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The Burnt Cabin One-Room School of Hellam Township

Northwest Section of Hellam Township, York Co., PA (1936 Topographic Map)

When I was a young child, if our family drove to the IVA-LU bungalow, near Accomac, the back way, we headed onto what is now River Drive off of Codorus Furnace Road.  Part of the Burnt Cabin One-Room Schoolhouse could still be seen back then.  I remember Dad raising the question, “How would you like to go to a school called Burnt Cabin?”

I had only ever seen one printed reference to the Burnt Cabin area; an article related to a Girl’s Camp that eventually moved and became Camp Betty Washington.  Two weeks ago, while looking through old topographic maps to check for the earliest existence of the summit Buzzards Roost, I spotted the Burnt Cabin School on a 1936 Topographic Map; shown by the red arrow in the map section at beginning of this blog.


Harold L. Smith, my Dad, helped build the IVA-LU bungalow in 1930.  He likely traveled by this school, or at least the building, to know of its’ name and make a comment about the name of the school during our 1950s and 1960s trips to the bungalow.  Was a sign on the building at one time?

I did some research on one-room schools in Hellam Township.  Going back to the most complete rural school records of 1923, Burnt Cabin is not listed.  All we know is that it was there in 1908 and closed by 1923.  When was this school established?  Why was the school in such a remote location?  Why was it named Burnt Cabin?

I believe that the Burnt Cabin name and location have a lot to do with the proximity to Codorus Furnace in Hellam Township; whose location is noted at the left side of the topographic map section.  There are several essentials for a furnace: a supply of iron ore and limestone, water to turn a water wheel for operating a bellows to stoke the furnace, and plenty of timber for the charcoal that was the furnace fuel.

Charcoal made an ideal furnace fuel, because its’ ash, consisting largely of lime and alkalis, supplied part of the necessary flux for the smelting process.  The river hills in the area definitely had plenty of wood to make the charcoal.  Heating wood in the absence of air makes charcoal.  It is a long involved process to char the wood throughout without allowing it to burn to ashes.

Codorus Furnace (Hellam Twp. Web Site)

The size of a furnace like Codorus Furnace likely required a master collier to supply the large daily quantity of charcoal.  A master collier is a person who had mastered the skill of charring charcoal in vast quantities.  The master collier knows what to do to burn wood just enough to make charcoal and not over-do-it, resulting in all their work ending up as ashes.  The master collier would have several colliers working for him.  Ten colliers for a large furnace are not unusual.  Each collier typically had two helpers and to feed the whole operation a workforce of woodchoppers and wood haulers.

Besides the workforce at the furnace, there were just as many involved in charcoaling.  The 1834 law in Pennsylvania requiring public education likely initiated a school in a cabin in the area for the workers children.  Calling the school Burnt Cabin is only logical, considering the work their parents were engaged in.

Furnace Marker (Hellam Twp. Web Site)

The Codorus Furnace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The furnace shut-down in 1850 after operating 85-years.  We’ve seen in my Hermit House blogs that the Chestnut Hill Iron Ore Company of Columbia, Lancaster County was purchasing York County iron ore primarily for their furnaces north of Columbia at least through 1883 when they sold their weighing station in Springettsbury Township.  They were also likely purchasing charcoal; therefore the charcoaling in the river hills around Burnt Cabin may have continued well after the Codorus Furnace ceased operations.

A Google Book search came up with a book containing The Record of the Girls’ Friendly Society in America.  Within the book was a record of their camp along the Susquehanna River at Burnt Cabin:

“Harrisburg Opens a Holiday House Sunday, June 17, 1923”

“The new Holiday House of the Diocese of Harrisburg at Burnt Cabin was formally opened by the Rev. Paul S. Atkins, Rector of St. John’s Church, York, assisted by Mr. Carruthers, of Columbia, Pa.”

“A large number of people were present to take part in the services and to inspect the Camp.  The place is an old farm house, quite in the country.  There are two wonderful springs, one of which will provide water for a swimming pool.  There are tennis courts, volley and basket-ball.  Owing to the isolation of the spot, there is beautiful wild scenery, which makes it ideal for its purpose.”

“Mr. Gitt, of Hanover, donated a lighting plant, which was installed by Mr. Wilhelm, a member of St. John’s Church, York.  This will give lights not only in the house and grounds but in each one of the ten army tents, which are to be used for sleeping purposes by those who prefer to sleep out of doors.”

“Donations have been received from various interested friends of The Girls’ Friendly Society, and Mrs. Heiges, the President, looks forward to a most satisfactory and successful summer.”

I remember reading that the camp had to move from the Susquehanna River location because they unknowingly were polluting Marietta’s water supply.  I know that is entirely possible because Burnt Cabin is at the location of the headwaters of Wildcat Run on which the Marietta Water Reservoir is located.

Neville M. Smith, the wife of local manufacturer Stephen F. Smith, deeded land for a new campsite in 1928.  The camp was named Camp Betty Washington to honor Neville M. Smith’s great-great-great-grandmother Betty Washington, the sister of George Washington.  Now you know how Camp Betty Washington Road in Springettsbury and York Townships got its name.

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