I love the aha moment…. that spark in your brain that ignites when you make a connection between what seemed to be unrelated bits of information. They’re impossible to foresee and you never know when serendipity will pull them all together. What started as a hike to check out a view, ultimately led me to deeper understanding of the East Broad Top Railroad.
After visiting the East Broad Top Railroad in Orbisonia, I usually also spend some time in Altoona, about an hour away. My travel route normally takes me north out of Orbisonia to Mount Union and then west from there. On each drive, I’ve noted a parking lot full of hikers directly west of Mount Union and after the third time, decided to look into what was going on there. A quick web search determined that the hike is called 1000 Steps and climbs to the top of Jack’s Mountain. Always on the lookout for a beautiful view, there seemed to be a few scenic vantages that offered possibilities and to my surprise, there had been a narrow-gauge railroad that worked a quarry on top. My initial and brief web search didn’t turn up much information about the railroad, but I did learn that the quarry’s workers had built the original steps as a way to get from the valley to their worksite.
Six months went by before I could make the hike and it came on the heels of a visit to the East Broad Top. Having spent a good part of the day in Orbisonia, I didn’t arrive at the 1000 Steps parking lot until 4:30 that afternoon. A quick check on my sun calculator showed that sunset would be soon…in less than 2 hours. Normally, I would hesitate to go somewhere new with so little light remaining, but I was feeling adventurous and thought I would play my luck. I packed some snacks, two flashlights, my camera gear and started up.
The dirt path out of the parking lot quickly brought me to the first stone step. Stopping to survey the hike ahead, a long path of stone steps leads the eye up the mountain. The steps are quite uniform, both in height and depth and solidly placed into the mountain side…. obviously done with considerable skill. Into the hike at about the 100th step, it struck me that this hiking trail is quite unlike any that I had experienced before. With each step, it enters my conscious that these stones have felt the presence of the quarrymen that walked up and down these steps on a daily basis. The steps came alive as I was walking back in history, to the 1950’s and beyond. Climbing higher, I came across a side trail that was cut into the mountain and filled a few small gullies. This was obviously a former railroad grade, the first of many more that can be seen. The mountainside is quite steep and it intrigued me that a railroad had crisscrossed it in so many places to reach stone that was obviously of value. There is plenty of stone visible on the surface with exposed gashes everywhere, but I had no idea of what I was looking at and what it all meant.
Someone had marked each 100th step with a permanent marker or paint. Not sure if this was meant to spur one on or be a cruel reminder on how many steps remained to be climbed, but by the time I reached step 600, my legs and cardio were really feeling the strain. To think that the quarrymen did this day-in and day-out before they even started their long and back-breaking work day was an eye-opener. Finally reached the last stone step, I looked down and it was marked 1037.
An earthen path, which was obviously another railroad grade went perpendicular to the steps. To the left, it extended slightly uphill and choose that direction as I was going to the top. A short walk on the grade led to a beautiful cut-stone building that is in remarkable shape. With a pit on the inside and cuts into the stone entrance measuring three feet apart, this had to be an engine house for the quarry railroad. I would have liked to study thus building better, but the sun was going down and wanted to be on the top for sunset, so moved on.
The path hugged the hillside and offered several clear views into the valley below…one allowed me to watch a Norfolk Southern intermodal train pass through. A bit further on the trail stood a sign proclaiming “Mountaintop Quarry”. Seemingly at the top, based upon the great vantage, but later research would reveal that another quarry was a few more miles up the trail on the former roadbed. Nearby, was a piece of rail. It was light by railroad standards, maybe 40 lbs. per yard, presumably missed by the scrappers, but another piece of the puzzle.
While intrigued by what I had seen so far, I came to shoot the view and it was spectacular. Looking down at the Juniata River and Mapleton 800 feet below, the right of way of the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, now owned by the Norfolk Southern was the subject of my composition. The light was great and I just needed a train within the next 20 minutes or so before the light would give way to darkness. Luck was with me that day, as I didn’t have to wait more than five minutes before the sounds of a train working its way through the valley could be heard. The hills play tricks with one’s ears and I anxiously waited 7 to 8 minutes before the train appeared and entered Mapleton below.
I got my shot, but the view and light were so inspired that I stuck around to watch the last light leave the day. After photographing two more westbound trains, I packed up, took out my flashlight and retraced my steps back down. On the way, the stone engine house beckoned me to look around a bit more. Even in total darkness, this structure felt comforting and has the makings of a good place to spend an overnight on a winter hike. Making my way down the steps, several trains came through the valley and each one caused me to stop, turn off my flashlight, and absorb the familiar and comforting sounds before I continued.
With the historic former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline in the valley and an industrial narrow-gauge railroad on Jack’s Mountain, I got into my car determined to find out more about what was seen here.
To be continued…