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The following is an excerpt from the PA's Past: Digital Bookshelf, a statewide digital collection created by the Penn State Libraries, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania State Library in Harrisburg, the Free Library in Philadelphia, and the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
BELL'S GAP RAILROAD
THE BELL'S GAP RAILROAD.
CLIMBING THE ALLEGHENIES.
SEVEN miles east of Altoona the little stream known as Laurel Run flows under the Pennsylvania Railroad, and, after turning the wheels of some flour mills not far away from the line, it runs eastward to join the head-waters of the Juniata. This little stream comes down a valley from the Allegheny Mountain side. At the railway the station is known as Bell's Mills, and at the head of the valley is one of the notches cut in the mountain summit, known as Bell's Gap. A narrow-gauge railroad climbs the mountain along the steep sides of this valley, and, crossing through Bell's Gap, goes over into Clearfield County to bring away its wealth of coal and lumber and bark for tanning. Twice a year Philadelphia is reminded of the existence of this railroad by announcements of the payment of interest on its bonds, but very few know that its short route of nine miles up the mountain discloses some of the wildest and grandest scenery in America. It twists around short curves and runs over break-neck trestles, and climbs a grade sometimes of one hundred and sixty to two hundred feet to the mile, the powerful little engines, built by the Baldwin Works, hauling up heavy loads, with many a snort and strain; but they all slide down the mountain with the greatest ease. For terrific sensations, wild scenery, and an idea of what railroading can do, this is the road to take. You will be rewarded by the time you are through.
We found the railway staff on this three-foot-wide road, when it was visited, engaged in coaxing a big coal-car back to the track, which had assumed a rather wayward career, and in this task three locomotives and sundry logs of wood and jack-screws were assisting. While waiting for the coal-car to behave itself, we studied one of the expedients by which freight carrying was simplified on this line. They bring down the laden car, run it on an ingeniously constructed frame-work, take out the narrow-gauge trucks, and put in standard-gauge trucks. The process occupies about twenty minutes, and then the car can be sent to its destination by the Pennsylvania
Railroad. The wayward coal-car having kindly permitted itself to be persuaded back to the track, and the line being thus cleared, we started on our journey up the mountain in a little observation-car, open at the sides, and with seats much like our city summer passenger-cars. It was put on the end of a freight and passenger-train, and was designated a "special car," upon which the residents of Bell's Mills gazed with proper respect. The other passengers, chiefly coal-miners and timber-cutters, took their places in the regular train, save one old lady who had just arrived from Wales, and was bound for her daughter's home at Lloydsville, on top of the mountain. No one had come to meet her, and she left her big sea-chest in the station while she went up the mountain to reconnoitre. She rode with us, and had no fears of breaking her neck on the journey, but looking askance at the wild and unsettled aspect of the country, she did express great fears of not getting enough to eat up in such a rough place as that. Then we started, and, aided by the knowledge of a friendly brakesman, began exploring the mountain-pass. As we steamed along on the comparatively level land at the entrance to the valley, Brush Mountain rose grandly behind us. We ran away from it, however, up the valley towards the northwest, directly at the face of the high green wood-clad mountain in front, in which a deep fissure was cut by nature. We moved at first over the farm-land in the bottom of the valley. Then we began rising up-hill, and twisting round sharp curves, and running over high trestles, crossing deep valleys, down which little brooks flowed over the stones. We entered the fissure, which on approaching had broadened into a wide gorge, and as the train climbed the side, great hills uncovered their tops around us, all tree-clad to their summits. The road wound in and out, but rose steadily upward, and the scenery became very like the much-praised Vosges of France and Jura of Switzerland. We toiled through the red sandstone, for in many places the roadway was cut out of the solid rock, and as the engine puffed and strained in going up the hill the passengers jumped off wherever it suited their convenience without troubling the conductor to stop the train. The railroad gradually mounted the eastern side of the precipitous Laurel Run Valley, and, as we toiled upward, far ahead and above could be seen a jutting precipice, around which the road wound like a streak, and which is called Point Lookout. We saw it away across the abyss, and it took three miles of winding roadway to reach it. Down in the valley, far beneath us, was an occasional house. We went over the ticklish Collier trestle which curved around as it crossed a narrow but deep valley; and having doubts of the trestle's lasting, they are building a solid roadway farther up, which will soon be put into use. From this elevated perch we can see far down the valley up which we came, and look back at the mountains we passed. Then steadily upward through the forests we climb, twisting and turning and watching our goal at Point Lookout. The ground is full of stumps and stones and strewn with the trunks of fallen trees. Some of the trees are enormous pines, straight and noble sticks that would make magnificent, ship masts. We pass now and then a rough wood cabin by the roadside, one labeled "Boarding House." The train stops whenever desired at these cabins by the few women who are on board. Another scare-crow trestle bending around carries us over Shaw Run, where they are building a saw-mill to work up the timber, and this carrying the road to the other side of the valley, we moved directly upward towards Point Lookout. The noble trees stand up on the mountain-side below us, and we can see far over their heads. This is the primitive forest, wild beyond all imagination, and as we mount to Point Lookout the view becomes unspeakably grand. Far beneath us on the other side of the valley, is the road up which we have climbed, and as we go around the Point and come out on the face of the precipice we open up a superb landscape down the valley towards Brush Mountain, from which we came. We run through a shower as the sun shines on the hills below us and far away, for storms are of easy manufacture on these mountain-tops. We have mounted almost to the summit of the range, getting nearly to the level of the peaks above, but still toil upward after rounding the Point, and move along the side of a higher valley. Range after range of flat-topped and forest-covered mountains are around us, the magnificent spruce and pines standing everywhere. Fires have gone through in some places and scorched and blackened their trunks, while rough and broken stones strew the ground.
THE RHODODENDRON PARK
There are saw-mills up here, hid away in the woods, that cut this timber into boards for shipment. Great lumber-piles surround them. Whenever the train stops all the passengers stand up and look around, and so does the entire population of the mountain-top,-which is not numerous. Thus, in the midst of a forest, we cross the summit of the mountain, and rattle along at a quick pace on the level ground, the little cars surging and jumping about on the narrow road. Reaching Lloydsville, on the mountain-top, our little observation car, grandly named the " Val Halla," lands us at the Rhododendron Park. Here, among the laurel bushes, in this wild and romantic region on the top of the Alleghenies they have established a lovely picnic-ground, to which Altoona pleasure parties like to go. There cannot be imagined a prettier place than this Park. A little spring comes out of the rocks near the railway, and the brook flowing from it runs through a grove of enormous trees. The water is dammed into miniature lakes, into which little islands have been put, whereon sweet flowers grow. Rustic bridges have been thrown across the water, some of them merely the trunks of trees that lay just as the axe has felled them. A little fountain plashes into a rustic basin in front of a pavilion, where refuge can be taken from the rain-storms that sometimes come so quickly, and where there is a platform for the orchestra to lead the dance, or for the orator to exhibit himself upon. The cold spring-water supplies all the wants of the thirsty in this elevated elysium, and rustic tables are scattered under the trees, whereon the lunch-baskets can have their contents spread when the keen mountain air has created an early appetite.
Here on the top of the Alleghenies, in one of its wildest and loneliest parts, has been made this Paradise for the picknicker of " Little Blair" County. It is about eleven hundred feet higher than Bell's Mills, and probably two thousand three hundred feet above tide-water. The laurel bushes, some of immense size, surround the Park, and when all the rhododendrons are in full bloom it is a magnificent sight. Yet, how many Philadelphians know that such a place exists, or that it is within the compass of a few hours' journey from the Delaware?
SLIDING DOWN THE ALLEGHENY MOUNTAIN
When the time came to be reluctantly torn away from this beautiful spot we got on our little " Val Halla" again, and the locomotive came behind us and pushed the car out over the summit, so that we could go down the mountain by gravity. They don't usually run their trains this way, but this was done to show how easy a thing it is to slide down the mountain.
Passing the summit, the locomotive stopped and then went back to Lloydsville after the rest of the train. Then we began running down the mountain, around the curves and through the woods and over the trestles, at times attaining high speed. The sensation, as our little car danced along the track, was startling at times, but Mr. Superintendent Ford held the brake, and we felt confidence in his wish not to have crape hung out on the Ledger building just yet. As we passed swiftly by the wild-flowers on the hill-side and the profusion of coal that has been dropped from the cars along the roadway, and gradually emerged from the forest, the grand view far away down the valley and across the mountains opened before us. We came out around Point Lookout, and if we had run off the track, would have crashed a thousand feet down the precipice.
The sensation was startling. We halted a moment on the br ink and looked far away over the deep valley of Laurel Run and among its surrounding mountain-peaks, the view being closed in the distance by the gray sides of Brush Mountain, seven miles away. The stream could be heard purling along in the valley as we stopped to pick the huckleberries overhanging the railway. Then we started again on the slide down this exciting hill, with the railway winding far ahead of us, a long, twisting streak beneath our feet, over on the other side of the valley. As the car rushes along, the mountain air blows sharply in our faces, and thus we cross Shaw Run trestle, ninety feet high, with the brook running beneath, and the timber-cutters rolling logs down the hill-side.
Again we stop a moment after an exciting race down a piece of straight track, to show how completely the car is under control. Everything around is silent, excepting the running of the water in the valley below. We turn around and look backward across and far up the valley to Lookout Point, where a locomotive with a train of coal-cars is winding snake-like along the streak of roadway to make a long chase after us down the hill. But it will have to run three miles to catch us, and we start up again, and through the woods and down the hill and around the curves at high speed, with the cloud-shadows floating over the mountain-side and the cold air fanning our beaming faces. Crossing the curved Collier trestle five stories high, we run high above the saw-mill in the valley. Up on the mountain, far over our heads, a venturesome farmer has planted a field of wheat in a little clearing among the trees. In the lower part of the valley, as we run down towards it, there are several farms, with corn growing, the land being cleared to a considerable extent. Approaching Bell's Mills again, the smoke of the passing trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad can be seen, spreading upward apparently against the dark side of Brush Mountain. We rush at high speed down a stretch of straight track along the sloping bottom of the valley. The car runs by gravity all the way out to the end of the road, where they have a pretty little brick church near the station among the trees, and plenty of flowers growing on the sloping sides of the Pennsylvania Railway embankment. Few people know of this extraordinary gorge up the Alleghenies, yet here it is, combining most of the glories and grandeur and all of the exciting sensations of Mount Washington or the Rigi Kulm. It is not got up on such a prodigious scale, perhaps, but for the mountain-climber it presents that great desideratum for all beginners,-a little one to learn on.
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