GAP Interpretive Signage

The Interpretative Concept Plan for the GAP


The stories the GAP tells:  George Washington’s travels, Queen Aliquippa’s camp, railroad structures, the Industrial Revolution, fossil quarries telling of pre-historical Pennsylvania, and so much more.

When the Allegheny Trail Alliance was formed in 1995, many of the stories were being told. RTC volunteer Bob Cupp was writing about the history of towns on the section from McKeesport to  Connellsville; Bill Metzger was chronicling the railroad involvement; Jim Shaulis and Tom Jones were taking school kids to the important geological sites.

The GAP, at that point, had many gaps. Less than half the trail was completed.

At the same time, surveys of trail users asking what they wanted on the trail. The three top suggestions were:          1. More toilets 2. More water 3. More information about what they were seeing.

Don Briggs, the National Park Services Superintendent of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, was working with the ATA as the GAP is part of the PHNST designation. Briggs suggested an Interpretive Concept Plan of the corridor, pulling together all the stories and more. He helped ATA secure a grant for the project.

Teeter Associates was engaged as the coordinating consultant for the project, and  (Sandra Finley) was appointed as project manager. Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the ATA, and I worked closely to define the project and implement it. The first step was forming a committee of consultants and volunteers. Bob Gangeware, editor of the Carnegie Magazine and Brendan Wiant of Bally Design, and Mapmaker Bill Metzger were the lead consultants. Volunteers included long-time trail advocates Mary Shaw and Roy Weil.

The committee hosted a visioning meeting with an open invitation to all. It was a brainstorming and information gathering meeting that was attended by over 40 people who contributed ideas to the list of interpretative sites. Over 100 —the National Register Listed village of Whitsett, Sky Ferry remnants, the Red Waterfall, Big Savage Tunnel, otters in the Yough again, Sand Castle, and so much more!

How to determine the priorities for interpretation as well as the optimal type of interpretation was next. Mary Shaw and Roy Weil developed a draft of a matrix focused on priority criteria. The committee fine-tuned the matrix and together applied it.

This matrix was presented at an ATA Board Meeting. Each trail group was asked to recruit two people from its membership to serve as reviewers and contributors.  They were to use the matrix to measure the interpretive opportunities on their section of the trail. With that feedback, the matrix was completed and circulated.

We then held a public meeting to review discuss the importance of interpretation, the work of the committee, and to ask for more ideas. There was lively discussion, as we all had our own favorite sites. Some more focused on history, others geology, and some folk tales. The engagement and good ideas flowed.

What means to use for interpreting the designated sites?  First was to develop a template of the basic wayside exhibits—signs in other works or “stories on a stick.” Linda Boxx and I became immersed in National Park Service interpretative policies and procures. What? The main copy block should have only 80-100 words?!

The NPS grant provided funding for eight signs. The committee chose the most fundamental topics—the railroads and the most impressive structures for this first phase.  The committee worked with Brendan Wiant of Bally Design on the template and with Robin Heddaeus of Pannier Graphics in Gibsonia, they were fabricated and installed.

The signs were a success and other grants followed to enable more signage. Rockwood raised funds for its sign and worked with ATA to develop it.

At the same time, the committee had high hopes for key interpretative installations that would encourage trail users to stop a while and take in more extensive information. More resources were needed.

The first installation was at the Eastern Continental Divide  followed by the; The Mason and Dixon Line ParkletMason and Dixon Line, Disputed Land-Surveying the Line, Rockwood, PA, Washington at TurkeyfootTunneling Big Savage Mountain, Salisbury Viaduct, The P&LE Railroad, Connellsville Coke, Banning No. 1, Whitsett, PA, Western Maryland Railway, The Bollman Bridge, West Newton, PA, and The Valley of Steel.

Author: Sandra Finley