An animal skull marks a trail in Dead Man's Hollow. Image courtesy of Allegheny Land Trust.

A certain mystique surrounds Dead Man’s Hollow, a 450-acre patch of land located in the Youghiogheny River Valley. Remnants of a ghost town still remain from its industrial days, including the ruins of the Union Sewer Pipe Factory that burned down in the 1920s. Then there’s its unusual history.

“There are a multitude of stories connected to mysterious happenings associated with the area,” says Allegheny Land Trust (ALT) employee Keri Rouse, who serves as the community coordinator for the Hollow.

Now, two decades after ALT acquired Dead Man’s Hollow, the organization unveiled a management plan to find new ways to preserve the land and tap into its recreational potential. Their efforts include improving its habitats, removing invasive plant species and expanding its existing trails.

In the time since she started overseeing the Hollow, Rouse has become quite familiar with its haunted reputation. Even its name comes from an 1874 tale about a body found hanging from a tree.

“I prefer the ones about the 40-foot snake that supposedly lives there, and the stolen bank loot that’s still hidden on the property,” Rouse says with a laugh.

Pennsylvania Haunts & History, a blog dedicated to collecting the state’s various myths, legends and ghost stories, mentions other strange occurrences connected to Dead Man’s Hollow, including suspected murders and reports of restless spirits.

But under all the macabre and mystery is a place rich with natural wonder. In 1994, the Allegheny County Natural Heritage Inventory identified Dead Man’s Hollow as one of the region’s significant ecological areas. Last January, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources designated it as part of their Wild Plant Sanctuary Program for its abundance of native wildflowers and other flora. It’s also home to a wide variety of wildlife, including 26 bird species.

Currently, the Hollow stands as the largest privately protected conservation area in Allegheny County.

The ALT also plans to recognize the site’s industrial past by nominating it to the National Register of Historic Places. Before the Union Sewer Pipe Factory, the property was home to a brickworks, and before that, a quarry where the use of explosives was common.

“You can still see some of the vertical fractures in the rock where they would drill down and place dynamite,” says Rouse.

The ruins of Dead Man's Hollow. Image courtesy of Allegheny Land Trust.
The ghostly ruins of Dead Man’s Hollow. Image courtesy of Allegheny Land Trust.
The ghostly ruins of Dead Man’s Hollow. Image courtesy of Allegheny Land Trust.

While the Hollow remains a mystery to many, the ALT aims to change that by opening it up to more hikers and bikers. Right now, six miles of woodland trails weave throughout the property. It also sits along the Great Allegheny Passage, a bike trail that spans from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MA.

Rouse says ALT’s plan includes extending the Hollow’s trails to 10 miles and making them more sustainable, as many were converted from old logging roads. To achieve this, ALT will host volunteer opportunities in the coming months and work with organizations like Landforce, a Pittsburgh-based land stewardship nonprofit that provides workforce development to adults struggling with unemployment.

They’re also focused on plants and wildlife. Earlier this month, ALT partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Carnegie Museum of Natural History to plant 336 tree seedlings in Dead Man’s Hollow. The effort is meant to restore the forest understory and create a more favorable habitat for resident and migratory birds.

“We’re working with several different partners to improve the area and make it a safe, healthy place for people and animals,” says Rouse.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.