Spirit of Hallton Hilton Owner John Handley Lives On

jhHALLTON, Pa. (EYT) – The Hallton Hilton is a thing of legend and mystery.

While the future of the landmark is still in question after the unexpected death of its owner John B. Handley, 68, on June 13, stories of the bar known for its half-pound belly buster burgers will live on for years.

Many people think the Hallton Hilton WAS John Handley and couldn’t ever be the same without him.

Officially titled the Hallton Sportsmens’ Lodge, it is located in Elk County eight miles south of Ridgway on the banks of the Clarion River. According to relatives, people just started calling it the Hallton Hilton and the name just stuck. Word of mouth brought many people and, in some cases, visits resembled a pilgrimage of sorts.

This wasn’t some fancy lounge offering a changing variety of booze in the middle of nowhere. The burgers were rumored to be part venison; restrooms were often an adventure in themselves; and John was always there to talk to people and provide some of his perspective, at least when he wasn’t in his pickup truck parked next to the building. Some of the highest praise came from the people he served for years, describing him as quiet, honest, and honorable.

Some even sung about the Hallton Hilton.

John Handley owned the business for 40 years, and he had plenty of stories to tell about the town where he lived all his life. He also had no illusions about his town, once telling a writer “When I was born, this town was on its deathbed.”

Handley graduated from Ridgway High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall in 1969, and a master’s degree in 1971. He tried substitute teaching for a while and eventually took over the family business in about 1975. The Hallton Hilton became his classroom, and he had plenty of pupils over the years.

John’s parents, John L. and Elmira L. Handley, bought the bar in 1964 from Blair Burked who started the bar.

Hallton History


An article written by Sam MacDonald and published in Western Pennsylvania History Magazine in its Winter 2005 issue offered a history of the Hallton Hilton building.

“Hallton residents built the structure in the early 1920s as a hall for the local grange, a fraternal organization for farmers. At the time, the township in which it was located, Spring Creek Township, was booming. The remote region’s hemlock and hardwoods were immensely valuable to the increasingly industrial American economy, especially as timber resources became scarce around Williamsport, 100 miles to the east and at one point the lumber capital of the world.”

“By 1890, more than 1,400 people lived in Hallton, Arroyo, and other Spring Creek communities.’ in Hallton alone, a sawmill, shingle mill, wood-chemical plant, and tannery slowly stripped the hillsides. The town boasted two barbershops and three churches. The company store was three stories high with elevators. Clerks wore red neckties and bowed to customers. There was a town band. But Hallton’s population peaked at just over 2,100 in the early 1900s. Mills and factories closed as the timber industry moved west and the industrial economy found substitutes for many of the region’s wood-chemical products. The company store burned to the ground in 1930. By then, the entire township’s population had plummeted to 427.”

“By the time the chemical plant closed after World War II, the roads were so bad that schoolchildren had to take a special train every day to Portland Mills before boarding the bus to Ridgway. The Hallton Post Office closed in 1974, when just six families called the town home. The Hallton Hilton is the last business left, sharing the wooded area with hunting camps and a few permanent residences.”

“The building changed from grange hall to general store to boarding house before becoming the Spring Creek Sportsmen’s Lodge.”

Customers Remember

Many former customers remembered John Handley on the Facebook Page, “I Survived the Hallton Hilton.”

We’ll let a sampling of their testimony show the impact of John Handley.

“Going to camp for a week starting this weekend. Sure won’t be the same not going to see my buddy John. I will make it a point to stop and have a shot in the parking lot in his memory – guaranteed!! RIP John!!”

“I live near Hallton and it was where my friends and I grew up partying. I used to always joke around with John about how I loved it so much there and my dream job was to work there. I always used to ask him where to apply and would leave him my number and tell him to call me when he was hiring. One day a year or so later I had a voicemail from him asking me to work and I couldn’t believe it! I called back and asked if it was a joke, sure enough it wasn’t! I’m so happy I got to bartend for him when I did. He taught me a lot and always told me great stories and looked out for me. I made better money there than I do as a nurse! I’m thankful for my memories with a legend and will never forget my good times on both sides of the bar. I’ll miss the jukebox and crushing cans. Rest easy buddy!”

“I am so glad that we decided to drive to Hallton last weekend. I love driving along the river when we are at camp and we have stopped in a few times in the last year or so that we have had a camp. My family and camp friends have been going there for several years. I was glad to drive by to pause to think of John and how I will miss him and his establishment. I had the opportunity to meet his family as they were outside and I was thankful to meet them and give them my condolences in person. It was under terrible circumstances that led me to meeting them and I give them my sympathy and prayers. That bar had character and there was always something of interest there from the great liquor selection to the laminated historical papers about that area to the signed dollar bills on the wall. John was always pleasant and it was one of the most unique bars I’ve ever seen. May he rest in eternal peace.”

“I found out my parents went on their first date at the Hallton, almost 41 years ago. On top of that, I was surprised to learn MY first trip there was with them when I was only a couple weeks old and they went there for dinner. Plopped my carrier right up on the table. So I guess I was drinking a bottle along with everyone else.”

“People make big deals all the time about celebs dying ‘the loss of an icon or loss of a legend.’ Somebody that you never even met. But we truly lost a legend and icon. So many great and crazy stories. Countless! R.I.P. John! You had a part in so many lives for so long! It’s a truly sad day.”

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