Earlier this week I walked the Northwest River Trail between Columbia and Chickies Rock. The Northwest Lancaster County River Trail follows the route of the historic Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, tracing the Susquehanna River northwest from Columbia to Falmouth. While the majority of the trail is paved, the northern segment from Bainbridge to Falmouth is largely undeveloped and best suited for walking, hiking, or mountain biking. The route now contains a trove of historic iron furnaces and building ruins, a canal lock, sections of the original towpath and canal bed, and an abandoned railroad tunnel.
Begin your journey at the southern trailhead, at the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center; located along the Susquehanna River at the foot of Walnut Street. Columbia Crossing presently offers exhibits, restrooms, and information about the trail and nearby attractions. The River Trail starts in front of the neighboring railroad station in Columbia and progresses on a wide walkway next to the Columbia Bypass until the path goes under the Wrights Ferry (Route 30) Bridge. One soon enters the River Trail in Chickies Rock County Park.
Within a few minutes of walking you’ll see hidden in the brush the abandoned ruins of the old St. Charles Iron Furnace. While you can safely climb inside the structure today, things would have been very different 150 years ago when the internal temperature ranged between 1,600 and 2,300°F.
Built-in 1854, the St. Charles Furnace had an estimated 10,000 ton per year pig iron production capacity. Pig iron is the first metallic product after the reduction of iron ore. Full of impurities and brittle, pig iron is almost always further refined into steel or cast iron.
The St. Charles Furnace was remodeled in 1879-80, but only six years later, it went out of blast for the last time and was finally dismantled in 1897.
A popular stop along the Northwest River Trail north of Columbia is the abandoned (and allegedly haunted) Point Rock Tunnel, also known as Chickies Rock Tunnel. The unlined 180-foot long Tunnel was constructed between 1850-1851 for the original Pennsylvania Railroad Columbia Branch. The railroad was built on a tight shelf along the Susquehanna River’s east bank between Columbia and Chickies Rock. Blasting through the rock was required, because the narrow strip of land between the rock outcrop and the river was only wide enough for the canal that already was in place. Canal operations ceased in 1857 when it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
One such paranormal entity reported at the tunnel is said to be the spirit of a man struck by a train long ago. According to local lore, the ghost of a bearded old man with a staff and red lantern is seen in the tunnel. His spirit is said to frequently appear between midnight, and 1 am. In 1875, a railroad worker reported seeing the ghost on three separate occasions. One time he knows that the spirit saw him as it greeted him with a wave before disappearing.
Other ghosts are said to drift along the path of the old railroad tracks, as well. To read more about other haunts and ghosts in Chickies Rock County Park read my blog The History & Haunts of Chickies Rock.
A mile from the tunnel, you may see rock climbers scaling the craggy face of Chickies Rock.
The trail then crosses over Chiques Creek before continuing along Furnace Road. From here, you can take either an undeveloped portion of trail along the Susquehanna River or a route through the town of Marietta. To take the more direct, undeveloped route, take the first left off Furnace Road onto Robert K. Mowrer Drive, heading toward the river. In about 500 feet, you’ll come to a parking lot alongside the river that ends in a 0.2-mile dirt path leading to the main trail.
The following trail access guide provides the relative locations of features along the River Trail between Columbia and Marietta. To judge distances, it is about two miles between Station 1 (Columbia Crossings River Trails Center) and Station 3 (Chickies Rock). Trees shade most of the trail, within Chickies Rock County Park.
Columbia Crossing River Trails Center
41 Walnut St, Columbia, PA 17512