Thursday, January 9, 2020

PA Susquehannock State Park: Landmarks

Not to be confused with Susquehanna State Park (MD DNR) downriver in Maryland, Susquehannock State Park (PA DCNR) is my closest state park in Pennsylvania. It is just across the river from where I live and is my go-to place for a few hours walk, hike, or sit. It may have been the site of my awakening into environmental history many years ago. There are the ruins of old farms and a pioneer homestead that date back 200 years or more. I know all the landmarks that identify the old places.

I've always been fascinated by the old foundations here, how these steep country places were built, and of what materials gathered from the area.  Unlike farms up on the plateau where soils are deep and rich, those trying to make a living by farming in the valleys of the river hills was hard. Abandonment is the human constant here and back when nothing else could be gained from the thin soils and cut-over forests, the land came under the control of the park service.

Thomas Neel's place. 

I had a friend visit from France and in her travels from state to state on her U.S. road trip she bemoaned the sameness of our built landscapes as chain store blight that screams out "Buy Here!" for unending miles. I agreed. We've lost and continue to lose the ability to save the distinctiveness of our communities and the landmarks that identify where you are as unique. Maneuvering up and down the challenging Rhododendron Trail, I thought about the landmarks that stand out from the forest to say "We Were Here!" and how I know precisely where I am.

Cut-stone pit hearth.

The trail passes by the foundation of the cabin that Revolutionary War veteran Thomas Neel built down in the ravine. He was deeded this land of 99 "vacant acres" in 1787 in exchange for his service.  I can imagine Thomas coming to this place in its tranquility and solitude above the river and the hard work it took to carve a small farm from the land. He married Margaret and they raised two sons. He purchased more vacant land and his sons Thomas and Hugh inherited over 300 hundred acres upon his death in 1847. Both were already living up on the high land working on farms nearby and the original farmstead was allowed to return to woodland.

The cabin foundation contains a well-built stone corner-square wall that supported what was surely a large hearth and chimney. A set of stone stairs descends into a basement root cellar. I swished around in the cold water of the walled spring and found a shard of a hand-painted saucer. It's tiny flowers and delicate fabric must have made it a treasure of Margaret's. The water is clean and I drank straight from it, cold, refreshing, burbling out from the side of the hill.

 A line of old trees grow out to their sides and are relics of when sunlight was abundant and the competition of other forest trees was at a minimum. A gigantic beech marks an intersection where the wagon road branches off the foundation and spring and becomes a side path leading to other remnants of the Neel farm. The other branch ends at what may have been a ford though only livestock would have made it up the opposite slope. No path wider than a horse or cow continues on up but it is still a hiking trail and branches off the Rhododendron Trail to the north.

One of our winter fruiting  mushrooms Flammulina velutipes, Velvet Stalk. 

There's a pride of place here, of hand built function and form. The wagon road is the park trail and I saw people stop and admire the foundation of drystack stones and the blankets of moss that cover them. The outflow from the spring fans out across a flat shelf of land through what might have been the kitchen garden and seeps wet and boggy into the steep chute of a tiny stream that first shows itself below the branched trail.

A tiny stream gathers waters from springs and begins its drop to the river.

There is nothing arbitrary about this little place. Everything is purpose built and sited well. It was a neat and functional farm that served Thomas Neel for all of his 50 years here. He passed at 80, no doubt still as independent as the country he helped create. It is a real place, not a carbon copy of a hundred look-alikes that define our residential developments today. It retains the character of the family that once lived here as people who had to make decisions based upon what was available to them.

The build-around that Thomas Neel laid to contain the spring.

The next landmark is a small cut-stone hearth below the cattle ford. There are no foundations but surely it served as a place near the stream to clean, steam, dry, smoke, or cook foods to be stored at home. Three heavy end-cut blocks of  stone each show the marks of a chisel to size them, but I wouldn't called these dressed stones. The wide path ends with only the slightest hint of a foot trail that proceeds roughly down between slippery roots and slanted rocks then it must climb again. To go further down along the stream would be a risk I'm not up for today. The walls of the ravine close in and the stream tumbles headlong towards the railroad tracks below, splashing into the Susquehanna. A very faint disused trail continues along the steep slop down that way and was maybe the path that the family took to access the river for fishing.

A very faint trail heads to the river, no longer in use but still visible.

The landmarks are now natural. There are jutting outcrops of rock and slender, wooded promontories of ridge line that extend plank-like towards the river. The trail shows signs of maintenance crews clearing away fallen trees and stabilizing the steep bits with stone water bars and switchbacks. Because the aspect has changed and there is more sun and warmer ground, the rhododendrons are left behind in the cool shadowy fold of the ravine while pines, oak, and hickory appear.

Modern hiking trail leads upward out of the ravine.

Though the farmstead is behind me there is still a sense of place, a uniqueness of stone and wood, soil and view. These are the outcrops that supplied the building materials for the Neel place and a view of the river to which they walked on steep slanted paths during spring runs of shad and perch. It's a workout walking uphill on an angle and my thighs and calves hurt for two days after. I'm looking down at my boots trying to stick each step and I notice charcoal mixed in with the leaf litter. Fires have raced across the flanks of this hill for millennia. White pines stand like lightening rods on the razor edge height of the hill and wind sighs through their needle crowns. No place to be in a storm.

A YooHoo bottle terrarium 

The place doesn't feel trapped or frozen like a living history site or museum. The ruins and the rugged castle-top of the hill are living components to an ever-changing landscape. Someday the ruins will be buried under detritus and the open hearth may wash away as flash floods down these ravines intensify. The ridge line will erode further and tons of stone will spill down slope into the stream. Each ravine has had its own industry, settlers, prehistory, and natural story. The ridges have their own stars and moon at night and their shadows aren't drowned by light pollution.

Ridge promontory with sapling holly and pine. 

The river hills region of the Lower Susquehanna is challenging but beautiful terrain, With abundant legal and environmental protections in place there will be no smoothing out of its features on which to place housing developments or strip malls. It can't be commercialized or homogenized. I'm glad I can find the old landmarks that tell me I'm in Thomas Neel's old neighborhood.


Lancaster History has digitized most of its property records that pre-date the Revolutionary War. These are valuable and accessible resources for tracking down the history of old farmsteads. Thomas Neel and his family are documented with first deeds to the land as compensation for his service to his (new) country in property records accessed online.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

PA Enola Low Grade Railroad

This was my first hike of 2020 and my last hike of 2019. The Enola Low Grade Railroad Trail stretches from the banks of the Susquehanna River at the base of Turkey Hill inland to Quarryville in Lancaster County, PA, for about thirty miles. I did this trail in sections over a few months, all of it with my trusty hiking companion, Amos the Minor Prophet. Since all of our section hikes (4) were out-and-back we doubled our distances walked to 60 miles.

Amos the Minor Prophet mugging for the camera at MM16.

It's a new rail trail so most people are just discovering it and for all four hikes I met very few people using it. Most of the time I had it to myself for hours on end. While parts of it are still under construction or receiving new car parks and kiosks, the two grand trestles are either unfinished or vandalized over the Pequea and Conestoga Rivers so it seems a bit disjointed. Even so, the Enola Low Grade Line was a engineering marvel for its time and for all its distance to Atglen, PA, it never exceeded a 1% incline meaning it is very flat. Some critics on AllTrails have called it boring or given it one star out of five. But for the history and rural landscapes in view all around, we strode on.

Parts of the ELG Trail are still getting set up, like this car park area with big new sign, picnic tables, and garden. 

Constructed between 1903 and 1906, it was hailed as a victory over the deep, hilly terrain of western Lancaster County. Hundreds of Irish, German, and Polish immigrant laborers blasted through dangerous rock beds to level the passage while other sections were built upon giant expanses of rock fill. Newly developed heavy equipment like steam shovels and bulldozers were employed in the effort, marking a technical first for railway construction. Many, many lives were lost in its construction, especially during the deep, steep gouging of river hills bedrock. Over a hundred years later it still feels raw, walking through an immense gash in the land.

 New rail steam shovels were put to use but much of the work was by pick and sledge hammer.

On New Year's Day Amos and I walked the twelve mile out-and-back from the new parking area at the Turkey Hill Nature Preserve to the ruin of the trestle at Safe Harbor over the Conestoga River. While I was gawking at the massive rock walls  some of which are still sliding down into the path, I was also birding to start my 2020 list. Bald eagles, tundra swans, and various hawks were the first to land on my list.  Soon crows circled overhead looking for those hawks to harass. Sparrows flitted in and out of the weedy vines that clung to the massive cliffs. My last birds were logged at the car park ready to head home. They were a lone Mourning Dove and a Raven. It struck me that these birds were the ones that Noah had sent out from the ark to look for land in the old Biblical story. The old stories are good for finding meaning so I pondered a bit on the dove and raven.

The Martic Trestle is a wonder to see from below...

Ever since I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2016 I walk with an ear open to the old stories. The images of birds were all along the Camino in carved relief, frescoes, paintings, floor tiles and mosaics, embroidered on vestments for mass, and of course, in real life, flashing their colors here and there or gliding, soaring overhead. I love most of all the vultures. I watched the great Griffon Vultures spin in crowded vortexes over the Pyrenees. Here along the Susquehanna I watched gatherings of Black Vultures rise on the warm thermals of air loudly jumping from their clifftop roosts. The Raven's throaty croaking caught my attention as she winged her way from the near shore to the far bank. I could hear her long after I lost sight of her. The Mourning Dove sat on a grassy patch foraging near my car.  It's easy to connect the birds with the old stories, whether they are Biblical, indigenous, folk, or ancient.

...but the walking deck was destroyed by arson fire in April, 2018.

While Amos was gulping down a bowl of water, I watched the Mourning Dove watch me. His soft gray feathers shimmered with pink, blue, and purple iridescence.  Noah observed that the Raven when he released it from the confines of the ark did not return. The Dove, however, came back twice. The first time she had nothing to show but the second time she carried an olive leaf in her bill. When he released her a third time she was gone for good. Somewhere out there was land, he thought. I could still hear the Raven a mile away as I watched the Dove. While he kept an eye on me, the Raven was happily adventuring in York County.

Rock climbers love this area, now legally open to their sport.

God was pleased with Noah's obedience and vowed to never again destroy the Earth. "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." (Genesis 8:21-22)  Well maybe God isn't doing much destroying these days, I thought, but we sure are and we're doing despite knowing full well the consequences of our actions.

Trestle over the Conestoga River where it empties into the Susquehanna River. 

"The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hands they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you green plants, I give you everything." (Genesis 9:1-3)  I looked at the mile-wide expanse of river piled up behind the Safe Harbor Dam. An enormous raft of white Snow Geese drifted towards it on the cold wind.  Whitecaps popped up on where just a few hours before the water was like glass. The Mourning Dove watched me as I put Amos' bowl away and gave him a good toweling off. "It's okay," I said to the bird, "Find your food. I won't eat you."

One of two remaining switchman's sheds.

Scott Russell Sanders writes in A Conservationist Manifesto (2009), " All beasts do live in dread of us, because we are clever enough to displace, capture, or kill every other species. Understood in this light, God's promise to Noah may be taken as a warning not to abuse our power. But the same words may also be read - and, in fact, have often been read - as justifying our utter dominion over nature. If every plant and animal was created to serve our needs, if everything has been given into our hands, then we may use the earth as we see fit. Read in this way, the passage becomes license to loot the planet." (pp.11-12)  n.

Safe Harbor Dam

As I loaded Amos into the car I thought of back on the morning walk tinged with some sadness as well as some pride.  The new line had been good for business in freight coming from Harrisburg going to Philadelphia or Wilmington. It was a technological wonder. It created jobs. The railway opened markets for producers and made goods available to those who would otherwise not have had them. All of this sounds so familiar today as do the consequences of progress-at-all-cost thinking. The building of the ELG completely altered or destroyed the rich natural tapestry of river hills and all the ecosystem benefits that went with them. Note on the walk: Look how they engineered the streams to cross over the tracks where the oil trains run...

Construction of Safe Harbor Dam, circa 1935.

The Susquehanna has centuries been both an obstacle and an important economic resource. It is still as wild as ever as evidenced by the damages done by seasonal floods. How many nineteenth century canal locks built during the 1800s  sit ruined, destroyed by the ice dams and raging currents at spring melt? The floods ended the canal era faster than the trains did. I paddled this river (on purpose) in April 1993 on one such flood. It lasted thirty days.  I drifted in the ice-mud-water-slush and was swept almost effortlessly from Cooperstown, NY, to Havre de Grace, MD. I thank my lucky stars every day that the Susquehanna saw fit to deliver me safely home but I am most thankful for having had the experience of witnessing it during flood. My ark, a fifteen foot long canoe, allowed me to live with and experience the importance of honoring the spring flood.  "Religion and biology instruct us," writes Sanders,  "to honor all life."

Construction of the Conestoga Trestle - note the sparse, nearly treeless landscape.

I began to look at the trail corridor as a testament to man's achievement and arrogance, a strange paradox if interpreted through God's vow that this is all ours. We can use Earth's resources as we wish.  Still there is the question of where the Raven went, even as Dove took his first tentative pokes at the grassy patch near the car. Maybe she found the other side to her wild liking and stayed. It is so much wilder on that side. Maybe Dove is working things out despite the traffic, fences, and construction debris on this side.  I replayed the entire 30/60 mile walk in my head. It wasn't all doom and gloom. All along the route there had been small conservation arks of wild places. There were wildflower  preserves, protected woodlands and groves, and designated wildlands. The ELG trail intersects natural lands held by the Lancaster Conservancy, Commonwealth Game Lands, conserved farm lands, township parks, nature preserves. (I've listed them in the Notes, below.)

The Conestoga Trestle today  - note the mature woodlands that cover the once-bare hillsides.

"Whether protected by government, trusts, or individuals, natural lands offer the last resort for other species as well for those of our own species who crave contact with wildness. These preserves need not be large to be valuable; every scrap of ground can serve as an ark," writes Sanders.  I looked at the dramatic historical photos (featured here) posted on the kiosk close to my car. The Dove was eating happily now, not bothered by my presence. The photos were both impressive and chilling. Like the flood story, there is paradox to the meaning of progress and technological advance. There is cost as well.

Construction of ELG along the Susquehanna before the back-flooding of the dam.

Blasting and rockfall killed many workers and destroyed the river hills in their path.

I must admit that I have been struggling with the overwhelming ecological consequences of progress. The fossil fuel industry born right here in Pennsylvania over a century ago, is one of the reasons that Australia is burning and millions of animals have perished. Once a mighty industrial state, Pennsylvania has spewed megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Combined with the industrial output of other states and nations the consequences include oceanic chemical imbalances, expansion due to warming, and changes in global current systems. The Arctic is literally wasting away as the atmosphere warms. Toxic chemicals are now found in the fatty tissues of every Arctic species including whales, seals, and polar bears Living things that cannot migrate or adapt are being lost at staggering rates. I stared at an old picture of a rock blast for a long time and wondered what on Earth we are doing. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. Many of the industrial technologies that have caused these effects were first employed right here in my home state.

Collapse and restraint.

Some folks want to blame our economic systems and I can understand why. The system under which our economy operates is rooted in the late Medieval restructuring of the commons that favored the ruling and wealthy classes. When European colonizers came to these shores they brought with them the ideas of ownership and enclosure, private property, and commodification of resources. Land and water no long provided livelihood for all but was replaced with an age of rapid exploitation that served proprietors and corporate entities. The labor of exploited people, the energies and lives of immigrants, the enslaved and indentured and poor, made rich men richer. It seems that these systems are on the brink of collapse as social inequities and environmental crisis reach crescendo. Will we envision new systems of that take into account the ideas of ecological economics and ecosystem services?

Rock climbing areas are popular on the ELG path.

Pennsylvania began to come around after a century of  unrestrained exploitation of resources as it was grimly apparent that we had incurred extensive biological and resource losses.  With the early stirrings of policy-based conservation in the Commonwealth in the 1920s, the nation saw some of the first large-scale land and water rehabilitation and restoration efforts made under Gifford Pinchot.  Regular folk at their township meetings formed conservation trusts and set aside forest and stream plots, even smack up against the railroads and dam constructions.  Martic, Manor, and Conestoga Townships continue to designate natural areas and these are forming important interconnected green corridors. I felt a bit better when I went to the other side of the kiosk and saw the flyers posted for the Lancaster Conservancy and Pennsylvania Audubon which were both having meet-ups this weekend at the Turkey Hill Preserve.

So while parts of our planet are burning, melting, and collapsing, there are some places somehow recovering. I find that for my own mental health I cling to the knowledge of these places for sanity's sake. I hope we are not too late as citizens of states and countries to build on our existing arks of conservation.  "Protecting the resources on which our wellbeing depends is a matter of prudence," says Sanders. The benefit is for all living things, a living planet, "a matter of justice." (26)

Manor Township preserve along the ELG trail.

Mosses and lichens  reclaim raw rock years after a rockfall. 

Pocket wetland in Eden Township

Staghorn Sumac really does have antlers as Amos soon discovered. 

Bald Eagle.

Turkey Vulture.

The Enola Low Grade Trail is still a raw gash across the land. It has a  lot of greening to do before it feels anything like natural habitat or landscape. More so the last five miles along the river with all its trappings of recent construction, chain link fencing, and a trestle poor repair. It was for me a little depressing but if I hadn't been so taken with the great cliffs and broad river I might not want to come back in spring when the Columbine on the cliffs blossoms and the Raven returns to her nesting crag.  The Raven and Mourning Dove launched me into a whole story-telling tableau of flood and ark and interpretations of what it means to be the dominate creature in this landscape.  I admit to sitting too long on the tailgate of my car reading Sanders while Amos anxiously awaited his ride home and the treats he knew were waiting for him.

Amos at the finish!

Without the two trestles to make the it continuous from Turkey Hill to Quarryville, the ENLG awaits its future as a long distance trail, but the four section hikes made it do-able as day hikes. Amos and I started our trek in October and finished on New Year's Day traversing time and distance to witness change writ large on this landscape.  It's also a hidden gem of connectivity that unites the efforts of townships to build small arks of conservation.

Looking forward to 2020!


More information the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail can be found here:

Scott Russell Sanders. A Conservationist Manifesto. Indiana University Press, 20009.

Conservation Areas that intersect/border the Enola Low Grade are from north to east (30 miles) - not all may be accessible from the trail but can be accessed close by:

  • Turkey Hill Nature Preserve, Manor Township
  • Turkey Hill Trails, Manor Township
  • Manns Run, Manor Township
  • Fisherman's Run, Chestnut Grove Natural Area, Manor Township
  • Manor Township Nature Preserve, Manor Township
  • Safe Harbor Nature Preserve, Manor Township
  • Safe Harbor Park, Conestoga Township
  • Safe Harbor Arboretum, Conestoga Township
  • Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, Martic Township
  • State Gamelands 288, Martic Township
  • Climbers Run Nature Preserve, Martic Township

The loss of the Martic Trestle to arson was a senseless crime in the spring of 2018. Martic and Conestoga Townships have pledged to rebuild and have both pledged $200K towards the effort. Additional grants and other funding to reach the $2.5 million estimate, however, has been a real struggle.