Remnants of the Way We Were

 

By bike or by car, interstate highways are fast, efficient, safe—and boring. Fortunately, virtually all the pre-interstate roads are still out there, providing scenic, historic, sometimes challenging, and always interesting paths into the past, in the process depicting what life in the U.S. used to be like.

It’s fortunate that the U.S. is such a big country. As often as not, it’s easier to leave crumbling old buildings where they are and to pick a different place to build a new house or shopping center. Thus, the countryside is positively littered with reminders and remnants of how life used to be.

My goal for this Easter Monday trip was to find the very northeast corner of Maryland, where Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware all join in a three-quarter scale replica of the famous “Four Corners” of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Thanks to modern GPS technology, I was able to track down its exact location—which proved to be on someone’s private property, guarded by a sign that read “No trespassing. If you don’t have a reason to be here, then you’d better have a damn good excuse.” (Honest!) Sadly, it was just a clump of trees, not even worthy of a photo.

But getting there and back provided both a great touring opportunity and fun roads for exercising the willing Z4. My first happenstance stop was at the Gilpin’s Falls covered bridge, shown here in the distance. I’m standing on the remnants of one of several mills that once operated in this area, with the oldest dating back to 1735. And yes, it was a beautiful day.

The bridge was restored in 1959, almost exactly 100 years after it was built.

Almost every house in America has a welcome mat out in front. This house appears to be the exception that proves the rule. Note the do-it-yourself version of a gated community and the prominent sign regarding guests.

This home was once part of the 6,000-acre “New Munster” tract of land acquired in 1683 by Edwin O’Dwire and 15 other Irishmen.

“As the road builders approached Big Elk Creek, they wisely decided to change direction and avoid drowning.”

Here’s an enchanting, kid-sized version of a covered bridge.

There’s only a little left of the community called “The Bee Hive,” which is believed to date back to colonial days. A nearby covered bridge was washed away in the Little Elk Creek flood of 1884. The nearest building in the photo was apparently a “cooper’s” shop (barrel builder). The structure in the middle was used as a home, while the one on the right was a general store.

This wall is part of an as-yet-unidentified ruin. Archeologists are excavating the floor in an effort to determine what the building was used for. I guess the builders used whatever stones were handy, including the large quartz-like rock in the middle.

Local historians believe that the home and general store were originally part of one large structure. Each is made of stone on three sides, with the sides facing each other made of wood, and they are perfectly aligned. The middle part may have collapsed or was possibly just sold for use in constructing a later house that still stands over the hill in the background.

The wall behind the home and store features these embedded steps. Clever, eh?

The area to the north of The Bee Hive was quite scenic in its own right, with numerous stately farm houses…

…lots of horses…

…and this curious mix of the old and new: A late 1700s or early 1800s stone home with a modern array of photo-electric cells in its back yard. (Sort of the way we were and the way we’ll be, all together.)

The Rock Presbyterian Church still stands proudly near The Bee Hive. It apparently got its name not because of its stone construction but because of the massive boulders that stand 200 feet in front of the church. The present church building was completed in 1761 and remodeled in 1788, 1844, 1872 and, for good measure, again in 1900. Interestingly, the church has gone by the following names over the years: (i) New Erection on the Branches of Elk River; (ii) Elk River Church; (iii) Great Elk Church; (iv) Upper Elk Church; and, since 1793, Rock Church. (Hey, I just report the facts.) The equally old Session Building is on the left.

Continuing on, I took Blue Ball Road (don’t ask) and then Chrome Road, where I was surprised not to see any Harley Davidsons. I did, however, encounter a situation that I had never experienced before. In the almost-nonexistent village of Chrome, Pennsylvania, I pulled up to a four-way stop at precisely the same moment as three other vehicles—one on each of the other points of the intersection. But they consisted of two Amish enclosed buggies and one large Amish wagon. We all looked at each other and shared a laugh, and then the others generously waved me through first. Some of the best pictures I’ve never taken involve the Amish, sigh.

This part of Pennsylvania seemed to be a hotbed of Presbyterian activity. I had scarcely left Rock Church before I found the magnificent Little Britain Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1869 on the foundations of its 1763 predecessor. The towers and current front of the church were added in 1930. Interestingly, its very large cemetery across the street is only half, uh, “occupied.” The other half is being farmed until needed.

Did I mention what a beautiful day it was? Spring was out in full force.

There were many farms in this part of Pennsylvania. Not all have thrived.

Grist mills were plentiful in this area as well, not surprisingly. Many are still standing, despite having closed their doors many decades ago.

Other farms are doing just fine (he said sheepishly 😀 ).

One of my main destinations was Susquehannock State Park, which sits to the east of and 500 feet above the Susquehanna River. That’s Sicily Island in the middle of the river.

The park has a number of hiking trails and several vistas of the Susquehanna. Some involve a bit of a hike, but nothing too arduous (although the temperature had crept up to 85 degrees or so). I encountered a little Amish girl on this path who seemed to have no trouble skipping uphill in the heat, despite wearing the full traditional Amish clothing, bonnet and all. A little further on, I met her little brother, father, and grandfather, all wearing dark jackets and straw hats.

The end of this trail looks out over the Muddy Run Pump Storage Plant and the Route 372 bridge about 2 miles in the distance.

When I first arrived, I parked near an Amish family having lunch. The family consisted of mother, father, mother’s sister, and many children, for a total of about 10 people. I chatted with them about the park, the nice weather, and so forth, learning in the process that for the Amish, Easter Monday is a day for visiting family. In fact, out of maybe 50 or 60 people at the park, the Ranger and I were the only non-Amish folks there! As I was speaking with the family having lunch, I noticed their open buggy parked nearby and asked whether they had all come in this one, not large, wagon. The father replied that it had been a tight fit but they had made it with no problem.

Only later did I realize that their horse was nowhere in sight. On my way out of the park, I stopped and mentioned to another Amish family that I hadn’t seen the other family’s horse anywhere. They replied that they had been wondering the same thing! (Hopefully he didn’t fall off one of the scenic vistas…) Near the park entrance, I found Landis House, built in 1850 by James Buchannon Long. It was later owned by Jacob Schoff, who worked as part of the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves reach safety and freedom. Dodging an incoming wagon drawn by 6 horses and carrying at least 20 more Amish folks into the park, I headed on to the next event.

Amish farms are small by the standard of the Plains States, but to survive they have had to steadily expand. Despite operating in much the same way as their ancestors farmed hundreds of years ago, they seem to be doing fine. Long may they prosper.

Other vantage points along the Susquehanna revealed the significant flooding that resulted from heavy rainstorms during the prior week.

Lock 12 on the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, however, merely had a few puddles. The canal was built between 1836 and 1839, and this is the best-preserved of the surviving locks. By 1894, the canal had been done in by the railroads.

A little further on I found the ruins of a large mill of some sort. Quoting my favorite line from Calvin & Hobbes, “There’s treasure everywhere!” Long before modern highways, and before railroads were viable, most commerce involved water—both for power and transportation.

Water is still used for the former purpose in many parts of the country, including the 1905 Holtwood Dam on the Susquehanna. The separate spillway in the foreground is a fish ladder, which apparently no fish can navigate. They now have their own fish elevator. Ten turbines generate electricity. Such generators originally used roller bearings, which would wear out in as little as 2 months of operation. The fifth generator in the Holtwood Dam is a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark (honest) because of its Kingsbury thrust bearing—which has been operating continuously since 1912!

Of course, this region was home to Native Americans, including the Susquehannocks, for roughly 10,000 years. Our old friend, Captain John Smith, was the first European to encounter these Indians, whom he characterized as “towering over” himself and his crew. In later years, sadly, the Susquehannocks were decimated by European diseases such as cholora and smallpox. Most tragically of all, almost all of the remaining members, including women and children, were massacred in 1763 by the Paxton Boys, who (falsely) claimed that the Indians were aiding the French during the French and Indian Wars.

In the early 1900s, John E. Vandersloot purchased land on the western bank of the Susquehanna known as “Indian Steps” and built a cottage there. He became an avid collector of Indian artifacts, many of which he found while gardening. Over 10,000 arrowheads, pottery shards, and so forth are embedded in the exterior walls of his cottage, arranged to depict birds, animals, reptiles, and so forth, and are used to describe the lives of the Susquehannocks. After his death, Vandersloot’s cottage became a museum. Unfortunately, it was closed on Easter Monday (but I’ll be back).

Behind the museum, a nature trail leads to a small waterfall at the top of the hill. By the time I climbed the steep path, I was ready to jump right under the chilly water to cool off.

Along the trail, there were hundreds of these very small, pretty flowers. How about it, anyone have an identification for me?

As I drove farther north, the road swept its way up and over mountains in a series of tight corners. The Z4 was earning its keep, propelling me along with minimum drama and power to spare. Beautiful old stone houses continued to show up regularly.

The Tucquan Club was formed in 1869, using a warehouse from the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal. It’s been going strong ever since. (“Tucquan” means creek in the language of the Delaware Indians.) The York Furnace Bridge used to cross the river here—but only briefly. As the bridge was being built in 1856, a large section of it collapsed into the river. It was quickly rebuilt, although toll-paying users of the bridge may have had a certain amount of trepidation as they crossed… A year later, the entire bridge was destroyed by an ice jam. “If it weren’t for bad luck, [they] wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

I swear, I couldn’t drive the BMW more than 500 feet at a time without encountering yet another must-stop photo-op. Can you blame me?

As I headed in search of the Codorus Furnace, I chanced across the town of Windsor, PA. It quickly proved to be extraordinarily scenic, between its tiny Fishing Creek and handsome houses.

And this once-stately mansion, at Windsor and Freysville Roads, could still be brought back to its full glory without breaking the bank.

Eventually I found my way to the Codorus Furnace, on the banks of Codorus Creek. Yet another remnant of the way we were, it is a dramatic reminder of the days that Americans knew how to forge iron but not yet how to produce steel. Charcoal, ore, and limestone were fed into the furnace from the top and burned to create an intensely hot flame to melt the iron. The stream of iron fell to the bottom of the furnace and was channeled into a reservoir that fed several molds. Because many of the reservoirs and molds looked like a sow nursing its piglets, the name “pig iron” came into being. Pig iron was used to cast fireplaces, pots, cannon, cannon balls, and so forth, with the latter being used principally during the Revolutionary War and the subsequent War of 1812.

Of course, the subsequent invention of steel and its many uses have not prevented the abandonment and disuse of many steel products.

The Mighty Z4 appears to be proud of its vitality and vigor, compared to so many of the houses we passed. Long may it prosper, too!

My final goal of the day was to find the remnants of the Stewartstown Railroad. This small company operated between Stewartstown and New Freedom, PA during 1885-2004, with a number of interruptions between 1972 and 2001. Interestingly, these interruptions were almost all due to the demise of other railroads, which the Stewartstown RR connected to and depended on for its ability to reach broader markets. The Stewartstown RR itself generally did just fine, otherwise.

This Baldwin locomotive was built for the railroad in 1885 and is pictured traversing the high trestle that was part of the line. Repeat after me, please: “Yikes!”

Armed with the above map, I was able to locate many of the railroad’s stations and follow its tracks for most of the distance between the two towns. Although the railroad company is still in business and hopes to return to scenic passenger service, I fear that the line’s needs will prevent such an outcome. Yeah, the rails are still there, but they’re rusting and sit on deteriorating ties. I wish them the best of luck, however—and if enough people donate, this plucky outfit might come back to life yet again. (If you’re interested, see Stewartstown Railroad. The map, historic photos, and painting are used courtesy of this web site.)

The farmhouse on the right was once one of the railroad’s stations.

Several of the line’s passenger cars are still on display in or near Stewartstown. Like the ties, some renovation would be in order before they once again grace the rails.


The Stewartstown Station was my final stop for the day. It serves as the headquarters of the railroad and is little changed from its construction in 1914. That’s a later Baldwin locomotive (“old number 4”) in the historical painting and photo.


I couldn’t have asked for a finer day, weather-wise, or a more interesting tour. Fun roads, no traffic (if you don’t count the buggies), beautiful sights, historic places … it was everything that a wide-eyed tourist could hope for. Let me know if you’d like the route. You just have to promise not to laugh at the number of times that I stopped for photos, backtracked because I took a wrong turn, or otherwise got lost!

Rick F.

Rick

Written by Rick

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