Portage, Raystown, and Beyond

Portage, Raystown, and Beyond

Boaters on Raystown Lake speak of a legend with the nickname “Raystown”, a man seemingly capable of repairing anything with an engine. The legend stems from his ability on the water and the origin of his houseboat, a vessel he acquired and then completely overhauled and repaired to once again make it lakeworthy (you can read the whole story here). On one weekend in July, we were lucky enough to spend a couple of days on the lake with the legend himself. But before we shoved off from shore, we stopped in the small town of Portage PA, a short ride from Ashley’s hometown of Sidman.

Portage once knew fame as a railroad town when the Allegheny Portage Railroad line opened in 1834. The line connected the water routes between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh through a series of bridges, a tunnel, and ten inclined planes that lifted canal boats roughly 1,400 feet in elevation through the previously non-navigable Allegheny Ridge. Twenty years later, the Allegheny Portage line was rendered obsolete by the Pennsylvania Railroad which traveled faster and safer through the Allegheny mountains. The town of Portage quickly adapted to this change and a station was constructed in town for the new railroad line. Meanwhile, the lumber and coal industries in Portage caused a population boom and a passenger station was added along the mainline in the 1860s. Portage continued to grow as the population reached its peak of nearly 5,000 by 1920. On July 15, 1940 tragedy struck the town when 63 miners died in a methane gas explosion at the Sonman Shaft Coal Co. A memorial to the miners was relocated from Jamestown to Crichton-McCormick Park in Portage in 1960, and the Portage Station Museum shows a documentary about the disaster. The museum was closed on the days we were in town, unfortunately, so we weren’t able to visit the display. The passenger station in Portage was completely closed by 1954, but the town’s population held steady around 4,000 until the 1970s. With the closure of the coal mines in the area, coupled with the effects on the steel industry from the 1977 Johnstown flood, the population of Portage steadily declined over recent decades reaching roughly 2,500 as of 2016. The town has succumbed to the same fate as many small rural towns in Pennsylvania, no longer fueled by industry yet still maintaining a presence for those that call it home, as well as visitors traveling the worn streets.

During our visit to Portage, we not only learned to drive a side by side on a wooded country trail, we also enjoyed a delicious secret breakfast at a local restaurant before feasting on unique specialty pizza that evening from the very same establishment. If not for our host, we would’ve missed out on these experiences as we would simply have driven through Portage on the way to our next destination. We certainly won’t be able to recreate this kind of atmosphere in every town we pass through, but we’re glad to take advantage when the opportunity arises.

With Cecil the RV tucked safely into a driveway for a couple of days, we packed our bags and hopped a ride to Raystown Lake. The lake was originally created by the Simpson family as a hydroelectric project, but was eventually completed in 1973 by the Army Corps of Engineers. The 8,300-acre lake stands as the largest lake located entirely within Pennsylvania. Raystown is a popular destination for people to engage in outdoor activities from boating and scuba diving, to camping and mountain biking. The lake is especially unique because much of the surrounding land is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, and therefore not available for residential development. As a result, the treeline grows all the way down the hills right to the waterline – Raystown has very little open shoreline.

The lake was abuzz with activity when we arrived, as anxious boaters motored in and out of docking slips loading supplies for another weekend on the water. I later learned that the boating season at Raystown is about six months long, and Scott (“Raystown”) as well as most of the residents in his docking area make it a point to head to the lake every single weekend during the season, no matter what the weather forecast has in store. The sun was shining as we loaded the speedboat into the water, but the clouds began to roll in as we docked with the houseboat. With provisions onboard and auxiliary vessels secured, we shoved off and began the one hour journey out to a particular cove in the lake. Despite a brief rain shower (just enough to chase the fairweather boaters ashore), we arrived to meet three other boats already tied to shore as we joined their flotilla.

We spent two brief but active days on the lake, meeting new people, reconnecting with friends and family, eating great food, and engaging in water-based activities that we wouldn’t normally do in our otherwise land-based lifestyle. While you may not be able to hop off the boat to enjoy an evening stroll or explore local trails, a guest on Scott’s boat has plenty of options available for anyone wishing to participate. While Ashley went water skiing and kneeboarding, I tested the inflatable kayak on the calm waters (and we both decided we might have to find room in the RV to stash one away for future use). I should note that the one and only time I’ve been water skiing was at least ten years ago when Scott himself first showed me the ropes on Lake Cumberland in Kentucky. Still others enjoyed tubing, jet skiing, barefoot skiing, and jumping off the diving board – which has a history all its own, rescued from a former life at the community swimming pool from Scott’s childhood in Portage. We even slept comfortably in the open air on the deck, gently roused from sleep as the rising sun warmed my bald head and the wake from passing boats nudged the houseboat into motion.

Sorry for the video quality, but this is a quick clip of Ashley doing a spin on the kneeboard:

And this is a short video of our ride back to the docks at the end of the weekend (FYI, the wind is pretty loud):

Trading the house on water back in for our house on wheels, we hit the road for parts unknown – at least to us anyway. Our first stop after leaving Portage was Starr Hill Winery in Curwensville PA. Perched on the side of a hill (hence the name) overlooking a vineyard, the winery provides a picturesque spot to enjoy some of their selection of around forty wines. We sampled the dry wines from their list, decided on a couple of bottles to take back to the RV, and were then given a tour of the wine production facility. Starr Hill is part of the Groundhog Wine Trail along with fourteen other wineries, which spans the area from Blairsville and Altoona in the south to Sheffield and Bradford in the north. If you’re interested in taking a summer road trip, check out the Groundhog Wine Trail and Starr Hill Winery for some inspiration.

Our plans for July and August should take us into the Allegheny National Forest, through the Finger Lakes and upstate New York, before reaching northern Vermont and then heading back to Pennsylvania as summer draws to a close. We’ve added a Travel Maps page to our site which will gradually list all of our overnight stops on our journey. Also, now that we’re moving more frequently I’ll attempt to keep the “Where Are We Now” box updated as long as we have a cell signal. We hope everyone is enjoying the summer so far, and we look forward to maybe seeing you on the road!

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