Hiking the Ghost Town Trail

Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail

Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail (click all photos to see larger versions)

No trace of December’s snow remained.

“It might as well be spring,” I thought as I hummed the lines of an old song. But it wasn’t spring.  It was January 7 and a balmy 60 degrees.  Seduced by the perfect day, my husband Bruce and I set out to hike portions of the Ghost Town Trail in Cambria and Indiana counties.

This 36-mile trail over a former railroad bed winds through the Blacklick Creek Valley and is named for several coal-mining towns that were abandoned in the 1930s.  Two separate sections, one near the western end of the trail in Indiana County and the other in Vintondale in Cambria County, go through gamelands.

First, we tackled the western section, leaving our car in the Heshbon parking area.  Water gushed over and around massive rocks in the river-sized Blacklick Creek below us on our left.  Across the creek, a mixed hemlock and deciduous forest stretched as far as we could see.

Spotted wintergreen along the Ghost Town Trail

Spotted wintergreen along the Ghost Town Trail

After several hundred feet, we crossed into SGL#276. The only tracks in the packed limestone trail were those of white-tailed deer. Healthy-looking hemlock trees and rhododendron shrubs grew on the hillside to our right.  It seemed an idyllic setting until we reached Auld’s Run.

A small waterfall tumbled over layers of orange rock, was channeled beneath the trail, and flowed into Blacklick Creek.  We could see coal spilling from the hillside and beyond that an enormous flattened hill of coal waste striped orange, red, brown and black.  We looked a little closer at Blacklick Creek and its seemingly pristine water.  Orange and blood-red puddles pooled in the creek’s backwaters.  The “ghosts” of coal mining, in the form of acid mine drainage or AMD, still haunted the trail.

But we were soon past the area.  Once again, the hillside was wooded, although it had steepened and was strewn with boulders as big as shacks.  One was perfectly square and from a distance, I thought it was a shack.

Coal waste along Blacklick Creek

Coal waste along Blacklick Creek

In another tangle of boulders, this one above the creek, where even white-tailed deer feared to tread, I found a lovely bed of spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). Their white-striped evergreen leaves adorned the winter forest floor where it was protected from deer browsing.  Green clubmosses, not a deer food, were abundant in the open stretches of woodland.

In open places beside the trail, the dried seed heads of goldenrod, asters, and meadowsweet reminded me of late summer’s colorful abundance.  Staghorn sumac still held aloft their pyramidal-shaped clusters of red seeds.  Tulip trees, growing tall and straight in a floodplain forest, offered their seeds to a pair of black-capped chickadees.  Along the creek oak trees still clung to clusters of dried, brown leaves. A belted kingfisher emitted its rattling call as it flew downstream.

Once we glimpsed a black gray squirrel, a melanistic color phase more common in the northern part of its range, scamper across the trail in front of us. Translucent water, sparkling in the sunlight, dripped from beneath thin layers of rock on the hillside and red sphagnum moss mopped up the moisture.  I heard the “peter-peter” of a tufted titmouse and the call of a hairy woodpecker emanating from the forest above.

Acid mine drainage in Auld's Run

Acid mine drainage in Auld's Run

After three-and-a-half relatively level miles, we turned around and chose a picturesque spot on one of the benches overlooking the creek to eat our trail lunch.  Afterwards, as we approached the parking lot, we encountered the first people we had seen all day on that section of the Ghost Town Trail.

One-half mile east of Dilltown, still in Indiana County, we took a shorter hike over a network of trails in the Blacklick Valley Natural Area, which is across Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail.  The Blacklick Trail beside the creek was particularly lovely, although in this area the water was flat.  Black-capped chickadees welcomed us and cedar waxwings keened in the treetops.

David and Penny Russell had donated this 713-acre plot of land to Indiana County back in 1995, and its varied habitats, including a series of mature evergreen tree plantations, are no doubt magnets for wildlife and songbirds.  But despite the unseasonable warmth, it was mid-afternoon on a winter day–the nadir of both the day and the year–and we mostly enjoyed the quiet ambience of the place.

Vintondale, Pennsylvania

Vintondale, Pennsylvania

By then we had walked more miles than I liked to think about, and Bruce promised me that our last stop would be brief but unusual. We drove into the old coal town of Vintondale in Cambria County.  Unlike the “ghost towns,” Vintondale is still very much alive.  But it has only a quarter of the population (528 in 2000) that it had back in 1910 (2,053) when the Vinton Colliery was at its height of production.  At that time, 32 languages and dialects were spoken in the town.

By the early 1980s, long after the long-wall coal mines had closed and the coal company absconded around 1956, leaving behind the usual acid mine drainage, the site where the Vinton Colliery buildings had stood had become a dump.  That’s when a Rural Abandoned Mineland Project had covered the site with waste coal four-to-eight feet thick.

Then, in 1994, T. Allan Comp, an historic preservationist working for the National Park Service’s National Heritage Areas Program, approached Vintondale with a plan that combined art and science to clean up the industrial site. He called it AMD&ART. He wanted a park for the people that would showcase their history and the natural beauty of the area. The citizens wanted a ball park.  Working with them and with a dedicated group of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteers as well as with a host of innovative designers and artists, the AMD&ART Park, beside the Ghost Town Trail, was dedicated in 2005.

Etched image of the Vinton Colliery, part of the Great Map installation

Etched image of the Vinton Colliery, part of the Great Map installation

Winning numerous awards, this remarkable site was a joy to visit even on a winter day.  Young couples with children played in the four-acre recreation area while we wandered past the six keystone-shaped ponds that change the orange water pouring out of mine portal No. 3 from a ph of 2.8 to 6.1 before it flows through a wetland and into Blacklick Creek.  Lining the first treatment pond with limestone that pulls the iron out of the water, each successive pond filters pollutants from the water and turns them into solids that a seven-acre wetland, planted with 10,000 wetland plants and attracting wood ducks, killdeer and other birds in season, captures and retains.

Furthermore, citizens rallied to plant trees in what is dubbed the Litmus Garden back in 2001.  The idea was to choose native trees and shrubs that would turn the same color in autumn as the pool around which they were planted — from red to orange to yellow and finally to clean blue-green at the end of the treatment pools.  White ash, red maple, sweet gum, black cherry, shadbush, sassafras, sugar maple, tulip poplar, big tooth aspen, American hackberry, black willow and sycamore — one thousand trees in all were planted by 150 volunteers including former Vintondale natives who had returned to help.

Plaque explaining the AMD treatment process

Plaque explaining the AMD treatment process

Those folks who bike or walk this section of the Ghost Town Trail, which is surrounded by State Gameland #79 except for the town of Vintondale, can stop to read the excellent signs that explain the AMD process.  They can also view the ART part of the project.  One is a nine-by-fifteen foot mosaic modeled on a 1923 Sanborn Insurance map of the Vinton Colliery by artist Jessica Liddell. Framing the map are 131 granite tiles, 54 of which have been laser-etched with community images, newspaper headlines, and text in addition to the word “hope” inscribed in the 26 languages spoken in Vintondale at the time. The Great Map Project is so accurate that “folks that lived in the town and worked in the mine walked up and pointed out the homes that their families had lived in for generations,” artist Liddell told writer Erik Reece in his excellent article for Orion magazine about the project.   It was that article, published the month before, that persuaded us to visit Vintondale.

But the most affecting art piece is across the trail from the Great Map. In a perfect reconstructed six-by-twelve-foot Mine No. 6 Portal entrance, where miners entered the coal mine back in its heyday, are the ghostlike images of nine miners emerging from the portal during a shift-change in 1938.  Taken from home movie footage contributed by Vintondale resident Julius Morey, artist Anita Lucero diamond-etched in polished black granite the life-sized portrait of miners wearing head lanterns and carrying their lunch pails. From a distance, all we could see was what looked like a black hole framed by mine timbers.  As we walked closer, the images emerged like phantoms from another, lost world.

The Great Map mosaic at Vintondale

The Great Map mosaic at Vintondale

Finally, across the park from the Miner’s Memorial, is the Clean Slate, which was designed by University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture students Claire Fullman and Emily Nye who were the winners of a national student design competition.  Two long pieces of rough black slate, one beneath the culvert where the clean water flows into Blacklick Creek after passing through the wetland, and another higher up on drier land, which serves as a viewing platform and the beginning of a path of 10 slate steps leading visitors through what is planned to be a Carboniferous Garden when ferns were the trees of the earth.  On warmer days, visitors can stand on the wet slate and let the purified water wash over their bare feet before it flows into Blacklick Creek.

Even visiting in winter, we could appreciate the blending of art and science, human and natural landscapes.  What was once a blighted, neglected area is now enriching both the lives of Vintondale citizens and the many visitors to the Ghost Town Trail who pause to learn about this innovative approach to acid mine drainage. On those 35-acres of reclaimed mine land, Comp says on the AMD&ART website that … “we’ve established a model of holistic renewal that brings the perspective of history to mix with the discipline of science, the delight of innovative design, and the energy of community engagement.”

Mine No. 6 entrance, diamond-etched in black granite by Anita Lucero

Mine No. 6 entrance, diamond-etched in black granite by Anita Lucero

All photos are by Bruce Bonta. For more information and maps of the Ghost Town Trail and the Blacklick Valley Natural Area: www.indianacountyparks.org or call 724-463-8636.  To learn more about AMD&ART: www.amdandart.org. See also “Reclaiming a Toxic Legacy Through Art and Science,” by Erik Reece, in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine.

The Trees in Our Yard

A black walnut tree shadow on the side of the barn

A black walnut tree shadow on the side of the barn

If someone were to ask me what my favorite tree is, I wouldn’t be able to answer.  It would be like choosing my favorite child.  Every tree species has its own special qualities, and no one is better than another is.  Take the 17 tree species that grow in our yard.

When we moved here 37 years ago, we had less species.  In our front yard, black locusts shaded our front porch.  Black walnut trees dominated the side yards and back yard.  Several red maple trees grew along the driveway between the barn and guesthouse. Two seckel pear trees, one at the curve above the barn and the other below the garage, yielded many sweet little pears.  Across from the lower seckel pear tree was a wild apple tree.  All of those species have survived, in one form or another, and been joined by many that we planted over the years.

The black walnut trees have not only survived but thrived, taking over whole areas in our yard and moving out into First Field.  During our homesteading years, when our three sons were young, we harvested the black walnuts.  The boys would gather them in their green husks in a wheelbarrow and dump them on the flat area of our driveway below the guesthouse.  That way, every car that drove over them would partially husk them.  The boys, their hands in rubber gloves, would finish the job.  But no matter how careful they were, they always ended up with black nut stains on their hands.  This led to several weeks of taunts from schoolmates that I’ll leave to your imagination.

The front porch is flanked by black walnuts (left) and black locusts (rear)

The front porch is flanked by black walnuts (left) and black locusts (rear)

After the walnuts were husked, the boys put them in baskets and carried them up to our attic where they laid them out to dry.  Over the fall, winter, and spring, I would take dozens down to our back steps, crack them open with a hammer, and dig out the meat.  After much probing and picking, I would have enough to use in cookies or cakes.

Despite liking the taste of black walnuts, I decided, after several years, to let them remain on the ground where they fell as food for our gray and fox squirrels. That’s when I began to notice that if the black walnut crop was bountiful, we had little or no trouble during the winter with squirrels at our bird feeders.  Even in spring, they busily harvested those that remained on the lawn.

Not only do black walnuts provide food for the squirrels, they are ideal trees for birdwatching because they are the last to leaf out in the spring and the first to lose their leaves in the fall. By mid-August, I’m already sweeping golden walnut leaves off the front porch and veranda.

We also marvel at how quickly the nuts develop and begin dropping on the porch roof.  Only a month after leaf out we hear the first thump of an immature walnut, and two months later every breeze sends mature ones cascading to the ground.

We think that the previous owners must have planted the trees because the only black walnuts in our woods have spread from our yard.  And black walnuts like deep, bottomland, limestone-rich soil, not the stony soil of our mountain, which may be why they grow slowly here and quickly under suitable conditions. Not ideal yard trees, the experts say.

Black walnut trees ring the garage

Black walnut trees ring the garage

Neither, we discovered, are black locust trees. Surely, no one would plant those fast-growing, brittle trees overhanging their home. They leaf out even later than the black walnuts, but hold onto their leaves until late fall.

On the other hand, maybe previous owners did plant them. Their dangling white flowers are beautifully fragrant and attract honeybees that make prize locust honey. Their seeds also feed squirrels and their hard wood makes excellent fence posts.

In fact, the previous owners seemed to specialize in inappropriate yard trees.  One tree species here — the balm-of-Gilead — overhung both our home and the guesthouse.  They too grew fast, like the black locusts, but unlike the locusts, their wood was light.  Believed now to be a hybrid of balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) and eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), it was first introduced back in 1900 and became a popular cultivated tree.  That’s probably when ours were planted, because by the 1970s, their trunks were immense.  Eventually, my husband Bruce, with the help of his tractor and chainsaw, had to remove the one overhanging the guesthouse and another overhanging our son Mark’s bedroom because they were dying.  Others, in the backyard, survived longer, and only last year Bruce and our sons Steve and Dave assisted him in removing one of the last, dying trees.

Preparing to cut down the last of the big balm-of-Gileads

Preparing to cut down the last of the big balm-of-Gileads

Another unfortunate choice of the former owners was the Lombardy poplars that grew up one side of the driveway.  A favorite of European estates, this narrow, erect tree, known as the cultivar “Italica,” came from near Lombardy, Italy, hence its name. Cultivated in Europe since the early 1700s, the ones planted here died one by one and were gone in ten years.

The seckel pear trees gradually declined and died but Jack Winieski, the consulting forester for our forest stewardship plan, took cuttings and returned several years later with a sapling that Dave planted along our driveway.  Every year it grows a little taller.

Another gift was supposed to be several redbud tree saplings.  At least that was what George Beatty, a now-deceased botanist, told me when he gave them to me.  We planted them below the front porch and, like all our tree plantings; they took several years to grow into reasonable trees.

At some point, it dawned on me that either Beatty had made a mistake or had purposely presented me with a less glamorous tree than the redbud.  The leaves were not heart-shaped and the flowers were green not lavender.  I referred to my tree books and discovered we had hackberries instead. Hackberry, also known as sugarberry, has fruit that is important for birds during the winter so I’ve gotten over my disappointment that those trees are not redbud. Besides, their leaves provide larval food for several showy butterfly species including question marks, red-spotted purples, and mourning cloaks, all of which we have in abundance, as well as hackberry emperors and tawny emperors, which I’m hoping to see.

With so many short-lived trees in our yard, our son Dave began digging up longer-lived trees in our forest and planting them underneath the remaining black locust trees and in gaps caused by the death of the balm-of-Gileads and the black locusts closest to the front porch that had died and fallen.  A white pine flanks the tallest hackberry and a scarlet oak the shortest one.  The scarlet oak shot up and is already adding welcome color to our yard in the autumn.  Dave planted a second scarlet oak in the side yard facing Laurel Ridge, which is also thriving. But then scarlet oaks thrive on dry upper slopes and ridges.

Chestnut oak leaf

Chestnut oak leaf

That same side yard also holds two white ashes that are good-sized trees, even though both lost several branches during an ice storm.  Dave had planted them even earlier than he had planted those in the front yard and they provide landing places for the birds at our feeders. Their seeds, which often persist through the winter, supply welcome food for purple finches, pine grosbeaks, and fox squirrels.

Dave’s also planted tulip trees in the side yard and fenced a few in the front yard that have seeded from the enormous tulip tree at the edge of the woods.  These are favorite trees of mine, especially their large, tulip-shaped, yellow-green flowers blotched with orange. Cardinals, purple finches, black-capped chickadees and squirrels feed on their seeds during the winter.  Lately, Dave’s planted a chestnut oak near the hackberries.  Also known as rock oak, it is the most common tree species on dry, rocky slopes and ridges and its acorns, which mature in one season, are a favorite food of squirrels, wild turkeys, and deer.

Of course, Dave’s had to fence every tree he’s planted so each one is enclosed by woven wire until it gets above deer height.  Especially in winter, those fences detract from the beauty of our home grounds, but they are necessary.

Years ago, two eastern cedar trees seeded in the powerline right-of-way.  Bruce dug them up and planted one in front of the old corncrib and the other close to the side of our house.  The one in front of the corncrib struggled for years to amount to something and finally died.  But the one at the side of the house struggled and survived.  Every ice storm bent it over and Bruce would go outside and knock the ice off it.  Sometimes it would take months for it to straighten out again, but it always has.  Now it reaches above our second story window and gives needed cover to birds at our feeders and juncos through the winter nights.  Once song sparrows and now cardinals and robins nest in it.

Chipmunk in a volunteer white mulberry beside the guest house

Chipmunk in a volunteer white mulberry beside the guest house

When we were young and poor, we paid an extra dollar for a flowering crabapple tree as part of our vegetable seed order from a seed company.  What looked like a five-inch-tall dead stick arrived in the mail.  We planted it beside the springhouse and waited and waited and waited.  Year after year, that sapling struggled to be something.  After twenty years, we had a stunning tree covered with deep rose blossoms and buzzing with bees every spring. My only regret is that we didn’t pay a few more dollars for a few more trees.

The red maples have been looking poorly recently, but a wild black cherry sapling has grown into a respectable tree nearby and black walnuts have also sprouted from squirrel-buried nuts and grown up to take the place of the maples.  Black walnuts are known to produce the chemical compound juglone in their leaves, nut hulls, buds, stems, fruits and roots that inhibit the growth of some plants, but red maples are not on the lists I’ve consulted. And happily, tulip trees, which Dave planted beneath the black walnuts, are also not affected by juglone.

The January full moon shining through the trees in the yard

The January full moon shining through the trees in the yard

A red oak has sprouted from a misplaced acorn in the side yard facing Laurel Ridge in what used to be a Concord grape arbor when we moved in.  But once our last dog died and the deer foraged near our home with impunity, those vines became deer food.

I’ve been using the term “yard” loosely.  We haven’t mowed our front yard or the side yard facing Laurel Ridge for years.  Both are either steep slopes or wetlands or both. We mow our back yard and the side yard facing First Field three times a year, enough so that we can walk into the house and hang up our laundry outside without getting our feet wet.

What was once a tailored landscape looks more and more natural every year.  The many trees give us needed shade in the summer and an open vista in winter.  Without the trees in our yard, providing ample food and shelter throughout the year, we would not have as many close encounters with birds and mammals.

All photos by Dave Bonta