Jean Bonnet Tavern

Jean Bonnet Tavern

A ghost’s eye view of the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Four miles west of Bedford, Pennsylvania is the Jean Bonnet (bo-nay’) Tavern, which has hosted travelers since the mid-1700’s. The Jean Bonnet Tavern has seen it all – war, peace, crime, rebellion, trade, Indian raids and westward migration as the nation grew. The tavern occupies a very strategic spot, sitting at the base of the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains at the intersection of the Forbes Road (Route 30) and Glades Pike (Route 31). Those roads follow old Shawnee trading paths and are still the major east-west highways through the region.

The tavern is renowned for its old world charm, history, rustic decor and great food. It is also famous for its ghosts and hauntings.

In 1742, the French built a small fort and trading post here to carry on trade with the Shawnee. It was abandoned during the French and Indian War.

After the war, the British constructed a building on top of it and there has been one there ever since. The real Jean Bonnet bought the property from the British in 1779 and built the current structure using the thick stone walls of the French fort as the foundation. Those same stone walls are the walls of the downstairs restaurant today. The Jean Bonnet Tavern was very successful. Back then, this was the edge of the westerrn frontier. Anybody headed west over the mountains stopped here. It was the last place to outfit and prepare before heading into the frontier. Soon, it became a hub for commerce, exploration, socializing, politics – and justice.

Dining room with gallows beam

Part of the main dining room with the gallows of the French spy highlighted. There is also a good view of the original French fort walls.

It was a meeting place for both sides during the Revolutionary War. It survived the Indian raids of 1780 that savaged the region. Later, it was a gathering spot for farmers involved in the Whiskey Rebellion. Federal troops sent to quell the rebellion, led by President George Washington himself, encamped near the grounds. That was the one and only time the Commander-in-Chief has led troops in the field.

It watched as battles of the Civil War were fought less than 90 miles away, including Gettysburg and Antietam. In the week before Gettysburg, Pennsylvania militia troops skirmished with Confederate cavalry in Everett, only 10 miles away to the east.

At least two men are known to have been hanged here.

The Forbes Expedition of 1758 stopped here on its way to attack Fort Duquesne, the French base at the junction of the three rivers in modern-day Pittsburgh. A suspected French spy was hanged in the basement which is now the restaurant. His body was buried under the floor so the French would never know his fate. The beam that served as the gallows is still there. According to legends and ghost hunters, the spirit of the French spy is still there too.

In the 1760’s, a second floor was added to the original structure and was used as a circuit courtroom. Frontier justice was swift and several men were reportedly hanged. The only one documented with any certainty was a horse thief who stole horses from the Shawnee. He was tried and hanged while the Shawnee waited outside. They took his body with them.

In 1980, the tavern underwent a major renovation. Underneath the old floor downstairs workers found a human skeleton. Although it was never identified, testing showed the bones dated back to the late 1700’s.

Stone fireplace in the dining room.

The fireplace. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. It’s massive. Old pots and cooking utensils hang nearby. In the winter, there is a roaring fire going in it. They keep a smaller one going in the summer to fend off the chill of the night air in the Pennsylvania mountains. The room view in the previous picture (with the gallows pole) is directly behind the camera.

Hauntings and paranormal events have been observed or recorded at the Jean Bonnet Tavern for years. These include cold spots, strange lights, objects being moved, anomalies on pictures and apparitions. These have been observed or experienced by customers, guests and staff, including the owners. The tavern was featured on the Biography channel’s “My Ghost Story” in 2012. A Google search will bring up many more happenings.

However, most people come here for the atmosphere and the food. Going into the main dining room is like stepping back in time. It is quiet, cool and windowless with thick stone walls and the original massive exposed chestnut beams and columns. The focal point is the large fireplace that was once used to prepare the tavern meals. People with buckskin clothes and three corner hats would be right at home here.

Being a local native, I’ve been here dozens of times. Even though I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for over 40 years, we make annual family visits and Jean Bonnet’s is always on the itinerary. I’ve never seen a ghost or had a bad meal. It’s the kind of place where you can just relax, enjoy the food and savor the surroundings. There are very few like it.

The GPS coordinates for the tavern are 40.0424, -78.5606. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.

If you like history and exploring, you’re surrounded by it here. Fort Necessity, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Johnstown Flood Memorial and the Flight 93 Memorial are all within an hour’s drive. Two hours will take you to Gettysburg, Antietam, Fort Ligonier and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Falling Water. That’s just for starters. Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. That will give you plenty to see and do when you’re not hiking, biking or kayaking, which abound throughout the region.

Good haunting and bon appetite… Boris and Natasha

Battle of Grant’s Hill

Battle of Grant's Hill

The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major Grant disobeyed orders, which stated he was not to get decisively engaged in a battle. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh.

Summer 1758 in present-day western Pennsylvania. The French and Indian War is in its fourth year and so far, it’s been all French and Indians. There is no British military presence on the western frontier except a regiment of part-time volunteer Virginia militia commanded by George Washington. For three years, they have been fighting a lost cause, trying to hold back French and Indian raids across the depth and breadth of the colonial western frontier. These raids have plundered as far north as Lake Erie and south to the Potomac River while moving east as far as the Susquehanna River in the center of Pennsylvania.

The base for these raids is Fort Duquesne (dew-cane’), located at the junction of the three rivers in present-day Pittsburgh. This location was simply referred to as “The Forks”. From the northeast flows the Allegheny River.  Up from the southeast flows the Monongahela River.  They join at “The Forks” to form the Ohio River, which flows southwest to the Mississippi River. With all the navigable rivers and tributaries that connect to this water network, one can go from the Gulf of St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Whoever controls The Forks controls this inland water super highway, making it the most strategic and valuable piece of real estate in the interior.

There were several reasons why Great Britain was in this fix. The French and Indian War was part of the much larger Seven Years War. It was the first true world war and Britain was fighting world-wide on both land and sea.**Historical Footnote: They were fighting the French, Spanish, Austrians, Russians and Swedes (yes, Swedes). Their only ally was Germany.** The British government considered the French and Indian War to be a sideshow and a problem the colonials would have to deal with themselves. British officers and government officials already in North America tended to be dismissive of the colonials and especially the Indians, who they had no use for at all. The French, however, welcomed Native American support, who became a lethal mercernary wilderness army for the French.

Second, the British, who were the masters of the European battlefields, had no idea how to fight in the wilderness. Time and again, they were outfoxed and outfought by the French and their Native American allies. In fact, throughout the entire war, it was taken as gospel by the British that attempts to operate independently in Indian country were tantamount to suicide. It simply wasn’t done.

Outline of Fort Duquesne

This overhead view of “The Point” in Pittsburgh shows the outline of Fort Duquesne. It was tiny. The interior courtyard was about the size of a tennis court. Fort Pitt, which replaced it, was built in the same area and covered 13 acres. The settlement the sprung up outside the walls became Pittsburgh. **Historical Footnote: Both the fort and the town were named after William Pitt, the Leader of the House of Commons, future Prime Minister and driving force behind the British strategy to expel France from North America. Without his focus on that strategy and the means to carry it out, we might all be speaking French today.**

In 1758, Britain entered the war in force and with a newfound vigor. **Historical Footnote: Great Britain paid Germany to continue the fight in Europe. That freed them to throw the might of their empire into the North American War.** The most important strategic objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. General Edward Braddock had tried it three years earlier. On July 9, 1755, his force was cut to pieces on the banks of the Monongahela River by a smaller force of French and Indians. Braddock was killed. The ghost of Braddock’s Defeat haunted the British for the rest of the war. The unspoken rule for commanders was – “No more Braddocks”.

Now it was the mission of General John Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne. Forbes’ second-in-command was Lt.Col Henri Bouquet, a Swiss soldier-of-fortune who had been fighting for a living for 20 years. He may have been the best field officer in the British Army. Tough and savvy, he understood wilderness fighting and didn’t buy into this gospel that Brits alone couldn’t operate in Indian country. When they got close to Fort Duquesne, he decided to give the French and the Indians a taste of their own medicine.

The officer selected to lead it was Major James Grant, an officer with Montgomerie’s Highlanders. Grant was a bad tempered and impatient Scotsman who was tired of building wilderness roads and waiting. In his view, it was time to fight. Although he had been in the army since 1744, he had no wilderness fighting experience. Nevertheless, he convinced Bouquet that they should go big with a large force of several hundred men conducting what the military calls a “reconnaissance-in-force“. Grant left the forward base at Fort Ligonier on September 9 with 800 men – about 400 highlanders and 400 militia troops. Their orders were to create as much mayhem as possible around Fort Duquesne without getting trapped in an all out battle, take prisoners and bring back detailed information on the fort.

Grant planned and executed his movement well. They traveled light and carried everything in their haversacks. Noise and light discipline were strictly enforced. No fires at night. Barking dogs encountered along the way were killed. On September 13, they reached a hill several hundred yards away from the fort. They had gotten there undetected. Grant estimated there were 200 defenders and no sign of any Indians. Against all orders, he decided to attack the fort. His plan was to decoy the defenders out and ambush them in the open with a bigger force. Another section would be held in reserve further up the hill. Fifty Virginia militia troops were left further back to guard the packs. Some militia officers advised against the plan. Grant, who was openly contemptuous of colonial units, brushed them off.

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Built in 1884, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh sits on the site of the Battle of Grant’s Hill. The hill itself was leveled in the early 1900’s to make room for development, but the area is still called Grant’s Hill. The first floor of the courthouse in the photo used to be the basement.Other than a few commemorative plaques, there’s no battlefield to visit.

At dawn on September 14, 1758, the French defenders of Fort Duquesne were greeted by an unbelievable sight. One hundred Scottish Highlanders, kilts and all, were marching towards the front gate to the music of bagpipes. The gates opened and defenders came rushing out while Indians came running up from the river banks where they were encamped unseen. Grant’s estimated 200 defenders inside the fort quickly became over 500 swarming all over them with more on the way from across the Allegheny River.

The decoy force was overwhelmed almost immediately. While that brief action was going on, other defenders went down to the rivers, ran along the banks and came up above and behind the rest of Grant’s force. The whole attack plan fell apart and desperation set in so the British used what they knew – European linear tactics. On the heavily timbered hillside, they tried to form up in ranks and volley fire.

It was right out of the Braddock playbook. Grant was on the verge of a completely successful mission when he got stupid. All up and down the hill, groups of British soldiers were surrounded and cut down by an enemy they couldn’t see or fight. Some of the British broke and ran for the “safety” of the river, where they became targets of the Indians. In a panic, some soldiers rushed headlong into the water and drowned. The only reason Grant’s force wasn’t completely annihilated is because the Virginians guarding the packs came forward and counterattacked. It bought enough time and space for survivors to bug out.

Of the 800 men who left Fort Ligonier, only 400 came back. The rest were dead or captured, with wounded men dying on the retreat. Grant himself was taken prisoner. It was a complete disaster and the very thing that Forbes and Bouquet had sworn would never happen on their watch. They still had no hard intelligence other than what survivors told them. They painted a picture of an impregnable fortress with thousands of defenders.

Despite that, Forbes pushed on, overwhelming the French with sheer numbers and a slow methodical approach. As they closed in on Fort Duquesne on November 25, the French blew it up and bugged out. The next day, the vanguard of Forbes’ army walked up to the gates of Fort Duquesne without a shot fired. There was nothing left but chimneys and iron frames, but that’s not all they found.

On their final approach march, they walked through Braddock’s kill zone from three years earlier. The bleached bones of Braddock’s men were still laying all around. When they got to the fort, they made another horrifying discovery. The heads of Grant’s captured highlanders were impaled on stakes a short distance away by the river bank. There was nothing to be done except bury them. Such was the nature of frontier warfare. But after five years, the British finally had Fort Duquesne. It was the beginning of the end for New France. Things went downhill fast for them as the British tightened the noose, driving the French out of the colonies and attacking Quebec and Montreal. The French surrendered after the capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760.

**Historical Footnote: Major Grant was a POW in Quebec for a year. He was released in a prisoner exchange and went home to England, becoming a member of Parliament. He returned to serve during the American Revolution, then returned to Parliament until his death in 1802. He blamed the colonial militia for the debacle that bears his name and his family connections blunted any political fallout. He was never held accountable for anything nor did he ever express any remorse or regret. He’s buried on his Scottish Estate.

**Historical Footnote: General John Forbes was a late-comer to the army, having been a physician first. At the time of his assignment to the Fort Duquesne mission, he was a dying man, ravaged by a disease (never identified) that kept him bedridden much of the time. He was the brains of the operation and Lt. Col. Bouquet was the brawn. Together, they got it done. Forbes left Fort Duquesne in early December, arriving in Philadelphia after a grueling six week trip on a litter slung between two horses. He died in early March and is buried in Philadelphia.

**Historical Footnote: Lt. Col. Henri Bouquet stayed at The Forks and built Fort Pitt. Five years later, he was in Philadelphia when Pontiac’s War exploded on the western frontier. Fort Pitt was attacked and under siege by a large force of Indians. Bouquet gathered a force and marched to relieve it. He was ambushed by Indians near a tiny way station called Bushy Run, about 40 miles from Fort Pitt. After two days of fierce fighting, he decisively defeated the attackers and moved on to relieve the fort. The Battle of Bushy Run broke the back of Pontiac’s War and got Bouquet promoted to Brigadier General. He was re-assigned to command Britain’s new souther command based in Pensacola, FL. As soon as he got there, he went down with yellow fever and was dead a week later. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola but his gravesite is unknown.

Author’s Comments

Well, there’s not much to say. Major Grant “screwed the pooch” as we say in the military. Military history is full of guys like Grant – Braddock at Monongahela, Sickles at Gettysburg and Custer at the Little Bighorn come to mind. Combat actions favor the bold but there’s a fine line between that and recklessness. If you win, you’re bold. If you lose, you’re reckless. Sometimes you don’t know which until you go for it.

Taking Fort Duquesne was a big deal. It wasn’t pretty. The French defended aggressively as far forward as they could by attacking the attackers. When things got terminal, they destroyed the fort and bugged out to fight another day. They deprived the British of the satisfaction of capturing the fort intact. The Forbes Expedition never did prove its mettle in a fight. It was plodding, methodical operation that lasted for over six months. It was a marvel of logistics and engineering. They cut a new road through the wild, rocky and steeply wooded Allegheney Mountains that is still in use today – Route 30, also called the Forbes Road. Most importantly, it gave Britain a win when it sorely needed one. John Forbes was hailed as a hero destined for great things. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

The city of Pittsburgh (my hometown) is one big museum. The steel mills and their rotten egg smell are long gone. Modern skyscrapers are mixed in with one-of-a-kind diners and everything in the Grant’s Hill neighborhood is within walking distance. Make sure you take the Duquesne Incline up to Mt. Washington for dinner. Also take a ride on the Gateway Clipper fleet, paddle wheelers that tour the rivers. Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt are gone, but they live on in the John Heinz Museum at Point State Park. There is still a blockhouse standing from the original Fort Pitt.

If you like to find or collect things, Pittsburgh is the Mother Lode. Geocaches, Munzees, benchmarks, letterboxes and NPS Passport Stamps are in abundance here. The city is safe to move around in, unlike Fort Duquesne days. The only time you’ll get scalped is if you try to score Steelers tickets in the parking lot on game day.

Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did……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

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

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #4

Hi again,

I started this series last year and got about halfway through it before getting side tracked. 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

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 distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #4 cache fell into several of these but made the list because of the totally unexpected – and essentially unknown – events that happened here. From July 2012, the Civil War Entrenchments geocache.

June, 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is on the move, heading north into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Union Army is in Virginia, licking its wounds after the beating it took at Chancellorsville the month before. Lee’s army is riding high, full of confidence and taking the fight to the North, who seem unable to stop him. The coming Battle of Gettysburg isn’t on anybody’s radar yet. Lee wants to plunder the countryside, maybe capture a major city and force the Union into peace negotiations. At least, that’s the plan.

There was plenty to plunder in Pennsylvania including crops, horses, livestock, textiles, shoe factories, iron forges, warehouses and railroads. It was all undefended. There was no Union Army presence in the state, which was wide open to invasion.

Map of the battle area

A map of the battle area in the weeks leading up to Gettysburg. Most of the labels are self-explanatory. Letter B is the Snake Spring Gap and the location of the geocache. Letter C is Everett, where a cavalry skirmish occurred the week before Gettysburg. Letter D is McConnellsburg which was looted by Lee’s invasion force, along with Chambersburg. Total road distance from A-G is 155 miles.

A particularly lucrative target sat in the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania – the railroad yards at Altoona, home of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the world famous Horseshoe Curve. The railroad was a major transportation link for the Union war effort and a target rich environment if there ever was one. Everything needed to fight a war could be found in the warehouses and marshalling yards of Altoona. Lee wanted to send a large raiding party to sack the town and wreck the train system, but first, he had to find a way over the steep, heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains. Initial reports had them undefended. In early June, he sent cavalry units under General John Imboden to recon a route.

Governor Andrew Curtin realized the gravity of the problem and also realized they would have to deal with it themselves. On June 13, 1863, telegrams went out to state and county leaders advising them of the situation and asking them to undertake emergency actions to deal with it. Colonel Jacob Higgins, a Union officer home on medical leave, was asked to lead the defenses in the mountains. He agreed and quickly went to work. The call went out for volunteers to build and man defensive positions against an impending Confederate invasion. Almost overnight, 1,500 men answered the call. They came from towns like Saxton, Roaring Spring and Morrison’s Cove. No records were kept. We have no idea who they were, what they did or where they went afterward. But we do know that for a few days in June 1863, they were on the front lines of the Civil War.

Trenchline

The trenchline at Snake Spring Gap. It is remarkably well preserved and can be followed for several hundred yards. At the end, it curves down slope to engage an enemy attack from the flank and prevent an end run. The terrain is very much like what it was in 1863. Steep, broken up and heavily wooded, it would have been almost impossible to mount an effective large-scale ground attack through it. The same thing can be found on the other side of the road, although it is much more overgrown and harder to follow.

The defenders’ biggest problem was time, which was as great an enemy as Lee’s Army. Higgins’ plan was to fortify four gaps where roads crossed over the mountains. These defiles were narrow, steep and heavily wooded. A few men could hold off many. One of those gaps was the Snake Spring Gap. Here, 500 men toiled non-stop for days to dig a formidable trenchline that extended for several hundred yards on both sides of the gap. Cannon were mounted in strong points next to the road. Attacking these positions would have been a daunting challenge. While the volunteers worked furiously on the defenses, militia cavalry went down the mountain to scout and delay the approaching rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Lee’s cavalry was pushing out in all directions for almost 100 miles. To the east, they were on the banks of the Susquehanna River and threatening the state capital at Harrisburg. To the west, they looted Chambersburg and McConnellsburg, then started towards Bedford and Altoona. In Everett (then called Bloody Run), they skirmished with militia cavalry, which showed up quite unexpectedly. When the rebel horse soldiers returned to McConnellsburg for more loot, they were run out of town by another militia cavalry unit. Confederate scouts got close enough to the barricades to report back that the gaps were heavily defended. These unforeseen developments were trouble for Lee’s plans. He wanted what was in Altoona, but the soft vulnerable target of several days ago was gone. Defenses had appeared seemingly overnight and Union cavalry was suddenly active in his area. Now headquartered in Chambersburg, Lee mulled his options.

View of the gap

An attackers view of the Snake Spring Gap. A strongpoint is visible ahead, effectively covering the entire narrow avenue of approach. From here, attackers would have probably been looking down the barrel of a six pounder loaded with double canister. The trenchline continues on both sides of the road for several hundred yards. At the top of the rise on the right, there are the remnants of another strongpoint anchoring that side and bracketing the road. The geocache is along that overgrown trenchline. The state historical marker is visible at the strongpoint.

The Union finalized his plans for him. On June 29 Lee’s scouts reported that the Union Army was in Frederick, MD moving north. He dropped the Altoona plan and turned southeast to meet the new threat. The rest, as they say, is history. On July 1, 1863, the two armies ran into each other at Gettysburg.

When the Battle of Gettysburg started, the mountain defenses were abandoned and everybody went home. There are many places in these Pennsylvania hills where you can find remnants of them, but the trenchline at Snake Spring Gap is the best preserved and most easily accessible.

Historical marker

One hundred years later on June 29, 1963, a state historical marker was placed here as a small bit of recognition for the unknown militia men who performed a brave and arduous task at a critical time.

As I have noted before, Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff and grew up less than 50 miles away in Somerset County. I had never heard of any of this until I found this geocache online and decided to check it out. It is certainly off the beaten path. This important episode affected the course of the war but has been lost to history. The only reminders are some fading trenches, a state marker and a geocache, which comes in at #4.

If you ever want to check out the place, here is the geolocation:
N 40° 06.052 W 078° 23.345 . You can click on the coordinates to bring up a map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

1806 Old Log Church, Schellsburg, PA

Every year, we go back to my native Somerset, Pennsylvania for a family reunion and a road trip. This year, we finally got around to doing something we’d wanted to do for some time. We just drove around on the back roads. We had a few specific things picked out but mostly, we just free-lanced. The south central counties of Somerset, Bedford, Cambria, Blair, Huntingdon and Fulton are full of history – monuments, markers, forts, covered bridges, battlefields, railroads (ever heard of Horseshoe Curve?), old towns. It seems like there’s something around every corner.

The whole area is one big museum. Entire books have been written about it. I could spend the rest of my life just blogging about these six counties. We did, however, stumble across a few things that were so interesting and off the beaten path, they got their own blog entry. This is one of them.

Map location of Schellsburg, PA

The red marker is the location of Schellsburg. Pittsburgh is 100 road miles to the west. Gettysburg is 90 road miles to the east. Route 30 is Main Street.

In the eastern foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Bedford County stands the village of Schellsburg. It sits astride Route 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway. This road follows the same track as the Forbes Road which is named for General John Forbes. His British Army built it in 1758 on the way to attack Fort Duquesne in Pittsburgh during the French and Indian War. That road, in turn, was built along the route of the Raystown Path, an old trading route used by Indians for centuries to cross the rugged mountains.

This fertile foothill valley was farmed and hunted by Indians and settlers for decades before Schellsburg became a town in 1808.  The most influential citizen was John Schell, a German immigrant who arrived with eight children in 1798. He had received some land as a grant for his service in the Revolutionary War and and added on to it with his own purchases.

Old Log Church

Schell was very generous with his wealth and influence, donating both to the community. He donated a six acre plot of land on a beautiful hilltop overlooking the town. On that land in 1806 was built the first church in Bedford County. Originally called the Union Church, it served the Lutheran and Reformed congregations. The locals know it as the 1806 Old Log Church. Note the Confederate flag by the front  headstone. There’s a very cool story that goes with it. You can read it down further.

In previous decades, the early settlers of this area lived with constant conflict and danger.  From 1750 to 1780, a period that spanned both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, settlers, farmers, Indians, Tories, patriots and British fought a brutal back country war for control of the frontier. This war culminated with the massacre of Phillips’ Rangers in 1780.

By 1806, the frontier was hundreds of miles west and the new town of Schellsburg was chartered in peace in 1808.  Sitting astride the main east-west route in the region, it prospered as center of farming, commerce and transportation.  Some of the structures built back then still line the main thoroughfare as homes and shops.

Inside the Old Log Church

The church is 25 x 30 feet; two stories high with galleries on three sides and a eight foot high “tea cup” pulpit on the fourth. For the first six years the congregation worshiped by sitting on logs. In 1809, a stove was installed. Previous to the stove purchase, members brought their dogs to church to keep their feet warm. In 1812, the pulpit, the stairs and the pews were built. Two years later the gallery/balcony was constructed. The cost of all this was $292. Several years later the church was plastered inside and weatherboarded outside. In 1935 the outside weatherboards were removed, exposing the original log walls for the first time in a 100 years. Ever since it has been known as the “Old Log Church.”

Services were held here until 1852 by a variety of ministers, both full time and traveling.  At that time, the Lutheran and Reformed congregations went their own way and broke ground for their own churches.  Those congregations are still active.

Also in 1806, the surrounding ground saw its first burial and the Chestnut Ridge and Schellsburg Union Cemetery was born.  The cemetery is still active, averaging 25 burials per year.  Needless to say, it is huge.  We found the same thing in this cemetery as we have in others we’ve explored – people died young.  Many graves are simply marked “infant”.

Generations of local families are buried here, including John Schell.   Information cards are placed graveside on many plots telling their story.  Sometimes it’s on the headstones themselves, which can get quite detailed.  Walking through this cemetery is like reading a history book carved in stone, granite and marble. Many of the deceased are veterans of every conflict this country has fought back to the French and Indian War. Veterans’ graves have medallions, flags or other markers  signifying their service.  There’s even a Confederate soldier buried here complete with the Stars and Bars flying at his grave. His story is told below.

Confederate soldier grave.

William Hinson was born in Mississippi in 1842. In 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union forces at Vicksburg in 1863. He was sent to a POW camp at Alton, Illinois. In February, 1864, he was being transferred on a train to another POW camp in Delaware. He escaped in Cambria County, not far from Schellsburg, in the middle of the mountain winter.  A Quaker family gave him refuge from the weather and the authorities. He changed his name to Oliver Niley, after his maternal grandfather, and settled down to wait out the war.  As it turns out, he started a new life.  He settled near Schellsburg, where he became a pillar of the community.  He married a local girl, had many children and was a Justice of the Peace for years. When he died in 1925, his Confederate Army service became known and he was buried under both flags with his real name.

In 2002, the Old Log Church and Cemetery Preservation Society was formed to prepare the church and grounds for the 2006 bicentennial. In 2005, the church and cemetery were placed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Preservation grant money was obtained. Headstones have been repaired and waterproofed. The society remains active and continues its efforts.

We finally got around to trying the door of the church.  I saw the obligatory padlock as we approached and figured there’s no way it will be open – but is was, as it is every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In the spring and fall, it’s weekends only.   Visitors are welcome with no guides, guards, chaperones, etc. There’s been no vandalism, damage or graffiti which is amazing.  There’s none visible in the cemetery either.

Pews at the Old Log Church

We visited on a hot, humid day. It was really stuffy inside. I climbed up to the “tea cup” pulpit and it was downright tropical. Preaching from there or craning your necks to look up from the pews would have made worship a challenge. Mountain winters are bitter, providing even more challenges. Despite that, the church thrived for almost half a century until it outgrew itself. Now it is open to the public for viewing. Services are still held here on special occasions.  The church has no amenities whatsoever, including no electricity or running water. The Preservation Society has a table inside with some history and literature along with a donation box.

We didn’t stumble upon the Old Log Church. I’ve been driving by it for decades on Route 30. I just never stopped or paid any attention to it. This trip, we made sure to visit. The original target was a geocache on the grounds, but we like old cemeteries and historic old buildings so it had the potential to be quite a visit. We were not disappointed.

This old place is one of a kind. It is worth seeing and supporting, if you get the chance.  BTW, we found the geocache.  It’s called “1806 Was a Good Year“.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #7

After a brief hiatus to get acquainted with our new granddaughter, the countdown continues.  This is a Pennsylvania cache from July 2005 called The Spooky Tunnel.

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 200 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see.

Through the middle of all this, the state built a four lane highway that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed highway in the U.S.  Construction started in October 1938.  The first 160 mile section from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg 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 and minimize curves and hills.  To do this, they built a series of tunnels through the mountains instead of going over them.  One of these was the Laurel Hill Tunnel.  Its story is told in the pictures that follow.

Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940's
A view of the Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940’s. It was originally designed and excavated as a railroad tunnel at the turn of the century but the railroad never got here. It was incorporated into the Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1940 as the nation’s First Superhighway.

This rugged woodland is a geocachers dream.  It has everything from one star drive ups to five star expeditions.  Overlooking the long abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel is the three star Spooky Tunnel geocache.  My son and I tackled it in July of 2005.  It was our first summer of geocaching.

The abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel
The problem with the Laurel Hill Tunnel is that it only had two lanes and the turnpike had four. It became a two-ended bottleneck. Even in the 1940’s and 50’s, traffic jammed up at both ends. As cars and trucks became bigger and faster, the traffic got worse and the tunnel got more dangerous. There were horrific crashes in and around the tunnel during its years of use. By the early 1960’s, something had to be done. That something was to forget about 100 mph straightaways and build a six lane road over the steep mountain, bypassing the tunnel completely. The Laurel Hill Bypass opened in 1964. The now abandoned tunnel lay dormant for years. This a view from the early 1980’s.

The hardest part of the cache is figuring out which back country road goes to the parking pullout.  Once parked, it’s about 1/2 mile of bushwhacking to get to the cache.  There’s no trail and the summertime brush, the bugs and old barbed wire fences can be challenging. The cache itself is well hidden (at least it was) and the heavy overhead canopy can make the GPS go crazy.

Laurel Hill Tunnel
The abandoned tunnel served a variety of ad hoc purposes for 30 years after it was abandoned. It was used as a garage for maintenance vehicles, storage for road sand and salt and a police firing range. Up until the early 80’s, you could walk or bike through it. Around 2000, the tunnel became the scene of intense activity. No Trespassing signs were posted and the State Police patrolled it heavily. Structures resembling airlocks or decon stations went up along with barriers and satellite antennae. The whole thing was sealed off with no outward evidence of activity or occupation. People began to speculate about all the things that might be going on there. Department of Defense? Homeland Security? Nuclear waste?  Archaeological dig? Alien spacecraft?

You can’t miss the tunnel.  Just keep walking downhill and you’ll run right into it. The view of the tunnel from the cache site is awesome.  It’s completely out of place in this remote area but there it is, satellite antennae and all.

Spooky Tunnel
After years of speculation, the answer finally got out, thanks to the Internet. An engineering company that develops NASCAR racing technology bought the tunnel and turned it into a giant wind tunnel. They wanted to keep it quiet but you know how that goes. Now, they have a website that tells all. It’s pretty interesting. The place is strictly off limits but a geocache was placed above it in 2003. It’s still there. This is a geocacher’s view of the (Not So) Spooky Tunnel.

Anyway, we had a good time getting it and bagged several more in the same area that day.  As I’ve said before, some of my best days as a Dad were out geocaching with the kids and this was one of them.

BTW, if you’re interested in who is using the tunnel and what they’re doing, here’s the tell all website.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils