Feature Story


DCNR Recognizes Black History and its Connection to Conservation

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 The first African American forester in the nation, Ralph Brock, was among the first class of six foresters to graduate in 1906 from the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy, now known as Penn State Mont Alto. Photo source: Mont Alto Archive

In February, Black History Month, we recognize the great contributions of African Americans across the United States. And looking back on black history in Pennsylvania, there are important links to conservation.

At DCNR, history plays an important role in the names of the special places in the state park and forest systems; in the department’s work with communities to determine what they value most; in educational signage and materials; and in what we teach at state parks and forests.

There are stories and connections to the role that African Americans have played in the making of both American history and Pennsylvania’s conservation history. Several important Pennsylvania conservation figures and places include:

Ralph Brock

The first African American forester in the nation, Ralph Brock, was among the first class of six foresters to graduate in 1906 from the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy, now known as Penn State Mont Alto. Brock was employed at the former Mont Alto Reserve, now Michaux State Forest.

Caledonia State Park

Located midway between Chambersburg and Gettysburg, Caledonia is located on the site of Thaddeus Stevens’ charcoal iron furnace. Stevens fought for equal rights for immigrants and women, until the abolition of slavery became his primary political and personal focus. In 1903, the land where Stevens’ self-contained Caledonia village stood was sold to the commonwealth as part of the new Forest Reserve System, to be a future supply of timber and be “outings grounds for citizens.”

South Mountain Landscape Connection to the Underground Railroad

The Franklin County Visitors Bureau oversaw the development of an interpretive program – highlighted by a documentary film 15 minutes in length -- that captures the story of freedom-seeking African Americans and their connection to the ironworks in the South Mountain landscape during the Civil War Era.

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The son of a freed slave, Mose Wharton was employed and could single-handedly run the mill that is now surrounded by McConnells Mill State Park. 

Mose Wharton

The son of a freed slave, Wharton was employed and could single-handedly run the mill that is now surrounded by McConnells Mill State Park. After the mill closed, he used his own money to repair the mill and for upkeep of the grounds.

Brown Cemetery at Laurel Hill Settlement, Laurel Ridge State Park

DCNR has a partnership in place with the Johnstown Area Heritage Association to protect the cemetery and settlement in Laurel Ridge State Park as an important part of the cultural history in the region. The cemetery is hallowed ground for several generations of early African-American settlers.

Endless Mountains Heritage Area Grant for Dennis Farm in Brooklyn Township, Susquehanna County

A DCNR grant supports a study for a comprehensive historical narrative of the 1793 African-American settlement, as well as interpretive and educational programs.

DCNR is a partner in the Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage Project. Among its efforts is collecting stories of the people, places, and events that shaped conservation in the commonwealth. If you know of a person, place, or event that should be documented, you can contact the project to make a suggestion.

Exploring and celebrating our common heritage and history through stories and interpretation is important to the work of managing and supporting our special places, in trust, for each of Pennsylvania’s citizens to benefit from and enjoy.