August 2011 - Spokes Magazine

August 2011 - Spokes Magazine

Biking the Bog Iron

by ron pilling

Over 160 years ago the forests near the Maryland seaside were dense and nearly

impenetrable. Just above the tops of the gnarled bald cypress trees, every minute of

every day, hovered a choking cloud of smoke, which dipped to the blackness of Nassawango

Creek and the Pocomoke River, scattering ash over the deep, sluggish water.

not exactly an ideal environment to do

anything recreational. There were barely any tracks

through the forest deserving of the name “road.”

A century and a half later, while the grandeur of a

cypress bog remains much has changed. The source

of the smoke, the brick column that glowed red and

belched smoke as a byproduct of bog iron smelting,

burned out and went cold by the mid-1850s. The

iron-making village that surrounded it melted away

shortly thereafter. The vast areas that were clear-cut to

produce charcoal for the furnace quickly reverted to

forest. The air cleared.

Until 1978 most local folk regarded the Nassawango

Creek watershed as wasteland, unnavigable, useless

for any practical purpose except hunting and

fishing, hemmed in by fields of corn and soybeans.

The bitter aroma of charcoal smoke was replaced

by the not-much-sweeter perfume of the chicken

house. This turned out to be the creek’s and surrounding

upland forests’ saving grace, for when The

Nature Conservancy arrived the landscape was as

close to virgin forest as it might ever have been. The

Conservancy has since preserved nearly 15,000 acres,

and along with the Pocomoke River State Forest

and the few narrow, winding, shaded roads that twist

among the many preserved sites, lies some of the best

cycling on the Eastern seaboard.

The remains of the furnace attracted the attention of

preservationists in the 1960s and the tall brick stack is

now the focus of a restored and rebuilt iron making

village, with a collection of historic buildings and an

equally-important collection of artisans and interpreters.

Furnace Town is a great starting point for a loop

ride through the cypress forest, across Nassawango

Creek to the edge of the Pocomoke River – 50 miles

or more without once venturing onto a roadway with

more than just a single lane both sides.

Vacationers in nearby Ocean City and Assateague

Island, Maryland or Chincoteague, Virginia, especially

those who have brought their bikes from the western

shore of the Chesapeake Bay, find that their derailleurs

rarely move outside a narrow range toward the

high end, for what natives call a hill is more akin

a speed bump to the urban cyclist. (note: “Eastern

Shore” is correctly capitalized, as opposed to western

shore, a poke in the nose to city folk from Baltimore,

Washington and Philadelphia and an indication of just

how privileged locals feel to be living in what a popular

Maryland beer ad calls the “Land of Pleasant Living.”)

The aptly named Furnace Road crosses Maryland

Route 12, a centuries-old route from central Delmarva

to the coast, about 12 miles east of Salisbury,

Maryland. Furnace Town is just a mile or so southwest

of Route 12, marked by a state historic sign that briefly

Bog iron furnace

A cypress bog

10 August 2011

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