It was late in the day, just a few hours before sunset, but we wanted one last adventure. Early April is fickle and this day was no exception. The day had dawned warm and bright, warm enough to wear shorts, but clouds had moved in, filtering the sun along with a stiff wind. We drove on, passing small town after small town, joking “don’t blink…”, seemingly always following one train track or another. Soon we reached our destination, Jacks Narrows. The Juniata River cuts the mountain, Jacks Mountain, in two creating a rugged and wild looking area. The highway and numerous train tracks join the river, all three rushing through the narrows. But we stopped and, looking up at the two mountains that rose almost 2000 feet above us on either side, we could feel the timelessness of the location. We knew that we were about to embark on a unique hike!
Thousand Steps. That is the name of the hike located in central Pennsylvania. The hike is near nothing; just between two small towns on the way to more small towns. But, the area is full of history. Mainly, not surprisingly, mining history. The area is the site of two old mining towns where sand was the main mineral they mined.
A historical marker at the base of the steps indicates that this area was known as the “Silica Brick Capital of the World” because of the bricks made from the sandstone found in these narrows. Miles of railroad track was used to bring the silica down from the mountainside quarries. In 1936 there was a flood that wiped out the bridge across the river to the town of Mount Union and it’s brick factories. So, as the bridge was being replaced, the workers, needing something to do, built the steps into the mountainside to make their climb up and down the mountain easier. These steps are now a very popular hike. Some of the original miners actually helped in the restoration process of the stairs, relying on their memories to help reposition the rocks into the staircase. You’ve got to wonder what they thought about people hiking for fun what was once their route to start and end a hard day of work.
So, up up up we went. As you have probably guessed, the trail has 1000 steps. Actually, more than that. One website says 1,043 steps. We counted 1036 steps. I guess it all depends where you start and what you consider a step! The late afternoon sun shone on us, quickly heating us up, as we climbed one step after another. Someone has numbered every 100th step which was fun and motivating to find. The older kids raced ahead, bounding effortlessly past adults catching their breath on the side of the trail.
My three year old was determined to do the climb all by herself, so the two of us lagged behind as she often had to literally climb, hands and knees, up onto a bigger stone. Every once in awhile I grabbed her hands and swung her up onto the next step in attempts to speed things up a bit, but she was not happy with that!
History was everywhere on this short hike. A train track had been built into the side of the mountain to allow the sandstone to be brought down to the narrows below. All that is left now are flat stretches circling the mountain that we would reach every few hundred steps. A short level spot in our continued quest up. The steps themselves contained clues from the past as well in the form of fossils. Worm castings and petrified plants everywhere! We soon reached the end of the stairs and a short hike around the mountain on one of those old train tracks led us to a stone building that was used to store and repair the trains. From the building we could also see the side of the mountain we had just climbed.
Many people turned around at this point but we continued on, up some more stairs (groan!), and around some more of the mountain to an overlook.
The sun was mainly behind clouds at this point and on this side of the mountain the wind was blowing hard. From here we could see the towns far below. Old mining towns which many of the original miners perhaps had lived, their houses facing the mountain that they, day by day, chipped away and hauled pieces of down to the valley far below. The cold wind cut short our revere and we quickly turned around and began our trek down the stairs.
My three year old decided to count every stair on the way down. Unfortunately, she can only count to 29! She counted to 29 about 50 times then began counting from 50 to 69 numerous times and finally just kept counting from 10 to 1 backwards over and over again. Every step was counted! We arrived at the bottom with weak shaky legs, smiles on our faces, and a new appreciation of what the workers here had done every day!
Featured Writer: Heather Goyette