Revolutionary ruins: Washington rearmed here

Posted: February 09, 2013

The stone wall in the excavation trench is low and humble, and until recently was buried under a compost pile.

But to officials in East Pikeland Township, it is part of a national treasure, the most important piece of the Chester County community's claim to a place in the nation's history.

It is the remnant of a gunpowder mill destroyed by Hessian troops in September 1777 during the Revolutionary War.

"It was the very first U.S. government armory," James Garrison, chair of the township historical commission, said in an interview.

It was authorized by the Second Continental Congress in February 1776, and although its career was short, it evidently was storied.

As the saga is told by signs that arrived this week, the Hessians ravaged the site just west of Phoenixville because its workers were making gunpowder and weapons parts for Gen. George Washington.

By its 175th anniversary on Oct. 5, East Pikeland expects to have 10 signs erected along a half-mile stretch of the French Creek Trail, as the township works to get its Continental Powder Works onto the National Register of Historic Places.

On that date, East Pikeland expects to open its French Creek Heritage Park, including both the powder works and the trail.

The estimated 40 to 50 colonial buildings are long gone, but the effort to memorialize the powder works and the East Pikeland portion of the trail has attracted $413,600 in public money for the township.

The excavated semicircular wall near her office is the only piece of the works uncovered so far.

"We had to move our compost pile out of the way, to get to our site," said Township Manager and Treasurer Kimberly Moretti.

Identifying the remnants required detective work. Moretti said that last summer, John Milner Associates of West Chester used "ground-penetrating radar" to take the equivalent of X-rays. After uncovering layers of charcoal and nails, she said, the Milner workers "were comfortable in saying that the foundation was the stamping mill."

The firm was hired with a $42,000 grant - part of the $413,600 total - from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service.

"We want to keep the foundation open for our visitors," Moretti said.

Most of the rest of the money is being used to develop the township's portion of the French Creek Trail, including $200,000 for one of two proposed bridges carrying it over the creek.

"The township already owns or has access to all of the land along French Creek where the trail will be located, except for one small parcel," she said.

Some of the money also will pay to pave a portion of the trail for handicapped folks and for benches, informational kiosks, and such.

Outside of East Pikeland, 80 percent of the French Creek Trail is open, from its origin in Warwick County Park near St. Peters Village to the west edge of Moretti's township.

Pamela Brown, conservation director of the French and Pickering Creek Conservation Trust, said her agency had obtained easements from landowners on all but "a few missing links," on the trail beyond East Pikeland.

In addition to the public money, Moretti said, Radio Salvacion Inc., a Christian Spanish-language radio station, began construction this week on a $120,000 bridge to carry the trail over French Creek at Rapps Dam.

Workers from the station - WPHE (690 AM), with offices on Sedgley Avenue near Second Street in North Philadelphia - will use the bridge to get to their transmission tower. They now use a private road.

A master plan for the French Creek Trail was drafted in the 1990s, Moretti said, but there was no money available.

This time, however, the township was able to raise the money. In 2010, she said, "we identified the historical significance of French Creek in our township. Then our historical commission started to talk about how to bring more notice to what took place here."

The grant money arrived in 2011 and 2012, and Moretti said the project was now "fully funded" and has "cost the township almost nothing."

The ruined walls of nearby Snyder's Mill stand as a reminder of what might have been at the site.

In the early 19th century, Thomas Snyder built a linseed oil mill that was "either on the site of the former graining mill of the original Continental Powder Mill Complex, or was actually a reconstruction of the graining mill itself," according to the township's historical commission. Since it closed in 1935, after making parts for carousels, Snyder's Mill has stood empty and deteriorating.

See a video of the Revolutionary War gunpowder mill site at


Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134 or at

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