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Cycling: Bikers transform Meyersdale to Confluence trail into hive of activity

Sunday, September 02, 2001

By Lawrence Walsh

It wasn't the largest group of bicyclists Maynard Sembower has seen go by his small, wooden clothing and souvenir shop along the Great Allegheny Passage in Rockwood, Somerset County, but it certainly was one of the most color-coordinated and enthusiastic.

Don Martin of Berwyn, his 8-year-old daughter, Shannon (right), and Danielle Cairns, also 8, take a break while pedaling along the Great Allegheny Passage in Confluence, Somerset County, Aug. 24, the opening day for the newest trail link between Fort Hill and Confluence. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"There were more than a hundred of them in their red jerseys on their way from Meyersdale to Confluence," he said. "They stopped here last Saturday for about 10 minutes to take a water break and to use the [portable restroom]."

The Meyersdale-Confluence section of the bike trail, the former right-of-way of the Western Maryland Railway, is fast becoming one of the most popular sections of the Great Allegheny Passage. In addition to Rockwood, the 32-mile section passes by the small towns of Garrett, Markleton and Fort Hill.

When completed by 2003 or so, bicyclists will be able to pedal the 146-mile Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. and then the 185-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath from Cumberland to Washington, D. C.

Sembower, 92, retired decades ago as a land management/law enforcement employee of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. He saw the Western Maryland Railway come and go. It was being built when he was born on Dec. 24, 1908 and made its last run soon after he celebrated his 66th birthday.

"If you would have told me 25 years ago the old railway was going to become a popular bike trail, I wouldn't have believed it," he said. "And our section of the trail has become very popular because of its geology, scenery, wildflowers and wildlife. The Casselman River can be seen all along this section."

The Western Maryland Railway used to haul coal, freight and passengers from Connellsville to Cumberland, Md. The passenger train, called the "Blue Goose," ran from Cumberland to Connellsville in the morning and back to Cumberland in the evening.

"There were about eight 'flag' stops between Rockwood and Confluence," Sembower said. "All you had to do was wave your handkerchief, and the train would stop. It cost a dime to ride about six miles from Rockwood to Markleton, the town where I was born. I still have one of the old train schedules."

After their brief visit with Sembower, the Meyersdale-Confluence contingent resumed their ride.

"Maynard cheered us on as we pulled out," said George Cook, 79, the oldest member of the group and one of its strongest riders. Cook, the retired chief executive officer of Somerset Trust, has been riding a bike "since I was a kid." He is a longtime supporter of rails-trails and of getting his family on the trail.

He rode last Saturday with his grandson, Zerick, 28, of State College, and his two great granddaughters -- Zarabeth, 4, and Zianna, 2. Zerick pulled them in a bike trailer.

The Cooks were met in Confluence by Zerick's wife, Michelle, who was pushing a baby carriage containing their son, Kia, 1. Henry Cook, son of George, father of Zerick and president of Somerset Trust, also was part of the welcoming committee. He helped the Confluence Tourism Association host the event.

About 3 p.m., the bikers who traveled from Meyersdale to Confluence linked up with a group of bikers who had traveled 68 miles from McKeesport to Confluence. Both groups were joined by others along the way. When everyone was ready, they entered Confluence and rode around the community park.

"It was a magic moment when we entered the town," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the umbrella organization for seven rails-trails groups developing the Great Allegheny Passage.

"People started waving and cheering," Boxx said. "It was wonderful. What a celebration. The New Economy had come to town, and it arrived on bicycles.

"When we completed our first lap around the park, others were just starting their first lap. When we completed our second lap, there were still more riders coming in to make their first lap. It was tremendous. I felt like the Pied Piper."

The celebration Saturday followed the formal dedication of a 6 1/2-mile section of the trail from Confluence to Fort Hill. That link enables riders to pedal 100 miles -- all on rails-trails -- from McKeesport to Meyersdale. McKenna said the 100-mile section is now the longest multi-purpose rail-trail in the East.

In addition to biking, the trail is used for running, jogging, walking, pushing baby strollers and cross-country skiing. The section between Garrett and Rockwood includes a grass-covered horse trail that parallels the bike trail. Horseback riders must enter and exit the trail at Garrett.

Rick Sebak of WQED-TV, the master of ceremonies for the dedication Friday and an occasional user of the trail, introduced some of those whose efforts were instrumental in establishing the Great Allegheny Passage. In addition to Boxx, they included:

U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, who helped secure some of the early funding; John Oliver, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and one of the first to realize the potential of a rail-trail; and Hank Parke, the tireless president of the Somerset County Rails to Trails Association and also the director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce.

Murtha, Oliver and Parke made it a point to thank others, especially those who have volunteered thousands of hours of their time, to make the trail a reality.

And Parke used the occasion to remind everyone, especially those who have been meaning to join a rail-trail organization -- but haven't yet -- that their energy, enthusiasm and effort are needed to maintain what's been completed as well as to work on what needs to be developed.

Afterwards, Sebak explained his rails-trails conections.

"My grandfather, Michael Sebak, was a conductor on the [Baltimore & Ohio Railroad] and my parents, Chuck and Peggy, met at the [Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Station] where Station Square is now. She was there with a friend of hers, and he came over and introduced himself. They were both from Hazelwood."

The multi-talented Sebak said his newest program, "Pittsburgh A to Z," will air this fall "and R is for rails-trails."

Ride on, Rick.

Larry Walsh can be reached at 412-263-1488. His e-mail address is lwalsh@post-gazette.com.

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