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History of the
William Penn
State Forest



The widespread and rapid depletion of Pennsylvania's forests that occurred in the latter 1800's was viewed critically by conservationists of that era. Concern was expressed that the seemingly inexhaustible forests would not last forever, and something should be done to halt the uncontrolled cutting that left devastated forests in its wake. Accordingly, in 1887 the General Assembly authorized the Governor to appoint a committee to examine and consider the subject of forestry in Pennsylvania and report its findings at the next regular session of the Legislature. In 1888, a Governor's Commission was appointed to study the forest situation. A second commission authorized by the Legislature was appointed in 1893. As a result of these studies, in 1895, Dr. J. T. Rothrock was appointed Commissioner of Forestry in the newly created Division of Forestry in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

In 1897, the Legislature passed an act authorizing the purchase of unseated lands for forest reservations, thus marking the beginning of the State Forest system. This act provided for the acquisition of not less than 40,000 acres in the headwaters of each of the principal rivers of the Commonwealth, mainly the Delaware, Susquehanna, and Ohio, "providing the land selected shall be of a character better suited to the growth of trees than to mining or agriculture and that 50% of the area have an elevation of not less than 600 feet above sea level". The first purchase under this act was made by the Division of Forestry in 1898 when 7,500 acres were purchased in Clinton County.

The first purchase of land for the William Penn State Forest was in January, 1935. The Commonwealth paid $1.00 to the Cornwall Estate for ten acres in Lancaster County near the Lebanon County line. The site contained the Cornwall fire tower which was erected in 1923.

It was almost 48 years before the next purchase. In November, 1982, Little Tinicum Island, 200 acres in the Delaware River, Delaware County, was acquired. The Commonwealth paid $100,000 to the Tinicum Real Estate Holding Corporation. The island was acquired to preserve its unique, to Pennsylvania, ecology.

The very next month, December, 1982, another unique ecological site was acquired. The Goat Hill Serpentine Barrens, 602 acres of the approximately 1,000 acre barrens, was purchased for $239,500 with the assistance of the Nature Conservancy.

In August, 2007, the forest district was named the William Penn State Forest. Formerly known as the Valley Forge State Forest, the state forest district was headquartered at what had been a state park at Valley Forge until 1976, when the facility became a federal park. The state forest kept the name for the next 31 years. In a bid to eliminate public confusion over the name of the federal park and the state forest district, the Bureau of Forestry renamed the Valley Forge State Forest District in honor of one of Pennsylvania's first conservationists -- William Penn

Original Forest Type

The vegetation of Goat Hill uniquely reflects its past climatic history. At the end of the last glacial period, approximately 25,000 years ago, tundra vegetation extended into southeastern Pennsylvania. Following the retreat of the glaciers, the climate became hotter and drier than it is even now. During this hot, dry period, the prairies - now of the midwest - extended into southeastern Pennsylvania also.

During both these periods, certain plant species became established on the serpentine barrens which they found quite suitable for survival and growth. As the climate changed to that of the present, the dominant vegetation over most of the region changed to an oak-chestnut forest. On the serpentine barrens, however, most present day forest species found conditions inhospitable. This permitted some of these earlier residents to survive as "relics".

Areas known as "serpentine barrens" occur locally in the Piedmont of Maryland and Pennsylvania where the prevailing granitic soils are interrupted by outcrops of serpentine. The word "barrens" is an unfortunate misnomer when applied to Goat Hill. The total site encompasses a wide variety of habitats and a richly diverse floristic inventory.

Instead of the normal southeastern Pennsylvania vegetation of mixed oak woodlands scattered among farms and pastures, there is a grassland dominated by prairie species and woodlands with species mixes more common farther south. Not only unusual and unique species to the region occur here, but also some that are truly rare.

While no recent species inventory has been conducted, past inventories documented 221 species. Some of the unusual and rare species included are mouse-ear chickweed, serpentine aster, and Aleutian maiden-hair fern.

The soils that have developed on the site are generally thin, highly erodable, low in nutrient levels, and low in moisture. Some are high in chromium and nickel which are harmful to most plants. Species that grow here successfully must possess a tolerance for these generally unfavorable habitat conditions. Most forest species common to southeastern Pennsylvania will not grow readily in such an environment.

Little Tinicum Island probably had its beginnings as a marsh. As more silt and debris were deposited, and the "island-to-be" began to form part of the shorline, forest vegetation became established. This vegetation was washed away and reestablished a number of times during this period and after the island was cut off from the shoreline. This process is continuing today.

Little Tinicum Island today consists of scrub forests and disturbed areas of fill with a variety of types of vegetation. It is ringed by tidal freshwater wetlands.

The outer ring of vegetation around most of the island consists of three-square bulrush marsh. Few other plants are able to withstand the waves and large tidal changes on the south shore. On the more protected north shore, this marsh type meets and mixes with two somewhat different tidal marshes. Just inland of the high tide line numerous stands of common reed are found. Above, and sometimes mixed with, the reeds, a zone of mixed shrubs occurs. The interior high ground is a mix of scrub and forest.

Some plant species of special concern in Pennsylvania are also found on the island. Among them are wild rice, water hemp ragweed, and Walter's barnyard grass.

Forest Influences

The primary influence on Goat Hill has naturally been the serpentine soils. Man and his activities have been the next major influence on the area. From 1835 to 1871 the site was mined for magnesite. It has also been cut over for fuelwood and used for pastureland. To improve it as pasture, it was burned regularly to remove the thick greenbriers and other shrub growth. Farming was even briefly attempted.

The Delaware River, weather, and man have affected Little Tinicum Island. To this day, the river constantly eats away at portions of the island and builds it up at other spots. As one process obtains the "upper hand" - or proceeds more rapidly - the island changes size, shape, and even location.

As early as 1640, man has been at work on the island. Early settlers erected buildings there and cleared land for crops and pasture. To assist in these farming activities, dikes were later constructed. These were breached during the American Revolution.

Early in this century, most of the island existed as shoals and sand bars, especially the eastern end. Today most of the eastern end of the island owes its existence to man and his efforts to deepen the main river channel during World War II and subsequent work to keep it open.

Fires, also man-caused, are an annual occurrence. Most burn only a small area, up to an acre. Occasionally a large portion of the island burns over. In these instances, tree growth is usually destroyed as well as other vegetation.

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