'Sheer Desperation' was Dave Tremba's catalyst for Yough River Trail expansion
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, Dave Tremba of Connellsville was in his early 50s when he began a crusade to build a bike trail from Ohiopyle to Connellsville. Now 77, Tremba reflects back on the project and expresses hope for the path's future.
As Southwestern Pennsylvania gears up for a grand opening of the Great Allegheny Passage, Dave Tremba sits in his Connellsville home, a silent sentinel.
His grin is wryly nostalgic.
There are reasons behind that smile.
Twenty-five years ago, Tremba wheedled and wailed to anyone who would listen that a bike trail had to be built between Ohiopyle State Park and Connellsville.
Today, that section of trail is smack in the middle of the Great Allegheny Passage — a 150-mile recreational path that links downtown Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Maryland. There, it joins the C&O Canal Towpath Heritage Trail, a 185-mile path to Washington, D.C.
Starting now, hikers and bikers have 335 unbroken miles of exercise and fun for the taking.
Ironically, this terrific trail tale was spurred by an act of desperation.
‘Act of desperation'
In 1987, Tremba had just been hired as the new director of Greater Connellsville Chamber of Commerce. He was gung-ho and enthusiastic, ready to promote Connellsville's businesses with gusto.
There was only one teeny problem.
The chamber was almost broke.
“They said, ‘Dave, we can only afford to pay you $300 a month for now,'” Tremba remembered. “They promised if I could recruit more members, my pay would go up accordingly.”
Having had previous sales experience, Tremba figured, “No sweat.”
He started at one end of Connellsville and worked his way through town and its outskirts, greeting business owners with a smile, a firm handshake and a positive attitude.
“I heard it over and over: ‘What has the chamber ever done for me?' I couldn't get anyone to bite,” Tremba said. “They said they had no use for the chamber, but to me, it was like they were saying, ‘You'll never get paid, Sucker!' Thank God my wife, Rosemary, was working. I don't think we would have survived.”
Desperate to find something — anything — positive to lure new members, Tremba racked his brain — and came up with zilch.
Inspired by Ohiopyle trail
Then Larry Adams of Ohiopyle State Park threw him a lifeline.
“I read in the paper about Ohiopyle's bike trail to Confluence,” Tremba explained. “I got to thinking, ‘What if we could build a trail from Ohiopyle to Connellsville?' That would be a positive thing for business, right?”
He visited Adams, who was then superintendent of Ohiopyle State Park. “He was kind of hesitant at first,” Tremba admitted. “He said he'd never thought of it before.”
The more Tremba talked, the more Adams pondered. “He said, ‘You know, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy does own the right-of-way along that land. It might just work.'”
Tremba was encouraged that Adams didn't flat out refuse the Connellsville/Ohiopyle trail idea. He then learned about America's Industrial Heritage Project, which had recently received Congressional approval.
Spearheaded by the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, AIHP had $10 million a year allocated for 10 years — $100 million total — to fund recreational and history-related projects in Cambria, Somerset, Westmoreland, Fayette and Greene counties.
Tremba was doggedly determined that Fayette County — namely the Ohiopyle-to-Connellsville bike trail — would get a hefty chunk of the change. He called Nick Jacobs, who was then director of Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau in Ligonier. Jacobs put Tremba in touch with Randy Cooley, director of the five-county AIHP program.
Cooley not only favored Tremba's idea, he took the trail idea a step further.
“He envisioned a trail that would run all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.,” Tremba remembered.
1987: Local input
To solicit local support, Tremba asked Ralph Wombacker, then-director of Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, to help him arrange a meeting. That 1987 session included officials from Connellsville, Ohiopyle State Park and Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, as well as members of local sportsmen's and fishermen's clubs. “It was a real positive meeting. Everyone there said they'd favor a bike trail in Connellsville,” Tremba said.
Afterward, he contacted state Rep. Richard Kasunic. Then he called state Sen. Bill Lincoln. Both were cautious at first, knowing the fickle way that government funding often works. But Tremba wouldn't go away. He coaxed and cajoled. “I think I almost cried. I was that desperate for this thing to be built — and fast,” Tremba joked.
When Tremba reported the good news about the trail's support to the chamber's board of directors, they were mostly indifferent. “Only a couple members said positive things,” he said.
Tremba's hopes were dashed, but he discovered something about his personal feelings. Not only did he see the trail as a way to recruit new chamber members, he also believed it would enhance the lives of local residents.
‘Why not a trail?'
“We had the paths already in place. Why not develop them as bike trails?” he reasoned. “I had walked along the abandoned railroad tracks for years when I fished in the Yough River. I had seen how beautiful the scenery was. What did we have to lose?”
He paused, then laughed. “Come to think of it, I almost did lose my mind a few times, especially when I realized how long it would actually take to build the trail between Ohiopyle and Connellsville!”
Tremba stressed that the support of Ohiopyle State Park (Doug Hoehn took over after Larry Adams), Kasunic and Lincoln, Murtha and AIHP was essential to complete the multimillion dollar project. “It took awhile for county and local officials to come around, but luckily they finally did.”
YRTC dates to 1988
Volunteer support of the trail grew with the formation of Yough River Trail Council during a 1988 tourism meeting at Belvetone Systems (now Widmer Engineering) on Connellsville's West Side.
The room that day was filled to capacity with people from as far away as Pittsburgh — including a representative from the office of then-Mayor Sophie Madoff.
“It was really encouraging,” Tremba said. “I knew there was strength in numbers, plus there was the power of the press. Several newspapers sent reporters, especially The Daily Courier. The Courier was always there to report the trail news.”
Among the state officials attending, in addition to Kasunic and Lincoln, was Art Davis, secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
“I turned to Art Davis and said, ‘Mr. Davis, if you'll invest in this project, we'll establish a public private partnership to operate and maintain this trail.' He nodded yes,” Tremba recalled. That's how Yough River Trail Council was formed — and the group has faithfully supported the project ever since.
Right of way woes
With government support and funding, the trail from Ohiopyle to Connellsville began. Right-of-way problems soon derailed it, pending negotiations. However, there was good news to the north of Connellsville. A Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad worker mentioned to Tremba that 43 miles of P&LE track between Connellsville and McKeesport were scheduled for abandonment.
Soon afterwards, Tremba received a call from an Allegheny County Planning Department official who expressed interest in building a trail along P&LE right-of-way. He and Tremba then met with Malcolm Sias, director of Westmoreland Parks Commission, as part of the right of way ran through Westmoreland County.
Fayette gets on board
Eventually, Fayette County Commissioners joined with Westmoreland and Allegheny counties to purchase the 43 miles of railroad corridor from P&LE for a combined total of $265,000. Fayette paid $60,000 of that amount for 17 miles of right-of-way.
By 1993, the right-of-way problem between Ohiopyle and Connellsville had been resolved. The northern trail between Connellsville and McKeesport went through easily because those 43 miles were protected by a federal process known as railbanking.
Dirt finally flew in spring 1993, six years after Tremba became chamber of commerce director. Ninety-five percent of the project was in place when he found himself once again seeking a new job.
“I just couldn't financially afford to stay at the chamber any longer. The trail project had a life of its own by then, and I needed to move on,” he said ruefully.
Tremba wasn't at Yough Park in July 1995 when grand opening ceremonies were held for the Ohiopyle/Connellsville section of Yough River Trail. By then, the northern section to McKeesport was well under way, too — and trail groups from both ends were working to extend the path south between Confluence and Cumberland, Maryland, and north between McKeesport and downtown Pittsburgh.
The end result finally comes to fruition this summer, when the Great Allegheny Passage will be dedicated Saturday at Point State Park, Pittsburgh.
Tremba still watches
Tremba has remained in the background, biding his time since 1993.
Now age 77, he occasionally takes a stroll along Yough River Trail. He looks at the wildflowers blooming and the sunshine sparkling off the pristine Youghiogheny River — and savors the scene of families walking and bicycling along the path he once thought was only a dream.
Most of all, Tremba is thankful that state and federal officials went along with a last ditch effort born out of an act of desperation.
“Who said it couldn't be done? It sure looks good to me,” he declared.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.