Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

America’s First Railroad Tunnel

In the steep heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains of south central Pennsylvania is an obscure historical treasure that most people have never heard about and probably never will. We stumbled upon it quite by accident while exploring and geocaching along the Path of the Flood Trail. In these hills, 30 years before the Civil War, America’s first railroad tunnel was built. It was drilled, blasted and carved through 900 feet of solid rock – the length of three football fields.

From 1826 to 1833, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania built a canal system linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. To get over the Allegheny Mountains in the center of the route, they built a railroad. Canal boats were taken out of the water, mounted on flatbed cars, dragged over the mountains via a series of inclines by mules or locomotives, then put back in the water to finish the journey. It was a giant two way 40 mile portage between Hollidaysburg in the east and Johnstown in the west. The 395 mile canal was called the Pennsylvania Main Line. The railroad was called the Allegheny Portage Railroad. One of the many technical challenges they faced was to build a tunnel through a mountain of bedrock. When it was completed, the Staple Bend Tunnel was the final link in the canal and the first railroad tunnel in America.

Eastern end of the Staple Bend Tunnel

The northeastern end of the Staple Bend Tunnel near Johnstown, PA. The two hikers silhouetted in the southwestern portal add some interesting perspective. Believe it or not, they are 1,000 feet away. And even though you can see both ends, the middle half of the tunnel is pitch black inside when moving through it. Bring a flashlight.

Running from northeast to southwest, construction started in November 1831 and was completed in June 1833 at a cost of $38,000. To build it, workers had to blast through 900 feet of bedrock and haul away 15,000 cubic yards of debris. It was drilled and blasted from both ends at the combined rate of 36 inches a day. The final rock face in the center of the tunnel was blown in December 1832 and the tunnel became one. The two halves matched up perfectly. Abandoned in 1854, it served as a carriage route and lover’s lane until the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which destroyed the routes leading to it. After over a century of neglect and disrepair, it was restored to its present condition in 2001 by the National Park Service.

Southwest portal of the Staple Bend Tunnel

The southwest portal. Note the rather large and elaborate cornice. The other end had one too, but it was stripped away by looters. In the original design documents, they are described as “Roman revival” architecture with “Doric columns”. Half the money spent on the tunnel was for these two entryways, however, there was a method to the madness. They were designed to keep rocks and debris from falling off the mountain and on to the tracks. The names and initials of several of the original stone masons are still visible.

The canal and the portage railroad were technical, engineering and logistical triumphs. The transit time between Philly and the Three Rivers went from four weeks in a Conestoga wagon to a four day canal boat ride. One of those days was spent on the portage railroad. Unfortunately, it was a financial disaster and lost money every year it was in operation. It simply didn’t generate the volume of traffic needed. Much of it was siphoned off by the highly successful (and profitable) Erie Canal in New York, which didn’t have to contend with bedrock mountains. The Main Line Canal became a black hole for the state’s money and by the time it went under, they had thrown $20 million into it. Meanwhile, railroad technology was growing by leaps and bounds and entrepreneurship was booming. In 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad, a publicly traded company chartered in 1846, completed a continuous rail line between the two cities. To negotiate the mountains, they built the world famous Horseshoe Curve. A four day canal boat ride was now done on a train in 13 hours. The Main Line was finished. In 1857, the railroad bought it for $5 million and dismantled it.

trailhead1

The trailhead of the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail. You can bike or hike to the tunnel along the flat two mile long crushed limestone trail. Dogs are allowed but leashes are required. The GPS coordinates for the trail head are N40.376243° W78.835094°.

The decayed ruins of the Allegheny Portage Railroad became a National Historic Site in 1992. The National Park Service has done an incredible job of salvaging, excavating and reconstructing it to be enjoyed by all. Parts of the Pennsylvania canal system have been preserved by local governments or private organizations. The best source of information on restored canals is the Pennsylvania Canal Society.

Every year on Halloween weekend, there are ghost tours and demonstrations from the tunnel building days. Click these links for more information on the Staple Bend Tunnel and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. And while you’re in the area, check out the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

This entire area of south central Pennsylvania is filled with fascinating places and events that most people have never heard of. If you like to explore off the beaten path, this is a great place to do it.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha