This story originally appeared in the Cecil Whig on May 21, 2016.

Recently, as I was helping to sort through photos for the Cheeseman Collection at the Cecil County Historical Society, I came across a series of pictures with the title ‘Nature is A Mutable Cloud’. Attached to the photographs was an article from an issue of the Cecil Whig dated August 8, 1979.

The article went on to describe how a woman named Rose Eshelman was fighting to keep the Frezzo Brothers of Avondale, Pennsylvania from selling 230 acres of land in the Goat Hill area to the Corrado Brothers excavating contractors of Wilmington, Delaware for the purpose of operating a quarry.

At the time of the article the Corrado Brothers were seeking a zoning variance because the land was zoned for agricultural use rather than industrial and Rose was mounting a case against the variance citing environmental, safety, and health reasons.

As I read the article, I realized that the issue I was reading about had been decided over 35 years ago and I was suddenly very curious to know what happened. I figured given the size of the land that if a quarry had recently been operating in the area it would most likely show up on a map. Not being near a computer I quickly pulled out my phone, pulled up a satellite image and zoomed in on the Conowingo area to reveal that there indeed was a quarry in the Pine Barrens.

I wondered “what if?” for a brief second before filing the photos away. In the Whig article Eshelman cites environmental concern as her number one issue with the zoning variance. The article then goes on to describe several species of flora and fauna that can only survive in a barren such as the Aleutian maiden hair fern, the Fimbristylis darlingtonian and the rare Buck moth (Hemileuca maia), as well as some that can only survive in the Goat Hill area such as the Hairy legged chickweed. It was sad to think that some of those plants and animals may be extinct.

A barren is given its name for its inability to sustain heavy growth or support plant cultivation; something the early settlers found very unpleasant. Underneath the Goat Hill Barrens sits serpentine rock which has a dark greenish color and looks something like a snake skin. In the most characteristic form, the top soil is so thin the serpentine rock shows through in many places. Also called the State-Line Barrens the Goat Hill Barrens represent a very rare type of ecosystem. The topsoil is typically very shallow as the rock does not drain well and prevents very much accumulation. Over time as the rock erodes it leaches minerals such as nickel, cobalt, chromium and magnesium into the soil which have a toxic effect on plants. The soil also typically lacks adequate calcium and other nutrients due to the lack of soil.

Interestingly, prior to human settlement the Pine Barrens typically consisted of other types of trees. It is said that barrens are fire dependent and without periodic burning, species such as Virginia pine will push their way in and disrupt the delicate ecosystem. Fire also hardens the characteristic oak trees in the area and provide nutrients to support the other native species. However, in the early 1900’s fire suppression practices were put in place to prevent wildfires from spreading over the land. Subsequently the small area of serpentine barrens along the US east coast has shrunk as these external forces have exerted their will and changed the dynamics of the environment.

I also learned that the Goat Hill has had other uses over the years. From 1827-1881 the area hosted several chromium ore mines and circa 1850 the area was the world’s leading source for chromium. Previously and subsequently the title went to the country of Turkey. Other types of mines operating in the State-Line Barrens were sodium feldspar and building stone. The mines were small in size and luckily did not disrupt much of the area. The chromium mines were all owned or controlled by a man named Isaac Tyson, Jr. of Baltimore. The ore was first mined and then shipped via the Rising Sun station of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore railroad to Baltimore, where it was finally distributed around the world.

Figure 1 Charcoal Burners Hut as depicted in the 1902 Maryland Geological Survey

Figure 1 Charcoal Burners Hut as depicted in the 1902 Maryland Geological Survey

The Maryland Geological Survey of Cecil County from 1902 describes the timber of the barrens and its use by charcoal burners to make charcoal. The barrens could yield as much as 30 cords per acre or as little as 10 cords per acre in the areas that were thinned out by fire. When properly burned a cord of wood could yield 25 bushels of charcoal.

So “what if” the Corrado brothers had not established their serpentine quarry? After all it was in response to their development endeavor that parts of the area had first become saved from development. Yes, in the early 1980’s much of the Goat Hill Area became protected by the Bureau of Forestry and the Nature Conservancy. Roses group of Concerned Citizens of West Nottingham Township were successful in preserving the individuality of the barrens. Since then the State of Pennsylvania, the University of Maryland and the Federal Government have gone on to protect even more of the State Line Barrens. Of course the Corrado Brothers were successful too. A quarry did go up on the edge of the barrens in non-critical areas and still operates to this day.

If Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote from the title of the 1979 Whig Article arguably means that nature is both changing all the time and always staying the same then it appears that our relationship with the barrens is the same. While not used for farming, Native Americans were said to have burned it and utilized the open space. Settlers mined its rock and sent it all over the world. In the industrial age we transformed its timber into charcoal for heat and steam and today we keep the area alive by preserving it.

A small section of the barrens was transformed into a recreational trail, the main branch of which is called, you guessed it, the Rose trail. The area and the trails are used for education and research as well as hiking, biking and other outdoor activities. As the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation continues to care for the area we can look forward to preserving the buck moth and the Aleutian maiden hair fern for a long time to come.

For information on visiting the Goat Hill Area and the Rose Trail visit the following website:

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