When Charles Lofstrom heard last year that the final section of trail needed to complete the Great Allegheny Passage would be finished this year, he was so overjoyed that he bought himself a new bike, a sweet Cannondale Synapse, to celebrate.
So when the trail unofficially opened Thursday afternoon and saw its first full day of use on Friday, Mr. Lofstrom was there to give it a double thumbs-up before soaring away on his bike.
"It's very long overdue and much appreciated," said Mr. Lofstrom, a 44-year-old auto mechanic from Port Vue who said he bikes nearly every weekend and many other days besides. "If there's a day I can be here, I'm here."
For years, the Allegheny Trail Alliance, a coalition of seven trail organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania and western Maryland, have worked to assemble the many pieces of trail access necessary to complete the passage. Ultimately, nearly all of the 150 miles between the Point and Cumberland, Md. -- where the trail connects to the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Towpath to Washington, D.C. -- fell into place, creating the potential for epic bike journeys that many thousands of people have since taken.
But there was one chink in the Great Allegheny Passage: a section roughly one mile long between where the trail stopped at a fence in Hays and where it picked up again at the Waterfront in Homestead. To continue, ambitious -- or, depending on one's view, lawless -- bicyclists had to ride or push their bikes through the rough, ankle-turning gravel in which the railway was anchored, dodge the massive trucks hauling loads of metal into the nearby Keystone Metals scrap yard and trespass through parking lots behind Sandcastle Waterpark.
There, workers often yelled at them to get off Sandcastle's property, said K.T. Tierney, a 30-year-old construction worker on her way to Polish Hill after helping renovate an old church in North Braddock. So having a complete trail is a relief.
"I think the more bikeable the city is, the more people will get out on their bikes," Ms. Tierney said. "I'm proud of them getting this together."
Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, said contractors are still on site completing a few tasks, but the route that crosses Sandcastle and the scrap yard is safe for cyclists. First-timers, she said, should know the offset gate design at Haysglen Street was intended to stop cyclists before crossing the street because of large trucks that use that road.
A June 15 celebration in West Homestead and Downtown Pittsburgh will mark the official completion of the passage. The celebration begins at 10 a.m. and would-be participants are encouraged to bring their bikes.
By Friday afternoon, hundreds of people had already enjoyed the trail's many delights: Warm sunshine flooded the skies and the scent of honeysuckle filled the air, as did birds, from migratory scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles to the nesting pair of bald eagles soaring overhead to go fishing in the Monongahela River.
Beth and Chris Paar were also enjoying the prospect of eating dinner at the Waterfront without having to bushwhack around the unfinished section. The couple, from Kittanning, often meet on Fridays after she finishes work in the South Hills and he finishes work Downtown to go for a bike ride on the trail before heading home together, and said they were thrilled to hear the trail is open.
"I even got us headlights in case we get down there and start having too much fun, we'll have headlights to get home," said Ms. Paar, 48, laughing at the wearable headlamps often used by campers.
For Heather Harris of West Mifflin, who had parked at the Pump House at the Waterfront to go for a bike ride before buying some vegetable plants and heading home, the completed trail represents a huge business opportunity for all sorts of local entrepreneurs. Bike riders would use bike rentals, food trucks, ice cream stands and other services along their route, which would also help build its popularity, she said.
It also represented a personal opportunity for her -- riding her bike all the way to Washington, D.C., on the Great Allegheny Passage.
"I'm going to do that, I am," she said. "It's kind of a bucket list thing for me."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719. Molly Born contributed.