Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hessian Prison Camp / Part # 3

Hessian Prison Camp
 Brickerville, Pennsylvania
PART # 3

Down the Dirt and Gravel Lane
Two weekends after Donnie Miller and I explored the deteriorating house in the woods and trench, my daughter Katelyn asked me if I might be interested in traveling up to the Pretzel Hut north of Lititz for some soft-serve peanut butter ice-cream.  That was a dumb question... we were in the car in less than five minutes and backing out the driveway.  In between the question and turning the key in the ignition of the car, I hatched a quick plan in my mind and grabbed my camera on the way out the door.  I'm not in the habit of knocking on the doors of strangers, especially when you have to drive down a lane into the woods.  I hate the idea of imposing on someone's privacy and didn't know if I would have the courage to make the turn when the time came.  Nonetheless, we were on our way to another potential adventure with an ice-cream happy ending as the only guarantee.  

Surrounded by Colonial History
As we approached Brickerville, I asked Katelyn (who was still in the dark) if she minded if we made a quick pit-stop on the way to the Pretzel Hut.  When she asked... Where to Sherlock? I gave my token reply of... Don't ask... and she let out her usual sigh and rolled her eyes.  It is a routine conversation we have had many times in the past.  I reminded her of the ice-cream ending and she was game!  She plays the role of Dr. Watson for food!  We approached the small brick house along Route 501 and with no cars behind us, I slowed to glance down the lane.  I thought I could see several vehicles parked in the distance suggesting someone might be home.  I made the turn and slowly descended down the lane toward a large pick-up truck parked by several historic structures.  As I prepared to muster up my courage to go knock on the door, I realized I had forgotten my cell phone and Katelyn had left hers at home as well.  I have seen several made-for-television horror movies start off this way and was more than a little nervous when I left Katelyn locked within the car to see if anyone was home.  Remember kids, I am a professional... don't try this on your own without a police escort!

Historic Steigel-Coleman House
I turned the corner and was surprised by the size of the house that was actually a mansion of two large homes joined together.  As I approached the first door of the stone constructed half of the house, I passed by a huge bronze plaque the size of a pizza box designating the Steigel-Coleman House as an official National Historic Landmark.  The house appeared dark inside but I knocked on the door and soon heard sounds from within that eventually led to the door opening before me.  The man looked a little started and I couldn't judge whether he was annoyed or curious.  I doubt he had many uninvited door knockers to contend with.  I recited my rehearsed speech of introducing myself as a local social studies teacher in constant search of local history... yada yada yada... watching his expression carefully and preparing for a quick flight to safety should the need suddenly arise. 

 Elizabeth "Barrett" Browning
I was in the process of explaining my childhood memory of being here before and describing my recent visit to the Hessian Trench when he finally spoke with the question... Do you want to see where the prisoners slept?  Green Light!  Turns out the man who answered the door was none other than William Coleman who was the eighth generation of his family to live in the historic house.  He turned out to be a really nice man who was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me and give me a tour of the historic property.  After releasing Katelyn from the protection of the car, we made our way around the corner of the house toward a stone barn-like building that butted up to the rear right-hand corner of the mansion.  We were joined by a small white dog named Barrett, named after the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who did a good job of keeping Katelyn entertained during our visit. 

Hessian Prison Barracks Exterior
Mr. Coleman explained the history of how the Hessian prisoners had been bartered by General Washington in exchange for desperately needed munitions for the Continental Army forged at the Elizabeth foundry on site.  He walked us over to a red doorway on the stone barn-like structure with a white cupola on top.  When he opened the door and the outside light flooded the space below, my childhood memory suddenly came back into clear focus.  This is the exact spot where I stood over thirty years ago when I was a kid, frightened by the description of a dungeon.  It was an amazing feeling to be here once again peering into the depths of the sunken space that had not changed since it was used to house prisoners.  Mr. Coleman explained that the red slats on the exterior of the outside windows were actually iron bars that prevented the prisoners from escaping from their cells 234 years ago.

Hessian Prison Cell / Left Side View 
The wooden floor at ground level had been removed and the prisoners had been housed in quarters about ten feet below the surface.  Note the large wooden beam in the upper left hand corner of the photo above that marks where the floor had previously been supported before the Hessians arrived.  The two smaller beams halfway down may have been used to support the prisoners bedding at night to keep them above the damp dirt floor.  There were a few small iron barred windows below ground level to provide fresh air to the prison cells.  There is no way to tell how many men might have been confined in this single room.  A doorway on the left suggested additional cells and the red cellar door in the photo of the building's exterior  suggests how the prisoners would have gained access to and from their sleeping quarters.  Members of the local Lancaster Militia may have been assigned the task of guarding the prisoners.   If these walls could talk...

Hessian Prison Cell / Right Side View
Over time, most buildings are reinvented again and again for new purposes as the need arises but this space seemed untouched since it served in the role of prison over two centuries earlier. Looking down to the right in the submerged space was a fireplace that supplied the inmates with warmth and possibly a method for cooking daily food rations.  It would also have provided some comfort after spending long days on Cannon Hill, digging the trench, while exposed to the sharp biting teeth of winter winds.  It is unclear if some of the 70 men were also housed in other outbuildings on the property that still remain or others that are lost to time.  Mr. Coleman continued to lead us on a walking tour of some of the other nearby buildings including a large barn where charcoal fuel was stored for the foundry.  By the way... Where exactly is the foundry?

 Former Location of Furnace
It turned out the furnace was no longer there.  After more efficient coal fired furnaces put charcoal fueled furnaces out of business, the forge was deconstructed and the stone was recycled to construct the Coleman Memorial Chapel on the opposite side of Route 501 (AKA: Furnace Hills Pike) about a hundred yards south from the gravel lane Katelyn and I turned down to enter the Coleman property.  The chapel was built in 1877 by George and Deborah Coleman as a memorial to their son James who tragically died at age fourteen in 1874.  Today the beautiful stone chapel is an operating evangelical church, serving the local community.  The location of the previous foundry site is now an active archeological dig by students of Millersville University, who are working to connect Elizabeth Foundry with the sugar refining industry in the West Indies.
Under the PA Turnpike
Mr. Colman offered to give us the nickel tour of the property that was now mostly an expansive Christmas tree plantation.  We climbed into his pick-up truck that was bigger than my first apartment in college.  Katelyn and I were both a little hesitant for a few seconds... again, not something we would normally do with a stranger we just met ten minutes ago...  But we risked it... What were the odds that a guy who owned a Christmas tree farm and a cute little white lap dog named after a poet was also a serial killer?  The highlight of the ride was when we pulled into a creek and drove through a tunnel that passed beneath the Pennsylvania Turnpike that went right through the middle of the property.  The truck seemed to just fit within the curved walls of the tunnel.  We exited out the other side into the light and pulled onto dry land and continued on the crude dirt road though the woods.  

Colonial Horse Barn
He showed me several small stone homes that had been remodeled to house the migrant workers who arrived in early November each year to help with the Christmas tree harvest.  The one interesting characteristic that caught my attention was the design of a corner chimney on at least one of the buildings.  It was similar in size and design, which prompted me to ask Mr. Coleman about the mysterious house to the east of where we were driving.   However, he was unaware of the existence of the decaying stone house with the corner hearth Donnie and I had explored two weeks earlier.  The Coleman Family had gifted a large tract of land to the Pennsylvania Game Commission several years ago and the abandoned house was contained within the donated acreage.  More investigation would be needed to unravel the mystery.

Iron Plantation Quarters
Mr Coleman steered his pick-up truck "on steroids" through the Christmas tree farm that now provided the family income and many others seasonal employment.  We pulled out onto Hopeland Road and made our way back to the mansion.  I learned that the famous draft horses that pull the wagons of trees and patrons to make a memorable holiday event are actually leased each year for two months from a horse broker in Philadelphia.  The horses are housed in the well-maintained18th century stone barn while in residence.  It was time to say goodbye and leave the beautiful property.  I can't thank Mr. Coleman enough for giving up part of his Saturday afternoon to give Katelyn and I a tour of his family's beautiful historic property.  I hope to visit him again before it is time to get our next Christmas tree to learn more of the history of the Elizabeth Iron Foundry.  Katelyn was sad to say goodbye to Barrett but her puppy Max was anxiously waiting for her at home! 

Elizabeth Christmas Tree Farm
Following the digging of the irrigation trench, the Hessian men became more like employees and seemed less like the enemy.  The men liked the area, it reminded them of their homeland without forced military service.  Their exact fate is unknown but it is believed that most stayed in the Lancaster County area, married into the local population, and became respected members of the community.  In a strange twist of fate, their capture and prisoner sentence may have been the best thing that ever happened to them.  It might have been their ticket to the Land of Opportunity that pulled people across the Atlantic as indentured servants, who served in temporary bondage for centuries.  It was a rare win-win situation in a time of conflict and violence.  It is said that many of their descendants continue to live in the Brickerville area today. 

Please See My Additional Photographs of the Historic Site at...

The Pretzel Hut's Famous Ice-Cream


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Hessian Prison Camp / Part # 1

Hessian Prison Camp / Part # 2


Coleman Memorial Chapel


  1. Wow! I am delighted to read of your discovery and exploration of this part of US history that we never hear about. Thanks for writing this account.

  2. While searching info on a 3or 4 4th ggf who was wilhelm Narhold, as it was spelled, i have learned he was taken as a hessian soldier and probally worked on the trench as a prisoner of war. have not been able to find a list of names, so i keep hunting. loved your post i found by accident. i live in lititz, about 6 miles from the tree farm, sag

  3. Hello, Loved hearing your story! I live in Penryn and have always been fassinated with the history of this area. I feel there is so much rich history about the the birth of America around here that has just vanished with time. If the mountains could talk, what a story they'd tell! Anyways, the reason I'm posting is that I would LOVE to see the ruins of the old house in the mountain. I know Seglock Rd. very well and have gotten info on how to find the Hessian Trench.. While I am there, seeing the ruins would be the icing on the cake! Is there any way to describe how to get to it such as GPS coordinates or even point me in the right direction?


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