30 years ago, officially opening Great Allegheny Passage began in Fayette County

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A ceremony on Saturday in Pittsburgh will officially open the Great Allegheny Passage — a recreational trail that meanders from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. It's been more than 30 years since the idea to develop bike/hike trails took off. The Daily Courier will feature a series of articles that will be published throughout the summer detailing the history of the trails and how the trail through Connellsville came about. Today, construction of the bike trail in Fayette began 30 years ago.

On Saturday, a ceremony will be held at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, officially opening the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile recreational path extending from the heart of the Steel City to Cumberland, Md. There, hikers and bikers can continue along the C&O Canal Towpath Historical Trail all the way to our nation's capital.

Amid the metropolitan fanfare, it's hard to believe that it all began 30 years ago in rural Fayette County with the construction of a 10-mile trail between Ohiopyle State Park and Confluence and the determination of many.

The 330 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage trail network are smooth and easy to ride, surfaced with crushed limestone nicknamed “bug dust.” Some sections are even paved.

However, the road to complete the multimillion dollar effort was a difficult and bumpy ride for many people involved. Dave Tremba, who served as the Greater Connellsville Chamber of Commerce director from 1987 to 1993, remembers those times.

The C&O Canal between Cumberland and Washington was completed when, in 1986, Ohiopyle State Park officially opened a trail between Ohiopyle and Confluence, which is located on the border of Fayette and Somerset counties. It was the brainchild of Larry Adams, who was superintendent of Ohiopyle State Park during the 1980s.

City's trail plans date to 1987

In summer 1987, the Daily Courier published its first story about a proposed bike trail that would link Ohiopyle and Connellsville, following the path of the defunct Western Maryland Railway.

Tremba had just been hired at the chamber, which was suffering financially because membership was down. He read about the Ohiopyle-to-Confluence trail and wondered if the path could be extended between Ohiopyle and Connellsville, to make the city more attractive to businesses and visitors.

Sparked with enthusiasm, Tremba attended a rails-to-trails meeting in Harrisburg. He was joined by several local people interested in the concept. That session lit a fire under him. From that day on, it was Tremba's crusade to make sure that the Ohiopyle/Connellsville trail was built — the sooner the better.

Off to a good start

Things gelled nicely — at first.

By autumn 1988, the state had pledged $500,000 in seed money, and the Department of Environmental Resources pledged its support. About the same time, Yough River Trail Council was formed. The council's purpose was (and is) to promote and maintain the path (which it still does, thanks to countless man-hours provided by volunteers).

About the same time, Tremba discovered that Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad planned to abandon more than 40 miles of track between Connellsville and McKeesport. By the end of 1988, the National Park Service had funded a feasibility study, proposing a Yough River Trail to the north.

In summer 1989, U.S. Rep. John Murtha pledged federal assistance through a tourism program titled America's Industrial Heritage Project, after Tremba had discussed the matter at length with AIHP's project director Randy Cooley.

1990: A big year

The year 1990 was hot with trail news.

Pennsylvania Conservation Corps workers began work on the trail toward Connellsville. By April 1990, 2.5 miles were finished between Ohiopyle north to Bruner Run.

Somerset County officials announced the path would be extended southward from Confluence to Cumberland, Md. Fayette, Westmoreland and Allegheny counties agreed to jointly purchase the 40 miles of railway corridor between Connellsville and McKeesport.

Bad luck caught up with the Ohiopyle/Connellsville project when, late in 1990, two landowners between Bruner Run and Connellsville would not grant state park officials rights-of-way.

Permission had been easily obtained from properties owned by CSX and West Penn Power. However, it took 18 months until a right-of-way agreement was reached with Nicholson Lumber Co. and Curry Lumber Co., whose properties were along the trail.

By 1992, the trail was opened between Bruner Run and Wheeler, Dunbar Township. It took another couple of years to fund and renovate two long railroad trestles between Wheeler and Connellsville.

Work was still ongoing when, in 1994, Yough River Trail (now part of the Great Allegheny Passage) was listed among 19 of the “great walks in the world” by Travel & Leisure Magazine.

In July 1995 — a long eight years after it began — the Ohiopyle trail was finally completed to Connellsville's Yough River Park, where grand opening ceremonies were held.

Railbanking explained

While the Connellsville/Ohiopyle right-of-way stagnated, other sections of Yough River Trail proceeded at a smoother pace. This was largely due to a National Trails Act law called railbanking, which allows railroad corridors to be preserved intact when tracks are abandoned by railroad companies.

The Connellsville/McKeesport 40-mile trail was railbanked, so construction of that section was ongoing at the same time as the Ohiopyle/Connellsville portion. South to Cumberland, the situation was largely the same. Between McKeesport and Pittsburgh, trail development has been handled by the Allegheny Trail Alliance.

A short span between West Homestead and Elizabeth Township was the last link for an unbroken 330 miles of recreation.

So, the metropolitan fanfare that will greet the Great Allegheny Passage did, indeed, begin 30 years ago with nine miles of scenic trail in Fayette County.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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