DILLTOWN — Covering dozens of miles in Indiana and Cambria counties, the Ghost Town Trail goes through several western Pa. towns as well as the ghost towns that give this rail trail its namesake.
The 2020 Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Trail of the Year in Pa., Ghost Town Trail has several trailheads, from the spot my daughter and I jumped on — Dilltown — to its western terminus at Blacklick, all the way to its eastern terminus at Ebensburg. These locations are a roughly two-hour drive from where you are reading from.
Unlike the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail in Union County and the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Lycoming and Bradford counties, the 44 miles of Ghost Town Trail has a bit of elevation, and a noticeably different landscape.
Sections of the trail go through mining ghost towns which still bear the scars of various steel and mining industries, including coal dumps, abandoned rail and rail ties, railcars and remnants of coal tipples.
From site to site, there are stretches of natural beauty which include plentiful wildflowers, some wetlands, abundant hardwoods and creeks and runs feeding Blacklick Creek.
Those runs, and Blacklick Creek itself, are tinted orange due to mine drainage. Work is underway near Vintondale to clean up one of the streams in hopes fishing can be reintroduced as a recreational activity. According to a local newspaper, a $15 million project to clean up the stream, and a number of its tributaries, is underway.
From the charming little village of Dilltown, we headed the 13 miles west to Blacklick. We passed through the ghost towns of Amerford, Scot Glen, Dias and Claghorn, where a bridge that once transported people from the town to the mine, across Blacklick Creek, still stands. The bridge survived the Johnstown flood of ‘77.
The history in this area is quite interesting, especially that of the furnaces, two of which still stand and are accessible along the trail. Indiana County Historical and Genealogical Society and the county’s Parks and Trails provided the following information in various forms.
The Buena Vista iron furnace is accessible only from the trail. It is one of two furnaces along the trail. Active just nine years in the mid 1800s, this 30-foot tall structure produced 400 tons of iron per year, which was refined into iron bars. Those bars were hauled to the PA Canal and sent to a forge in Pittsburgh, where the iron was turned into utensils and stoves.
Furnaces pre-dated mining and the railroad eras. Rocky, mountainous terrain made the region too difficult to farm, so the furnaces buoyed the first industry in the Blacklick Valley, and her settlers, mostly European immigrants.
Sixty men and 30 mules worked the furnace, which included everything workers needed to keep the furnace running, including stables, storage, log cabins and more. The furnaces were located near hillsides so that ore, charcoal and limestone could be dumped into the furnace.
About an acre of forested land had to be harvested each day to operate one of the furnaces, adding to the labor force needed.
There were three furnaces in this area. The Eliza Furnace is at the edge of Vintondale and is one of a few left in the United States that has its original heat exchanger. It employed more men and mules and produced 1,080 tones of iron a year. Eliza is accessibly via car along Main Street, and is a National Register site.
The furnaces sent soot throughout the areas in which they operated, and produced terrible smells. The iron furnaces were loud. Men were paid “in kind” rather than with cash.
Armed with the history of the area, riding the trail becomes all the more interesting. While it’s hard to see the scarring of the landscape and damage that continues today from the years of mining, the trail is still enjoyable as Mother Nature has worked to reclaim most of these areas.
Deer were prevalent, as were various birds, some of which I have not noticed in central Pa. We were warned about snakes along the trail, but never saw any. Chipmunks were quite active, and we know how snakes love their forest rodents.
For more on the Ghost Town Trail, see next week’s Weekender, or visit indianacountyparks.org.