PITTSBURGH – The task of naming the road network from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland was addressed at an initial planning meeting in the mid-1990s. Ideas were discarded. However, naming something that didn’t exist took a back seat to the real work, Linda McKenna Boxx told.
“Let’s see if we can actually build the path and if the name appears,” she said.
Well they built it. And back came the annoying missing piece.
In 2001, dozens of volunteers gathered at the Confluence Community Center in Somerset County to finally agree on a name.
Boxx, who led the effort, said there were 40 or 50 potential monikers for the former rail network. Many had the word “Allegheny” in them.
Bob McKinley, who was the trail manager at Regional Trail Corp. at the time. suggested that the name contain the word “passage”.
“Passage really had a strong response from everyone,” recalled Boxx.
Another volunteer, Bill Metzger, suggested adding the word “great,” which he believed would be a nice acronym and logo, she said.
There it was – the Great Allegheny Passage. The decision 20 years ago still stands for a hard-working group of volunteers then and now, as well as for the millions who use the trail system for short trips or long-distance trips.
“We got a lot of great compliments on the name for getting people to do it. It’s like an adventure, ”said Boxx.
It has certainly been an adventure of a good kind for many of the small towns along the 150 mile former railroad that runs through Counties Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset. The economic impact has been enormous, said Bryan Perry, director of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy, a non-profit organization that supports and coordinates the work of all volunteer groups.
While getting around a city is a huge benefit for locals, it also means tourists looking for places to eat, where to stay, and help with booking and travel planning, he said.
“All of these businesses started in the last 20 years, either they were started or they were focused on destination travelers,” he said.
Such was the case of Mary Lou Rendulic, owner of Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast in West Newton, mile 113. She originally bought a house there in 2001. When friends started staying overnight so they could get on the trail early, she realized she had a potential moneymaker.
The Great Allegheny Passage has brought a sense of pride and new business to the small town of Youghiogheny River to attract hikers.
“It changed things in the city,” she said. Rendulic owns three neighboring houses and manages a fourth with a total of 13 guest rooms. The majority of the overnight stays are trail users, some even from Brazil, Japan and Germany, said Rendulic.
A 2008 economic impact study by the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy, then known as the Allegheny Trail Alliance, found that spending on tourists between McKeesport and Cumberland was about $ 40 million, Perry said. An updated analysis, including Pittsburgh, is expected to be completed in the next few months.
Perry said that Confluence, which, as the name suggests, is growing at the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Casselman and Laurel Hill Creek rivers in Somerset County, not far from Ohiopyle, is growing. Twenty years ago, the small town at Milestone 62 had a restaurant and four places to stay. There are now four restaurants and 20 places to stay, he said.
Rails to bicycles
In the 1800s, the Western Maryland Railway and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad built the passages for the transportation of coal, coke, and cargo. The lines cut a path along the Youghiogheny River and through the Laurel Highlands between Pittsburgh and Cumberland. In the 1960s the lines were abandoned. Empty train stations and evidence of a once busy industry are left behind.
In May 1975 a passenger train ran from Pittsburgh to Maryland for the last time. It started in 1978.
That year the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy bought 27 miles of the Connellsville-Confluence railroad. When a few years later, when nine miles of the trail was covered, smaller groups of volunteers showed up elsewhere along the line in hopes of rebuilding their own sections.
Federal and state funds were made available for the project and donations were collected. According to Boxx, the donors were receptive to the venture, which ultimately cost about $ 80 million to complete.
The Allegheny Trail Alliance was founded in 1995, including numerous smaller groups working on their own sections. As behind-the-scenes work continued, more of the former railroad line was purchased and sections of line were completed.
In March 2001 the name was selected and marketing of a continuous run began. In the same year, 100 uninterrupted miles were covered between McKeesport and Meyersdale, Boxx said.
Additional sections were completed over the next 12 years, with the entire passage completed in 2013. In Cumberland, it connects to the C&O Canal National Historical Park, which takes drivers 185 miles to Washington, DC
The Great Allegheny Passage is mostly flat and is used year round by cyclists, hikers, runners and others.
In 2020, the Great Allegheny Passage was visited by about 1.4 million people, an increase of about 50 percent compared to 2019. An estimated 117,000 users were considered to be “passers-by” or those who had been on the passage for several days. The Conservatory tracks usage of the trails between March and November, with infrared counters spread out along the passage and volunteers taking synchronized counts.
“The entire trail … is run by locals, and 95 percent of them are volunteers,” Perry said. “When you see people out there after a storm at 4am with weed killers, mowers and chainsaws,” they are all donating their time.
“Our main concern with conservation is to find out how we can raise maintenance funds to support all of these volunteer groups,” he said.
While the passage is complete, new ways are being built by other groups to connect to the system, Perry said. In the cities along the passage, visitor numbers are increasing and users are getting younger.
“I am confident that first-time visitors will come back,” he said.
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