History of Kings Gap Environmental Education Center
Human Impacts on South Mountain 1750 - 1900 Era
The origin of the name “Kings Gap” is not known, although it is believed to date back to early settlers in this region. The relatively young forests of Kings Gap reflect the influence of the charcoaling industry that began in the 1700s and persisted through the late 1800s. Before the discovery of coal, charcoal fueled the iron furnaces located nearby. Some furnaces were as close as Huntsdale, one mile to the southwest of the entrance to Kings Gap.
Iron furnaces required tremendous amounts of charcoal as fuel. During 1786, an average furnace consumed in one day the charcoal produced from one acre of forest. The forests of South Mountain were clearcut on a 20 - 25 year cycle to satisfy the unquenchable thirst for charcoal by nine iron furnaces located in the Kings Gap area. A relatively young forest now exists as a result of these repeated cuttings.
The process of making charcoal demanded great skill and vast quantities of trees. During winter months, wood was cut and stacked. When colliers selected a site for the hearth, they stacked the wood into a conical shape by standing the sticks on end around a central chimney. The dangerous job of firing and tending these hearths belonged to the collier and one or two helpers.
These men usually managed as many as eight or nine hearths at one time. To keep the fires smoldering, fires were carefully controlled 24 hours a day for ten days to two weeks -- the time needed to produce the charred wood or charcoal.
The colliers lived in crude huts placed near the group of hearths being “coaled.” Because of these rough living conditions, charcoaling took place during the milder seasons of the year. After the collier determined that the wood was ready, he extinguished the fires and raked the charcoal into piles.
He then loaded the charcoal onto wagons and took it to the furnaces. The discovery of hotter-burning coal eliminated the demand for charcoal and the industry disappeared completely by the end of the 19th century.
The remains of these hearth sites are visible throughout Kings Gap. Flat, dry spots about 30 - 50 feet in diameter remain fairly free of vegetation revealing the location of a former charcoal hearth. Look for pieces of charcoal that sometimes can be found among the forest litter.
You can discover more information about the early iron-making industry in Pennsylvania by visiting:
James McCormick Cameron 1906 - 1951 Era
Near the turn of the 20th century, James McCormick Cameron, a member of the politically prominent Cameron family from Harrisburg, purchased many parcels of land surrounding Kings Gap. Around 1908, Cameron erected a 32-room stone mansion as a summer home. The threat of fire was the most likely reason Mr. Cameron chose to have the mansion exterior faced with the hard native Antietam quartzite quarried nearby and built the interior structure of reinforced concrete. At the turn of the century, forest fires on South Mountain were a constant threat due to poor forestry practices.
James McCormick Cameron's grandfather, Simon Cameron, was a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and served briefly as Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln. Donald Cameron, father of James, also was a U.S. senator. Both men amassed fortunes through business interests in banking, steel mills, printing, and railroading, among others.
James McCormick Cameron carried forward with the business tradition but shunned politics. He was educated at Harrisburg Academy, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard University. A hearing problem accounted for his shy and soft-spoken nature. He did not marry until 1927 when he was 62 years old. He had no children.
He divided his time among residences in Harrisburg, Donegal in Lancaster County, and Kings Gap. Eventually purchasing 2,700 acres, Mr. Cameron instituted stewardship practices that helped to protect the land.
Still remaining from the Cameron mountain estate is the water tower, carriage house, and small generator building, stone walled mansion garden, caretaker’s house (currently a private residence), and ice house where ice, hauled from Pine Grove Furnace each winter, kept food cool during the summer months.
Mansion: The mansion is approximately 200 feet long and is built of native Antietam quartzite quarried from a nearby ridge. The 32-room house was designed to resemble an Italian villa with its flat roof, huge windows and flagstone terrace. The use of steel-reinforced concrete for the internal structure of the building is believed to be one of the first such applications in local construction. The materials used in the construction were intended to make the mansion as fireproof as possible. Nevertheless, Mr. Cameron only lived at Kings Gap from May through October, when fire danger is at its lowest.
Ice House: The ice house rises 15 feet above ground level and extends downward 10 feet. The Camerons used it to store vegetables grown in the garden. The ice was brought from Laurel Lake at nearby Pine Grove Furnace until 1931.
Garden: The stone-walled garden provided vegetables for the household during the Cameron residency. Recently, a wire fence was erected in front of the stone wall to discourage deer.
Water Tower: The 10,000-gallon capacity wooden tank atop the brick tower supplies water to the surrounding buildings as it did when first constructed. Originally a water-powered pump located in the pumphouse near the foot of the mountain sent water from a spring approximately two miles up hill to the water tower. A well located at the pumphouse now serves as the water source. Gravity flow still feeds all of the buildings from the tank.
Carriage House: The former carriage house and stable now serves as the center’s maintenance building. The building contained an apartment on the second floor for the carriage drivers and stable help. An automatic carriage wash in the middle bay and a hand-operated large equipment elevator in the carriage section are evidence of the modern conveniences of the time.
Generator Building: Across the road from the carriage house is a stone building that was originally constructed as the generator building. In the 1930s, a 12-volt electrical system powered by two gasoline engines was installed to generate electricity for the mansion. This system has long since been replaced by a public utility service.
Caretaker’s House: This two-story brick building was occupied year-round by the caretaker of Kings Gap. The building is currently a private residence and is not open to the public.
C.H. Maslands and Sons 1951 - 1973 Era
With Mr. Cameron's passing in 1949, C. H. Masland and Son Carpet Company of Carlisle purchased the mansion and the surrounding 1,430 acres. The remaining acreage passed into other ownership. Masland refurbished the mansion, then called the “Masland Guest House,” which was used as accommodations for potential clients and as a training site for employees and sales representatives.
The bedrooms were used to showcase Masland carpet. The bedroom carpet was changed frequently as product lines were dropped and new designs were added.
The Masland family also became involved in several land management projects, including the planting of the pine plantation located at the base of the mountain. Thirty thousand trees were planted in the 42-acre plot during the 1950s. In addition, the Maslands were responsible for the construction of the pond, which is currently used as a site for aquatic studies.
As conference rooms and overnight facilities became more available in the Carlisle area, it was no longer economical for the company to operate its own guest house.
For Future Generations
The Nature Conservancy, assisted by the commonwealth, purchased the mansion and 1,430 acres of South Mountain in 1973. Kings Gap was dedicated as the third state park environmental education center in 1977.
During 2011, the Nature Conservancy, assisted by the commonwealth, purchased 1,077 acres, designated as “Irishtown Gap Tract,” reuniting most of the original Cameron estate.