Sunday on the Trail

By on October 14, 2015

It is a gorgeous autumn Sunday afternoon as Major Dick Winters and I stand guard at the Fulton Street entry to the Ephrata-to- Lititz railtrail.

The sun is warm with just enough of a seasonal chill to make it an excellent day for a walk or bike ride. When Major Winters and I were boys (he 23 years before me) this was a very different place. On what is now a trail were the tracks of the Reading and Columbia Railroad. We both saw steam engines pulling lines of cars through the cut. I remember riding the passenger car with my mother between Ephrata and Lititz. What is most vivid in my mind was using the restroom and realizing that the commode opened directly onto the tracks. (So I was a kid and kids remember the gross).

“Oh, hi folks, nice day isn’t it?” An older couple is walking down the trail holding hands. There is something touching about autumn love.

What is now the borough parking lot was the Ephrata stockyards. Hundreds of cattle were brought, sold or transported to markets from this location. There were wooden pens and a concrete ramp and platform which allowed the livestock to be loaded on cattle cars. Charlie Messner, long-time mayor of Denver, tells of his father, owner of the Durlach General Store, who every year would receive two boxcars full of salt here at the stockyards. The Messner family had two days to unload all that salt and distribute it to the farmers and stores who ordered.

“Good afternoon, yes it is a beautiful day.” That was three generations of plain folks on bicycles. Grandpa and Grandma have the old fashion balloon tire Schwinns, the next generation is on the thin wheel 10 speeds and the kids are on a collection of small brightly-painted models. All are laughing and with big smiles of anticipation.

Looking north along the trail we see the eight concrete silos and the brick mill, which once belonged to the richest man in Ephrata. C.P. Wenger was one of the few who got rich during the Great Depression.

During its heyday, C.P. Wenger’s provided feed, coal, seeds, and supplies to farmers across the county. My family used to buy dog and rabbit food from CP’s son, Bob, who ran the mill almost to the day he died. Once we bought a sugar barrel, which served as our dog’s house.

For Major Winters and me, the steep bank on to the west of the trail between Franklin and Gross will always be coal bins. There was a wood trestle built out over that bank which allowed coal cars to be pushed over the bins where they dumped their contents with a great roar. Sliding down the piles was a boyhood joy.

“Hey puppy, take it easy, what a lovely dog.” Almost every day I take my dog Teddy along a section of the railtrail. The dog that just passed was an over enthusiastic black lab. The people coming up the trail have three different size dogs on the leash. The dogs pull for their owners to stop so they can sniff and get acquainted. Sitting here, almost every dog owner takes a couple of bags from the dispenser at the head of the trail. Those who don’t are carrying their own. It is a testimony to the conscientiousness of our dog lovers that you will rarely see droppings on the trail. I have seen dog owners gather up the off falls of less well-behaved dog owners and drop them in the bin (usually with a few choice expletives).

If you come down the trail from Main Street toward us there is a single story brick building right behind the shop at the back of the Ephrata Review building. If you look closely at the back of the building you will see six ceramic insulators fastened to the back wall. These are left over from the days when this building was the generating plant for the Ephrata Electric Company. It was from here that electricity was distributed across the town.

In 1902, the borough acquired the power company and moved the generation facility to a bigger plant along the Cocalico on the east side of Church Street. That plant has gone as well, along with its smoke stack with EPHRATA laid into the red brick with white brick.

“Ladies, Gentlemen, Do Good” The Railtrail is a daily conduit for kids walking to the middle and high schools. On most warm days, a bunch of them can be seen hanging out or playing basketball where the trail crosses Queen Street. My Grandfather John A. G. Balmer used to say, “You get half the respect you give.” I think he was right. I can’t expect to be respected if I do not respect. I always address younger people politely and formally. It seems to work.

Next to the old power plant building is the borough hall. This attractive and efficient structure replaced Gerhart Bros. Lumber Yard. From their cluttered two-story brick headquarters perennial Mayor (it’s on his grave stone) Lloyd Gerhart and his brother, Harry, provided all the lumber and hardware needed for tasks from home repair to major construction. When Bowman’s Lumber set up in competition on South State Street, it was not long until the Gerhart Bros. absorbed them. When the brothers finally retired, Mussleman’s of New Holland acquired the business (it’s the same phone number as Gerharts’).

“Indeed it is a lovely day for a walk. Enjoy it for soon it will get cold.” I never fail to meet at least a few people I know. Walking the railtrail is both physical and social exercise. It is nice to stop and chat along the way.

The sun is setting; the walkers and riders are thinning out, time to turn the watch over to Major Winters. “Permission to stand down, Sir” As the Major takes sole charge and the evening darkens, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of the past; cattle lowing, coal crashing into bins, a generator running, 2x4s being stacked, and over it all, the chug, chug, chug of the Reading and Columbia Railroad keeping commerce flowing into and out of the Cocalico Valley.


We Got’ Em!


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