June 27, 2014
In the Appalachians of north central Pennsylvania, at the top of Ice Mine Road, $4 will get you admission to something a little different from the campsites and hiking trails around there.
A lot of folklore is attached to the Coudersport Ice Mine, including the rumor that it’s man-made. That’s because some people, even people who live here, can’t believe that the ice inside only forms here during the summertime.
But 19-year-old tour guide Jeff McManus is a believer.
"I’ve lived here my whole life. My dad was a tour guide in the 70s, and my grandma worked in the gift shop in the 50s," McManus says.
The site has been closed longer than he’s been alive, but it’s just reopened under new management. McManus says he couldn’t wait to work here.
He unlocks a weathered door with a shiny new set of keys to lead visitors to the shaft. It’s about 32 degrees behind the door and feels like walking into a refrigerator. Only a few people at a time can stand around a wooden platform and lean over the metal railing which surrounds the opening into the earth. It’s really just an eight-by-10-foot pit—a cave a few dozen feet deep. Look down into it, and you'll see there are icicles like elephant tusks clinging to the sides of the mine.
"There’s about 18 inches of ice right now on the bottom," McManus says.
All around the opening are layers of rocks covered in moss and dripping with water. It’s a small dungeon-like room that’s open at the top. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a Lord of the Rings film. Looking up, you see clouds and old hemlock trees swaying in the breeze.
"They think that during the winter the air is pushed into the mountain because the rocks are layered like this through the whole mountain," McManus explains. "And then, in the summer, the air comes out, mixes with the humidity and the heat, forming the ice."
You can feel the cool air if you put your hand up to the tower of rocks. And the hotter it is outside, the more ice forms.
"A few weeks ago there was ice around the whole entire thing, touching the bottom. But because it’s been colder weather, and we had all this rain, it’s broken down inside," McManus says.
The mine was discovered by a silver prospector in 1894. Originally, it was used to store meat, and the ice was harvested. It was turned into a tourist attraction in the early 1900s. This ice mine is one of many so-called "cold spots" that can be found from southern New York to West Virginia in these mountains.
Diana Buchsen and her husband Gary own a nearby inn and bought the old ice mine about a year ago. They’ve restored it—right down to putting in begonias similar to the ones planted here during the mine's heyday. Buchsen says the ice mine is never going to be Niagara Falls or an amusement park, but she wants visitors to experience something else here.
"It just gives you a special feeling when you’re in there. I just hope they take that quietness and peacefulness and stress-free lifestyle that we’re hoping to promote up here," Buchsen says.
So far hundreds of visitors have come to take a peek at the ice and sign the guest book—some from as far away as Germany. Buchsen’s cousin Chris Herzig didn’t travel as far—she’s from right here in Coudersport. She’s been to the mine many times over the years, but says she has a new idea for how to promote it.
"Those of us that are of a certain age, that have hot flashes, I think there should be a special ticket that you can go in and out as many times as needed, for medicinal purposes," she says.
Vintage postcard of Coudersport Ice Mine courtesy of Hank Edenborn.