McConnells Mills State Park, PA 
June 7, 2006
  Edward Frank
  Jun 14, 2006 17:48 PDT 

On Wednesday June 7, 2006 Anthony Kelly, Carl Harting, Dale Luthringer, and I (Ed Frank) met at McConnells Mill State Park in western Pennsylvania to look for big trees. This party represents all four people from western Pennsylvania actively measuring trees. We had all be out exploring and measuring trees in various combinations of two and three people, but I think this was the first time all four of us had been on the same trip.   Dale was at the park to attend a Pa DCNR Region 2 EIT/EES Meeting. The rest of us met him after the meeting for the trip.

May first trip to the park was with Carl and Anthony on January 28, 2006

Anthony had made some amazing finds at the park and Carl had contributed to the effort on several other trips. In May Anthony reported a RHI10 of 130.62 effective May 13, 2006.

Part of the purpose of this trip was to show Dale the amazing finds and to see if higher tops could be found on any of these trees. I had planned on focusing on photography on this trip, but accidentally left my compact flash cards at home in my card reader, so I did not have any "film" for my digital camera. Carl took photos which illustrate the main trip report. I will not repeat the numbers we obtained on the trip, the nuts and bolts are well described in Anthony's report. I want to focus on some general impressions and observations of what was found.

The first stop was to look at the 131.6 foot cucumber magnolia tree near one rim of Slippery Rock Gorge. The short walk down passes a number of large impressive oaks with broad sweeping tops. Sugar maples, red maples, tuliptrees, and beeches were also present in large sizes. The boundaries between what had been more recently cut and the older tree area was quite distinct, forming a wedge of older big trees among the younger trees. Aside from the large cucumbertree, the most interesting tree was a white oak located almost on the rim of the gorge. It had thick branches beginning just a few feet off the ground. Usually this is an indication of a tree growing in an opening. Was this an old field tree? Did it grow in a natural opening? or was its proximity to the open gorge responsible for the growth pattern? To my untrained eye the tree seemed old. People were living in the area in the late 1820's. That was 180 years ago, so a tree left in a filed or growing on the edge og a field dating from that time could still be very old.

Leaving this area we next went to the other side of the gorge to what Anthony calls the "Big Woods" area. Here there is a short trail across private land before reaching the park land itself. The trail is used by horses and riders and is therefore open and an easy walk. Here and there are trees that likely were growing in old fields. Massive, heavy, low branched oaks are the most spectacular. Farther along we abruptly hit a change in character from younger forest to much older trees. We paused to examine a large red oak in the 12 x 100 foot class along side of the trail. We had discussions on the identification of slippery (red) elm, and how to distinguish various types of hickories. Several different hickory species are present in the area including shagbark, bitternut, and pignut. We paused to measure a modest sized sassafras - not a record holder - a tree for which we have few measurements in the Pennsylvania database. A large impressive black oak is growing aside the trail. In the woods are black oak, red oak, chestnut oak, and white oak. All of them grow to large size. Around the rim of the gorge the white is impressive, not so much in size, but by how gnarled and contorted it is in response to the weather blowing down the canyon.

Cucumber in winter - photo by Ed Frank

100_2376b.jpg (78954 bytes)

Cucumber in June - photo by Carl Harting


For me personally the size of the trees is impressive, but the signs of age exhibited by some of the trees has an even greater impact. One cucumber tree has shaggy bark extending up the tree for at least 50 feet. In the winter we thought is was a cucumber, but its expression was so unusual that we wanted to see the leaves to remove the last vestiges of doubt. We looked at black gum with deeply etched crevices between the bark scales. There was a black walnut again with impressively shaggy bark. Sugar maple kept in style with shaggy bark of its own. There are large beech trees, with smooth gray bark, for the most part unmarked by vandals and without signs of beech bark disease. One large maple had moss growing thirty feet of more up its trunk smoothed by balding. Some of the oaks had furrows in the bark deep enough to fit your hand. There were trees with staghead branching forming the vaulted canopy, There was a dead basswood tree that had fallen across the trail. In the chain-sawed end where the trail had been cleared, Dale counted 178 rings at a height of 19.2 feet above the base of the tree. All the rings were close together, rowing with even finer bands near the outer bark. How long does basswood live? I don't know. Both large oaks and tuliptrees had many examples of thickly furrowed bark on one side and balding to an almost smooth surface on another. The impression was of age - true or false these trees felt old.

100_2383b.jpg (87443 bytes)

Ancient sugar maple with mossy trunk - photo by Carl Harting

100_2386b.jpg (87559 bytes)

Carl Harting and Dale Luthringer examine the mossy sugar maple - photo by Ed Frank

One of the discussions we had was the old debate of whether this was old growth or not. To some degree most of the eastern forests have been impacted by human activities. The question becomes in the east, how much impact can man have had before something can no longer be considered old growth? Maurice Schwartz at one time posted to the discussion list a post listing 98 definitions of old growth he had located on the internet. Was this area old growth? I suppose it depends on your definition and how you interpret the landscape in front of you. A nice discussion of the characteristics of old growth can be found on the 500-year Forest Foundation website -   I am not sure if many of you have visited the website.

Here in the Big Woods area of mcconnells Mill State Park there were no signs of stumps or other logging activities visible. Anthony said there were two stumps visible in the entire area. Dale felt that the area had been selectively logged at some point in the past, but that the signs of the operation had long since faded and the stumps rotted.

On the site we found many species that likely exceeded 150 to 200+ years in age: Cucumbertree, Tuliptree, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Northern Red Oak, White Oak,, and American Basswood. Dale reported finding an Eastern Hemlock near the mill and some American Beech that also might meet this age criteria. There are some old looking Black Walnut in the park with shaggy bark. Personally I want to add Black Gum and Chestnut Oak, but this is only an impression with no hard support for the estimate. There is a chance that other species besides these may reach similar ages in the park. There is no way to look at a tree and say this tree is exactly this age - an educated guess is made based upon what we know are characteristics of old age.   There was an uneven aged canopy - older fat trees mixed with younger skinnier ones. There were downed logs on the forest floor. Perhaps there were not as many as can be found at places like Cook Forest, and the distribution of the downed logs varied from areas with few to areas with many downed logs. There were occasional standing snags among the trees, but they were few in number. What does this tell you? Are they absent because of human activities or absent because of local conditions?

Pit and mound topography: There are some pits and mounds related to tree falls. I personally am not sure how definitive that characteristic really is. The time duration of the tip-up mounds would be dependant on the type of soil present on the site and the species of trees involved. It is dependant on the speed of erosion and other mass wasting processes on the site.   Areas containing float blocks of large rocks can easily be mistaken for pit and mound topography, especially if covered by a layer of soil or moss.

Other characteristics:   There were some treefall gaps. There seemed to be a diversity of trees and plants, we did not search for amphibians or invertebrates. There were a number of different bird calls and small squirrels and chipmunks present. We saw white-tailed deer. There were signs of other mammals.

One classification system mentioned by Dale involved determining whether or not here were at least 6 to 7 trees 150 years or older per acre. An acre is a circle just under 120 feet, or 40 yards in radius. In this area that was generally a circle about as far as you could easily see through the trees. There were commonly 5 trees per acre that made this age category - if our age estimates were right. There were big tuliptrees scattered everywhere, but were likely not be old enough to meet the 150 year criteria. Is it old-growth? I still don't know. It is a matter of what definitions you use, and what interpretations you make of what you see.

On future trips to the area I would like to measure more of the mid-to-small sized trees of other species I could see growing in the area to better characterized the diversity of trees present on the site. I would like to better document photographically some of the old-age characteristics exhibited by some of these trees. Examples like these are extremely uncommon. I would want to make sure that the GPS location of the trees I photographed were taken. I am convinced that there is a state record beech tree in the area, given the large number in the upper 110's and low 120's. Anthony has looked, and so have Carl and I, without luck, but still...

Ed Frank

RE: McConnells Mills State Park, PA 
June 7, 2006
  Anthony Kelly
  Jun 15, 2006 20:32 PDT 

Ed, Ents,

Ed, good synopsis of our day at McConnells Mill State Park. Like you said,
it was great to have all four Western PA ents together on one outing. I was
especially happy to finally show Dale some of the big tree areas that I'd
discovered in the park and get his opinion on them. He was also able to
verify the species of certain tall trees about which I'd had some doubts.   
Regrettably we were only had about fives hours, so I was only able to show
him the highlights. I've so far spend about 100 hours exploring the park
and have found a lot of incredible trees which we weren't able to get to on
this trip.

As Ed reported, first we visited PA height record cucumbertree on the
southern bank of the Slippery Rock Creek Gorge which runs through the park.
I first discovered the tree back in November. Ed Frank, Carl Harting, and I
had measured it in January and settled conservatively on 130.3'. Dale
remeasured it twice last Wednesday getting 131.5 both times. We averaged
this with a number of previous measurements that I had done and got 131.6',
which we decided is probably the most accurate estimate for the height of
the tree.

Incidentally, as we pulled up to park along the road a couple hundred feet
from this tree, Dale recognized the Road Closed sign and remarked that he'd
already stopped there on one of his previous trips to the park. For whatever
reason, though, he decided that it wasn't worth getting out and exploring.
Unfortunate decision. He'd just missed discovering that whopper
cucumbertree himself!

After our visit to the cucumber, we were off to the "big woods" section, as
I've heard the local folks call it. I've reported on this area extensively
in past posts. It is a relatively flat area (supposedly 75 acres) that
abuts the Slippery Rock Creek Gorge along part of its northern bank.   It
contains among other specimens a number of fat Red oaks with >10ft girths
(largest 13.5'X110.1'), about a dozen Tulip Poplars >130ft tall (largest
10.8'X146.0') some of which have very deeply furrowed bark, several large
cucumbers and tall beeches, and a number of very old looking black gums, one
of which is a PA height record (6í4ĒX110.6').

100_2372a.jpg (1957595 bytes) 

Champion Cucumbertree with Anthony for scale - photo by Carl Harting

In contrast with most of the sites down inside the gorge itself, this site
is hardly inaccessible. It's always been a mystery to me why it contains so
many large and tall trees. It is clear where the old property lines were
from the abrupt changes in tree size and the presence of stumps in adjacent
areas. Though I usually referred to it as "old-growth", I have questioned in
previous posts how "virgin" the site is never believing that it was
completely untouched. I've explored about 80-90% of its reputed 75 acres
and have only seen two very old stumps. I've always assumed that the farmer
that settled that land, and the subsequent owners kept that piece as a
timber reserve only taking out a tree here and there over the years as they
needed lumber. I doubt that it was ever clear-cut as there are some trees
that show very old bark patterns and other signs of advanced age.

As Ed reported, Dale stopped short of classifying this particular area as
old-growth, noting that there is a lower density of old trees than is
normally considered necessary for a forest to be strictly considered
old-growth. He believes it must have undergone at least some logging if
very long ago.

100_2378a.jpg (1704061 bytes)

Dale looking at large American Beech - photo by Carl Harting

Actually, Iíve just thought of another possible factor in addition to human
intervention that might help account for the low density of older trees.
Perhaps the area contained a lot of American Chestnut trees that would have
been lost in the early 1900's leaving big gaps. Just a speculation.

Another thing that has always been a mystery to me is the lack of hemlock
trees outside of gorge and its deeper tributary ravines. Even in those
riparian areas that do contain hemlocks, there are no large ones like you
see at Cook Forest or other Central Pennsylvania sites. Were they all
harvested at one point? If this were true, I would imagine that there would
now be at least a few younger ones scattered around, but there are not. Is
it because this is simply a different forest type? The geology of the area
is more like that of flat Ohio than mountainous Central PA. Would that
account for it? I'm not at all familiar with this part of the state. The
lack of hemlocks is probably normal for this area. I'm probably just too
used to the Allegheny Mountain forests.

Just below the big woods area down inside the gorge is an area known as
Walnut Flats which we accessed by an old wagon road.   As I've said in a
past report, Walnut Flats contains some of the tallest trees in the park
including two PA height records (American Basswood, 6'5"X127.1'; Slippery
Elm, 9'0"X127.0').

The species content of this area is much different than the big woods area
just on top of the gorge. In Walnut Flats there are numerous American
basswoods, bitternut hickories, white ashes, sycamores, and sugar maples
with a few Slippery Elms and, of course, Black Walnuts scattered about.
Tulips and beeches are plentiful, as above the gorge, but oaks are few. The
old-looking, moss-covered maple pictured in Ed's website report is down
there, as is downed American basswood cutaway whose ~180 rings Dale and Ed
counted. I don't believe that they measured the girth of that log. I'll
make it a point to do so on my next trip. (I found a larger-girthed living
American basswood in another part of the gorge measuring 9'3"X118.4'. It,
too, is ancient looking.)

100_2387a.jpg (1847408 bytes)

Rough barked black walnut - photo by Carl Harting

Though Dale balked at classifying the big woods section as old-growth, he
had no trouble considering Walnut Flats and much of the forest down inside
the gorge as such. Here as in many other areas inside the gorge the trees
show a lot of very interesting bark and branching patterns. My two favorite
trees in this area are the maple mentioned earlier and a black walnut tree
with deep large sections of bark peeling off in thick twisted plates. Dale
said that heíd seen that character before but never as pronounce as on that

Because of the sizes of many of trees, itís easy to become distracted and
forget to notice some of these more unusual characters that donít always
appear on the largest trees but that in many ways are a lot more interesting
than sheer size. As I spend more time at McConnells Mill, Iím learning to
appreciate these features more.

We didnít measure many trees this trip. A number of the ones we did measure
were re-measures. Below is a list of trees measured either on this trip or
on my own recent trips that I havenít yet posted. I plan post a
comprehensive list of all the trees weíve measured at McConnells Mill soon.

Species CBH Height Measurer(s)

Black walnut 10.1     110.9     Luthringer
Cucumbertree 10.3     131.6     Frank, Harting, Kelly, Luthringer
N. red oak 12.6     107.5+   Luthringer
Pignut hickory 4.4       96.9       Luthringer
Red Maple       7.9      107.4     Kelly
Sassafras 3.9       63.7       Luthringer
Slippery Elm    9.0      127.0     Kelly
Sugar Maple    8í8Ē     123.0     Kelly, Luthringer

Slippery Rock Creek Gorge
Rucker Index as of 6/11/2006:

Tulip Poplar             10'9"        146.0'   (Kelly)
White Ash              6'7"         137.7' (Kelly)
Sycamore             9'0"         137.5' (Kelly)
Bitternut Hickory     5'10"        132.7' (Kelly)
Cucumbertree        10'2"        131.6' (Frank, Harting, Kelly, Luthringer)
Am Basswood         6'5"         127.1' (Kelly)
S. Elm                   9'0"         127.0' (Kelly)
N. Red Oak            9'7"         123.1' (Harting)
Sugar Maple           8'8"         123.0' (Kelly, Luthringer)
E. Hemlock             n/a          122.8' (Luthringer)

Rucker Index = 130.85

PA height records in Slippery Rock Creek Gorge Area:

Am Basswood         6'5"         127.1'
Cucumbertree         10'2"        131.6'
S. Elm                    9'0"         127.0'
Black Gum              6'4"        110.6'

Anthony Kelly

Re: McConnells Mills State Park
PA, June 7, 2006
  Edward Frank
  Jun 16, 2006 07:09 PDT 


Nice article. I will comment more later. Just one point about the chestnut
speculation. Definitely not loss of chestnuts. If they had been present
the logs stumps, and many standing chestnut snags would still be present.
Any place that had chestnuts still show these characteristics as if it were
only a short time ago due to the resistance to rot of the chestnut.

RE: McConnells Mills State Park, PA
June 7, 2006
  Jun 16, 2006 21:29 PDT 


Yes, I definitely got 'scooped' on the new cuke' record. That's what I
get for not planning enough time in my day for a little extra measuring
time in the woods. That cucumber is truly worth its NE height champ

Tulips at McConnells Mill have the potential to reach great age. There
was a large tuliptree cross section taken from one of the harvested
tulips within the park which is now located at the old mill that went
well over 300 rings (darned if I can't remember the number, forgot to
right it down) to a hollow ~4" center.

The 8'8" x 123 sugar maple height was only shot 1x from directly
underneath through full leaf cover. This tree has potential to be new
state height record if more thoroughly measured after leaf-off, or if a
new window farther away from tree is found. The current PA height
record is 126.1+ft located in Wintergreen Gorge behind Penn State

Great job, Anthony! That was a splendid day in the woods. Can't
thank-you enough for superb guided tour of the area.