Great Allegheny Passage follows 132-mile rail-trail through mountain scenery

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DEAL, Pa. -- The Great Allegheny Passage is a big rail-trail that stretches 132 miles from Cumberland, Md., to near Pittsburgh.

It is also part of a bigger, 316-mile trail link from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh.

But the biggest attraction along the route just might be an old railroad tunnel: the imposing Big Savage Tunnel.

The 3,294-foot tunnel cuts through Big Savage Mountain near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border just east of the hamlet of Deal in Pennsylvania's Somerset County.

Pennsylvania provided nearly $13 million to refurbish the old tunnel, built in 1911-12 for the Western Maryland Railway and used for decades to haul coal.

The tunnel, last used by the railroad in 1975, had largely collapsed from two decades of cave-ins. Water gushed from both ends.

Work started in 2002 and included installing an aggressive drainage system to minimize the damaging impact of freeze and thaw, bolting the existing liner to rock and installing a new tunnel liner.

More than 7,000 anchors were sunk in the walls and floor for stability. Grouting was pumped into voids between the tunnel liner and rock.

Shotcrete -- a mixture of sand, cement, steel fibers, air and water -- was added to the walls over the original liner to retain the tunnel's historic profile. That required installation of a 4-foot-high, 4-inch wide wall on both sides of the tunnel to support the shotcrete.

The new drainage system raised the floor two feet. Both tunnel portals or entrances were replaced. Insulation was added to the 100 feet of tunnel at both ends to minimize winter damage.

Metal doors -- closed and locked during the winter to protect the tunnel -- were installed at each end of the tunnel, which is nine football fields long.

Overhead lights were added every 100 feet. There's enough light to see oncoming bicyclists, but just barely.

The work was paid for with federal and state funds, grants from private foundations and donations from individuals.

The work was completed in September 2003, but the tunnel didn't officially open until May 2006. Its opening was delayed until connecting trails, including nine miles in Maryland, were done.

The chill inside the tunnel is surprising. I knew it would be cooler, but it was probably 10 degrees colder than I had expected. It was put-on-a-windbreaker cold on a warm day in May.

"It's like a cave. It's always cold," said Linda McKenna Boxx, a spokeswoman for the Allegheny Trail Alliance that pushed to create the Great Allegheny Passage.

There are benches outside the southern portal, with great views of the tree-covered ridges of the Allegheny Mountains.

It is just a short distance from the tunnel south to the Mason-Dixon Line that separates Pennsylvania and Maryland. Big signs are posted.

The Big Savage Tunnel is a very impressive structure. You can watch a video on the tunnel restoration at the Web site for the trail alliance, the coalition of seven groups that pushed the creation of the 132-mile Great Allegheny Passage. It is at www.atatrail.org.

Without the tunnel, the passage would have needed a 17-mile one-way detour along local roads. The connection would not have been the same; Big Savage Tunnel was key, Boxx said.

The Great Allegheny Passage, in the works for 30 years, was officially completed to Cumberland, Md., in late 2006.

The trail really does go through the mountains, not over them, as trail supporters contend.

It follows the Youghiogheny and Casselman rivers and the abandoned rights of way of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie and the Western Maryland Railway.

The 10-foot-wide trail of packed stone goes past coke ovens, iron furnaces, coal mines and even a steel mill. It passes a state park and a paddling mecca. It goes through towns like McKeesport, Connellsville, Ohiopyle, Confluence and Rockwood.

There is a lot of local history and color in trail towns along the Great Allegheny Passage.

It is a recreational trail but it brings economic promise. Little towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland are learning to cater to money-spending bicyclists and hikers.

It's a wild and green countryside, with long-distance vistas of the Allegheny Mountains and ridges.

To me, one of the most appealing sections of the Great Allegheny Passage lies around the Big Savage Tunnel and extends west to Meyersdale, Pa., and south to Frostburg, Md.

The tunnel is not at the highest point on the rail trail but it is close -- within 1.5 miles.

You will cross the continental divide that separates water flowing to the Atlantic Ocean from water flowing to the Gulf of Mexico outside Deal. At that point, you are at the highest elevation along the trail: 2,375 feet.

There are two high-level viaducts near Meyersdale: the 1,908-foot-long Salisbury Viaduct, which is 101 feet high; and the 909-foot-long Keystone Viaduct.

There are giant wind turbines on ridges near Meyersdale. There is also a historic truss bridge from 1871.

There is a second tunnel, the 957-foot-long Borden Tunnel near Frostburg. It is not lighted, so bicyclists need to walk their bikes through the blackness. Brush Tunnel, also unlighted, connects Frostburg and Cumberland. Trail users and the railroad share that tunnel.

It is six miles from Meyersdale to Deal. From Deal with its trailhead (the closest trail access to the Big Savage Tunnel), it is two miles to the tunnel.

From the tunnel, it is nearly six miles to Frostburg and another 16 miles to Cumberland.

The grade along the trail through the mountains is gentle, largely because the old trains couldn't handle steep grades, the alliance says.

The eastbound grade from Pittsburgh to the continental divide near Deal averages 0.25 percent over 126 miles. That is equal to one stair step over nearly the length of a football field, the alliance says.

The steepest eastbound grade is over the last 10 miles from Meyersdale to the divide at Deal. That averages 0.65 percent, the alliance says.

The eastbound grade is steeper. In the 24 miles from Cumberland to the divide, the grade averages an ascent of 1.44 percent, the trail group says. That's equal to one stair step every 45 feet.

The steepest section is between Cumberland and Frostburg and rises 1.5 percent over those miles.

No matter what the trail alliance says about the trail's gentle slope, bicyclists say it is a long uphill climb from Pittsburgh to the Big Savage Tunnel and a nice downhill run from the tunnel into Cumberland.

One way around that is to board the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad that runs next to the trail between Cumberland and Frostburg.

It runs steam and diesel trains on 3.5-hour excursions with a 90-minute layover in Frostburg from May to December.

For details, contact the railroad at 13 Canal St., Cumberland, MD 21502; 301-759-4400 or 800-872-4650; www.wmsr.com.

At the northwest terminus of the trail, work is continuing on the last nine miles to run into downtown Pittsburgh. When that's done, the trail will grow to 150 miles: the nine still-undone miles plus nine miles of existing Pittsburgh trails.

At Cumberland, the Great Allegheny Passage connects with the 184.5-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath Trail.

Unlike the Great Allegheny Passage, the C&O Trail is dirt, muddy and rough.

It stretches from Cumberland to Washington, D.C., along the route of the historic canal.

For information, contact the Allegheny Trail Alliance at P.O. Box 501, Latrobe, PA 15650, 724-853-2453 or 888-282-2453, www.atatrail.org.

The trail alliance has a great Web site, with detailed maps, lists of bike rentals and shuttles, lodging, restaurants and attractions along the trail. There are directions from the trail to campgrounds, motels and restaurants.

It sells a $10 Trailbook with all the information you need to pedal from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

You can contact the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park at 1850 Dual Highway, Hagerstown, MD 21740; 301-739-4200; or nps.gov/choh.



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