Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Although not exactly a fly fishing destination, Ghost Town Trail is still a great place to visit and there is fishing nearby at Yellow Creek Lake. But keep an eye on Black Lick Creek, which parallels a good portion of the trail. A massive cleanup project is currently scheduled to seal old mines and install a lime treatment facility that will help create a very viable fishery in the near future. This article appears in the November/December 2020 issue of Pennsylvania Angler & Boater. --Ralph
Walking or riding the Ghost Town Trail in Indiana County, PA, is about more than just recreation. It’s a journey through history, the story of how an area once an epicenter for coal and ironmaking industries was all but forgotten, and then reclaimed. Now, almost 100 years after the many towns along its course were abandoned, the Ghost Town Trail was acknowledged as a National Recreation Trail in June 2003 and named Pennsylvania’s Trail of the Year in 2020.
The Ghost Town Trail is a 32-mile trail that runs from Saylor Park in the town of Black Lick to Route 422 in Ebensburg. There are also two extensions: the Hoodlebug Trail which connects Black Lick to Indiana, approximately 10.5 miles, and the C and I Extension near the town of Vintondale, another 12 miles. All of the trail, with the exception of the C and I Extension, is surface with crushed limestone for a smooth bike ride or easy walk. The C and I Extension is currently undeveloped, still consisting of remnants from the old railroad bed, but there are plans for resurfacing in the near future.
Indiana County’s coal industry boomed in the mid-1800s. The Eliza Furnace operated between 1846 and 1849 producing over 1,000 tons of iron annually. Located near the trail’s halfway point outside of Vintondale, Eliza Furnace is considered one of the best-preserved hot blast iron furnaces in Pennsylvania. Another hot blast iron furnace, the Buena Vista Furnace, was built in 1847, and is located on the trail about a half-mile west of PA 56. Both sites have historical markers that tell the story of the coal industry in this area and the role each furnace played in that industry. They’re well worth stopping for a few minutes to read them while on a bike ride.
In fact, almost every placard along the trail tells an interesting story about something that happened in that particular location. For instance, along the C and I Extension you can read about a train robbery gone bad and the potential for hidden treasure in that area. And near Black Lick you can read about the trolley lines that used to shuttle people from town to town and how crossing the creek along the Ghost Town Trail was the most harrowing part of the journey.
The trail passes many other historical sites, including seven ghost towns: Bracken, Armerford, Lackawanna No. 3, Wehrum, Scott Glenn, Webster, Beulah, and Claghorn. The coal industry began to decline in the late 1800s but held on for several more decades. And then, one by one, mines closed and each little town was abandoned. By the beginning of World War II, the people had moved on and the structures they left behind slowly sank back into the earth. Of all of the towns, Wehrum was the largest and is where you’ll find the only house still standing from that era.
The trail follows the path of Pennsylvania Railroad’s Ebensburg and Black Lick line. In 1991, the Kovalchick Salvage Company donated 16 miles of the former line for the creation of the Ghost Town Trail. Additional donations in 1993 and 2005 by the Cambria & Indiana Railroad and others extended the Ghost Town Trail to its present length.
The main stem of the Ghost Town Trail has seven main access points, or trailheads, with ample parking and information available at each site, including mileage charts. The trailheads are Saylor Park, Heshbon, Dilltown, Wehrum, Twin Rocks, Nanty Glo, and Ebensburg.
Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the Ghost Town Trail is that once you park and set out on the trail, you can have a quality outdoor experience. Only in a few places, such as when you pass through one of the towns, does the road even come close to the trail. Because of this, you may want to plan which access point you want to go to ahead of time. On several occasions, I’ve burned a lot of time driving from one access point to another trying to decide where to start. Of course, this part of Indiana County is very beautiful country, so even the circuitous routes between points don’t seem all that bad.
Once on the trail, though, I enjoy the opportunity to immerse myself in nature and enjoy the scenery and any wildlife I encounter along the way. It seems there are always deer somewhere nearby, or frogs in the boggy areas, or a plethora of birds flitting in the tree branches. More than anything, the Ghost Town Trail is a great place to go to clear your mind and focus on nature’s beauty.
Most of the good fishing in this area can be found up the Hoodlebug Trail near Homer City. Within a short drive of the trail you’ll find Yellow Creek, Little Yellow Creek, and Laurel Run, all of which are stocked with trout. And there’s Yellow Creek Lake, of course, which offers a plethora of warmwater fishing and boating opportunities.
Black Lick Creek, which closely parallels the Ghost Town Trail from Black Lick to Vintondale, suffers from acid mine drainage. If you look upstream as you cross over North Branch of Black Lick Creek via the Main Street bridge in Vintondale, just across the Cambria County line, you’ll see what appears to be fountains of water. These are actually boreholes that were drilled into the creek bed and the water gushing out at a rate of 1,080 gallons per minute is the abandoned mine discharge that renders Black Lick Creek virtually lifeless during its entire 25-mile course.
But it won’t be that way much longer.
Construction of an acid mine drainage treatment facility is scheduled to begin in mid-2021 and completed in 2022. Hopefully, this will change the dynamics of Black Lick Creek the way similar projects have improved other Cambria County streams. For example, active treatment facilities on Lancashire No. 15 and Barnes & Tucker Mine 20 have turned the headwaters of West Branch Susquehanna River into a viable wild Brown Trout fishery. The same could happen to Black Lick Creek.
At a glance, Black Lick Creek is a beautiful stream filled with huge boulders and deep pools. It’s the perfect backdrop for the Ghost Town Trail. As you ride or walk the trail, you can hear the constant flow of the nearby river, a soothing sort of melody that adds to the overall atmosphere. To have that stream running clear and clean again would be a major attraction and economical boost for the small towns that dot its course.
Past cleanup projects have already helped South Branch of Black Lick Creek, which joins North Branch just outside of Vintondale. Although South Branch isn’t stocked by the Fish and Boat Commission, several local sportsmen’s clubs raise funds to stock trout in the sections around town.
Back in July, I crossed the foot bridge over the North Branch of Black Lick Creek and looked down at the stream and saw five trout gathered around some debris that had washed up against the bridge abutment. The trout had no doubt come from South Branch, which is clean but warms up too much to support trout in the summer. Unfortunately for the fish, the water pumping up out of the abandoned mines on North Branch is plenty cold enough, but too polluted to support them. In the world of trout, I doubt it gets much more ironic than that. On a brighter note, if everything goes as planned, North Branch as well as the main stem Black Lick Creek will soon flow both cold and clean enough for trout year round.
The Ghost Town Trail is a great place to find solitude, beautiful scenery, and abundant wildlife. Throw in some great nearby fishing opportunities and there’s truly something here for everyone.
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