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Advocates peddle development on Sheepskin Trail

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, June 27, 2015, 6:09 p.m.
More than 250 bicyclists pedaled into Dunbar in June  2015 along the Sheepskin Trail, as one of the stops on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's  Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn. The bicyclists from 43 states filled Dunbar Community Park and the borough's ballfield.
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More than 250 bicyclists pedaled into Dunbar in June 2015 along the Sheepskin Trail, as one of the stops on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn. The bicyclists from 43 states filled Dunbar Community Park and the borough's ballfield.

The proposed Sheepskin Trail that would connect Dunbar with Point Marion via a 32-mile rails-to-trails path that runs through Uniontown has the potential to be part of one of the best trail systems in the nation, linking a Pittsburgh-to-Washington, D.C., trail with one in West Virginia, trail riders were told in Dunbar.

“When the Sheepskin Trail is done, there will not be anything like it in the United States,” Tom Sexton, director of the Rails-to-Conservancy's Northeast Regional office in Camp Hill, told more than 200 bicyclists and trail supporters who gathered last week in Dunbar as part of the 2015 Rails-to-Trails Sojourn.

The Sheepskin Trail's link in Dunbar Township to the Great Allegheny Passage, via the former B&O Railroad line, gives bicyclists the option of the traveling the 150-mile trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., and connecting with the C&O Canal Trail that goes to Washington, D.C. At Point Marion, where a rough 1.5-mile trail has been developed, riders can access the Mon River Trail at the West Virginia border and continue on to Morgantown and Fairmont, W.Va.

The route of the Sheepskin Trail goes through 10 municipalities, including Uniontown, South Union, Fairchance and Smithfield, en route to Point Marion at the confluence of the Cheat and Monongahela Rivers.

While the trail path looks good on a map, converting the dream of a completed Sheepskin Trail into a reality has Donna Holdorf, who is in charge of developing the trail as executive director of the National Road Heritage Corridor in Uniontown, calling it the “almost Sheepskin Trail.”

Fayette County acquired 86 acres of the B&O former railroad corridor from Smithfield to Point Marion, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad. But, there are gaps in rights of way so that not all of the acreage is contiguous, Holdorf said.

Development of the trail from Dunbar has stalled because the county does not own the right of way for a 2.7-mile segment from Bridge Street in Dunbar to Industrial Drive in North Union Township, Holdorf said.

The next phase of development of the trail will occur in Point Marion, with the placement of crushed limestone to create a finished trail from the West Virginia border through the town, Holdorf said.

Trail developers hope to do the work this year. Contractors have offered equipment and labor and quarries are willing to provide stone for the base of the trail, Holdorf said. Funding is in place as well — $150,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, $50,000 from the Department of Community and Economic Development and $10,000 from the Chingos Foundation in Boynton Beach, Fla., Holdorf said. The community has been supportive of the efforts, raising more than $5,000 for the trail, Holdorf said.

With a trail and the convergence of two rivers, “Point Marion is a place where you can paddle and pedal,” Holdorf said.

Completing the trail through the tiny coal patch towns in southern Fayette County gives those communities “a chance to see real economic impact,” that will remain constant, not like the cycles that steel and other industries undergo, Holdorf said.

A completed Sheepskin Trail would connect with more than 500 miles of contiguous trail systems throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. It is estimated that such a trail would generate more than $40 million in direct spending from trail users annually, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

“It will be awesome. That's our goal — to get people here and other ones will see the need and open businesses” to serve the trail users, Dunbar Mayor Norm Gordon said.

Cindy Moag, owner of Cinderella's Ice Cream Castle just off the trail in Dunbar, believes that completing the Sheepskin Trail “will put downtown Dunbar on the map with all of the other (trail) towns.”

But, with only a 2.1-mile spur, “we don't get much trail traffic in town,” said Moag, who also runs a guest house that does not do much business.

Among the suggestions offered during a recent trail town assessment conducted by the Greensburg-based Trail Town Program was the need for wayfinder signage to show visitors the amenities in town. It was pointed out that the borough lacks sufficient parking for trail users to leave their vehicle and for bike racks where cyclists can lock their bikes while in town.

“There's nothing that says, ‘Welcome to Dunbar,'” said Will Prince, coordinator of the Trail Town Program, which is an initiative of The Progress Fund, a Greensburg-based financial agency.

A train ticket booth in Dunbar, the remnants of a tourist train that once run between Dunbar and Uniontown, could be converted into a visitor's center, the mayor said.

One of the attractions to get bicyclists to take a detour off the Great Allegheny Passage and travel to Dunbar could be the chance to see a restored coke oven among the bank of coke ovens that are overgrown with trees and brush.

There is a plan to stabilize one of the 86 coke ovens that are in the Dunbar area, said Brad Clemenson, a senior project manager for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which is overseeing the project. The environmental group has received $25,000 in grants from the Rivers of Steel Heritage and the Fayette County tourism tax to make renovations to stabilize one of the coke ovens and install interpretative signage.

It will require bicyclists to take a short walk, but they will be rewarded by seeking a coke oven that played an important role in the region's industrial heritage. Interpretative signs will explain about the coke industry and when the industry thrived, Clemenson said.

“It will be a real good complement to what they have already,” Clemenson said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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