It was mid-September – too early for Halloween ghosts to be lurking – when Eileen and I went biking on the Ghost Town Rail Trail in southwestern Pennsylvania. So, we had few trepidations about whom we might run into, nor what might occur. And, since we had read that these ghost towns had little visible evidence – with the exception of occasional interpretive signs and mountains of black coal slag – to indicate their former glory, we figured our visit would focus the natural, rather than the supernatural.
We were correct in our supposition, as the majority of our pedaling was through mixed coniferous and evergreen forests, along a shallow, rock-studded creek, and next to sedimentary stone bluffs. Beautiful country. But, our weekend consisted of more than the simple pleasures of observing the birds and the bees. We got a cram course on the industrial history of western Pennsylvania and the power of nature to rebel when stressed beyond its limits. Hardly supernatural, but a lesson about nature itself.
The trip began Friday evening with a 3.5 hour drive from Washington, DC to Dilltown (57 miles east of Pittsburgh), located midway along the trail. It is the only town along the trail, except for Ebensburg at the eastern terminus, that offers services for bicyclists. The other living towns – i.e., those that still exist and are not “ghost towns” – consist of aging homes and closed down businesses, testament to a depressed economy. Eileen refers to them as modern day ghost towns. In Dilltown, we were glad to support the local economy for a two-night stay at the Dillweed Bed & Breakfast. In return, we were treated to fresh herbs on our breakfast plates after bedding down in the Sage room (next to the Parsley, Rosemary and Thyme rooms, of course!).
In the morning we hit the Ghost Town Trail, 36 miles of packed gravel running along several former railroad lines in Indiana and Cambria counties (both of which have invested heavily in the trail’s success). It follows Blacklick Creek and passes through eight “ghost towns,” which, in the mid 19th and early 20thcenturies, had sizeable mining operations. Now, however, there is little evidence of the communities and the industries that supported them. After their demise (due to changing economies then, too), salvage companies cleaned them out. I was happy to learn that at least one of the salvage companies, still going strong after 80+ years, resells the wood, stone, brick and iron to be reused.
The information we garnered about the region’s history came from interpretive signs spaced along the trail and the Ghost Town Trail Guidebook, 110 pages of history, photos, maps, etc. Because the region was rich in timber, limestone and iron ore, settlers arrived in the 1850s and built large blast furnaces to produce pig iron (high in carbon and quite brittle). Two of these furnaces still exist along the trail, monuments to the industriousness of early settlers, who had no idea of the future havoc that would be wreaked as a result of their labors. The iron they produced was transported to nearby Johnstown, feeding the local steel industry, which, in the 1860s, produced more steel (and barbed wire) than anywhere else in the U.S.
In the early 1900s, coal production became the predominant industry, and miners from Wales and other parts of the British Isles arrived to extract the coal. Villages sprang up, the largest of which had 230 houses, hotels, stores and even a jail (you gotta keep an eye on those miners, you know…), and life was good for a while. But when the coal beds were depleted in the mid and late 1900s, the mines closed. Forgotten by those who left the area, but impossible to ignore by anyone nearby. Stark evidence remains today and into the future, not only in the large mountains of black coal slag (evident from the rail trail), but also in the AMD.
Luckily, I had read something about the trail ahead of time, alerting me to the constant, usually unexplained, references to AMD. So, I was not intimidated when I saw the acronym on signs and heard it in conversation. Sadly, it’s a household word to residents of western Pennsylvania. It means acid mine drainage – the acidic water that flows out of abandoned coal mines, turning streams and the rocks in them bright orange. Its high acidity kills plant and insect life, leaving waterways biologically dead. We witnessed it in the orange hue of the clear water creek and in the brilliant, carrot-colored puddles along the trail at the base of massive hills of black slag.
Our despondency turned to optimism, however, when we reached Vintondale, one of the modern day ghost towns along the trail. Concerned residents are taking steps to remediate land and waters affected by AMD with their AMD&ART Project. They have established a series of treatment ponds which filter the acidic water through vegetated wetlands to remove the metals, and then channel it through limestone to increase the pH. Animal and bird life is returning to the area, which, with its artistic components, also serves as a resting place for visitors. We stopped to examine the exhibits: a mosaic map of the town as it looked in the 1920s, with granite tiles etched with photos and newspaper articles from when the colliery was active; and a haunting image of helmet-clad miners incised onto another granite slab located at the former mine entrance. Informative, as well as moving.
After our ride (and shower at the Dillweed), we drove into Johnstown, ten miles south, for dinner. I knew little about the city beforehand, except that there had been a flood there. It turns out that Johnstown has endured three major and debilitating floods, as well as many other smaller ones. The first and worst, in 1889, was the result of the failure of a dam on the Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream, destroying the city (and the steel refineries) in just 10 minutes and leaving over 2200 people dead. The second, in 1936, resulted in the widening and deepening of the river channel and encasing it in steel-reinforced concrete. Hardly a natural solution for restoring the river, which was the raison d’etre for building the city there in the first place.
It’s easy to see why Johnstown has suffered from nature’s vengeance (as some call it) if you visit it as we did. We rode the Inclined Plane – otherwise known as a funicular, – built in 1891 as an escape route from floods and to develop inundation-free suburbs on higher ground. It is said to be the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane, climbing to a plateau 800 feet above the river. The ride took us only 90 seconds, and from the top we could see the entire layout of the city, situated in a narrow valley at the intersection of two rivers, lined by now-defunct factories, mills, warehouses and railroad buildings. It is surrounded by steep-sided hills, which send rainwater quickly and directly into the valley below. Whatever floodplain existed prior to the industrial era was paved over, causing rising rivers to overflow their banks, inundating homes, businesses, and industrial sites.
As Eileen and I had dinner at City View Bar and Grill at the top of the Inclined Plane, we reflected on how humans have been so successful in mining nature – its soil, minerals, water, atmosphere, plants and animals – to create the abundant and highly technological world we live in. Our admiration was tempered, however, by what we had witnessed in our two-day jaunt. Nature’s riches are not eternal, nor are they provided without consequence. When we overdo our pilfering, or drastically modify the environment, nature rebukes us. In this case, it was with rivers that run orange, killing life within, and waters that destroy towns because their natural conduits have been eliminated.
Our Ghost Town experience did not enlighten us to the supernatural as much as it did to the superiority of nature.