Pedaling Pittsburgh’s Past – Part 2 – The GAP

This mileage signpost along the GAP  in Connellsville, PA sums up the dream quite succinctly.

By Karl Rosengarth

It’s fantastic how a simple vision can inspire great accomplishments. Case in point: the simple vision of a bicycle trail connecting Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC.

The first part fell into place in 1971, with the establishment of the C&O Canal National Historic Park, which offers 184.5 miles of non-motorized adventure from Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC.

I’m not sure how long after 1971 it took for people to start dreaming about a trail connecting Pittsburgh to the C&O trailhead, but dream they did.

That dream eventually became reality, in the form of the Great Allegheny Passage (i.e., the GAP), a 150-mile system of trails running from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, mostly along relatively-flat, abandoned railroad grades.

I picked the terms "vision" and "dream" carefully, because the story behind the GAP is a tale of a shared vision, a dream, that became a rallying cry.

"What if you could ride your bike on trails all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC?"

That vision was the dream that rallied grassroots efforts all along the GAP trail corridor and inspired the cumulative, indefatigable efforts of non-profit organizations, local governments and dedicated individuals who fought, and won, mile-by-mile battles to string together the GAP.

I am one such individual. In 1991 I learned that a volunteer group was being formed to convert an abandoned rail corridor, along the northern section of the Youghioghenny River, into a rail-trail. It wasn’t the concept of a building a 40-mile scenic bike trail that inspired me to get involved. It was the dream of riding a trail that would one day stretch from Pittsburgh to Washington that provided the inspiration.

That grand vision motivated me to attend an organizing meeting, and eventually get myself elected to the Mon-Yough Trail Council’s inaugural Board of Directors. The volunteer efforts of that organization helped convert a decaying, abandoned railroad into a beautiful crushed-limestone trail within Allegheny County, the county that encompasses the city of Pittsburgh. I’m proud to have played a small part in creating the legacy that is the GAP.

Since 1991, I’ve spent countless hours, riding various sections of the GAP in and around Pittsburgh. While I haven’t yet pedaled all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, I did complete a 267-mile self-supported tour along the GAP and C&O Towpath from Somerset, PA to Washington, DC. The whole Pgh-DC enchilada is sill on my bucket list. Perhaps 2012 will be the year?

How does this story relate to Pittsburgh’s past? Well it turns out that George Washington shared a similar vision.

According to the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail website: "George Washington’s dream of connecting the eastern states with the western frontier led to the creation of the Patowmack Company. Locks were built around unnavigable parts of the Potomac River for improved commerce."

Yep, old George had major role in the creation of the C&O canal. Washington’s desire to develop a corridor between the developed eastern cities and the western frontier (and specifically the Ohio Valley) drove him to explore the very the route that the GAP follows today. The route played a key role in our country’s westward expansion.

And, as I pointed out in part one of this series, it was the strategic location at the Ohio River headwaters that eventually led to the founding of the city of Pittsburgh.

Just about every time I pedal along the GAP, I find myself daydreaming of George Washington, and the other pioneers, who explored the region in days gone by. Pedaling Pittsburgh’s past, to be sure.

The 1,908 ft. long Salisbury Viaduct crosses the Casselman River valley west of of Meyersdale, Pa.

In Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh, the GAP offers this stout bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Monongahela River, a re-purposed railroad bridge connecting Duquesne and McKeesport, Pa.

This ramp on a bicycle pedestrian bridge near Duquesne, Pa., (over active railroad tracks) gives riders an increasingly-rare view of the Pittsburgh region’s steel-making heritage.

The GAP crossed the Youghioghenny River at scenic Ohiopyle, Pa.

Cyclist of all sorts ride the GAP (Connellsville, Pa.).

The GAP rolls right by the confluence of the Youghioghenny and Casselman rivers, at Confluence, Pa.

The GAP offers access to many beautiful "beaches" along the Youghioghenny River. Great for cooling off on a hot day, or accessing that favorite fishing hole.



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