Tuesday 8 September 2009

The Great Allegheny Passage, Day 3

Construction begins in Meyersdale at its main intersection...

Getting up early, I decided to take a walk through Meyersdale and scout out locations for breakfast.  Although it describes itself as “the Maple City” and has hosted the Pennsylvania Maple Festival for the last six decades, I have to be honest to say that there was not much going on it downtown Meyersdale at 8:30 on a weekday morning.  It was obvious that business has pretty much bypassed the place because of all the shops I walked by with plate glass windows, not one actually had a store operating in it.  The largest set of windows belonged to the local community promotion association, and featured historical photos of Meyersdale and a presentation on a new project: the replacement of asphalt at the main intersection and installation of a mosaic with a maple leaf in it.  As a Canadian, I thought this was nice but it is unclear if it will mean much in the way of additional tourism in Meyersdale.  Many of the buildings were rather rundown so it will probably take additional investment, but since there are only 2,500 people in the town it is unlikely to find a lot of capital.  During the coal-mining era, Meyersdale was a busier place: in 1910 it had 3,700 inhabitants. 

French toast and excellent coffee

After watching the workmen begin the excavations for the maple leaf plaza, I walked past a likely prospect for breakfast: the Java Café, described to me by the lady who rented us our rooms as “Meyersdale’s Starbucks.”  It looked promising, and I walked back to the Burgess House to round up the rest of the crew.

At the Java Café we enjoyed excellent coffee and French toast before our departure.  The bikes were clean (or at least a lot cleaner than when we arrived!), we were rested and fed so it was time to move on.  Climbing the hill up Main Street towards the trail, we passed an enormous old house that was empty and for sale, the sign indicating it would be a good B&B.  It looked like it could hold a significant part of Meyersdale’s population in its 3,000 square feet (279 sq. m).  Even at only US$ 159,000 there were no takers amongst us.  The house is still available for anyone who wants to get into the house-to-B&B conversion business.  You can check it out here.

 Dr. Chef crosses the Keystone Viaduct

A right turn and we were back on the Great Allegheny Passage trail.  One mile down the road and we came to the Bollman Bridge, an attractive cast iron bridge originally built for the B&O Railway in 1871 to serve as a farm road crossing over the tracks.  It was lifted, disassembled and then moved to its present location on the GAP trail, opening for cyclists in 2007 at its current location at Mile 31.  Of course, the structures get even more impressive as next on the trail is the 900 foot (277 m) long Keystone Viaduct, the subject of extensive repair in 2002-3.  It takes cyclists over both the active CSX railway tracks and Flaugherty Creek.

The trail continued to roll downhill, which it would do for the whole day and soon we came to a little tunnel marked as the Eastern Continental Divide.  It is an unusual geographic feature as there are three watersheds, with water flowing to the St. Laurent River, the Gulf of Mexico and to the Atlantic Ocean.  Prior to 1760, the Divide marked the boundary between French and British colonial possessions in North America.  At this point, we were 2,375 feet (724 m) above sea level, the highest point on our ride.  It would be all downhill from here on in as we began to ride the last 25 miles of the trail to our destination of Cumberland.

Dr. Chef and I rolled on ahead and there before us was the portal marking the most impressive railway structure of all: the Big Savage Tunnel.  I had thought that the Pawpaw Tunnel on the C&O was impressive but it was nothing compared to this!  Built in 1911-12, it cuts through 3,300 feet (1005 m) of mountain rock.  The original construction was difficult due to soft, wet mud and sand near the western portal and even today red sand continues to spill down.  After the rail line was abandoned in 1975, the tunnel, which had required constant maintenance, deteriorated but was saved in the late 1990s when a US$ 12 million restoration project was undertaken.  The tunnel reopened in 2003 and huge steel doors were added at each end in 2004.  These are closed from the first Friday in December to the first Friday in April to prevent damage from freezing and thawing, so the tunnel is not accessible then.

Riding into the lit tunnel was an odd experience.  The roadway seemed smooth and I took out my video camera to try and give an impression of what it was like to ride in the semi-darkness for 3/5ths of a mile.  The exit seemed a long way away.  Of course, Dr. Chef took the opportunity to do some screaming to determine if there was much of an echo in the tunnel.  Of course there was.

We broke out into the morning sunlight and had a fine view of the Allegany County (yes, the spelling is right), Maryland and the surrounding mountains, having only descended 75 feet (23 m) from the Divide.  The morning mountain fog had not lifted but we still had a great feeling for the land around us.  It looked very wild, considering that the area has been settled since the 1770s.  The road ahead beckoned, but now the descent was more definite and we rolled easily along the crushed gravel trail.  Of course, we all had to stop and take photographs and horse around at the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, the very famous Mason-Dixon Line.

Most people think that the Mason-Dixon Line is somewhere in the Deep South, like Alabama, but in fact it was commissioned to settle a land dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.  A major surveying feat, it was undertaken under the direction of two Englishmen between 1763 and 1767 and continues to be considered the demarcation of a cultural divided between the Northern and Southern United States.

Moving more rapidly, we passed through the Borden Tunnel and, circling the town of Frostburg, we soon were riding alongside the tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railway, a steam train tourist line currently under renovation.  The next tunnel, the Brush, sees the GAP trail sharing space with the rail line.  Soon we entered the Narrows, the dramatic cut in the mountains that leads you down into Cumberland (elevation 625 feet (190 m) ASL).  The bike route swiftly took us into the downtown section of this lively town that has changed its coal and railroad past to become a tourism centre, with a lively arts and entertainment district.

We checked in at the Park Service Office to let them know we had returned and were going to get our cars from the parking lot.  We stopped for the obligatory group photo in front of the canal barge mule and muleteer statue and then rode the last short distance to the cars.  During this, the easiest of our three days of cycling, we covered 52. 83 kms (32.8 miles) in 2 hours and 20 minutes of cycling, plus stops for photographs or to allow Dr. Chef to scream.  Surprisingly, we managed to climb 145 m (475 feet) somewhere along the ride but it must have been a foot here and a foot there since it really was a downhill ride.  Even on the crushed gravel and with our panniers, we still hit speeds of over 50 km/h (31 mph).

To celebrate our succesful ride, we went for lunch at the Queen City Creamery, which is arranged to look like a 1940s soda fountain.  We enjoyed grilled cheese sandwiches and milk shakes and the sorts of food that cycling allows you to consume.  Of course, being a trendy and with-it place, the Creamery also offers an Espresso Bar.

Thus it was shortly after lunch that I said goodbye to my friends as we got into our three cars.  To Mrs. Badger this was her first cycletouring experience and she enjoyed it hugely, rain and all.  For Dr. Chef and me, this marked our completion of the entire 335 mile (539 kms) cycleable route from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to the edge of Pittsburgh, an historic Route to the West.  The Badger had also ridden the C&O before, so this made his trip complete but now he will have to ride the canal towpath with the Mrs.  The area around Cumberland is quite beautiful and I willingly admit that I would go back to ride there again and be challenged by the impressive climbs in the Alleghenies.

It is a challenge for any region facing a decline it its major industries--in this case, coal and steel--to find an alternative.  The developers of the Great Allegheny Passage have taken advantage of existing infrastructure and the area's considerable natural beauty to build something unique.  I was encouraged by all the activity around Ohiopyle but it is clear that there is still some way to go since there are not a lot of restaurants along the trail and hotels are scarce.  This means that if you are coming further than on a day trip from Pittsburgh you might have some issues.  There is a lot of competition for tourism money in the world and it would be nice to see places like Meyersdale and Ohiopyle become better-known and more prosperous.

Driving north, I had little traffic on the smaller highways I took.  Unfortunately, I was hoping to find a truck stop where I could have a shower but the best I could do was to clean up somewhat at a convenience store.  The trip went quickly and there was no back-up at the border when I crossed at Buffalo into Fort Erie, Ontario and by early evening I had arrived at my old hometown of Oakville to visit my mother.  Of course, the next day I took out the Marinoni, polished it up again and went for a ride on the Niagara Escarpment in beautiful weather.  You can never pass up a great cycling opportunity, and our discovery of a wild and beautiful corner of the United States was an example of the pleasure that cycling can bring.

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