Marginal Pennsylvania

text and photos copyright 1999 j.b. krygier

An abandoned and collapsing brick oven at a refractory near Winburne, PA (Centre County). Clay for bricks, and especially fire bricks (used to line the inside of blast furnaces) is found near the coal which was mined in this area. This particular refractory was abandoned in the 1950s and reopened in the 1970s with a loan from a regional development council, intended to bring jobs to stressed and marginal places in central Pennsylvania. The refractory is now closed and the individual who reopened it in the 70s (and subsequently went bankrupt) is suing the regional development council for giving him the loan.

A "dragline" at a bituminous coal strip mine near Clarence, PA (Clearfield County). The dragline is huge, the cab as big as a two story house and the scoop large enough to hold a small car full of trespassing geographers. This particular machine seemed quite old and in poor condition. The coal being mined was marginal at best - sulfury and in limited quantities. Marginal strip mining operations such as this one are common in this area of Pennsylvania. Local companies, usually employing no more than a few employees, take advantage of infrastructure (such as the dragline) which is in place (eg., it is not worth moving very far) and paid for, low wage labor (in a marginal place where there are few jobs and it is not expensive to survive), and marginal coal.

Tombstone of Mary and Antonio Fiasco in Madera, PA (Clearfield County). Madera is a bituminous coal mining town which "prospered" in the early part of this century. Most of the miners in the area were from ethnic groups which emigrated to America in the late 1800s, particularly Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Russians. Other names in this cemetery include Zapsky and Vanish. A nearby cemetery, maintained by The Nativity of The Theotokos Orthodox Church ("formed by a group of Orthodox faithful that was unhappy with attending the Byzantine Catholic church in Ramey" [Allen Harchak]) contains tombstones entirely in Cyrillic, reflecting the region's Carpatho-Rusyn heritage. (thanks to D. Zapsky and A. Harchak for additional information)

A crushed playground slide in Robertsdale, PA (Huntingdon County). Robertsdale was one of the larger towns in the Broad Top Mountain bituminous coal region in south-central Pennsylvania. The area is distinguished by the Broad Top Railroad and its narrow gauge rails which brought coal off of the Broad Top and down to iron mills in nearby Mount Union. The Broad Top Railroad is at the center of an effort to revitalize the economically marginalized Broad Top area by taking advantage of its industrial history. The Broad Top Railroad rail yards (in Rockhill PA, 6 miles to the east of Robertsdale) have been developed into a minor tourist attraction, and a train runs on part of the narrow gauge rails. Robertsdale, up on Broad Top Mountain, is connected to Rockhill by the Broad Top rails, but a tunnel along the route has collapsed. Much money and effort would be required to connect Robertsdale to the Rockhill/Broad Top RR tourist attraction, and Robertsdalians are attempting to do so. However, the prospects of revitalizing Robertsdale as a tourist attraction seem bleak, and it continues to decline. The town park, where the photo was taken, has been abandoned.

Abandoned Sideling Hill Tunnel along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Waterfall and Hustontown, PA (Fulton County). Now a recreation trail under development "Pike 2 Bike." The famous Pennsylvania Turnpike was constructed in the 1930s and served as one of the primary precursors to the modern interstate highway system. The Turnpike followed the route of a railway proposed by the New York Central line in the late 1800s to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad. This route across southern Pennsylvania, and its numerous tunnels, were abandoned by the New York Central RR after about 3/4 of the route was complete. Over the years the tunnels along the Pennsylvania Turnpike have been widened from the original two-train-tracks-wide width to accomidate the four-lane divided turnpike. Sideling Hill Tunnel, at a mile and a quarter, is one of the longest tunnels. The tunnel (along with another tunnel and approximately 15 miles of the turnpike) were abandoned in the 1960s when the cost of widening the tunnels was found to be higher than bypassing the whole area. The current Turnpike passes above the Sideling Hill Tunnel on top of Sideling Mountain. The abandoned (and closed-up) tunnel and turnpike is now part of Buchanan State Forest. For more on the old RR route through this region see

Abandoned Viaduct railroad bridge over the dead (acid mine drainage) Moshannon Creek near Clarence, PA (Centre County). The Viaduct bridge was abandoned in the 1970s and is now part of a proposed Rails to Trails recreation trail. Biking enthusisasts from "cosmopolitan" State College (12 miles south) support the creation of the trail, while local residents in this depressed area are opposed to it. Local residents ride motorcycles and all terrain vehicles on the abandoned rail corridor, and understand that the creation of an official Rails to Trails will prohibit them from using the corridor as they wish (Rails to Trails recreational trails prohibit motorized vehicles). Trail supporters argue that the trail will bring more people and money into the depressed area, but locals don't see this as something desirable, particularly if they have to give up using the areas abandoned landscapes as they wish.

Three buildings on their way down in three places on their way down - near or in Janesville, Black Moshannon, and Keating PA. Janesville was coal, Black Moshannon and Keating were lumber. Buildings in marginal Pennsylvania ooze their way down, slowed only by the hunters who sometimes appropriate such buildings for camps or the original sturdy construction. The third building (Keating) is still occupied.

Lopez Pennsylvania (in Sullivan County) was a boisterous lumbering town in the latter half of the 1800s and has settled into semi-respectable decline since the early part of this century. Rabid patriotism is one endearing characteristic shared by some declining and marginal towns. Lopez's town park reflects this tendency nicely, with its promotional display of abandoned military hardware.

Lots of junk along the road near Whiteside, PA (Clearfield County). While some may sputter at such displays of debris as outrageously unaesthetic, such accumulations have their purpose - as spare parts and resources for people living at the economic margins. One characteristic of such "piles" of stuff is that they are always, if only bit by bit, shifting and changing and moving around, evidence that they are used and is useful. Forcing Whitesideans to remove this useful accumulation only removes one more resource from their grasp. On the other hand, some of this is probably only junk...

Acres of broken glass near Gillintown PA (Centre County) and piles of tires near Houtzdale PA (Clearfield County). The glass is both amazing and inexplicable, filling several acres of an abandoned strip mine. It is particularly stunning on a sunny day. The tires are the detritus of local strip mines.

The above two images resulted in a family reunion! Nancy Gates ( has written an article about this so contact her if you want more information.

The famous "Whaleback" anticline near Shamokin PA (Northumberland PA). Exposed by strip mining, the whaleback is quite large and distinctive. The rocks on top of it are the size of cars. A favorite for geology and physical geography field trips, and a hangout for local teens who leave behind beer cans and used condoms. The mined out areas in this region serve many purposes - illicit recreation, motorbiking, illegal dumping, etc. No matter how marginal the landscape, someone is around doing something (sometimes illegally) raising important questions about how such marginal landscapes are actually used.


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