The Great Allegheny Passage: Day 1
Starting Point: Cumberland, Maryland, Mile Marker 0 (6:15 a.m.)
End Point: Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, Mile Marker 72 (5:15 p.m.)
Total Distance Traveled: 72 miles (6.5 mph average)
The Great Allegheny Passage has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, ever since I biked the C&O Canal. This daunting 150-mile trail stretches from Cumberland, MD, to Pittsburgh, PA, and follows the paths of the Western Maryland and Pittsburgh-Lake Erie Railroads. The GAP trail, as it’s called, had humble beginnings in 1978, when the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy acquired 27 miles of railway between Connellsville and Confluence, PA. Over the years, more rail segments were purchased and added on, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the Passage was complete. Today, the Great Allegheny Passage, in conjunction with the C&O Canal, links Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. in a 335-mile combined pathway, and has the reputation of being “America’s Friendliest Long-Distance Rail Trail.”
I wanted to start pedaling as soon as the sun came up, so I casually set my alarm for 3 a.m. and left my house by 4:00. At around 6 a.m. I arrived in Cumberland, the terminus for both the GAP trail and C&O Canal. Located on the banks of Wills Creek and the North Branch of the Potomac River, Cumberland was originally founded as a fort and trading post by Christopher Gist and the Ohio Company back in 1749. Today, the area has become one of the most historic and vibrant cities in the region.
Just a couple miles outside of Cumberland is an area called The Narrows, a row of 1000-foot high cliffs that line the mountain pass. One particular area of the bluffs, called Lover's Leap, has an interesting and tragic story attached to its name. In the colonial era, an Indian princess was engaged to be married to a European trapper named Jack. Her father, the Chief of the tribe, forbade her from marrying anyone of European descent. Jack offered the Chief the deed to a silver mine in exchange for his blessing of marriage. The Chief took the deed, but still denied Jack his approval. In a violent dispute, Jack accidentally killed the Chief. The Indian princess and Jack both realized that they couldn't live with themselves after her father's demise, so they scaled to the top of the Narrows and jumped off hand-in-hand to their deaths.
Across the way from the Narrows is the Connellsville Extension Bridge (circa 1910). This bridge was the first of many to be constructed during the Western Maryland Railroad expansion in the early 1910s. While blasting through the earth a few miles away, workers discovered an ancient cave in one of the cuts. Upon investigation, numerous animal bones were uncovered. The Smithsonian was called in and performed a formal excavation of the site. They managed to date the bones to the Pleistocene Epoch (about 200,000 years ago) and identified 40 different species—28 of which are believed to be extinct—including a Sabre-toothed tiger, puma, and mastodon!
Between miles 5 and 15, there are a few neat landmarks to check out. First is the Helmstetter Horseshoe Curve, a nearly 180-degree bend in the tracks that give passengers on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad a picturesque view of either ends of the train. A few hundred yards away is the Brush Tunnel; built in 1911 and 914-feet long. Lastly, past mile 11, is the overlook of the Mt. Savage township. Mt. Savage was originally called Arnold’s Settlement in the 1780s and served as an overnight stop for pioneers headed to the Ohio River Valley.
At 8:30 a.m., I reached Frostburg, Maryland (Mile Marker 16). In the early 1800s, Josiah Frost (the town’s namesake) purchased land along the proposed route for the National Road and sold parcels of it away in the hopes of creating a profitable town from the increased commerce the Road would bring. Frost’s vision became a reality in 1812 when the town was incorporated as Mt. Pleasant (changed to Frostburg a decade later). However, it wasn’t the Road that brought the most financial success, but the discovery of rich coal deposits in the hills surrounding the town. This led to an economic boom in the 1850s. In 1852, the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad arrived in Frostburg, which allowed coal to be transported in higher quantities quicker than ever before. Frostburg saw prosperity for nearly a century, but that prosperity declined following the closures of the mines in the 1940s. Today, Frostburg is a cozy college town fit with museums, art galleries, and regular community festivals.
It’s a short uphill walk from the trail to Frostburg. There are a few art installations along the pedestrian path that leads to the town (made from bike parts nonetheless). At the top of the hill are the C&P Railroad Depot (circa 1891) and the Thrasher Carriage Museum. A couple blocks away from these buildings is the Trail Inn—originally the Tunnel Hotel—which was the site of one of the largest moonshine operations in Maryland during Prohibition.
On the town’s main street, I walked up to the Frostburg Museum to see the Braddock Stone. The Stone is an early colonial highway marker that reads: “11 miles to Ft. Cumberland / 29 Ms to Capt Smyth’s Inn and Bridge Big Crossings / and / The best road to Redstone Old Fort 64 M.” The other side of the stone reads: “Our Country’s Rights We Will Defend.” The exact position and date of the stone is unknown, but it was probably created in the mid-18th Century. The Stone is named after General Edward Braddock, commander of British troops during the French and Indian War. Braddock and 1500 men (including George Washington) were dispatched to expel French forces from western Pennsylvania in 1755. The French launched a surprise attack outside of Fort Duquesne, killing Braddock. Washington took command of the unit and led the retreat back to Fort Cumberland.
After grabbing a much-needed espresso at Mountain City Coffee, I returned to the trail around 9:00 a.m. A couple miles down the road is the Borden Tunnel, a 957-foot long passage constructed in 1911.
Between mile markers 20 and 21 is the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania and the cultural divide between North and South. The controversial line dates back to 1681, when the Penn family of Pennsylvania and the Calvert family of Maryland disputed land claims in the area. Maryland claimed they owned land up to the 40th parallel, while Pennsylvania asserted their land claims extended to the 39th parallel. This dispute lasted over 80 years until surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon drew the official boundary in 1763. It took them an additional five years to lay down boundary stones across 316 miles.
At mile 22, I reached the Big Savage Tunnel. This massive tunnel, completed in 1912, extends nearly 3300 feet through Big Savage Mountain (it took me over three minutes to bike through it!). A couple miles down the path is the Eastern Continental Divide, the physical boundary between the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico Watersheds. Up to this point, the trail had been entirely uphill, elevating 1800 feet over 24 miles! It was a relief to my legs to finally get some downhill action.
Six miles down the trail are the Bollman Bridge and Keystone Viaduct. The bridge is named after Wendel Bollman, the bridge’s engineer and architect who completed the project in 1871. At Mile 32 is the town of Meyersdale. Founded by German settlers in the late 1700s, Meyersdale was the cultural and economic center of Somerset County during the 19th Century.
I stopped by the Meyersdale Historic Society and Museum at the old railway depot adjacent to the trail. The building showcases some very elaborate model train displays and exhibits antique railroad and Meyersdale memorabilia.
After exploring the town and grabbing some lunch, I got back on the trail around 12:30 p.m. About 15 minutes later, I reached the Salisbury Viaduct, a 1908-foot long and 101-foot high overpass that crosses the Casselman River.
The trail becomes rather mundane between miles 34 and 61, as there’s not much to see or do along the way. The town of Rockwood breaks this monotony at mile 44, but there isn’t that much to see other than the old Opera House and Lumber Mill.
At mile 62, I reached Confluence. Much like Rockwood, there isn’t much to see here; however, there is some interesting history associated with the town. On May 20, 1754, Colonel George Washington, his troops, and some American Indian scouts camped at Turkeyfoot, the point of the town bordered by the Casselman and Youghiogheny Rivers. Washington and his men were looking for navigable waterways through western Pennsylvania when his scouts informed him of a French reconnaissance party a couple miles away. Washington decided to launch a surprise attack against the French on the morning of May 28. The French commander, Ensign Coulon de Jumonville, and nine of his men were killed in the ambush. Jumonville’s death, however, was one of great controversy. There are several accounts from Washington’s men that Jumonville was not killed, but seriously wounded following the skirmish. One of the Indian warriors, named Half King, came up to Jumonville and hacked him to death with a tomahawk. This action went against all rules of war, especially when it came to handling captured officers. Word spread quickly of the brutal British assault, and this engagement--named the Battle of Jumonville Glen--ultimately opened up the French and Indian War.
From Confluence, it was another 11 miles to Ohiopyle, my final destination for the day. Even though Ohiopyle is a small town of only 74 residents, Ohiopyle State Park attracts over one million people per year! The park encompasses over 20,000 acres and provides plenty of recreational opportunities, such as rafting, kayaking, hiking, and rock climbing…not to mention this is also the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed architectural marvel: Falling Water. Ohiopyle certainly deserves an article of its own, so I'll definitely need to stop by there again soon!.
My accommodations for the night are located at the Falls Market Inn. After working on four hours of sleep and eleven hours of biking, I seriously need to crash on a nice, soft bed. Seventy-two miles is the most I’ve biked in a single day, and I’ll need to bike nearly 78 more in order to reach Pittsburgh! Thanks for checking in everyone! Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two!
Click HERE for a map of the Great Allegheny Passage!
Click HERE for more information on the GAP Trail!