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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.