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Somerset's Big Savage Tunnel gets new life as bike trail

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

MEYERSDALE, Pa. -- Here's the up side to the water raining ceaselessly through the roof of Big Savage Tunnel. By Rolland Rhodomoyer's reckoning, the stuff's safe to drink.

Construction manager Rolland Rhodomoyer walks through sunlight streaming into the Big Savage Tunnel one day last week. (V.W.H. Campbell, Post-Gazette)

"Have I had any?" Rhodomoyer said last week as he slogged through a half-mile of the tunnel's eternal dusk and ankle-deep water. "I've had lots. I had it tested. Chemically, it's OK."

But unless you showed up at Big Savage deadly parched, the water had a bigger down side.

It was turning the place to ruin.

It's been 27 years since Western Maryland Railway abandoned this tunnel, augered two-thirds of a mile through southeastern-most Somerset County uplands.

In the meanwhile, a quarter-century of rain from aquifers in the 300 feet of mountain above the tunnel helped collapse chunks of the passageway. The 92-year-old portal was sopping. Stretches of roof turned suspect. A cave-in near one entry left an unintended skylight.

Planners wanted to resurrect Big Savage as a showpiece link in a 334-mile cycling and hiking trail between Point State Park and Washington, D.C.'s, Georgetown section. But deterioration put the tunnel at risk of becoming an immovable roadblock instead.

Until lately.

By midsummer, using $11 million in state and federal funds, all 3,291 feet, 9 inches of Big Savage Tunnel should emerge from near death to live on as a shored-up, lighted, well-drained passage through this wild stretch of Allegheny Mountains.

That, in turn, would seem to answer the question of conservationists who rode one of the last trains through Big Savage, before Western Maryland Railway took up its tracks and was swallowed into what's now rail giant CSX Inc.

"They said, 'Don't you think something spectacular could be here?' " said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of Allegheny Trail Alliance, the network of rails-to-trails groups finishing the west half of the Pittsburgh-Georgetown link, a route due to be finished in 2005.

"We anticipate that this tunnel is going to be sturdy, that it'll hold up ... for at least 70 years," said Brett Hollern, the trail alliance's Somerset County trails coordinator.

And that's before maintenance.

Throw in upkeep, said Rhodomoyer, construction manager for Somerset County's project overseers, "and heck, it's probably good for a couple hundred years."

That's a switch from the days when the region's small army of recreation trail advocates could have gotten odds on whether the tunnel was good for, say, 25 minutes.

Chunks of ceiling fell. One fallen piece of tunnel left a hole "big enough for you and me to hold a card game in," Rhodomoyer said.

That was 11 months and about 7,000 roof and wall anchors ago. That was before a tunnel reconstruction crew spent the better part of a year tearing out ruin, shoring the salvageable and pumping a small sea of pudding-thick grout into the holes between the tunnel's concrete skin and the rocks to which it's attached.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources picked up $9 million of the tab. The National Park Service said Wednesday that it would dig into its Land and Water Conservation Fund for another $2 million.

And the Allegheny Trail Alliance is soliciting donors ranging from foundations to weekend cyclists for another $1 million to cover whatever uncharted costs pop up.

The alliance pledged cash when, with all the other funding seemingly committed, there didn't seem to be anybody to bankroll a mandatory contingency fund.

"I wish I'd kept a diary over the years on how many times this project has been on and off, on and off," Boxx said. " ... and I wasn't going to let a multimillion-dollar project go south over this."

So she pledged a $500,000 foundation gift that the alliance might have used for other projects. And, in October, the group began trolling grass-roots donors for $250,000, hoping to match that three-to-one with yet-uncommitted foundation money.

By last week, 277 contributors had put up $57,708.

The Trail Alliance put its money behind the project, viewing the job as mandatory because, when pondering whether to fix up Big Savage Tunnel, geography won't allow a Plan B.

Counter to some local lore, it's not terrain or screaming winter wind that gave name to Big Savage Mountain or neighbors Little Savage Mountain and Savage River.

It was an episode in the winter of 1736, when a hard-luck surveying team wound up stranded and starving in the back country south of here.

Desperate for food, the band mulled cannibalism.

And depending on whose version you buy, ailing surveyor John Savage either offered himself as the entree or was voted weakest link by compadres and put on the menu, according to Eric Savage, a Maryland state park naturalist who figures John Savage is a distant forebear.

But a supply party showed up. And as tribute to his near-sacrifice, Savage's name was immortalized in local geography.

Whatever the case, if you're a bicyclist, and there's no Big Savage Tunnel, Big Savage Mountain is a big, savage mountain -- 2,900 feet above sea level in places, 2,350 feet where the Western Maryland Railway tunnel was bored through the earth.

Geography told road builders where they could put the meandering two-lane routes through this piece of country. And geography said they weren't going to wrap Big Savage Mountain in roads.

It's the rough equivalent of 14 city blocks from one end of Big Savage Tunnel to the other. But here's the highway route for those who choose to detour around it.

You wind south through Somerset County, cross into Maryland, travel a short piece on Route 40, The National Pike, wheel through Frostburg, Md., and then drive an unpaved stretch north, back into Pennsylvania.

"Seventeen miles," Rhodomoyer said as he climbed out of his pickup last week on one of his routine look-sees.

Abandoning the tunnel and sending cyclists over that route would have meant too much risk and spelled the end of linking 141 miles of trail east from Pittsburgh, a path dubbed the Great Allegheny Passage, to the landmark C&O Canal Towpath, from Cumberland, Md., to Washington.

"This tunnel's the linchpin," Hollern said. "There's no way around it."

And it's a showpiece.

Miles of the path offer wild scenery. Near Meyersdale, trail users will cross the 1,908-foot-long Salisbury Viaduct. On the C&O path in Western Maryland, they'll travel through unlighted Paw Paw Tunnel, 173 feet short of the length of Big Savage.

But Big Savage, longest tunnel on the trail, "is sort of the high point," Hollern said.

When work crews arrived in March, they would have been hard-pressed to imagine that. In the gloaming and sogginess, contractor Advanced Construction Techniques, a Maple, Ontario, company that was lowest eligible bidder, found wreckage and icicles 20 feet long, big around as an NFL tackle, hanging from the ceiling.

Last week, the workers still were in there, a nine-person crew in hard hats and raincoats, their world a stream that flowed under their feet while even a bank of flood lamps turned the place to little more than perpetual twilight. While wind cut through 12-degree cold outside, it was 48 degrees inside -- thanks only to a million-BTU heater.

"It's like the mines -- dark when you go in to work, dark when you go home," said Shawna Cunnin, one of two women on the crew. "Daylight -- that's what Sundays are for."

At one place in the gloom, a hammer drill mounted on the back of a rig pounded like a machine gun, making the holes where wall anchors will go. In another place, a machine thundered, turning mix into grout to be fired into the walls.

A PCV-like plastic liner will go up. It will be sprayed over with a cement-concrete mix.

Thirty-two bulletproof lights will be fixed to the ceiling. And sometime after that, Big Savage Tunnel officially will be declared done, albeit not officially declared open.

Properly, it will be the tunnel to nowhere until bike routes following the old Western Maryland Railway route from both sides of the tunnel, 20 miles of yet-unfinished trail, are finished. That's a year or two away.

But the hardy still can pedal the unfinished route.

"Officially, it's closed," Hollern said. "But I suspect people still will be up there."

Contributions to the Big Savage Tunnel restoration can be made out to ATA/RTC and sent to the Big Savage Sponsorship, Allegheny Trail Alliance, 419 College Ave., Greensburg, Pa., 15601. Donors also can get a contribution form online, at http://www.atatrail.org/ata-home.htm

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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