By Cara Mehalek
INDIANA — Edwin R. Patterson, 62, an outdoor enthusiast from Armstrong County, always thought it would be neat to work at a park. Still does. Forty-one years ago he started working for the budding Indiana County park system. For the past 35 years, he has served as the 50-year-old system’s director.
“Where I hung out at as a kid was a lot like this,” Patterson said in a Sep. 25 interview at the Indiana County Parks & Trails office in Blue Spruce Park. “There was a small dam. It was in a little valley.”
When he started working for Indiana County Parks & Trails, the system had three parks – Blue Spruce, Pine Ridge and Hemlock Lake. Now, it operates 14 sites. The only comparable neighboring county is Westmoreland, which operates 15, according to its Parks & Trails webpage.
“I used to tell people years ago, ‘Come to Blue Spruce on Friday evening because there’s nobody here,’” Patterson said.
In its last 22 years, annual attendance at Buttermilk Falls has increased tenfold, to 20,000 from 2,000, Patterson said. That accounts for about 6 percent of the 350,000 visitors to Indiana County’s park system each year.
In the early 1980’s, residents questioned whether the county could afford a park system, Patterson said. The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps arrived just in time to help revive the system.
“It was just an ideal program for us,” Patterson said. “It was geared toward putting unemployed young people to work. All these facilities – a lot of them were built with PCC.”
Now, the park system, one of a dozen and a half departments in county government, accounts for about $575,000, or about 2 percent, of the annual county budget, Patterson said. Most of the money goes toward maintenance.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed probably more than anything is working with our maintenance crew,” Patterson said in an August 7 interview in the park office. “A lot of them are people that have been with me for almost as long as I’ve been here – some of them as long.”
ONE OF THE HARDEST things he has had to do during his career was to give up White Pine Park, now Two Lick Lake Recreation Association.
“The master plan for that thing was amazing,” Patterson said. “There was going to be a marina, camping. It probably would’ve made us one of the largest county park systems in the state. We just didn’t have the people to do it the right way.”
A more recent tough decision for Patterson was unplugging the Christmas-season Festival of Lights at Blue Spruce Park in 2015.
“It was like six or seven people that did all the installation and everything,” Patterson said. “It was four months of work. We had to pretty much abandon the park system the whole time we were working on that.”
Patterson said that he doesn’t regret giving up the lights festival, but it was a “tough call.” The festival is now held in downtown Indiana.
PATTERSON SAID said he doesn’t have retirement plans and hasn’t done much planning in general since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1996. It restricted him.
“The one thing I missed most of all was just being able to be out in the woods, being outside,” Patterson said.
He has been cancer-free since he received a stem cell transplant in 1998, Patterson said, and he feels fortunate to continue working out in the woods.
“I just started my 41st year, actually, in September,” Patterson said.
COUNTY COMMISSIONERS praise Patterson, his longevity and his work.
“He has an expert technical knowledge of preserving and growing our parks, trails and other outdoor attractions with the future in mind, but also a kind of a spiritual comprehension of why our parks are so important to our physical health, our emotional well-being, and our local economies,” wrote commissioner Sherene Hess in an Oct. 23 email.
Commissioner Rodney D. Ruddock agreed.
“He has put his heart and soul into each and every aspect of community life,” Ruddock wriote in an Oct. 23 email. “Ed never seeks personal attention for the extra effort he gives in creating an atmosphere of leisure for those who seek respite in an over scheduled and committed lifestyle.”
INDIANA UNIVERSITY of Pennsylvania students enjoy county park, including Memorial Park and the Hoodlebug Trail, both within walking distance of the campus.
One IUP student lives about a mile away from Indiana County’s most popular park, Blue Spruce.
“Usually, we come here to fish,” said Jillian P. Mathews, 23, from New Jersey, an IUP senior majoring in biology and geology. “There will be times, especially during the mid-summer, that there’s a lot of kids playing and people here. But it’s still not overly crowded. Every year we have the family reunion here at one of the pavilions.”
Ed Patterson probably has passed every one of the reunions on his way to and from his nearby office.
Cara Mehalek, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania senior majoring in journalism and geoscience, is from Belle Vernon.
Sidebar: Locations and Brief Histories of Indiana County Parks & Trails
Information about each park can be found on the Indiana County Parks & Trails website.
- Blacklick Valley Natural Area
Blacklick Valley Natural Area, or Blacklick Valley Park, is at 800 McFeaters Road in Seward. McFeaters Road branches off of William Penn Highway near Dilltown.
According to the Blacklick Valley Natural Area webpage, it is likely that members of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes used the creek for fishing and transportation.
- Blairsville Riverfront Trail
The Blairsville Riverfront Trail, or Blairsville River Trail has access points at Wyotech Park, South Walnut Street and West Market Street near the Bairdstown Bridge, both in Blairsville, according to the Blairsville Riverfront Trail webpage. The trail follows the Conemaugh River around the southwest corner of Blairsville.
- Blue Spruce Park
Blue Spruce Park, home of the county Parks & Trails office, is just north of Ernest at 1128 Blue Spruce Road in Indiana. It is the most visited park in the county park system, said director Edwin Patterson on Aug. 7 in the park office.
The 650-acre park features two playgrounds, a garden, and more than five miles of trails for hiking and skiing, according to the Blue Spruce Park webpage. Some areas of the park are open to hunting, and the Cummings Reservoir is stocked with trout for public fishing. Blue Spruce also offers four pavilions and two lodges for public rental.
- Buttermilk Falls Natural Area
Buttermilk Falls Natural Area, at 570 Valley Brook Road in New Florence, encompasses 48 acres and features a 45 foot waterfall, according to the Buttermilk Falls Natural Area webpage.
Patterson said that a new series of steps and platforms which leads to the falls will be open this fall.
- Four Covered Bridges
Indiana County is home to four bridges listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Covered Bridges webpage.
a. Harmon Bridge
The Harmon Bridge is just off Five Points Road at 2725 Donahue Road in Creekside.
Built for $525 and completed in July 1910, this bridge is named after Civil War veteran J.S. Harmon, according to the Harmon Bridge webpage. The Harmon Bridge is 45 feet long and crosses Plum Creek. It is no longer in use.
b. Kintersburg Bridge
The Kintersburg Bridge is near the Tanoma Road intersection at 2730 Musser Road in Indiana.
Built for $893 and completed in September of 1877, this bridge was named by Isaac Kinter in honor of his father, John Kinter, a Revolutionary War veteran, according to the Kintersburg Bridge webpage. The Kintersburg Bridge is 68 feet long and crosses Crooked Creek. It is no longer in use.
c. Thomas Bridge
The Thomas Covered Bridge is at 280 Thomas Covered Bridge Road in Indiana.
Built for $545 and completed in November of 1879, this bridge was once known as Thomas Ford Bridge and then as Thomas Station Bridge after the nearby railroad was constructed, according to the Thomas Bridge webpage. The bridge was reconstructed in 1998 for more than one million dollars and now is the only Indiana County covered bridge still open to traffic with a 20-ton weight limit. The Thomas Bridge is 85 feet long and crosses Crooked Creek near Yarnick’s Farm Market in Armstrong Township.
d. Trusal Bridge
The Trusal Bridge is off Five Points Road at 1961 Trusal Road in Creekside, less than a mile west of the Harmon Bridge.
Also known as Dice’s Bridge, the Trusal Bridge is both the oldest and shortest covered bridge in Indiana County, according to the Trusal Bridge webpage. It was named after Robert Trusal, a Civil War veteran who owned the surrounding land and bypassed in 1990. The cost of the 41-foot-long bridge is unknown. It is no longer in use.
- Ghost Town Trail
The Ghost Town Trail is part of a large network of trails in western Pennsylvania known as the Trans Allegheny Trails network, according to the Ghost Town Trail webpage. The trail, designated as a National Recreation Trail by the U.S. Department of the Interior, was established in 1991 when the Kovalchick Salvage Company donated 16 miles of the former Ebensburg & Black Lick Railroad to Indiana County.
a. Buena Vista Furnace
The Buena Vista Furnace is north of Blacklick Creek in Brush Valley, three miles east of the Heshbon Trailhead access point to the Ghost Town Trail. It is accessible only from the Ghost Town Trail.
Built in 1847 and named for the Mexican War battle fought in February of the same year, the Buena Vista furnace used iron ore, limestone and charcoal to produce 400 tons of pig iron per year, according to the Buena Vista Furnace Historic Site webpage. Approximately 61 men and boys and 30 horses and mules labored at Buena Vista until production ceased in 1856. The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County bought the furnace and property in 1957, and it now leases the site to Indiana County Parks & Trails.
b. Eliza Furnace
The Eliza Furnace, also accessible only via the Ghost Town Trail, is located near the northwest end of Vintondale just north of the Main Street access point to the Ghost Town Trail.
This furnace, constructed in 1846, is a National Register of Historic Places site regarded as one of Pennsylvania’s best preserved iron furnaces, according to the Eliza Furnace Historic Site webpage. It is one of a few iron furnaces remaining in the United States which still retains its original heat exchanger piping.
At its peak, the furnace employed more than 90 people and 45 mules to produce about 1,080 tons of iron per year, according to the Eliza Furnace Historic Site. Despite only operating for three years, the Eliza Furnace helped bring the industrial revolution to Black Lick Valley.
- Hemlock Lake Park
Hemlock Lake Park has an eastern access point off of Hemlock Lake Road and a western access point off of S D A Camp Road in Rossiter.
Originally called Straight Run Dam, Hemlock Lake encompasses more than 2.6 million square feet and is 33 feet deep, according to the Hemlock Lake Park webpage. The 205-acre park which encompasses the lake features a 650-foot-long dam, two boat launches, and areas for hunting, hiking and fishing. The lake is stocked with a variety of fish and has free public pavilions on both the East and West Shore access points.
- Hoodlebug Trail
The Hoodlebug Trail is a 10-mile recreation and commuter trail which runs from Black Lick through Homer City to Indiana. The trail is accessible at several locations from the southernmost point at Saylor Park in Blairsville to the northernmost point at 135 University Drive at Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.
- Memorial Park
Memorial Park is located within Indiana Borough at the two-acre block encompassed by Wayne Avenue, South Sixth Street, Washington Street, South Carpenter Avenue and Park Place.
This small but historic park features a bandstand for free summer concerts and the annual Memorial Day program, according to the Memorial Park webpage.
- Old Smicksburg Park
Old Smicksburg Park is on Pennsylvania Route 954, or Kittanning Street, in Smicksburg.
This 33-acre park features hiking trails, picnic tables and a gazebo, and offers a location for launching a canoe or kayak on Little Mahoning Creek, according to the Old Smicksburg Park webpage.
11. Pine Ridge Park
Pine Ridge Park is off the William Penn Highway at 998 Pine Ridge Road in Blairsville.
This 635-acre park, intersected by Tom’s Run, offers several miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails, according to the Pine Ridge Park webpage. Hunting is permitted in certain locations, and a two-acre fishing pond is available for groups who rent the Pine Lodge. Pine Ridge Park also features picnic tables, grills, playgrounds, two rental pavilions and a 9-hole disc golf course. Pine Lodge, located in the southern portion of the park, features a kitchen, activity rooms, a deck and two stone fireplaces.
- Tunnelview Historic Site
Tunnelview, just south of the Conemaugh Lake National Recreation Area at 1665 Auen Road in Saltsburg, is intersected by the West Penn Rail Trail.
This 16-acre site is adjacent to the Conemaugh Dam and features a pavilion, interpretive exhibits and a canoe launch, according to the Tunnelview Historic Site webpage.
- Waterworks Conservation Area
The Waterworks Conservation Area, at 768 Waterworks Road in Indiana, is adjacent to Two Lick Creek and the Two Lick Creek Water Treatment Plant.
This 10-acre park features a boat launch site and a free pavilion, according to the Waterworks Conservation Area webpage. Fishing in Two Lick Creek is also permitted.