It’s no coincidence that you pass Colebrook on the the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail while heading to Gretna. Colebrook comes first, in geography and in history.
The South Londonderry Township Historical Society conducted a walking tour of the Colebrook area this weekend and LebTown was there to capture it.
The small industrial village in Colebrook was constructed by Robert Coleman in the 1790’s consisting of a company store, worker’s housing, iron master’s mansion, furnace, sawmill, and grist mill.
Coleman was the capitalist who transformed Peter Grubb’s old Cornwall iron furnace into the centerpiece of a $30m industrial empire.
Today the mill, the iron master’s house, and some cottages are the only buildings left standing. If you’re a fan of scary stories you might also know this setting from the Haunting of the Hounds legend.
A century after Colebrook was created, Robert Coleman’s great-grandson Robert H. Coleman was in charge of the industrial empire that had resulted from his ancestor’s efforts and Lebanon was booming, thanks largely to the good fortune of the Coleman family. Robert H. Coleman incorporated the Cornwall & Lebanon railroad in 1883, introducing a competitor for the Cornwall Railroad.
He would later expand the system to include a narrow gauge line that culminated in a spectacular loop on the summit of Governor Dick, and much of this right of way is used today for the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail.
Coleman was an enthusiastic and competitive railroad operator, with one engineer recalling when the man himself took over control of a train to race a Cornwall Railroad train to Gretna. Each of the railroads had their own recreational parks as well, Mt. Gretna Park was the Cornwall & Lebanon’s, and Penryn (today’s Camp Shand) was the Cornwall Railroad’s pleasure destination.
Coleman’s efforts and improvements to make Mt. Gretna a destination led to the site being used for a number of different gatherings and applications, such as its famous use as a military encampment.
Coleman’s descendants went on to leave Lebanon County after losing most of their fortune in the financial panic of 1893, after which point the Lebanon Trust and Safe Deposit Bank oversaw an attempted sale of the Colebrook property (only 60 acres were purchased, apparently because the price was set too high).
Today much of the Coleman legacy has been removed from the landscape. Places like Coleman’s Park evoke the name of this historic Lebanon County family, but little of the physical plant there remains. Not so in Colebrook.
The master’s mansion, known as the Colebrook Mansion House, is owned by Sue and Barry Bucks, who engaged with the walking tour this weekend in their role as the third family to own the mansion.
The most notable change to the building over their ownership period was a new petite balcony overlooking their land and pond.
The mill is not in nearly as good a condition though.
The State acquired the old Colebrook mill property as a roughly 9 acre plot for $9,000 in 1921. The Game Commission came into possession of the land in February 1938, at which point about 700 of the 2100 total acres were used as farmland (before being occupied by the National Guard) and the rest wooded.
At the time, a columnist for the Harrisburg Sunday Courier said that, “the possibilities of developing a really worthwhile game management area of the Mt. Gretna Military Reservation, and for a greater number of species than customary, are better than for any other tract of State Game Lands yet acquired.”
Now preservation advocates are fighting for the mill to be saved. The Colebrook mill is about 45’x 60′ and stands 2.5 stories tall. The building has a reddish shade thanks to the red sandstone used to construct the structure.
The Colebrook Mill was one of five state landmarks to be placed on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2019 At Risk list.
A program director for Preservation Pennsylvania told the Reading Eagle that the building offers great potential for reuse and that the local community “regards this building as an important local landmark.” Preservation Pennsylvania is working with the South Londonderry Township Area Historical Society to find a path forward with the state.
This isn’t the first time that the old grist mill has been the target of local preservation efforts. South Londonderry Township has been in discussions with the Game Commission since at least 2010, with the Lebanon Daily News reporting in 2016 on seemingly-stalled negotiations over land exchanges that would see the land turned into a park with the South Londonderry Historical Commission or another nonprofit taking care of maintenance and operation.
If you are interested in seeing the mill protected, advocates ask that you contact your local representatives to indicate your support, and you can also follow the South Londonderry History page on Facebook to receive more updates from the South Londonderry Historical Society.
All photos by Ashley Walter.