Thursday 2 July 2009

The Great Allegheny Passage, Day 1

Getting all the equipment loaded up in Cumberland, MD

In August 2007 Dr. Chef and I rode the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, Maryland. At one of our overnight stops, our host gave us a Trailbook for the Great Allegheny Passage, a continuation of the C&O that runs along abandoned railway right-of-ways, reaching nearly Pittsburgh. The book whetted our appetites for more Mid-Atlantic Region cycling adventure. We were determined to ride this 134 mile stretch at some point and agreed to get together again at Cumberland. Of course, time passes and Dr. Chef is now on the West Coast and I am in Canada but all things are possible if you try hard enough and on June 8 we met up in Cumberland again, joined by the Badger and Mrs. Badger.

The first issue was logistics. Although the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail is an important source of tourism income for an economically-depressed area, it is still hard to get transportation one-way to either Cumberland or McKeesport, Pennsylvania. However, Dr. Chef solved our problem by working with a local Cumberland taxi company and we were able to book a minivan and driver. John, our driver, had even obtained a bike rack suitable for three bikes so with the fourth bike in the luggage area we were all set We left our cars in a special long-term parking lot under the Interstate after checking in with the Parks Service and off we went towards Pittsburgh. Heading west on I-68,we soon turned off on US-219, crossing the Maryland-Pennsylvania line (the famed Mason-Dixon Line, of course) and driving past Meyersdale, which would be our stop on the second night of cycling. We passed through Berlin, PA, home of the pretzel manufacturer Snyder’s of Berlin (not to be ever confused with those Other Guys making pretzels in Pennsylvania, Snyder’s of Hanover) before turning west on I-70 and soon reaching our destination, McKeesport, after a drive of 2 ½ hours from Cumberland.

Ready to leave McKeesport, PA

We unloaded the bikes near a bridge at the confluence of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers. Pittsburgh was across that bridge but as yet the Great Allegheny Passage trail has not yet found a way over to the other side so for the time being the trail begins in McKeesport near the McKees Point Marina. Once noted for its coal deposits, which would have been important in the development of Pittsburgh’s steel industry, as well as its own steel-making plants, McKeesport is a faded town with a lot of boarded-up buildings and signs of urban decay. There are probably only 20,000 people living there compared to its heyday of 55,000. It resembled some of the towns I have seen around Buffalo, New York, where the Rust Belt decline since the 1980s has caused a significant population outflow and the virtual abandonment of downtown areas.

After the obligatory starting photo, we said goodbye to John and rode off along the shore of the Youghiogheny. Looking at this name, I had to admit I was clueless as to how it might be pronounced but Mrs. Badger, coming from the region, told me to say it as “Yock-i-gain-y,” and that the locals simply call it “the Yough.”


Dr. Chef was feeling some hunger pangs so we were on the lookout for a likely place to eat but as we rode along the crushed gravel trail it became apparent that there would not be many choices. We asked a lady near Boston (or “Little Boston,” as the locals call it) if there was any place to get food and she told us that most things were closed on Mondays but that ten miles up the trail there was an ice cream place. Sounded good to us, so off we rolled and near Sutersville we found the Yough Twister, an ice cream drive-in the 1950s style. Even better than the 1950s, in fact, because along with a lengthy selection of various ice creams, both hard and soft style, there was a long menu featuring all kinds of food you would not expect in such a small place, including gyros and pitas. We enjoyed our food, including some great onion rings and deep-fried cauliflower, and some superb milkshakes. Perhaps not the kind of food for endurance athletes but we were on holiday.

The restored train station, West Newton, PA

Back in the saddle, our route took us to West Newton, where a beautiful restored train station was a reminder of the railroad whose path we were following. West Newton has been a jump-off point in the late 1700s for people heading west. Taking advantage of the abundant forest, they would launch rafts here and float downstream to Pittsburgh and on to the Ohio River. Evidence of industrial activity is commonplace and near Whitsett we saw the concrete silos of the Banning Number One mine, all that remains from a once-active coaling operation. We had a good view of the impressive Pittsburgh & West Virginia Banning trestle that crosses the river.

Dr. Chef relaxes in West Newton

There were tracts of land here once owned by George Washington, an active land speculator, but the region really blossomed due to the Pittsburgh Coal Seam. Our stop for the night, Connellsville, was a boom town once and no fewer than eight railroads, in competition with river freight on the Youghiogheny, went through the town. It had a population of 7,170 in 1900, but a century later this number was only 9,146, a mere 2/3 of what it had been in 1940. Immigrant labourers came to work in the area’s mines and Connellsville Coal was considered to be the finest metallurgical coal in the world for the production of the coke used in the iron and steel industries.

P&WE Banning Trestle

As we entered Connellsville, we could hear thunder. We asked for directions to our motel (the only one in town) and soon were on a busy uphill road. We made it to our overnight place just in time as the rain began to fall. The Melody Motor Lodge was the only game in town for accommodation, except a Victorian b&b, and was a bit grim, with possible the thinnest towels I have ever seen in a bathroom. Next to it was a small diner, but it was only open for breakfast and lunch.

Dr. Chef wandered down the road and found a beer store and brought us back some interesting craft beers, including one named for Eliot Ness (of “Untouchables” Chicago crime-fighting fame). There was not a lot of choice in restaurants in walking distance, since we did not really want to ride on the busy highway in the dark anywhere, but Dr. Chef told us we could get food at the beer store so we walked over there. The menu was fairly simple but yet again we could get deep-fried cauliflower, which seems to be a sort-of gourmet speciality of Central Pennsylvania. We had massive sandwiches with lots of fried things alongside, washed down with a mixed six-pack of beers taken from the cooler. And to finish off this healthful meal, we walked to the front of the place for yet more ice cream. If we had not been cycling all day we would probably would not have been able to burn off this food for several weeks.

And so ended our first day on the Great Allegheny Passage, with 73 kms (45 miles) ridden in 4 ½ hours of relaxed sightseeing.

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