10 Amazing Things on the 2016 Pennsylvania Sojourn

Posted 03/16/16 by Maureen Hannan in Building Trails, Trail Use

Artist Lorraine Vullo's labyrinth memorial at the Historic Homestead Pump House in Pennsylvania | Photo courtesy Kordite | CC by 2.0

RTC’s 2016 Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn will be a breathtaking 110-mile bike trip westward along the historic Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). Celebrate Mother’s Day weekend with a three-day bike ride through the hills of western Pennsylvania. You’ll see scenic woods and rushing waterfalls, lofty trestles and surreal tunnels, wide rivers and old coal towns.

Here are 10 amazing highlights:

1You’ll (gradually) descend 1,400 vertical feet.

The bike ride begins at Meyersdale, just west of the Eastern Continental Divide (an elevation of about 2,300 feet above sea level). It terminates just east of Pittsburgh (an elevation of about 700 feet).

Historic Pump House site in Homestead, Pennsylvania | Photo courtesy Kordite | CC by 2.0

2You’ll stand at the site of an infamous battle.

You’ll begin and end the sojourn at the Historic Pump House in Homestead. In 1892, striking Carnegie Steel Company workers (along with family members and supporters) clashed there with an army of 300 hired guards. The bloody battle between labor and management resulted in the deaths of nine strikers and seven guards. The incident led, ultimately, to the collapse of the steelworkers’ union.

After the Homestead Strike, workers’ shifts would increase from 8 to 12 hours, and pay would decrease. It would be another 40 years before the steel industry would organize once again. At the Pump House, you can also view a unique labyrinth memorial by artist Lorraine Vullo dedicated to those that died during the conflict.

3You’ll experience an Industrial-age boomtown.

In the early 20th century, the town of Connellsville was known as “the coke center of the world.” (Coke is a form of coal used to produce steel.) By the mid-1980s, though, the freight had dried up—and in 1990 the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad stopped running through the town.  

Coke ovens once illuminated the hillsides of the town. The now-defunct, beehive-shaped ovens can be spotted between miles 93 and 94. In Connellsville’s downtown, stately residences and public buildings still stand as reminders of coal-era prosperity. But it’s now the trail that fuels the local economy, and the quaint buildings offer cyclists a place to rest, eat and shop.

Tip: Any model train hobbyists in the family? Check out the cool model railroad display in the historic Connellsville Canteen building.

Wind turbines at Garrett Wind Farm | Photo courtesy Jeff Henry | CC by 2.0

4You’ll see giant windmills.

Well, wind turbines, actually, with blades nearly 100 feet long. There are eight of them—and they’re the first “wind farm” erected in southwestern Pennsylvania. Visible from the Salisbury Viaduct, the enormous 200-foot-tall towers sit on a ridge overlooking the town of Garret.

5You’ll pass through an eerie, once-abandoned tunnel.

The archway entrance to the Pinkerton Tunnel, an 849-foot railway tunnel in Markleton, used to tantalize cyclists with its forbidding-looking barricade. Closed for decades due to structural problems, the 130-year-old restored tunnel opened to riders just last year. It’s now part of the extraordinary Casselman River “bridge-tunnel-bridge” experience.

The tunnel is located between the Pinkerton Low and High Bridges. When the tunnel was closed, riders had to take a bypass route. On this sojourn, you’ll follow the path of the old CSX train line through the mountain.

6You’ll also ride through tunnels made of trees.

(Yes, trees.) On the stretch of the passage between Ohiopyle and Confluence, you’ll pedal through magical-looking green “tunnels” made of interwoven tree branches. After the Western Maryland Railroad ceased operations along that segment, trees grew up on both sides of the right of way. The tree branches arched and grew together to form a thick canopy over the abandoned rail line.  

Salisbury Viaduct along the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania | Photo courtesy James Finister | CC by 2.0

7You’ll ride across a 100-foot-tall bridge.

In fact, you’ll ride across several spectacular bridges and trestles before the weekend is over—but the Salisbury Viaduct is pretty special. Just outside the starting point of Meyersdale, the steel trestle dominates the Casselman River Valley.

The ride across is a thrill. New York Times travel writer Dan White wrote that his bike ride over the steel trestle gave him “the feeling of hang gliding over the valley.”

Cool fact: When the Salisbury Viaduct was completed in 1912, it represented a huge achievement in railway engineering. Hundreds of spectators gathered to cheer as the first train crossed the 1,900-foot long bridge.

RELATED: 10 Rail-Trails That Helped Build the Movement

8You’ll get to camp out at a community pool and a high school.

Seriously, didn’t you always want to stay all night at the town pool when you were a kid? And what teenager didn’t dream of taking over the local high school with a giant slumber party?

Note: If you just aren’t into camping (or Mom prefers a little bit more luxury), you always have the option of making reservations at a nearby inn.

Update (3-29-16): Due to unforeseen logistical circumstances, RTC has changed the pool camping location to a campsite in Adelaide. 

Youghiogheny River rapids in Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania | Photo courtesy Iris | CC by 2.0

9You’ll see whitewater rapids that scared George Washington away.

The trailside town of Ohiopyle is not only a haven for GAP cyclists—it’s also a lure for whitewater thrill-seekers. At nearby Ohiopyle State Park, the rapids of the Youghiogheny River cascade over an 18-foot waterfall.

In 1754, George Washington stood overlooking the same waterfall. The 22-year-old British colonel was leading troops westward through Pennsylvania. He’d been sent on a mission to protect a group of settlers near present-day Pittsburgh—and he hoped to find a navigable river route.

As Washington approached the banks of the Youghiogheny River, though, he saw the cascade and wild rapids. The young officer decided he’d better just keep on looking.

10You’ll give Mom the best Mother’s Day gift ever.

The best gifts are experiences. Imagine experiencing the marvels of a GAP bike ride as a family. The rivers and valleys, the trailside towns, the bridges and tunnels. What better way to celebrate Mom than to give her an unforgettable adventure on the Great Allegheny Passage?

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