Red Bank Creek is the reason behind New Bethlehem’s existence, but without the intervention of people it would have remained just another pretty stream feeding the Allegheny River. Area kids owe a lot to the mad hydraulic engineers of yore.
Growing up on either bank of the Red Bank before 1996 or so, a large part of a kid’s life took place somewhere in the vicinity of a mill race or two. Most traces of the race on the New Bethlehem side are long gone, and the ones on the South Bethlehem side are fast losing ground to “progress.”
But before the urge to fill in these big ditches came along, you could be a pirate on a summer’s day for a couple hours. Or you could play at being an army guy lurking in the jungles of the Philippines. In the wintertime, there was hockey, ice skating or simply sliding around on the ice for the fun of it.
My dad was probably the inspiration for some of our exploits. He told my brother and me stories of digging man traps in the sandy soil of the outer race wall when he was a boy. World War II was raging at the time, and the exploits of jungle fighters in the Pacific were reenacted in real life by lads everywhere.
In those days, kids didn’t suffer too much from helicopter parenting. Dad, my uncles and their assorted friends could disappear into the wilds of the race, catch crayfish, build a small fire and cook their lunches out of the sight of people prone to yelling at them.
As the war went on, there was an increasing demand for coal to fuel the furnaces of America’s industry. Old mines were reopened in some places and even the tiniest deposits of coal were scavenged from support pillars, walls and ceilings. This helped win the war but tainted our water with iron, sulfur and heavy metals when the old mines suddenly sprang leaks.
As a result, the creek and the mill races became polluted with things that aren’t good for crayfish and boys. But there were still things to do along the race, such as foraging for edible nuts.
I haven’t rambled along the race in the past few years, but there used to be any number of nut trees thriving in the sandy soil. The old timers who built the race back in the late 1800s would have shaken their heads at that. At the time, trees were the enemy standing in the way of progress and were meant to be cut down.
There is a photo in the new pictorial history book offered by the Redbank Valley Historical Society that I never get tired of looking at. It shows the old South Bethlehem mill race a few years after its construction, two mills grinding away on its banks, gently sloping fields unpopulated by homes. There is nary a tree to be seen.
These days, we mourn the passing of old buildings. The landscape we’re used to is changing in ways that we don’t like. On the other hand, the folks who came before us probably grieved as open fields disappeared beneath brick, stone and lumber.
People in my age group miss the old race as it used to be. On the other hand, it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. After the old mills went out of business and the water stopped flowing through the ditch, the race became a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other unhealthy things.
But the race is still home to all kinds of fascinating critters if you know where to look for them. You might not catch sight of a mink, but you can see the marks of its tail in the snow on a cold morning. Muskrats, squirrels, turtles and other familiar animals still call it home, even some reasonably healthy crayfish.
There is a lesson there for the human part of the ecosystem. Things change, but you can still make a life for yourself. Adaptability is a virtue.
Looking at the weather report, today might be a good day for a walk along the race. The leaves are mostly gone from the trees, so it should be a great day for hearing them crunch underfoot.
See you next week.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]