The Ghost Towns of Pennsylvania’s Ghost Town Trail

The Ghost Towns of Pennsylvania's Ghost Town Trail

Feature Photo: Kathy D. Reasor/ Shutterstock

The ghost towns of Pennsylvania’s Ghost Town Trail stretch over thirty miles along the state’s western rail trail. From Indian County’s Black Lick to Cambria County’s Edensburg, the trail was established in 1991, following the Blacklick Creek as one passes through several ghost towns that once upon a time served as thriving communities until the early 1900s. While the collecting and processing of coal were at their peak, the coal mining industry and the communities it supported flourished. When this began to decline, so did the population count of the towns that served as homes for the miners and their families. Overall, Pennsylvania has more than one hundred ghost towns inside its political border.

The Ghost Town Trail itself is part of the larger Trans Allegheny Trails Network that sprawl throughout western Pennsylvania. Once upon a time, trains used to trek back and forth between the communities, hauling goods and passengers until their services were no longer needed. Now, Ghost Town Trail is designated as a National Recreation Trail by the United States Department of the Interior. It has become a popular trail for cyclists, hikers, and cross-country skiers. The average travel time to explore this trail takes about ten hours.

Pennsylvania’s Heritage

When it comes to Pennsylvania and coal mining, perhaps Billy Joel’s 1982 classic rock hit, “Allentown” comes to mind. The Piano Man himself sang about the ups and downs of a miner that felt the impact of the boom and bust that came from the coal mining industry that defined the historical impact the state of Pennsylvania had on the United States of America, as well as the rest of the world. In 1918, the Pennsylvania coal mines reached their peak production with approximately fifteen million tons of a mineral that went out that year. Today, there are well over two hundred thousand acres of abandoned mine lands that once upon a time operated in the state. In addition to coal, these mines produced a series of towns that would share their fate. While these serve as remnants of what was,  Pennsylvania continues to serve as one of the top coal-producing states, even though the demand for it today has taken a sharp nosedive.

Along Ghost Town Trail, what’s left of the mining towns that used to be alive and well leaves little evidence that they used to be thriving communities that kept the trains that traveled this particular railroad busy. However, what adds to the ghostly experience along the trail are the abandoned railcars found along the way, as well as old cemeteries, and site markers. While nature has done a remarkable job reclaiming properties that cleared the way for townsites, it hasn’t entirely covered everything up, at least not yet. Much of the land along Ghost Town Trail once upon a time had a town considered private property so not all of them are accessible to the public. Most do, however, have markers along the trail for reference.

From Rail to Trail

The construction of Ghost Town Trail as a recreational hike began in 1991 when Ebensburg and Blacklick Railroad was donated to Indiana County. From there, the expansion of Ghost Town Trail continued to stretch across with the intention to invite modern-day explorers to take a step back in time as they trekked along an old railroad network that played a key role in Pennsylvania’s early development as a state. It also played a key role in the development of West Virginia, as well as the rest of the United States.

The trail allows visitors to encounter many historical sites that include abandoned coal mines and the company towns that catered to the miners and their families. Considered an easy route to travel, it normally takes at least ten hours to travel by foot and it is recommended to do so between the months of February and October. What you’ll encounter as you travel the trail are remnants of iron furnaces and long-disused tipples, as well as other ghostly remains that represent a bygone era. It is also recommended to travel Ghost Town Trail from west to east as one takes advantage of over one thousand feet of an old railway network that used to be one of Pennsylvania’s pride and joy.

Going from west to east, Ghost Town Trail parallels north along Pennsylvania’s Highway 22. There are a total of eight known access points that allow travelers to explore the trail, preferably from west to east. The start of the trail is Black Lick, the first of the ghost towns on the list. Its access point is at Saylor Park but this is not a trail that can be accessed by automobile. You have to either ride the trail as a cyclist or travel by foot.

The next accessible town is Heshbon, which is situated on Highway 22, just over six miles west of Black Lick. The next six access points are Dilltown, Wehrum, Vintondale, Twin Rocks, Nanty Glo, and Ebensburg. This is a trail that gradually ascends, starting at just under one thousand feet above sea level and finishing at two thousand feet above sea level. This is a thirty-three-mile hike that has also been a popular trail for marathon runners, as well as for artists, historians, painters, and photographers.

Notable Ghost Towns

Black Lick

Taking the suggestion of traveling the Ghost Town Trail from west to east, the first on the list of accessible ghost town sites begins with Black Lick. Situated on Pennsylvania’s Highway 119, Black Lick may be considered a ghost town but it’s not entirely dead yet. There are over one thousand people who still call it home. Nowadays, it’s recognized as a census-designated place by the Burrell Township of Pennsylvania’s Indiana County. In 1809, Black Lick opened up a post office that still remains in operation today. What gave this town its name was Blacklick Creek, which runs all along just south of Ghost Town Trail, from start to finish.

Heshbon

Smack in between the east of Heshbon and the west of Dilltown is Buena Vista Furnace. This hot blast iron blast furnace was built in 1847 and named after the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War. This thirty-foot-high furnace used charcoal, iron ore, and limestone which produced up to four hundred tons of pig iron per year. First owned and operated by Stephen Johnson, Henry McClelland, and Elias McClelland, this furnace played a key role in the development of Heshbon as a community to its west, as well as Dilltown to its east.

While the furnace was fully operational, it took up over eight hundred acres of land that included a sawmill and several boarding houses that housed over sixty workers. However, this came to an end in 1850 when it was no longer profitable to keep it running. The furnace was then sold to Dr. Alexander Johnson who sought to start it up again. After he died in 1874, his estate was divided among his three children. As of 1901, it was sold to Judge A.V. Baker on behalf of the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company. Already at this point, he had over twenty thousand acres of coal land that stretched between the Cambria and Indiana Counties. Later, the deed was passed to Warren Delanco and his coal company which was established as Lackawanna Steel’s subsidiary.

Due to the hardship experienced during the Great Depression, several mines were forced to shut down. This put Buena Vista Furnace into financial turmoil again. There were efforts to create a public historical park afterward with the intent to protect and preserve the furnace. On November 5, 1957, Delanco Coal Company sold the property to the Historical & Genealogical Society of Indiana County. Now part of the Brush Valley Township, Buena Vista Furnace serves as one of the biggest highlights of Ghost Town Trail.

The closest road to it is Highway 56, which runs north from Armagh on Highway 22. For Armagh, it’s the town’s pride and joy as a tourist attraction. However, in order to see the furnace up close, one still has to step out of the vehicle and travel on foot. From Heshbon to Vintondale, this is the easiest stretch along Ghost Town Trail to use for cyclists and hikers. This is also the stretch that was the busiest as it was here the majority of the furnaces and mines were located.

Just east of Heshbon was Claghorn, which was a 1903 community that belonged to Lackawanna Coal. It was a short-lived setup as the economy gave it cause to suspend the operation in 1904. Then in 1916, the Vinton Colliery Company opened up six mines in the area that prompted to build of the town that would include eighty-four houses, as well as a hotel and other amenities in order to support the residents, visitors, and workers. All seemed well until the mines closed in 1924. Despite the closures, homes were still rented out until after World War II. Since then, the town has been completely abandoned. This was also the case with Dias, Scott Glen, and Amerford. These were all situated between Heshbon and Dilltown.

Dilltown

Dilltown sits just northwest of the Blacklick Valley Natural Area. This reserve is loaded with wildlife that early morning travelers will have a better chance of viewing should they venture Ghost Town Trail. It sits to the east of Buena Vista Furnace as a community just north of Ghost Town Trail. It also sits on the northwest corner of the Blacklick Valley Natural Area. Dilltown was close enough to Wehrum to benefit from what was the largest mining community during the earliest years of the twentieth century.

Wehrum

Founded in 1901 by Judge A.V. Barker and Warren Delano, Wehrum started up as a coal mining town that once upon a time had over two hundred homes, a bank, a hotel, a jail, and a company store. Delano was the maternal uncle of Franklin Roosevelt. From 1901 until 1929, Wehrum thrived and was full of promise. That changed after the coal mine closed down, resulting in the population quickly dwindling to nothing. By 1934, it was completely abandoned and practically stripped bare as the lumber and abandoned mine buildings were rounded up and sold for other uses.

When visiting where Wehrum once stood, there are remnants of some of the streets and building foundations that can still be found in the woods. It’s hard to believe once upon a time, Wehrum was the largest of the communities that were situated along Blacklick Creek. Another notable remnant is the Wehrum Dam, which its remains can be found deeper in the woods that has since taken over what used to be a busy mining town.

Wehrum got its name from Henry Wehrum, who was the general manager of Lackawanna Iron and Steel. Before running the company out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was born in France in 1843 before migrating to the United States in 1871, just after the French lost the Franco-Prussian War. Wehrum’s role in the coal mining industry and steelworks in 1901 was instrumental in the prosperity Buffalo, New York experienced as it was his company that delivered the materials in order for that community to pave its way to become the city it is today.

Vintondale

The highlight of Vintondale is Eliza Furnace, one of Pennsylvania’s best-preserved iron blast furnaces. Vintondale is also the home to Ghost Town Trail’s Rexis Branch. It’s also surrounded by the State Game Lands No. 79, a wildlife reserve that offers cyclists and hikers a great opportunity to spot some deer. However, there are snakes known to be on the trail as well so be on the lookout for those. While at Vintondale, be sure to also pay Miners Memorial a visit. Here, you will learn more about Ghost Town Trail and what life was like for the miners and their families when coal, iron, and steel dictated the development of communities like Vintondale and so many more. Unlike the majority of the towns that stretched along the trail, Vintondale survived. However, along the trail itself, remnants of this community’s past serve as a ghostly reminder of what once was, so long ago.

Also known as Ritter’s Furnace, Eliza Furnace was in operation from 1846 until 1849. When it was at its peak, it produced over one thousand tons of iron per year and had almost one hundred men who worked there. This site was acquired by David Ritter and George Rodgers between the 1830s and 1840s as the men bought up land in the Blacklick Valley with the intent to build a furnace. At the time, the community known as Eliza served as the home for the miners and their families who lived there.

This was the first furnace in the region to use the hot blast method that would produce iron. From here, it would be transported by mule-led wagons to a community once upon a time known as Nineveh before it would continue to Pittsburgh by the Pennsylvania Canal. Despite its proficiency as a mine, there was no real profit for the men who owned it. The employees at that time were paid in kind instead of cash. Between financing issues and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s choice to use Conemaugh Valley for its new route instead of sticking to Blacklick, this marked the beginning of the end for Eliza and its furnace.

The financial issues Ritter personally faced were severe enough to cause him to lose everything. In July 1848, Eliza and Ritter’s Furnace was seized and sold at a sheriff’s sale to a pair of businessmen out of Philadelphia. Since then, Eliza Furnace went through a series of different owners before becoming the property of the Cambria County Historical Society. Now, Eliza Furnace serves as one of Vintondale’s main tourist attractions. While there, visitors can take advantage of the picnic area as they read up on the historical signs that go into detail about Eliza, Vintondale, and the Ghost Train trail.

Between Vintondale and Nanty Glo

What’s left of Webster and Bracken sits east of Vintondale as ghostly reminders of mining communities that once populated the area before moving on. Because it sat at the midway point between Vintondale and Nanty Glo, the miners and their families abandoned their homes in favor of communities that still showed promise. Aside from markers and perhaps the odd piece of evidence nature hasn’t covered up yet, people wandering along this stretch of Ghost Town Trail would never know people used to live and work here between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

When approaching what’s left of Twin Rocks, it sits as a site that can be reached from virtually any given direction, including by car. Once upon a time, Twin Rocks was a thriving mining community. Now, it sits as an unincorporated community in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Also known as Expedit, this ghost town still has a post office and zip code. However, it shares the same fate as its western neighbors of Webster and Bracken as a site that once upon a time thrived with mining activity at least a full century ago.

Nanty Glo

Today, Nanty Glo is a borough belonging to Johnstown, Pennsylvania Metropolitan Statistical Area in Cambria County. What used to be a thriving coal miner’s town originally got its name from “Nant Y Glo,” which according to the Welsh means “The Ravine of Coal.” It sits in the valley of the South Branch of Blacklick Creek and is seven miles west of Ebensburg. It’s also twelve miles northeast of Johnstown. There are over two thousand people who call present-day Nanty Glo their home.

The birth of Nanty Glo began in 1896, eight years after it started out as a lumber camp run by Levi Swanson. At the time, it was called Glenglade and it had houses situated on both sides of the Blacklick Creek. This formed the border of Blacklick Township on the north side while Jackson Township was on the south. Here, there was already a post office that had been open for nearly two years. When Glenglade changed its name to Nanty Glo in 1901, the Welsh term made reference to the outcroppings of coal seams on the banks and bed of Blacklick Creek.

In 1899, Nanty Glo’s production level as a coal mine brought in several settlers, as well as the Pennsylvania railroad. It was also a community known for sulfurous gas and its mists. The largest and most profitable mine in the area was Heisley Mine. It was originally owned by Coleman-Weaver Company until 1922 when the partnership between the two men dissolved. John Heisley Weaver wound up having sole ownership. Fourteen years after his death in 1934, it was sold to Bethlehem Mines. This marked the beginning of the end as the main entrance to the mine moved from Nanty Glo to Jackson Township’s Leidy Portal. The mine eventually closed in the 1980s.

Despite the loss of the mine, Nanty Glo continues to survive as a community that refuses to join the ranks of abandoned ghost towns. The Nant-Y-Glo Tri-Area Museum and Historical Society serve Nanty Glo Borough, Blacklick Township, Jackson Township, and Vintondale in an ongoing effort to preserve the rich history that sums up the entire Blacklick Valley. This also includes the preservation efforts regarding Ghost Town Trail

Beulah

From 1786 until 1804, Beulah (also known as Beula) was a town that sprung up shortly after its eastern neighbor, Ebensburg, had already been established. Founded by Welsh Minister Morgan John Rhys, he guided the original settlers to buy the land from Dr. Benjamin Rush as they embarked on a quest to build homes in the countryside. Ideally, Rhys wanted a cattle range and felt Beulah was the perfect place to do it. As for the Welsh, they hoped to fashion Beulah after their cultural, political, and religious beliefs. Part of this influence included the belief a Welsh prince named Madoc discovered America in the 1100s.

Beulah stands out as one of the few ghost towns recognized as part of Pennsylvania’s Ghost Town Trail. During its heyday, Beulah was a favorite for locals who enjoyed day trips, picnics, and walks. It was also referred to as “The Old Wesh Village” before the local church and the rest of the community’s population moved on in the 1850s. Beulah became a victim of yet another once-upon-a-time promising community to a mere shadow of its former self. However, Beulah Road runs along Ghost Town Trail as a driveable journey from Nanty Glo until meeting with Highway 22 which leads into Edensburg.

What adds to the appeal of Beula is the local folklore that speaks of the Beula Ghost. As far back as 1861, there have been published tales of ghostly encounters with spirits that seem to be destined to remain in the area. So far, the ghost stories seem friendly enough between lamentations of preferring riches over God and mysterious gift offerings that witnesses conclude came from the spiritual realm. Where Beula once stood as a town now has a monument with its own plaque that tells a bit about its history. There are also remnants of an old cemetery featuring a collection of tombstones.

Ebensburg

Ebensburg is the largest town along Ghost Town Trail. This municipality has its roots starting in November 1796 when a party of twenty Welsh people accompanied congregational minister Rees Lloyd to the lands owned by Morgan John Rhees. Formed as a colony, the people settled at the tops of the Allegheny Mountains and named the town after the death of Lloyd’s son, Eben. The land belonging to Ebensburg was offered to the government in exchange for a county seat.

There was a time Ebensburg was a major hub of activity, especially during the gold rush of the late 1840s. Once upon a time, The California House operated for several years as an inn and tavern that served as a popular stopover for eager prospectors that were set to head out to the Wild West in quests to find their fortune. Gold fever played an instrumental role in the rising popularity of railroads that would sprawl across the American landscape. At the time, it became the most convenient method to transport goods and passengers, long before the arrival of airplanes and automobiles.

In 1862, the Ebensburg Cresson Rail Road was installed as the community continued to show signs of promise. It did flourish after the American Civil War ended, up becoming a popular community among the nation’s wealthier citizens who favored its mountainous demographics for its scenery. Once upon a time, Ebensburg had grand homes that flanked the streets. Those streets often had beautiful horse-drawn carriages strolling up and down as the American upper class went about their business in a community that was far more appealing than the congestion of a city. At one point, Ebensburg was deemed more desirable than Cresson. This changed in 1915 after a fire wiped out most of Ebensburg’s downtown core. As of 2019, the Ebensburg Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, modern Ebensburg is a borough that has over three thousand residents that are part of the Cambria Township. The Cambria County Courthouse still stands as part of Ebensburg’s legacy, a building that was erected in 1880. This was the community’s third courthouse. The first was built in 1808, then the second in 1828. As the final destination of Ghost Town Trail, Ebensburg is a true gem.

Ghost Town Trail Extensions

Expansionism of Ghost Town Trail continues. While the main stretch runs from Black Lick to Ebensburg, the connection it shares with the rest of the railway network once played a vital role in Pennsylvania as it peaked as a top producer of coal, iron, and steelworks. This came about after a 1996 study made by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission and Penn State’s School of Forest Resources realized the development and maintenance of Ghost Town Trail had a positive impact on the region. With arrangements made as donated rights-of-way, people traveling along Ghost Town Trail can take full advantage of enjoying the mix of nature and man’s yesteryear accomplishments without having a negative influence on its environment.

The Ghost Towns of Pennsylvania’s Ghost Town Trail article published on BigCityReview.com© 2023

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