Salisbury Viaduct

somerset | Meyersdale, PA Mile 33.7

The Nuts & Bolts: Salisbury Viaduct

  • 1,908 feet long, 101 feet tall, steel trestle viaduct.
  • Original Construction: completed in 1912
  • Rebuilt for GAP Use: Fall of 1998
  • Total Cost: $1,324,500.00
  • Engineer: Killam Associates/Hatch Mott McDonald
  • Contractor: JD Eckhart
  • Project Manager: Lincoln “Linc” Van Sickel

One of the most iconic structures located along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), the Salisbury Viaduct offers trail users scenic views of the surrounding Meyersdale, Pennsylvania countryside. Soaring high above the ground at 101 feet, the Viaduct was built off of the old Western Maryland Railway structure that was abandoned in 1975 and acquired by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) that same year.[1] For decades, the Salisbury Viaduct was considered for rehabilitation for trail use, first by the WPC in the late 1970s, then by Somerset County in the 1990s. However, the actual steps taken to solidify rehabilitation (let alone see the Viaduct as a valuable asset from a state perspective) was a struggle left to be resolved by dedicated trailbuilders and the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA).

The Salisbury Viaduct was constructed in the 1910s for their Connellsville extension and developed as a viaduct due to the rails crossing over the Casselman River far below. The Western Maryland Railway built the 1,908-foot long structure which towered over the surrounding Meyersdale, Pennsylvania countryside and B&O Railroad.[2] The gorgeous views around the Viaduct that are enjoyed by many trail users each year has a tragic past. During the original construction, on July 10, 1911, an electric crane began to raise a 14.5 ton girder off the ground by only a few feet before the girder dropped a few feet then jerked upward.[3] This malfunction caused the arm of the crane to swing wide, causing the crane to lean right and plummet into the valley below.[4] Five men were killed instantly and two others were seriously injured, one perishing to his wounds later that evening.[5] Only a month later, another fatal accident occurred when a worker fell off the Viaduct after he lost his balance when a girder he was prying slipped and fell 64 feet to his death.[6] Despite these tragedies the Western Maryland Railway completed the Salisbury Viaduct in 1912, but at the cost of human lives.[7]

When the Western Maryland Railway was considering abandonment in 1973 (and the WPC was thinking about acquiring the right of way), the Salisbury Viaduct became a structure of concern for the WPC. Under the Pennsylvania Water Obstructions Act, the state government could demand that WPC remove the Viaduct if the structure stayed unused, footing the WPC with the bill for its demolition.[8] In July of 1975 a structure assessment was made to evaluate the practicality of using the Viaduct, which was highly advised for the “aesthetic impact” and continuation of the level rail grade.[9] The WPC would eventually decline to buy the right-of-way through Somerset County in 1989, as the WPC was more concerned with developing property closer to Ohiopyle and came to the conclusion that the liability associated with the structures in Somerset were too great.[10] Tony Suppa, speaking on behalf of John Oliver and the WPC was quoted saying, “Unfortunately, the WPC is not in a position [to take responsibility] to any sections of the right-of-way from Confluence to the Pennsylvania state line. The financial and liability exposure for the right-of-way to the WPC is well beyond our capabilities.”[11] The WPC would assist in a “technical capacity” in helping Somerset County purchase the property between Confluence and the Mason-Dixon Line.[12] When Somerset County sought to buy the Western Maryland right-of-way within their county, some commissioners shared the same hesitancy about purchasing the railroad structures (including the Salisbury and Keystone Viaducts) that the WPC felt two decades prior, because of liability issues. Dave Mankamyer, one of the three Somerset County commissioners involved in purchasing the right-of-way, saw promise in keeping the structures intact and negotiated with CSX to eventually buy the Viaduct.[13] Mankamyer recalls the marching orders he was given about what to purchase from CSX before traveling to CSX headquarters in Jacksonville, FL to discuss acquisition terms:

“[O]ne of the commissioners told me when we got down [to CSX headquarters], […] ‘You buy the land up to the viaduct, don’t buy that viaduct. Cost way too much money to clean it up and get it back and use it for a trail and the liability. It’s 100 feet in the air people would go off,’ and what have you. And we got down there and Kim [Gibson, Somerset Co. Solicitor] said, ‘What do we do?’ I said, ‘What can we do? We’re going to buy it. Let’s take an option on it.’ He didn’t say to take no option. He just said don’t buy it. So, we asked [CSX] if we could have an option to buy the viaduct and that gave us time then to study how much it was going to cost to rehabilitate it, to build safely, and acquire the money for that. And it worked out.”[14]

The property up until the Mason-Dixon line was purchased from CSX by Somerset County in September of 1992.[15] While Salisbury Viaduct was not in the initial purchase of the right-of-way, the total right-of-way that Somerset County did purchase cost $355,000 dollars. [16]

With the Salisbury Viaduct under Somerset County ownership, the next task was to obtain funds to redeck and refurbish it for trail use. The project manager tasked with tackling the Viaduct project was Lincoln “Linc” Van Sickel, who joined the Somerset County Rails to Trails Association (SCRTA) in 1992. Dave Mankamyer set goals for him when he came onto the SCRTA board:

“So, what [SCRTA] wanted to do was to get me to come on board on a temporary part-time basis to ramrod spend this $1,250,000 and what they really wanted to do was to do the Salisbury Viaduct. The one that goes from Meyersdale – the big one. And, [Mankamyer] felt that if we got that done – if we could connect Meyersdale with Confluence – if we could get that much done, we could call it [a] success if nothing else. We could eventually hook up with Ohiopyle, and that would make a pretty decent trail.”[17]

With clear project parameters set, Van Sickel went to work. It wasn’t long before SCRTA’s estimates of what it would cost to retrofit the Salisbury Viaduct increased as contractors sent in their bids. In an effort to pay the difference, in November of 1997 SCRTA reached out to their partner trail groups within the Allegheny Trail Alliance and secured $562,400 dollars in ISTEA funds from the Steel Heritage Trail.[18] Other notable funding sources included the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission who supervised America’s Industrial Heritage Project (AIHP) which used grants to assist in the reconstruction of the Salisbury Viaduct.[19] The engineering evaluation of the structure was done by chief engineer Sean Isken, who along with Van Sickel determined what would need to be rehabilitated:

 “So, [Sean Isken and his contractors] came up with this, and they set up a number of repairs for the upper part where some of the bracing had deteriorated by rust. We had to replace that plus put in a concrete deck which would protect the rest of that from getting too much rain down on it and so forth. So, that got [an] estimated 70-year life with that done. […] We went down and checked on the foundations of the piers and so forth. We did a pretty thorough job. And then, we went out for bids…”[20]

In addition to the rehab, Van Sickel and the contractors had to design and execute how best to retrofit the Salisbury Viaduct for trail users. Van Sickel recalls that removing the rails during construction was a nail-biting process, all of which was completed by construction contractor JD Eckhart:

“[W]e had to have a design, a design of how they’re going to put up the railing. They had to have the railings up so that the [bicyclists did] not to fall off the thing. Then, we had to take up the ties; I think the rail was still on there because nobody wanted to take it off that viaduct. One of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my life, we got the rails picked up and the ties out of there. They actually backed semi-trucks, flatbed semis backwards across that viaduct on the old railroad tracks, backed over the ties and then they picked up and loaded the ties on one at a time and the truck it kept going forward, and then after they’d get that load out, they’d back another one. I don’t know how anybody in their right mind would- and there’s no guard rail. I mean, if you go off that thing, you’re dead. […] Even standing down on the ground, looking at these guys doing it, was enough to drive you nuts. You just can’t imagine doing that stuff. Anyways, they did it.”[21]


Finally, after about a year of reconstruction and modifications, the Salisbury Viaduct was completed in the fall of 1998, with the total cost amounting to $1.32 million.[22]  After completion, the 1,908 foot long[23] landmark stood as an example of what the GAP could become – a structure that at first glance might have been dismantled and forgotten about. Instead, the Salisbury Viaduct proved that the old structures and bridges that stood dormant along the undeveloped right-of-way could be transformed into recreational resources of unlimited potential.


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Author: Reed Hertzler