Trail of the Month: June 2011
Pennsylvania's Ghost Town Trail
Like most phantoms, the ghosts along this western Pennsylvania trail are tough to spot. They lurk in the woods, whispering of a past few can now remember.
The specters are the remnants of once-thriving coal-mining towns in the Blacklick Creek Valley that died when the mining companies left decades ago. Today, the "ghost towns"—Amerford, Bracken, Buffington, Claghorn, Dias, Lackawanna #3, Scott Glen, Wehrum—are helping to animate the 36-mile Ghost Town Trail and the remaining communities nearby.
"It's a pretty rural area—there was no tourism industry to speak of before the trail," says Ed Patterson, director of parks and trails for Indiana County, Pa. "It's created a whole tourism industry that didn't exist before." (The Ghost Town Trail is the 'anchor' trail for this summer's Greenway Sojourn, hosted by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy).
This ghost story begins in the 1890s, when coal companies moved into the rugged Blacklick Valley, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. The valley, named for the coal outcroppings visible there, had previously been logged and mined for iron but had never before seen development on the scale of modern coal mining. Huge shafts were dug into the earth, large processing facilities were built and company towns were constructed to house thousands of men and their families. The largest of these towns, Wehrum, once had more than 200 houses, a hotel, post office, school and two churches.
Railroad lines through the valley, originally built to transport logs to mills, were greatly expanded to serve the mines and the new residents. Trains from the Ebensburg & Blacklick Railroad and the Cambria & Indiana Railroad ran frequently through the valley, moving coal, supplies and people to and from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Rochester and other cities in the region.
The fortunes of the company towns were directly tied to coal production, which peaked in Pennsylvania in 1918. After a decade of ups and downs, the Great Depression dealt many of the mining companies a fatal blow. Towns were abandoned, and in some cases the buildings demolished and sold for scrap. Train passenger service in the valley ended in the 1930s. Although some mines scraped along for a few more decades, by the end of the 1960s coal shipments from the Blacklick valley had essentially ceased. Eight coal-mining towns faded from memory.
"This particular area fueled the Industrial Revolution in America, and it also provided homes and jobs for immigrants to this country," says Laurie Lafontaine, a local activist who played the leading role in getting the trail established. "When the mines and railroads disappeared, the towns dried up and the people left."
In the late1980s, Lafontaine and other local residents began to advocate for turning the unused rail lines in the valley into a recreational trail. In 1991, she helped convince a local salvage company that had taken possession of the former Ebensburg & Blacklick Railroad to donate 16 miles of the line for a trail, and planning work got under way. Indiana county officials obtained money through federal Transportation Enhancements funding, and the first section of trail was dedicated in 1994.
Today, thanks to additional donations, the trail stretches a total of 36 miles. The main stem runs 32 miles from the town of Ebensburg to Black Lick, and a four-mile spur runs north from Vintondale to Route 422 (known as the Rexis Branch). The crushed-limestone trail welcomes cyclists, pedestrians, cross-country skiers and other non-motorized recreational users.
For trail visitors, few of the valley's ghost towns remain visible or accessible anymore. Most of the towns have been covered by vegetation, and almost all of them—and the few remaining structures—are on private property and not open to the public. But there's plenty of other history and scenery to more than make up for this.
For example, alongside the trail in Vintondale is Eliza Furnace, one of the best-preserved 19th-century iron-smelting structures in the country. From 1846 to 1849, workers loaded iron ore and limestone from the surrounding hills into this charcoal-fired furnace, and produced pig iron that was shipped to forges in Pittsburgh to be re-worked.
Historical attractions aside, the beauty and quiet of the area alone is reason to visit the Ghost Town Trail. Following a winding creek through rugged hills in long stretches of unpopulated, forested land—including state game lands—this rail-trail is about as wild as it gets in this part of the country. Rhododendrons and wildflowers are abundant, and chances are good that you'll catch a glimpse of deer, red fox, beavers, wild turkeys, hawks, songbirds and maybe even a black bear or a bobcat.
"You just get the feeling that you've stepped back in time. No houses, no roads, just you and the trail and the creek," says Lafontaine. "It's just wonderful—it's so peaceful."
One thing you won't see much of, though, is aquatic life. The valley's coal mines, despite being closed for decades, continue to haunt the area with water pollution. Acidic run-off from the mining operations has turned sections of the creek and surrounding tributaries orange and made them inhospitable for fish or vegetation.
"You will see places of outstanding natural beauty, and you'll see areas of desolation caused by mining and pollution—it's a real contrast," says Patterson.
But efforts to clean up the waterways are in progress, and they owe much of their success to the trail, Patterson and Lafontaine say. "Because the trail got people out into the land, they could see the environmental damage and the beauty that could be there," says Lafontaine. "It spurred the formation of a watershed protection association, and we're slowly but surely bringing the stream back to life."
The trail has also brought economic benefits to Ebensburg, Black Lick and other nearby communities. In 2009, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy conducted a user survey of the Ghost Town Trail. The study found that the more than 75,000 annual users of the trail bring $1.7 million a year into the local economy.
In addition, the trail has provided less tangible benefits to residents. "It's just really made people healthy and happy—it's given them a mental lift. How do you put a dollars and cents figure on that?" says Lafontaine. "It really makes for a better community. It gives us a place where we can have a vacation every day of our lives."
All in all, a pretty friendly ghost story.
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