Friday, June 5th
My sister-in-law Pam and I started our drive to Pittsburgh, PA early this morning. We will be doing a self-contained bicycle ride from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh, PA. We’ll be riding on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Rail Trail. We will travel roughly 335 miles on an almost car-free route. Many people who ride these trails take advantage of the numerous campgrounds along the trail. We will be taking advantage of hotels and B&Bs. There were originally seven people going on this trip. The group was reduced in number due to serious illness and a variety of other reasons. Needing a new roommate, I’d asked Pam about a month ago if she’d like to go. She has never gone on a multi-day bike trip or ridden the type of daily mileage we had planned. But she rides a lot…..more than I do. She also walks and runs and is very fit. She was a little apprehensive, but I had no doubt she would do fine. We would be meeting Bruce, the only other member of our group, in Washington, D.C. A member of the group that canceled at the last minute was to bring Bruce’s bike from Missouri. That left him without a bike, but he managed to borrow one from his cousin in the DC area that he was visiting.
In 1785, George Washington founded the Potomac Company to improve transportation on the Potomac River. His company built five skirting canals around major waterfalls on the river. These canals would later be incorporated into the C&O Canal. The canals allowed for an easy downstream trip, but boats had to be propelled by pole if traveling upstream. The upstream trip was so difficult that gondolas, 60-by-10-foot log rafts, were usually sold at journey’s end for their wood. Construction of the C&O began in 1828 and ended in 1850. The 184.5-mile canal ran from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, MD. The elevation change of 605-feet required the construction of 74 canal locks. Eleven aqueducts to cross major streams and more than 240 culverts to cross smaller streams were built. Water was brought into the canal from “feeder streams” and was designed to have a current of 2 mph to assist the mules in pulling the heavy boats downstream. A planned section to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh was never built. The canal’s principal cargo was coal from the Allegheny Mountains. Cargo boats on the canal were typically 14 1/2 feet wide and 90-feet long. They could carry 130 tons of cargo. Most boats were pulled by mules because they were cheaper and lasted longer, usually about 15 years. The mules were kept in an enclosed cabin at the front of the boat. By keeping two teams of mules, they could be changed out at intervals and the boat could continue without having to let them rest. Mules had to be shod every other trip in Cumberland. The boatmen’s family usually lived on the boat with him. Living quarters on the boat consisted of a cabin 10-feet by 12-feet. Children were usually the mule “drivers,” keeping them moving on the towpath. At the end of the season, when cold weather froze the water in the canal, a boat was loaded with pig iron and served as an “icebreaker.” This was done to allow the last group of boats to go home. During the Civil War icebreaker boats were used to keep the canal free of ice, allowing the military to move supplies. The canal operated from 1850 until 1924, finally shut down by competition from the railroad, major floods and lack of funding. In 1938 the government acquired the approximately 12,000 acres of land adjacent to the canal. The C&O Canal National Historical Park was established in 1971.
Saturday, June 6th
We headed to our hotel, checked in and hauled our gear in. After lugging our heavy bike bags inside, we decided we should scrutinize the contents. We both ended up taking a few items out to lighten the load we’d be carrying for the next week. We went out to eat and then visited one more Pittsburgh landmark…..Canton Avenue, the world’s steepest street, with a 37 percent grade. The Guinness Book of Records lists a street in New Zealand as the steepest, but has since found their measurement was faulty. Canton Avenue is included in “The Dirty Dozen,” a bike race held each November. The route is 50 miles and includes the 13 steepest hills in the city. Cyclists only race on the hills, riding at a neutral pace between each hill. At the bottom of each hill, a whistle is blown to start the race. The first 10 riders to the top earn points. The first person receives 10 points, the second gets 9, the third gets 8, and so on. The rider with the most accumulated points at the end of the day is declared the winner. Riders have to maintain continuous forward motion up the hills. If they stop, go backwards, or put their foot down, they must return to the bottom and start over. None of the hills on the route are below a 20 percent grade. The entire route has about 6,500-feet of elevation gain. Canton Avenue is cobblestone, making it even more difficult to climb. There is a “Do Not Enter” sign at the top of the hill to discourage drivers from going down the hill. We drove up it….can’t imagine climbing it on a bike.
Sunday, June 7th
We drove to a parking garage in downtown Pittsburg where we would leave the car for the week. We took our loaded bikes down the elevator to the street level where we’d meet our shuttle. Our shuttle arrived promptly at 9:00am. Traffic was light and we made good time, arriving in Washington, D.C. at 1:00pm. Our driver pointed out the steep “Exorcist steps” in Georgetown as we drove by. Father Karras fell down these steps in the 1973 horror film, “The Exorcist.” It’s a popular tourist attraction and “stair-stepping workout” for local athletes. We were staying at a hostel a short distance from the White House. When we were planning this trip, someone who had done this ride before recommended it. It was fairly close to the trail and compared to other options, it was reasonably priced. We couldn’t check in until 3:00pm, so we locked our bikes in a secure outside storage area and took the elevator to the basement to store our bags in a locker. A man doing his laundry struck up a conversation with us while we were stowing our bags. I think he was Nigerian and he had such a strong accent that I had a difficult time understanding him. He asked where we were from. When I told him, “Kansas,” he said, “Aaaaahhh, Brownback!” It is an embarrassment when I’m half way across the country and even a foreigner who barely speaks English knows what an idiot our governor is.
Friday, June 8th
We left the Hostel about 7:15am to meet Bruce at the C&O trailhead. It was about a 2 mile ride that took us down Pennsylvania Avenue and past the White House. The C&O mile marker “0” is located behind the Thompson Boat Center where the canal meets the Potomac River. The remains of the canal’s wooden “watergate” can be seen here. The watergate was used to transfer canal boats between the Potomac and the canal. The infamous Watergate Hotel complex is located just south of here and gets its name from this landmark. We took the obligatory “start of the trail photos” while we waited for Bruce. The forecast called for some late afternoon thunderstorms and we hoped to complete our 60 mile ride before it started raining. Bruce arrived and we were soon on our way.
The canal begins at sea level and gains 605 feet of elevation over the 184.5 miles to Cumberland, MD. This elevation gain is accomplished with 74 lift locks. Lock houses were built at each lock to house the lock keeper and their families. We rode past many of these on the towpath. Only the foundations remain on some houses, others were mostly intact, and there are some that have been fully restored. The restored lock houses can be rented from the park service for overnight lodging. The majority of these are listed as “rustic” with no electricity with water available at a nearby hand-operated pump. Just after mile marker 8, we passed through an area known as “Seven Locks.” A series of seven locks are located in close succession over 1 1/4 mile, raising the canal 56 feet. A few miles after this series, another six lock series raises the canal another 49 feet in less than a mile. At mile 14 we stopped at the Great Falls Overlook to view the rapids and small waterfalls in the Potomac River. Above the Great Falls, the Potomac narrows from a width of 1,000 feet to between 60 and 100 feet wide as it rushes through Mather gorge.
We crossed the Seneca Creek Aqueduct, the first of eleven aqueducts on the trail at mile 23. The aqueducts were built to carry the canal over rivers and large streams that were too wide for a culvert to contain. There are over 150 culverts that carry the canal over smaller streams along the trail. At mile 35 we passed Whites Ferry, the last operating ferry on the Potomac River. The cable ferry carries cars, bicycles and pedestrians from Maryland across the river to Virginia. The towpath was in pretty good shape with only a few mud puddles. We encountered a few downed trees on the trail, but they were not difficult to get around. After 48 miles we pulled off the trail at Point of Rocks, MD for a late lunch. We found a little place called Deli on the Rocks. We were all hungry and enjoyed the food and cool air conditioning as we rested. We returned to the trail and after about 3 miles, Bruce said he was having leg cramps and needed to stop. We stopped and waited for his cramps to ease up. He tried to get us to go on but we said we didn’t mind waiting. Less than a minute later, he passed out while standing astride his bike. Pam and I got his bike off him and he came round quickly. Bruce is diabetic, so he checked his blood sugar to make sure he wasn’t too low. It was not low, so we thought maybe he just got overheated and wasn’t drinking enough. He said he felt alright and was ready to ride again. We made it about a mile and the leg cramps hit him again. We stopped and Bruce passed out a second time, again falling over with his bike. After he came to, he insisted he could go on. He rode slowly, still having cramps. We made it to Brunswick, MD and he was still cramping bad. We finally convinced him to let us call a shuttle service to take him the last 5 miles to Harpers Ferry. I called and was told the driver would call Bruce just before he left to verify his location. We made Bruce promise he would stay put and wait for the shuttle. Pam and I rode the last 5 miles and arrived at the railroad/pedestrian bridge that would take us across the river to Harpers Ferry. Here we had to carry our bicycles up a spiral staircase to the walkway on the bridge. Rather than unload our packs, Pam and I worked together and carried one bike up and then the other. We were huffing and puffing by the time we got them both to the top. We crossed the bridge and state line into Harpers Ferry, WV. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. Brown intended to start a liberation movement among the African American slaves in town. The raid was unsuccessful and ended with Brown being captured. He was later convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Historians agree that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry escalated tensions, and a year later, led to succession and the American Civil War. Our hotel was a mile and a half off the towpath, with one big hill thrown in to humiliate us. Pam and I got checked in and cleaned up. It started raining and we were glad we’d finished our ride when we did. I texted Bruce to see if the shuttle had picked him up. I didn’t get a reply, so I tried calling him. He didn’t answer, so I called the shuttle service to see where they were at. The shuttle driver told me he’d called Bruce to confirm his location and he cancelled the shuttle. Bruce told him his cramps were better and he was going to ride his bike the remaining 5 miles. About an hour later, he arrived at the hotel. He got caught in the rain, but other than being wet, said he was fine. None of us wanted to walk anywhere since it was raining, so we had pizza delivered to the hotel. We rode just over 65 miles.
Tuesday, June 9
Wednesday, June 10
Thursday, June 11
Friday, June 12
For most of the first 15 miles, the trail runs beside the tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. The 1916 steam powered locomotive runs daily from Cumberland to Frostburg, MD. We noticed there were a lot of cyclists riding down the trail, but not very many going up as we were. We later found out train passengers could pay an extra $5 and have their bicycles transported to Frostburg. They could then essentially coast down the bike trail for 15 miles to Cumberland. We reached Frostburg and decided we’d stay to watch the train’s steam engine be turned around for the return trip to Cumberland. From the trail, we had to ride up a series of switchbacks to get into town. After huffing and puffing uphill for 15 miles, the switchbacks looked a little daunting. Bruce pushed his bike the entire way, I rode part of them and pushed part of them, and Pam rode all the way to the top. Bruce checked his blood sugar after the climb and it was down to 60. It was a little early for lunch, but we decided Bruce needed to eat and we had time to kill before the train arrived. Bruce had a regular meal and Pam and I opted for homemade whoopie pies as our first course. We later had a hotdog before leaving town. We sat in a cafe and enjoyed the air conditioning while waiting for the train to arrive at 12:30pm.
The train arrived at the depot right on time and after the passengers disembarked the engine was uncoupled from the rest of the cars. The engine pulled forward, across a city street, and onto a 100-foot long turntable. Electric motors rotated the table until the engine was facing the opposite direction. The engine moved onto a siding, backed up and was again coupled to the rest of the train. We were getting ready to leave when it started to rain. Fortunately it was just a brief shower and it passed pretty quickly.
We rode back down to the trail continued our climb. A few miles out of Frostburg, we came to the Bordon Tunnel. Three men on horseback were exiting the tunnel as we entered. The tunnel is 957 feet long and is not lighted. The trail was paved through the tunnel and reflectors helped guide us.
About 20 miles into our ride, we reached the Mason-Dixon Line. It is nothing more than the state line dividing Maryland and Pensylvania, but it has historical significance. The colony of Maryland was founded in 1633, and the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681. When King Charles II granted the land for Pennsylvania, he apparently used an inaccurate map. As a result, the borders of the two colonies overlapped and a dispute over the property lines ensued. The dispute over the border escalated over many years with a series of violent incidents between the colonies. In 1736, Maryland deployed military forces and Pennsylvania followed suit in 1737. A year later, King George II interviened and negotiated a cease-fire. It would be another 30 years before the two colonies finally agreed on a border between them. As part of the agreement, the colonies hired the English team of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to survey the newly established boundaries. It took the men four years to walk and survey the entire boundary. They set “crownstones” every five miles, with one side showing the coat of arms of Pennsylvania’s William Penn and the other side showing the coat of arms of the Calverts, Maryland’s founding family. Before the Civil War erupted, slavery became a more controversial subject. People living in U.S. states began thinking of themselves as living above or below a certain “line.” The Mason-Dixon Line became the dividing line between the North and South. We stopped and took several pictures of the infamous dividing line.
We pulled off the trail just past the Mason-Dixon Line where there was a covered shelter and a great view of the valley below. We were all tired and hot. We realized we were only about a mile away from the Big Savage Tunnel…….which meant we were only a mile away from the cold air inside the tunnel. We hurried on to the tunnel and into the cool interior. Pam was riding behind Bruce and could see steam rising off him. At 3,300-feet, the tunnel is the longest on the GAP trail. It was built in 1911 and restored in 2003 at a cost of nearly $12 millon. In the winter months, the tunnel is closed with masstive doors to minimize freeze/thaw conditions that would damage the rock. The tunnel’s name is derived from mountain it passes through…Big Savage Mountain. How the mountain itself was named is an interesting story. In the winter of 1736, a surveying team was stranded and starving near this area. The men were desperate for food and they considered cannibalism. John Savage was ill and thought he was going to die anyway, so he offered himself as food for the rest of the group. A supply party showed up just in the nick of time. As a tribute to his near-sacrifice, Savage’s name was bestowed upon the mountain. Thankfully, we had plenty of energy bars to eat. I think if it would’ve come to it, Bruce would’ve offered himself up for sacrifice. We lingered a while and enjoyed the natural air conditioning inside the tunnel.
We pushed on and quickly came to the end of our climb, the Eastern Continental Divide. We were at an elevation of 2,392 feet above sea level and we’d started out at 660 feet in Cumberland this morning. The divide is the boundary between the watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
From this point, we enjoyed a nice downhill ride the rest of the day. A couple of miles outside of Meyersdale, we crossed another major landmark on the trail, the Keystone Viaduct. The structure is 910-feet long and 100-feet above the Casselman River, Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks and State Route 2006 it crosses. We stopped in Meyersdale and visited the railroad depot. The depot was renovated by the Meyersdale Historical Society and they have displays inside as well as a retail store. Pam and I each picked up another t-shirt and we had some ice cream. We went across the street to a little cafe and had homemade strawberry banana ice cream cake. I guess the hot dog we’d had hours ago didn’t last very long.
A few miles down the trail from Meyersdale, we crossed a second viaduct. The Salisbury Viaduct is 100-foot tall and stretches 1,906-feet across the Casselman River Valley, CSX Railroad tracks and State Route 219. Huge wind turbines on a ridge can be seen from the viaduct.
After riding 47 miles, we pulled off the trail at Rockwood, PA. The Rockwood Trail House B&B would be our home for the night. A sign on the door said if you were a guest, go in and make yourself at home. Our names were posted on the door to our assigned rooms. There were cookies and cold drinks for us. The owners don’t live at the B&B, but the note promised they would have breakfast ready for us at 8:00am the next morning. After settling in and getting cleaned up, we walked a few blocks to the Rockwood Mill Shoppes & Opera House for dinner. Among the shops was a pizza joint and they served up some pretty good food. The Opera House is also known as the Penrose Wolf Building. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the front section of the building was built in 1898. The rear section was added in 1905 and served as a grain and lumber storage facility. The original owner, Penrose Wolf, converted part of the front section into the Opera House in 1904. For many years, musicians and traveling theatre companies performed here. Penrose died in 1921 and the Opera House closed shortly after. It was restored in 2000 and has brought live music and theatre back to Rockwood. We walked back to our B&B just before it bagan to rain.