The historical significance of Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests is vast. The events that took place on these lands, the notable figures associated with the areas, and the communities that formed in them are documented in educational displays, public events, webpages, and for some, their name.
State park and forest visitors come not only for recreation and to enjoy some of the most beautiful natural sites across the commonwealth, but also to experience a connection to the past -- a part of Pennsylvania’s history.
In recognition of Black History Month, we’d like to share some stories of Black Americans whose accomplishments and bravery took place in and around Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests, and helped shape history.
French Creek State Park’s Ties to the Underground Railroad
Hopewell Lake at French Creek State Park
Mark Bird, the founder of Hopewell Furnace, was the single largest slave owner in Berks County with 17 or 18 slaves at the furnace. However, by 1850, the furnace had become a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Often, slaves fleeing the south would work at Hopewell Furnace (or another local furnace) to earn some money for passage north. They would be housed by members of the Six Penny Community until they continued on.
Hopewell Furnace has pay records that indicate that some people only worked for a few weeks or so before leaving -- they assume some of these were runaway slaves.
Nearby, the Cole family maintains the oldest Black American cemetery in Berks. They trace their family history to Isaac Cole -- one of the colliers who worked for the furnace from 1858 - 1883, using his wages to purchase the land.
He was a Civil War veteran, and his family owned the land that the Mount Frisby African Methodist Episcopalian Church was founded on -- the home of the cemetery.
His land also formed the Six-Penny Community -- which was a community of Black Americans who worked in and around Hopewell and housed those fleeing the south. Seventy acres of this land was eventually sold to become French Creek State Park.
Forbes State Forest Mountain Named for Bravery
Mt. Davis view of Negro Mountain in Forbes State Forest
Negro Mountain is a long ridge between Laurel Hill and Allegheny Mountain, the summit being Mt. Davis -- the highest point in Pennsylvania. It spans from Deep Creek Lake in Maryland to the Casselman River in Pennsylvania.
Although its naming history is not precisely known, the story goes that during colonial times (possibly during the French and Indian War), Colonel Thomas Cresap led a force against Native Americans on the mountain.
A black slave or scout known as “Nemesis” fought bravely and died in battle protecting the men, so Cresap named the mountain in his honor.
Other versions describe a party of settlers attacked by Native Americans, and a slave dying protecting his master.
Some have asked the General Assembly to rename the mountain, while others argue that it was named in honor of bravery.
Crossing the Delaware at Washington Crossing Historic Park
Monument marking the crossing of the Delaware River at Washington Crossing Historic Park
Soldiers of color were mustered into many regiments during the American Revolution. Of particular note is Colonel John Glover’s 14th (Marblehead) Regiment from Massachusetts. Fisherman and sailors were volunteers in Glover’s regiment, which included Native Americans and free men of color.
The “Marbleheaders” proved their mettle to General George Washington in August 1776 when they executed the harrowing evacuation of American troops from Long Island, New York.
Four months later, on Christmas night, the regiment was indispensable in moving 2,400 Continental Army troops across the icy Delaware River at McConkey’s Ferry at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
After hours of rowing back and forth across the river during a winter storm, these men picked up their firearms and marched nine miles to attack the Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey.
After the battle, they made the return march and rowed Continental troops and Hessian prisoners back to Pennsylvania.
“There, Sir, went the fishermen of Marblehead, alike at home upon land or water, alike ardent, patriotic and unflinching whenever they unfurled the flag of their country.” -- Colonel Henry Knox
These are just a few stories of Black history in Pennsylvania state parks and forests. To learn more, read about Black Civilian Conservation Corps in Pennsylvania state parks. Visit Pennsylvania state parks and state forests to experience a connection to the events that took place in them.