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.


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.


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.

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).



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.


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

Breaks Interstate Park, VA/KY

We arrived to Breaks Interstate rather late in the day on Monday, August 8 (around 5PM after stops for groceries, fuel, and to change drivers), and set up everything except the screened-in porch. 

Elk statue in Elkhorn, KY

Kerry & Gloria, with sweet little Lindy-Lee, were already here, and we sat down with them for a wind-down after the long drive. 

Did a bit more set-up, had dinner, and hit the hay early.

Had a visitor, first on the side of Roomba, then (below) on the awning roof.

On Tuesday, we got up early and enjoyed 70 degrees on a breezy morning. We sat a bit too long, basking in the cool before getting on our bikes at the hottest time of the day, to ride through the Park’s camping loops. Frankly, we were wondering if there was a better set up for us, as the bath house here in loop A is very old and quite tattered. They’re trying to keep it clean, but after a time, infrastructure simply needs replacing. That is the case here, so if anyone reading this is considering reserving a site, look to loops B, C, or D, which all have more modern bathhouses. Due to a variety of factors including not particularly wanting to set up next to diesel bus RVs, we elected to stick where we landed, in site #38.

But we carried on with our cycling, back toward the main parts of the Park, where there is a water park (closed except on weekends) a lodge and conference center with a restaurant (all open and where a person can find wifi), and a visitor center (closed except on weekends). Just before we passed the equestrian center, we noticed next to the road a couple of escapees from the paddocks and as we went past the office, alerted the folks that two horses were loose. They knew, and were on their way to fetch them back.

We paused at the conference center for a restroom break and I put some sunscreen on, and we walked out onto the restaurant’s porch where visible is part of the enormous gorge on which the Park is situated. 

Here’s the geologic run-down on what helps make this area the amazing place it is:

300+ million years ago, the North African and American continents collided during the Alleghanian Orogeny (mountain-building event) resulting in the formation of the Appalachian Mountains. The landscape here is the result of 250 million years of erosion after the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea.

We were standing at the northeastern terminus of Pine Mountain overlooking Russell Fork Gorge—The Breaks. Pine Mountain extends for 125 miles southwest and The Breaks is one of only three water gaps in this northwestern-most linear ridge of the Appalachians. Russell Fork preferentially eroded broken and fractured rocks along the Russell Fork Fault, which here intersects the Pine Mountain Fault, the leading fault of the Pine Mountain Overthrust Block, thus appearing to “break” through Pine Mountain.
The Virginia and Kentucky coalfields lie south and north, respectively. The Virginia-Kentucky border follows the crest of Pine Mountain, but to the northeast from the point at which we stood is simply a line 45 degrees from due north to the West Virginia border. The dominant rock type there is durable sandstone, which forms the spectacular cliffs of the gorge. Gentler slopes are underlaid by softer siltstone, shale, and coal seams.
Native Americans used the gorge and adjacent gaps for passage for 10,000 years to access hunting, foraging, nut gathering, and weir-trap fishing lands. No permanent settlements existed due to the rough terrain. Daniel Boone and his hunting party passed through this area in 1767, the first time he set foot in what would later be the state of Kentucky.
Settlers lived by subsistence farming, preferring arable flat lands such as Potter Flats (visible in some of the photos you’ll see in a bit) located in the river bend visible below the overlook; but also farming steep slopes where possible. Corn was the crop of choice, both for human and animal consumption, and to make potent moonshine. Beginning in the late 1800s, timbering and coal mining supplanted farming, and continues today.

That gives some geologic reference points for some of the photos you’ll see. There are many, many hikes to be taken, one that switchbacks off the ridge and goes all the way down to the river. It’s short (1.5 miles) but steep, and not a loop, so it would require a return hike up the switchback trail. The maps available to Park users are detailed and accurate, near as we can tell. We only took a couple of short hikes in our cycling shoes to capture some of the photos. 

It was a fun ride, with quite a few stops along the way for short walks to incredible overlooks. Here’s more of what some of the interpretive signage taught us:

The name “Breaks” was derived from the break in Pine Mountain created by the Russell fork of the Big Sandy River as it carved a 1000ft. Deep gorge on its way to join the Ohio River.

By taking the path on the left (Two Towers Path) to the Clinchfield Overlook, you will see this work of nature – often called “The Grand Canyon of the South.” Elevation here is 1978 ft.

Clinchfield Overlook
The railroad below has a long and tangled history dating back to wagon road surveys as early as 1831. A north-south route across the Appalachian Mountains for commerce and travel was long sought, but location here was always negated by rugged topography. By the 1880s, however, recognition of the region’s abundant coal resources convinced railroad and coal barons that a line was feasible, if not necessary, to develop those deposits.

Many railroad companies demonstrated interest in The Breaks, but General John T. Wilder of the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad was first to lay title to property in this area. That company collapsed in 1890, and those rights eventually passed to the South & Western Railway, headed by George Lafayette Carter, and finally to the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad—the “Clinchfield Line.” The route through The Breaks was completed in 1915, but only after litigation with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, claiming prior rights through the gorge in 1902. Those two lines connected at Elkhorn City, Kentucky. Ironically, after many mergers and buyouts, the inheritor of the Chesapeake & Ohio acquired use of the line—CSX Transportation, whose coal trains traverse the gorge to this day.

At the time of completion, “The Clinchfield” was the costliest American line, per foot, yet built—in no small part due to construction obstacles in The Breaks. Upstream, the 921-foot Towers Tunnel passes under the saddle between the Towers and the Chimney, avoiding the great entrenched meander bend of Russell Fork. Downstream, the 1,523 ft. Stateline Tunnel parallels Russell Fork; the gorge wall of the tunnel is only a few feet thick. Further downstream, the track sweeps majestically around Potter Flats and then crosses the river over Pool Point Bridge, which was the longest steel-span bridge in the world for a short time after construction.

We took a quick walk (30 yards or so) to see Pinnacle Rock, leaving our bikes in the woods, but didn’t see much. 

Difficult to discern here but the light center of the photo shows the view through the rocks to an opening beyond, then more rock. Pretty cool in person.

The paved road we followed went steeply downhill from the Two Towers and Clinchfield overlooks, losing over 200 ft in elevation over a very short period. We arrived at the famous Stateline Overlook—famous because it’s amazing, singular and right next to the road so users of all abilities can see over the expanse of mountains.

If you are unable to read the sign, here’s what it says: From this vantage point you are standing in Virginia and looking into both Kentucky and Virginia. In a north-westerly direction, you are looking directly into Potters Flats. Pine Mountain begins here and runs in a south-westerly direction for approx. 125 miles. The road you are seeing is Kentucky state Rt. 80, which runs by the Breaks Interstate Park entrance. The main boundary line for the two states follows the crest of Pine Mountain to the southwest (your left as you read this sign) the state line is indicated on the map below in orange. Elevation here at the overlook is 1769 ft. The river elevation where the orange (border between VA & KY) line crosses is 840 ft.

The left-most cut is the railroad, still in use. In the middle is Russell Fork, and on the right is KY Rt. 80.

Only slightly uphill from the Stateline Overlook was a road called “Natural Trail” that was a truly lovely ride, rolling and shady, little-used by vehicles, and emptied us back out on the main Park road next to the equestrian center. It was a short climb back to loop A and our Roomba.

We settled for a while after putting up the screen tent, took showers, and then invited Gloria and Kerry down to sit in front of our electric fans in the screen house, and enjoy some adult beverages with us. We’d agreed earlier that this was going to be our steak-grilling night, and everyone contributed a little something to the whole, and it was a grand meal. Sat chatting for another hour and then went our separate ways to bed around 9:30P. 

On our final full day in Breaks Interstate, we elected to have a relaxing day, and sat around reading books while Kerry & Gloria took car expeditions into the region, touching base once or twice along the way. Another friend from TN, Jim, arrived to tent camp and visit, and had a delightful dinner of shepherd’s pie and salad, some beverages, and lots of storytelling. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the lodge restaurant in the morning prior to our departure Thursday AM, headed to Grindstone Campground, slightly farther east and slightly closer to home for the wind-down of our August trip. Kerry and Gloria will accompany us there, where we will link up with additional RV-ing friends, Lorrie and Gary.