Tunnel renovation will be the climax to trail expansion in Armstrong County
The next stop for scenic bike touring is Armstrong and Clarion counties.
River trails in secluded natural areas and a $2.3 million renovation of the Climax Tunnel is expected to bring tourists and adventure seekers to the rural and wild county.
Where there are no roads in these sparsely populated areas, rails-to-trails outline the Allegheny River and Redbank Creek.
The 30-mile long Armstrong Trail runs from Ford City to East Brady. The Redbank Valley Trail, with the opening of the Climax Tunnel near New Bethlehem in early July, will extend the trail to 41 miles from the Allegheny River near East Brady to Brookville. There, an additional 9-mile spur is under development.
"Opening the Climax Tunnel creates a long enough traffic-free trail to attract multi-day bicycle tourists, which is a good thing," said Mary Shaw of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill, who has biked and hiked across Western Pennsylvania for half a century. She is an author of a number of outdoor guides and a board member of trail organizations.
The tunnel will open up about 65 miles of continuous trail from Rosston (south of Ford City on the Allegheny) to Brookville (near I-80), plus a spur of about 5 miles to East Brady, she noted.
"Many cyclists are hungry for another great tour with no traffic, river views, and interesting historical relics — and this trail will provide those," she said.
Along with the small river towns, relics and railroads lacing Southwestern Pennsylvania, there are tunnels.
But they are old and decrepit.
Built in 1876, the Climax Tunnel is considered one of Pennsylvania's top 10 "trail gaps." It's one of less than 20 old railroad tunnels still in use as a bike throughway, according to Alex MacDonald, chief of trails greenways and statewide planning for state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
"It's a critical connection on a long-distance trail," he said. "If you don't rehab the tunnel, everybody stops and goes back."
And DCNR and other government agencies aren't going to invest substantial funds for short trails, he added.
Labor of love
Lined with brick, the mortar of the Climax Tunnel was deteriorating and the brick and arches were sagging.
Part of the renovation included extending the tunnel 80 feet to shield against overhanging rocks, according to Ron Steffey, executive director of the Allegheny Valley Land Trust.
The tunnel has been closed since the Land Trust bought the railroad corridor and tunnel in 2010.
People have been trying to get in it ever since, he said.
Senate Engineering is leading the restoration project.
Major hurdles including making the tunnel safe for trail users and providing the railroad the ability to keep it large enough to use it for trains if this inactive railroad corridor was ever reactivated for rail use, Steffey said.
Earlier this month, contractors installed pre-made concrete arches on top of the walls for the extension. They also repaired a portion of the main arch inside the tunnel, which had become unsafe.
When that was done, Steffey said, workers used metal mesh and sprayed concrete to line the interior of the tunnel. More than 13,000 expansion anchors were used to connect the new concrete to the existing tunnel.
It's a crucial connection to not only open up the Redbank Valley Trail but it connects to the Armstrong Trial, adding substantially more mileage.
"It will help grow the economy, bringing tourists who, instead of coming by road, they will come by trail," Steffey said.
It's not just about the tourist, either.
"This is not just professional bikers and not just yuppies from Pittsburgh," Steffey said.
the local people enjoy the trail, it's a part of their daily lives."
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.