potts purchased the land and forge. He also purchased a number of plots of land on the Mountain. These would have been woodland lots to be used for charcoal production to fuel the forge.

The Valley Forge passed through the hands of a number of members of the Potts family. In 1773 David Potts and William Dewees (who were related by marriage) purchased the forge and lands. They also purchase additional plots on the Mountain.

In 1775 William Dewees then built a second, upper forge on the west side of Valley Creek in Tredyffrin township. Dewees, part owner of the forges, was a colonel in the militia. The Lower Forge was selected as a storehouse for the Continental Army. After Battle of the Clouds on the 16th September 1777, Washington withdrew up the Schuylkill valley and the British Army camped in Tredyffrin. Valley Forge then was undefended. The British made a move to take the supplies on the 19th of September. As they left, the British destroyed the forges and associated dams. They then marched on Philadelphia, where they spent the winter.

In December of 1777 the American army encamped at Valley Forge. No remains from the encampment period have been found on Mount Misery, but there must have been picket posts located there, and by the time the army left in June 1778 the mountain would have been denuded of trees.

Charcoal Making: At the time of the encampment David Potts and William Dewees owned a majority of Mount Misery. The area they owned, including parts of Mount Joy, added up to around 1000 acres. This woodland was used to make charcoal for the forges.

The Reverend William Currie: The Reverend William Currie who owned the farm we know as Stirling’s Quarters at the time of the encampment. His property extended up to the township line. Currie was the Anglican pastor of St. Davids in Radnor, St. James in Perkiomen, and St. Peters in the Valley. He was pastor from 1737 to 1776, when he resigned his position because of threats due to his refusal to stop saying prayers for the king, as he was required to do by his vows.

Reconstruction after the Revolutionary War: After the Encampment and the War it took Valley Forge industry a while to recover (presumably due to lack of nearby timber to make charcoal). In the late 1780s a new larger dam was built just upstream from the present route 23 bridge over Valley Creek. A new forge was built on the Montgomery county side of the dam, while on the Chester county side a rolling and slitting mill was constructed.

The dam created a large mill pond that stretched as far as the Covered Bridge, and submerged the Upper Forge. In the 1920s the State Park drained the mill pond and uncovered the site of the Upper Forge. A 3- year excavation, starting in 1929, uncovered substantial remnants of the Upper Forge under 7 feet of silt including the remains of the walls, bellow and hammer foundations, water wheels, and raceways. Many of the timbers had been burnt.

The Creation of Schuylkill Township: The constitution of Pennsylvania envisages that organizational boundaries will change with time as the population of an area increases. In 1829 the courts received a petition for the splitting of Charlestown township and on November 4th 1829 the court approved the split and Schuylkill Township was created. Phoenixville was then created out of the township in 1849.

General B.J. Fisher & Colonial Springs: In the 19th century the land tracts on the Mountain became smaller and more fragmented. Around the turn of the century, General Benjamin Franklin Fisher consolidated many of these plots into a single holding.

The General was a civil war hero. After the war he set up as a lawyer, living initially on Valley Park Road in Schuylkill township. Fisher put together a tract of land that stretched from Colonial Springs down to Valley Creek in one direction, and across the mountain to the top of the Stirling’s Quarters Farm, the present Park boundary. Later he moved to a house across from the Colonial Springs. When the Park took over the area, it demolished the building. The foundations of the house can be seen opposite the bottling plant.

It is not clear when Colonial Springs were first used commercially; but Fisher granted a lease to the Colonial Springs Company in 1908 to use the waters of Cold Spring. Prior to this agreement, in 1900 C. T. Chase agreed to purchase at least 5000 gallons of Cold Springs water a month from Fisher.

General Fisher died in 1915. His heirs sold the property to Charles Hires, of Hires Root Beer fame. There is no evidence that the Hires company ever made root beer at the Springs. The Hires company main plant in the area was at Malvern. The Springs were purchased by the Valley Forge State Park in the 1930s.

The Bean Sand Business: The quarries on the Mountain were worked by Bean family businesses. The older quarries are near Diamond Rock Road. The quartzite ore was initially transported to Pawling where it was crushed.

Later a large crushing plant was built in Valley Forge next to the Reading – Philadelphia Railroad so that the sand could be loaded directly into railroad wagons. An idea of the scale of the business can be obtained from the railroad records. For example in 1896 the railroad shipped 370 car loads of sand weighing over 10,000 tons. The sand was send to places such as Pottstown, Birdsboro, Reading, Philadelphia, and locations in New Jersey.

The company then leased land on Mount Misery from Benjamin Franklin Fisher in 1915 for quarrying. The lease included permission to run a railroad track to the crushing plant (but not to do anything to impair the purity of Colonial Springs). A narrow gauge railway was built to transport the quartzite from this quarry to the crushing plant built next to the Reading Railroad.

The rock crusher at Valley Forge was destroyed by fire in 1928 and that seems to have been the end of the business.

The Horseshoe Trail: Henry Woolman purchased a farm in Tredyffrin in 1929, just to the west of Welsh Valley Road. In 1934 Woolman called a meeting of local outdoors club and they agreed to form the Horseshoe Trail Club. A route was marked out for the 120-mile trail between Valley Forge and the Appalachian Trail near Harrisburg. The Horseshoe Trail has taken a number of routes over Mount Misery over the years.

The Nike site: After the Second World War, the government was concerned about the possibility of a Russian long-range bomber attack on major cities, including Philadelphia. The decision was made to provide a ring of anti-aircraft missiles around these cities. Sixteen Nike missile bases were constructed around Philadelphia.

Each base consisted of two parts, a radar system for locating and tracking the aircraft and missiles, and the missile base itself. In the case of Tredyffrin the radars were situated by the Horseshoe Trail on the North Valley Hills east of Diamond Rock Road, in the area now occupied by the Fox Pointe Development. The missiles were located off Le Boutillier Road, near Swedesford Road. In 1964 the site was closed down as the base was redundant with the upgrading of other sites to the Hercules system.

The Binns Housing Development: After Charles Hires died in 1937 his heirs put his land on the Mountain up for sale. Nobody was interested in purchasing it until Arthur Binns made plans for a housing development that he submitted for Tredyffrin Township approval in 1958. Binns had been purchasing adjacent plots both in Tredyffrin and Schuylkill. He was aided by Paul Lemen who had been a land dealer in the townships since the 1940s, buying and selling numerous plots. He purchased a number of plots, especially in Schuylkill Township, and sold them to Binns.

The name ‘Mount Misery’: When people ask me how the name ‘Mount Misery’ came about I answer with the following story: William Penn went with some associates to negotiate with the Indians near the Susquehanna. Returning they took a short cut, got lost, and had to spend a miserable night lost on a mountain. The next morning they went off the mountain and up another mountain where they recognized where they were. The first mountain was thereby named Mount Misery and the second one Mount Joy.

There are variants to the tale, but how much credibility should we give the story? One fact that makes the story suspect is that in the early days of Pennsylvania it took about 3 days to get from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna so the party must have expected and have been equipped to spend nights out in the open. In 1681 Penn gave either 3000 or 5000 acres of land to his daughter which was bounded to the north by the Schuylkill and to the west by Valley Creek (in other words the core of what now is the Park). His daughter’s name was Laetitia, which means joy in Latin. The property was known from the earliest reference as the Manor of Mount Joy.

But what about the name Mount Misery? The only early map to name the area is a 1777 map that has the name North Valley Hills. Then there is an 1856 map that uses the name Mount Sorrow. The first map I can find using the name Mount Misery is from 1928.

The name Valley Forge Mountain is probably a 20th century realtors invention. Whatever the name it is a beautiful place to live.

About the Author: Mike Bertram (& Kathy) moved onto the Mountain in 1998. After retiring in 2000 Mike unexpectedly took up local history. Research and writing on local history now take up a significant portion of his time. He is the photo-archivist of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society and a member of the editorial board of its quarterly magazine.