The Ghost Town Trail gets its name from the ghost towns and abandoned industrial sites it winds through as it follows the path of the Ebensburg & Black Lick Railroad. It’s located in Indiana County PA and currently clocks in just shy of 50 miles, but I rode the 32-mile segment from to Ebensburg War Memorial Park to Saylor Park in Black Lick PA. This is one of my all-time favorite rail trails and if you’re a fan of abandoned anything, it’s well worth the trip!
The trail born out of the ashes of the Ebensburg & Black Lick Railroad. I had a hard time finding information on that particular line but according to TrailLink, it went through several acquisitions (including the Cambria & Clearfield Railway) before ultimately becoming a division of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 20th century. As the PRR began to wind down, the tracks were abandoned in stages from the 1970s through the 1990s.
In 1991, the Kovalchick Corporation donated 16 miles of right-of-way to Indiana County. Of this, 12 miles between Nanty Glo and Dilltown were used to start the trail. Over the next 25 years, additional land donations extended the trail to Black Lick and Ebensburg. A spur branches off at Rexis, taking a leisurely northern route before looping back to Cardiff. Future plans call for a connection from Cardiff back to Nanty Glo, which will make this one of the rare looped rail trails.
This was a little bit of a haul for me, so my wife and I made this into an overnight adventure. Our stay in Johnstown was forgettable but the opportunity to explore the nearby abandoned state prison will get its own post.
Finding the trail was easy enough. There’s ample parking in Ebensburg and Black Lick, and multiple trailheads along the route. I recommend starting your ride in Black Lick and riding east, because Ebensburg offers a lot more ways to celebrate the end of your ride. This will give you a slight uphill grade the entire ride, so if you need that downhill boost, start in Ebensburg and ride west.
Trail condition was excellent. The surface is compacted gravel in some places and dirt in most, with the occasional wood plank bridge thrown in for good measure. With one exception, the entire trail is well marked and easy to navigate. I did get slightly off-trail in Nanty Glo where the trail crosses Chestnut Street, but it was easy to course correct with 30 seconds of looking. Just keep following the creek and you’ll be fine.
Much of the trail winds through state gamelands and other rural areas. For this reason I chose to wear my neon yellow bike shirt. Large sections of the trail lack cell service, and amenities are limited to the small towns that dot the trail. If you’re riding west, Nanty Glo is the last town of any significant size until you reach Black Lick. However, the Dilltown Bed & Breakfast at the halfway point has a selection of ready-made and made-to-order food.
If you want to cut your ride short for some strange reason, start your ride at the Twin Rocks trailhead and ride west. You’ll still see about 70% of what the trail has to offer, and you’ll shave about nine miles off the trip to Black Lick.
Echos of industrial heritage are everywhere along the trail. Many are being slowly swallowed up by nature. For example, this bridge abutment not far from Nanty Glo was once part of the Cambria and Indiana Railroad, also known as the Blacklick & Yellow Creek Railroad. This line likely served the nearby Monroe No 31 mine, and seems to have shut down in the 1970s.
In case you needed a reminder that you’re in the bitumonous coal region, the trail will give you plenty of reminders. For one thing, you’ll find multiple outcroppings and colliery remnants along the trail.
Another reminder becomes visible as you approach the village of Vintondale. Culm banks (called boney piles or waste piles if you grew up outisde anthracite country) bear silent testimony to the mining activities in the area.
The trail continues past a series of artificial ponds that create a passive AMD treatment facility. Long story short, these ponds help reduce oxygen, separate solids, neutralize acid, and reintroduce oxygen to clean up the water, all without electricity.
Here’s what untreated AMD looks like. This is draining out of the abandoned Vinton No 16 mine and poisoning Black Lick creek. It’s a little hard to see but up against the far wall you can just make out chalky white water. This tells me there may be a malfunctioning AMD system nearby.
Since coal mines typically run well below the local water table, massive pumps are required to drain all the water out. But once the mine is abandoned, those pumps are shut off and the mine fills with water. That water leeches out minerals like iron, manganese, and aluminum, and eventually escapes into the wild. Thanks to its rich coal mining heritage, Pennsylvania is riddled with AMD. Unfortunately many of the mining companies went bankrupt over half a century ago and taxpayers are left to clean up the mess.
You’ll also pass a memorial to miners who have lost their lives at the nearby Wehrum and Vinton mines. Bricks are engraved with miners’ names, their ethnic heritage, and their job.
The Ghost Town of Wehrum
Shortly after Vintondale, the trail winds past a large open field that is completely unremarkable in every way. If it weren’t for the signs, you would never know that you’re looking at all that remains of the town of Wehrum.
Wehrum was founded in 1901 as a company town for the Lackawanna Coal & Coke Company. The town served the Lackawanna No 4 mine and at its peak, held 250 houses, a hotel, a bank, two churches, and a school.
After a history of deadly mine and industrial accidents, the town was closed in 1929. The mine closed and, as was common for the era, miners were unceremoneously evicted. Many of the buildings were torn down for scrap. The nearby dam ultimately failed in 1977, contributing to the Johnstown Flood.
A massive reclamation effort in 2005 removed nearly 25,000 tons of material and filled in dangerous mine openings to reclaim the 8 acres that border the trail today. If you’re adventurous, the town cemetery is hidden in the nearby woods, and the remains of the dam can be found not far away. Aside from those remnants, the town has been, for all intents and purposes, deleted.
The Bridge to Claghorn
A little further west, the trail passes a decaying concrete bridge.
The bridge was built to serve another nearby coal company town: Claghorn. Construction on Claghorn initially started in 1903, but languished for just over a decade due to economic downturn. The town was finally completed in 1916, and the bridge followed a year later. Less than a decade later, the town was abandoned due to the poor quality of the nearby mines. Today, the land on the opposite side of the bridge is entirely private property and is not open to the public.
By Pennsylvania standards, this bridge would be graded “looking great, no cause for alarm here”. It felt structurally sound with just me and my bike but I wouldn’t want to take anything heavier than an ATV over it. Despite its appearance today, the fact that it withstood the 1977 Johnstown Flood speaks volumes about its construction quality.
Ghost Town Trail is dotted with old furnaces. Most of them are placarded with signs telling you when they were in operation and what they were used for. Two of the best examples are the Eliza furnace and the Buena Vista furnace.
The Eliza furnace pictured above was built in 1846. It went bankrupt only three years later thanks to the low quality of local iron ore, the high shipping costs to Johnstown, and the fact that its technology was already outdated when it was built. What makes this furnace special is the fact that it’s one of the few furnaces with a heat exchanger still attached on top. This was designed to boost the combustion temperature by capturing waste heat from the exhaust, but it didn’t make any significant difference.
Further west along the trail sits the Buena Vista furnace. This big guy was built in 1847 and ran through 1856, despite nearly going bankrupt in 1850. The workers here worked long, dangerous shifts. Imagine dumping wheelbarrows full of limestone, charcoal, and pig iron into the top of this thing while it was churning away at full power.
Unfortunately parts of the furnace are crumbling down, and it looks like it’s just a few heavy snowfalls or torrential downpours away from being turned into a pile of rocks. I chose to capture it from its good side.
The Ghost Town Trail is one of my favorite rail trails. It’s perfect if you just want some quality time in nature with a healthy dose of industrial heritage. Its relatively rural location means this trail doesn’t get near the traffic as some other rail trails, so you’ll definitely have a lot of time for solitude and exploration.
Cell service and food options alike are scarce, so make sure you plan ahead. I recommend riding east if you want things to do when you end your ride, or west if you want a slight downhill boost.
Official website: https://www.indianacountyparks.org/trails/ghosttown_trail.aspx