Ser­pen­tine’s legacy lives on in Ch­ester County

The green stone is a tan­gi­ble link to the county’s past

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LOCAL NEWS - Bill Ret­tew Small Talk

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 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.

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