Memories of my childhood hikes at Pine Hollow bring to mind a thick dark forest carpeted with purple and white violets and an occasional jack-in-the-pulpit…and the time my girlfriend and I dared to go skinny-dipping in the inviting cool waters of the winding stream. Of course, we were caught in the act by my brother and his entourage who were also exploring Pine Hollow that day. The group of delighted spectators included my cousin, who has never forgotten the episode and has never let me forget it.
We unofficially called the area “Pine Hollow” although it may have actually been a part of Pine Hollow Run, which is located in one of several watershed basins that supply Sharpsville with tap water. Carrying our knapsacks filled with snacks, pencils and sketching pads, and other “emergency supplies”, we would follow the narrow creek that wandered through the woods, teetering over the flowing water as we crossed on a huge decaying log, occasionally stopping to search for crawdads, minnows, unusual stones, and frogs. My brother Pat recalls that he “accompanied Mom to Pine Hollow once on an excursion to hunt mushrooms. Fond memories of that place for all of us.”
As the sun lowered in the sky and a towering railroad trestle came into view, we sensed that we should start back home. We did so either by walking for about a mile along the Erie Railroad tracks or backtracking to the main road (Route 518) until we returned to our small-town lives in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania.
Irene Caldwell O’Neill, the originator of this series of Sharpsville memories, shares similar recollections of Pine Hollow during the 1940s and 1950s in the following essay.
The Shenango River was always a method of transportation and the reason several towns had grown along it. Starting in the mid-1800s a steel industry flourished along the banks, bringing jobs to the area but also polluting the air and river water. In the 1950s the river didn’t look as polluted as it certainly must have been. The PCB level had yet to be measured, so locals swam in the water and ate the fish they caught without worry.
The Shenango flowed gently most of the time, curving here and there through lush farmlands and isolated forests until the series of small steel towns appeared, beginning with Greenville in the north and ending with Farrell, Sharpsville being in the middle. In each town, tall black furnace towers spewed dark smoke in long plumes that stretched for miles across the valley.
The river had once been part of the Erie Canal system and the crumbling walls of lock number 10 are an easy walk from the edge of town. My last visit to number 10 was in 1957 with D___ M____, innocently holding hands as we looked down from the tree-shaded path.
Camping at Pine Hollow
A tributary of the Shenango River flowed through an area called Pine Hollow, where thick green woods grew along sloping hills. In the summer of 1947, my family camped in those woods. For two months we lived in a large brown canvas surplus army tent and slept on folding GI cots.
Every night we cooked over an open fire, ringed with big white rocks. Mom would set her coffee pot or frying pan on a steel rack laid atop the rocks and turn out great bacon and eggs or hamburgers. I ate a lot of hot dogs speared on sharpened sticks and cooked until the blackened skin burst and juice sizzled in the flames. Or potatoes we coated with mud and buried under the firewood until done.
Beside the tent, in the tiny pool of an icy spring, Mother submerged bottles of milk, jars of butter, eggs and other perishable food. Long yellow streamers of sticky flypaper interspersed with drying towels, bathing suits and underwear hung from the rope strung from big tree to big tree around our campsite. The flies got stuck but didn’t die and those yellow ribbons seemed alive themselves, with constant buzzing and wing-flapping as the bugs tried mightily, but fruitlessly to escape. More than once my long hair got stuck as I walked by. I still shudder at that.
We bathed, swam and played in the river the whole day wearing bathing suits even to bed if they had dried. My always bare skinny legs and arms were covered with mosquito bites that I scratched until they bled, but that was better than the poison ivy rash my brother Jack had all over his body. He had only to get within a foot of the plant, which grew everywhere in those woods, to soon have a rash. Flaking layers of pink calamine lotion coated his limbs giving him a weird splotchy appearance.
On the log dining table sat canning jars full of river water and the tadpoles we’d caught. None of them ever quite made it to full frogdom. I now realize they died because we didn’t know what to feed them.
Dad worked at the railroad yard during our campout and would ride to our campground on an outward-bound train at the end of his day. We’d hear the afternoon train coming and walk toward the tracks to meet and escort him home. He’d carry the evening paper, the day’s mail and a bag of whatever he’d been told to pick up. At night we sat around the fire watching the flames and talking about our day. Sometimes Mom and Dad would tell stories about the world of their childhood while we listened intently before falling onto our cots for a sound sleep.
On Dad’s days off he joined us in the river and would swim across, back, and then against the current in the middle. He showed us how to skip stones and look for fossils in the rocks. Mother mostly hung around the campsite, seldom walking down to the water. She had never learned to swim, and, like Jack, had a major sensitivity to poison ivy, always afraid of coming near it. I hope she was reading a lot and enjoying the freedom from housework drudgery.
Hiking in Pine Hollow
We never camped in Pine Hollow again or anywhere else for such a long period. There were a few shorter trips to Cook Forest [State Park] but never anything to compare with that wonderful summer. In later years, my brother, sister, and I would often walk through town to the river and turn into those woods for a day of peaceful adventure. We wore surplus army rucksacks filled with towels, bathing suits, sandwiches and fruit to allow for long hours in the “wilderness.” We followed the trails of many, many years and knew our way well enough to never get lost even when we strayed off the path to dig flowers for our yard. Mother loved jack-in-the-pulpits and lilies-of-the-valley, so we brought them home to plant, hoping to please her.
We weren’t the only children exploring the woods so meeting others we knew while swimming or hiking was expected, but it was sometimes nicer to enjoy the deep quiet alone.
Tragedy on the Railroad Trestle
Children moving along the river paths would sooner or later have to cross the river if they wanted to stay in the woods that were farther from town. The shortcut was via the railroad trestle bridge which had no pedestrian walkway. Walkers had to step from wooden tie to wooden tie the length of the bridge. Most were at least a little afraid and hopped across quickly trying not to look down at the drop to the river. We nervously talked about how easy it would be to slip between the ties and fall to our death, at the same time listening for the sound of approaching train whistles and planning our escape.
One June day in 1957, as two children were midway crossing the trestle, a fast and long freight train approached, whistle blowing loudly. G___ F____, a classmate of [my brother] Jack’s froze in fear and despite the urgings and tuggings of her companion could not be led from the bridge. She was finally abandoned as her friend ran for safety.
A photo of the trestle with an arrow indicating the exact spot she was struck appeared on the front page of the next day’s Sharon Herald. Jack and I stared at that photo for a long time trying numbly to absorb the reality of the event. All who knew her and all who had walked those ties were completely stunned. This tragic loss of a peer brought a terrible sadness to our river playground and many of us could never return.
– Irene Caldwell O’Neill (SHS 1960), Escondido, CA. April 2012 (Original title: “Our River”)