The 36-mile Armstrong Trail was forged in a fire hotter than any other. And, as the saying goes, those types of fires forge the strongest steel.
The Armstrong Trail runs along the former Allegheny Valley Railroad, which helped haul freight and passengers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to as far as Buffalo, New York, from the 1850s until 1941. The story of the Armstrong Trail begins in 1989, when leaders in Allegheny County invited more than a dozen groups to come together and discuss how to protect and preserve the corridor.
Dave Rupert, then corresponding secretary of the Armstrong County Conservancy, remembers the meeting vividly. He brought the proposition back to his board and pitched the idea of taking on the project in collaboration with Allegheny Valley Land Trust (which officially formed in 1991, and purchased and railbanked the corridor in 1992).
“At that point I thought it would be a fairly simple process,” says Rupert. "The organization thought that we’d be involved for a just few years before passing it off to the county. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”
Many trail-building stories have elements of opposition, but this one had a twist. The folks who didn’t see the value in the rail conversion were galvanized by one individual, a very vocal and eloquent man who was upset about what he perceived as an unfair acquisition of his land by the railroad company decades before—and who vowed to spend the rest of his life fighting against the development of the trail, explains Rupert. Others who aligned themselves with this individual had very strong local ties to the land that the railroad had acquired from their ancestors.
And although some would claim his anger and resentment were misplaced, it didn’t change the reality that the Armstrong County Conservancy and the Allegheny Valley Land Trust were now facing a major challenge. The opposition mobilized and brought the trail developers to court.
From that moment, Rupert and his fellow board members had a difficult decision to make. They could cut their losses, pay off their loan and abandon the project. Or, they could band together and unite for the trail, see the project through from vision to reality, and transform the corridor into a community trail the likes of which the towns in the region had never seen before.
But this board wasn’t made up of defeatists. The first option was scraped, the latter was adopted with conviction, and trail supporters banded together for what would be a tumultuous two decades to come.
The battle went on for more than 16 years. The opposition forces sued the board collectively and sued three of the board members individually. They tried to split the board by attempting to strike secret deals. They acted in an intimidating manner at various trail events and tried to sabotage nearly every step of the trail development process.
The trail advocates were undeterred. In fact, the opposition’s efforts to defeat the project were, in reality, fueling the fire to complete the trail, according to Rupert. “Every time we completed a section of trail, it was one more way to show them that we were going to keep going,” he says. “People attacked us as an organization and as individuals. But every attack just strengthened the resolve to keep pushing forward.”
The trail was built in segments, and the organization tied together the segments that they were able to complete with city streets, alley ways and on-road segments. “Eventually, we knew that the tides would turn in our favor and that the public outcry was going to be to connect the sections,” says Rupert.
So what keeps someone motivated when people are constantly fighting their every action? For Rupert, it was a promise he had made to his mother.
“My mom lived adjacent to the corridor and always wanted to have a trail near her house,” he recalls. “She was semi-handicapped but could ride a trike. She just wanted a place near her home where she could enjoy nature with her grandchildren and be active.” The Armstrong Trail was just that thing, and Rupert promised his aging mother that he would see the trail through to completion. “Fortunately, she lived long enough to see a part of the trail built during her lifetime. I promised her that I would see the project through; that’s what kept me going.”
Also, Rupert’s kids kept his fire burning during the ongoing turmoil. The trail was a safe place where they could explore, be active and learn about local history. His connection with his mother and children gave perspective on the true importance of the trail.
The final ruling came down in favor of the trail builders after years and years of twists and turns. The reality of the Armstrong Trail sunk in for both sides, and everyone was just ready to move forward. “There are people who had opposed the trail adamantly. Now, they walk their dogs and ride their bikes on the trail,” says Rupert. “That’s just the way it is.”
A fellow board member, Lee Calarie, explains that the members of the board were taking a risk when they decided to engage with the opposition. “We were putting our necks out a bit, we had the right group, and it paid off!” he affirms.
In Armstrong County, a simple list proves that the tides of public opinion have shifted; it’s the“40 Under 40” list of the most influential young professionals in the region. When asked what their favorite recreation activity was, the vast majority had the Armstrong Trail topping the chart.
Now, these new community leaders are using the trail, walking or riding with their own children, connecting with their community and enjoying their slice of Pennsylvania. The collective effort that forged the path for the new generation is far from forgotten, and the collective effort of the board goes down in local history as a well-fought battle for good.