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

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