Serpentine’s legacy lives on in Chester County
The green stone is a tangible link to the county’s past
Chester County is known for much. The county is the home of Lukens Steel, Valley Forge, Herr’s, the historic courthouse in West Chester, Kennett Square mushrooms, the Wyeth Family and about 100 serpentine buildings. Building blocks of serpentine are made from locally quarried, distinct and most often, green stone.
Jane E. Dorchester, architectural historian, learned to swim at the former Brinton’s Quarry, now the Quarry Swim Club, south of West Chester in Westtown.
“It was just there,” Dorchester said about her early fascination with the green stone that she later wrote a graduate thesis for the University of Pennsylvania. “I was surrounded by it and curious. I wondered what it was made of.”
Stone quarried on a county ridge of serpentine outcroppings stretching from Willistown to the east and Nottingham to the southwest was likely used in buildings as farflung as Boston, Jacksonville, Racine and Kalamazoo.
Complexes of serpentine outcroppings can be found to the east of the Appalachian Ridge form Georgia to Newfoundland, as well as in California and Oregon. Serpentine is rare, covering just one percent of the earth’s surface, including areas of England, Russia, South Africa, New Zealand, Morocco and China.
More than 500 million years ago a sea covered Chester County. Pressure exerted by water changed the igneous or volcanic rock to metamorphic. The earth then pushed up to create a ridge with exposed, or nearly exposed, serpentine outcroppings.
According to a pamphlet distributed by the Chester County Board of Commissioners, “Nottingham County Park Serpentine Barrens National Natural Landmark Heritage Hike,” the origin of the name serpentine is widely disputed.
“At least four theories attribute the name to: 1) the serpent-like colors and patterns, 2) the myth that these gemstones were effective protection from venomous snake bites, 3) a snake that lives on an outcropping of rocks in Italy, and 4) the white veins in the rock that look like small snakes,” reads the pamphlet.
A walk through Nottingham County Park, one of just 600 National Natural Landmarks, is a great way to experience serpentine barrens.
Sun-baked, high-temperature conditions on “islands” are known as “barrens” because the land was unsuitable for farming. To early farmers, the topography looked barren and empty.
Ironically, several plants and flowers grow at serpentine barrens and no place else.
Trees seem stunted in Nottingham County Park. Grasses grow prolifically, much like African savannahs. Green and a rainbow of colored stones litter the trails.
It’s a little odd. Something seems like it’s missing. You feel as if you are in the pine barrens of New Jersey or near timberline on a New Hampshire mountain in the Presidential Range.
In addition to building stone, local mines were quarried for talc, asbestos, chromium and other minerals. Try as you might, serpentine soil can’t be farmed, according to Dorchester.
“Serpentine bedrock produces poor agricultural soils because the soils tend to have elevated concentrations of magnesium, chromium, nickel, and cobalt and low concentrations of calcium, potassium, and phosphorus,” Dorchester said. “The underlying rock is leaching chemicals (magnesium, chromium, nickel, and cobalt) into the soil that are toxic to plants.”
Unfortunately, serpentine is “wet” or soft, partially due to chemicals and the composition.
I was lucky to recently attend a West Chester walking tour with local historian Tom Walsh.
The tour started at Holy Trinity Church on High Street. Construction of the green stone structure started in 1868. The building is glorious and one of the largest serpentine structures in Chester County.
Other huge green stone buildings are located at both University of Pennsylvania and West Chester University.
Walsh lamented the necessary loss of a bell tower that once stood on a corner. Auto exhaust had irreparably damaged the structure and it was leveled.
Walsh applauded the church for dedicating the time and resources for preservation.
On the tour, we saw another building on nearby Church Street showing the effects of time. There was some exterior structure damage to the wall.
Another day, Walsh and I went tramping about. We visited Doug Barry’s four serpentine buildings, at the former Taylor’s Mill property. Four green stone buildings include, a big home, barn, carriage house and smoke house.
“I love the old stone places — just the character,” said Barry.
While the stone is intact, Barry recently replaced mortar on much of a barn wall.
“This has lasted 200 years,” he said about the serpentine. “The stone is not fracturing but the mortar is.”
Walsh and I also visited Brinton’s Quarry, home of the Quarry Swim Club.
The quarry on New Street is a relic of the past. Dorchester told me that during 2000 when she wrote her thesis, just one quarry still produced serpentine.
From up above, with a neighbor, we saw a large pit at the former Brinton’s Quarry. The stunted trees and long, waving grasses were similar to those at Nottingham.
Green stone was quarried at what became Brinton’s Quarry circa 1870. The rock was first likely used in the early 1700s, according to “The History of the Quarry: The ‘hole’ as we know it.”
Joseph H. Brinton was a savvy marketer.
“Pennsylvania Green Stone is already wellknown as strikingly beautiful as well as a durable building material,” he advertised, according to “The History of the Quarry.”
He also marketed serpentine as “blending well with outdoor plantings.”
Serpentine is a real, tangible link to our past. That green stone is a wonderful part of our heritage. Long let serpentine stand tall and may it never crumble.
The Nottingham Country Fair and Color Run takes place Saturday Oct. 1 at Nottingham County Park. This family fun event features music, food, vendors, kids’ crafts, games and a silent auction, with much more. The fair is presented by West Nottingham Township and Nottingham County Park, and runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information go to chesco.org/parks or to contact the park directly call 610-932-2589.
West Chester’s Holy Trinity Church was constructed with local serpentine or green rock from Brinton’s Quarry.
Serpentine barrens dot the landscape at Nottingham County Park.