A Z4 Tour of Coal Country and the Occasional Fall Colors


On October 14, I set off to see what I could find in the way of Fall Colors. My route started in Harrisburg, PA and followed a large, clockwise, circular path to the north. As usual, I was also in search of scenery, history, truth, beauty, and driving pleasure—and the faithful BMW Z4 3.0i has never failed to deliver on all of the above.

The mighty Susquehanna River seemed to stretch impossibly wide at Harrisburg, although it’s just over a mile. The North Branch of the river begins at the outlet of Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, NY (the site of The Deerslayer and The Pioneers, just in case there are any James Fenimore Cooper fans out there). At 464 miles long, the Susquehanna is the 16th longest river in the country (and the longest without any commercial water traffic).

Looking south from my vantage point, Harrisburg stood proudly in the distance, with the Harvey Taylor Bridge in the foreground.

A bit of navigation took me to Washington Street in the city…

…which borders the historic John Harris Mansion. John Jr. built the house in 1766, but the city was named for his father. John Sr. was the first European immigrant to settle in this area, in about 1710. He established a prosperous trade with the local Native Americans and later operated the first ferry across the Susquehanna. John Jr. inherited his father’s property in 1748 and built the stone mansion near the site of the family’s earlier house. (He wisely chose higher ground, since the Harris’s were routinely flooded out of their first home.)

From the front view, little has changed from the mansion’s original construction, other than the addition of the alcove at the west end (on the left in these photos).

In back, however, the mansion was expanded several times. Eventually, a businessman and politician (with questionable ethics, according to many) acquired the mansion. Simon Cameron used his fortune to remodel and redecorate the house extensively. At one point, he had to lower the floor by three feet so that the house could accommodate the 14-foot-tall windows that he had bought in Europe. Cameron, incidentally, served as President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War at the start of the Civil War—but left a year later under a cloud of suspicion for corruption and fraudulent war contracting. He is pictured below seated across from Honest Abe.

These daisies don’t really qualify as Fall Colors, but they were pretty nonetheless.

Next I found myself in a little alley, wondering if there might be anything else scenic in the area. I didn’t know the half of it…

Around the corner I found the Pennsylvania State Capitol (recall that Harrisburg is the capital city) and the Grace United Methodist Church with its imposing facade. The Capitol is the third such building for Harrisburg, the first having burned in 1897, and the second never completed. After the fire, Grace United housed the legislature for a number of years. At its dedication in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt called the new Capitol “The handsomest building I ever saw.” That did not prevent its architect, Joseph M. Huston, from going to prison for 2 years after his conviction for graft in the procurement of materials and furnishings for the new building. (Historic photo is from the Library of Congress.)

The 1907 Cathedral of St. Patrick sits a little farther west on State Street and is equally imposing from the front, back, and inside. (Interior photo by Marc Paveglio.)

Leaving Harrisburg, I motored up the west bank of the Susquehanna, turned left through the not-so-metropolis of Shermans Dale, and before long found myself on the banks of Shermans Creek. There I actually identified a Fall Color or two.

At the intersection of Landisburg and Mill Roads, one finds an old mill, as naturally one might. As always, MillPictures.com came to the rescue with a full set of information about what turned out to be the Westover Mill. The stone and log portion of the mill, closest to the road, was built in 1779 and operated as a grist mill. In 1871, it was converted to a spoke and wheel factory, and the frame portion was added. By 1946, the business closed for good. Interestingly, the water wheel is inside the structure, rather than outside as is usually the case.

Remember The Mystery of the One-Room Schoolhouse? Well, I found another one of them—there must be hundreds of these things across Pennsylvania. This one, unlike all the others I’ve seen, still has its bell tower.

This magnificent old home sits right on a curve on Waggoners Gap Road, just waiting for an errant vehicle to come charging through its parlor. Thankfully, there did not appear to be any signs of such an occurrence.

Out back was one of the prettiest farm scenes I’ve encountered in a long time.

Waggoner’s Bridge and Mill are located nearby, on private property. Discretion (and a large dog) prevented me from getting any better photos. The bridge dates from 1889 and the Mill was built in about 1812 on the site of an earlier log structure. Shermans Valley Road (State Highway 274—and did this guy Sherman used to own everything??) originally crossed this bridge but now detours over a modern one.

Outside of Loysville, the Centre Presbyterian Church has been in existence since 1766, with its current frame building completed in 1850.

Did I mention the scenic vistas? Pretty much everywhere you looked.

I also neglected to mention that my route came from Mad Maps (“Capital to Coal”). When pressed for time, it’s great to just grab one of their pre-programmed tours, and they never disappoint. This one featured great driving in addition to historic and beautiful scenery. Many of the roads twisted and turned up and over the mountains in a great series of smoothly paved corners. The Z4 really thrives on roads like this, and with the engine kept above 4,000 rpm it would positively fly up any angle of ascent. Moreover, its cornering and brakes left nothing to be desired and further added to the motoring pleasure.

In 1793, a 21-year-old Scottish man named Samuel McCulloch arrived in this part of Pennsylvania with his four brothers and soon started a whiskey distillery. Needing a steady supply of milled corn and barley for production, he bought the local grist mill in 1804, added a sawmill, and the hamlet of McCulloch’s Mills was born. These days, its primary claim to fame is the sprawling McCulloch’s Mills Cemetery. The original church is visible in the distance and appears not to have been used for many years. It was built in 1843, as best I can tell, and there are other mill-like buildings and barns in this area—but I never saw a single person or other signs of life.

While I saw plenty of abandoned houses on this trip, I was glad to see many homes from the early 1800s that were thriving. (This one is for sale, in case anyone is interested.)

The mostly nonexistent town of Nook, PA featured the stately St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which was celebrating its 175th anniversary. Each of the wooden benches in the original log church included an earthenware spittoon for use during the services. The current brick church was built in 1875 (without spittoons).

Best of all, the church’s parking lot offered some for-real Fall Colors. Finally!

This stately home was once part of the Monongahela Farm, owned by the Wilson family of Pittsburgh. Now it’s the Juniata Valley Winery and the Wilson House Bed and Breakfast. As it happened, the tasting room was open when I passed by, prompting a U-turn, some judicious sampling of the wines, and the purchase of six bottles!

Here are the friendly proprietors of the winery, Karin and her sister Colleen (or is it Colleen and her sister Karin?), who operate the winery and bed and breakfast along with Colleen’s husband George. They were very friendly and helpful—and justifiably proud of their wines.

Mifflin, PA is situated on the western side of the Juniata River, while Mifflintown, PA occupies the eastern side. This is the bridge that connects the two towns, viewed from the Mifflintown side. This side was founded by John Harris in 1774. As best I can tell, he was not related to John Harris Sr. or Jr. of Harrisburg fame. The 1895 drawing of Mifflintown indicates the extent of the city.

The bridge offered a nice view of the Juniata River…

…not to mention a close-up view of a Veritable Stink Bug. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a stink bug to pose, motionless, for an HDR photograph?) Halyomorpha halys appeared in the U.S. only recently—around 1998—but has quickly become a colossal nuisance.

The houses in Mifflintown seemed to have an unusually keen interest in satellite TV, judging by the plethora of dishes.

When you park a Z4 to roam about on foot, even on a nice day it’s a good idea to run the top up!

Further down the road, outside of McAlisterville, I ran across one of the world’s greatest collections o’ junk. It was all carefully organized into a pile of Cans and a pile of Everything Else. And each pile seemed to extend indefinitely. Here is a small sampling:

The village of Evendale is so small that is doesn’t even show up on Google Maps or Mapsource—but it’s there. It even appears to have been home to a modest hotel at one time.

Just on the outskirts of town, I found the Evendale Bible Church, situated in the middle of what looked like a very old, very small, religious communal farm.

An 1800s religious commune would have been unusual enough, but then, approaching Richfield, I spotted a sign for The Bison Farm Bed & Breakfast II. Now I’ve seen everything! The B&B stood squarely in the middle of the buffalo field and is advertised to be “perfect for honeymooners.” I report, you decide… I didn’t see anyone around, other than this handsome member of the Security Team.

In Mount Pleasant Mills (population 342), I followed my usual practice of taking a wrong turn and promptly discovered either (i) another old hotel or (ii) a grander-than-usual house.

After getting back on track, I managed all of several more miles before stopping to look at (yet another!) one room schoolhouse, which has also been converted into a residence. Note that this one not only has its original bell tower but the bell in addition.

By now it was 3:30 in the afternoon, the shadows were lengthening, and I wasn’t even one-half of the way around my circular route! I vowed to reach Tower City (about three-fourths of the way around) before sundown and mashed the accelerator to the floor—only to stop exactly 2 minutes later to wade through a pile of thorny bushes to get this scenic farm shot, just for you, my faithful readers!

Soon thereafter, I arrived at the Susquehanna River once more, and drove through Selinsgrove (catching a glimpse of the famous Selinsgrove Speedway half-mile sprint car racetrack in the process). But my real goal was Shamokin Dam, PA—home of the world’s longest inflatable dam. Yes, that’s right, an inflatable dam across a major river. I’d never heard of such a thing, and (contrary to some of my reports), I’m not making this up! During the summer, the dam is inflated to create a 3,000-acre lake for recreational purposes. It’s deflated otherwise (as shown here) to allow fish migration and accommodate Spring snow melt. This dam replaced an earlier one across the Susquehanna that dated back to the 1800s but was destroyed by an ice flow in 1904.

Across the river from Shamokin Dam one finds Sunbury, PA (formerly called Shamokin). It dates back as far as 1724 and was the setting for Fort Augusta, which was built in 1756 by British Army Colonels William Clapton and James Burd. Ironically, the fort came about through the urging of the local Native American residents, who were being relentlessly attacked by the French and other Indians from farther north. The fort also served as an important base for the Colonial Army during the American Revolution.

Sunbury was the site of the world’s first working electric-light system, installed in the City Hotel by Thomas Edison in 1883. As the town’s website states, “It changed the world.” In 1922, with the 75-year-old inventor back on hand, the establishment changed its name to the Edison Hotel. It continues in operation today—and, yes, it’s haunted of course. Ask for Ramona.

On my visit, I encountered this motoring “ghost” of the past—a pristine VW Karmann Ghia coupe. Although the car’s performance was limited, the “Dean of Industrial Design,” Walter D. Teague, included the Karmann Ghia on his list of the world’s most beautifully designed products.

The Market Street square, near the river, offered this Scenic Fountain (Fall leaves and all) plus the magnificent Northumberland County District Building. At first I thought it was a church. Later I realized that I had parked in Sheriff Chad Reiner’s own reserved parking space… :character0229:

In and around Sunbury I found a glorious assortment of houses. Don’t you wish people still built homes like these? (Okay, maybe with better insulation and more electrical outlets…)

As the sun began to set, I pressed on and refused to stop anymore. Unless there were scenes involving a cleverly decorated bar & grill…

…or a beautiful cemetery…

…or another well-preserved abandoned house.

Ignoring most other things along the way, I reached Tremont with enough light left to get a photo of the confluence of Good Spring Creek and Coal Run.

It’s hard to find any information about Tremont. The newsletter of the Tremont Historical Society offered the following report from a recent meeting: “Floyd H. has put together a computer CD . (Power Point) program. along with grafic files so you can veiw all the barns on your computer.” Unfortunately, this turned out to be for Tremont, Illinois, so I can’t use it here.   🙂

Now, as you’re driving along on a Z4 tour, hopelessly behind schedule, and with the sun rapidly disappearing, it becomes even more important to take note of road signs, lest (i) you become lost or (ii) you overlook an intriguing-sounding road name that hints at a possible site of interest. In my case, at 5:40 in the evening, I had a choice of Steins Mill Road, Black Diamond Way, Gum Boot Road, Railroad Streeet, and Church Road. I chose the last of these and detoured off of Highway 209—and promptly found the 1856 FriedensKirche. Subsequent research revealed that the church has been modified somewhat and expanded from its early days. (Historical photo courtesy of the Small Church Project.)

I finally made it to Tower City and discovered that (i) it has no towers and (ii) it was founded by Charlemagne Tower. Mr. Tower, a skilled attorney, secretly bought up huge land holdings in Schuylkill County because of their quantities of coal. He managed to assemble many thousands of acres before competitors figured out what he was doing and began to challenge his titles—which he successfully defended in court. Eventually he leased his properties to two companies that started large coal mines, one of which was the East Brookside Colliery. Charlemagne Tower built Tower City to house the miners and other workers. In August 1913 at the East Brookside mine, an evening work crew apparently detonated 175 pounds of dynamite by accident. A second explosion was the result of gases released by the first blast and occurred when rescuers were trying to reach the original crew. It became known as the East Brookside Mining Disaster, the worst in the history of Schuylkill County. The mine closed for good in 1938.

Tower City’s Porter-Tower High School was built in 1931 but abandoned in the early 1970s.

With a final look at the disappearing sunlight, it was time to abandon the rest of my route—for now—and to find a direct way home.

As always, the Z4 was the perfect method of touring, willing to “go zoom” when appropriate or to trundle along peacefully in search of history, mystery, and good scenic fun. With all the highway driving getting to and from the tour, I managed 28 mpg overall for the day. And I’ve since returned for the last one-fourth of the tour, finding a spectacular motorcycle / sports car road in the process, but that’s a story for another day!

Rick F.


Written by Rick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.