Brian O'Neill : Who keeps the river trails tidy? ‘Super volunteers’
March 12, 2017 12:00 AM
Post-Gazette file photo
River lovers: Volunteers from Friends of the Riverfront and Allegheny CleanWays cleaning up the Duck Hollow segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail along the Monongahela River in 2015.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joe McLaughlin says when he was growing up in the 1950s, “If your parents loved you, they said, ‘Stay away from the river.’ ”
He was telling me this as we were pedaling miles up the north side of the Allegheny River. It was Thursday afternoon, the last fine day we’ll have for a spell, and joggers, walkers, other cyclists, budding daffodils and robins were snatching sun along the trail with us.
Mr. McLaughlin, 69, of Shaler, is one of nine volunteer trail stewards who tend to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail that now stretches for 25 miles on both sides of our rivers. What was a mere idea a generation ago is now one of the great, free perks of Pittsburgh life.
The trail doesn’t look as good as it does by accident. All of us have the chance when we awaken each morning to make the world or a bit better or a bit worse, and these few stewards regularly make it better by bending and bagging the stuff dropped by anonymous slobs who made it worse.
Those are the “super volunteers,” according to Jeff McCauley, Friends of the Riverfront’s director of stewardship. The organization also hosted 53 events last year between March and October to scoop up litter, plant trees and battle invasive plants.
I hadn’t ridden very far on the trail in a while, and I was impressed by how clean it was last week. Generally, when there’s no snow or foliage to provide cover, empty bottles, cans and plastic bags emerge from hiding like acne after a potato chip binge.
But this retired Brentwood High physics teacher, along with Donna and Jerry Green of the North Side, have kept the North Shore and Strip District sections of the trail (when they’re open) much less littered than the streets I’d ridden to get to the riverside. It likely helps that there are no passing drivers to drop litter on the trails — at least not without a lot of help from the wind.
I’m going to name all the stewards before this column is through but first, dig these stats from Mr. McCauley:
Some 1,821 volunteers putting in 5,839 hours at the 53 events planted 473 trees (in partnership with other organizations) and more than 1,000 flower bulbs. They also picked up nearly 11 tons of litter.
Picture that, would you? Nearly 22,000 pounds of litter — that’s easily more than three Kenny Chesney concerts.
The stat comes with an asterisk because some of that haul came in partnership with The Tireless Project, the organization that has pulled 3,568 car and truck tires out of our rivers since 2003. I went out on the Tireless pontoon boat on a nice September day in that maiden year and helped grab 14 tires, three shopping carts, some fencing, rebar and, yes, a kitchen sink.
The Tireless Project estimates it has pulled more than 608,000 pounds of junk from our rivers in the 13-plus lucky years Pittsburgh has had it around.
I don’t know what we’d do without these people but they can always use more help. The trail has plans to at least double in the length when it extends from its eastern terminus on the Allegheny in Millvale to the Allegheny County line in Harrison. Odds are there is no shortage of litterbugs no matter which direction the trail turns next.
In the next three weeks, the Steel City Road Runners and students from Fox Chapel Area High, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and City Charter High will participate in five trail cleanups and plantings. A group from Washington University in St. Louis is even coming in for a spring break that will never be in a teen movie even if the weather cooperates: tree and flower plantings at the trail’s Ohio River terminus near the Alcosan plant.
If you’d like to help, well, pick up the next urban tumbleweed (plastic bag) that comes blowing by. Or contact Mr. McCauley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-488-0212, ext. 2 and volunteer.
In addition to Mr. McLaughlin and the aptly named Greens, the trail stewards who monitor and beautify the trails in between litter commando raids are Vince Dish, Art Fleming, Paul Heckbert, Carolyn Laquatra, David Malehorn, Jim Martin and Jacob Schmidlapp. If you know any of these people, shake their hands. Just make sure they’re washed first.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.