by Stephen Lane
Imagine this: There’s a man with a stubborn mule guiding a towboat full of grain down a pathway in the middle of the wilderness. Behind him comes a young man, maybe four years out of school, covered in coal soot, qualifying on a brand new line for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Even further behind him is a group of friends bicycling on a fairly level trail enjoying the peacefulness of the area. They all have one thing in common: They all traveled on what is currently known as the Lower Trail.
Tucked away in the mountains outside of Alexandria, Pa., lies a small gravel trail meandering in the direction of the Frankstown branch of the Juniata River. The pathway wanders into the isolation of the local woods, a place where the peacefulness is only disturbed by the rustle of leaves, the chirping of birds on a spring day, or the zing of a passing bicyclist.
Welcome to the Lower Trail (Lower rhymes with flower). This is the story of a gravel patch with quite a history. The route began as a canal way, graduated to a railroad line for the “Standard Railroad of the World” and now lives a retired life as a recreational country trail showcasing the natural beauty of the area.
The song “Erie Canal” by Brue Springsteen paints a tranquil picture of what it was like to work for a canal. A slow, easy paced, laid-back method of transporting goods, going only as fast as the mules would tow a barge; however, few recognize how important the canals were to early 19th century life. During this time the only practical way to move large quantities of goods was by waterway—railroads were not yet developed to a practical and reliable standard.
In an industrializing and still young country, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania established the Main Line of Public Works. This became an interstate of railroads and canals stretching across the state with a majority of north-south routes and one major east-west route. One part of this east-west route was known as the Juniata Division; this was the division to which the Lower Trail must credit its physical existence. With the completion of an east-west canal way, one could now travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in four days, as opposed to roughly 23.
The mainline canal was the dominant means of transportation from its inception in the 1820s until the fast development of railroad transportation. In 1846 the Pennsylvania Railroad was chartered to build a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. This route diverged at Petersburg, Pa., after following the canal system for most of its journey, thus rendering the entire Lower Trail nothing more than a canal.
By the 1850s, it was obvious the railroad network was the superior method of transportation. You could now travel the same east-west route in a mere day. The final nail in the coffin for the canal came in 1857, when the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Mainline Canal and within a year had shut the Harrisburg to Pittsburgh waterway down. It was an early death for what truly was a very good idea.
Now fast-forward about fifty years. The Pennsylvania Railroad in this time frame became one of the world’s largest companies. The east-west route it had constructed from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh in the 1850s was now the major artery from the Midwest to Philadelphia. Rail traffic on this route had exploded, and the lines were becoming very congested. The railroad looked at ways to alleviate this problem.
The Pennsylvania Railroad realized that the part of the property it had purchased in 1857, with the old canal from Petersburg to Johnstown, had a major use. In the railroad company’s eyes it was a nearly graded pathway around the major rail hub of Altoona. They began construction of a secondary railroad line from, Petersburg to Cresson, Pa., and a new life was given to the old, abandoned canal route.
This new route completely bypassed Altoona, Tyrone and a highly curved line through the Warriors Ridge area. Now the through freight trains en route to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh could travel around a lot of congestion and pick the mainline back up just before Huntingdon. This shortcut proved a huge benefit for the Pennsylvania Railroad until the end of World War II.
After the war, the government-regulated railroads faced increasing competition from the highways. People were purchasing their own cars, and truckers could now haul freight at comparable costs to the faithful railroad systems.
Traffic started declining on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and it no longer had a sufficient reason to maintain a secondary line. By the mid ‘60s the line was overgrown with brush, and by the ‘80s the railroad line was abandoned, ceasing service and ending once more a legacy of transportation through this area.
A decade went by, and the track itself had long been scrapped. The railroad corridor was becoming nothing more than a memory, and in the ‘90s the land where the railroad had run was put up for sale. A local Hollidaysburg attorney, T. Dean Lower, wishing to preserve it, purchased 11 miles of the old right of way from Alfarata to Williamsburg.
A local Rails-to-Trails group was established, and the upkeep of the trail has been done entirely by volunteers since its inception, making the Lower Trail one of the very first Rails-to-Trails projects in the state of Pennsylvania. For the third time, a rebirth had occurred for the old canal way. It is now a frequent destination that bicyclists, cross-country skiers and hikers can enjoy.
It’s a fairly easy ride, with a mere 0.2 percent grade through sixteen and a half miles of scenic Pennsylvania countryside. Along the way, you are reminded of those who rode the trail before you. There are canal remnants featuring what is left of some of the locks, railroad remnants represented by several bridges constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, stations whose lonely windows have not witnessed the boarding of a passenger train in several years, and even a covered bridge along the way between the original two trail heads.
Additionally, for the nature fan, the nearly unbroken tree line along the Juniata River is known to host bald eagle, osprey and other types of bird wildlife.
The entire trail is sure to have something of interest for everyone. As you follow the trail that others have left for you, think about what it was at one time. You are riding your bicycle, walking or cross-country skiing on what was one of the major east-west transportation routes; it is almost like riding a bicycle on an interstate highway!
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 7 Campus Spin