Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Thousand Steps Trail allows hikers to follow in the footsteps of 1930s quarry workers

There is a challenging hike down in Huntingdon County that may seem intimidating, but is well worth the effort. Even the name of the trail is somewhat daunting — Thousand Steps.

That name is fitting – the trail consists of 1,037 rocky steps that were placed into the side of a mountain by quarry workers in the 1930s. The hike combines wonderful views with local history, and every trip up those steps comes with a great sense of accomplishment.

On a clear June afternoon, I drove out to hike the steps with my dog, Peggy. The trailhead is located along Route 22, between Mapleton and Mount Union.

Parking at the Thousand Steps trailhead can be a little dicey, as it is basically just a pull-off along the side of the busy highway. Kids and pets should be watched closely, and I made sure to secure Peggy tightly as we made our way from car to trail. Signs point hikers up a steep section of trail, past a spring that leaks out of the foundation of an old building, to the start to the famed Thousand Steps.

The Thousand Steps Trail is a section of the 80-mile Standing Stone Trail that links the Tuscarora Trail to the Mid State Trail. The trail is part of the 1,800-mile Great Eastern Trail, which starts at the Florida-Alabama line and extends to the 950-mile Finger Lakes Trail in New York.

The hike up the steps is only a half-mile long. Adding a few walks to some interesting features on top of the quarry and the trip back down, we were looking at a 2-mile hike. That does not mean it was easy; after all, it is 1,000 steps.

A sign at the trailhead shares some of the history of the steps, and it is amazing to think about it all. The abundant reserves of ganister, a Tuscarora sandstone, located in the area once made it known as the “Silica Brick Capital of the World.” The heat-resistant bricks and other refractory products produced by HarbisonWalker were crucial to the steel, iron, glass, and railroad industries.

Between 1900 and 1952, the company had quarries on both sides of Jacks Narrows with an elaborate dinky railroad system and six inclined planes that were used to transport the ganister to the refractory. At its peak, the refractories in Mount Union employed 2,000 people and produced an estimated 500,000 silica bricks per day.

In 1936, a flood destroyed some of the infrastructure along the Juniata River and brick production was slowed to repair it. During this time, HarbisonWalker employees constructed the steps as a way for workers to get safely to the Ledge Quarry at the top of the mountain.

Looking up at the steep rocky staircase, it is impossible not to think about those rugged, hard-working souls who climbed those steps every day just to start their real work in a rock quarry. It’s hard to comprehend. There are some days that climbing the two sets of stairs to my office is a challenge, and that is so I can sit in a climate-controlled space and write. I climb mountains for fun, not to get to work every day.

Public access to the steps was almost lost in 1997, but a group called the Save Our Steps Committee rallied support and the Thousand Steps was saved.

“The Thousand Steps has long been a source of local pride as people in the community reflect on the daily sacrifices earlier generations put forth to provide for their families,” says George Conrad III, president of the volunteer group the Standing Stone Trail Club, which works to maintain and promote the trail. “For visitors today, one of the main draws to the Thousand Steps is putting oneself in place of the workers’ daily hike up Jacks Mountain only to work a long day in Ledge Quarry. Experiencing a quarryman’s difficult commute helps people put their own life into perspective and is an important reminder of our past.”

With those thoughts in mind, Peggy and I were ready to get going, so we started up the steps, one foot in front of the other – well, for Peggy it was more like two feet in front of the others – on our way to the top. Most of the steps are spread out nicely, but some higher steps require a little more flexibility and balance, especially with my short legs.

Peggy and I spend a lot of time climbing mountains, so we are accustomed to gaining verticality quickly, but there is something different about climbing up one step after another. It is hard and very steep. Before we even hit the 100-step mark, I was feeling it in my legs. Peggy navigated the steps smoothly, but I could see a smaller dog struggling to get up some spots.

As we climbed, we came to clearings looking out over the landscape below. Trains rolling down the rail line next to the river could be heard in the distance, harkening back to the area’s industrial past.

Every 200 steps or so, the trail broke off into flat areas, giving us a little bit of respite. It was fun coming across people making their way up or down the steps and taking a break to talk about their hike. I think that is the key to a hike like this; try to take your time and enjoy your surroundings. 

There is a mark every 100 steps to show how far you have climbed, and at first they serve as a reminder that you still have a long way to go. But, before you know it, you hit step number 700 and it all seems doable. My legs were burning when we finally saw 1,000 marked on a step, and since I had done this hike before, I knew not to be fooled – there are still 37 steps to go.

I was huffing and puffing as we finally reached the ledge of the old quarry. But the climb is worth the view, which stretches far and wide across the narrows and the Juniata River below.

One-thousand-thirty-seven steps up 850 feet is a lot of work, but what a great payoff. My mind drifted to those old quarry workers as we took a 0.3-mile flat trail along the ledge to a vista that overlooks Mount Union. The view of the town was limited because of overgrowth, but it was still beautiful.

About two-tenths of a mile past the steps in the opposite direction is the old abandoned Dinky House that remains in remarkable condition. Sadly, the walls do sport quite a bit of graffiti, but the structure is yet another reminder of the work that was done here. The Standing Stone Trail continues, and there is a view of Mapleton about a half-mile further up the trail that is worth seeing. But on this day, we decided to head back down the steps.

Peggy was hot, and rolled in a mud puddle to cool off, so I figured I better get her back down to the spring for a drink – and a makeshift bath.

Going down the steps is much easier than climbing up them, but it is still difficult, and you have to be mindful of your footing. The people we passed who were going up looked at us with envy and laughed at Peggy covered in mud.

Because I was doing a lot less huffing and puffing, I was able to enjoy the views and rocky alcoves we passed more on the way down. I imagined it must have felt pretty good to those old quarry workers also, their day over and headed home.

For more information about the Thousand Steps and Standing Stone trails, visit standingstonetrail.org.

Staff writer Vincent Corso, an avid hiker, is highlighting some of the area’s best trails this summer and fall.