GAP 7, To Meyersdale

September 17, 2018

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.

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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.

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This photo is from the official GAP Trail Guide, 14th Edition.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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Picture taken the next day, after the rain.

Bike Stats:

  • Ride time: 3 hours
  • Stopped time: 3.25 hrs.
  • Distance: 32.3 miles
  • Average speed: 11MPH
  • Fastest speed: 23.3MPH
  • Ascent: 796 ft.
  • Descent: 125 ft.

 

GAP 5 Part 2: To Connellsville

September 15, 2018

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.

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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.

The Tufa

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.

Coke ovens

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.

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Much of the area, however, looked like this elderly structure, which some intrepid soul had once tried to turn into a shop-filled destination.

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Another ambitious person had tried to set apart his/her home, sited right next to the active rail road, by painting it purple.

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This neon-colored house was difficult to miss.

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).

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Bike Stats:

  • Ride time: 2:30
  • Stopped time: 5:00
  • Distance: 29.3 miles
  • Average speed: 11.75MPH
  • Fastest speed: 17.8MPH
  • Ascent: 301 ft.
  • Descent: 77 ft.

Next up: Connellsville to Confluence