By Cindy Ross, Travel Author, Cindy Ross Traveler
In this new era of Covid-19, rail trails seem to be one of the safest places to recreate. Exercising in the great outdoors is an excellent way to stay healthy, alleviate stress, and find enjoyment in life. When passing others coming from the opposite direction, consider offering a wave instead of speaking, to make sure everyone is comfortable. Carry a mask when visiting any shops, restaurants, or in gatherings of large numbers of people. Carry hand sanitizer and use when accessing porta potties, public restrooms, and all public places. Bear in mind that the Covid-19 closures and openings have a fluid, changing status, so check before you depart and stay abreast of new decisions.
The tunnel yawns before us, exhaling cold breath. We stand with our bicycles poised at the entrance, the air thickened with fog. Sunbeams stab through the mist, but the passage before us is soon swallowed in darkness. Above the gaping mouth, it bears the name Big Savage Tunnel. As we wait, a woman emerges from the dimly lit channel, plodding along with a bloodied knee. She pushes her bike, looking as if the tunnel chewed her up and spit her back out. With no further hesitation, we push off determinedly into the mountain.
The 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel is one of numerous highlights along the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail, (GAP) which traverses 150 miles between Cumberland MD, and Pittsburgh, PA. This multi-use trail leads through historic coal towns, spans massive viaducts and bores through the Allegheny mountains. These architectural feats were undertaken during the early 1800’s, with the expansion of railroads. The passage follows corridors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Western Maryland Railway, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and the Union Railroad. What better way to appreciate this history of movement, then by retracing the timeline on our bicycles. My family and I are spending four days cycling the rail trail, covering 35-45 miles a day. We have chosen to stay at trailside B&Bs along the way, adding some end-of-the-day comfort as well as lighten our load.
The ambitious movement that tunneled through mountains and spanned valleys, was intensified in Pittsburgh. This was where we too, begin our journey. Once a steel-producing mecca, this city is now vibrant with an equally tangible, cleaner energy, standing as a sustainability model for scientists and architects. It boasts 446 bridges, more than any other city in the world. Before embarking onto the rail trail, we wheel around Point State Park, where a dramatic fountain shoots skyward. This park sits at the confluence of three mighty rivers, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, as they fuse to become the Ohio River.
The Monongahela accompanies us as we begin the first leg of our journey. Following Second Avenue we link up with the Steel Valley Heritage Trail, leading from Pittsburgh’s outskirts through 250 years of history. We cross the Hot Metal Bridge, where molten steel was paraded from blast furnaces to open hearths. We pass Carrie Furnace, a former blast furnace that once produced 1,000 to 1,250 tons of iron daily. A monstrous slag pot caked to the brim with deposits, is now a trailside attraction. Sweating under the blazing sun, we imagine this ant hive of activity and the blood flow of molten metal that gave Pittsburgh life.
We pedal by Duquesne, only a few buildings remaining from a steel town that once employed 10,000 men. The trail crosses two flyaway bridges, offering views of the Edgar Thompson Works, the last steel plant in the valley. In the distance looms the high-speed roller coasters of Kennywood, juxtaposed with the sluggish river of coal trains passing below us.
Throughout the day, we pedal through “patches”, small coal mining towns nestled in the Allegheny mountains. A red waterfall of acid mine drainage bleeds out from the hillside, a remnant of coal mining days.
As the humidity builds into storm clouds, we take shelter under a pavilion at Dravo Cemetery, once a humble settlement with a Methodist Church. Gravestones are marked with the names of early settlers, as well as nine Civil War veterans and one from the war of 1812.
The historic town of West Newton is situated in a scenic river valley along the Youghiogheny. We are greeted by a pioneer sculpture representing the towns original settlers. His stylized features, handlebar mustache and rifle are fashioned entirely from railroad spikes. When we pull up at Bright Morning B&B, we receive a warm welcome from Rob Pendulic and his wife Mary Lou. The bed and breakfast is a stone’s throw from the replicated train station. Mary Lou and Rob are avid cyclists, and Rob is a talented chef for over 30 years, which is made evident in the following mornings breakfast of cereal-encrusted French toast.
Fueled off our delicious breakfast, we parallel the rolling Youghiogheny. The trail is flanked in tulip poplars and cliffs cloaked in rhododendron, while waterfalls lace the slopes. We soon run into a bizarre-looking creature, an animal reminiscent of an enormous pancake. It is mottled olive-brown in color, sporting a tubular snout and spines. Later identified as an Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle, it shuffles its frisbee-shaped body into the undergrowth.
A few miles further, what appears to be hobbit homes catch our attention. Overhung in vegetation, these openings are revealed to be coke huts. Coke is the fuel used in steel production, created by baking coal in airless ovens to eliminate the smoke-producing components. During the early 20th century, 40,000 coke huts operated near Connellsville, a constellation of beehive ovens that turned the night sky orange. This industry was so prominent, that Connellsville once boasted more millionaires than any other US city of its size. The trail passes directly through the west portion of this riverside town, before heading south toward Ohiopyle.
Ohiopyle, aka “Falls City,” marks the site where George Washington turned back in 1753, claiming the river was unnavigable due to waterfalls. Approaching the town, we pause over a lofty bridge. Below us, rafters bounce along in the turbulent water, as the Youghiogheny gouges its way through PA’s deepest gorge.
Ohiopyle is a welcoming tourist town. It encircles Ohiopyle State Park, a 20,500-acre wild playground which offers a network of hiking trails and stunning waterfalls, and is the most popular whitewater destination on the east coast. We enjoy dinner on the outside deck of Ohiopyle House Cafe. There are a variety of great accommodations in this quaint town.
Ohiopyle State Park graces us with picturesque landscapes throughout the next morning. The rail trail meanders through wildflowers, with fisherman and kayakers glimpsed through the trees. The river is easily accessible to picnic spots along its banks as we head toward Confluence. This classic mountain town, is named for the merging of Casselman and Youghiogheny Rivers with Laurel Hill Creek. Natives and settlers called the area Turkey Foot, for the three-pronged formation of rivers.
The community of Rockwood is another necessary stop, and offers the perfect diversion for lunch. It is a community firmly rooted in the industry of railroading. Developed in 1857, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the arrival of the railroad that it fully boomed. A locomotive sculpture with a steam cloud composed of bike rims marks the trailhead, and a mural pays homage to the town’s heritage. We snack at the Rockwood Mill Shoppes and Opera House on Main Street, which includes a cafe, retail shops, and a second-floor performance area. For nearly a century, feed and lumber were processed here, while an opera house showcased visiting and local performers.
The rail trail continues through patchwork fields and wind farms, Somerset County’s newest energy industry. Wind turbines swing lazily in the summer haze. We pass sunbaked fields, asters peppering the sides of the bike path. A mile and a half before Meyersdale, we reach the Salisbury Viaduct. One of the most prominent features on the Great Allegheny Passage, this immense trestle bridge spans 1,908 feet across the valley. It was a significant engineering feat for the Western Maryland Railway’s Connellsville extension. In 1911, an electric traveling crane crashed while lifting a 14.5-ton girder, killing six workers. A month later another man plummeted from the deck. We are reminded of the fervent movement and labor that sculpted this landscape, now serenely observed on our bicycles. From the viaduct we have sprawling views of the former B&O railroad, and the beautiful countryside.
Our hometown for the night is Meyersdale, tucked in the Casselman River Valley. The Monongahela Indians first occupied this land, tapping the sugared sap water from the forest. Now entitled the Maple City, Meyersdale has hosted Pennsylvania’s Maple Festival for over sixty years. A main street mural honors its history as a transportation hub for timber, coal and agriculture.
There is an undeniable small-town charm to this place. Our home for the night is the beautifully restored Levi Deal Mansion Bed and Breakfast. Only a two-block coast from the rail trail, this building features Victorian architecture, with rounded towers and a graceful wrap-around porch. After crashing in our king-sized beds, we wake to a hearty breakfast.
Two miles into our final day, we cross the Keystone Viaduct. Its 910 foot-span gently curves above the Casselman River and Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. Workers tinted the concrete decking red with iron oxide pigment from the nearby mine drainage, knowing that the iron truss structure would inevitably stain it anyway.
The next stop is the Eastern Continental Divide. At an elevation of 2,390 feet above sea level, it marks the boundary between the watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. A small tunnel crests the divide, with murals showing gathered workers and a train engine spewing steam. It also features an elevation map, which looks dramatic in comparison to the gentle grade of the rail trail. Even with a gradual uphill ascent, the climbs are barely noticeable and should not deter inexperienced cyclists.
Two miles north of the state line we enter the mouth of the Big Savage Tunnel. Undeterred by the battle-scarred woman limping out of it, we plunge into the passage. Soon an eerie sense of floating detachment sets in, darkness seeping into the corners of our vision. The bowels of the mountain are cold, and we reminisce on our journey’s scorching beginning on Pittsburgh’s Steel Trail. With the expansion of the Maryland Western Railroad, the Big Savage was one of four tunnels carved into the mountains to shorten the route. During its construction, workers encountered a river of wet mud and sand 600 feet from the western portal. Airlocks used in the construction of New York subways were transported in, as well as “sand dogs”, workers who specialized in high-pressure situations. Completed in 1912, it continued to deteriorate, until the Allegheny Trail Alliance raised support to restore it in the late 90’s. We emerge out of the tunnel in one piece, although dismounting and walking would be recommended.
A few miles later we cross the Mason Dixon Line. In the mid-1730’s, violent border conflicts were triggered between Colonial Maryland and Pennsylvania. To end the dispute, English astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were commissioned to survey boundaries between colonies. The survey was a feat of impressive accuracy. At the line, a monument of stone blocks bears their names.
Our history lesson comes to a close, as we coast into the town of Cumberland. Murals detail old-fashioned townscapes with horse-drawn carriages. Cumberland has been a hub of activity for centuries, serving as junction of road, railway and canal. Today it attracts thousands of trail tourists annually.
We feel happily accomplished, pulling up to our vehicles. It doesn’t matter that we have cruised the rail trail on our bicycles instead of aboard steam-powered locomotives. We have developed an appreciation for the history of the landscape, from the tunnel-riddled Allegheny Mountains to the iron skeletons of truss bridges. Following this rail bed, haunted by the ghost of a train whistle, it has truly been a passage through time.
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