The end came violently Monday night into Tuesday morning when the center part of the stone wall at Camp Michaux collapsed into a heap of rubble.
The freezing and thawing of melting snow from Winter Storm Jonas destroyed much of what remains of the 200-plus-year-old barn that once stood on the Bunker Hill Farm.
“As sad as it is, it is not a surprise,” said Andre Weltman, chairman of the Friends of Pine Grove Furnace State Park. “The wall has been leaning and curving badly for a number of years.
“It’s very sad to lose that piece of our heritage,” he added. “Many generations of visitors have seen that structure. Some were here involuntarily. It was a beloved piece of history on this corner of the mountain. Now it’s gone.”
For years, local historian David Smith has led walking tours of this part of South Mountain that once hosted farms in support of the early iron industry, a Civilian Conservation Corps site, a prisoner-of-war interrogation center and a local church camp.
Bunker Hill was one of three farms that operated close together and provided food for iron industry workers during the early years of post-Revolutionary War America, Smith said. He added the barn wall was probably built between 1800 and 1805.
“It was just one more feature in the historical landscape that gave evidence of what was going on in the history of South Mountain,” Smith said. “The wall has been in really bad shape for a very long time. The cracks were getting deeper and the bowing of the wall was getting more extreme. It was just a matter of time.”
Nobody was hurt when the wall collapsed. In 2011, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources installed a split-rail fence around the wall to keep the public from getting too close, Weltman said. “The problem with masonry structures is once they start to deteriorate, they can fall suddenly with no warning.”
The violence of the collapse is clearly evident in the pattern of the rubble. Weltman noticed how the topmost stones came within a few inches of hitting the fence. “I credit DCNR Bureau of Forestry for trying to protect the public.”
Not only did the agency put up a fence as a barrier, it removed three large spruce trees growing near the wall. Some believe the tree roots may have helped to destabilize the foundation and add to the risk of a collapse, Smith said. He added the remains of the wall and the rubble pile will continue to be a stop in his walking tour.
“Just because it is down doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it,” Smith said. Both men would prefer that the Bureau of Forestry leave the rubble pile alone because, in their opinion, there really is no reason to remove it.
The split rail fence survived the collapse and continues to serve as a barrier warning the public not to get too close to the remaining corner columns of the stone wall.
Smith believes the two columns remain intact because the corners of buildings tend to be of stronger construction. The presence of a first floor window helps to identify what remains as a barn.
Both men agree the time had come and gone to do anything to preserve or restore the wall without putting workers at risk. “It came to the point where it was too late,” Weltman said. “We were there by 2011.”
While local lore maintains the barn that was built by Hessian prisoners, there is no evidence in the historical record supporting that theory, Weltman said.
The barn was part of what was called the Bunker Hill Farm and later known as the Gardner farm, according to records kept at the Cumberland County Historical Society. It was later one of the buildings of what became CCC Camp Michaux that opened under President Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative.
About 200 young men occupied the camp at any given time and were employed to do road projects, plant trees and make general improvements to the area. The area served as POW interrogation center during World War II housing mostly German and Italian military personnel. Smith said the area behind the wall once had a metal Quonset hut the guards used to stable horses.
The camp came under control of the state in the early 1970s and most of the buildings were demolished. There are no records to explain what happened to the rest of the barn or how or when it was removed. The barn and former Camp Michaux are now entirely on state forest land.
The state Bureau of Forestry plans to bring in a structural engineer as soon as possible to evaluate the condition of the remaining corner columns of the barn, District Forester Roy Brubaker said Wednesday. The goal would be to determine if the columns are stable enough to remain standing or if it is better to knock them down.
Based on his preliminary review of photographs from the scene, the fence did its job of containing debris from the wall collapse though the split rail may have been damaged by some of the rubble, Brubaker said. He added it is unlikely the state agency would order the removal of the rubble from the site.
That area of South Mountain has the remnants of other building foundations that tell a story about local history and how nature can reclaim the landscape, Brubaker said. Aside from keeping the public away from an unstable wall, the fence also served as a barrier preventing visitors from getting too close to copperhead snakes who were nesting in the stone structure.
It is likely the rubble will continue to serve as a habitat for these reptiles which will sun themselves on the debris and hunt rodents nesting in the rocks, Brubaker said. One goal of the Bureau of Forestry is to encourage the development of habitat for snakes that are an important part of the ecosystem of South Mountain.