Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Under and Over Sideling Hill

Under and Over Sideling Hill
Fulton County, Pennsylvania

 Donnie at the Miller Homestead
(Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania)
It was the end of July and the summer was quickly slipping away.  My friend and teaching colleague Donnie Miller and I had planned an overnight trip west along Route 30, which was first known as the Forbes Road during the French and Indian War.  Several years ago I had traveled to the Sideling Hill section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which had been abandoned in 1968 and replaced by a thirteen mile bypass overhead.   As a graduate student traveling as part of a group studying the Forbes Road, we stopped our tour bus to hike to the entrance of the abandoned Sidling Hill Tunnel.  A few of us were able to penetrate about 100 yards into the darkness before being called back to the tunnel entrance.  As always, we were on a tight schedule, locked to the clock, and had to keep moving.  Several of us wanted to plan a return trip to the tunnel to hike all the way to the other side.  However, over time we lost touch and the return trip never happened until Donnie and I made plans for an overnight trek through Fulton County.  It was a two day tour for two history nerds.  What could be more fun?

Abandoned Turnpike Westbound Lane
I knew Donnie said he had hunted in the area but never realized before our trip that his family was originally from Fulton County.  We were traveling along the Turnpike when we ran into dead stop traffic from a possible accident, out of sight up ahead.  Luckily, we were right near an exit and Donnie knew the way.  We merged onto Route 30, previously known as the Lincoln Highway and named the Forbes Road during the French and Indian War.  We went over and around the mountains toward our destination following the historic roadway.  We passed one Pennsylvania Historic Marker after another, often pulling off the road to read them and follow the story west toward Pittsburgh.  Donnie knew the area in detail with many family members still living in the region.  We took a little side detour to drop in on his aunt to say hello in a town called Fannettsburg but unfortunately, she wasn't home.  He took me down the street to a square little home, which looked a little bigger than just a few rooms in size.  It turned out to be the home where his father was born.  The little white house has no interior plumbing and currently sits empty as a monument to a bygone era and the Miller family's heritage. 

Sideling Hill Tunnel / East Entrance
We made our way to Breezewood where Route 30, 70, and 76 all come together creating the perfect  traveler's pit-stop location.  The single road through this section of town catering to tourists, was flanked on both sides by hotels, motels, and endless places to dine in or out.  Evidence of the struggling economy was easy to see as several hotels and restaurants were closed down, vacant, or up for sale.  We pulled into a Hardees to try something different in the realm of fast food cuisine.  I hear Hardees are really big down south and we both thought it was good choice to fill our tank before going for a hike on the abandoned turnpike tunnel.  Our next step was to find where we could park to gain access to the Sideling Hill Tunnel.  It is difficult to find a road that has been officially abandoned for over 40 years.  Donnie came prepared with some paperwork he printed off the internet to help guide us to our destination.  Brian Troutman's detailed website, outlining abandon sections of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, turned out to be a great help. 

Abandoned Tunnel Midway Point
We traveled down a very narrow single lane road off the map toward a locked metal gate that blocked our progress any further.  Peering through the trees on our left, we saw a brief glimpse of a hidden ribbon of decaying concrete.  We parked the car on a narrow berm and sidestepped through the thick tree and brush line that marked the edge of the roadbed.  Once in the open, in the middle of what was left of the west bound lane, I could the see the access point nearby, where I had entered the site a few years earlier from the opposite side.  We took a drink, grabbed our gear and headed west past a large macadam space off to our right that had once been home to the Sideling Hill Cove Valley Travel Plaza.  The abandoned roadway had been used as a test site for new safety innovations, including the rumble strips designed to wake a driver who falls asleep at the wheel and begins to drift off the road, which are now in common use everywhere.  The road and tunnel were also considered as a storage space for military aircraft and weapons but remained empty of government surplus hardware.     

(Image Credit / Google Images)
It was a hot day and unlike hiking through the woods, there is no shade to protect you from the rays of the sun walking down a former highway.  We were glad that the weather this day was somewhat overcast, preventing the concrete below our feet from heating up excessively.  We walked about a mile without finding the tunnel entrance in sight.  It was interesting to see how nature was slowly consuming what man had left unmaintained.  How long would it take for the former highway to disappear from view altogether?  As we slowly rounded a slight curve to our right, the entrance to the tunnel suddenly came into sight off in the distance.  We were very hot by now and looked forward to the cooler temperatures inside the tunnel, which I remembered fondly from my last visit in the July heat.  We stopped just outside the mouth of the tunnel that had been decorated and defiled with multi-colored graffiti, which continued inside from one end of the tunnel to the other.  We explored the side rooms just inside the tunnel's mouth that once provided access to upstairs ventilation shafts and utility rooms.  The staircases had been removed to deny public entry and prevent accidents.

Sideling Hill Tunnel / West Exit 
We entered inside the tunnel and could barely see a small glimmer of light in the vast darkness being reflected on the distant concrete ceiling.   There are two tunnels you can travel through when hiking the stretch of abandoned turnpike roadway.  Just beyond Sideling Hill Tunnel and more abandoned turnpike roadway is Rays Tunnel, that continues the route on to Breezewood.  We didn't know it at the time but if we would have walked the entire length, we would have wound up back in Breezewood, a short distance away from the Hardees restaurant we had lunch an hour earlier.  The Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest of the two at 6,782 feet, well over a mile in length.  We continued walking in the darkness, occasionally turning on a flashlight to check for possible hazards in front of our pathway.  It was like walking on a treadmill because you had no real points of reference, giving the illusion you weren't moving at all.  In time, the faint light on the ceiling in the distance grew in size and added to the feeling of walking nowhere fast.  We could monitor our progress by watching spray painted number markers on the side walls that counted the sections of the tunnel.

 Tunnel Exit West Toward Breezewood
As we got closer and closer to the west end of the tunnel, the level of light continued to increase.  Water seepage fell from the concrete ceiling onto the floor and flowed out the end of the mouth of the tunnel outside.  The roadway continued on in the full light of day, down a gentle slope, rounding a bend, and disappeared from sight into the trees of the mountainside.  We took a few minutes to examine the mouth of the tunnel that was a flipped duplicate of the other side.  In a few minutes we did an about face and proceeded back east into the darkness.  We again turned off the flash light and allowed our eyes to adjust to the dimness of the man-made cave.  Several times we came to an abrupt stop when anticipating a pitfall of concrete debris just in front of our path.  However, when we checked out the hazard in front of us with the flashlight, it was always miniscule in scope, somehow magnified by the small amount of light.  Maybe I had read Edgar Allen Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum too many times, but I wasn't taking any chances.  The gloomy damp tunnel was certainly the appropriate environment for one of Poe's stories and we reverted to the flashlight to check our way as needed!          

 Deer Cross the Turnpike
We continued back east toward the light at the end of the tunnel... Sorry but I couldn't resist!  We came out the end and into the sunlight once again.  The trip back to the car seemed to go faster than our earlier approach to the tunnel entrance because we now could anticipate the distance we needed to travel.   The water bottles on ice in the cooler in the back of the car were also an incentive to speed our pace, as the sun was again making an appearance through the clouds.  As we approached the highway straightaway near the end of our hike, Donnie's keen hunting skills came alive again as he spotted several deer crossing the turnpike roadbed a short distance ahead of our position.  We had a little trouble finding the small opening in the thick treeline that granted us access at the start of our hike but we eventually found the narrow zig-zag path cloaked in greenery.  We got a nice cool drink and headed back on the road to continue exploring the rural beauty of Fulton County.  Just in case you were historically curious... Yes, the county is named in honor of Robert Fulton who was born in Lancaster County and is credited with successfully applying steam power to watercraft in his famous Clermont.  Why and what the area's connection to the famous inventor are remain a mystery to me?

 Donnie on Top of the World
We began making our way back east to Chambersburg, where we planned to stay the night at another one of Donnie's relatives.  The man has family connections all over this area!  Rather than get back on the turnpike, we decided to stay on Route 30, which was much more interesting to see and connected to history.  With Donnie's knowledge of the area, it was a fail safe decision.  After touring around for awhile, we headed back toward Sliding Hill Mountain.  Soon we were climbing the switchbacks toward the mountain top that General Forbes' engineers had constructed 250 years earlier during the French and Indian War.  As we reached the summit of Sliding Hill we were in the middle of Buchanan State Forest named for President James Buchanan who was born in the area but lived most of his life in Lancaster.  The forest is named in honor of the 15th President of the United States and the only person to serve the office from the state of Pennsylvania.  The vast forest encompasses five tracts of wooded land totaling over 75,000 acres.  Another Fulton County connection to Lancaster County... I was learning so much!   

Sideling Hill Summit
Sidling Hill is part of the Blue Mountain chain of the Appalachians and has a summit height of 2,195 feet, which is marked by a large blue and white sign along the Route 30 roadside.  A small park also marks the summit spot where you can pull off and take a break from the road.  We decided to explore a side gravel road to see if we could get a view of the valley below and were encouraged by a small sign that pointed the way to a scenic view.  The road seemed to go quite a distance but never gave a hint of the incredible view, hidden by a border of thick trees that paralleled the road.  Eventually, the road began a slight descent and we were about to turn around when a small observation area suddenly came into view.  We parked the car and were instantly humbled by the breath taking view of the vast Pleasant Ridge Valley far below.  Unfortunately, it was a hot and hazy day that would later give way to stormy skies, which obstructed the clarity of my pictures.  The view would have been even more impressive with clear skies.  However, pictures of the view could never compare to seeing the valley from the summit in person in real time.

Turkey Buzzard on Patrol
We were so high our feet became a little numb with vertigo when getting close to the edge, which dropped off drastically.  We both agreed a return visit in the fall season would be amazing to see the brilliant colors of the leaves in late September or October.  Birds of prey were taking full advantage of the thermal updrafts, gliding in a circular dance of flight in performing groups that were amazing to watch.  Occasionally, a turkey buzzard or hawk would break free of the pattern and glide close overhead or perch atop a nearby tree.  You know you are high up when you look down on birds flying below.  We absorbed the view from every possible vantage point and it turned out be a surprise highlight of our trip.  We left the summit and were off to find the next point of interest on our list.  Along the way, Donnie's active hunting senses were pointing out flocks of wild turkeys and small groups of white tailed deer.  Unfortunately, neither were currently in season and we were getting hungry!   

 Hot Turkey Sandwich Diner Style
It was beginning to get dark and a steady rain was now falling soaking the thirsty farm fields abundant in Fulton County.  I suddenly noticed my gas gauge warning light was on and my tank was nearly empty.  I was a little concerned because we appeared to be in the middle of rural wet darkness, isolated from the modern world.  However, Donnie came through with his internal Fulton County GPS skills, navigating us to a small crossroads near the community Fort Littleton that had a gas station still open and restaurant about to close for the night.  We filled the gas tank and got inside the small old-fashioned diner just in time.  We were both very hungry despite snacking on Donnie's deer jerky from the cooler in the car on occasion.  Hardees seemed a very long time ago!   At the Fort Family Restaurant, Donnie ordered a hot roast beef sandwich, while I went with the hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and french fries, all smothered in thick gravy!  It really hit the spot for both of us after a long day of exploration and discovery.  It was so much to eat, neither of us could finish our meal.  A perfect ending to a great day!  Soon we bedding down for the night and looking forward to continuing our adventure the next day.

 Tune in next time as we continue our adventure

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