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Hike on city's new trail a real sound investment

Roaring traffic, not chirping birds, greets users of this very urban pathway

Friday, June 19, 1998

By Jon Schmitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The first thing to know about the newly opened Eliza Furnace Trail is that it is no secluded, tree-hugger, wilderness type of place.

Two joggers try out the new Eliza Furnace Trail as it passes between the Parkway East and ramps to and from the Boulevard of the Allies in Oakland. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

If you want chirping birds and rustling leaves and shadowy thickets, you came to the wrong place. This is in-your-face urban recreation, heavy on the concrete and asphalt and especially heavy on the noise.

That's what happens when you build a walking-jogging-biking-skating trail smack in the middle of Western Pennsylvania's busiest interstate highway.

Mayor Murphy officially opened the 2 1/2-mile Downtown-to-Oakland trail yesterday with a ribbon-cutting at its eastern terminus -- a commuter parking lot off Swinburne Street. A small horde of in-line skaters, bicyclists and runners immediately lit out toward Downtown, the skyline looming in their view.

People have been using the trail for several months while it was under development.

Until yesterday's dedication, it was informally known as the "Jail Trail," because its Downtown endpoint is behind the Allegheny County lockup.

Now, it is named for a blast furnace that once loomed over Second Avenue near the eastern end of the trail. Among the dignitaries who helped Murphy cut the ribbon were a group from the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.

"The real trails were blazed by these guys," said Oliver Montgomery, a United Steelworkers official.

Earlier in the day, the Post-Gazette conducted a lengthy, sun-drenched investigation of the pathway, which follows the former Baltimore & Ohio right-of-way from Downtown to points east.

The trail begins Downtown on the back porch of the Allegheny County Jail, and so our first tip was: Wear something other than a red jumpsuit when jogging on it.

The asphalt pathway continues along the rim of the city's new Second Avenue commuter parking lot. To the left is a sea of parked cars. To the immediate right, behind a high fence, are the outbound lanes of the Parkway East.

The trail widens at the half-mile point, becoming a 10-foot-asphalt ribbon bordered on both sides with tendon-friendly crushed limestone. Signs advise walkers and joggers to use the shoulders, leaving the pavement for bikers and skaters.

It is here that one gets the surreal sensation of playing in traffic -- very fast, very big traffic. On both sides, cars and tractor-trailers on the Parkway East roar by, drowning out all other sound, including the music blasting from a stereo headset.

Looking past the blur of traffic, there's a panoramic view of the Monongahela River and South Side Slopes to the right; the Bluff rises to the left. Ahead, in the distance, is the Birmingham Bridge.

The trail is almost pancake flat, sloping almost imperceptibly down on its way toward the Birmingham span.

The bridge is near the one-mile mark. The trail passes beneath its main span and connecting ramps, and over a small bridge above Brady Street. The parkway veers slightly here, replaced on the right by Second Avenue.

The Eliza Furnace Trail, as it runs between the Parkway East and Second Avenue. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

The whine of internal combustion engines recedes, only to be replaced by the hissing of the Metaltech plant to the right of the trail. On the left, the concrete retaining walls of the parkway are elaborately decorated with graffiti.

The trail continues past the Pittsburgh Technology Center and the hot-metal railroad bridge that linked Jones & Laughlin Steel operations on either side of the Monongahela in the days of steelmaking glory.

Murphy, the son of a J&L steelworker, said the span was considered the nation's most strategically important bridge during World War II because of the huge amounts of raw materials that crossed it.

The bridge by next year will be converted into a vehicular and pedestrian crossing, linking the trail to the South Side.

A small stairway to Second Avenue opens the trail to technology center employees. There also are exits at Brady Street and Bates Street.

Past the technology center, the trail crosses above Bates and curves gently to its eastern finish at a shuttle parking lot used by Children's Hospital employees.

The final stretch has the most greenery and the lowest decibel levels from traffic, but is in the shadow of a huge, two pronged billboard tower that currently features Franco Harris hawking cellular phones.

You expected sequoias, maybe?

At the shuttle lot, the trail reaches an unhappy and temporary dead end. The city wants to extend it into Schenley Park but must figure out a way around, over or under an active Conrail railroad line.

Public Works Director Ralph Kraszawski describes plans for additional development of the trail. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Public Works Director Ralph Kraszewski, whose crews built the trail, said the short-term plan is to take it down Swinburne Street, left along the shoulder of Second Avenue and left onto Saline Street.

It will pass a noted local landmark, Big Jim's restaurant, where reasonable trailgoers might want to stop and dive into a cold one. That's because from there, the trail will climb a long, steep slope to connect with Schenley Park bridle paths for a finishing kick into the heart of Oakland.

If you go: Parking is available at either end of the trail. On the Downtown end, park at the city's First Avenue lot adjacent to the Municipal Courts Building or the Second Avenue Parking Plaza, just east of the jail. The eastern end point is at a shuttle parking lot on Swinburne Street, off Second Avenue where Greenfield, Hazelwood and Oakland come together. Most of the route will eventually be fenced in, but there are exit points at Bates Street, at Second Avenue across from the Pittsburgh Technology Center and at Brady Street under the Birmingham Bridge.

The trail is open dawn to dusk. Pets must be on a leash. No motorized vehicles are allowed.

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