The Ghost Town Trail primarily follows the meandering Black Lick Creek between Ebensburg and Black Lick, while also turning north from Vintondale along the creek’s North Branch for a few miles. These rights-of-way, the former owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and built with subsidies, and the latter by short line Cambria & Indiana, were constructed between the late 19th and early 20th centuries to tap the region’s immense coal and timber reserves. The PRR in particular eventually owned an array of secondary trackage located west and north of Cresson. These lines became so busy, the railroad would break them into a separate division known as the Cambria & Clearfield Division. Later, it folded into the much larger Allegheny Division. The tracks along Black Lick Creek remained in use for many decades and were finally abandoned in stages from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Much of the Ghost Town Trail uses the former corridor of the PRR, referred to as the Black Lick Branch, running 37 miles between Ebensburg Junction and Black Lick. The massive Pennsylvania grew into one of the largest and most powerful railroads of all time, stretching some 10,000 route miles from New York to Chicago. In late 1852, it was opened between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and soon after operated an all-rail route from the Big Apple to the Windy City. According to Albert Churella’s book “The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume 1: Building an Empire; 1846-1917,” the PRR’s efforts to focus on opening its through-routes strained financial abilities early on to construct or acquire branch lines that would feed freight traffic to them. As a result, many of the state’s first coal roads later acquired by the PRR were initially planned and funded by local interests.
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By the early 1860s, the Pennsylvania was becoming more involved in these projects and continued to do so through the end of the 19th century. Such was the case in the counties of Cambria and Indiana, where the PRR came to own a significant amount of trackage for the purpose of tapping the area’s considerable bituminous coal reserves. These lines were built or owned by several subsidiaries, such as the Cambria & Clearfield, Cresson & Irvona, and Ebensburg & Black Lick (E&BL). The latter, incorporated on January 18, 1893, is part of today’s trail. The E&BL branched west from Ebensburg at Ebensburg Junction and opened to Vintondale, 17.5 miles, on October 22, 1894. On August 1, 1903, the E&BL was consolidated with several other systems to form the Cambria & Clearfield Railway (C&C). A year later, the C&C completed the line from Vintondale to Black Lick, where it interchanged with another PRR subsidiary: the Western Pennsylvania Railroad. The C&C subsequently merged into the PRR on March 31, 1913.
Interestingly, the small hamlet of Vintondale became somewhat more than just the halfway point along the Black Lick Branch (sometimes referred to as the Black Lick Secondary). It was also located near the interchange with the Cambria & Indiana Railroad (C&I) at Rexis, and this particular right-of-way is now part of the Ghost Town Trail’s northern segment. The C&I traces its roots back to the Blacklick & Yellow Creek Railroad (B&YC), chartered on June 15, 1904, as a division of the Vinton Lumber Company. The B&YC’s primary purpose was to move logs cut along the North Branch of the Black Lick Creek, hauling them to the mill near Vintondale. It originally ran between Rexis and Pine Flats (Manver Station). After only a few years of service, the lumber company picked up operations and moved to Kentucky, selling the railroad to private owners J.H. Weaver and B. Dawson Coleman in 1910. These individuals were deeply invested in the coal business and intended to use the railroad for just that purpose. It was renamed as the Cambria & Indiana Railroad on April 20, 1911.
Over the next few years, the C&I slowly expanded operations to reach Colver, Nanty-Glo, and Revloc, eventually creating a total system of 59 miles, including all yard and spur trackage. After 1922, the original owners of the C&I parted ways, and ownership of the short line was split among various parties. In 1950, Bethlehem Steel became majority owner and later acquired full control of the operation. The C&I relied on coal for the bulk of its freight but did handle whatever traffic it could, even providing passenger service until scheduled trains were discontinued in late 1931. Coal, of course, was also the main stable of traffic for the PRR’s Black Lick Branch, aside from its interchange with the C&I. Both railroads continued operating along the creek until massive flooding heavily damaged their respective rights-of-way in July 1977. The C&I’s Rexis Branch was particularly hard hit, and it was later abandoned, laying fallow until eventually turned into today’s trail (rails were removed in 1984).
As for the Black Lick Secondary, by the time of the flood, Conrail owned the property. Conrail was a government-created railroad created to take over the bankrupt Penn Central and which formed in 1968 through the merger of New York Central and Pennsylvania. The line was heavily damaged west of Nanty Glo and eventually abandoned by the carrier in 1982. In 1994, the C&I discontinued all remaining operations, and Conrail sold its remaining trackage west of Ebensburg to short line R.J. Corman. The latter continued operating until December 1997 when it applied to abandon 9.6 miles between Ebensburg Junction and Milepost 16 near Nanty-Glo.
Railroad attractions in Pennsylvania include: the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site and Tunnel Park & Museum in Gallitz; Bellefonte Historical Railroad in Bellfonte; Electric City Trolley Museum and Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton; Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia; Greenville Railroad Park & Museum in Greenville; Harris Switch Tower Museum in Harrisburg; Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark near Altoona; Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East; Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe; Ma & Pa Railroad Heritage Village in York; Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad in Middletown; National Toy Train Museum, Strasburg Railroad, and Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg; New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in New Hope; Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad in Titusville; Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington; Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine & Steam Train in Ashland; Portage Station Museum in Portage; Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona; Reading Railroad Heritage Museum in Hamburg; Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace; Tioga Central Railroad in Wellsboro; Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern Railroad in Kempton; and the West Chester Railroad in West Chester.