Pitt students help clear path to Fossils Cliff in Collier

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When the University of Pittsburgh late last summer asked Collier manager Sal Sirabella for a suggested service project for the annual Pitt Makes A Difference Day, he knew where to turn for ideas.

He contacted longtime resident, community activist and former township official Doreen Ducsay, whose instantaneous reply was to clear a path to Fossils Cliff on the Panhandle Trail.

A group of about 30 Pitt students arrived Saturday to tackle the project and were captivated by what they saw and learned about the area.

Collier public works employees Frank Maioli and Tim Ault chopped down trees while the students cleared branches and debris to create a pathway wide enough for hikers and the township's ATV police rescue vehicle.

Although they didn't finish the job, the young workers made a significant start.

Fossils Cliff is just what its name suggests -- a steeply sloped area of shale rock that dates back thousands of years.

Fossils, largely of imprinted plants such as ferns but also of animals and insects, can be found along the cliff as well as among the fallen debris at ground level.

Access to the site, however, had been limited by dense trees and brush along the steep hillside.

Although paths have been cut before, they have filled in quickly with new growth.

The Pitt students were enchanted by what they saw. Many expressed astonishment that such a serene and unusual place exists so close to a city. Compared to the noise and crowding of their Oakland campus, the Collier trail and cliff offered a welcome respite.

"They were into it. They made me feel good because they were so excited," Mrs. Ducsay said. Michelle Jarvis, the Pitt staff member who accompanied the volunteers, found the Panhandle Trail a welcome respite, too.

Mrs. Ducsay explained the history of the Panhandle Trail, which extends 29 miles from the Walkers Mill entrance in Collier to Colliers, W.Va.

In addition to Fossils Cliff, the 2.4-mile portion of the trial that lies in Collier contains a stone quarry and pond as well as man-made amenities including a stage and pavilion.

She recalled that she first became aware of Fossils Cliff as a child from Alice Stewart, a retired teacher at Rennerdale Elementary School, who took her classes to the site.

"No matter what happens, you find a fossil down there," she said. "Nobody missed school on that day because they wanted to go on that walk," she recollected with a chuckle.

Now Mrs. Ducsay takes her grandchildren to the site to enjoy the scenery and search for fossils.

Collier thanked the Pitt students for their help by treating them to a pizza lunch in the community room at the township municipal building.

Cathleen Connor, Pitt's outreach coordinator, said 3,285 Pitt students participated in this year's Make a Difference Day.

Ninety-one sites in Allegheny County and beyond saw student workers doing a wide variety of projects such as painting, yard work, harvesting sunflowers and even working on a historic farm.

"It's really a big thing here at our university," Ms. Connor said.

The Panhandle Trail is named after the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The abandoned rail line was opened as a recreational trail in 1999 after Allegheny County donated 6,000 tons of reclaimed road material worth $36,000 for the Collier section of the trail.

Carole Gilbert Brown, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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