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June 4, 2013


Some years ago, on a ninety-degree day in July, a construction crew was working on a road-widening project along Route 120 northwest of Lock Haven in Clinton County, in northcentral Pennsylvania. As a ripper on the back of a bulldozer gouged up chunks of rock from the earth, construction workers noticed the ripper was also pulling up chunks of ice “a couple feet wide.”

Standing next to the spot on the mountainside where the ice was unearthed “felt like you were in front of an air-conditioner—you could just feel the cold air come out,” one of the workers recalled. It was not for nothing, after all, that the section of road where the crew was working was called the Ice Mine Cut.

The Ice Mine, as it was locally known, was a cavern in the side of the mountain filled with ice formations even during the hottest of summer days. “Was” is the operative verb tense because the cavern, or at least the entrance to it, has been lost for many years. Numerous attempts to find it have failed. It is generally suspected that blasting for road work over the years may have caused it to collapse.

The road crew that worked on the widening project found no cavern, but the pieces of ice they brought to the surface were tantalizing clues that perhaps they were close to the spot where the Ice Mine once existed.

Ice caves seem to violate one of nature’s major rules: They’re frozen in the summertime. Because of that, they have always engendered a sense of wonder and mystery, and have often become local attractions. But though unusual, ice caves are not all that uncommon.

Many references can be found to ice caves in Pennsylvania and in neighboring New York State. Two of the more well-known in Pennsylvania are located at Trough Creek State Park near Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, and at aptly named Ice Mountain near Coudersport, Potter County. Both of these are known as “ice mines,” in that they started as man-made mine shafts. The ice cave near Lock Haven, even though called an ice mine, was a natural formation, strictly speaking an ice cave.

There have been many stories and references to the Clinton County Ice Mine over the years. It was situated on property originally known as the Earon (pronounced like “Aaron”) homestead, which dates back to 1825. My grandfather, Don Earon, a retired railroader who died at age 98 in 1993, related how he used to crawl into the low entrance to the Ice Mine on his hands and knees to bring out pieces of ice in the summertime. Stories about visits to the Ice Mine were oft-repeated in our family.

An engraving that depicts the Ice Mine appeared in a book called Historical View of Clinton County published in 1875. That engraving now hangs in my home (along with the original grant of the tract to Edward Burd in 1774, a document signed by Benjamin Franklin.)

According to newspaper accounts, the Ice Mine was a popular attraction shortly after the turn of the century for those who summered in cottages along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at the foot of the mountain. Isabel Winner Miller wrote in a 1981 article in the Grit newspaper that “visitors were encouraged to trek to the top of the mountain and behold this ‘freak of nature.’ At the end of their steep climb, the unsuspecting guests would be obliged to inch forward on their stomachs deep into the cave, until they could see the glittering spectacle at close range.”

Besides providing a source of wonder, the Ice Mine also proved to be a handy resource in the days before ubiquitous gas-station ice machines. One local resident related how she visited the Ice Mine in 1939 with her husband, who crawled in, chiseled some ice loose, wrapped it in burlap, and took it along to keep the beer cold at a Fourth of July picnic. He told her the cavern was the size of a small room.

During the 1950s, motorists traveling on Route 120 often stopped to sample the ice cold water than ran constantly from a pipe hammered into the rocky side of the mountain just off the pavement. It was assumed that the water came from the Ice Mine, hence the name “Ice Mine Cut” for that section of the road where it cut into and along the mountain.

Science was baffled when ice caves were first discovered in 17th century Europe. Early geologists could come up with no plausible explanation for how the ice in them came to be or why it didn’t melt in the summertime. The conclusion: The caves were obviously supernatural.

Philadelphian Edwin Swift Balch, a Harvard-educated member of the Franklin Institute, was the first to provide a sound scientific explanation. His book, Glacieres, or Frozen Caves, published in 1900, is still considered a definitive book on the subject. It offers a surprisingly simple explanation of how ice caves “work.”

The ice, wrote Balch, is maintained by trapped cold air. Such “cold-trap” caves contain many rock crevices, between which little air circulates. Meltwater, furnished by melting surface snow, flows through the rocks and into the caves, meets the pockets of cold, stagnant air, and freezes. The weight and density of the cold air, combined with the poor ventilation of the caves, keeps it from circulating during the summer months. Oddly, the trapped cold air apparently moves the least during June and July, which means the hottest part of the year is the best for maintaining ice.

Equally bizarre is the fact that the caves are almost devoid of ice during the winter, a point that Balch’s book doesn’t explain very clearly. In an interview conducted by Nick Kulczak, a former intern of mine at Editorial Enterprises, Dr. Noel Potter, a professor of geology at Dickinson College, said that “most of the ice begins to disappear in late summer and is gone by fall due to the gradual heating of the ground by the sun. Even if the ice doesn’t melt, some of it will go away through sublimation, the direct conversion of a solid to a gaseous state.” Potter noted that the disappearance of the old ice (or most of it, at least), was necessary for new ice to form the following spring and summer. “If all of the ice remained from season to season,” he said, “the caves would simply fill up.”

The exact number of ice caves in Pennsylvania is unknown, and there is no easy way to find them. Because ice caves are generally ill-ventilated, they usually lack large openings to the surface that would suggest their presence. Most of the known ice caves were discovered purely by accident, many stumbled upon by landowners and miners.

Author Balch visited the Clinton County Ice Mine in 1898 and included an account in his book. His visit took place in October, probably after the ice had begun to disappear for the year. A boy who worked in a brick mill in Farrandsville, across the river from the location of the cave, guided Balch up the mountain. Balch described the cave as roughly eighty meters—slightly less than the length of a football field—above the river, facing north.

“One could crawl into it for a couple of meters, and all around it the rocks are somewhat creviced; in fact, I think there are a good many cracks in the entire hill,” he wrote. “There was no ice in sight in this hole, but a strong, cold draught poured from it. After an exposure of fifteen minutes, the thermometer registered six degrees Centigrade [about forty-three degrees Fahrenheit], while outside, in the shade, it stood at fifteen degrees Centigrade [fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit]. This decidedly sub-normal temperature proved unmistakably, in my opinion, the presence of ice a little further than we could see in.”

More than a hundred years have gone by since Balch’s visit. Several times I have traversed the mountainside looking for an opening like the one my grandfather used. I have followed draughts of cold air only to find crevices far too small for human access. Perhaps the march of manmade progress in the form of highway building has caused the Ice Mine to disappear forever. But then again perhaps somewhere within the mountain is an icy grotto waiting for future rediscovery. I can at least hope so.


© 2013 Donald C. Sarvey and Editorial Enterprises, Inc.

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