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Great Allegheny Passage: Natural beauty and history on bike trip

Diane Pittman takes a breather after hoisting her bicycle up on the bridge into Harpers Ferry, W. Va. Harpers Ferry is one of the historical sites along the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail. Submitted Photo

It was March, and I was in Pittsburgh, Pa., attending a medical acupuncture course and visiting my friend Barry Farkas.

On a beautiful spring evening we went up Mount Washington to take in the view of the city with its magnificent rivers and bridges.

Barry pointed down to a path, an old railroad bed, and said, "That bike trail goes all the way to Washington, D.C."

Always tempted by a cycling challenge I checked the Web when I returned home and discovered that, indeed, The Great Allegheny Passage is 150 miles of crushed limestone pedestrian and bicycling trail stretching from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.

In Cumberland the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal - C&O Towpath with 185 miles of National Park - takes over providing a nonmotorized corridor all the way to Washington, D.C. When I found that the next installment of my acupuncture course was located just 5 miles from the trail, in Potomac, Md., my summer cycling adventure was born.

Planning the trip was easy thanks to an excellent Web site,, and a $10 publication available there, "The TrailBook" full of maps and information on attractions, history and amenities. So, on Aug. 19, with my folding recumbent bicycle packed safely in its airline regulation suitcase, I flew into Pittsburgh with plans to be in Potomac by the Aug. 26.

Stormy start

Severe thunderstorms greeted me in Pittsburgh. Barry picked me up at the airport, and I spent the next day listening to the rain while I put my bike together on his porch. I reminded myself that I was prepared to do this trip in any weather. A damaged quick release sent us to Kraynick's bike shop, an adventure in itself. A family shop, established in 1948, the decrepit storefront gives way to a dark, cavernous interior jammed with bike parts of every imaginable vintage and purpose. I left with my part - and several others on my "to find" list - but not until after a long conversation with the owner about the virtues of old Schwinns, the advantages of recumbent bicycles and health-care reform.

By mid-afternoon, the rain let up and we headed for McKeesport and its 50th annual International Village Fest. This event celebrates the immigrants who dug the coal in Pittsburgh's early years: Croatians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles and Serbians, to name just a few. They were all represented with dance, music, and best of all food. We feasted on lamb, halushki (Slovak cabbage and noodles), and an array of unpronounceable pastry that was irresistibly delicious.

On the trail

McKeesport is currently official start of the GAP, the nine miles of the trail from Pittsburgh not yet completed. After shipping my suitcase ahead, I was deposited at The Yough (rhymes with "talk") Shore Inn. This first of many unique accommodations on the trail is in what used to be a small nursing care facility. Lin, the owner, has furnished each of its six rooms and two baths with the collection of a lifetime's travel and garage sales. She has the John Wayne room with the stuffed horse that neighs and wags his head, the Hawaiian room with it's seashell studded light fixture and a bathroom made to look like an outhouse. It's a one-of-a-kind place, which I shared with a couple who planned to do cycling day trips on the trail and a construction crew who had abandoned their campsite because of the weather.

Fresh start

I rose at 6 a.m., planning to get an early start. Gray skies and a steady rain sent me back to bed. The "I am prepared..." line just wasn't working. Procrastination paid off. By 11 a.m., the sun was out, and I officially set off with fair weather the rest of the trip.

Serenaded by trains on the bridge and boats on the river, I ate a hearty breakfast at the McKeesport Café. It opened two years ago in an old railroad building, and is one of many small businesses along the trail that are thriving on the GAP's bicycle tourist travel in spite the economic downturn. Bemidji, about to be linked up with the Paul Bunyan and Heartland trails, could be presented with similar new bicycle tourism opportunities. After signing in on their bikers' wall I set out eastward.

Easy traveling

The Great Allegheny Passage runs along abandoned rail corridor and although it rises steadily to the Eastern Continental Divide the grade is never more than 2 percent making for very pleasant cycling. The Youghiogheny River runs on the left. Several times a day, I could hear trains on the other side, but with the heavy summer foliage, I couldn't see them. Large trees line most of the path and provide welcome shade from the summer heat. Except for when it passes through towns the trail is remote from any motorized traffic. Small rest stations with self-composting toilets and potable water are strategically placed in between the larger towns that provide food and lodging amenities. Benches afforded opportunities for rest and gorgeous views of the river. Near towns, I encountered many other cyclists, but in between, I was most often alone on the trail.

Historic site

The first site of historical interest I visited was the Old Dravo Cemetery. Established in 1824 as part of a Methodist church, the graveyard is the resting place of soldiers from the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The church was destroyed in 1920 by a fire started by a spark from a passing train. Stones commemorate, among others, "Deborah Woods, consort of James Woods who departed this life April 10, 1834, in the 79th year of her age," and "Rev W.E. Nelson 1844-1884 Missionary to India 1876-1880." So many stories to think about pedaling down the path.

Overnight stop

My first overnight destination was Ohiopyle, Pa. Originally called Falls City, the current name comes from a Native American word, "ohiopehhla," meaning white frothy water. My purpose for spending two nights in Ohiopyle was to see two of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous buildings.

Located just 4 miles from the trail, Falling Water is considered his masterpiece. Built literally into a waterfall on Bear Run, it is the culmination of Wright's genius for integrating buildings into the natural environment. One can descend a few steps down "the hatch" from the living room and take a dip in the cool waters of the stream. The sound of running water is everywhere, and innovations such as cornered glass windows and stone floors blur the distinction between indoors and outdoors. The $50 in-depth tour was well worth the price providing an enthusiastically knowledgeable tour guide, photography privileges and access to lots of out-of-the-way corners of the house, as well as stories about the irascible Wright and his wealthy clients, the Kaufmanns.

For example, the Kaufmanns wanted a four-car garage. Wright refused saying that cars are not horses and there is no danger of them running away. Enclosing space for vehicles simply encourages accumulation and clutter, he asserted, so they had to make do with car ports. On another front, they argued over how much steel needed to be in the portions of the house cantilevered out over the stream. Disturbed by the seemingly inadequate amounts recommended by their architect, the Kaufmanns surreptitiously hired an engineering firm and snuck extra rebar into the concrete. Unfortunately, even this wasn't enough, and in the 1990s, the house was in danger of collapsing. It took an expensive and complicated restoration completed in 2002 to preserve Falling Water for future generations.

Second start

Sunday afternoon, after a very full day-and-a-half in Ohiopyle I set off again. It wasn't long before I'd left most of the weekend tourists behind as I climbed steadily toward the Eastern Continental Divide. The lazy Youghiogheny became the Casselman River and retreated to a valley below, studded with rocks and white water, splendid views that required frequent stops and totally inadequate attempts at photography.

One of the most exciting and fascinating things about this route is the astounding array of railroad structures erected in the Iron Horse's push west. They were engineering feats in their day, and those feats were repeated as they have been restored and converted to bicycle and pedestrian travel. Viaducts - long bridges that span valleys, tunnels and bridges of all kinds make for dramatic cycling. I got to the nearly half-mile-long Salisbury viaduct near Myersdale at about 5 p.m.

Long tunnel

Big Savage is the site of the longest structure on the trail. In 1911, the railroad tunneled 3,300 feet through the mountain. Six hundred feet from the western portal they encountered a river of soft, wet mud and sand. Conventional construction methods proved ineffective in abating the flow, and finally workers and technology from New York City's subway system were brought in. "Sand hogs," workers adept at working in pressurized environments, used air locks to complete the task, but problems persisted throughout the life of the tunnel, which required constant repairs. When the railroad was abandoned in the 1970s, deterioration was rapid. The Allegheny Trail Alliance came to the rescue in the 1990s with a two-year, $12 million restoration project. A video documenting the project is available on the ATA Web site.

I am a cave person, a lover of dark, close spaces, so this was one of the most anticipated events of the trip. I felt my heart beat faster as the wall of mountain and concrete with its arching mouth grew larger and larger.

Then I slipped into the damp coolness of the tunnel. Low lights gave just enough view of the trail surface for cycling. I pedaled steadily, moving toward the deceptively close dappled green light at the end of the tunnel. The water and sand that have plagued the tunnel for almost a century oozed and dripped from the wall.

The crunch of my tires on the limestone echoed in the semi-darkness as the entrance receded and the exit failed to get perceptibly closer. Timelessness set in, and in my mind I could hear the whistles and hissing of the coal trains that changed the face of our land. Finally, the exit grew, and I burst into sunlight and a vista of valley and mountains, farmland and rivers, dressed in a light haze and silvered by the late afternoon sun. After a few minutes taking it all in, I turned around and rode the tunnel again.

Longest day

Refreshed after a very large Italian dinner, a very sound night's sleep and a breakfast of homemade muffins and fruit prepared by Mrs. Fallinger herself, I set off for my longest cycling day. Seventeen downhill miles later, I arrived in Cumberland, Md., and the end of the GAP. These last miles share the corridor with the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, available to cyclist with their bicycles who are doing one way trips on the trail. The National Park Service has a Visitor Center at an old railroad depot to welcome tourists to what must certainly be our longest National Park.

Canal lore

The C&O's history begins in 1828 when the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal broke ground in Washington, D.C. The canal was conceived as a modern and efficient way to move goods to and from the Ohio River supplying the country's westward expansion, a vision first put forth by George Washington himself. The canal was hand dug, 6 feet deep and 60-80 feet wide and fed by the Potomac River via a series of dams and aqueducts. Mules pulled boats and barges along the 12 foot wide tow path, and more than 70 locks enabled navigation.

I stocked up on food in Cumberland. The first miles of the canal are remote, and I had 60 miles still to go to get to my overnight. I'd been warned that the tow path surface was rough and prepared myself mentally for a long, slow, bumpy ride.

The canal, always on the left, is wide and full of standing water in places. In others, it is dry and nearly filled in with soil and vegetation. The surface of the path was better than anticipated.

On the right, almost always within sight is the Potomac River flowing toward D.C. Breezes off the water provided welcome coolness. Every 5-10 miles along the canal there is a primitive campsite with a fire ring, picnic table, Port-A-Potty and a pump that provides potable water.

Eight miles in I saw the first of the locks. Locks are among the most prominent features of the canal. They are uniformly 100 feet long, 14 feet wide and 16 feet deep. Lined with stone, they have a gate on either end. A boat moving upstream entered the lock, the lock keeper then closed the downstream gate and opened the upstream one allowing the water in the lock to rise to the upstream level. Then the upstream gate was opened and the boat continued its journey. When everything went well this "lock through" process took about 10 minutes. Lock keepers were provided housing and a small salary to perform their work.

Harpers Ferry

There is lots of Civil War history along this part of the trail. My destination for the next two nights was Harpers Ferry, site of the abolitionist John Brown's raid on the U.S. Armory that many believe triggered the Civil War and the end of slavery.

To get into town one must climb 45 iron steps to the bridge that pedestrians and cyclists share with the railroad. I unloaded my bike, hauled the panniers up the stairs, went back for the bike, reloaded, then over the bridge and up another steep hill to my bed and breakfast.

Harpers Ferry is located at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. George Washington spent two days in 1786 inspecting the rivers for navigability and later lobbied for the establishment of the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The town became famous for the quality of its rifles and other weapons.

The most familiar piece of history involving Harpers Ferry is the raid by John Brown. Brown was a fundamentalist Christian who preached abolition. He had long despaired of a peaceful end to slavery and was already wanted for murders committed while fighting for the cause in Kansas when, in disguise, he took up residence at a nearby farm to train a small band of men for revolution. His plan was to seize the armory, distribute arms to freed slaves, then take to the hills to fight a guerilla war against slavery.

On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown's band of 21 men marched over the bridge to the armory. The abutments for that very bridge are still visible running parallel the current railroad/pedestrian bridge. I

Initially they succeeded in occupying the armory, but federal troops, led by Robert E. Lee rapidly put down the attack, killing many of Brown's men, wounding and capturing Brown and several others. Justice was meted out swiftly. Brown refused to allow an insanity defense at his trial and he was hanged on Dec. 2. His hand-written last words were: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done." Sixteen months later the Civil War broke out.

Trail's end

When my class was over I took a day to ride the final 15 miles to D.C. The last miles are busier and the ravages of pollution and industrialization much more evident. Highways run close to the trail and sewer smells waft in from time to time. Georgetown is cleaner than it once was, but the approach from the trail is still ugly, especially compared with the pristine beauty of the upper parts of the canal. It ends at a small park where homeless people sleep and a bust of William O. Douglas watches over the trail.

And so I reached the end of my adventure, 365 miles and a week of immersion in the natural beauty and history of this country. I am grateful for the vision and dedication of those who worked to preserve this for all of us to enjoy.