The History of the Railroad in Indiana County Part II

The manufacture of coke (from coal) began in Indiana County in 1886 and in November a railroad station named “Mikesell” for George A. Mikesell who erected the first coke ovens, was erected south of Homer City at what is now Graceton.

In 1866, a disastrous accident was narrowly averted in April when the “cow catcher” of a locomotive got caught in one of the boards of a narrow boardwalk on the railroad bridge over the Conemaugh River three miles west of Blairsville at a place called Social Hall.

The board walk was for the purpose of allowing railroad workers to cross the river.  The locomotive and some of the cars were derailed, with some of them projecting out over the edge of the bridge – a 72-foot fall if they had gone over.  There were 15 passengers aboard.

In 1867, another bridge over the river above Livermore was swept away in a flood a few days before Christmas.

Business was going well, J.M. Robinson reported that grain sent from the Saltsburg depot during the period of October 1, 1867, to January 31, 1868, was 49,376 bushels of wheat, oats, rye and ear corn, plus 232 bushels of clover seed.

In November 1870, the wooden bridge at Social Hall, with weather-boarded sids and sheet iron roof, 800 feet long, burned.

Beginning in 1881, WPRR began some major reconstruction of routes and building new ones.  An 8-mile extension from Blairsville through the Pack Saddle Gap on the northern (Indiana County) side of the Conemaugh River to Bolivar was begun early in October 1881 by Campbell and Bush of Altoona, contractors, employing 200 Swedes.

Western Pennsylvania Railroad Office Blairsville PA

The extension was completed in 1883 and at the same time a portion of the tracks west of Social Hall were realigned.  Other sections of the line were rerouted so as to reduce the distance between Blairsville and Allegheny City by 18 miles.

This involved enlarging the railroad tunnel below the present Conemaugh Dam, and changing the route through Saltsburg by building new tracks on top of the old canal towpath, then continuing on the Indiana County side of the Kiskiminetas River to Coalport (Edri).

Here the railroad crossed the river on another bridge and continued to Salina through a 1,400-foot tunnel.  Laying of rails on this new line began in Saltsburg in November 1882.  A new station was erected in Saltsburg in 1884.

During this time the Foster Coal Co. built a narrow-gauge connecting line from a tipple along the WPRR tracks at Coalport to its mine about a mile away. This was the first narrow-gauge railroad in Indiana County.

An item in the Indiana Times February 28, 1883, told of fighting at Coalport between a gang of Italian workers and Mr. Weaver, contractor on the Foster Coal Co. Railroad.  The dispute was over the deduction of railroad from Pittsburgh to the site from the wages paid to the Italians.  A constable assisted by a posse of twenty men arrested five or six workers.

In January 1882, the Indiana Times quoted from the Pittsburgh Commercial an item regarding the proposed Clarion, Mahoning & Pittsburgh Railroad Co. which was planning a line from North Warren to Pittsburgh by way of Plumville, Elderton, West Lebanon, Clarksburg and “near Saltsburg.”  This was no doubt very disturbing news to the Pennsylvania Railroad.

An editorial in the Indiana Times March 8, 1882, urged PRR to extend its lines from Indiana to Cherry Tree.  By then some of the businessmen of Indiana may have had second thoughts about the desirability of the PRR branch line ending in Indiana.

In June 1882, a meeting of Indiana businessmen was held in the office of General Harry White to consider building a narrow gauge railroad.  A.W. Wilson presided.  On motion of White, it was unanimously “Resolved, that it is the desire of the business men of Indiana that a narrow gauge railroad be built from Indiana to Reynoldsville via Punxsutawney.”

In July another meeting was held at the St. Elmo Hotel, Punxsutawney.  General White, G.W. Hood, and John W. Sutton spoke, “giving assurance that the business men of Indiana were in hearty sympathy with the project,” and letters to that effect were read from S.M. Clark, A.W. Taylor, A.W. Wilson, W.B. Hildebrand, W.B. Marshall, J.M. Thompson, and others.

J.R. Caldwell, a civil engineer, estimated the cost of construction at $7,000 per mile.  Another meeting was held August 1 in Marion and solicitation of stock subscriptions began afterward.  Some people, however, hung back, as reported in the Marion Independent December 23, 1882: “The majority of our citizens, as did many others…did not enter into the enterprise with much push, and this, no doubt, to a great extent led to the failure of the effort.”

Soon afterward (March 1883) the Independent reported that the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Railroad was surveying in Indiana County.  In July 1883, the first R&P train entered Punxsutawney. 

The entry of the R&P into Indiana County was delayed by financial problems.  In 1885 the railroad was sold at sheriff’s sale to Adrian Iselin, a New York banker who held a mortgage.  The sale was contested in court but the eventual decision favored Iselin.  All R&P property was transferred to him in March 1887, and the company was reorganized as the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad.

The Indiana Times had earlier (March 1883) reported that surveys were under way of four different railroads through Indiana County and that they would leave “Indiana high and dry.” In June 1883, a charter was issued to the Central Pennsylvania Railroad for a line from Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, through Blairsville and east of Indiana to Punxsutawney, 70 miles.

In August a corps of engineers for the railroad were running lines from Dixonville by way of Decker’s Point, Nashville and Locust Lane to Punxsutawney, and the Times informed its readers “It is said that the Pennsylvania railroad company will try to keep the B&O company (Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, backers of the Central) from building this road.”

Wooden Railroad Bridge in Saltsburg PA

In 1886, the Pennsylvania & Northwestern Railroad was completed from McGee’s Mills to Punxsutawney, going through Sidney and Hillman in the extreme northwestern corner of Indiana Country.  Regular service on this line began December 1, 1887.  This was the first railroad not controlled by PRR to enter Indiana County.

The second independent line to enter the county was the Clearfield & Jefferson Railroad.  By April 1889 there was a great activity along the route of the railroad from McGee’s Mills to Glen Campbell.  The object of the railroad was to open up the coal fields around Glen Campbell, Indiana County’s first mining town.  It was named for Cornelius Campbell, an Altoona railroad contractor, who built the railroad and was the first superintendent of the Glenwood Coal Co.

The first car of coal left Glen Campbell on October 21, 1889, to make the 9-mile trip to McGee’s Mills. By May 1892, two passenger trains a day were making the trip.

Surveys and plans for other railroads continued.  In September 1889, engineers were said to be surveying between Plumville and Marion for a railroad heading east from Butler.  In August 1890, a charter was issued at Harrisburg to the Saltsburg & West Lebanon Railroad, whose directors were all from Philadelphia.  In April 1894, lines were being surveyed in Young Township in the interest of the Beech Creek Railroad.  In September, the Indiana County Gazette spoke of a “battle royal” being fought between the projectors of the new Pittsburgh & Eastern Railroad and the PRR.

The PRR for its part had decided by 1890 that it could not ignore the threat from new lines.  The Cherrytree Record reported that a local wagon factory had received an order to build 500 wheelbarrows, and that the Cherry Tree Foundry had an order for 2,000 picks to be used in building a railroad to Cherry Tree.  The railroad was an extension of the PRR from Cresson through Spangler.

In March 1892, a heavy blast during construction threw rocks all over Cherry Tree.  One struck a young son of Vincent Tonkin, knocking out several teeth.  Another broke a horse’s leg and the animal had to be shot.

The first PRR passenger train entered Cherry Tree on April 25, 1893.

The PRR also eyed the old abandoned and partially graded line of the defunct Homer, Cherry Tree and Susquehanna Railroad.  In May 1890, J.M. Guthrie organized the Homer & Susquehanna Railroad, with the backing of PRR.  In December 1891, PRR engineers surveyed the route from Homer City to Two Lick Creek.  In March 1892, the Indiana Times announced that PRR would lay rails along the old right-of-way in the spring.  However, the work was delayed for some reason until January 1893 when tracks were laid for five or six miles to a coal operation.

From time to time plans also were made to extend PRR from Black Lick up Blacklick Creek.   Laying of tracks finally began in April 1894, but the line was not finished to Ebensburg until some time later.

By 1895, another PRR was being built from Robinson north of the Conemaugh River through Centerville to Johnstown following the tow path of the old canal.  Indiana County was on the verge of a major railroad boom and the PRR was soon to see some real competition.

In July 1896, rumors were afloat that the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad would construct a line into Indiana County.  By March 7, 1898 a contract for construction of a branch line from Punxsutawney to Indiana had been signed and BR and P was paying the landowners for rights-of-way.

At the same time, a subsidiary railway, the Allegheny and Western, had been organized (Jan. 22, 1898), and construction began on a line from Walston Junction near Punxsutawney southwest and west to Butler.  This railroad traversed the northwestern corner of Indiana County through West Mahoning Creek on a high steel bridge.

Passenger service began October 16, 1899.  In January 1900, a delegation of citizens from Smicksburg went to Butler to see railroad officials about a passenger station at Goodville.

During the last week of September 1900, a group of officials of the BR and P and of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Co. visited Indiana, according to the Indiana County Gazette.  Afterward they went to Pittsburgh and awarded Carnegie Steel Co. a contract for 2,500 tons of 80-pound steel rails at $26 a ton.

On February 21, 1901, the Gazette triumphantly announced “That Railroad is Surely Coming.”  The accompanying story stated the railroad would be built from Valier through Marion Center and that “Prominent members of the Board of Trade have very, good assurances…”

Construction began in 1902.  One of the major engineering projects was the boring of a tunnel through a hill in White Township just outside the Indiana Borough limits.  This work began on December 1, 1902.  

By early April 1903 tracks were laid as far as Marion Center, and by April 15 the track-laying crew of 300 men and a patent Holman tracklayer reached Home, PA.  In May, a regular passenger schedule was announced between Punxsutawney and Ernest:

Before the railroad could reach Indiana, however, problems developed at the tunnel.  Charles S. Streele, a civil engineer in charge of tunnel construction, suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle on July 10, 1903 when his foot was caught between two rails being dragged by a mule team.  Two days later about 10 feet of tunnel caved in.  Since it was a Sunday, no one was injured.

In August it was announced that the trains would run as far as the north end of the tunnel during Indiana County Fair Week, and from there a line of hacks would take passengers to the fair.

On September 2, the Gazette rejoiced that “The Tunnel Is Through The Hill” and “Today a mule can pass through from end to end of the tunnel.”  The Italian work gangs celebrated by coming to town parading and yelling.  “They may have drunk some beer, too. At any rate, they were very hilarious.”

It was hoped that “1903 will yet see trains running to Indiana over the BR and P” and that this would “connect the two sections of railroad that is almost complete from Blacklick to Punxsutawney.”

The celebration was premature.  Later in September there was another cave-in, and in October still another.  The Gazette noted that the hill contained no solid rock formations.  The tunnel would have to be arched with concrete.

Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971).