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Bicycling: Meet bike-friendly Confluence and beauty of the Yough basin

Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Larry Walsh

The Tour de Confluence, designed to acquaint first-time visitors to the historic, bike-friendly town, attracted 40 riders on a warm sunny Saturday.

The leisurely tour of the southern Somerset County town was the newest edition to That Dam Ride, an annual trip from Boston or Connellsville to the dam in Confluence.

The imposing 184-foot-high earthen dam -- and the distance to it from Boston (68 miles) and Connellsville (30 miles) -- provided the inspiration for the name of That Dam Ride, said Mike Bilcsik, a community organizer for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. I accepted Bilcsik invitation to lead the Tour de Confluence.

Bilcsik asked me to show first-time riders the town's restaurants, accommodations and services -- including bicycle sales, rentals and repairs -- and Confluence's easy access to the Great Allegheny Passage, the trail that in a few more years will connect Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.

The town "where mountains touch rivers" got its name from the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers and Laurel Hill Creek. The point where the Laurel Hill flows into the Casselman and the Casselman almost immediately joins the Youghiogheny can be seen from the bike trail.

The shape formed by the merger of the three waterways reminded George Washington of a turkey's foot. In 1754, Washington described it in his journal during his first of many visits to the area.

The tour began at the Trinity Lutheran Church on Oden Street, the site of That Dam Ride's popular Saturday night spaghetti dinner and Sunday morning breakfast. We traveled several blocks down Williams Street toward the town park and the businesses that face it.

Along the way, we passed Isaac's House, the newest bed and breakfast, and the Food Mart, the largest grocery store. The Food Mart is a frequent stop for campers who pitch tents at the nearby Outflow Campground and boaters who drive across the breastworks of the dam to launch into Youghiogheny River Lake.

We rode around the tree-dotted, one-block square park and stopped near its band stand for a point-and-tell break.

We said hello to Pam Hartman as she walked through the park to the service station she operates with her husband, Mitch. In addition to free air for soft bike tires, the Hartmans have basic grocery staples, a variety of soft drinks and snacks and an automatic teller machine. Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern trains use the tracks behind the building.

Also facing the park are Sisters' Cafe, which offers a variety of homemade dishes; Confluence Hardware, which sells bicycles and repairs them; Chubb's Video, which also rents bikes; the First National Bank of Pennsylvania; Yough Valley Pharmacy; Diamond Produce and Somerset Trust.

We rode down the street between the hardware and video stores, crossed the one-lane wooden pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Casselman River to the West Side of Confluence.

We waved to Mary and Jan Aukerman as we passed The Parker House, the largest guest house in town. The Aukermans and Mitch Bauermaster of American Pride Contracting Co. in Somerset recently completed a two-story addition that includes four-bedrooms, a conference room and a loft.

Polly Rose at the two-story River's Edge Antiques Mall store was reviewing her inventory as we rode by. We turned the corner by the River's Edge Cafe and Bed and Breakfast on to River Road and encountered six of the town's slow-moving, free-loading geese.

Bill Metzger, writer, editor, historian and mapmaker extraordinaire, returned our shouted hello as we rode by his home and Danny's restaurant on River Road. We turned left on to Robert Brown Road, crossed Route 281 and pedaled up the short slope to the old Western Maryland Railway grade.

We stopped at the first bridge across the Casselman, just upstream from Immersion Research, a manufacturer of whitewater paddling gear that is relocating to Somerset. We crossed the bridge and passed the former site of the Western Maryland Railway station.

An enterprising businessman used a chain saw to cut the station into fourths, loaded them on to a flat bed truck and transported them over the mountain to Mill Run where it became a restaurant. When the restaurant closed, half of it was taken away and transformed into a garage. It deserved better.

Eight year-old Alex Kiselica of Bethel Park, the youngest member of our group and the entire That Dam Ride contingent, was our pacesetter for several miles. He did a great job. He was accompanied by his mother, Trish.

We completed the straight-away to Harnedsville, went under Route 523 near the Hannah House bed and breakfast, crossed a two-lane road and crossed another bridge over the Casselman River.

The scenic Confluence to Fort Hill section of the trail, which overlooks the Casselman River, was opened a year ago. There is a lot of fencing and numerous gates to protect the property rights of the adjacent landowners. We were making steady progress toward the Fort Hill trailhead when we saw the tree.

A large red oak, at least three-feet in diameter at the base, had fallen across the trail. Its crown splintered the fence on the other side. We set up a bike brigade -- several persons stood between the large branches and passed each bike to the next person until we all were on the other side.

We took a break at Fort Hill, set up the bike brigade again at the tree and returned to Route 281 where the trail parallels the road. We crossed the bridge over the Youghiogheny River, turned left into the Outflow Campground and joined That Dam Ride bikers who had arrived from Boston and Connellsville.

The refreshments at the wooden pavilion -- water, lemonade, Gatorade and salty snacks -- were a big hit. Our group rode 20 miles, about six more than planned, but no one seemed to mind. Carroll Kelly, 81, of Hazelwood, the oldest rider, had come up from Boston. Bilcsik said a total of 364 riders participated.

Over at the River's Edge Cafe, owner Anna Marie Yakubisin and her staff were welcoming their first dinner guests. It had been a rundown house when she and her late husband, Bob Benns, first saw it in June 1988 on their first bike ride from Ohiopyle to Confluence. A For Sale sign hung on the big hemlock out front. She still has the sign.

Benns, a radio station owner with a doctorate degree in nuclear physics from Georgia Tech, made a $200 down payment on the spot. The couple moved from Squirrel Hill in July and started to renovate a smaller rundown house in the rear for the bed and breakfast. They lived there while they renovated what is now the cafe.

"Our friends told us the houses were too far gone to be saved," Yakubisin said with a laugh. "They told us to push them into the river. We told them to give us nine months."

They met their self-imposed deadline. They added a kitchen and opened the cafe and their B & B in April 1989. Although the German lap siding looks new, it isn't. They removed the insulbrick siding that covered it, pulled out thousands of nails, puttied all the nail holes, applied two coats of primer and two coats of mauve paint.

It looked beautiful. Still does.

Benns, an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed biking, canoeing and kayaking, was a multi-talented visionary. He realized the 12-mile bike ride from Ohiopyle to Confluence would one day be part of a trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. where it would meet the C & O Tow Path to Washington, D. C. He died of cancer on July 6, 1997.

"He lived a wonderful life," Yakubisin said. "He'd be pleased with what has been done with the bike trail and all the guests we've had at the cafe and the B & B."

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

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