It is hard to imagine, but the steel mills of Pittsburgh led to the creation of Keystone State Park. The mills needed coke, partially burned coal, to make steel. To make coke, the coal companies needed to burn coal and quickly extinguish it, thus needing large amounts of water.
In 1909, the Keystone Coal and Coke Company purchased land at the meeting of McCune and Davis runs and built a lake to supply water for washing bituminous coal and to quench the coke from their coke ovens at Salem #1 Mine. The water from Keystone Lake flowed, gravity-fed, through two miles of wooden pipes to the coal washing facility. A similar pipe is on display in the James A. Kell Visitor Center.
Executives of the company used Keystone Lake for fishing, swimming, and boating. Stories abound about local residents who used the lake for recreation too, although with a wary eye out for the authorities who might chase them away for trespassing.
The company built a stone lodge to be used as a meeting place for business, as well as a hunting lodge. Executives were allotted the lodge for one week a year for family vacations. Now called the James A. Kell Visitor Center, the lodge houses mining artifacts and natural history exhibits.
In 1938, Keystone Coal and Coke Company opened Salem #2 Mine. The coal vein was between two and four feet thick, forcing the miners to work on their hands and knees. It was called a drift mine because the mine plunged horizontally into a hillside. The mine closed in 1953.
The sealed mine entrance is east of Pavilion #2 and north of the cabin entrance road. The ground underneath Hillside Campground and the cabin colony is honeycombed with miles of tunnels. A fascinating map of these tunnels is on display in the visitor center.
In 1945, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the lake, lodge and surrounding land, and later the land by Salem #2 Mine, from the Keystone Coal and Coke Company, which is reflected in the park’s name. When visiting the tranquil forests, fields and lake, remember that Keystone State Park was born of the fires and noise of steel mills.