The Big Woods Trail at Hopewell Furnace in Union Township combines history with hiking. It's about a mile long and handicap accessible and passes the buildings of the historic iron furnace complex that used charcoal to smelt iron ore in 18th and 19th centuries.

The trail connects the historic Hopewell Iron Furnace National Historic site to nearby French Creek State Park. (https://www.traillink.com/trail/big-woods-trail).

The Friends of Hopewell Furnace recently gathered to dedicate a new wayside marker along the trail near the national historic site. The interpretive marker helps visitors understand the historic Hopewell Schoolhouse.

The trail is near an archaeological ruin of the school that, thanks to extensive archaeological investigation and research, tells the story of a one-room schoolhouse built in 1837 for children of the iron furnace community and the region. While boys and girls were kept on separate sides, the school was racially integrated, meaning that African-American children were educated along with white children, which demonstrates the value placed on all working families at Hopewell.

The wayside marker shows photographs of a few of the artifacts discovered at the site.

At one time, there were plans to reconstruct the schoolhouse. According to an administrative history, the staff and students of the University of Pennsylvania, including National Park Service Archeologist John Cotter, directed investigations of the Schoolhouse and Tenant Houses in 1967-68.

“The schoolhouse excavation determined the structure's floor plan and window arrangement in anticipation of reconstruction, and the park completed part one of its Historic Structure Report for the structure in 1970,” according to the administrative history available on the Friends of Hopewell website. ”Unfortunately, by the time restoration plans could be made, the attitude of the preservation movement and the National Park Service had become far more conservative in its views of historic reconstructions.”

There was also archeological work done in the 1970s.

There are furnace records that indicate that the Ironmaster funded education for the less wealthy. The furnace company paid the school tax, but parents had to buy their children's supplies. Records show that the school employed several women as teachers, including Susan Brown during the 1830s and Catherine Rhoads in 1871.

In 1872, the school relocated and the original building was abandoned. The building was later demolished to reuse the stone, and the area became a dumping ground for furnace waste.

The Hopewell Furnace section is just one part of the proposed Big Woods Trail, a 13-mile trail that state officials and local conservationists hope will connect the Schuylkill River Trail to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site and south to the Boars Back Trail.

Last year a 2-mile stretch opened near Birdsboro, connecting the Schuylkill River Trail in Union Township with French Creek State Park, the largest block of contiguous forest between New York City and Washington, D.C.. There is also a section less than a mile long south to the Boars Back Trail.

Parking for the trail is available at Hopewell Furnace, which is operated by the National Park Service, and off Park Road in French Creek State Park, which is operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Park hours during the winter: Wednesday through Sunday 9 to 5

There are no entrance fees for visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.

The park is open on federal holidays with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day and Washington's Birthday. On days the park is closed, its hiking trails (which interconnect with those of neighboring French Creek State Park) remain open.

The park's visitor center and restrooms are handicap accessible. However, much of the historic area includes steep terrain, narrow historic doorways and numerous steps that can present transit difficulties and limit accessibility. Individuals with specific accessibility requirements are encouraged to contact the park in advance to discuss their needs.

Pets are allowed in outdoor areas of the park so long as they are on leash.

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