Pennsylvania’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail

Posted 04/07/17 by Laura Stark in Trail Use, America's Trails

The trail offers unbeatable views of the Pittsburgh skyline | Photo by Kelly Carter, courtesy Friends of the Riverfront

Trail of the Month: April 2017

Once it was the place parents told you not to go, now it’s the place to be."

Spiraling outward from downtown Pittsburgh, the 24-mile Three Rivers Heritage Trail traces the banks of three waterways—the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio—that lifted the city to prominence as America’s industrial powerhouse. The development of this paved pathway, which began more than 25 years ago, sparked a biking revolution that is continuing to turn the famed “Steel City” into “Wheel City.” Dotted with parks, museums, sports stadiums, public art and other attractions, the riverfront trail is bursting with cultural and recreational opportunities. As a safe, clean and green way to get around Pennsylvania’s second-largest city, it serves as a national model for urban trails.

A statue of Mr. Rogers overlooks the trail along the Ohio River shoreline | Photo by Ehren Zaun

“People remember what the riverfront was before: an industrial area, a wasteland,” says Thomas Baxter, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront. “People will say, ‘this used to be a mill’ or ‘this was a glass factory.’ Now their grandchildren are saying this was where I had my first bike ride. Once it was the place parents told you not to go, now it’s the place to be.”

More than half a million people are using the trail each year, generating an estimated $8.3 million in total annual economic impact, according to a report published in 2014. The burgeoning bike-and pedestrian-friendly city achieved a Bronze level ranking from the League of American Bicyclists in 2010 and is continuing to make improvements, such as the adoption of a Complete Streets policy just last year and the launch of a new bike-share program, Healthy Ride, in 2015.

Hot Metal Then and Now | Photo courtesy Kordite | CC BY-NC 2.0

Even while helping to spur such forward-thinking change, the trail also embraces its roots. “Heritage” is a key part of its name and, along the trail, travelers will find more than 40 interpretative signs covering a range of topics, everything from Ice Age geography to Native American settlements, the changing river ecosystem and visits by prominent historical figures like George Washington and Lewis and Clark. The rise of the city’s industries and railroads, like the B&O, on which portions of the rail-trail are built are also detailed.

For railroad history buffs, passage over the Hot Metal Bridge (circa 1887) on the trail’s eastern leg, is also a special experience. It’s worth noting that this portion of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail shares its corridor with the renowned Great Allegheny Passage, which spans 150 miles from Pittsburgh to just over the Maryland border, where it connects to the C&O Canal Towpath running all the way to Washington, D.C.

The trail borders Pittsburgh's Point State Park | Photo by Ehren Zaun

Today, the trail is in good hands with the Friends of the Riverfront, which has been instrumental in building and maintaining the trail. The group’s eight trail stewards inspect every section of the trail on a continuous basis and more than 2,000 other volunteers spend a few hours each year assisting with a range of projects, including tree plantings, trash pick-up and the removal of invasive species.

In the 1980s, a small core of trail advocates—which later became the Friends of the Riverfront—was galvanized by State Representative Tom Murphy, an avid runner and cyclist who later became a three-term mayor of Pittsburgh. The concept for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail was unveiled in 1990 and its first groundbreaking took place in 1991. Built in phases over two decades, the trail was key to opening up the riverfront to residents who had been cut off from the water by industry for more than a century.

The trail offers a popular way to explore Pittsburgh's North Shore | Photo by Ehren Zaun

“Back then, there was less than a mile of public access to the river and no trees,” says Tom Murphy, who grew up in Pittsburgh. “When we first began, there were lots of doubting Thomases. People saw the trail as individual pieces and it was hard to get them to see that it was going to run for miles. It wasn’t obvious back then, but, at some point, people got it. They realized that this was going to create real value.”

Beyond the city’s borders, the trail adds value as part of a growing web of interconnected trails spanning more than 1,400 miles across western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and the southwestern corner of New York. Lead by a coalition of trail groups, governmental jurisdictions and other stakeholders working together, the Industrial Heartlands Trail Network is revitalizing Rust Belt communities like Pittsburgh and revolutionizing the concept of transportation in America.

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