GAP 5 Part 1: The Ruins Project

September 15, 2018

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.

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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.

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.

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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. 

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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)

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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.

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Beneath these Pennsylvania Mountains.

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.

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.

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This is a permanent and growing list of artists who have taken part in The Ruins Project to date.

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.

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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.

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“Why? Because this place will feed your soul.”          —Rachel Sager

 

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

October 12 – Ohiopyle & The GAP

Ohiopyle & the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP)

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We have had a most excellent day today (Oct.12). And no car was involved from start to finish!

After our leisurely rise and breakfast (Jack and I finally cooked the bacon we’d brought along), Gloria and I conspired to create a picnic lunch that was carry-able in two small backpacks. At just before noon, we set off from the campsites to hike the connector trail from the campground to the Youghiogheny River Trail, one part of the larger, Great Allegheny Passage trail system that connects Pittsburg to Washington DC. Also called “The GAP,” it is a trail Jack and I have been on many times in the past, and part of it crosses the Eastern Divide, where the riverflow splits, with one side going to the Atlantic, and the other side going to the Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico.

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The Youghiogheny River (The Yough, or “YACK”) is just beautiful here, and the small town of Ohiopyle is making great use of the natural beauty and outdoor sports opportunities for visitors.

Anyway, the connector trail is about 200 yards or so from our specific cul-de-sac, and it stretches about a quarter mile downhill along a loosely-graveled path to the Trail. From there, it’s no more than a mile to Ohiopyle proper, and we took lots of photos and were crowded by lots of bicyclers (who apparently don’t know about warning pedestrians of their approach from behind with a bell or a salutation . . . we were lucky no one hit us, honestly).

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On the GAP, we crossed the Yack almost immediately, headed toward Ohiopyle/Washington DC.

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Topo map of the river, Ohiopyle, the Ferncliff Peninsula, and the surrounding area. #6 is Ferncliff, and you can see the
Topo map of the river, Ohiopyle, the Ferncliff Peninsula, and the surrounding area. #6 is Ferncliff, and you can see the “thumb” the river has carved to make the peninsula. The dotted line (B at the left and D at the right) is the GAP.

The final span of the river (it takes a “U” turn right at Ohiopyle) is a pretty trestle bridge that brings you right into the Ohiopyle public park and busiest downtown area.

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We sat down by the Yack (Youghiogheny is pronounced yak-ee-o-gain-ee, or yak-uh-gain-ee and Yack for short) to eat our lunch in the town park, near the waterfall. Then we wandered around a bit and found ourselves at the Visitor Center, which has lots of great interactive displays for adults and children alike. I got lots of ideas for Blue Ridge Heritage’s Cultural Education Center (an effort I’ve been involved with for nearly 15 years now).

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After wandering through the town, which is not much more than a few restaurants, ice cream places, and bicycle/water sport outfitters, we headed back up the GAP to our connector trail and thence to the campground. While Ohiopyle (the town) was not nearly so frantically populated as when we drove in yesterday, there were nevertheless tons of folks about, taking in the sights, renting bikes for the trail, hiking, picnicking, or just taking photos.

Our campground, so filled with folks yesterday, is nearly empty today. We took advantage of the user deficit to take showers, and we got that long-delayed (it just got too late yesterday for us to start one) fire started at about 4PM.

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This entire region is one we definitely need to spend a few weeks exploring. We picked up a booklet to help us plan, and I hope this will be something we do next year. Jack figures that, if we park Roomba more-or-less where it is now, we could take a ride to one end of the GAP carrying our gear for an overnight near Pittsburgh; next day ride back to Roomba for another sleep and a re-provisioning for the third day; a ride to the opposite end of the GAP, with tents, etc., and then return to Roomba again.

The hiking trails that are offshoots of the State Park here are intriguing to say the least. One we passed today that really piques our interest is called The Gorge Trail. Another is the Ferncliff Peninsula, formed in an elbow of the Yack below the Ohiopyle falls. I’d like to hike more of the trails next time we visit.

Here’s a little bit of history for those interested.

The combination of tumbling, falling water and plentiful forests led to the creation of Falls City in 1868. Water power ran the saw and grist mills as well as factories that tanned leather, made spokes for wagon wheels, barrels, chairs, and pulp for paper.

After Falls City became Ohiopyle in 1891, the Youghiogheny River drove turbines that supplied citizens with electricity.

The railroad first came to the town in 1871, connecting Falls City products to marketplaces elsewhere. But soon, passenger trails from Cumberland and Pittsburgh brought thousands of tourists to see the falls. The Ferncliff Hotel, Ohiopyle House, and Ranier Park offered forest trails, music & dancing, bowling, and even a carousel.

For some, the Ferncliff Peninsula, a “thumb” of land carved by a relatively sharp “U” in the Yack, was a summer destination looked forward to all year long (in the mid-to-late 1800s). Walkways, painted fences, flowerbeds, and an ornate gazebo greeted travelers as they stepped down from the passenger car pulled by the B&O Railroad, as it pulled into the Ferncliff depot. The forests and falls, fine food, and electrified guest rooms in the Ferncliff Hotel, music & dancing, fountains and venues for sports all combined to create an enchanting resort and escape from the city heat. At the peak of its popularity, Ferncliff charmed 10,000 – 20,000 sumer visitors into buying a $1 ticket for the 65-70 mile trip from Pittsburgh or Cumberland, MD to the beauties of Ferncliff.

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In addition to the Ferncliff Hotel that stood on the peninsula, the Ohiopyle house was heated for year-round use. Near the hotel in Ranier Park, a steam calliope filled the river valley with music as children and adults alike rode the carousel for a nickel.