C&O Canal/Great Allegheny Passage – June 2015

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.

The GAP rail trail uses former corridors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, Union Railroad and the Western Maryland Railway.  These railroad corridors date back as early as the 1800s.  The railroad stopped using the corridors in the late 1970s and 1980s.   Over a span of 35 years, the rail trail was constructed.  The trail is 150-miles long and extends from Cumberland, MD to Pittsburgh, PA.  The first section of trail opened in 1986 with the final section not open until 2013.  

Saturday, June 6th

We started our day in Huber Heights, OH after driving 800 miles yesterday.  I think about 600 of those miles were driven in construction zones.  We arrived in Pittsburgh, PA about noon.  We drove to the “Southside” area of Pittsburgh and had lunch at a place called “Over The Bar Bicycle Cafe.”  Their menu included items such as:  Tangled Spokes, Chicken Fenders, Babes on Bikes Burger, The Tandem, and Rail Trail Wrap.  It’s a popular spot for the Pittsburgh biking community.  They participate/sponsor most of the bicycle related events in the city.  It’s close to bike trails and they have lots of space out front for bike parking.  There were several cyclists eating or having a beer after their ride.  It was good food and we both scored our first t-shirts of the trip.
Our next stop was the Duquesne Incline, an inclined plane railroad that scales Mt. Washington.  Pittsburgh had as many as 17 inclined railways in the late 1800s; today only two remain.  They were used to haul freight and people up the steep slopes in the city.  Each railway had two cars, attached to each other by a cable, which runs through a pulley at the top of the slope.  They counterbalance each other…as one goes up, the other goes down, minimizing the energy needed to lift the car going up.  The Duquesne Incline was built in 1877 and is 800-feet long.  The incline is at a 30-degree angle and raises/lowers the cars 400-feet in elevation.  It was originally steam powered, and was built to carry cargo, later carrying passengers as well.  It closed in 1962, badly in need of repair.  Local residents launched a fund-raiser and formed a non-profit organization dedicated to its preservation.  The incline was totally refurbished and it reopened the next year.  An observation deck at the upper station offers great views of Pittsburgh’s “Golden Triangle.”  The Golden Triangle is the point at which the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio River.  The survey marker that will mark the end of our ride next week is located at the tip of the Triangle.
Next, we visited a place called “Bicycle Heaven,” a combination bike shop and museum.  It’s located in an older warehouse district of the city and we had a little trouble finding it.  It must be a common occurrence, because just about the time we thought we were lost, we started seeing directional signs on utility poles.  They weren’t fancy, just handmade from cardboard with “Bicycle Museum” and a directional arrow for turns.  Their website claims they are the “World’s Largest Bicycle Museum and Shop,” and I believe it.  There are over 3,500 antique and collectible bikes in the shop.  Bikes and bike parts literally cover the floor, ceiling and walls.  I went to the restroom and there were two bikes in the stall I used….a small kid’s bike on the wall above the toilet and a unicycle leaning in the corner!  57-year old Craig Morrow, the owner also has the largest Schwinn Sting-Ray collection in the world.  There are only 40 “Bowden Spacelanders” in the world and he owns 15 of them.  The Spacelander is a space-age fiberglass bike from 1948……a price tag on one was $45,000.  There is even an 1862 “Boneshaker,” a pre-Civil War bicycle made of wood…..even the wheels.  Sales of vintage bicycles and parts on eBay accounts for 90% of the shop’s revenue.  Several of his bikes have appeared in movies.  Russell Crowe rode one of his bikes in the film, “A Beautiful Mind.”  Several of his Schwinn Sting-Ray Choppers were rented and used in the movie “Super 8.”  The shop has been approached by some television studios as the site for a reality show similar to American Pickers and American Restorations.  Some preliminary lighting and film testing has been done, so one day soon we might get to watch “Bicycle Heaven” on TV.

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.

We walked to Capital City Brewing and had lunch.  Afterwards we walked to the National Mall and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the monuments and memorials.  The Washington Monument is proof that things move at a slow pace in our capital.  The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848 and construction wasn’t completed until December 6, 1884.  It took 36 years for the project to be complete.  The architect that designed the monument died before it was finished.  The work halted for so long at one point, the quarry where the stone had been procured was no longer available.  A second quarry was used, but after adding several courses of stone, problems emerged with the quality and color of the stone.  A third quarry was used for the rest of the project.  The three slightly different colors of stone from the three quarries is distinguishable today.  An earthquake in 2011 caused significant damage to the monument.  It was closed for almost three years while workers repaired more than 150 cracks in the white marble, at a cost of $15 million.  I was most impressed with the Lincoln Memorial.  The memorial sits on land that used to be in the mud flats of the Potomac River.  In the late 1800s, dredgers were used to make the Potomac River deeper.  The sediment they brought up from the bottom of the river was placed in the shallowest, swampiest areas of the shoreline.  This piled up sediment, termed reclaimed land, added over 700 acres to Washington, D.C. that eventually became East and West Potomac Park.  The Lincoln Memorial would have been too heavy to sit directly on the soft, reclaimed land. Supports were driven down almost 100 feet to bedrock and are an integral part of the cave-like foundation 45-feet below the surface.  The area beneath the memorial even resembles a cave, with stalactites and stalagmites formed from water seeping through the cracks in the limestone foundation.  Graffitti drawn on the piers with coal, left from workmen in 1915 remain today.  The Park Service considered the graffitti part of history and chose not to remove it.  The statue of Lincoln, inside the memorial, is composed of 28 separate pieces of white marble.  It’s a powerful memorial to President Lincoln, who unified our country and ended slavery.
After visiting most of the major memorials on the mall, we walked back to the Hostel and checked into our room.  The Hostel offered double rooms with private/shared bathrooms.  They also have rooms that sleep 4, 8, or 10 people (male/female/coed) with shared bathrooms.  I’d made the reservation well in advance and was able to get a double room with a shared bathroom just down the hall.  It was kind of like staying in a college dormatory.  Hostels are very common in Europe, not so much here in the U.S.  I’m not sure I’d stay at one again, but I might if I traveled in Europe.  According to Pam’s fitness tracker, we’d walked over eight miles today.  We were tired and didn’t want to walk too far for dinner.  Using my Yelp app, I located a promising restaurant about a block from the Hostel.  It was called El Rinconcito Cafe – Salvadorean & Tex-Mex Restaurant.  The restaurant was very tiny, with seating for only 20-25 people.  There were a few people waiting in line outside…..a good sign!  We had a short wait before there was room for us inside.  We both ordered a combo dinner with chicken tamale, pupusa, rice/vegetable mix and refried beans.  The chicken tamale was corn meal, stuffed with chicken, chick peas and potatoes.  The pupusa was a handmade corn tortilla stuffed with cheese and pork.  It reminded me of a similar restaurant I’d visited in Santa Fe, NM.  Tripadvisor rates El Rinconcito Cafe as #64 out of nearly 3,000 restaurants in DC, and the #3 Mexican restaurant.  It was a pleasant way to end our day.

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

We had breakfast together at the hotel.  Bruce said he’s fully recovered from yesterday and feels fine.  Our route today is only 40 miles, but we plan on adding miles with a side trip to see the Antietam National Battlefield.  We crossed the bridge back to the Maryland side of the Potomac to get back to the trail.  The same spiral staircase again was an obstacle, but it was much easier easing the loaded bikes down rather than heaving them up.  The Appalachian Trail runs through Harpers Ferry and shares the same route as the C&O towpath for a short distance here.  We encountered a few hikers in the area yesterday and again this morning.  The storm that moved through last night was pretty severe.  There were frequent large mud holes and downed tree limbs on the trail.  After riding 16 miles we pulled off the trail at Snyder’s Landing.  We rode a short distance to the town of Sharpsburg, MD and stopped at Captain Benders Tavern for lunch.  Captain Raleigh Bender was a C&O Canal boatman during the 1800’s, and proprietor of the tavern.  Since 1936, Captain Benders Tavern has existed as a restaurant.  They had excellent food and a full bar menu.
After lunch we rode just outside of Sharpsburg to the Antietam National Battleground.  On September 17, 1862, the battle of Antietam took place on this site.  It was the first major battle in the Civil War that took place on Union soil.  It is the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with a combined tally of dead, wounded, and missing at 23,100.  The battle basically ended in a draw, but the Confederates retreated and the Union claimed the victory.  The victory gave President Lincoln the moment he’d been waiting for to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the historic document that turned the Union effort in the Civil War into a fight for the abolition of slavery.  The battlefield encompasses over 3,250 acres of farmland, pastures, woodlots and forests.  There is a driving tour that’s about 8 miles long.  We opted not to ride the 8 miles since we still had quite a few miles to cover today.  After viewing some of the monuments near the visitor’s center and looking over the main part of the battleground, we rode back to the towpath.
The trail conditions seemed to get even worse the farther we got into our ride.  We constantly had to dodge limbs on the trail.  Some of the mud holes were the width of the trail and we had to ride through them instead of around.  We came to a halt when we encountered several downed trees across the trail.  They were all piled together and it was impossible to go through them on foot, much less dragging a bike over them.  The pile was too high and too wide to do anything but go around.  The woods were too thick on the river side, so we decided to get off the trail on the canal side.  Thankfully, there was no water in the canal here.  The banks of the canal are very steep and it took two people to get one bike down.  One person on the handlebars to feather the brakes and another hanging onto the rear of the bike to keep it from going too fast.  Once we got all three down the slope, we picked our way through the trees, pushing our bikes.  When we got around the pile of trees, Bruce climbed the slope up to the trail.  Pam and I pushed each bike up the slope together until Bruce could reach down and grab the front wheel.  He was able to pull them on up onto the trail.
We were soon underway again, dodging tree branches and mud holes.  Bruce was leading and I was following Pam, bringing up the rear.  We came to a large tree limb that blocked almost the entire trail.  There was a very narrow path around it on the edge of the trail.  There was a big mud hole to go through right before the narrowed trail.  Pam slowed almost to a stop when she went through the mud.  I was following close and thought I was going to run into her.  I hit my brakes and stopped, putting my right foot down.  I was on the right edge of the towpath, and as it turns out, there was nothing to put my right foot on except air.  Still sitting on my bike, I fell over to the right, and off the trail.  I fell down the bank of the canal, right into a huge patch of wild rose brambles.  I ended up about 10 feet below the trail, completely entangled in the thorny brambles.  My bike was on top of me and my helmet/head was literally stuck in the brambles.  I could not turn my head, or raise it.  After unsuccessful attempts to extract myself, I began laughing.  I hollered out, “This would make a really good picture!”  Nobody responded and I then realized they didn’t know I’d crashed.  Finally, Pam appears on the trail above me.  I told her I was OK, I was just stuck.  She pulled my bike off me and about that time a couple of guys came by.  I unclipped my chin strap so I could get my head free.  I stuck out a hand and asked one of the guys to pull me into a sitting position.  I managed to get the rest of me untangled and retrieved my helmet.  I was thankful for thick padded bike gloves when I was pushing against the thorns.  I managed to stand up and the man gave me his hand to help me up the slope.  After removing a few twigs from my bike’s drive train and picking the thorns out of me, we were got underway again.  We soon came to an area of the Potomac River called “Big Slackwater.”  This area was prone to flooding and in 1996 long stretches of the towpath were completely washed away.  A 5-mile detour on country roads took riders around this section.  Restoration of the Big Slackwater area took more than 15 years at a cost of $19 million.  2.7 miles of the towpath were renovated with concrete sections anchored to the bedrock.  The renovated trail was open to the public in September 2012.  After a long day of dodging tree limbs and mud holes, we were relieved to pull off the towpath at Williamsport, MD.  Our relief was short-lived when we realized our hotel was a mile away…….uphill.  We hadn’t got very far when Bruce spotted the Desert Rose Sweet Shoppe.  We decided we could not ride any further without ice cream.  Bruce treated us to ice cream and we enjoyed sitting for a while on something other than a bike saddle.  When we arrived at our hotel, Pam had trouble getting her foot out of her toe clip and almost fell over.  Rolling up behind her, I laughed at her……then I fell over because I couldn’t get my foot unclipped from my pedal.  Karma is real!  We ended up with a total of 50 miles today.

Wednesday, June 10

We walked to the Waffle House next to the hotel for breakfast.  We’d had dinner here last night too because we were too tired to venture any farther.  Looking over the notes for today’s ride, we decided to take a short side trip to Fort Frederick State Park.  After riding 13 miles, we left the towpath and rode a short distance to Fort Frederick.  The stone fort was built in 1756 to protect Maryland’s frontier settlers during the French and Indian War.  During the American Revolution the fort was used as a prison for British soldiers.  During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed near the fort to guard the C&O Canal.  The fort has been restored and developed into a state park.  There are two reconstructed soldier’s barracks inside the walls.  There were people dressed in 18th century clothing on hand to answer questions.  There was a group of kids taking a tour when we stopped by.  Being the rebels we are, we ignored the “No Bikes Beyond This Point” sign…….no one came out and arrested us.  They did however make us lay our bikes down rather than lean them against the wall of the fort.  They didn’t want our bikes to damage the 3 foot thick stone walls.  The bunk beds in the barracks looked like they were built for very short people.  Then we noticed the platform of each bunk was tilted so each man would sleep with their head elevated.  The staff explained that it was a space saving feature.  By not sleeping completely horizontal, each man would take up less floor space.  I suppose it also helped any of the soldiers who happened to suffer from acid reflux.
 After touring the fort, we rode back to the towpath and continued on our way.  In a couple of miles we noticed the Western Maryland Rail Trail running parallel to the towpath.  It is a paved trail and the smooth surface was tempting as we bumped along on the dirt towpath.  We wanted to be able to say we’d rode the entire towpath, so we continued on our route.  We pulled off the towpath again at Hancock, MD for lunch.  The state of Maryland narrows to a width of less than two miles at Hancock.  It’s only 1.8 miles to the Pennsylvania and West Virginia state lines.  During the Civil War, General “Stonewall” Jackson lead an unsuccessful attack on Hancock.  A combination of bad weather and Union troops defending the town caused Jackson to retreat.  We ate at a restaurant called Buddy Lou’s.  I had a turkey and brie sandwich with homemade potato chips.  Pam and I split a dessert which consisted of peanut butter mousse, chocolate fudge brownie, vanilla ice cream, roasted marshmallows, whipped cream and toasted walnuts.  It was delicious!  We stopped at C&O Bicycle Shop on the way out of town and Pam and I both ended up with new t-shirts to carry in our panniers.
About three miles outside of Hancock we passed by the ruins of the Round Top Cement Mill.  When the land was being surveyed for the canal, a large outcrop of limestone was found on a hill called Round Top.  This discovery lead to the construction of the cement mill, which opened in 1838. By the 1860’s, Round Top Cement was Hancock’s largest employer.  The mill supplied much of the cement for the western portion of the C&O Canal, the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.  Eight kilns produced up to forty-eight tons of burnt lime cement each day.  By the end of the 19th century, the use of natural cement declined in favor of slower setting and stronger Portland Cement.  After a major fire in 1903, the cement mill closed for good.  The brick kilns, mill foundations, and smokestack are all that remain today.
The Bed and Breakfast we were staying at tonight is located 8 miles off the trail.  It’s a steep uphill route and they offered a bike shuttle from the towpath.  The shuttle would pick us up at a bar called “Bill’s Place” in Little Orleans.  Bill’s is the only business in town and was our only option for dinner.  We missed our turn off the trail and had to backtrack about half a mile.  We wondered why none of the businesses along the towpath put up signs and later found out they were prohibited from doing so because it’s a National Park.  Little Orleans is a small community with only 42 residents.  Bill’s Place is a combination bar, general store, restaurant, sporting goods outlet, and pool room.  It’s been Bill’s Place since 1969, but the business has operated in some form in Little Orleans since 1832.  Bill’s Place is also the site of the annual East Coast Motorcycle Rally, known as the “Sturgis of the East.”  Bill died a couple of years ago, and his son now operates the business. The ceiling is covered with signed dollar bills as it’s a tradition for customers to leave one when they visit.  The bar was adorned with an illuminated “Leg Lamp” like the one in the movie, A Christmas Story.  Bruce ordered a burger and Pam and I opted for fried bologna sandwiches.  There was a small crowd of locals and cyclists.  When we rode up, we noticed a tandem bicycle with an orange flag with the word “Blind” on it.  The two guys riding it were at a nearby table and visited with us a bit.  The “stoker” (rear seat) was an Iraq War veteran and the “captain” (front seat) was a Vietnam veteran.  They were doing the same ride we were, but in the opposite direction.  The stoker was legally blind and had spent 6 weeks at a school for the blind to learn to ride a tandem.  They were camping at the campground at the Little Orleans trailhead.  I later did some research online and found out a little more about the pair.  The blind rider was Army Infantry Captain Charles (Chuck) Miller from Gainesville, FL.  He spent 27 years in the Army before being discharged in 2009 after he’d gradually lost his eyesight from a rare genetic disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. He since has hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, ran a marathon, and biked across the state of Iowa twice (RAGBRAI ride).  The other rider, Richard Robinson, was also from Florida.  Earlier this year, the pair completed a four-day, 500-mile ride from Charlotte, NC to Washington D.C.  Chuck says as they ride, Richard describes the scenery and what’s going on.  He said Richard is very talkative and makes riding a very interactive experience for him.
When we’d finished eating, the bartender called our Bed and Breakfast to summon our shuttle.  The owner, Dave, arrived shortly and we loaded the bikes and were driven 8 miles uphill to the Town Hill Hotel B&B.  The B&B dates back to early 1916 when it was originally built as a fruit stand.  By 1920 it had become a popular restaurant and hotel.  A scenic overlook just across the road offers a view of three states and seven counties and is known as the “Beauty Spot of Maryland.”  The Inn was remodeled 15 years ago, but still retains its original appearance.  The B&B is located on The National Road, which was the first federally funded road in U.S. history.  The road, now known as Route 40, was built between 1811 and 1834 and was an 820-mile route through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois.  The two most common vehicles to use the road were stagecoaches and Conestoga wagons.  It’s estimated that there was one tavern per mile on the road.  More expensive “stagecoach taverns” catered to the more affluent travelers, providing meals and a place to sleep.  “Wagon stands” were like early truck stops, providing a corral, feed and water for horses and food and drink for the travelers.  Patrons provided their own bedroll and slept in their wagons or near them.  In later years, the railroad caused many of these early roads to decline.  However, they were revived again after the invention of the automobile.  The stage taverns and wagon stands were replaced by hotels, motels, and restaurants.    The Town Hotel B&B was “the first tourist hotel built in the state of Maryland to accomodate the automobile traveler.”  I would consider the B&B a “stagecoach tavern,” definitely for the affluent traveler.  Dave told us to be sure and take any food items off our bikes because they had a black bear that was a frequent visitor.  We got settled in our rooms and went outside to give our bikes a little TLC.  We used the provided water hose to clean off the layer of mud from yesterday’s ride.  We cleaned and lubed the drivetrains so we’d be ready to go the next morning.  Bruce noticed his rear wheel seemed to be unbalanced and the brake dragging.  He said he noticed it right when we’d stopped at Bill’s.  We looked it over and couldn’t figure out what was causing the problem.  He said he would try to ride it tomorrow until we got to the next bike shop.  We got cleaned up and relaxed for the rest of the evening.  We rode 46 miles today.

Thursday, June 11

Bruce said he woke up at 3:30am and it dawned on him what was wrong with the wheel.  It was a broken spoke.  It broke right at the rim attachment, so unless you looked closely you didn’t notice it.  His borrowed bike was not designed for touring.  The spoke likely broke because of the weight of the panniers and trunk bag he is carrying.  He called the bike shop in Hancock that we’d stopped at yesterday.  The shop also provides shuttle service.  The shuttle would come to the B&B, pick up Bruce and his bike, and take him on ahead to Cumberland.  He’d have the spoke replaced at a bike shop there, and then ride on the towpath back towards us, hoping to meet for lunch.  He also planned to drop his panniers off at the hotel we’d be staying at tonight.  He could make better time with a lighter load; he’d have 18 miles to cover to meet us for lunch.  We drank coffee while waiting for breakfast and visited with two ladies staying at the B&B.  They said they’d stayed at the Town Hill B&B several times and gave high praise for the food we were about to eat.  Besides fresh fruit, there were five or six dishes being served.  When they’d all been brought from the kitchen, Dave, the owner explained what each one was.  We tried some of everything, including a wonderful baked oatmeal and Alabama Tomato Pie.  After breakfast, Bruce’s shuttle arrived to take him to Cumberland.  Dave shuttled Pam and I back down to the towpath.  We’d originally thought we’d ride the 8 miles back down, but we changed our minds on the drive up yesterday.  Ironically there were many hills to climb on the way down……we weren’t going to be able to just coast back to the towpath.
The highlight of our day would be passing through the Paw Paw Tunnel.  About 14 miles into the ride, we gained elevation as we passed a series of five locks in quick succession.  The trail narrowed to a single track as we entered the half-mile long, man-made canyon that serves as the approach to the tunnel entrance.  The trail then became an elevated wooden boardwalk attached to the side of the canyon.  We could feel the cool air coming out of the tunnel as we got closer.  We stopped to take pictures and climb the huge stone stairs that took us above the tunnel entrance.  Later when we exited the other end of the tunnel, we saw “Climbing the stairs prohibited” signs.  I guess if they don’t want people to climb them, they should put signs at both ends.  The tunnel is 3,118 feet long and it’s dark, damp, and a little creepy.  A handrail on the edge of the towpath keeps you from falling into the canal.  We turned on our lights and began walking our bikes through the tunnel.  The trail surface was uneven, almost like a broken sidewalk.  There was probably a foot of water at most in the canal.  Water seepage through the ceiling and walls collects in puddles on the towpath and we could hear it dripping as we moved through the tunnel.  About halfway through I began thinking about the Rocheport Tunnel on the Katy Trail.  It was used in the filming of the Stephen King movie, Sometimes They Come Back.  That led me to start thinking about all the Stephen King books I’d read.  Right about then I saw something dark ahead on the path.  I stopped, then realized it was just a scary ball cap.  The tunnel was built to bypass the Paw Paw Bends, a 6-mile stretch of the Potomac River with five horseshoe-shaped bends.  The nearby town of Paw Paw, WV, the Bends, and the tunnel are named for the pawpaw trees that are abundant in the area.  Construction of the tunnel began in June 1836.  Engineers estimated the project would take two years and $33,500 to complete.  Agents traveled to Europe to recruit workers from England, Wales, Ireland, and Germany.  In return for their passage to the United States, workers agreed to become indentured servants for a specified period of time.  Fees for their accomodations on the trans-Atlantic voyage were later deducted from their paychecks.  The immigrants resented their poor working conditions and many left their positions before paying back the company fees.  There was racial tension between the different ethnicities; labor violence broke out and construction was slowed.  The project also experienced funding shortfalls.  Engineers had originally estimated they would be able to bore eight feet per day…they were only able to manage 10 to 12 feet per week.  To speed the project, two vertical shafts were dug.  Workers were lowered down the shafts, thus allowing the digging to progress from both the inside and outside of the mountain.  Black powder was used to blast into the rock.  The large pieces of stone had to be broken by workers using sledges and picks. The rock then had to be removed from the tunnel.  Workers inside the mountain had to use a winch system to raise the material to the surface.  The slate rock was problematic and fell in larger pieces than was needed.  The voids had to be backfilled with excavated material and then covered with brick linings.  In some areas, 33 layers of brick supported excavation material packed into the ceilings and side walls.  Approximately six million bricks form the lining of the tunnel.  The tunnel was finally completed in 1850 at a cost of more than $600,000.  It had taken 14 years at a cost overrun of 500%.  The channel through the tunnel was narrow; there wasn’t room for two boats to pass each other.  The first boat to arrive at either end had the right of way.  Some boat captains were stubborn, refusing to yield.  One standoff in the tunnel between two captains lasted several days, halting boat traffic on the canal.  Company officials finally smoked them out by throwing green cornstalks onto a fire at one end.
After emerging from the other end of the tunnel, we rode another 10 miles to Oldtown, MD where we planned to have lunch.  Our destination was “The School House Kitchen,” and it really is in a school.  In 2000 the Oldtown High School closed.  The school has been converted into two businesses, a shop that restores classic cars, and the restaurant.  The gym remains open to the public for recreational use.  The restaurant is located in the old school cafeteria.  Pictures of past graduating classes are still on the wall.  We had no sooner sat down at a table when Bruce walked in……talk about perfect timing!  The menu was basic, but the food was good.  I had a chicken salad sandwich which came with baked beans and macaroni salad.  While we were eating another cyclist came into the restaurant.  He was from Minnesota and was traveling on a fully loaded road bike.  He was riding from Minnesota to Maryland to visit a friend.  He said he’d been riding about 100 miles each day since he left home.  He’d been riding on a state highway today but it stopped going the direction he wanted to travel.  He saw the signs for the towpath and decided to ride on it because it went the general direction he needed to go.  He didn’t have a map or smartphone for directions and he didn’t know anything about the towpath.  He said he didn’t realize the towpath was going to be so rough when he got on it.  He wanted to get back on a road, but was a little lost.  We brought up a map on my phone and found he’d have to ride another 70 miles on the towpath in order to get to his planned stop for the day.  He wasn’t keen on riding the towpath that far on his skinny tires.  He looked at the map and found a place not too far away where he could exit the towpath and get on another highway.  We wished him luck and headed back to the towpath.

We covered the last 18 miles of our route in pretty good time, arriving at our hotel in Cumberland, MD at about 3:00pm.  We got cleaned up and did a group load of laundry.  We went to the bike shop where Bruce had his wheel repaired and browsed for a while.  We had dinner at a nearby restaurant called the “Crabby Pig.”  We rode 45 miles today and officially completed the entire C&O Canal.  The towpath ends in Cumberland and the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Rail Trail begins.

Friday, June 12

Today we began riding on the GAP Rail Trail.  The trail surface was nice and smooth compared to the towpath.  Our route today will take us to Rockwood, PA.  We would be gradually climbing for about 24 miles until we reached the Eastern Continental Divide.  Although the grade is not steep, it never lets up.  We’ll gain almost 1,800 feet from Cumberland to the Divide.  About 4 miles into the ride I stopped at the entrance to the Cumberland Bone Cave.  The cave was discovered in 1912 by Western Maryland Railway workers who were excavating a cut for the rail line.  A Cumberland resident noticed bones among the rocks that were being removed.  Paleontologists at the Smithsonian Institution were notified and after investigating, began what would be a 5-year excavation of the cave.  Fossilized bones of 41 genera of mammals were found, about 20 percent of which were extinct.  The cave system extended more than a hundred feet down, with several horizontal chambers.  Much of the lower levels were filled in with dirt and sediment.  It was in this fill material that the remains of thousands of animals were found.  They ranged from snails and millipedes to saber-tooth cats and extinct elephants.  Enough bones were found to reconstruct complete skeletons of some animals.  Skeletons of the Pleistocene Cave Bear and an extinct Saber-toothed cat from the cave are on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.  The cave was connected to the surface by a sink hole about 100-feet deep.  It’s believed that some animals lived in the cave and died there, while others living on the surface fell into the sink hole to their death. The cave isn’t very impressive from the outside, just a small opening with a chainlink fence to keep people from entering.  What is impressive though is the number of bones that it held; it’s considered one of the finest Pleistocene-era (Ice Age) faunas known from eastern North America.

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.

Saturday, June 13

As promised, the owner was downstairs cooking breakfast when we woke up this morning.  She served us a breakfast of pancakes with local sausage and eggs.  As we were leaving town, Pam and I stopped to take some photos.  Bruce said he was going to go on ahead and that we’d catch up with him.  He was having to stop frequently to take “butt breaks” due to the inferior quality of the saddle on his borrowed bike.  After 8 miles, we arrived at a peninsula called the Pinkerton Horn.  The 800-foot long Pinkerton Tunnel is currently being renovated and will be open to trail users later this year.  When completed, users will cross a bridge, enter the tunnel, and exit onto a second bridge.  This series of two bridges, along with the tunnel will take trail users across the Pinkerton Horn.  We could see men working at the tunnel entrance when we crossed the first bridge.  The trail detours and follows the Casselman River around the perimeter of the peninsula for about a mile and a half.  When we arrived at the second bridge, I looked back through the tunnel and could see the workers we’d seen before.  We caught up with Bruce about 10 miles into the ride.  Another spoke on his rear wheel had broken and it was wobbling badly.  There was a bike shop about 8 miles farther in the town of Confluence, PA.  He said he would try to make it there and hopefully get it repaired.  We made it to Confluence Cyclery and they went to work on Bruce’s wheel.  Pam and I managed to each find yet another t-shirt to add to our collections.
 We got underway again once Bruce’s bike was repaired.   Just outside of Confluence, the trail enters the Ohiopyle State Park.  The 20,500 acre park has been named one of the top 10 state parks in the country.  We saw several people in kayaks and fishermen on the the Youghiogheny River.  We rode through the park for over 10 miles before stopping in Ohiopyle, PA for lunch.  Ohiopyle was a hopping place, filled with tourists and a lot of cyclists.  We decided to eat at the Ohiopyle House Cafe, just off the trail.  While waiting on our order, Bruce proposed a change of plans for him tomorrow.  He said the saddle on his bike was just killing his backside.  He said he literally had a couple of blisters from it; something he’d never experienced in his many years of cycling.  He thought he could finish out the ride today, but he didn’t want to ride tomorrow.  An old school friend of his from Pittsburgh was driving to Connellsville tonight to have dinner with him.  He said he’d like to ride back to Pittsburgh with his friend.  He would then drive my vehicle back to Connellsville and stay at the B&B.  Tomorrow he said he’d stay fairly close to the trail in case we needed anything.  He’d meet us for lunch and then meet us at the end in Pittsburgh.  He offered to haul all our bike bags for us tomorrow to make our ride easier, but we both declined.  We wanted to be able to say we’d done the entire ride self-contained.  We left Ohiopyle after lunch and headed to Connellsville.
We covered the last 17 miles of our ride at an average speed of over 14 mph…..pretty good for loaded bikes on a trail.  We checked into the Connellsville B&B about 3:30pm after having ridden 49 miles today.  Bruce’s friend picked him up and they went to dinner.  Pam and I weren’t very hungry and decided to go to a yogurt place the B&B owner recommended.  It was one of those do-it-yourself places where you get whatever flavors of yogurt you want and then pile on toppings of which the choices were endless.  It’s priced by the total weight of your creation.  Bruce called about 9:00pm and said he couldn’t get the key fob to unlock my car.  After figuring out there was an emergency key hidden inside the fob (I didn’t know this, Pam told me), he was able to unlock the door.  But then we figured out why the key fob wouldn’t work for him…..the battery was dead.  Pam and I remembered we’d turned on a dome light when we were unloading our bike gear in the parking garage.  Apparently we left it on and that’s what drained the battery.  I called AAA and arranged for a jump start.  Bruce made it back to the B&B about 11:00pm.

Sunday, June 14

Our breakfast at the B&B consisted of an asparagus frittata, homemade muesli, yogurt, fruit and peppered bacon.  There were four other cyclists staying at the B&B….they were just getting started on their rides and we would be finishing ours today.   In the early 1900’s, Connellsville was known as the “Coke Capital of the World.”  Coke is a fuel burned in blast furnaces used in the production of steel.  Coke is produced by heating coal to high temperatures in an airless oven.  During this time period, there were 40,000 coke ovens operating near Connellsville.  The “beehive ovens” used in the coke production caused the night sky to glow an orange-red.  It took 2,000 railcars each day to haul the coke away.  The industry was so lucrative that Connellsville once boasted more millionaires than any U.S. city of its size.  We would pass by the remains of some of the coke ovens today.  It was overcast and sprinkling a bit when we started riding.  We passed the small town of Perryopolis, PA.  George Washington owned over 1,600 acres in the Perryopolis area.  He commisioned the construction of a grist mill, which was completed in 1776.  The mill was restored in 1999 with the original stones used to rebuild the foundation.  Local clay deposits in this area were used to make bricks for the coke ovens.  About 16 miles into our ride, we arrived at Whitsett, PA. The town has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a typical “coal patch company town.”  The Pittsburgh Coal Company provided houses, most built between 1900 and 1920, for its employees.  Most of the houses were duplexes, designed to house two families.  There were also larger houses for managers and a bunk house for single men.  Most of the buildings have been updated and converted into single family homes.  The original setting, street plan, and design of the town and structures is well-preserved.
 At mile 26, we stopped in West Newton, PA for lunch.  Bruce had just arrived a few minutes earlier at the trailhead and was waiting for us.  We ate at a place called “The Trailside.”  They had outside seating on a covered deck and we watched the activity on the trail while we ate.  We saw one guy on a mountain bike that was wearing a full-sized external frame backpack.  I can’t imagine that was a very comfortable ride with all that weight on his back.  While we were eating, it began raining hard.  By the time we finished lunch, it had slacked off to almost nothing.  We told Bruce we’d see him in Pittsburgh and got underway again.  We stopped to use the restroom at the Buena Vista, PA trailhead.  While we were there it started raining harder.  We hung out under a park shelter during the worst of it.  It let up some, but kept raining lightly.  We finally  just decided we were just going to get wet and pushed on.  We passed several old coal company towns……evidence of the area’s coal mining history.  A red waterfall beside the trail is also a result of coal mining.  Water coming up to the surface from underground mines is acidic and contains iron.  The iron stains the rocks a rusty red color.  Acid mine drainage is a major source of water pollution in the region.  We stopped at the Dravo Cemetery north of Buena Vista.  The Dravo Methodist Church was built at this location in 1824.  The church burned down on two occasions, the fires started by sparks from a passing train.  After the church burned down the second time in 1920, it was not rebuilt.  It’s estimated that there may be as many as 700 people buried in the cemetery, but only 81 grave markers are present.  The oldest gravestones date back to 1812.  One veteran from the War of 1812 is buried here, along with nine Civil War veterans.  Many believe the cemetery is haunted.  Sudden cold breezes, shadowy figures and sightings of a two-headed dog are among the stories by local residents.  We didn’t have anything weird happen as we wandered among the gravestones.  Even so, I don’t think I would want to spend the night there as some cyclists do.  A picnic shelter and campground have been built right next to the cemetery. Less than 10 miles from Dravo Cemetery, we passed Dead Man’s Hollow, another area some believe is haunted. It is said that in 1874, a group of boys discovered a body of a man hanging from a noose in a tree. The body was badly decomposed and the victim’s identity was never determined. It’s believed that it was a case of “backwoods justice” but remains a mystery. There have been many reports of “ghost encounters” in the area. There have even been numerous sightings of a giant snake creature, with an estimated length of 40 feet. Dead Man’s Hollow is now a 440-acre nature conservation area open to the public. Not being fans of ghosts or giant snakes, we just kept right on pedaling through the area. It had been raining on us off and on since lunch and our bikes were making bad noises because of all the grit in the drivetrain and on the brakes. We stopped at a campground that had a hydrant and used water to flush the worst of it off the bikes. 
About 45 miles into our ride, we entered the town of McKeesport, PA.  The cyclists we visited with at breakfast had ridden our route in the opposite direction yesterday.  One said it was a good ride except for the route through McKeesport.  They advised, “Just put your head down and pedal.”  We began to get a sense of what they were talking about the further into town we got.  McKeesport sits at the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers.  The town was founded in 1795 and grew quickly with coal mining that began in 1830.  The city’s first foundary opened in 1851 and the arrival of the railroad in 1857 made it possible for McKeesport factories to ship their products around the world.  In 1872, the National Tube Works Company was founded to make steel and iron pipes for water, oil and gas.  In 1901, the company became part of the new U.S. Steel Corporation and McKeesport produced more steel pipe than any other city in the world.  For this reason, it earned the title “The Tube City.”  More industries came to town and the city’s population grew to 55,000 in the 1940’s.  National Tube alone employed over 10,000 in the town.  Everything changed with the decline of the U.S. steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s.  After years of layoffs, National Tube closed down in 1987.  The town has a population of less than 20,000 now with about 25% of the population living below the poverty line.  There are many vacant, dilapidated buildings and homes in down.  The once busy industrial area along the river is quiet.  There are an estimated 600 to 800 homes in the city that need to be torn down, but the city lacks the funds necessary to demolish them.  After traveling through 300 miles of beautiful country, this section was disheartening. Leaving town, we crossed the Monongahela River on the Riverton Bridge. This steel truss railroad bridge was built in 1891 and provided a rail connection to haul molten iron from Duquesne Steel works to National Tube. Like National Tube, the Duquesne Steel Works industrial area on the other side of the river is abandoned and overgrown with weeds and small trees. 
Shortly after exiting the Riverton Bridge, two flyover bridges route the trail over several active railroad tracks.  This section has some rolling hills and the Steel Phantom roller coaster at Kennywood amusement park extends over the trail at one point.  Edgar Thomson Steel Works, the last steel plant in the valley, is visible across the river.  It’s been operating since 1872 and survived the collapse of the steel industry.  They employ 900 workers today, a stark contrast to the 90,000 people once employed by the steel industry in the valley.      Just outside of Homestead, PA we arrived at “The Pump House.”  The historic pump house of the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead works was the site of one of American Labor’s bloodiest battles.  In 1892, the Homestead steel workers went on strike.  Henry C. Frick, manager of the Homestead works, was known as a tough union buster.  He was determined to dismantle the steel worker’s union.  Prior to the strike, in contract renewal negotiations, Frick demanded wage reductions and announced that the company would no longer bargain with the union.  Frick had a 12-foot high steel fence, complete with watchtowers and gun slits, built around the steel mill. The strike began on July 1, 1892 after the union suspended work.  Frick closed the mill and announced he would reopen using nonunion labor.  Frick hired 300 Pinkerton agents, with plans to move them into the mill.  The Pinkertons boarded two barges five miles below Pittsburgh on the night of July 5th.  Each Pinkerton agent was given a Winchester rifle.  The strikers learned of the Pinkertons and prepared for their arrival, even bringing a small cannon into place near the mill.  Gunfire broke out between the strikers and the agents when the Pinkertons tried to disembark.  The Pinkertons were stranded on their barges as the strikers kept them pinned down.  The strikers made several unsuccessful attempts to burn the barges, even dumping oil into the river and trying to set it on fire.  Dynamite was thrown at the barges, but caused little damage.  The Pinkertons finally surrendered after a truce was arranged.  After stripping them of their rifles, the agents were marched into town to safe buildings.  As they crossed the grounds of the mill, they walked through a gauntlet of workers and their family members.  Men and women threw stones, spat on them and beat them.  For several days the union men controlled the entire town, including the mill.  On July 12, the state militia arrived in town.  The 8,000 heavily armed troops took charge of the town and strike leaders were jailed.  Seven Pinkerton agents and nine workers had been killed in the fight.  Some of the 60 wounded later died.  The strike lasted five months, but the mill continued to operate with scab labor for most of this time.  The strike had failed and the union had collapsed.  The Homestead Steel Works once occupied 430 acres with 450 buildings.  The workforce peaked at 15,000 during World War II.  It shut down in 1986 and little remains of it today.  In its place is “The Waterfront,” a shopping, dining, entertainment, and residential district.  The Sandcastle Waterpark, along with three hotels also are in the area.  Not too far from where blood was shed during the Homestead Strike, Pam shed a little of her blood.  She was riding up a ramp with tight turns when she clipped a handrail with one of her panniers.  She was going slow, but it pitched her off and she scraped her knee and hit her head on the opposite handrail.  Good thing she had her helmet on.  We continued to an area known as Pittsburgh’s South Side.  It was once known as the “Workshop of the World,” but now has no shortage of leisure choices.  Coffee shops, bookstores, bike shops, restaurants and bars, live music, art galleries, live theatre and more offer something for everyone.  With the exception of New Orleans, the South Side has more bars per mile than any other city.  There are over 75 restaurants and bars to choose from.  At mile 58, we left The Southside and crossed the Monongahela River on the Hot Metal Bridge towards downtown Pittsburgh.  The bridge was built in 1901 and carried  molten steel from the blast furnaces to the rolling mills on the opposite bank.  Four miles beyond the bridge we entered Point State Park.  The final day of the Three Rivers Arts Festival was today and there were thousands of people in the park.  We even had to walk our bikes in a couple of areas to get through the crowd.  We had trouble locating the survey marker that marks the western terminus of the GAP.  I finally asked a Parks Dept. worker and he explained where we needed to go.  We pedaled together to the very tip of the park and located the survey marker embedded in a plaque in the ground.  Bruce was waiting for us and took photos to commemorate the moment.  We’d ridden 61 miles today, which gave us a grand total of 362 for the week.  It was a good feeling to complete the entire ride successfully.  We were “Badass”…….as Pam and I kept calling ourselves over the course of the ride.
Categories: Uncategorized


  1. Well written and very interesting trip. Good read.

  2. Enjoyed reading of your C&O/GAP adventure. I did this ride solo in 2010 (my first ever tour) – total of 500 miles because of excursions. I rode west to east and it was interesting to see it from the other perspective. Plus the start of the GAP wasn’t complete in 2010 and there was a big detour on the C&O. Looked like you had a blast along with the challenges of touring. Great way to share both your adventures and the history of the trails

  3. Wow! What an awesome post. Such an adventure on two wheels. We traveled some of your trails on 4 wheels so could relate to the beauty of that area. It is so great to meet you. Its gonna be fun to travel along with you and see this great nation through your eyes and words.

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