It was an uneventful trip up to MD and one of our fave spots, Jane’s Island State Park. We snagged the site we’d had a couple of years ago when we came here for the first time and John and Mary set up beside us (sites 22 and 23). Contrary to our prior stay, we found a nearly-empty campground. As before, however, the waterfront sites are simply without parallel. Electric available but no water at the sites, although spigots are nearby. As was our former experience, cell service was spotty at best and, being near a military base, we theorize that some blocking activities might have contributed to cell service inexplicably dropping out totally on occasion. Happily, we found the Crisfield Public Library handy (just a 2-3 mile bike ride or drive away) and they had robust, free wifi and cell service.
But I get ahead of myself. Our transfer day was my birthday (April 7) so we settled into our sites and then headed straight out to The Watermen Restaurant for a celebratory (and delicious) meal. I thoroughly enjoyed my shrimp scampi on linguini with black olives.
On our first full day at Janes Island SP, John and Mary headed out to do some kayak touring.
I had fun taking pix of a loon fishing in front of our campsite.
We’d hoped for some grill-able seafood, but none to be found, but when we looked at the place where J & I had found excellent shrimp last year, we did note that they’ve got shrimp again.
But we had to settle for some really tasty grilled burgers, with hassle back potatoes made by J & M in their dutch oven. Seriously delicious.
Then the rain and wind came and nearly blew us all away. We were relatively dry eating in the screenhouse, but when the wind sent the rains horizontal and it began dripping on us, we retired to our respective sanctuaries.
The next day (April 9) John and Mary took another kayak tour of the water trails around and were thankful for less wind. Jack and I ventured to the local Food Lion to stock up on necessities, and we did laundry at a local “duds n suds.” Had to hit the Crisfield Library for a bit of wifi. Returned to camp and enjoyed an excellent sunset that seemed to go on and on.
April 10 was dry yet a bit windy and we decided to take a leisurely bike ride around Crisfield, the harbor town nearby. We had a lovely lunch on the public dock supplied by Bubbies burger joint, and I worked a bit on the blog catch-up. Had a lovely “upside down” day with eggs, hash browns, and hot rolls for dinner, eaten around a lovely fire in the solo stove.
One last thing I forgot to mention as a big “pro” on the plus side of our Bike Florida Tour: Oranges.
All the rest stops had them in abundance, and they were cherry red, sweet, and O! so refreshing. So good, in fact, that we stopped at a roadside stand before leaving FL and bought a sack full. Yum.
So we said goodbye to FL and headed to SC. Travel was unremarkable, thank goodness. But I did capture this pic of Angela and their Alto2114 traveling along ahead of us at one point.
So Lynches River Campground was our overnight spot on Thursday, April 4, and that’s the campground that is mostly for tenters, with only 2 serviced RV sites. Mark and Angela got #2 (a pull-through) and we got #1 both with electric and water. The bathhouse was rustic to say the least, but it had exactly two private rooms, each with its own toilet, sink, and shower. For a one-night stayover, it was just perfect. Next stop: Chippokes Plantation Campground near Williamsburg, VA, April 5 and 6.
Chippokes is actually in Surry, VA, and is a re-purposed grand farm and mansion, once an actual plantation. Today, it is quite a fine and spiffy Virginia State Park, with hiking trails, the mansion itself, equestrian trails, electric and water, and nice renovated bathhouses. Loop B has the most modernized and level campsites, where Loop A has older, less flat/improved sites.
We linked up with John and Mary at Chippokes, so we had three side-by-side sites with Mark and Angela. Roomba was in the middle, on site #2.
Mark and Angela’s son, Brent, linked up with them (and us), coming down from New York to see his parents while they were relatively close. He spent some of our arrival/set up day in Williamsburg and he and Mary and John all arrived around 5PM.
We all went out to dinner, hoping to catch the pub in Smithfield, but there was a minimum of an hour’s wait there, so off we went to Smithfield Landing where we had a delightful dinner, and all got to know one another a bit better. The walk through Smithfield from the pub to the Landing and then back to our cars after dinner was fun times together also.
The next day, Mark, Angela, and Brent headed to Jamestown, while Mary, John, Jack, and I headed across the ferry into Williamsburg. But first, we went to the Edwards Ham store and picked up some good old fashioned Virginia Ham products. Yum.
We rode the Pocahontas ferry and saw a smaller ferry passing across the river. It was overcast the day we headed into Billsburg, but it never rained despite the look of the sky.
We had a bit of a drive around the campus, telling J&M tales of our college days, and had a quite nice sandwich from Colonial Williamsburg’s famous Cheese Shop.
That night, we all fixed our own dinners but joined up to eat at our site. We had shared appetizers and a fire to cozy up to as our final night together after our fun travels with Mark and Angela. Brent also was headed back north the next day, while John, Mary, Jack, and I were headed to Janes Island, MD for our next, longest stop of our Spring Trip.
Before everyone broke apart, I set up the timer on my camera to get a group shot. And Riley also had to have some fun before we bundled off to Maryland.
As forecast, the rains came with a vengeance, curling around from the east and Hurricane Florence. Having nothing to do with the rains, but somewhat of a portent of our day, was this tree across the street from our lodging. Happily, it did not cause a power outage at our place.
Eventually, I got wet enough that I feared for my “good” camera’s well-being, even as I kept it under my raincoat, so I put it in safe-keeping in my waterproof pannier. My iPhone has a waterproof case, so what photos I took in the steady, pouring, insistent rain of the day were taken with the iPhone camera.
Honestly, there’s not much to say about the ride for the day. We got wet. The trail was wet. Our bikes got filthy.
Happily, however, it was warm, temperature-wise. In fact I got so hot riding that I eventually took off my jacket which was wet from the inside as well as the outside from my own sweat and the nonstop rain. This was the day during which we climbed to Meyersdale, known as the highest town along the GAP Trail.
There is some interesting history associated with several bridge/tunnel/railroad structures we rode over and through. The Pinkerton bridges, tunnels and horn have an interesting story. From the 14th Edition of the official GAP Trail Guide (which I recommend if anyone is going to ride this trail):
There were two railroad tunnels built through the Pinkerton Neck (MP52), a narrow pinch of erosion-resistant geology that created a peninsula in the Casselman River (locally called “The Horn”). The first was the B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) tunnel, completed in 1871. Like many tunnels of the era, it was lined with timber, and when it was destroyed by fire in 1879, a bypass or “shoofly” was built around the horn while the tunnel was being repaired.
CSX completed a major construction project in 2014 to “open-cut” or “daylight” the B&O tunnel so it would accommodate double-stacked rail cars. The fill from this massive cut was placed on top of the Pinkerton horn and has drastically changed the way this area looks.
The Western MD RR built its tunnel in 1912, flanked by the Pinkerton Low and High Bridges over the Casselman River. It had not been open to trail use until 2015 due to its severely deteriorated condition. GAP Trail users had traveled along the B&O shoofly for a scenic 1.5 mile “detour” around the Pinkerton horn.
Major work was undertaken in 2015 to re-line the WM RR tunnel, making it safe for trail use.
Over the bridge and into the tunnel . . .
You can see the liner in this pic showing the tunnel exit.
We dripped our way into the town of Rockwood, PA (MP43, across the river from the Trail) to visit and eat lunch at the Mill & Opera House, for which we got a lovely tour of the truly ancient (and the proprietress reported, haunted) structure. While Rockwood was laid out in 1857, it was not until after the American Civil War that it began to boom with the arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad. By the 1880s, Rockwood was southern PA’s fastest-growing villages.
Our lunch (and slightly-drying-out-spot) in the Mill Shoppes & Opera House was most definitely “comfort food.” Many of us chose the chicken pot pie for lunch and man, was it warming and delicious. Lumber and feed were processed in the old mill building for nearly a century, and like many small towns with large warehouse-like structures, the building has had a performance area above the working mill and storage areas for nearly as long.
Judy Pletcher had a dream to restore the old mill and opera house, and her dream was realized in 2000. She described some of the renovation challenges, and indicated a few of the “left as-was” rooms (mostly storage areas) on our tour. These days the structure is a café, pizza shop, gift and retail shop “mall” on the lower floor, and a presentation space for the community upstairs. Along the upstairs wall, which includes a catering area for dinner theater and special events, are signed photos of many “stars” who have performed in the renovated Opera House. A large-ish (bigger than HO scale) model train runs around the main café room, along a track suspended near the ceiling.
Next we came to the Salisbury Viaduct (MP33.5). This is one of the most distinctive features of the GAP Trail. At 1,908 feet long, this amazing structure dominates the Casselman River Valley. The 101-ft. high steel trestle was a key engineering achievement for the Western Maryland Railway Co.’s Connellsville Extension. Hundreds of spectators cheered when the first train rolled across this engineering wonder in the early 1900s.
It was not built without cost, however. Disaster struck in 1911 when an electric traveling crane crashed to the ground while trying to lift a 14.5 ton girder up to the deck. Six men were killed and one was severely injured. A month later, a worker fell to his death from the trestle deck.
Like most of the train bridges in this part of the Western Maryland RR line, it was built to accommodate a second track, but that expansion was never built. Decommissioned as a through-route in 1975, the trestle was decked for Trail use in 1998.
Photo taken from the Official GAP Trail Guide Book, 14th Edition.
There is also the Keystone Viaduct (MP30) at 910-feet long, and the Bollman Iron Bridge (MP30.5) originally built by the B&O to cross Gladdens Run in another county entirely. It was moved 100+ years ago to serve as a farm road crossing above the RR in Somerset County. In 2007 it was moved again to augment the GAP Trail as a piece of history. It is an early example of a cast and wrought iron bridge (by Master Bridge Engineer, Wendell Bollman).
Here are a few random images from along the ride.
Enormous rock from last week’s mud slides. We found the bit of survey tape around this huge blockade rather amusing.
I loved these fun rooftop bikes!
At last we rolled into Meyersdale (MP32) and the Yoder Guest House where we were met by Charles Yoder. We had a nice bike shed in which to put our gear, and a hose with which to clean our bikes of the grit and grime the rain had not already washed away. It was somewhat horrifying to walk into this lovely renovated old home dripping like sponges—but we did, in fact, remove our disgusting shoes before entering.
Jack and I had a very nice room and the big bonus was that the bathroom had a heater included with the shower vent, so we were able to drape, hang, and spread out most of our wet gear in the bathroom to get mostly dry during our stay (after we ourselves had taken showers, of course).
Denise Yoder cooked a scrumptious meal for us, and we spent some good “community” time on the Yoder front porch, watching the traffic pass and chatting about this and that. The Yoder house is definitely a recommendation, because they were very friendly and accommodating, and have covered their walls with bicycle art.
It was a very fun place that I’d recommend to anyone passing through Meyersdale. Up from the Yoder’s is the renovated depot next to the trail that is also worth a stop. It is a museum of the railroad heritage and an interesting building to boot. There you can get GAP gear, a snack, water, and other necessities of trail riding.
Along the way toward Confluence, we hit Ohiopyle, one of my (and Jack’s) favorite destinations along the Great Allegheny Passage trail. While we’ve camped at, cycled through, eaten in, and wandered around Ohiopyle on many occasions in the past, we’ve never visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Fallingwater house.
It was a long day, even though we only covered 30 miles on our bikes, with one or two significant climbs up to extraordinary views. Here are some random pix of the trail (taken both before and after our Wright adventures) the Youghiogheny River, and some sights along the way.
When we rode into Ohiopyle, we took a moment to look at the raging river, which is famous along this stretch for rafting and kayaking (experts only). We were told by the locals that a few days ago, due to Gordon, you could not see any rocks nor the waterfall, there was so much water flowing past after the storm.
We gathered at Wilderness Voyagers to change our shoes, lock up our bikes, and board the van to head up to Fallingwater—possibly the most famous of F. L. Wright’s architectural achievements. Designed in 1935 for the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. family (of the Pittsburgh department store fame) Fallingwater was completed in 1939, constructed of sandstone quarried on the property and built by local craftsmen. The decks are made of reinforced concrete cantilevered over the signature stream beside which the home is built, and which is an integral feature of the structure.
While the Kaufmanns never lived full time in the home, it was private until 1963 when son Edgar Kaufmann Jr. entrusted the home, its contents, and grounds to the Pennsylvania Conservancy. Fallingwater is the only Wright work to enter the public domain with all of its original furnishings and artwork intact.
Unfortunately, they do not allow photographs of the interior of the home, but it was set up in the exact way the owners lived in it, right down to the type of whiskies they served. Also, the artworks on the interior were quite varied and beautiful—all were originals—so I was disappointed that I could not photograph and share some of the best.
Anyone who knows anything about Wright knows that his primary passion for his architecture was that the structure(s) would inhabit their environments nearly seamlessly. He was a prime advocate for merging the inner spaces with the outdoors. Fallingwater is most assuredly an excellent example of how that might be achieved, and then lived by the inhabitants of the structure. Some of the beams holding up the house are embedded in the rocks, and you can see some of the natural, in-place boulders integrated in part of the fireplace. Through a glass door and down some stairs, you can take a dip in the bright stream water that flows beneath the home. Desks and other pieces of furniture are constructed around or imbedded into elements like chimneys, glass corner windows, and doors.
If you ever get the opportunity, it’s worth the fee for the tour, despite my feeling of being herded through the rooms of the home on a specific schedule so the guides could get as many people in and out of the home as efficiently as possible. There were tons and tons of people there during our tour, but no stragglers or folks not “contained” in a defined group. So we felt as if we were nearly alone in the house.
Also, we were not hurried: none of our questions (except one or two that our newbie guide admitted she did not know the answers to) were flicked aside or ignored, and our guide proved quite knowledgeable about every amazing aspect of the home.
We were able to take some pix outside, as we finished in the Guest House and were headed back to lunch and our pick-up point. So I’ve grouped them below—but first I wanted to show my photo of the “most famous” perspective of the house, side-by-side with Rachel Sager’s mosaic of the same view (from my post dated Sept. 15, GAP 5, Part 1).
Fallingwater from above.
Every room has one of the cantilevered decks outside.
The structural supports for one of the decks incorporates the rock of the landscape.
Artwork is everywhere.
The falling water upon which Fallingwater is build (and on which its design is based).
We had lunch at the Fallingwater cafe, which was excellent. But again, because of Gordon, we were not able to participate in some of the things we had hoped to do in and around Ohiopyle, so we all elected (and we persuaded our Wilderness Voyagers driver) to go a bit farther afield from Ohiopyle to see another Wright property, Kentuck Knob.
This was quite a different endeavor for Wright, although he still had the concept of fitting the structure into its environment, and bringing the “outside in”—at least on one (the private) side of the structure. It was obvious that this commission was undertaken by a family with more limited means than that of the Kaufmann family. In 1953, I.N. and Bernardine Hagan bought 89 acres in the mountains above Uniontown, PA. The Kaufmanns and the Hagans were friends, and based on their visits to Fallingwater, the Hagans hired Wright to design their home. Kentuck Knob was one of the last homes to be completed by Wright.
Kentuck Knob was designed in a hexagonal motif as a “Usonian” house. Linguists and historians believe the term was coined in 1903 by writer James Duff Law. In Here and There in Two Hemispheres, Law quoted one of his own letters, “We of the United States, in justice to the Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.” He went on to propose the terms “Usonia” and “Usonian” and it appears that Wright picked it up. The first known published use by Wright was in 1927.
In Wright’s lexicon, it evokes his vision for the landscape of the United States—including city planning and all types of architecture—to distinguish the art form of the time from all previous architectural conventions. In his vision, affordable housing would be made widely and universally available by designing low-cost homes that used passive solar heating, natural cooling, natural lighting with clerestory windows, and radiant-floor heating. They were usually envisioned as one-story houses with flat roofs, and often in an “L” shape to fit around a garden terrace, merging the indoors and the outdoors for comfort and light. Characterized by locally-found native materials, they incorporated his passion for visual connections between indoors and outdoors by using lots of glass and basic, simple designs. The term “carport” was coined by Wright in connection with his Usonian vision, to indicate a minimalist shelter for a vehicle.
In Pleasantville, New York, there is a 1950s-era intentional community created on the Usonian model, which is now an historic district. Wright designed 3 of the 47 homes in the Pleasantville community.
Likewise Kentuck Knob incorporated the Usonian vision by being single-story, low-cost, and designed to take advantage of radiant floor heating and passive solar gain. The hexagonal proportions of each and every room makes for fascinating decorating and furniture choices and designs.
Again, we were unable to take photographs inside, but the exterior is interesting, with narrow windows on the “public” side of the home, that are made more private with the addition on the outside of a repeating pattern cut into some of the beautiful red cypress wood from which much of the interior is made. The central “heart” of the home is the kitchen, from which all the rest of the rooms “radiate.” Modest in square footage, the kitchen “ceiling” reaches up to the roof, which is the source for light, having a glass ceiling. A retrofit of screening helped the kitchen from becoming too hot to stand in. Wright intended for there to be only natural light in the kitchen, which made it impractical for cooking at night, so another change by the owners was pretty neat countertop lighting and fixtures ahead of their time.
This tile is F.L.Wright’s “signature” on the structure.
Entryway and drive-up.
Privacy “screens” over the narrow front windows.
Along the back of the house stretches a long porch offering solar gain in the wintertime, and shade in the summer, with through-holes in the overhang roof so the winter sun could melt the snow/ice on the porch floor, but also offer lovely “rain spouts” during summer to unite the interior with the weather and surroundings.
When the Hagans lived in the home (full time) there was a spectacular view from that back porch. There is debate about whether to cut the now-grown trees to re-kindle that view from the house, but it’s only a short walk to an open area (available for weddings, etc) from which visitors can take in that view.
And all along the way, and everywhere around the property, high and low, is outdoor art, sculptures, wind chimes, and wonders. At the “bottom” before the shuttle takes visitors up to the house, and all around the house itself are beautiful and interesting sculpture walks that visitors are encouraged to wander.
A piece of the Berlin Wall
A lighting fixture at the entry drive
This sculpture near the view moves with the slightest wind — it is by the same artist who made the animated water sculpture as well as a light fixture over the master bed that moved and changed with the whispers of wind in the room.
This wind chime sculpture buzzed with the flow of air across its tines
From Ohiopyle to Confluence is only about 11 or 12 miles, so we puttered on along the last of the GAP trail that follows the Youghiogheny River. At Confluence, the Yough is channeled into an enormous recreational lake of the same name. Where the Yough River, the Casselman River, and Laurel Hill Creek merge is the town appropriately named Confluence. From here eastward, the GAP follows the Casselman River.
Among our options for the day was a cycle to the dam that tames the Youghiogheney River. But we were all pretty worn out, so Allen drove us over in Minnie van. An enormous spume of water was gushing out of the dam, and the locals who were there to see this anomaly reported that they’d never seen so much water being released from the lake at once. Directly below the dam is the “Outflow Campground” which appeared to be in serious jeopardy, if they were releasing so much water to ease stress on the dam.
We also heard that the remains of Hurricane Florence were due to reach the area, that night and the next day, adding to the burden left by Gordon the week prior. So the release was in anticipation of a night and a day of additional rain.
We overnighted in a “guest house” in a nice neighborhood—part Air BnB and part small Inn—and the group enjoyed a single malt whisky tasting hosted by Allen, after having dinner on the porch at the Lucky Dog Cafe (I needed some bug spray to have been able to fully enjoy our meal) which served delicious Mexican-inspired food.
On our way toward Connellsville from West Newton, Allen found a treasure along our route. In a wonderful example of serendipity, we rolled up to milepost ~104 and met Rachel Sager, mosaic artist. There is quite a lot of info to relate about this day’s ride along the GAP trail, so I yanked out this story because I found it both compelling and wondrous. I hope you agree that it deserves stand-alone coverage.
Rachel, a native of Southwestern Pennsylvania, had always admired a particular brick building on 10 acres near the Youck River, backed by a significant mountain, and laced with a small creek. Once upon a time, the brick building was used as the office for the Banning #2 mine. When she returned to the area as an adult, the structure was being consumed by the mountain and overgrowth. She bought the property in 2015 to become her home and mosaic studio, but had no idea that an actual coal mine and the accompanying above-ground structures came along with the purchase. “Who knew I owned a coal mine?” She remembers asking herself.
Banning #2 was mined for the high quality bituminous coal for which Southwestern Pennsylvania was so famous at the turn of the 20th century. Among the facts she’s since discovered are: coal was mined, sorted, cleaned, and moved in an organized fashion in her Ruins. There was a forge, a rail track, a tipple, and an office. At the time she took possession, most of the structures were camouflaged by the landscape.
She also discovered several of the names of folks who had died both in the mine and among the working structures of her Ruin. She feels it is important to assure the continuance of the of the structures, so those people can be memorialized in the recovering natural setting in which they died. But she’s not thinking of renovating anything. Simply preserving and enhancing.
Once she and her partner saved the brick building (which has become her home) from oblivion, and as she built her art studio, she delved into the thickets of time and found The Ruins. Read about it in her words here.
Each room of the above-ground remains had a distinct use and purpose in service of the coal mining industry. Rachel has done quite a lot of research and knows that one of the rooms held a giant, belt-driven exhaust fan used to ventilate the mine nearby, or possibly, to assist in the “cleaning” of the coal brought up from the mine. In this, the confusion is mine, not hers. I have a different memory of her explanation than Jack does.
In any case, the major discovery she made, from an artist’s point of view, was that The Ruins offer a unique substrate for the work of mosaicists. Each wall, lintel, step, ceiling, door frame, and windowsill has its unique character remaining or growing (mosses, lime deposits, water damage, flaking-away surface) which offer “launching points” for creativity, for statements, for memorials.
Lock and key.
Snake on a windowsill.
River of fire.
Substrate as canvas.
Even the trees and vines growing among the Ruins are potential substrates, of only temporary ones.
It’s the sitting in time that has made them a work of beauty. Time has had its way with the stone and brick. Moss covers great swaths of the walls, creating a beautiful decay . . . As an artist who works in mosaic, I am seeing the walls as a canvas. In my first glances, I was thinking of them as blank slates waiting for my brand of mosaic. I could see immediately that as a forager mosaicist who uses native stone, I can respect the history of the place and make use of my sandstone, limestone, slate, and coal as material.
In a “eureka” moment, Rachel decided to make it a project, learning space, installation, and event venue. Many experienced and learning artists have come to be inspired, taught, and expanded by The Ruins Project; to be instructed in the art and freedom of mosaicking by Rachel (and by each other); to understand how the past can inform and direct creativity and memory today; and to admire the visions of those participating in the project-in-progress.
Visitors like us get a visual banquet and an oral history during the tour, as well as experiencing being neither indoors nor outdoors, but a bit of both as we wander around and listen to Rachel’s impassioned talk of community, the past, creativity, preservation, and expression. (Tours are by appointment only — see www.rachelsager.com)
Among the first things Rachel pointed out to us, at our very feet, was what is called “Red Dog.” It is a byproduct of the mining process in the region, and lies everywhere. Whereas many might simply see detritus, the artist sees foraged material for creation. We witnessed many uses of Red Dog on the walls of The Ruins.
Next, she pointed out to us a beautiful instance of art serving as a bridge between history and present, between industry and nature. A visiting local artist spent a day foraging materials, considering her vision, and another day studying the “canvas” of The Ruins. The two artists brainstormed and came up with creating a beehive coke oven, which is still in progress, awaiting more bees when the artist returns.
Rachel’s August 29, 2018 blog post offers much more detail about this specific installation and its inception, and is incredibly worth the read.
My next (GAP 5 Part 2) travelogue, with more about our ride through this section of the GAP trail, has more about the coke ovens that you can still see (if you look very hard)—and the process by which coal must be transformed to coke if it is to be consumed at temperatures hot enough for use in the steel industry.
We were impressed by the variety and interesting materials chosen by the various artists and students who have come to learn from The Ruins Project. One room began with a snake slithering along a windowsill (see above) and wound up being their animal room. Another has an unearthed mirror sitting on a ledge. Several had the elements of tools and equipment left as a reminder that the work is ongoing, progressive, and informed by the atmosphere, even though there were no working artists when we were there. Many span inside corners, and one even covers a “z-shaped” interior structure. Here is a collage of inspiration.
Fayette County portion of the GAP trail.
Otter and sea friends.
Raptor in progress.
I have a particular fondness for chickens, and there were two represented in the artistry we saw:
I commend all the students and artists who shared their creativity and inspiration in this project, and I look forward to all the artistry that is yet to be secured to the remains of the past. I am truly inspired by what Rachel Sager is accomplishing and envisioning here and I hope you will be also. Sign up and take a class (https://www.rachelsagermosaics.com/the-ruins-project/about/) or go by and see Rachel and her passion. Tell any friends you have that are mosaicists or are interested in the art of mosaic. You and they will be inspired, I guarantee it.
We will be listening to the birds, feeling the rich dirt, observing the woods that have grown up around everything, acting as archaeologists when we find the leavings of industry beneath our feet.
One final note: Because we will be visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water on Sept. 16, I was impressed with this artwork by Rachel, which I unfortunately, was not able to see in person, but only in postcard form. This 2014 piece measures 36 in. x 24 in., and is composed of Marcellus shale, sandstone, limestone, smalti (sometimes referred to as Byzantine glass mosaic tile), 24K gold smalti, concretions, and ceramic. F.L. Wright, who was so passionately devoted to creations that reflect, resemble, and fit into their native landscapes, would definitely approve, I’d say.
“Why? Because this place will feed your soul.” —Rachel Sager
Before we left West Newton, in the Ruritans’ reclaimed rail car, we learned about some of the sights we were to see along our way toward Connellsville. There’s a lot of history along the GAP trail that is worth at least a fleeting glance, so a rider can understand the context of the trail’s roots and bones, rising from its origin as a railroad bed.
When talking about The Ruins Project in the most recent post, I mentioned the town of Whitsett (MP 103). As a traditional “company town,” Whitsett is a living example of the “cracker-box” houses that were owned by the company, along with the infamous “company store.” In the song Sixteen Tons, the singer says, “I owe my soul to the company store”—not an uncommon situation in which many of the coal mine workers found themselves. Because goods in the company store were tremendously expensive, most miner families had to buy food and goods on credit, ending up owing the mining company more than their wages, and plunging them into indentured servitude.
But Whitsett is known for another reason: the populace is extremely proud that the town has always been an integrated community. Neighbors in Whitsett have watched out for and stood by one another through many hard times. The floods of 1936, ’54, and ’72, plus two train derailments (1947 & 1974) brought distress to the families of Whitsett. But the town has become more closely-knit, and today is known, among other things, for generating some of the finest amateur baseball teams known.
Early in our ride, I stopped to see this marked feature along the trail (marked with a post and the words “Mailbox Formation”). It was pretty cool.
A tufa is a rare formation of limestone that grows out of fresh water seeping through the ground outside of a cave (as the water warms, calcium carbonate emerges and fossilizes, covering anything it falls upon, drip by drip). It’s like the deposits found in caves (stalactites and stalagmites) but without the protection of the surrounding rock. A tufa is exposed to and vulnerable to the elements.
To teachers, students, and naturalists interested in geology, it is a delicate outdoor classroom—it’s difficult to ‘get’ geology indoors because of its scale (this tufa stands 37 feet tall). To archeologists, the tufa is a scrapbook: layers upon layers of calcium salts have trapped the history of the last 18,000 years. Every day, something else disappears (and is preserved) under the constant, slow, drip, drip. For example, dust from passing trains in the 30s; from distant volcanic eruptions; even from the first atomic tests in the 40s—could be recovered and studied, telling tales and stories intimate to the era in which it has been preserved.
As such, the tufa is vulnerable to destruction by curious visitors, fertilizer runoff, logging activities, pipelines, and exploration. Therefore, not many of the locals let folks like us know exactly where it is, because its fragile situation is quite close to the trail. Happily, it is difficult to see and to find, and it’s on private property.
I did try to find something like what I’d read about and seen in an old newspaper article. But what I saw and photographed (and intentionally left off here) might simply have been a slow-moving spring polluted by a long-gone mining operation. I mention it because it’s interesting, but I leave the photo out so the tufa won’t be destroyed by folks as curious as I am.
In the industry’s heyday, hundreds of these beehive-shaped ovens would be burning, all in a long row (for ease of loading coal from rail cars into the ovens; and then for transfer of the coke back to rail cars to head up to Pittsburgh for steel-making). Elder residents can remember the coke ovens lighting up the night sky. The area around MP 89 and Connellsville became known as Dante’s Inferno.
A fellow named Cochran, who lived in nearby Dawson, had discovered how to make coke from coal around the 1840s. The key was a small, dome-shaped oven, modeled after bread ovens. For nearly 100 years afterward, coke ovens (also called “beehive ovens”) were in use along the Yough River (until about 1930). Cochran’s method was the biggest industrial discovery ever made along this section of the GAP trail, and resulted in the greatest number of millionaires per capita residing in the geography between Connellsville to Perryopolis than anywhere in the United States. At one time, 13,000 bushels of coke were boated from Connellsville to Cincinnati.
Here’s a brief primer on coal, coke, and steel.
Bituminous coal (black coal) is relatively soft, and contains a tar-like substance called bitumen (asphalt). Bituminous coal is of higher quality than lignite coal; yet it is of poorer quality than anthracite.
If it is to be used for many industrial processes, bituminous coal must first be “coked” to remove the volatile components. Coking is achieved by heating the coal in the absence of oxygen (to the extent possible), a process which drives off hydrocarbons (for example propane & benzene among others) as well as sulfur gasses. Much of the water in bituminous coal is also driven out during carbonization.
While the coal is heating in the “beehive oven” in a very low-oxygen environment, it softens, allowing the volatiles escape through its pores. When cooled, the resultant coke has swollen (as compared to how it began) resulting in a larger volume—contrary to what we know to be typical of burning, where the end result is most frequently a much smaller volume than what was burned in the first place.
Coke (also called metallurgical coal) is used in the manufacture of steel, where carbon fuel must be as volatile-free and ash-free as possible. The strength and density of coke is particularly critical when used in a blast furnace. In steel-making, the coke is not only a fuel but also a reactant in the steel-making blast furnace.
In steel making, impurities (nitrogen, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur, and excess carbon) are removed from raw iron ore. At the same time, alloying elements like manganese, nickel, chromium, and vanadium are added, which produce different grades of steel. The use of coke in the furnace also limits impurities (termed “inclusions”) in the steel, which is also critical to ensure the quality of products cast from molten steel.
This is how the “beehive ovens” worked: A fire brick chamber shaped like a dome, typically ~13 ft. wide and ~8 ft. high, was used to make coke. The roof had a hole for introducing the coal and other kindling from the top.
In the lower part of the wall was an opening (with a door) through which the coke was removed. In a coke oven battery, a number of ovens were built in a row with common walls between neighboring ovens. An average battery consisted of a great many ovens, sometimes hundreds, in a row.
Bituminous coal was introduced from above to an even layer of about 25 to 35 inches deep. Initially, air (and sometimes kindling material) must be supplied to ignite the coal. Carbonization (burning) then began, producing the volatile gases, which subsequently burned inside the oven, providing both the heat as well as the oxygen-free carbonization environment required to make coke.
Carbonization happened from top to bottom of the layer of coal, and was completed in 2 or 3 days. Because the heat was maintained by the ignited and igniting volatiles, no useful by-products of the burning were recovered. Exhaust gasses were allowed to escape to the atmosphere.
The hot coke was then quenched with water and removed manually through the side opening. The walls and roof of the beehive oven retained enough heat to ignite the carbonization process for the next layer of 25-35 inches of bituminous coal.
Impurities not driven off and/or burned as gasses accumulated to form “slag.” Basically, slag is the accretion of those removed impurities not burned, evaporated, or discharged out the roof hole. In the early days of coke-making, slag was simply an unwanted by-product and was discarded into enormous piles. Later, it was found to have some use, as an ingredient in brick-making, mixed cement, and granule-covered shingles.
The man who discovered this process, Cochran, lived in Dawson, and we rode across the river to see the town. Possibly due to the floods of Gordon, but possibly because its a dying community, we found a ghost town. But we did see the well-maintained former Cochran home.
Much of the area, however, looked like this elderly structure, which some intrepid soul had once tried to turn into a shop-filled destination.
Another ambitious person had tried to set apart his/her home, sited right next to the active rail road, by painting it purple.
There was a pretty church in the town, and the sign outside said there were Tiffany windows preserved within. We didn’t get inside, so we couldn’t see the windows.
As we were riding toward the bridge back across the Yough, another interesting home with a wrought-iron fence around it caught our attention. In one of the gate “posts” was an active honey bee hive. We thought it was quite appropriate to see these gentle workers after seeing the coke ovens, and considering the mosaic of the “beehive” oven we discovered at The Ruins Project (see my post here).
We passed under the glass arch into Connellsville around lunch time. Since the demise of the coal and steel industries, Connellsville has re-made itself as a glass making center.
We rode into town to the Connellsville Canteen—site of a railroad stop-over for troop trains heading with soldiers toward the ports from which they’d ship to fight in WWII. Mrs. Rose Brady, founder of the Canteen, organized 600+ women volunteers between the ages of 21 and 80 to offer warm, healthy food and smiles to troops heading to fight. The Canteen served more than a half-million servicemen and women between April 1944 and April 1946, an average of 3,500 people every week.
The place had lots and lots of WWII memorabilia, photos, icons, stories, and objects donated to the “museum” by Connellsville residents. It is a very personal museum dedicated to honoring the military men and women and their families who haled from Connellsville. We ate an excellent meal, before which we were invited to go see the elaborate HO-gauge train town set up in a back room.
Sept. 15 was a great ride full of interesting stuff, topped off with excellent meals including a hole-in-the-wall, local Italian dinner at Ruvo’s Italian Restaurant. Well worth the discovery.
We slept for the night at the Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, just off the trail, complete with a bike-washing station and free towels to wipe the bikes down after their rinse.
We left the Hampton Inn to ride along “The Waterfront” part of the trail exiting the Pittsburgh suburbs. On the other side of the fence the area managers were using an interesting technique to keep some of the invasive and pest species of plants (especially Japanese knot weed, fallopia japonica, also called “donkey rhubarb”—a perennial shrub related to buckwheat, but considered an invasive in much of the US) that grow along the steep banks of the Monongahela in check.
Once we left The Waterfront, however, we rode through heavy industry, both current and of times past, and it was difficult to ignore how much work the Pittsburgh area still has to do to clean up its coal and steel past.
At one bridge overpass into an enormous lot filled with steel and concrete construction pieces (T- and I-beams, road safety walling, poles and pipes, as well as a lot of trash) someone had erected a tall metal tower upon which was a visible platform and an osprey nest. The residents, however, had all moved on by September, so we didn’t see any osprey.
Just after I rode off from the bridge near the nest, however, the rest of the gang saw what Jack believes was a peregrine falcon, zipping through the area chasing a pigeon. He said it was a spectacular display, even though the pigeon finally found cover and eluded the talons of death.
As we moved farther from the city, we saw additional evidence of the flooding from storm Gordon, including several serious mudslides, and places where large trees had been removed from the trail.
We passed many waterfalls, including one that had washed the rocks nearly white with some kind of icky deposit; and later the marginally “famous” Red Waterfall, which had been awarded its own reader board.
The water here is acid and iron-rich, coming up to the surface from underground mines, staining the rocks rust red. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a major source of water pollution and the cause of extensive stream degradation and environmental damage.
The Ocean Coal Company, a subsidiary of Berwind-White Coal Company of Philadelphia, PA, established several mines in this region including (in 1900) Ocean No. 2. It is purported that drainage from Ocean No. 2 is the chief cause of the Red Waterfall.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, the massive Pittsburgh Coal Seam formed underneath parts of PA, WVA, and OH, from ancient swamp plants. Sand, silts, shells, and other matter were deposited and made a rock seal over the carbon-rich vegetation. This rock contained the mineral pyrite, made of iron and sulfur.
Coal mining exposes pyrite to oxygen and ground water, causing the formation of sulfuric acid and a number of red, orange, and yellow compounds. AMD occurs when this mine water seeps, or in this case, bursts out, into streams. The yellow sulfur can be seen in the shale near coal seams.
We saw an old bicycle wheel in the overgrowth right next to the Red Waterfall, and imagined that a hapless cyclist might have ignored the sign we conjured that would have read “Don’t drink the water,” and the cyclist subsequently died then was consumed with his bike by the nearby weeds.
We rode through McKeesport (MP 132), where the town is mostly dead or dying, with nothing we could see to recommended it. Yet it is the place where the Monongahela meets the Youghiogheny, which is the river GAP riders follow from here eastward. We went through a nice city park by the river, but then had to wend our way through more industrial sections to regain the rail-trail on the other side.
Next we arrived in Boston (MP 128), a pretty little section of the GAP ride which is beginning the process of re-inventing itself for tourism, but still has closed mills and warehouses reminding one of better times. Below the trail in a park near the water we saw more evidence of the flooding of Gordon. Above the trail are a couple of interesting little businesses setting up shop in existing buildings. One of these is The Betsy Shop, where we paused to have “finger sandwiches and tea,” said Allen.
He reminded us that our lunch stop was in West Newton at a place tantalizingly called “The Gingerbread Bakery,” so he encouraged us to eat light.
But what a spread! The place was quaint, with an enormous variety of purchase-ables within, from kitchen aprons to halloween decorations; from funny cards and magnets to antiques.
And we didn’t hold back on the eating front because it was more than “finger sandwiches” and totally delicious.
Lovely scones with an orange curd dip topped the offering tray; croissants filled with cucumber salad; and at the bottom, open-faced chicken salad sandwiches served with a thin layer of apricot jelly between the bread and the chicken salad. Some folks had coffee and tea, but I just drank water, and the whole shebang was delightful.
Near “Little Boston” is the location of an historic meeting between Queen Aliquippa and the-Major George Washington, sometime before 1754. The area is the summer home of Queen Aliquippa’s people (some historians believe she was the leader of a group of Mingo Seneca; others believe it could have been an Iroquois tribe). About 30 families used the region starting about 1730, and Queen Aliquippa became their leader, having inherited the position after the death of her husband.
As the story goes (recorded in Washington’s journal of his travels) Washington came to the area to request that the French leave, as he and Braddock were claiming the territory for the British. On that trip, he failed to stop and visit/acknowledge the queen of the Native American residents. After several close calls with the French (who did not want to leave the territory), Washington stopped by John Frasier’s Trading Post in what is now Braddock, where he heard of Queen Aliquippa’s displeasure. He tried to make up for his lack of courtesy by bringing gifts, and the meeting became immortalized in song*. Later, Washington honored the Queen’s son, Kanuksusy, by giving him the title of Colonel Fairfax. Queen Aliquippa became a key ally of the British in the time leading up to the French and Indian War. She and her son, plus warriors from her band traveled to Ft. Necessity to assist Washington, but did not take an active part in the Battle of the Great Meadows (July 3-4, 1754), where the British were defeated by the French, causing the evacuation of Ft. Necessity. Queen Aliquippa moved her band to the Aughwick Valley of Pennsylvania for safety, and she died there on December 23, 1754.
*The “immortalized in song” part of the story amounts to one verse of a Robert Schmertz song, “The Forks of the Ohio:”
Now, Queen Aliquippa (sic) was the Indian skipper of a tribe down Logstown way
And George said, “I better win this lady Indian, and without delay.”
So he took her a coat and a jug of whisky, and stayed a day or so
And he came back a ridin’ and a lookin’ and a walkin’ to the forks of the O-Hi-O.
We pushed on to West Newton (MP 114). As we approached the town, stark evidence of Gordon’s destruction was on every side. People were piling the ruined things from their homes onto the street corners and curbs; the canoe and kayak livery had every one of its boats strung together with cable, high above the riverbanks, and it was obviously closed; tree roots were visible in pulled-up lawns, and debris was everywhere. A mother and daughter were covered with mud, carrying wet junk out of their basement to deposit for trash pickup. It was quite sad.
On our schedule was a canoe/kayak float, but not only was the business closed, the put-in upriver from which we’d float back to West Newton was closed due to the amount of mud blocking the drive and parking area.
West Newton was once a river boating town. Abundant timber allowed for pioneers to build their own flatboats and barges that would float downriver to McKeesport, Pittsburgh, and finally to the Ohio River and south.
We rode past our lodging spot and into the town, and found the Gingerbread Bakery, conveniently located adjacent to a BBQ place, so the variety of food available was excellent. They took very good care of us there, but the flooding evidence was throughout the town. In talking about the storm to the Bakery folks, we learned that most of the flooding was in folks’ basements, including that of the senior home down the road. Not every structure was affected, but most people in the community were.
Back to the Bright Morning Bed and Breakfast — a series of four Victorian homes (circa 1864) refurbished for lodgers, where we also had dinner on their back patio. It was quite a nice evening.
The next morning, we got a tour of the Ruritans’ “museum” in a reclaimed rail car the volunteers had fixed up, which conveniently sat nearly across the trail from the B&B. They had some fun displays about what we would see going southeast on the trail, and one of the most interesting displays was the rail car itself. Our guides explained that this and other cars like it were sent to Ellis Island in New York to offer immigrants “a job and a house” if they’d come west to work in the mines and factories. They’d pick up three or four families in each car with each run to the east, and thus were able to populate these western towns with people from the old country.
There was a display depicting a school bus, and our curators were proud to say that West Newton is the place where the national law requiring all school busses to stop and open their doors before crossing railroad tracks was enacted—unfortunately, due to a school bus-related accident with a train when the driver did not hear the whistle blowing.
Another story told there (and which we’d see the site of tomorrow) was the Darr Mine Disaster, the worst mining accident in Pennsylvania history. In 1907 near the village of Van Meter (MP 106) 239 coal miners were killed in a massive underground explosion at the Darr mine; only one man escaped. National attention was brought to the conditions in the mines, due to this disaster and one a mere 2 weeks earlier (making December 1907 the deadliest mine fatality month in US history). The federal government initiated efforts to prevent mining accidents beginning in 1908 and established the US Bureau of Mines in 1910.