Running in the Best Places-- Memorable Miles on a Pennsylvania Rail Trail
It was a wonderful experience, a magical journey through time and a very special place—the Grampian to Clearfield Rail Trail in central Pennsylvania.
Posted Monday, 15 November, 2004
If we are fortunate, sometimes we go for a run in a wonderful location, and everything just feels right. I went for such a run recently in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, and was treated with a tranquil, relaxing, scenic, and overall tremendously enjoyable experience. I ran from Grampian to Clearfield on a terrific rail trail. The Clearfield to Grampian Rail Trail is located in the western third of the state, an area known as the Magic Forests of Pennsylvania.
The trail was built and is maintained by the Clearfield County Rails to Trails Association (CCRTA), and provides an excellent surface, completely traffic free. It traverses a region of unusual natural beauty. The trail tracks through forests along Kratzer Run, Anderson Creek, and the Susquehanna River. Running on this trail evoked the history of the region—especially that of the Susquehannock native people, who lived in villages along these streams, and traveled the rivers and pathways of the area for centuries.
The area is also rich in history from more recent times. During the Golden Age of railroading, passengers and freight rolled along this route, taking students to school and soldiers to war. Millions of tons of coal were pulled along this route, and stone quarried for bridges and buildings throughout the east. Clay was also extracted, with brickyards all along the tracks. Raftsmen plied the Susquehanna, riding logs to market hundreds of miles downstream. The resources help fuel the industrial might of the nation. This trail today is a resource as precious as the coal, timber, stone, and clay carried on the rails along this corridor. Memorable miles, they were—and are.
Running as it Should Be—Tranquility Base
Distance rolled by easily as I ran along the 10.5-mile length of the trail, especially during the first four miles heading out of Grampian toward Curwensville. There was a noticeable downhill heading east along Kratzer Run, the quintessential babbling brook. Kratzer Run roared at times, often visible through the trees, as it plummeted over falls and rapids toward Anderson Creek and the Susquehanna. It paralleled the trail throughout those first four miles until emptying into Anderson Creek, a major tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Anderson Creek tumbles down from the Continental Divide only a few miles to the west.
I ignored my watch most of the time as I strode the trail, content just to take in the natural beauty. Whispering Hemlocks clung to the hillsides above and below the trail, often standing behind walls of rhododendrons and mountain laurel, which were especially prominent between 1.5 and four miles from Grampian. The calls of birds echoed through the trees, and scurrying wild critters joined in my exercise along the trail. White tail deer are about as plentiful here as anywhere in the USA, and are especially active and visible in the late afternoon and early evening. Chances of seeing them were extremely high, and I did.
This is a trail for all seasons, but is especially beautiful during the rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms of July, and of course during the fall foliage season.
As I ran along the sound of rushing water echoed from the mountainside, and provided an audible backdrop for the exceptional scenery, which seemed to get better around every curve. The crushed limestone surface was soft underfoot. At 3.5 miles the trail passes under a large railroad trestle. The railway it carried up Anderson Creek valley and on to DuBois is the next rail trail project of the CCRTA.
At about four miles there were two major bridges, and between them the trail rides on a wooded island in the middle of Anderson Creek. The trail followed Anderson Creek as it entered Curwensville Borough heading east. It was once the conjunction of three rail lines. On the east end of town the trail was close to the confluence of the West Branch of the Susquehanna and Anderson Creek. This once marked the site of a major Native American village, and it was easy to imagine the campfires on the banks and the canoes on the water.
From this point the trail was nearly flat, rolling through farmlands and forests. I was running—almost effortlessly--east from Curwensville to Clearfield, alongside the Susquehanna River. Its silvery waters glide alongside the trail and cut through the Alleghenies in search of the Chesapeake Bay.
At seven miles there was a large bridge across the river offering terrific views of the valley and the surrounding hills. The trail ended in Clearfield Borough, the county seat of Clearfield County. The town was known as Chinklacamoose, or Chincleclamouche, to the natives, and was a major trading village on the upper Susquehanna. Chinklacamoose was a trail crossroads, a significant native center of trade between east and west—the highway was the Susquehanna.
This eastern-most trailhead for this rail-trail run was at 10.5 miles, but my memorable trek was only half over at this juncture. I turned and headed west again, and was surprised at the incredible scenic beauty and wildlife activity on the return to Curwensville and Grampian. There was so much to see and experience in both directions.
Having set out water and snacks at several intersections, I was able to take advantage of them both out and back. Probably because of the surroundings, the miles went quickly, even on a run of such distance. Although, the last four miles did get the heart rate up, as the grade from Curwensville to Grampian is much more evident on the way back, a constant grade upstream for over three miles.
Rarely are long runs as enjoyable—so easy on the body, and so refreshing for the spirit. What a tremendous resource; it is a remarkable trail, and exceptionally well maintained. Once used for heavy transport, this trail now provides healthy recreation and enjoyment for locals and visitors alike.
Where is the Rail Trail?
The trail is in Clearfield County, one of Pennsylvania’s largest counties, and is located in the west-central part of the Keystone State at Exit 120 off Interstate 80. Clearfield is approximately 43 miles west of State College and Penn State University, home of the Nittany Lions. State College, in neighboring Centre County, is near the exact geographic center (Aaronsburg) of the state. Both Clearfield and State College are near Interstate 80, which travels the entire 307-mile length of Pennsylvania, east to west. Clearfield was settled in the late 1700’s and named for the clearings found there, where bison grazed and natives grew corn. Land grants to many Revolutionary War veterans brought many to the county in the 1790’s.
The rail trail is accessible at the eastern-most point in Clearfield, Just off Exit 120 (so named because it is 120 miles from the Ohio border). Take Pennsylvania State Route 879 west to Exit 4, Spruce Street. The trailhead is off Chester Street, adjacent to the Clearfield True-Value Hardware Store. Route 879 runs roughly parallel to the rail trail all the way from Clearfield through Curwensville, and on to Grampian. The trail is also accessible at several locations in Curwensville, the mid point.
From the west take Exit 97, DuBois, and US Route 219 South to Grampian. The western head of the trail is located in the small borough of Grampian on East Main Street (Route 729) in the center of the village, about 100 meters from the town’s stop light (at the intersection of Routes PA-879, US-219, and PA-729). Drinks and snacks are available at Shole's Grocery on Main Street, and at a corner convenience store. You may want to eat at Checkerboard Pizza following your run. It is also located on Main Street, and serves excellent sandwiches.
The Trail in Detail
The trail begins in Grampian near the location of the Old Grampian Rail Station, and just east of the site of two coal tipples (rail car loading structures, operated by gravity). Trucks once rolled up the hill to these tipples in a constant parade. The old bridge foundation over Kratzer Run, where the old “Y” branch ran through town, is also on the west side of South Main Street. Beginning in Grampian, the trail travels through three boroughs as well as three townships: Penn, Pike, and Lawrence Township. Lawrence surrounds Clearfield Borough, and is by far the largest township in the county.
The first village outside of Grampian is Stronach, which straddles Penn and Pike Townships, less than a mile out of Grampian. There is a pumping station at 1.25-miles. The remnants of the old Stronach Brickyard are visible just beyond a road crossing at 1.6 miles. Leaving the “brickyard” a very high, large fill drops off on both sides at 1.8 miles, and you can hear Kratzer Run through the trees. Kratzer tumbles over a falls at about 2 miles, and Wildwood Inn (on Route 879) is visible through a clearing.
There is a large drop off on the left side, and the roadbed is dug into a steep hill on the right. At 2.2 miles, and there is a huge wall of rhododendrons. There is a table and picnic shelter at 2.6 miles on the right. And a lot of turkey tracks on the path the day I was there. Springs and small streams flow under the roadbed in many locations, cascading to Kratzer Run far below.
At 3.25 miles, Kratzer Run makes a long sweeping turn, seeming to nearly flow under the trail, which drops off steeply on the left. Kratzer cracks more rapids shortly thereafter, and then smoothes out where the trail crosses Rustic Road at 3.75 where the stream is bridged at the intersection of Route 879.
Shortly thereafter, at 3.9 miles, there is another sheltered picnic table—this one on the left. The trail then crosses under the old railroad passing overhead and bound for the steep valley of Anderson Creek heading north. The stonework in this bridge is worth studying. At 4 miles the bridge spans half of Anderson Creek, and the trail passes through an island grove. The second bridge at 4.1 miles spans the rest of Anderson, and heads to the old North American Refractories brickyard.
The old NARCO complex entrance is at 4.5 miles, and shortly thereafter Roaring Run rushes into Anderson Creek from the left.
The Roaring Run Stone Quarries were near this spot, starting operations in 1888 in response to needs from the railroads. Stone from these quarries were used to build the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, the Princeton University Chapel in New Jersey, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rockville Bridge in Harrisburg, which spans the Susquehanna and is the longest stone arch bridge in the world, as well as schools, churches, and rail bridges from New York to Chicago.
The trail hugs the bank of Anderson Creek as it curves through the Borough of Curwensville. The trail crosses Windy Hill Road—Grampian Road at 5.1 miles, and just beyond is Southside Road where the Curwensville rail station stood. There was once a Railway Express office near this point.
There is another overhead railroad bridge at 5.5 miles, and just beyond is the old Clearfield Cheese works, once the second largest processed cheese manufacturer in the country. It was here that the individually wrapped slice was invented. There are three bridges in close proximity at this point, including a pedestrian underpass and another overhead rail bridge. Again, the stonework is very interesting.
At 5.7 miles the Susquehanna comes into view. Just upstream is the confluence of Anderson Creek and the West Branch. Bloomington Avenue bridges the river here, and Riverside Stadium, home of the Curwensville Golden Tide, is just beyond the far shore.
At 6.0 there is a sign, which reads, “This Mile Maintained by Benny and Barbara Irwin.” This is the village of Arnoldtown. At 6.2 another large overhead railroad trestle carries tracks up the Susquehanna valley and on to Pittsburgh. Another sheltered table waits at 6.7 miles.
There is a sizable cut through a hill at 6.8 miles, as the roadbed temporarily moves away from the river; and there is an overhead highway bridge at 7.0.
Just beyond this bridge there is a creek from the left headed to the river, and a broad panorama of farms and fields come into view as the valley widens. A large bridge carries the rail trail over the Susquehanna at 7.2 to 7.3 miles, and the river is thereafter on the left. This is the village of Hyde City.
There are fish hatchery ponds and a park on the left or north side at 7.8 miles. And there is another picnic table and shelter at 8.2--immediately on the bank of the river. An old rail spur and the remains of another coal tipple operation sit off the right at 8.5 miles, and then a road crossing, Carbon Mine Road, at 9.1. Another brickyard sits at 9.9 miles, and the trail crosses Route 879 at this point. The 10.5-mile mark and the end of the trail and the parking area are just beyond.
The Railroad and the CCRTA
The first railroad reached the Clearfield County fringes in 1866, but it was not until 1869 that the tracks were laid into Clearfield proper. The road was extended to Curwensville in 1874, and then improvements in technology allowed extension of the road up the long hill to Grampian in 1892. Almost exactly 100 years later, the Clearfield County Rails to Trails Association (incorporated 1991) purchased the right of way from Clearfield to Grampian from Conrail. That was only four years after the last train left Grampian.
Fred Ammerman is President of CCRTA, and Bill Shaw is Vice President. Benny Irwin of Curwensville is Secretary Treasurer, and supplied much of the information contained in this article.
Clearfield is the fourth largest of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It encompasses 1,143 square miles, or nearly the same as the State of Rhode Island. It is 85% forested and sparsely populated in comparison with the rest of the state, a density of 74 persons per square mile. There are 124,437 acres of State Forest and State Game Lands within the county. It includes one city (DuBois), 20 boroughs, including Clearfield, the County Seat, and 30 townships. The county was established in 1804, and is currently celebrating its bicentennial. The courthouse, built during the Civil War, is a national landmark. The famous Bucktails of Civil War fame, Company K of the First Pennsylvania Rifles, and Company B, 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers, were recruited in Curwensville.
Clearfield County borders eight other counties: Cambria, Blair, Centre, Clinton, Cameron, Elk, Jefferson, and Indiana. Bilgers Rocks, near Grampian, and Panther Rocks, near S.B. Elliott State Park, are geologic phenomena hundreds of millions of years old, and local attractions.
The Grampian area was settled by Quakers and Scots, and the Scots named the town and surroundings in honor of the Grampian Mountains of Scotland. Quakers established a meetinghouse in the Grampian Hills in the early 1800’s, a log structure located on the current site of the Friends Cemetery. It sat on the hill overlooking the trailhead of today. The current Friends Meeting House is very close to the rail trail. The old railway extension to upper Grampian known as the “Y”, used for turning trains around, ran immediately along side the meetinghouse. The first school in the county overlooked the river; it was a log cabin located just north of what is now the Curwensville Dam.
The only remaining covered bridge (1873-still in use) on the West Branch of the Susquehanna is located in the western edge of the county at McGee’s Mills (there are nearly 300 state-wide). The bridge is near the intersection of US-219 and State Route 36, also known as the Colonel Drake Highway. Colonel Drake, of course, was the first to drill a successful oil well in 1848 (at Titusville on Oil Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River). Western Pennsylvania was the exclusive supplier of oil to the world for several decades. Pennzoil and Quaker State were developed as a result.
There are three state parks in the County. Curwensville is in the center and on the Susquehanna. Located in the north off Exit 111 of I-80, S.B. Elliott and Parker Dam State Parks offer many recreational opportunities. There are miles and miles of trails—Bucktail Path, Susquehannock, and Black Forest Trails, and more--accessible from Parker Dam, through Moshannon, Sproul, and Susquehannock State Forests, but that is another story.
Clearfield County was a crossroads long before settlers of European heritage came across the mountains. The natives gave many of the streams and local features their names, including Susquehanna and Moshannon, although some of the names have vanished over time. The Susquehannock people traded with those around them—the Erie and Seneca—and other Iroquois Nations to the north, the Delaware to the east, and the Shawnee, Miami, and Illinois to the west, just to name a few. The Susquehannocks called the river the Otzinocksin.
Natives had villages and camps all along the upper Susquehanna, with a significant presence at what are now Curry Run and Curwensville. There were also several villages along what is now Clearfield Creek, a tributary. The French explored the region and considered building forts along the river, but decided to stay west along the Allegheny and Ohio. In colonial days both Virginia and Connecticut claimed the region, as well as the French.
The Great Shamokin Indian Path, a major transport and trade path, led from present day Northumberland at the confluence of the North Branch and West Branch, to Chinklacamoose and on to Kittanning (on the Allegheny River) by way of Punxsutawney. “Punxy” is now home to Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day, just ten miles west of Clearfield County.
The Goschgoschink Path led from Chinklacamoose up to Curwensville and along upper Anderson Creek to Luthersburg, Reynoldsville, and on to Lake Erie. The Venango to Chinklacamoose Trail was also very active.
The Susquehanna Basin
Tributaries of the Susquehanna, such as Anderson Creek, Curry Run, and others, fall from the very edge of the Continental Divide, which runs northeast to southwest through Clearfield County. The West Branch of the Susquehanna rises just south of Cherry Tree, which straddles the county border—where Indiana and Cambria Counties meet Clearfield. The West Branch crosses Clearfield County southwest to northeast, with much of its total fall within the county borders. It also adds great volume in the county, with Anderson, Clearfield, Moshannon Creeks, and countless smaller creeks and streams adding to the flow. Kratzer Run rises near the farming village of Heburnia, two miles west of Grampian.
Just east of Clearfield County several other large tributaries enter the West Branch, including Lick Run, Mosquito Creek, Lycoming Creek, and Pine Creek, home of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Also known as Pine Creek Gorge, it is to the northeast of Clearfield County near Wellsboro. The West Branch of the Susquehanna flows east to Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series.
The Susquehanna is the second largest river system in eastern North America after the St. Lawrence. The North or “main” branch flows from New York generally south and west, and the West Branch flows primarily east before turning south to meet the north Branch at Northumberland, where Fort Augusta stood guard on the confluence. From Northumberland and Sunbury it flows directly south to Harrisburg, and then to the Chesapeake Bay (largest American estuary), a 249-mile journey.
This river system was key for the transportation of Native Americans and trade, as they could travel from the Atlantic and the Chesapeake—and from the center of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York--to the Gulf of Mexico and Missouri. A short portage over the Alleghenies and the Continental Divide from the uppermost Susquehanna West Branch opened to the Allegheny River system. The Allegheny in turn connected to the Ohio, thence the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and even to the upper Missouri River in Montana.
Just to the north of Grampian, Interstate 80 crosses the continental divide within Clearfield County near the headwaters of Anderson Creek, the highest point on that highway east of the Mississippi. Streams in the northeast corner of the county around DuBois flow to the Allegheny.