Ohiopyle High and Low Bridges
fayette | Ohiopyle, PA Mile 72.5
“There’s one other factor that was pretty important – and that’s aesthetically. [The Ohiopyle Low Bridge] was considered a huge eyesore in one of the most beautiful parks in the state. We wanted to make it not be viewed so much as an eyesore. When it became a useable bridge for park purposes, it wasn’t considered an eyesore anymore.
– Larry Adams, May 29, 2021.
Structures continually challenged each of the nonprofit organizations building the individual trail segments that eventually formed the Great Allegheny Passage. In Ohiopyle State Park, park staff had to contend with two 1912 Western Maryland Railway bridges across the Youghiogheny River that were abandoned when the railroad closed in 1975 – a mere 1,500 feet from each other.
Today’s Ohiopyle High Bridge – named for its towering height over the rapids below – provides stunning views of the Youghiogheny River Gorge and Ferncliff Peninsula. The Ohiopyle Low Bridge leads from the peninsula to the borough and the businesses and restaurants that support the local tourist economy, crossing over the river and Pennsylvania Route 381. The bridges were included in the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s (WPC) 1978 purchase of 26.75 miles of the Western Maryland Railway right-of-way between Connellsville and Confluence (and the initial 17 miles of that acquisition transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania).
The two bridges were included in the master plan for Ohiopyle State Park developed in the early 1970s, but it took time to determine if rehabilitating and reusing either of the structures for the budding hiking and biking trail would actually be feasible. That task fell to landscape architect Ed Deaton, who was previously responsible for drafting the master plan under the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) Bureau of State Parks (later the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources). Under the park planning department, Deaton’s role was to flesh out each potential scenario for the two bridges and determine what needed to happen to make each vision a reality.
The Ohiopyle High Bridge
When the WPC transferred the initial section of Western Maryland Railway right-of-way to the Commonwealth in 1978, the intent was to repurpose the Ohiopyle (Ferncliff) High Bridge for the future trail. In the mid-1980s, the first nine miles of the Youghiogheny River Trail between Confluence and Ohiopyle – the inaugural segment of the future interconnected “Great Allegheny Passage” – were under construction and, when fully open to traffic in 1986, would attract increasing numbers of visitors.
“With regard to the two bridges, I always played the ‘What if?’ game. What if this were to happen, what do we need, what can we do, what are the alternatives, what if this doesn’t work, what’s Plan B? And that’s the role that I played in the whole scheme of the bridges. One given we had was the High Bridge would be there. We were going to use it for something. And trying to determine was it going to be – obviously, we were going to use it for the trail. We did not know at that time how far the trail was going to go. We knew that it would be used. We didn’t even know how fully bicycling on this type of trail was going to develop, not only at Ohiopyle but nationwide – it was this whole rail-trail thing and people using bicycles to just recreate on a rail grade was kind of a crap shoot, if you will.” – Ed Deaton, June 2, 2021.
Ohiopyle State Park superintendent Larry Adams and his maintenance team were responsible for the rehabilitation of the Ohiopyle High Bridge, which had been informally used by hikers, campers, boaters and even rappelers since the Western Maryland Railway disbanded. The unauthorized use became a hazard, given the trestle had no railings or decking, just a small access walkway with questionable safety.
“That High Bridge was another nightmare for the park manager because all the people in the campground were just right up over the hill from there. They had all these people wanting to go down the gorge, and they were going across that old railroad bridge. We put barriers on it, but those barriers – most of them – floated down the river in a day. There was nothing you could do. You could not stop people from going across that bridge all the time.” – Larry Adams, August 2005.
Park officials wanted to use the Ohiopyle High Bridge for emergency vehicle access to the river to retrieve injured whitewater rafters and kayakers, plus incorporate it into the trail system. Opening the bridge would also give Kentuck Campground users foot access from the backwoods into town where they could view the waterfalls or enjoy an ice cream cone.
The design and construction work for the Ohiopyle High Bridge was all done in-house. The crew involved in the project included full-time and seasonal maintenance employees at Ohiopyle State Park: maintenance supervisor Frank Miller, welder Ted Petko, future maintenance supervisor Bucky Wallace, and carpenter Blainey Sproul.
“You would think, ‘Oh, engineers would have to design that.’ Yeah, well, my maintenance supervisor and I designed it. We built it in 20-foot segments because that’s what the size of steel came in. We built a couple of modules, so to speak, and put them on there. I contacted Harrisburg and I said, ‘Hey, this thing is too big a project for us to just do this by ourselves. Send an engineer out there and have them tell us whether what we’re doing is going to be safe and meet the needs of what we are.’ And he came out and took a look at it and said, ‘Hey, it looks great, finish it up.’”
– Larry Adams, August 2005.
The Ohiopyle High Bridge was completed in one season, Adams recalled. Between spring and fall 1989, the team began decking the 663-foot-long span section by section. The project retained the bridge’s basic structure, including the piers and ties, but incorporated a new deck that was strong and wide enough to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians. The crew also removed the tiny walkway, which was unsafe for general public use. The bridge also had protective fencing designed with younger trail users in mind – the railing had lower, narrow slots so that children could see the Youghiogheny River Gorge without having their parents hoist them up over the bar.
“We would build it in 20-foot sections at the beginning, drag them out onto the trestle itself and fastest them down. There was a lot of steel involved for support, especially on the sides to make sure the fences were strong enough so if people banged into them, they didn’t let go and let them go down for a pretty bad crash landing. That’s a long way down to the water under that bridge, it’s pretty shallow and pretty rocky anyways, so you’re not going to do well if you go down there.”
– Larry Adams, May 29, 2021.
The Ohiopyle High Bridge was a bargain, compared to other bridges tackled along the Great Allegheny Passage, between the relatively limited construction needed, plus the fact that the work was done by state park employees. Completing the project in-house probably saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Adams, who estimated the materials only cost around $72,000. The funding primarily came from a state maintenance program fund, rather than a foundation, state or federal grant.
“It was a combination of a couple of our regular year-round maintenance guys and a couple guys that had worked for us seasonally for quite a while. They did a great job, really, I mean, considering the scope of it and what all these other bridges that had been built on the trail by contractors. When you look at the cost factor, man, it’s not even similar.” – Larry Adams, May 29, 2021.
The Ohiopyle Low Bridge
After the Ohiopyle High Bridge opened for use in 1989, attention turned toward how to address the second defunct Western Maryland Railway bridge in Ohiopyle State Park. It was a problem that needed to be solved for multiple reasons. The abutments were considered eyesores, given the bridge was built as a functional railroad trestle. It was also a bridge to nowhere, as a section was removed in 1975 after the Western Maryland abandonment. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) concurrently built a new highway bridge that summer after it had upgraded Pennsylvania Route 381 through the borough of Ohiopyle in 1967, as part of the park’s falls area development. The new bridge was higher than the old bridge and required that a section of the low bridge be removed. With only a partial bridge over the river, pedestrians and bicyclists were forced to leave the trail and merge with automobile traffic on Route 381 to cross the Youghiogheny.
“It caused so much trouble with the highway because people were riding their bikes on the road there all the time. That’s a pretty busy highway actually… There wasn’t much parking, most of the parking was on the town side of the river there but people wanted to go over to Ferncliff and over that way. So, there was an awful lot of foot traffic, an awful lot of bike traffic, and even boaters that ran around. Boaters would put in at the launch area there on the town side of the river, and they’d go around the Ferncliff loop and then they’d take out and it was a relatively short walk back to the launch area, you could run the loop over and over, if you wanted to. Kayaks are light, they’re easy to carry, so you’d see people walking across the bridge down the road, and all over and just being sort of traffic hazards on the highway there.”
– Larry Adams, June 29, 2021
While the renovation of the Ohiopyle High Bridge was relatively straight-forward, the Ohiopyle Low Bridge was a more complicated project. Alternative options for restoring, replacing or removing the low bridge presented environmental and financial challenges. According to then Ohiopyle State Park Superintendent Dough Hoehn, who took over for Larry Adams in 1989, there were potential risks to rare plant habitats at Ohiopyle if the bridge were to be removed. Funding was a major issue too, because Project 70 and Project 500 monies used to acquire land for and develop new state parks in Pennsylvania had been depleted by that time.
The bridge was originally intended to be removed, although fortunately that plan failed. It would cost $155,000 for a salvager to remove the bridge and concrete piers – more than the value of the steel itself – plus require a permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection because the bridge was near the Youghiogheny River’s whitewater and waterfalls. In 1982, the DER tried to sell the bridge for one dollar to anyone willing to remove it. Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Motion Picture and Television Development advertised the bridge for “total graphic destruction in a future film or television project” in trade publications and The Wall Street Journal, hoping that Hollywood might need a bridge to stage a train wreck or explosion. Although the ad attracted Japanese film industry representatives who came to see the bridge, there were no takers.
Over time, as trail use increased, more sections were built in and around Ohiopyle, and the Allegheny Trail Alliance formed to spearhead the eventual Great Allegheny Passage, it became necessary to provide hikers and bikers a safer passage across the upper Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle by renovating the Low Bridge.
It took seven years for the Ohiopyle Low Bridge to be completed, from the time it was advertised for bid in 1992. The project involved installing a new dedicated rail-trail bridge on the old railroad abutments – construction of which would cost $1,230,000. The bridge had to comply with PennDOT requirements for construction materials and minimum clearance, as it would now pass over Route 381. Because the new superstructure needed to be raised on the piers, a long ramp from the bridge to the visitors’ center at the Ohiopyle train station also had to be incorporated to create a smooth transition.
“In the meetings with PennDOT, they were requiring several things. Obviously, we were looking for that bridge to have pedestrian walkways to get people safely across the river and so forth, but PennDOT wanted a 16-foot clearance underneath that bridge, which is more than they use on the Turnpike. Furthermore, they wanted the first span to be the COR-TEN steel, which is the steel that forms a rust that becomes a barrier because of salt spray from coal trucks.”
– Ed Deaton, June 2, 2021.
Work began on the design for the new Ohiopyle Low Bridge in 1997, led by the late George Schodowski, a structural engineer at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resource’s Bureau of Facilities. As Schodowski and Deaton worked for sister bureaus, the two collaborated on the project, with the goal of creating a bridge that would be functional, safe, attractive, and non-obtrusive to pedestrians and bicyclists observing the scenery as they crossed the Youghiogheny.
“George worked about 50 feet from where I worked, so we had conversations. We would consult back and forth about it and George was quite interested in developing a bridge that was very functional for the trail. In addition to getting that ramp set properly to approach the bridge as you were headed down river from the train station, we worked with George on developing the railing system, the fencing system, on each side of that bridge. First of all, to not be obstructive of all the views park visitors would benefit from by being able to walk out on it, look at the river. The second part of that railing system was to ensure that it does not become an obstruction for bicyclists… So, we worked with George quite a lot. And he was a very astute listener. He would take any suggestion and detail it to the max. And I think he came up with a superb design for the railing and fencing.”
– Ed Deaton, June 2, 2021.
The resulting 620-foot, seven-span bridge incorporated prefabricated weathered steel bow-string trusses and a new wooden walking deck on the original 1912 concrete abutments. Although Deaton primarily served as a project advisor on the Ohiopyle Low Bridge, he also saw an opportunity to improve the aesthetics of the new structure and offered his own suggestion for part of Schodowski’s design.
“Our bridge engineer brought his plans for the rehabilitation to us for review. And it was nothing but steel girders standing up tall and they were square beams with crosses on them. And it was not attractive. So, I took his plan and started sketching these arced webbings that are in the stanchions for that particular bridge… And we presented it back to the bridge engineer, Schodowski, and it would actually help the bridge structurally and, in my eyes, it really made it look a lot nicer.”
– Ed Deaton, April 12, 2019.
Although he was initially in favor of keeping the old bridge and retrofitting it like the High Bridge, Hoehn later realized that what the trail may have lost historically was made up by the aesthetic benefits of the new design:
“I do think that the right decision was made in the end because what this bridge did that the old bridge didn’t is open up the vista. When you’re coming into town from the north, coming south on 381 you can see under the bridge, you see much more of the river and the river landscape. The old bridge has such high girders it blocked a lot of that.”
– Doug Hoehn, October 2007.
The final design was completed in December 1997, construction began in July 1999 and the new Ohiopyle Low Bridge was finally dedicated on October 29, 1999, adding another missing link to the Great Allegheny Passage. DCNR secretary John Oliver, who was instrumental in the Commonwealth acquiring the railroad right-of-way in 1978, presided over the ribbon-cutting event, which opened yet another trail section in Ohiopyle State Park. Less than a year later, the Ohiopyle Low Bridge won a national Merit Award from the U.S. Department of Transportation – the only Pennsylvania project to receive that honor during the Design for Transportation National Awards ceremony in 2000.
Continuing the GAP
Rehabilitating the Ohiopyle High Bridge and rebuilding the Ohiopyle Low Bridge not only filled in gaps in the Great Allegheny Passage, but also improved public safety at Ohiopyle, both the borough and the state park. The pair of bridges gave visitors better and safer access to Ferncliff Peninsula and the Great Gorge Trail and allowed boaters and campers an equally useful way to reach town on foot.
- Avigail Oren interview with Ed Deaton and Larry Williamson. April 12, 2019
- Jennifer Sopko telephone interview with Ed Deaton. June 2, 2021
- Jennifer Sopko telephone interview with Larry Adams. May 29, 2021
- Paul g. Wiegman interview with Larry Adams. August 2005
- Paul g. Wiegman interview with Doug Hoehn. October 2007.
- “DCNR rail-trail bridge wins national award for design.” The Daily American (Somerset, PA). July 5, 2000.
- “New Trail Treasure Opens at Ohiopyle.” Trail News. Allegheny Trail Alliance. Winter. 2000.