Great Allegheny Passage

Turning a dream into the nation’s greatest bike trail
Photos by Paul G Wiegman Cyclists on the 909-foot Keystone Viaduct in Somerset County at mile 30 of the Great Allegheny Passage. Cyclists on the 909-​foot Keystone Viaduct in Somerset County at mile 30 of the Great Allegheny Passage.
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On May 21, 1975, a small train rolled out of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station in Pittsburgh. At the head was a yellow, red and blue Chessie System locomotive, #6600 with asleeping kitten on the side. It was followed by a gleaming stainless steel Amtrak Silver Dome, #9401, and a vintage blue, white, red and silver Western Maryland coach, #1700.

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The passengers, a group of local officials, conservation organization officers and print and television reporters, were anticipating an historic ride. They had been invitedon the last passenger train to ply the route of thescheduled-​to-​be-​abandoned Western Maryland Railway, from the Bowest Yards near Connellsville, PA to Cumberland, MD.

The promotional ride was arranged by Western Maryland Railway executives and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to provide a first-​hand lookat the exceptionally scenic path of the Railway through the Allegheny Mountains, across the Eastern Continental Divide, to the edge of the Ridge and Valley Province and on to the Potomac River. After 70-​plus years of carrying freight and passengers, the line was becoming one more casualty in the great decline of the American rail system.

In the mid 1800s, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was the first to link the Potomac River basin on the prospering east coast to the growing midlands of the country via a railroad through the Allegheny Mountains. The line between Cumberland and Connellsville followed the easiest grade possible, through the mountains, not over them. The route was confined to the deep valleys carved by the Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers.

In the late 19th century, competition was fierce between railroads, and in 19111912 another line was built, the Western Maryland Railway. Space was limited in the narrow valleys of the mountains. The B&O had already secured the east, or north side, of the Casselman from Meyersdale to Confluence and the Youghiogheny River from Confluence to Connellsville, so the Western Maryland purchased land on the other side of the same rivers. Both railroads prospered through the 1950s, and the Western Maryland gained a reputation for fast freight over the twisting route.

Soon, however, the Western Maryland became part of the B&O and Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, which became the Chessie System. By the 1970s, operating both lines through the Alleghenies was no longer profitable, and since the B&O lines had been upgraded, the Western Maryland would be abandoned.

Its management, however, was proud of the route and knew its exceptional scenic qualities. Executives wanted to ensure that the scenic right-​of-​way, almost wholly owned by the railroad, would change from a route of steam power to one of human power. They envisioned a public trail replacing the tracks between Cumberland and Connellsville, the railway’s western terminus.

They first approached the National Park Service to purchase the land and build a National Park, an extension of the existing Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland. The reception was lukewarm. The railroad contacted other conservation groups with the same idea. But thecomplexity of owning and managing anarrow, linear park 150-​plus miles long, through remote and rugged terrain, was daunting. Group after group declined.

The Conservancy

Finally, they approached the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The conservancy had a history ofworking on projects in those mountains and had purchased much of Ohiopyle State Park, through which the Railway passed. Joshua Whetzel Jr., president of theconservancy, was familiar with the route and knew the value of long trails through spectacular landscapes. He embraced the idea and the conservancy accepted the challenge.

The conservancy was used to acquiring wild land, then finding a public agency to develop the property for recreation and hold it in per​pe​tu​ity​.In that mannerduring the 1960s, the conservancy and Pennsylvania State Parks had acquired much of the land for McConnell’s Mill, Oil Creek, Moraine and Ohiopyle state parks. They were also instrumental in assembling the bits and pieces of land to build the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, a 70-​mile backpacking trail following the summit of Laurel Ridge in the Allegheny Mountains. So the obvious public partner for the Railway Project was the Commonwealthof Pennsylvania.

Governor Milton Shapp, however, argued against the abandonment of the railway. On the other hand, the state Department of Environmental Resources favored it. It was during public hearings on the matter that George M. Leilich, V.P. of the Western Maryland, first referred to what would become the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail: “Instead of the railroad track cutting through the park, there will be an 18-​mile nature and bicycle pathway.”

The abandonment was granted Feb. 14, 1975, and almost immediately theconservancy began planning for a special train ride that May.

The last train to Cumberland left the station early in the morning. The day was sunny with spring in full leaf and flower.Passengers were excited to ride a train, which was becoming rarer and rarer, and especially to ride a historic train. From Pittsburgh to Connellsville, the route followed the Monongahela River. At McKeesport, the train turned and hugged the banks of the Youghiogheny. On the opposite banks, the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie Railroad still ran.

The little train pulled out of Connellsville and headed upstream along the south side of the wild and frothy Youghiogheny. Just before Ohiopyle, at the end of Bridge #237.9, a girder plate structure 663 feet long and 90 feet above the river, the train stopped. Passengers with the nerve walked the railing-​lessspan to the other side where they could photograph the last passenger train to cross. That bridge is now called the Ohiopyle High Bridge and is one of the most popular destinations for cyclists on the Great Allegheny Passage.

The train continued on toward Cumberland, the route highlighted by a uniquely curved and banked bridge over the Casselman River at Harnedsville, another high bridge, through the Pinkerton Tunnel and across another Casselman bridge between Fort Hill and Markleton.

In Rockwood, a gentleman stood near the tracks crossing Rockwood Road. His name was Maynard Stembower. He stood out among other long-​time Rockwoodresidents watching the last train because, as a boy 63 years earlier, Stembower had stood near the same spot and watchedthe first train on the Western Maryland. And on June 5, 1994, Maynard saw the beginning of another era and mode of transportation along the right-​of way. When the first section of what was then called the Allegheny Highlands Trail opened from Rockwood to Garrett, he was there. Now, Stembower is nearing the century mark and still greets visitors, offers sage advice and spends his summer days at the Great Allegheny Passage Trail Access Visitors Center in Rockwood.

After Rockwood, passengers on the train enjoyed the iconic Salisbury and Keystone Viaducts on either side of Meyersdale. Just after crossing the Eastern Continental Divide at over 2,300 feet above sea level, they then rolled into the soot black of the 3,300-foot Big Savage Tunnel. Emerging from the darkness onthe southeastern side was the crystal-​clear, breathtaking vista of the valley and ridge province, and from there, the roll downthe Allegheny Front to the Potomac River at Cumberland was an easy 20-​plus miles for the train.

The point of the small train and the journey was to introduce would-​be supporters to the idea of a biking/​hiking trail to take the place of the rails. The idea, which had yet to be popularly called “rails-​to-​trails,” was warmly accepted, and the journey was a success. Not only were passengers excited about the possibilities, they were ready to begin building trail. When asked by a New York Times reporter how long it would take to build such a trail, one answered optimistically: “a year or two.”

Frustration and Compromise

The next day, work in the conservancy offices began. Aside from the myriad real estate details involved in sorting out 75-​year-​old acquisition records along the right-​of-​way, one significant problem began to emerge.

The Pennsylvania DEP, especially the Bureau of State Parks, was becoming hesitant. The bureau would ultimately be responsible for developing the trail and maintaining and protecting the land.Overseeing a 1,000-acre park centered in a single area is one thing. It’s another to stretch those 1,000 acres out to 66 feet wide and 116 miles long. Management then becomes a nightmare, especially in remote areas with limited access.

Another problem was preserving and maintaining the structures: two major tunnels (the Big Savage and the Pinkerton), two viaducts (the Keystone and Salisbury) and eight major bridges — two of which already had a span missing. In addition, the Water Obstructions Act of 1913 clearly stated that if a bridge or other structure over a stream was abandoned, the owner was required to remove said structure if it wasn’t rehabilitated for another use. The deadline for such transformation was short by law, and it was possible that one arm of state government would force another arm to spend millions to seal the tunnels and demolish the bridges.

The conservancy’s plan had been to acquire the Western Maryland right-​of-​way and hold it until such time that the state could find the money for purchase. But this shifted the potential responsibility of sealing tunnels and removing bridges to the conservancy. And legal counsel noted that the responsibility could bankrupt the relatively small non-​profit conservancy.

Not to be deterred, Whetzel and John Oliver, then vice president of the conservancy, investigated the possibilities for putting the right-​of-​way to some use in addition to biking/​hiking, and thus avoid having to remove the tunnels and bridges. They contacted gas and oil pipeline companies, electrical transmission line operators, long-​distance telephone providers and logging companies. However, what made the Western Maryland the perfect route for a trail — long sections of wild, remote land away from major centers of population — made it less than perfect for channeling energy, communications and resources since it frankly “didn’t go anywhere.”

The state suggested acquiring just a part of the right-​of-​way, within the boundaries of Ohiopyle and a bit beyond — around 25 miles — which would extend the already popular and crowded state park. The railway, however, was adamant: the whole line had to be transferred. The conservancy was in the middle, supporting the acquisition of the whole line but dogged by the responsibility of the bridges and tunnels.

Ultimately, the state held fast and the conservancy acquiesced, scaling back the project and notifying the railway that its purchase would be land from Confluence to Bowest. In a letter to the Railway, Whetzel voiced his disappointment that the vision so welcomed by so many on the train in 1975 would be limited to a smaller project, but one that would protect some of the route’s best parts.

In June of 1978 the conservancy purchased 15 miles of the right-​of-​way within and beyond to the north and south of Ohiopyle. The reason behind the purchase wasn’t primarily for building a trail, but to protect the land from other interests, which might compromise the scenic and ecologic integrity of the outstanding landscape.

Getting Started

The sale was marked by a small ceremony. One of those present was a relatively new super-​intendent for Ohiopyle State Park, Larry Adams. He knew the land was intended for protection of the park, but he saw the potential of the long, nearly flat right-​of-​way. In the back of his mind was a bike trail.

With the help of park maintenance staff, he built a spreader that could take crushed limestone and lay it evenly on the surface where the rails, ties and most of the large heavy ballast had been removed. His connections with PennDOT got him a used roller which could level and compact the limestone. All he needed was limestone.

Each year he ordered crushed limestone for park projects, and he decided to add a little bit more than necessary “just in case he ran out.” He stockpiled it behind his office. Finally, with a spreader, roller and enough crushed limestone to build about nine miles of trail, he began. Startingat Ramcat Hollow on the south end ofthe park near Confluence, the unofficial experiment began. Slowly a trail made its way toward Ohiopyle, and in 1986 the first section of the Youghiogheny River Trail, later to become a part of the Great Allegheny Passage, opened quietly.

However, only the opening was quiet. Park visitors quickly discovered the trail and began bringing their bikes to the park and enjoying the ride along the middle Yough with its sweeping scenic vistas and short walks to the river’s edge. What had been the province of kayaks, canoes and rafts was now enjoyed from a terrestrial view. The first nine miles of bike trail was a huge success. And visitors asked for more.

Soon the Youghiogheny River Trailwas extended to the north and across the High Bridge providing a grand view of Railroad Rapids upstream and the equally spectacular view downstream. Whooping and hollering rafters on commercial trips floated 70 feet below cyclists enjoying the smooth and fenced ride across the High Bridge. Later the trail was completed to Bruner Run on one end and near Confluence on the other. More visitors came, and they wanted more. Otherstook notice.

Becoming Contagious

In Somerset County, much of the Western Maryland right-​of-​way remained intact, in the hands ofCSX Corporation. In the summer of 1986, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student named Joseph Kupec hiked the abandoned route. He wrote a “What I Did Last Summer” report and included recommendations to make a first-​classbiking/​hiking trail linked to the trailat Ohiopyle.

Hank Parke of the Somerset Chamber of Commerce read the report and asked Kupec to speak to a handful of local cyclists and conservationists. From that meeting, the Somerset County Rails to Trails Association was formed. Their purpose was to investigate acquiring the rest of the railway right-​of-​way and building the 42-​mile Allegheny Highlands Trail from the Mason-​Dixon Line to Confluence and linking with the trail in Ohiopyle.

After long negotiations and planning by local, county, state and federal groups, the project began. And, in 1994, the first seven miles of The Allegheny Highlands Trail between Rockwood and Garrett opened. As before, the new trail stimulated more interest and more trail building. However, further extension meant dealing with four major bridges over the Casselman, two major viaducts and two tunnels. No longer could dedicated volunteers tackle the undertaking; what lay ahead required millions of dollars.

Around the same time and closer to Pittsburgh, the popularity of the Youghiogheny River Trail in Ohiopyle was attracting attention, and cyclists thoughtof ways to access the trail without driving to Connellsville, Ohiopyle or Rockwood. One idea was to run a weekend excursion train with a baggage car for bikes on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie RR spur which ran from the P&LE Station on Pittsburgh’s South Side to Connellsville. A better solution arose when the P&LE abandoned that spur line to Connellsville.

In response a coalition of interested trail builders from Allegheny, Fayette and Westmoreland counties created the Regional Trail Corporation, and the nonprofit’s first action was to buy the P&LE right-​of-​way and start building trail.

In 1993, the first portions of the Youghiogheny River Trail North were complete. New pieces were added each year through the 1990s with the final connections between McKeesport and Connellsville reaching completion in 2001.The same year, trail was finished between Rockwood and the Pinkerton Horn in Somerset County. To mark the connection of these once-​isolated trails now totaling 100 miles, supporters held a multi-​daycelebration, marking the opening of a first-​class bike trail from the Salisbury Viaduct in Somerset County to McKeesport, just nine miles from Pittsburgh. The Great Allegheny Passage was at hand.

Other States, Other Links

Bike trail fever spread across the Mason-​Dixon Line into Maryland, where the Alleghany County Highlands Trail of Maryland began in 1992, again following the path of the Western Maryland Rail​road​.In 1995, rail trail groups gathered at Hidden Valley Resort to talk about their respective projects and share ideas. They formed the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) to provide a single voice for the seven trails which were beginning to coalesce. Linda Boxx took over as president of the ATA and brought regional trail groups together. With a single, cohesive voice, the ATA might win the support of legislators and attract state and federal funding as well as support from private foundations. The gambit worked, and money began flowing.

Now came the huge task of resurfacing bridges, viaducts and tunnels and turning these former obstacles into usable partsof the Great Allegheny Passage. The most formidable was the Big Savage Tunnel. Although a scant 3,294.6 feet long and just four-​tenths of a percent of the 153-​mile trail, the Big Savage couldn’t be avoided. The only ways around the tunnel through Big Savage Mountain were either up overa rocky path leading to the summit or a winding route from Deal, PA to Cumberland along steep and narrow roads.

In early 2001, estimates for rehabilitating the Big Savage Tunnel were just under $8 million. Both ends had collapsed from 25-​plus years of neglect in the harsh environment of some of Pennsylvania’s highest parts. Ground seepage had broken through the old railroad liner, and waste-​deep water filled the tunnel. As contractors found new problems, costs grew, imperiling the project. But two years later at a cost of more than $12 million, the Big Savage Tunnel was completed.

On Dec. 13, 2006, the final nine miles between Woodcock Hollow and Cumberland opened, linking the Great Allegheny Passage to the already existent C&O Towpath from Cumberland east.

The Final Stage

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and several local groups had been building trails along the city’s three rivers: the Eliza Furnace trail, the South Side trail and a trail leading from the former South Side steel works to West Homestead.Connecting to McKeesport was the logical next step.

With the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh in 2008, completing the passage into the city became a top priority. The rehabilitated Hot Metal Bridge connecting the Eliza Furnace Trail and the Southside Trail was dedicated last fall. And the filling of gaps between McKeesport and Pittsburgh accelerated to accomplish the final link in time for the official 250th celebration in November.

The result — the creation of a bike trail between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.— represents the consummation of the dream and efforts of visionary Western Pennsylvanians for the enjoyment of generations to come. pq

On Sept. 27, a group of Pittsburghers will leave Washington, D.C., biking the 318-​mile trail to Pittsburgh. Part of the Pittsburgh 250 celebration, the ride will culminate with a party Downtown at Point State Park.

Paul G. Wiegman

Paul is a photographer, writer and naturalist. Trained as a botanist, he has been active in conservation for 40 years. His photography has appeared in publications, including The New York Times, National Geographic and Time-​Life and Readers Digest Books.

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