September 14, 2018
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.
Tomorrow: West Newton to Connellsville.
- Cycle time: 2:33
- Stopped time: 3 hrs
- Distance 30 mi
- Average speed: 11.4MPH
- Fastest speed: 25.5MPH
- Ascent: 207 ft.
- Descent: 207 ft.