Starting Point: Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, Mile Marker 72 (6:10 a.m.)
End Point: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mile Marker 150 (5:00 p.m.)
Total Distance Traveled: 78 miles (7.1 miles per hour)
I hit the trail at the break of dawn, crossing the bridge over the fog-laden Youghiogheny River, and pedaling through the rest of Ohiopyle State Park. There are countless hiking trails that cross the bike path. I wish I had enough time to check some of them out, but I had a 78-mile itinerary to complete.
It’s 16 miles from Ohiopyle to Connellsville, most of which is pure wilderness. There is a neat waterfall midway between the two towns, which features a short footpath that leads underneath the cascade. Further down the way are exposed coal seams in the cliffs overlooking the bike trail, remnants of Allegheny’s lucrative coal industry.
After crossing an old trestle bridge, I reached Connellsville (Mile Marker 88) at 8:00 a.m. Connellsville was originally settled as Stewart’s Crossing back in the 1700s, and served as a two-day campsite for General Edward Braddock and his troops. I grabbed a quick breakfast and pedaled ahead to the location of the Connellsville Coke Plant. Coke is a material made of almost entirely pure carbon, which allows it to burn at much higher temperatures than coal. This material sustained the furnaces for the local steel industry, and the nearby Adelaide Coke Complex—founded in 1888 by Henry Clay Frick—was the world’s largest producer for over 30 years.
Once past Connellsville, there isn’t another major town for 26 miles; however, the small mining town of Whitsett splits the tedium at Mile Marker 104. Whitsett is described as a “typical patch town,” fit with rows of identical houses built by the coal companies to house their workers. Just outside of the town is Banning No. 1, a large coal procession of the Pittsburgh Coal Company. The Banning was left abandoned following the decline of the coal industry in the mid-20th Century, and curious trail-goers (such as myself) can explore the ruins of some of the old buildings.
The mines for the Pittsburgh Coal Company were also the site of the worst mining disaster in American history. On December 19, 1907, an explosion rocked the Darr Mine in Van Meter, located a mile down the trail from Banning No. 1. Two hundred and thirty-nine miners were killed in the Darr Mine Disaster. Upon investigation, it was determined that the explosion was caused by an open-flame lamp igniting the volatile fumes deep in the mine.
Not nearly a few miles away from Van Meter is the location of another mining incident: the Port Royal Mine Disaster. On June 10, 1901, Mine No. 2, which ran under the Youghiogheny River, collapsed and killed four miners. Later that night, while rescuers were trying to recover the trapped men, an explosion ripped through the mine, killing sixteen men. An additional ten miners are believed to have died during this tragedy, bringing the death toll to thirty.
At Mile Marker 112, I reached West Newton. Directly off the trail is a path to the West Newton Cemetery. Founded in 1852, this historic burial ground sits atop the bluffs overlooking the town. Across the street from the cemetery is West Newton Station and an old passenger car from the early-20th Century.
As I was crossing the street near Sutersville (Mile Marker 117), my bike clipped one of the old rails sticking out from under the pavement, which made me take a nasty spill. Fortunately, I only suffered a scraped knee. My bike and gear weren’t damaged at all. Perhaps it was fatigue or tunnel vision that caused me to overlook the metal protrusion in the road, but I’m glad the resulting fall wasn’t any worse.
I took a 15-minute breather, wrapped up my knee (which was already starting to bother me before the fall), and pressed on down the trail at 12:30 p.m. After biking a short distance, I reached the Red Waterfall. Acidic run-off from mine pollution and iron-rich soil cause the water to turn shades of orange and red. The formation stands as a reminder to how mining operations damage the environment.
At 1:30 p.m., I arrived in the small town of Boston and stopped for lunch at Rich’s Parkside Tavern. I got back on the trail a little after 2:00 p.m. The GAP trail turns to pavement about a mile outside of Boston, which allowed for some easier pedaling. I reached McKeesport (Mile Marker 132) at 2:30 p.m. In its heyday, the city was home to over 55,000 residents and thriving rubber and steel industries. Today, the population has plummeted to under 20,000 and factories have all but closed. McKeesport epitomizes the rise and fall of American manufacturing. The trail winds its way through the antiquated industrial district, past the abandoned plants and warehouses. At this point, the trail gets confusing and rather unappealing as it parallels polluted city streets and crumbling infrastructure. This unsightliness continues for the next few miles through Duquesne.
At Mile Marker 139, I reached Homestead. In the summer of 1892, Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Carnegie Steel Company, shut down the Homestead plant and locked members of the workers’ union out of the building. Frick declared that the company would no longer support the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers once their contract expired on June 30. The union responded with a strike, which disrupted production of the plant. Carnegie Steel ordered 300 Pinkerton agents to Homestead to suppress the strike and guard the building on July 6. When the Pinkertons arrived, they were met by an angry mob of 10,000 residents who supported the workers’ cause and a tense standoff ensued. The standoff exploded into violence later that day, resulting in the deaths of seven steel workers and three Pinkerton agents. The Battle of Homestead was won by the workers, but they ultimately lost the dispute upon the arrival of the Pennsylvania State Militia who controlled the town for 95 days. Today, the historic Pump House and Water Tower are all that remain of this deadly encounter.
I finally reached the Southside of Pittsburgh at 4:00 p.m. The Great Allegheny Passage connects with the Three Rivers Heritage Trail at this point. As I neared the city, I passed by the Smithfield Street Bridge—the oldest steel truss bridge in the nation—which was designed by Gustav Lindenthal in 1881. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., I reached Point State Park, the western terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage and converging point of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers. It was perfect timing, too, since my rear tire had just gone flat…
Two days and 150 miles later, I made it! I had such a great time biking the Great Allegheny Passage, despite the literal and figurative bumps in the road. It was incredibly interesting to learn about the region’s railroad and industrial history and see the sights along the way. I should have enough material to make a video, so that should be coming out shortly. But for now, it’s time to explore Pittsburgh! Thanks for following along!