Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — January 2010

Fort Roberdeau: A Must-See Area for Local Hikers

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Central Pennsylvania was not a location of major battles during the American Revolution, but we do have a unique Revolutionary War site. Between Altoona and State College is Fort Roberdeau, a Blair County Historic and Natural Area.

By the spring of 1778, the American colonies’ fight for independence appeared to be over. Philadelphia, the new capital, was occupied by the British. George Washington’s army was destitute at Valley Forge. And British sympathizers across the Commonwealth were beginning to take a stand against their rebel neighbors.

During this time, supplies for the colonial army were in short supply. They lacked the basics of food and clothing as well as most of the material they needed to wage war. In particular, there was little lead for bullets and musket balls.

Daniel Roberdeau, a member of the Continental Congress meeting in York since the capture of Philadelphia, became aware of lead mines in central Pennsylvania. Roberdeau oversaw the building of a stockade to protect the lead mining and smelting in Sinking Valley, part of what is now Blair County, just south of the Little Juniata River. The fort was a storage depot for ordnance, ammunition, and other supplies until 1780. Rebel settlers often found safety at Fort Roberdeau during times of raids by parties of British rangers and their Indian allies.

After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the fort fell into disrepair. Parts of it may have been recycled into other buildings. By the 1930s, the site of today’s reconstructed fort was on a farm known as the “Fort Roberdeau Farm.” Fort Roberdeau was reconstructed during America’s bicentennial year in1976. Since then, the County of Blair has gradually assembled 230 acres surrounding the fort to protect the integrity of this site. Unlike many Revolutionary War sites, Fort Roberdeau’s surroundings are similar to those encountered in the mid-18th century. The park itself consists of 35 acres of woodland and 195 acres of fields, some of which are farmed.

Several trails run through the woods and fields of the Fort Roberdeau Historic and Natural Area. The Bluebird Trail follows a long but circuitous hedgerow through fields surrounding the fort. Juniata Valley Audubon installed and maintains 25 bluebird boxes along this trail, and, during the nesting season, this trail bustles with activity as eastern bluebirds and tree swallows vie for possession of these homes and later hunt for insects to feed their voracious young. Twenty- five years ago, the eastern bluebird was a rare sight due to the elimination of hedgerows and the adoption of “clean” farming practices. The widespread installation of birdhouses specifically constructed for bluebirds has brought this species back to become a once-again common inhabitant of hedgerows and open areas.

In winter, these fields and hedgerows are great places to see large flocks of horned larks, American kestrels, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, and the occasional short-eared owl and barn owl. White-tailed deer and red foxes also are likely to be seen.

The woods at the Fort Roberdeau Natural Area contain a variety of trees, including about a half-dozen ancient white oaks, which exceed four feet in diameter. Unfortunately, the oldest of these fell in the spring of 2009 during a storm. Its massive trunk and limbs lie near a bridge crossing the stream that flows through this woodland. Large spring seeps can be found in these woods, and, if you look carefully, you can see the spathes of skunk cabbages emerging from wet areas, waiting to release their explosive growth.

The small stream that runs through the woods descends into a sinkhole near the fort. From the trail, you can walk down to a small platform at the mouth of the cave into which this stream sinks. Sinking Valley is named for the prominence of sinkholes throughout its limestone topography. Many streams in this valley are above ground in one area and below ground in others, but all empty into the Little Juniata River. The stream at Fort Roberdeau is easily accessible, so you should get close and investigate it. Pick up some leaves that are in the stream and you’ll see that most are being eaten by aquatic insects. If you’re lucky, you may see caddisflies in their leaf, twig, or stone cases. Looking under rocks will likely give you the opportunity to examine some mayfly and stonefly nymphs, and and perhaps a northern two-lined or a norther dusky salamander. Yes, they are all active in the stream in winter.

Because the trails are well-traveled and obvious, and because much of the park is open fields, it’s impossible to lose your way in this Blair County park. It’s a good idea to visit the park during different seasons to see the changes in the flora and fauna as well as to take advantage of the park's seasonal programs. The reconstructed Revolutionary War stockade surrounding six log cabins is open from late spring to early fall, as is an 1858 barn containing exhibits and a museum shop. During warmer weather, be sure to take advantage of the park's picnic facilities, and White Oak Hall, a large multipurpose facility.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Outings Co-Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club.