GAP 3, Pittsburgh, PA

September 13, 2018

It is pertinent to mention at this juncture, that a week prior to our trip, the entire area, especially Western PA—more specifically, the northern reaches of the GAP trail—had been inundated by the remnants of Hurricane Gordon (made landfall as a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico on September 4). By the 7th, 8th, and 9th, heavy rains had flooded many of the Westernmost GAP trail neighborhoods. We witnessed the aftermath of the flooding all along our route, primarily our first 4 towns, starting with Pittsburgh. 

We rode straight along the GAP trail until we reached downtown, and we turned onto a busy city street that took us to the Convention Center and our tour guide, Dave of Bike the Burg tours. Allen and Mary probably knew this, since they set the whole trip up and did a lot of research beforehand—but Dave is an ex-Williamsburgher who had worked at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and so there was much playing the “name game” amongst the Williamsburg folks. Since Jack and I had left the ‘Burgh long before Dave had gotten there, we didn’t know many College of William and Mary or other folks in common.

Anyway, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Pittsburgher now, and was an excellent guide for us.

BikeTheBurghLogo2611

Much of what you might guess was on the tour were architectural and cultural buildings and areas. So I’m just going to show you a montage of our sights and sounds in the big city, and mention briefly what we saw in each area.

Our first stop-and-chat session was at a city park, across from a very posh hotel (The William Penn, built by Andrew Carnegie during the peak of the Steel Industry in Pittsburgh). The area was an interesting mixture of the old and the new, including one 1960s “futuristic” building that was being converted to apartments for more downtown living space.

Next we rode to the arts district where we saw an elderly cinema that has been renovated as a live theater venue, the opera house, and (most unfortunately) the building that houses the owner of the Mountain/Valley pipeline, EQT Corporation, at EQT Plaza in the deep downtown. Some of our group, from the western reaches of the Commonwealth of Virginia, had a mind to go over and take a leak on the structure, in visible protest of the pipelines running through our area of VA. But we restrained ourselves.

Near the center of town is the Downtown Market, which was alive with booths, fresh vegetables, truck vendors, and food of all styles and stripes.

There was one area Dave took us that appeared really quaint and artsy, like a Soho or Brooklyn before they became gentrified. It was called “The Strip.” 

Dave assured us that the name had nothing to do with nudity or red lights—but he also said that whenever his brother came to town, they always came down to The Strip to check out the newest happenings in the most interesting part of the city. I’d go back there to spend some time, for sure. The photos I have of the area (we only stopped to get doughnuts from the sweet “Little Doughnuts” shop, and there was lots of construction going on around the church) don’t convey any of the interesting action we rode our bikes through, unfortunately.

The old Heinz buildings are near The Strip, and they have been renovated and restored, and are turning into more downtown living areas, hence the “Heinz Lofts” sign, bridging two of the buildings.

Pittsburgh also has a “thing” its doing with dinosaurs and fossils, to celebrate one of the many contributions to the city that the Carnegie family made: The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, whose core exhibition surrounds dinosaurs, 75% of are original fossils from one of the finest paleontological collections in the world. Several of the skeletons, including Diplodocus carnegii are holotypes: the original specimens upon which their species are based.

As with Berlin’s Bears and Blacksburg’s Turkeys, artists were invited to take a sculptural representation of a dinosaur species and decorate it. Because Heinz was another iconic name in Pittsburgh, one artist decided to turn a Triceratops into a Heinz ketchup bottle.

Pittsburgh has many may bridges — not only those spanning waterways, but also counting those carrying interstates across and around the city: 446 to be exact. More than any other city in the world, including Venice.

We crossed many on our bicycles, some twice, but did not cover them all (thankfully). Our next stop took us across the Allegheny River to view the city from the opposite side, and to visit the Pittsburgh Pirates home field, PNC Park. When the team isn’t practicing or playing in town, they open up the park for visitors and fans to just stroll or ride their bicycles through. It was a pretty impressive showcase for America’s Game.

We crossed back over the river to The Point, which is actually a PA State Park. It usually sports a fountain and a whole lot more folks enjoying the open space where the two rivers (Monongahela and Allegheny) join forces to create the Ohio. But remember Gordon? The storm had layered the entire Point with mud, so they had to shut down the fountain, and they were still working to clear out the mud when we were there. The plaque reads: “Point of Confluence; Point of Conflict; Point of Renewal.”

From there, we could see the Steeler’s stadium; a strange circular monument to Mr. Rogers (another famous Pittsburgher); and the 1877-vintage Duquesne Incline (also closed due to Gordon), which many of us had hoped to ride up to Mt. Washington (on the other side of the Monongahela) to view the city from the highest point around.

At the literal point of the city, the State Park is a favorite lunch spot for the many business people working in the downtown area, at least in good weather and without the mud. But we had fun wandering around.

Our final city stop, besides grabbing lunch with our guide, was another center-city square, busy with shoppers, tourists, and business people. It was obviously a more modernized section of the city, with interesting buildings sporting reflective surfaces. The square was dotted with globes and a central fountain area where visitors (children?) could actually walk in the water if they so desired, which seemed a strange contrast to all the folk in business attire. We also saw more of the decorated dinosaurs. We were close to the convention center where the tour business was located, and over lunch we discussed our next plan (since so many of the options that Allen had researched for us to choose among were closed up) and the route homeward.

Of the many options Allen had painstakingly researched for us, many were closed, others rather too far away, since we’d taken quite a long ride around the city already (see bike stat totals below) even though Dave had suggested we’d only ride about 8 miles (it was more like 16 in town). So the majority elected to see if we might be able to find the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, even though it was close to 3PM by this time, and it closed at 5.

After getting thoroughly lost several times, we finally followed a kind Pittsburgh cyclist who was going our way, and climbed and climbed and climbed some more up to the spot.

As a quick aside, we found the majority of city residents and drivers to be very kind and accommodating to our group and our occasional lack of cohesion and direction. The folks we met were unvaryingly patient with us, and I feel this is somewhat unusual for city dwellers. Another gold star for Pittsburgh.

Anyway, we at last made it to the Gardens, but due to the late hour we elected not to pay the entry fee to get into the Victorian Glass houses where all the tropicals and unusual specimens were. Still, it was a lovely respite and well-appreciated after all the climbing.

We rolled back downhill and zipped back across the “Hot Metal Bridge,” so named because in 1901 when it was built, it allowed transport of hot iron from the blast furnaces on the northern side of the Monongahela River to the open hearths on the south side; then for the movement of steel ingots back to the rolling mills on the north side. Today, after a $10 million renovation project to allow bikes and pedestrians safe access along with the traffic below, it is the major artery connecting GAP trail tourists to downtown.

EagleHotMetalBridgeSouth2332
Eagle at the end of the Hot Metal Bridge.

Once we got back out of the city and on the GAP trail proper, we motored on back to West Homestead for our final night at the terminus end of the GAP—we raced (and beat) the rain that was threatening what had been a beautiful day.

Tomorrow: From Homestead to West Newton, PA.

Bike Stats:

  • Ride time: 2:22
  • Distance: 28.2 miles
  • Average speed: 11.9MPH
  • Fastest speed: 23.75MPH
  • Ascent: 660
  • Descent: 666

 

GAP 2, Cumberland, Maryland

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018

Before jumping into the shuttle service van that was scheduled to drive us, our bikes, and all our gear (in Minnie-Van) to a ‘burb of Pittsburgh (West Homestead, PA), we had time to take a quick walking tour of Cumberland, mostly along the waterfront GAP trail, and up Washington St. to the famous Episcopal Church on the hill, in which Tiffany windows glow even with the dull, cloudy day on which we started our adventure. But more of that in a bit.

CumberPedMallEntry2248

There’s a lot of history in Cumberland, where a very young George Washington surveyed the area, and where Wills Creek (channeled with concrete in the photo to mitigate flooding in the downtown historic district) meets the Potomac River. Historically, Cumberland was first a Fort, then a transportation hub; today, it is a hub for recreation, where the C&O Canal towpath trail meets the Great Allegheny Passage rail-to-trail conversion: Mile 0 of the GAP trail. The terminus of the C&O Canal, in the ebb of its heyday, became the beginning of the first US National Road.

WillsCrkMeetsPotomac2251

As a National Historic Place registrant, Cumberland has a lovely pedestrian area where old building facades have been preserved and are in use as boutiques, restaurants, businesses, and shops, accessible from the GAP trail. Much artwork adorns the Wills Creek area.

TowPathMule2284

Mural2249
This is just a small section of an enormous mural adorning two complete building walls framing the corner of the pedestrian mall area.

As we walked across Wills Creek and up Washington Street toward two amazing tours Allen had arranged for our group (one was a Historic Society preserved Victorian home with most of the period furnishings and structure intact), we saw many homes and churches in the oldest, highest-above-the-river part of town. Among the prettiest is the one at the top of this blog post. 

NeedsTLC2256
Some of the homes need a bit of TLC.

The original Fort Cumberland, a colonial-era stronghold, was built atop the high ridge, with a protective (and controlling) view of the mighty Potomac River.

FtCumberTablet2252

FtCumberArt2280
Artist’s interpretation of what Fort Cumberland might have looked like when it was used in the 1700s. This image shows the Potomac River in the foreground, with Wills Creek joining it near the lower right—that is not a turn in the Potomac, but rather the two flowing together, then meandering off to the right, out of the picture and toward the Atlantic.
FromFtCumber2276
View of Cumberland today from the old fort site.

At the time, much more of the municipality was on high ground. The earth has been removed for building and roadways over the long years since it was just a fort. Now Cumberland occasionally floods. This knowledge and seeing where our cars would be parked for the trip left the three couples who had vehicles in the Canal St. long-term parking area slightly concerned about local flooding with Florence’s potential trajectory. What we hadn’t counted on was the pigeons—more on that in the final installment of the cycling part of this trip.

Upon the site of the old fort was built, in the 1800s, the Episcopal Church with the Tiffany windows.

ChurchUpWashington2250

The neatest aspect of this building, in my opinion, is the way in which they preserved some of the abandoned fort infrastructure, and used the old fort’s tunnels upon which the church sat as a stop along the Underground Railroad. For many, many years the pastors of the church hid, nurtured, and transferred escaping slaves to the next stage of safety along their road to freedom. 

Our guide began our tour with a digital “playing” of the old organ (complete with a heraldic horn section). The congregation’s organist is also an organ tuner and builder, and he’s adjusted the equipment so it can be played digitally or manually; from the back of the room or from the front (during special musical events). It was pretty awesome.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was the talented son of Charles Tiffany, the jewelry store owner. L.C. Tiffany was an interior designer in the mid-1800s, when his interest turned toward the creation of stained glass. He opened his own studio and glass foundry because he was unable to find the types of glass that he desired in interior decoration. He wanted the glass itself to transmit texture and rich colors, and he developed a type of glass he called “Favrile,” which he patented in 1892. Favrile glass has a superficial iridescence, which causes the surface to appear to shimmer, and “collects” light from that which surrounds it. “It is distinguished by brilliant or deeply toned colors . . . iridescent like the wings of certain American butterflies, the neck [feathers] of pigeons and peacocks, and the wing covers of various beetles” — according to Tiffany himself.

PeaceDove2268
While this image appears blurry (and it was, in fact, taken from a long distance, but with the camera solidly on a firm surface) I think it is a technique used by Tiffany to affect a “painting” or brush stroke with the glass. I may be wrong, but I think it’s made of streamer glass. The phrase “streamer glass” refers to a pattern of glass strings affixed to the glass surface, to represent twigs, branches, and structures like feathers. Streamers are made from molten glass that is vigorously swung back and forth to stretch into long, thin strings which rapidly cool and harden. These are pressed onto the molten surface of sheet glass during the rolling process and become permanently fused.
Triptych2265
This Tiffany triptych is not backlit. Instead, it’s made using many, many layers of glass, to “shadow” areas, and to leave other areas able to capture the ambient light and direct it—as with using lighter-colored paints—to illuminate the areas in the scene that either show light or reflect it. Here the light comes off the actual torch raised above the saint’s head, and the glass gathers light where the torchlight hits the martyrs bodies in the scene.
BirthWindow2263
Another Tiffany window one might think is backlit, but it is not. There are many layers of glass in the darker portions to create the many, many shades of blue throughout. It is an incredibly heavy window.

One of the stories told by our guide involved the integration of the church, just after the American Civil War. Some of the former slaves had been “raised” to be Catholic, but when they got to the north (Maryland was actually a slave state prior to the ACW) they were not welcomed to attend the Catholic Church’s services. One of the white friends of the Catholic congregation asked the Episcopal priest if the former slaves could attend his church (same fellow who ran the underground railroad stop) and he said, of course. There was an upper concourse set aside for the black folks—but even then, some of the Catholic blacks would not attend a non-Catholic service.

BalconyGone2264
Along this wall above the main floor was once the “blacks only” balcony. In the mid-twentieth century, it was reserved for the choir. And finally, it was removed and renovated as it appears today.

Windows2261

Later in the tour, we saw the original drawings for a cross and candelabra, also designed and made by Tiffany for the church. None of the pix I took of the golden items nor the drawings turned out, I’m afraid.

As we entered and exited, I was interested in the patterns of the limestone slabs in the walkways, after years and years of erosion. They looked a bit like those relief maps of the ocean floor.

After admiring the “above ground” amenities of the structure, our guide took us downstairs, into the tunnels. There were rooms, narrow stairs, thin “runways” and low-hanging structural elements everywhere. It was frightening to think of a live person with black skin coming here for refuge and respite after a long, dangerous trip from Georgia or Virginia. Afraid every second that he or she would be betrayed. Near starvation or looking over the edge toward starvation at every moment. Too tired to sleep—too afraid or hungry or sick or injured to rest.

The fort’s ammo magazine and all the protective below-ground structures were made by erecting wooden forms and filling behind them with clay and rocks from the river. Those hardened and, with the exception of a few river rocks that have come loose over the centuries, the walls have held up to this day.

Our guide told us that, while the fort used long, underground tunnels to access water for the fort’s uses from Wills Creek and the Potomac, by the time of the underground railroad, the same tunnels were used to get human cargo from the “bad part of town” (the red light district, near the waterfronts) up to safety, nourishment, and rest under the church, and then off to the north and across the Mason-Dixon Line, a mere 10-ish miles by crow flight from Cumberland; Milepost 20.5 along the actual rail line that is now the GAP trail; and freedom for the escaped slaves.

There was much more to Cumberland that we did not see, including the structure out of which George Washington worked, and the Visitor Center. But we had a shuttle to catch at 2PM.

And we were off to West Homestead, a suburb of Pittsburgh. 

It was every bit of a 2-hour drive up interstates and toll roads, but we made it without too much problem, except for missing a turn during Pittsburgh rush hour.

But the hotel we occupied, Hampton Inn, was right on the trail and the Monongahela River (the GAP trail heading east follows the Monongahela until McKeesport, where it turns to follow the Youghiogheny River (pronounced Yawk-a-gain-ee, or the Yawk for short). Milepost 150 of the GAP trail is at what the city calls “The Point” where the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers come together to create the Ohio River. 

View2285

Homestead was once known as the Steel Capital of the World, symbolizing Pittsburgh’s dominance in the industry. Our city guide (tomorrow) reminded us that, at its peak of production, Pittsburgh was commonly known as “Hell with the lid off.”

Homestead’s flagship complex of US Steel was shut down in 1986. At that time, it had 450 buildings on 430 acres, and employed 200,000 workers throughout its years of making unprecedented amounts of steel.

PreservedRelics2286

West Homestead is a mere 10 miles from Pittsburgh’s Point, and along with other suburbs of the city, is re-making itself as a shopping and recreation/tourism draw. Bravo to Pittsburgh and environs for making progress cleaning up and re-focusing the city.

We took a quick shake-down ride to assure our bikes made the trip in good shape (about five miles) and then got cleaned up to walk across the road to an enormous shopping area, with beautiful plantings and flowers everywhere, and more shops and restaurants than you can imagine, including Rockbottom Brewery.

Our group dinner was at Bravo Cucina Italiana, and it was excellent and fun.

Desserts2610

As we walked back to the hotel, we noticed a poster, but couldn’t quite get the idea of Indoor Axe Throwing into our heads.

AxeThrowing2617

Tomorrow, Pittsburgh and a grand bicycle tour of the city!