Thriving rail trails energize communities
Tom Demagall practically grew up on Pennsylvania's rail trails.
As a preteen, the Mt. Pleasant native loved the freedom of pedaling his bicycle along the Yough River from Ohiopyle to Confluence on the region's first rail trail, a 9-mile stretch of reclaimed railroad right of way in Ohiopyle State Park that opened in 1986.
Back then the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which this year marks its 30th anniversary of promoting local and federal efforts for rail trail development, was in its infancy, years away from celebrating completion of 175 trails covering 1,767 miles throughout Pennsylvania.
Today Pennsylvania's rail trails — they range from local trails a few miles long to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage — are viewed as successes among the network of 1,970 trails covering more than 22,300 miles in 50 states.
Demagall, now 42, is a symbol of all the trails have meant, not only to bikers and hikers, but to the economies of communities along the way.
He operates Golden Triangle Bike Rental, a booming bicycle rental and touring service, near the northern terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage, which connects to the C&O Canal Towpath Trail in Maryland, then on to Washington, D.C.
Demagall had 20 rental bicycles when he bought the business in 2006. Today he has a fleet of 200 bikes and logs tens of thousands of rentals a year, and provides support services for more than 500 riders a year who come from around the world to ride from Pittsburgh to Washington.
His business blossomed as development of the Great Allegheny Passage brought it closer to Pittsburgh, where it finally landed three years ago.
Well before that, Demagall saw how the trails were energizing nearby communities, he said.
It was the Great Allegheny Passage that changed hearts and minds about having trails pass through communities as link after link of rail trail was completed, Demagall said.
As the trail flourished, concerns about the impact of foot and bike traffic and an influx of people from outside the communities diminished.
Nowhere is that shift more evident than in Meyersdale, a community of just over 2,100 in Somerset County.
Located 118 miles south of Pittsburgh, the town grew up around the railroad.
At one time, two railroads made multiple stops there, taking on passengers and hauling coal and lumber out of the mountains.
But by the time Donald Walukas, 79, moved to Meyersdale 25 years ago, it seemed like the boom years had come and gone. Only one railroad remained and the passenger trains no longer stopped.
A revival came via the rail trail, Walukas said.
It opened a window on the world the community had never seen before, he added.
“You should see the guest book at the station. People from all around the world come here. The trail has been a boom. If anybody knows we live here and they're on the trail, they stop,” he said.
A 2012 study pegged the economic impact of the trail at $50 million a year. Not a bad return for a project completed at a cost $80 million to build over 30 years.
“It's the all-star of trails,” said Alex MacDonald, chief of trails, greenways and statewide planning for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Although three other states boast more miles of rail trails, Pennsylvania is considered a leader in development. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy lists the state as having the most completed trails in the nation.
Many say much of that success is rooted in grass-roots movements that lobbied the U.S. Department of Transportation and the state to fund trail development and vowed to maintain the trails once they were built.
Ted Kovall, 66, president of the Yough River Trail Council, has watched pride swell in the 23-mile section of the Great Allegheny Passage near Connellsville that his group of volunteers has maintained for more than two decades.
“We have to go out and back (on their stretch of the trail). That's about 50 miles of grass-cutting,” he said. “But we have a very faithful group of volunteers. We figured last year at $8 an hour, they did $170,000 worth of volunteer labor.”
They also have built a campground near the river that includes several shelters and a lawn for tents.
“On the sign-in sheet at our campground last year, we had people from 45 states and seven foreign countries,” Kovall said.
He remembers when people in Connellsville pushed back against the trail, predicting it would bring “derelicts” and “thieves” to town.
“I think we've converted most of the locals. They see just how much business it brings in,” he said.
Along that stretch of the trail, elegant old homes that were falling into disrepair have been renovated to become B&Bs, while restaurants and bike shops catering to travelers have flourished. The 54-room Cobblestone Hotel that will cater to trail travelers is slated to open later this summer.
Amy Camp, a consultant working with trail communities for a decade, said attitudes about rail trails have changed dramatically.
“They're coming to value the trails as a resource, to embrace them and take a feeling of pride and stewardship in what they have,” she said.
“In West Newton about five years ago, I was at the trail. This fellow approached me. He had a curmudgeonly way about him and he said, ‘Are you with the trail?' I braced myself. Then he said ‘This trail is the best thing that ever happened to this town.'”
Although many see the trail movement as approaching maturity, advocates say they are not finished.
Eric Oberg, director of the Midwest regional office of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said planners, encouraged by the success of the Great Allegheny Passage, are looking for ways to link a series of trails in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia to create a 1,450-mile loop they've dubbed the Industrial Heartland Trail.
“People had a hope and vision 30 years ago, but I don't think anyone could have predicted what we saw when the Great Allegheny Passage trail was finished. It was this amazing accomplishment. And now we're in a trails manifest destiny,” Oberg said.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or de firstname.lastname@example.org.