Ohiopyle State Park Section

The 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage began as a nine-mile stretch in Ohiopyle State Park, a natural wonderland in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands offering all-year outdoor recreation. The park’s popular whitewater rafting trips through the scenic Youghiogheny River Gorge continually attract thousands of visitors eager for adventures. Before Ohiopyle became renowned for its water sports, rock climbing, hiking and biking, the region encompassed an early industrial town, a 19th-century tourist destination and stops along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) and the Western Maryland Railway.

After years of declining business, in June 1973 the Western Maryland Railway petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to abandon a majority of its main line, which paralleled the B&O.[1] Chessie System Inc., the holding company that owned both railroads, sought an organization that could repurpose the Western Maryland. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC), which had begun acquiring lands in the 1950s to create Ohiopyle State Park,[2] likewise imagined that this scenic corridor could be adapted for recreational use. WPC President Joshua Whetzel and Director of Land Operations John C. Oliver met with railroad executives in October 1973 to discuss the potential transfer of 61.36 miles of the line between Cumberland, Maryland and Connellsville, Pennsylvania, including the section through Ohiopyle.[3]

“We are interested in the Western Maryland abandonment because a significant portion of the line passes through Ohiopyle State Park and Pennsylvania Gamelands along the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers. It offers an exciting possibility for a 60-mile-long trail system for hiking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. The line also contains many fine potential access sites along the rivers for use by boaters and fishermen.”
– Letter from John C. Oliver to Robert Oswald, Interstate Commerce Commission Secretary, October 9, 1974.

Once the ICC finally granted the abandonment petition in February 1975,[4] Western Maryland and WPC officials could take steps toward making the trail a reality. The two entities organized a promotional ride on the Western Maryland on May 21, 1975[5] to garner political and public support for this endeavor. The trip began in Pittsburgh, picked up the Western Maryland line just south of Connellsville and continued to Hancock, Maryland. This special passenger excursion took more than 70 guests – including conservancy leaders, railroad executives, state agents, local government officials and members of the press – along the rails through the beautiful vistas of the Allegheny Mountains to show them what a recreational trail through this region could offer both natives and visitors.

“And we saw right away the advantages to this line being a trail, particularly when it ran through – right through – the heart of Ohiopyle State Park.”
– John Oliver, May 2005[6]

After several years of negotiations, plus extensive land title research by its Director of Acquisitions Anthony “Tony” Suppa, on June 9, 1978,[7] the WPC purchased 26.75 miles of the Western Maryland right-of-way for $50,000 from the Chessie System.[8] The deal was far below the seven-figure value of the land and considered a charitable gift from the railroad company, which supported this rails-to-trails concept.[9] It was also a much shorter distance than the entire line, as after careful consideration, the WPC and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided against assuming the liability of the multiple bridges, tunnels and viaducts along the railroad, at least for now.[10] This acquisition spanned Ramcat Hollow, near Confluence, to the Bowest railroad yard, in Dunbar. The conservancy transferred an initial 17 miles of the right-of-way to the commonwealth as planned, [11] selling the land to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources for $150,000 on November 15, 1978.[12]

It took nearly a decade for the first 9.4-mile leg of the future Great Allegheny Passage to open, from Ramcat Hollow to the former Western Maryland railroad station at Ohiopyle. The process to build this portion, dubbed the Youghiogheny River Trail[13] as it followed the waterway, was at times as rough as rapids.

Even before the WPC officially acquired and conveyed the railroad right-of-way to the commonwealth, Ohiopyle State Park officials were taking steps to secure and protect what then-Superintendent Larry Adams described as “no-man’s land.”[14] The local community did not immediately embrace the bike trail vision because the abandoned railbed served as an unofficial shortcut to the town of Confluence, 11 miles away. Some residents were reluctant to relinquish access to the 60-foot-wide cleared railbed that they used for camping, hunting, fishing and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trips along the river.[15] Park officials hoped that establishing a controlled, maintained trail would eliminate the resulting noise and disturbances along this peaceful passage.

“The Western Maryland contracted with contractors to salvage track and railroad ties and all of that sort of stuff. When they pulled all of that stuff out of there, they made a nice roadway, and during that time the Youghiogheny River had been rehabilitated in terms of water quality and so on. There was a pretty good wild trout fishery in that river. The railroad bed [had] excellent access to it for people and they were camping up along there and fishing and partying and riding ATVs and whatever. They were pretty thoroughly entrenched doing that. But we knew we didn’t want them to do it all along, so as soon as we could, in fact, actually before it was even officially turned over, we got the go-ahead through some sort of arrangement through the WPC and the Western Maryland to allow us to close it to traffic.”
– Larry Adams, July 11, 2003[16]

 “And when they pulled the rails, that was one thing, but then they pulled the crossties, they left the place open. A railroad isn’t like a highway. It has no roadbed other than the earth that it’s on. And this became open season for all-terrain vehicles. And they would run up and down that railroad siding and just annoy the daylights out of you, when it was this scenic pastoral location that you happen to be in, and all that racket and noise.”
– Ralph McCarty, former owner of Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters in Ohiopyle, February 2006[17]

Businesses also had mixed feelings or even complete opposition to the proposed bike trail, fearing that it would fail to boost the local economy and distract the whitewater rafters who flocked to Ohiopyle annually.[18]

Still, the trail’s supporters pressed on. Initial work began near Confluence and headed northwest toward Ohiopyle. The rail-trail idea was incorporated into a master plan for Ohiopyle State Park, developed in the early 1970s by Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks Landscape Architect Ed Deaton, which linked miles of hiking trails to the abandoned railroad corridor.[19] The trail design itself was a collaboration between Ohiopyle State Park and Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks (BSP) officials, including Deaton and Jerry Yocum.

“Jerry was also a Landscape Architect with the Bureau of Facilities Design and Construction. They served as the engineering unit for the Bureau of State Parks. Jerry completed the detailed design work and field layout of the individual components of the trail. As the Chief of the Park Planning Section in the BSP I developed the overall acquisition requirements, conceptual plans, functional layout and carrying capacity for the trail components that Jerry followed in his design work.”
– Ed Deaton, July 4, 2019[20]

Yocum also helped finance the project by allocating leftover state funding the park used to stockpile 10,000 tons of fine limestone that the Young Adult Conservation Corps (succeeded by the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps) laid along the route.[21] Adams brokered a deal with the Stewart Township board of supervisors giving the township excess railroad ballast from the railbed in exchange for trail grading and park access road improvements.[22]

The crew started building a three-mile section from Ramcat Hollow to Bidwell, one of the small industrial towns that populated the gorge.[23] Completed in 1983, those first three miles proved to be very popular and swayed public opinion toward continuing the trail to Ohiopyle.[24]

“Pretty soon, there was enough pressure to counteract the concerns of the folks at Ohiopyle that we got the go-ahead to officially build the trail from Confluence down to Ohiopyle.”
– Larry Adams, July 11, 2003[25]

“Yes, people really liked the trail. And they formed a little lobbying group and they were constantly bombarding us, ‘Well, when are you going to finish that trail?’”
– Larry Adams, August 2005[26]

On May 17, 1986, the first nine miles of what would become the Great Allegheny Passage were officially dedicated, from the Ramcat trailhead to Ohiopyle.[27] The twelve-foot-wide, nearly level grade was projected to accommodate 100,000 users annually.[28] The new hiking and biking trail not only spiked business for excursion companies like Ralph McCarty’s Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters, which offered joint rafting and biking trips, but it also increased local use of Ohiopyle State Park and opened people’s eyes to a beautiful area of Western Pennsylvania few had glimpsed before.

“I don’t know if we instituted the programming or not, but we used the bit that if you had your own equipment, your own bicycles, you could ride a bike up to Confluence and we would provide a raft for you to come back to Ohiopyle and bring your bike back. And so, we thought the bike operation at that time was a good thing. Good for you, good for me.”
– Ralph McCarty, February 2006[29]

“It’s that stretch of Ohiopyle State Park which is probably the wildest, most remote stretch from Ohiopyle up to Confluence. And, of course, the natural beauty is unsurpassed – you have the Youghiogheny River, you have some flats across the river that you look into – [you] have the gorge itself.”
– John Oliver, May 2005[30]

Ohiopyle’s new recreational trail prompted other communities along the former Western Maryland Railway to form their own trail groups over the next several decades and help build what would become one of the country’s premier hiking and biking trails, the Great Allegheny Passage.

“It was very obvious that the section of the trail that went through Ohiopyle State Park was going to get a lot of attention, a lot of use. Our hope was that someone would have the foresight to look at the whole concept of a trail from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh… We were just hoping that we got the section within the confines of Ohiopyle State Park. But it was just apparent that it had a tremendous opportunity for the use of an expanded trail. So it was an exciting day that we all realized it’s just a start – it’s just a beginning.”
– John Oliver, July 25, 2003.[31]


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Author: Jennifer Sopko


[1] “Notice: The Western Maryland Railway Company (WM) and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in Pennsylvania (collectively referred to as the B&O) hereby give notice that on the 11th day of June, 1973, they filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission at Washington, D.C., an application under Section 5(s) of the Interstate Commerce Act for an order approving and authorizing the acquisition of trackage rights by WM over the line of railroad of B&O, which application was assigned Finance Docket No. 27406… At the present time WM has a parallel line of railroad which it seeks to abandon in Docket No. AB-69 (Sub 1).” – Federal Register, Vol. 38, No. 123. Wednesday, June 27, 1973. Pages 16951-16952. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-1973-06-27/pdf/FR-1973-06-27.pdf. Also, “Western Maryland Railways Company hereby gives notice that on the 11th day of June 1973, it filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission at Washington, D.C., an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity permitting abandonment of certain portions of its line of railroad… a total distance of approximately 124.75 miles, all in Allegany and Washington Counties, Maryland, Fayette and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania, and Morgan and Mineral Counties, West Virginia.”

[2] The first piece of land that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy acquired for what would become Ohiopyle State Park was Ferncliff Park and the Ohiopyle House on November 5, 1951. By the time Ohiopyle State Park was dedicated on May 31, 1971 it had grown to 18,719 acres. M. Graham Netting. 50 Years of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy: The Early Years. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. 1982.

[3] Chessie System officials met with Josh Whetzel and John Oliver of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy on October 2, 1973 in Baltimore, Maryland. The parties agreed to several points concerning the potential Western Maryland Railway right-of-way sale. – Letter from Richard B. Allen, General Attorney, Chessie System to Joshua C. Whetzel, Jr., President, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, October 3, 1973.

[4] The initial decision granting the Western Maryland Railway abandonment order, Docket No. AB-69 (Sub-No. 1) was issued by Administrative Law Judge William G. Spruill on February 14, 1975 and served to all parties involved on February 19, 1975. A copy of the decision is included in a letter from Richard Allen, General Attorney, Chessie System to John C. Oliver, III, Director of Land Operations, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, February 20, 1975.

[5] Chessie System News Release, May 20, 1975. “60 Mile Recreational Trail Planned For Abandoned Railroad Right-of-Way,” Western Pennsylvania Conservancy News Release, May 21, 1975.

[6] Paul g. Wiegman interview with John C. Oliver, III, May 2005.

[7] Fayette County Recorder of Deeds, Deed Book Vol. 1238, Pages 68-73. https://pa.uslandrecords.com/palr2/PalrApp/index.jsp. Letter from George. C. Totty, Director, Real Estate and Industrial Development, Chessie System to John C. Oliver, III, President, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, June 20, 1978 also references the executed deed and the executed Agreement to Convey Real Estate dated June 9, 1978.

[8] “The Chairman called on the President who reported with pleasure that the Conservancy is now able to purchase 25 miles of the right-of-way for $50,000 on a bargain sale basis. All but two sections will be in fee (Curry and Cooper-Sinclair and another smaller stretch reverts to the Department of Environmental Resources.” Mr. Oliver stated the Department of Environmental Resources anticipates using only the length from Bruner Run east to Ramcat Run, a distance of approximately 15 miles. The Conservancy will retain 6 miles of the right-of-way from Bruner Run west to Dunbar, part of which will continue to be used by the railway. This part, designated as Parcel 1, will be under agreement for conveyance to the Conservancy when Western Maryland is through using it” –  Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Board of Directors of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy held Saturday, May 13, 1978, Bear Run Nature Reserve, Mill Run, Pa. Also, the Western Maryland Railway Company Board of Directors approved a donation of approximately 60 miles of abandoned right-of-way segments between Connellsville, Pennsylvania and Frostburg, Maryland to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy on July 8, 1975. Letter from Richard Allen, General Attorney, Chessie System to Joshua C. Whetzel, Jr., President, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, July 11, 1975.

[9] “Resolved: That the officers be authorized to purchase from the Western Maryland Railway Company that property in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, being its former right-of-way extending from Bowest to Confluence, approximately 25 miles and containing approximately 307 acres, upon the following terms…G. The Conservancy will pay $50,000 as a nominal value, mainly to cover costs of the Western Maryland Railway Company is making a gift of its abandoned railroad right-of-way.” –  Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Board of Directors of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy held Saturday, May 13, 1978, Bear Run Nature Reserve, Mill Run, Pa. The fair market appraised value of the property was $1,630,000. – Wyndle Watson, “New Trail Ties Paths at Yough.” Pittsburgh Press, November 19, 1978.

[10] Citing complications with the Western Maryland Railway retaining some right-of-way mileage in both Pennsylvania and Maryland, tunnel concerns and some bad title, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reduced the length of right-of-way it was interested in pursuing. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy was also concerned about the potential financial ramifications if the Department of Environmental Resources would require the conservancy to remove the bridges and viaducts and block the tunnels along the right-of-way. “When it was first announced the conservancy was negotiating for the abandoned right-of-way in 1974, a 64-mile segment along the Youghiogheny was envisioned. But the maintenance, restoration and legal responsibility of some 20 bridges, viaducts and tunnels along that stretch was prohibitive and plans had to be cut back, [John] Oliver said.” – Wyndle Watson. “Conservancy To Open Hike-Bike Path.” The Pittsburgh Press. November 12, 1978. “A complete review of the lands which will be made available under the Western Maryland Railroad Abandonment indicates that the only area that we are interested in obtaining is the section between Confluence and Connellsville…” – Letter from Maurice K. Goddard, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources to Joshua Whetzel, President, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, September 5, 1975. “However, beginning at Confluence and running east there are a number of serious problems which seem insurmountable at this time. Three sections of the right-of-way will be retained; 4 miles at Rockwood, 5 miles at Meyersdale, and approximately 3 miles from the Pennsylvania line to Frostburg, Maryland. These interrupt the continuity of a trail and furthermore there appears to be no good alternative route around any of the three sections. In addition, there are a number of major bridges, two viaducts and three tunnels in this section all with associated major costs of demolition or maintenance. Faced with these facts the Department [of Environmental Resources] has stated to use that it is unable to commit itself to trail development of railway east from Confluence tat this time.” – Letter from J.C. Whetzel, Jr., President, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to Richard B. Allen, General Attorney, Chessie System, September 17, 1975. “WPC maintains strong interest in WM Right-of-Way from Bowest (MP 253) to west bank of Youghiogheny River near Conference. DER confirms non-interest at this time in eastern section (Confluence to Pa/Md. Line) for three essential reasons: A. Inability to maintain bridge and viaduct structures; B. Concern over tunnel maintenance and safety; C. Continuity of track broken with reservation of three sections (which total 12 miles); D. Several areas of bad title between Confluence and Rockwood.” – Status Report on Western Maryland R.R. Since 2/11/76 (Date of Last Report), May 14, 1976. See also Summary of Yough River Gorge Trail Project (WM Abandonment), January 6, 1976 and Summary of Yough River Gorge Trail Project (WM Abandonment) For National Park Service, February 11, 1976.

[11] “As you are aware, it will be our intention to convey the railway to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources for development as a trail because it is the agency best equipped to create and manage a trail system. The Conservancy in this instance will serve as an intermediate to hold the property until it is convenient for the Department to accept it.”- Letter from J.C. Whetzel, Jr., President, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to Richard B. Allen, General Attorney, Chessie System, September 17, 1975.

[12] Fayette County Recorder of Deeds, Deed Book Vol. 1246, Pages 109-112. https://pa.uslandrecords.com/palr2/PalrApp/index.jsp

[13] An earlier name for the trail appears to have been the River Gorge Trail, according to a May 21, 1975 Western Pennsylvania Conservancy news release, newspaper articles and issues of Conserve, a publication of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The trail is also mentioned as the Yough River Gorge Trail in various memos.

[14] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005.

[15] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005. Amber Lilly interview with Larry Adams. July 11, 2003.

[16] Amber Lilly interview with Larry Adams. July 11, 2003.

[17] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Ralph McCarty. February 2006.

[18] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005. Amber Lilly interview with Larry Adams. July 11, 2003.

[19] Avigail Oren interview with Ed Deaton and Larry Williamson. April 12, 2019.

[20] Ed Deaton email to Jennifer Sopko. July 4, 2019.

[21] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005.

[22] Amber Lilly interview with Larry Adams. July 11, 2003.

[23] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005.

[24] Amber Lilly interview with Larry Adams. July 11, 2003.

[25] Amber Lilly interview with Larry Adams. July 11, 2003.

[26]  Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005.

[27] “Bike trail dedication.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 13, 1986. “The trail was completed by the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps under the supervision of the Department of Environmental Resources, Bureau of State Parks. The project was completed at a cost of $98,194. Twenty-two people assisted with the completion of the trail.” – Bobbie Black. “Bicycle trail winds along Yough River.” Daily American (Somerset, PA). May 31, 1986.

[28] Bobbie Black. “Bicycle trail winds along Yough River.” Daily American (Somerset, PA). May 31, 1986.

[29] Paul g. Wiegman interview with Ralph McCarty. February 2006.

[30] Paul g. Wiegman interview with John C. Oliver, III. May 2005.

[31] Amber Lilly interview with John Oliver. July 25, 2003.