Friday, June 5, 2015

A Trip Through Packsaddle Gap

The Packsaddle Gap on the Conemaugh River is a very isolated area accessible only by boat or by walking the Norfolk Southern tracks. The canyon averages 1,308 feet from river to rim and the highest point in Indiana County is located here at 2,160 feet. Due to its inaccessibility, the gap offers a treasure trove of ruins from the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal. The remains of Guard Lock #5 are also located back here but we were unable to get to it today. The area is very overgrown in the summer and is the happy home of many varieties of venomous snakes. Going too far into the brush isn't recommended.

Today I paddled with about 20 other people in a program sponsored by the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy. 

The annual Stony Kiski Conemaugh River Sojourn 

is a four day event that takes place in early June. Today was day two and I jumped at the chance to go through the Packsaddle Gap. Aside from the canal ruins, the scenery throughout the gap and beyond is some of the most spectacular in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The faster but easy to navigate ripples always give way to extremely relaxing pools where you can kick back and take in the sights. We weren't even at the canal ruins when I decided I will be doing this trip again next year. Talking with some of the nicest people I ever met made me plan to make a weekend of it. 


Thank you all for everything. Today was amazing!



Starting off at Robinson.

Heading down past Bolivar.

The gap is in the distance.

Today was the perfect day for this trip.

Some nice rock formations along the river.

This is the first of the extant canal ruins.



Heading a little further.

  The next section of canal ruins.

 Built in the 1820's, these walls have withstood countless floods and look better than the majority of modern retaining walls.

 These are pieces of an old dam. Normally they are under water but when the river is low they are still visible.


Heading ashore on a path the guys from the Conservancy cleared the day before.

An incredible canal lock.

Notice the curved stone.


This cut stone is enormous. Such an incredible amount of work.

I found this old iron spike between the stones.

The masonry is incredible. Almost 200 years after it was placed here the stone is still tight.

Looking up the canal prism.

A huge fallen stone.

Completely overgrown but visible canal prism.

One of the non-venomous inhabitants of the old canal lock.

Heading off again.

Big fallen chunks of a rock shelf over the river.

More canal ruins.

Approaching the old railroad piers at Cokeville.

The railroad bridge abutment at Cokeville.

Last night a man I was talking to told me to look for indentations in the cut stone. The masons apparently would mark the stone they cut. Here is one.

A "D" indentation.

Another one.

Another "A".

Heading toward the old Blairsville to Cokeville road bridge piers.

Some Blairsville kids enjoying the river.

A family of ducks!

Take out was near the Bairdstown Bridge at Blairsville.

The abutment from the old bridge is right next to the modern one on the east side.

The west abutment sits a little further.

Hanging on the wall at the Robinson community center where we launched (and lunched) is an old stamp for the Garfield Crown fire bricks which are found in countless coke ovens throughout the region. This blew me away!

It is hanging under a photo of the Garfield Fire Clay Co. Refractory.


  1. Just Amazing pictures ,Mike! You are giving all those hard working stone carvers their due! They really built to last!

  2. Nice bit of documentation. Always nice to be able to make an adventure out of it! Looks like the weather was perfect. FYI The Ridge Dam was #2 of the Ligonier Canal Line and #7 of of the Western Division, and the Henderson Guard Lock was #39 of the Western Division and #2 guard lock of the Ligonier Canal Line(guard locks weren't assigned line numbers). Was there any evidence of Dam #6 downstream where the Norfolk Southern RR makes the tight curve south? There might be some timbers left on the island. Also, just curious but how high was the slackwater towpath retaining wall above the river? I hope that your trip next year is as good as the 2015 excursion.


    Andy Stroud

    1. Hi Andy! Thanks for commenting and looking. I would guess that wall was 6-7 feet high. That's a rough guess too, it's kind of hard sitting at water level to really gauge. I do not recall seeing any evidence of dam #6 although I probably wasn't looking in that area. I'll keep notes of it for next year. Actually I think I'm going down with a couple of those guys in the spring before the snakes are all active so I can on land more. Those guys from the conservancy know that area well and there were snakes all over that lock and apparently that's also rattlesnake country. It wasn't the best time to explore very good wearing swimming trunks and water shoes. So hopefully something comes of it this spring and I'll definitely float that again next summer.

    2. Mike,

      Sounds good. Let me know when you go and I'll send some detailed maps of the canal works. There were four locks between the guard lock/#7 Dam and Bolivar that might be interesting to see. Some things never change, the area is a perfect breeding ground for rattlesnakes!



  3. The river is amazing. I remember when it was all orange and smelled horrible when I grew up there.