I ride into Dunbar, Pennsylvania, at the hottest part of the day. The sun is beating down on me, and the sleepy southwestern Pennsylvania town looks misty through my sweat-drenched vision. Even in my fatigued state, I immediately know this place holds something unique, something special.
It was day three of the Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s annual ride on some of the country’s greatest rail trails. I was joined by nearly 300 other trail enthusiasts as we made the six-day journey from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
But let’s get back to the heat-stroke inducing afternoon in Dunbar.
I see the baseball field full of tents, a sure sign that my fellow sojourn riders had arrived. Before I could even get off my bicycle, an unassuming gentleman in a T-shirt, blue jeans and an ear-to-ear grin greeted me with an outstretched hand. “Welcome to Dunbar! You made it!” I let out a “Yahoo!” and returned the man’s hearty handshake.
“I’m Norm, the mayor of Dunbar.” Norm’s energy was addictive, and I found myself smiling equally as big, forgetting that I had just ridden 48 miles on a sultry summer day to get to his charming town. I thank the mayor for welcoming us to town. After all, 300 out-of-towners swarming your otherwise sleepy town could be quite the shock! But not only was Norm unfazed, he was thrilled.
“I’m just tickled to death to have you all here,” he says. “I see these tents set up here, and I can’t think of one better thing in the world right now.”
And after a quick swim in Dunbar Creek and a free ice cream cone, I couldn’t think of one place in the world that I would rather be. This is a holdout in Fayette County, just 2 miles off the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a hidden gem that’s home to around 1,000 residents and has been all but forgotten after a long and storied history as an industry town.
In fact, the coke industry and the railroad have defined the narrative in Dunbar for decades, something that Richard Brooks knows a thing or two about. Brooks has lived in Dunbar his entire life and has seen the town change immensely—from a kid growing up in the late 1940s, to a man working for the railroad, to one of the individuals who would eventually help tear up the same rail corridor that kept him employed for a large part of his career.
At its peak, Dunbar had more than 6,000 people, six bars and a handful of hotels. Brooks recalls what his mother used to say about Dunbar, during its heyday, stating, “You could leave one job and walk five minutes and get another.” But that’s not the case today. The town has torn down many buildings because they cost too much to maintain. It’s not easy for him to see, or for me to hear about, and it’s a sure indication of changing times, changing industries and changing economies.
Many look at Dunbar and say the town has fallen on hard times, and it would be hard to argue otherwise. The economy of the entire town was propped up on an industry that no longer calls Dunbar home. Despite the hard times, or maybe because of them, the people of Dunbar are a united front. They have heart and perseverance, and they’re going to stick together for their community.
But there is effervescent kindness in Dunbar, and the sojourn riders were practically tripping on it left and right. The librarian loaned out her personal dominos set for folks to play in the evenings. Kitchens all over town were cooking and baking in anticipation of the fire-house dinner planned for the second evening of our two-day stay. It was a southwestern Pennsylvania feast of pierogis, stuffed cabbage, wedding cookies and more, created out of kindness and graciousness, from this incredible community.
We came here by way of the Sheepskin Trail, an important corridor in this part of Pennsylvania and reaching into West Virginia. When complete, the trail will connect Dunbar to Uniontown, West Virginia, 34 miles away. Various groups, especially the Historic National Road Corridor, are working hard to close that gap, and while the trail is not yet finished, folks in Dunbar are keen to have it completed. Looking to examples like the nearby GAP, they see the trail and the connections it would provide as Dunbar’s ticket to resurgence.
I asked Richard Brooks about the development of the Sheepskin Trail. Without missing a beat, he mentioned how often he and his grandkids use the finished trail section. I mentioned that some trails face opposition when they’re first proposed. New ideas are sometimes tough to get used to. Was that the case for citizens of Dunbar?
“No way,” he says. “That trail can’t be built fast enough for us. We know nothing bad will happen. It can only be good for our town.”
After a great two days, we continued our journey, departing Dunbar with earnest handshakes and heartfelt thank yous from guests and hosts alike. I see Norm again as I’m rolling out, and he’s over the moon. It’s clear that the influx of bicyclists is the biggest thing to hit Dunbar for quite some time, and I see the true impact finally hit him. This is what a trail economy could mean for his town. This could be the next step for Dunbar. This trail—it’s the ticket.