Yough River Trail North

The stretch of tracks between Connellsville and McKeesport, which had ferried coal, coke, and various other industrial products through the Youghiogheny Valley, laid dormant like old bones from a once-ferocious beast. The once-thriving coal and coke industry had come and gone while leaving its mark on the land and people that lived in the area. The innovative spirit and rugged determination still held true in the hearts of the descendants of the coal and coke workers to make from the silently-rusting tracks anew. The success of a non-motorized trail in Ohiopyle State Park during the late 1980s prompted similar ideas at opportunity, to which local volunteers and county employees alike heeded the call.

In 1989 Allegheny County Planning Coordinator Larry Ridenour attended a meeting with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy founder David Burwell about converting soon-to-be abandoned rail lines to trails within Western Pennsylvania. Burwell informed the county employees in attendance that the P&LE Railroad was soon to be up for sale, and that an opportunity to build a trail on the ballast of the railroad would soon be approaching.  This call to action motivated Ridenour to get more like-minded individuals primarily through Fayette, Westmoreland, and Allegheny Counties involved. The Yough River Trail Council had already been formed in Fayette County to work with Ohiopyle State Park to extend the trail from Ohiopyle to Connellsville.

Within that same year, Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation Manager Malcolm Sias attended a meeting at the Westmoreland County Courthouse that was convened to discuss economic development in Southwestern Pennsylvania. There he met Dave Tremba, President of the Connellsville Chamber of Commerce. Tremba told the group that Larry Ridenour from Allegheny County was trying to assemble a group of people from Westmoreland, Fayette and Allegheny Counties to work on acquiring the P&LE rail corridor from McKeesport to Connellsville to convert it to a rail-trail. He encouraged Sias to contact Ridenour and get Westmoreland County involved in the project. The next day Sias called Ridenour and the three-county effort to acquire the P&LE was underway. This tri-county commitment would eventually evolve into the establishment of the Regional Trail Corporation (RTC) in 1991.

Ridenour led the negotiations with P&LE President Gordon Neuenschwander, who gave support for the rail-trail effort by selling the 43 miles of right-of-way between McKeesport and Connellsville. Cooperative partnerships within the community and with local businesses would make the development of the Yough River Trail North and the RTC ultimately successful in the three counties.

The RTC purchased 43 miles of the P&LE right-of-way on August 28, 1991 and closed on the property on January 15, 1992; RTC trailbuilders began development as soon as they could. Ridenour insisted that trail design and construction processes be taken uniform among the three counties. Ridenour explains the materials used and developmental methods applied to the Yough River Trail North which would be shared throughout the GAP as construction progressed in other trail sections:

When we made the deal with the railroad to buy that right-of-way, we didn’t want the steel. [W]e learned from another project up in Moon Township where we removed the ties that it was going to cost us $8 a piece to put them in the landfill because of the creosote. And, we made a deal with [Browning Ferris] to just take it and not charge us. So, when it came to making a deal with the P&LE I said, ‘We do not want the ties. In fact, you got to remove the ties.’ And later on, [Gordon Neuenschwander] told me that that cost him $70,000.

So, then what you had was when you went down this right-of-way. You had in some cases more ballast that you needed. We had the ballast, and then everywhere there was a railroad tie, there was a depression. Then we would do it to [grade] it and to compact it first and do that several times. And then, we were able to just lay down with an asphalt paving machine four inches of what’s called [AASHTO #10] Limestone Dust, which is limestone fines. And, that choked down into the compacted ballast and then left about an inch of the fines on the top. [Then the finer limestone was rolled] like putting icing on the cake.”[1]

Managing trail development was a rather large undertaking which required a devoted supervisor to make sure building the Yough River Trail North stayed on track. Bob McKinley was hired as Trail Manager at RTC in 1992 and juggled many responsibilities including grant writing, overseeing trail construction, and interacting with the public on behalf of the RTC and the Yough River Trail North. McKinley would work alongside Ridenour, Sias, Paulik, and other RTC volunteers to bring the trail to fruition.

The funds to build the Yough River Trail North came from a few sources at the federal, state, and private level. The American Industrial Heritage Project (AIHP), spearheaded by Congressman John Murtha, assisted in providing federal funds to Yough River Trail construction in 1991. Ridenour’s county budget allowance provided an additional $30 to $50 thousand dollars in state funds to help buy materials or equipment.[2] Teeter Associates would also be hired to make partnerships with various private foundations, raising significant dollars from private sources for the RTC, and then later for the whole GAP. [3]

An example of the utility AIHP funds provided for the Yough River Trail North was leading the trail segment from Ohiopyle State Park into Connellsville, Pennsylvania before continuing north.  Ralph Wombacker, Executive Director of the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority and Yough River Trail Council (YRTC) volunteer, alongside Dave Tremba and others motivated to bring the trail through Connellsville, utilized AIHP grant funds after being declined Connellsville’s Community Development Block Grant. To solve this problem, Wombacker and the YRTC president attended a meeting with AIHP grantors to originally obtain funding for a trail truck and lawn equipment. The result was the YRTC securing $150,000 in support of taking the trail through Connellsville. The end result was a link between 1st Street and 3rd Street, with the trail snaking past Yough River Park and on north to Adelaide, Pennsylvania. Third Street was widened to allow for an entire lane dedicated to the trail with protective concrete planters to act as a barrier to protect trail users from vehicular traffic. Also, Third Street was made a one way street with each side allowing only one direction, which could use Community Development Block Grant funds. A traffic light was also installed on Crawford Street per PennDOT requirements. These additions through Connellsville took several years to implement but were ultimately successful thanks to AIHP support and—perhaps the most vital resource—trail volunteers.[4]

Sometimes the RTC would have to get creative in how to raise money. While working on constructing the trail from Connellsville to Adelaide in 1993 (GAP mile 91), the rail property had a coal vein that had up to that point been unobtainable. With the rails removed the coal was able to be extracted. Jack Paulik describes the process and the benefit it provided for the trail in this particular area:

[T]he railroad disappeared. So, that coal now had value and it could be mined. [W]e got bids from contractors and the contractor was Piccolomini from Fayette County. They gave us a bid to mine the coal under the trail through a cut and, in payback, they agreed we were going to get a royalty for the coal. We didn’t get much money for the coal, but they agreed to build the trail section from there back to Connellsville. So, we took the deal. And, that’s how it got built. [I managed] that project. It wasn’t easy, but they removed the coal under the railroad.”[5]

Perhaps one of the most significant assets the Yough River Trail North had at its disposal was the dedication of the RTC’s volunteer trail groups. These volunteers brought forth particular skills that aided in “bridging together” the sections of the Yough River Trail North by quite literally building bridges across the various creeks and runs that cross under the trail en route to the Youghiogheny River. Ridenour explains just how the trail groups contributed through clean-ups and bridge building:

I mean, these guys came out of the woodwork. The [Westmoreland Yough] group was centered in West Newton. And, the Allegheny group [Mon-Yough] was down in [Boston, Pennsylvania.] Charlie Smith is carrying that on, and a lot of them were done by old guys, retirees. In fact, Charlie still has these shirts, ‘Over the Hill Gang.’ You had to be retired to be a part of his group. But, we would have cleanup parties like down in Westmoreland, Fayette County – every county.

[Charlie Smith’s Chain Gang] got involved – they built all the bridges. […] Because we learned from Jerry Bonde that if bridges are involved then that extended- I think of the whole Yough Trail – except for 12 miles – was built with state and local money. And, we were [advised] not to include any bridges because that would delay the project and increase it. So, what we did is the steel I-beams were still in there. There were no ties or anything like that. […] So, all we had to do was put decking, and handrails, and guard rails on the side. All by volunteers on the weekend.[6]

Volunteer assistance was vital to building the YRTN within budget, with nearly 31 miles completed for under $180,000 dollars, which was the cost for the final 12 miles.[7] This was due to the use of ISTEA funds which required certain prerequisites be met before funds could be distributed. Volunteer assistance would save thousands in prep and construction costs.[8] This devoted volunteer base continues to be active, with all of the trail groups within RTC organizing everything from events to trail maintenance.

The trail chapters – initially, there were three or four – one in each county. And, they were great and that’s why the state looks at the Regional Trail Corporation as being this very successful organization –  because it had trail chapters that were doers. These trail chapters help build this trail, they helped raise money, they built bridges, they remove debris. Then their tie into maintaining this trail is like, ‘This is ours.’ And, that’s why the section that the Regional Trail Corporation oversees from Connellsville down to McKeesport – it’s 100% a volunteer base. […] I would call in these volunteers before I would call on county people. ‘Hey, here’s a problem.’ I enjoyed working with them because their attitudes were great. So, these volunteer trail chapters were really quality…
-Jack Paulik, May 9, 2019[9]

Construction Timeline of the Yough River Trail North

Year Completed Miles Constructed Landmarks
1993 2.5 Adelaide to Dawson
1994 4.3 Cedar Creek to West Newton
1994 2.0 West Newton to Allegheny Co Line
1994 5.0 Allegheny Co Line to Buena Vista
1994 6.0 Buena Vista to Greenock
1994 2.0 Greenock to Boston
1995 0.5 Connellsville to Third Street
1995 3.0 Connellsville to Adelaide
1995 0.05 Connellsville Ramp
1995 2.14 Smithton to Cedar Creek
1997 1.3 Boston to Deadman’s Hollow
1998 13.6 Dawson to Smithton

 

View YRTN Event Photos

Author: Reed Hertzler

Endnotes

[1] Larry Ridenour (Allegheny Co. Planning, Personal interview about contributions in developing the Montour and Yough River Trail North along with the P&LE land acquisition), interviewed by Paul Wiegman, October 2006.  Transcript: “Video Interview – Larry Ridenour,” 20.

[2] Larry Ridenour Transcript: “Video Interview – Larry Ridenour,” 16.

[3] Bob Teeter; Sandra Finley (Teeter Associates, Interview about consulting made with the RTC/ATA), interviewed by Avigail Oren, Greensburg, PA, May 23rd, 2019.  Transcript: “Bob Teeter and Sandra Finley_Final,” 4-5.

[4] Paula Gruback, email correspondence to Linda M. Boxx regarding Ralph Wombacker and American Industrial Heritage Project (AIHP), July 6, 2020.

[5] Jack Paulik (Former Westmoreland County Engineer and Project Manager for “Gaps in the GAP,” personal interview on construction projects with county parks and forming RTC, PART I of interview), Interviewed by Avigail Oren, Pittsburgh, PA, May 9th, 2019, Transcript: “Jack Paulik Part I_Final_AO Edits,” 18-19.

[6] Larry Ridenour Transcript: “Video Interview – Larry Ridenour,” 17-18.

[7] Larry Ridenour Transcript: “Video Interview – Larry Ridenour,” 22-23.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jack Paulik Transcript: “Jack Paulik Part I_Final_AO Edits,” 20-21.