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A gap closed in bike trail

Residents envision use of route in Somerset County doubling

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Engle family -- Grover and Denise and their daughter, Brittany -- were among the first bicyclists on the new 6.5-mile section of the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail between Confluence and Fort Hill in Somerset County, and their reviews were glowing.

Pam and Charlie Cook of Upper St. Clair take a break while riding the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail Friday in Somerset County. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"This is beautiful," Denise Engle said as she pedaled under overhanging beech, maple and hemlock with the Casselman River rippling far down in the valley.

"We usually ride between Ohiopyle and Confluence, but this is a lot nicer. It's wider. I like the fences. It's great."

The gap in the "GAP trail," as it's quickly become known, was officially and ceremoniously closed Friday, instantly opening up both the longest bicycling, hiking, cross-country skiing route in the East and the promise of increased economic opportunities.

The opening festivities were attended by more than 200 people, many of them propping their bikes along the post-and-rail fence at the Route 281 trail head while trail officials and politicians spoke of the importance of the new link.

U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, pronounced the trail "a wonderful draw" for a region that has lost thousands of steel and coal mining jobs.

"This was the missing link," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the umbrella organization for the seven rails-to-trails groups working on the GAP.

"It's just remarkable. The new trail is the prettiest piece of trail laid down so far. We are very excited."

The open sections of the GAP trail now stretch for a continuous 100 miles from McKeesport to Meyersdale, Somerset County. Eventually it will run for 150 miles, from the Point in Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., where it will link onto the C&O Towpath, which runs into Washington, D.C. The entire system, already designated a national recreational trail, is expected to be completed in 2003.

"This is an absolutely momentous occasion to finish 100 miles," said state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary John Oliver, one of the first to see the potential for a rail-trail between Ohiopyle and Confluence in the 1970s.

The rail trail, on the old railroad rights of way of the Western Maryland Railroad and the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie Railroad, has grown tenfold since the first 11-mile section between Ohiopyle and Confluence opened in 1986.

"Just wait until you finish this 400-mile link between Pittsburgh and Washington," Oliver said, "and see the attention that receives."

He promised that another trail sticking point, renovation of the Big Savage Tunnel in southern Somerset County near the Maryland state line, would be finished by the end of next year. Bids were opened last week.

In Confluence, the new section starts on the east side of Route 281 near the Youghiogheny River and immediately climbs a fairly steep but short grade.

It crosses a bridge over the Casselman River, dips into a new concrete underpass below Route 523 near Harnedsville and crosses a narrow two-lane road on the other side of Harnedsville before re-crossing the Casselman on another bridge and passing a farm.

Then the scenery really gets good. The trail is situated high above the valley and the Casselman River, and passes through some cool, dark hemlock groves. Along the way, Cucumber Run and McClintock Run splash down a series of waterfalls beside the trail before running through culverts to join the Casselman.

Despite its 10-foot width, the new trail still has plenty of shade and plenty of post-and-rail fencing to keep cyclists from falling off steep edges and to assuage the concerns of property owners along the route.

The wooded trail is also home to lots of wildlife. Bob Stoppe and John Wallet, who worked on the new trail section for the contractor, Charles J. Merlo Inc., said they've seen lots of deer, two bear, a bald eagle and a bobcat since they started last September.

"Everybody we've talked to is just ecstatic about the way this section has turned out," Stoppe said. "I think from here to Fort Hill is the prettiest part. I would have worked here for nothing."

Now that the new section is finished, bicyclists will no longer have to pedal on hilly Route 281 from Confluence to the Fort Hill turnoff, and then brake down a steep grade through a one-lane underpass below the railroad tracks, cross the steel bridge over the Casselman River and climb a short hill to rejoin the bike trail.

"People in Confluence have been waiting for this section of the trail to open for 10 years," Boxx said.

"Each section has its own quirks and challenges, and here our biggest challenge was in working with the property owners and mustering political and community support.

"Fifteen years ago the people of Confluence weren't sure they wanted the trail link with Ohiopyle.

"They weren't sure if some kind of criminals would be using the trail. Now the trail users are a known quantity. They want the visitors and their business."

Boxx said about 500,000 people used the trail each year, but that number could double in two years as more trail sections open and the ATA steps up its marketing.

Linda Holliday, secretary of the Confluence Tourism Association, said the completion of the 100-mile trail section would make a big difference for businesses along the trail.

"We think this will bring a lot more visitors to town," she said. "Ohiopyle to Confluence is 11 miles on the trail and a nice day trip for folks that who would stop in up here to grab lunch or something to drink. We were getting a lot of that.

"But now we think we'll be seeing a lot more over-nighters, people who will be out on the trail for several days, doing the whole thing and stopping along the way."

Ray Silbaugh, president of the tourism association and owner of Confluence Hardware, said the town was looking forward to seeing bicyclists arrive from both directions for the first time, but would need to increase its overnight accommodations.

"Our only weak spot right now is that we need some more bed and breakfasts or a motel," Silbaugh said. "Right now we've got maybe six or eight [bed and breakfasts], but they're seasonal. "We need to develop some winter trade."

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