Volume 97 Issue 6 Campus Spin

A Thousand Steps of History

by Stephen Lane

It is quite an extraordinary thought: planted in the middle of a seemingly random valley is a staircase that, to many first timers, seems to lead to heaven, a stairway constructed of rough-cut, mismatched boulders that zig-zag to and fro.

Excitement invades the body when you reach a marked stone that announces your position on the mountain. But once you conquer step 1,036 (or so), the steps give way to a flat trail. If you’re not catching your breath at the top and feel a bit curious, you may travel to either one of the overlooks, each one trying to outdo the other in how far ahead the eye can focus. The other direction takes you to a stone building with barred windows and scars upon the land everywhere you go. Random stacks of blocks and bricks leaning against the mountainside litter the area.

This is the strange anomaly known affectionately to locals as “The Thousand Steps.” To the unknowing it can seem as mysterious as an Incan pyramid. How do you explain some random series of rocks that creates a twisty pathway to the middle of nowhere? What was this array of pathways? What would possess someone to build a stone structure all the way up there? Why on earth is there even a staircase to the top of a mountainside? The answers, fortunately, are quite explainable.

For those who have hiked The Thousand Steps, there is no shortage of feeling the burn. But you could imagine that if you did it enough, you would condition yourself and it would become second nature. Such was the case for the quarry men of the Harbison-Walker Refractories in Mount Union, Pennsylvania.

To understand The Thousand Steps, we need to turn the clock back to about 1926, back to when Juniata College had its 50th anniversary. Imagine yourself an employee, one who is at the bottom of the barrel, a regular quarry grunt working the mountainside loading cars. Your coworkers consist of more stone loaders, a blasting man, and an engineer operating the little locomotive, known as a “dinky,” on 30 some miles of rickety narrow gauge railroad.

You get up before the dawn pokes over the mountains, throw on your bib overalls, grab your dinner pail with a lunch packed maybe the day before, lace up the boots and go to the office… Except your office is at the top of a mountain. There is no way to get to the office to “clock in” except to climb there on a series of boulders.

This explains the creation of The Thousand Steps. It was a foot highway that workers climbed every morning before putting in a long hard day in the ganister. However, even after climbing the mountain with your day’s supplies, the day is not over!

After punching in, you realize the literal meaning of “you are a number” to the company. In your pocket you have a handful of brass tags. Each one is stamped with a unique number, your number. You are paid by how much stone you load in a cart. You take the small rail cart to the “ganister slide” (an area surrounded by thousands of tons of rock blasted from the hillside) and you pick up the pieces of earth one by one.

Each cart can hold roughly three tons, give or take a hundred pounds (due to the air space created by the jagged rocks). Your number is placed on the front of a car, and once your cart is filled, a small steam locomotive tugs it away to the scale. After the cars are weighed, each tag is then removed from the car and kept in order at the office so that multiple trains could be recorded and each loader would be paid accordingly.

From there the train of cars are hooked to a massive cable and seemingly carelessly pushed down a steep railroad track to the bottom of the mountain. As the cars traverse the downward slide, they pull empty cars back to the top of the hill. Known as funiculars, these counterbalanced rollercoaster-like railways were used throughout the country’s history as a means of effectively moving material.

After your 10 or so hour day is done and the last load of empty cars returns to the top of the hill, the steam train is returned to a small, stone engine house, bedded down to sleep, and the scent of smoldering coal starts to roll down the hillside. Now it’s time to walk to the office and collect your tags. After this, you are free to hike back down the mountain and return home. Such was the daily life of a Harbison Walker quarry man in the ‘20s.

We often do not appreciate what life was like for some people over 90 years ago. We portray the Roaring Twenties as a time of excess and wealth, but it was not that way for all. The people who had to earn a living one rock at a time, so to speak, deserve credit for helping us as a country get to where we are today. The Thousand Steps is a marvelous place of isolation and beauty, and many have enjoyed it. But it has a story that should be remembered for what it was — the Steps were the lifeblood for many families in the area and serves as a monument to the people who toiled in the ganister rock.

The next time you venture to the Thousand Steps, either as a newbie or a regular climber, think about what was there at one time and who spent their days there. Take the time to appreciate why the steps were created. After all, they wrote the story; it is our purpose to read it.

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