The Cambria-Somerset region’s outdoor recreation leaders have been in the trail business for decades, carving hiking and biking paths on former railroad beds, alongside rivers and past the footsteps of history and heroism.
The region’s network of trails is at more than 175 miles and growing, with a federally backed effort underway across six states to link many of the area’s most prominent trails with the September 11 National Memorial Trail system that will stretch over 1,300 miles of the mid-Atlantic.
The effort’s nonprofit planners are working to connect hundreds of miles of trails or established greenways between the Flight 93 National Memorial and 9/11’s two other memorials at New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Virginia.
Along the way, the established route would follow paths such as the Great Allegheny Passage and Path of the Flood Trail, bolstering already existing trail towns such as Rockwood and creating new ones in communities such as Windber and Johnstown.
To September 11 National Trail Alliance President Tom Baxter, that path will serve to remember 9/11 and the lives lost that day, while offering hikers and bikers a scenic glimpse of some of the communities impacted – and the resilience they showed.
“In our estimate, nothing quite like this as ever been created before,” Baxter said of the trail, which will link cities such as Johnstown, Harrisburg and Allentown to New York City and Washington, D.C.
“It’s going to be a national treasure. And it’s going to benefit a lot of communities along that path.”
‘Booster’ for trail towns
Situated as the closest city to Flight 93 and directly on the 9/11 trail path, Johnstown will be well-positioned to benefit from the path, advocates predict.
With the region’s rich history and scenic ridge-top views, the Trail Alliance’s website already promotes Cambria County among the young trail’s short list of day trips and “loops” to visit. The Cambria Regional Chamber launched the Recreation Economy Council in December 2018 to better position and promote outdoor recreation as an economic driver in the area.
Other communities across the Cambria-Somerset region have been reaping the benefits of regional trails for years, including Ebensburg, Confluence and Rockwood.
The Great Allegheny Passage, which travels through 43 miles of Somerset County on its way from Pittsburgh through Washington, D.C., has earned national acclaim over the past 20 years.
Over that span, a growing number of hikers and bikers – a mix of local users and tourists – have moved along the former rail bed. Last year, 946,000 trips were logged in Somerset County alone, representing individuals from all 50 states and 65 counties, Parks and Trails Director Lindsay Pyle said.
“We already know what trails can do for communities,” Pyle said, citing growth around Meyersdale as an example. “They’re an economic booster.”
Jeremy Hoover understands that well. Hoover’s family opened Morguen Toole Co. in Meyersdale in 2011.
Recognizing a need for dining and lodging in the burgeoning trail town, they turned a four-story brick structure into a bar and restaurant, hotel and event center, Hoover said.
“When we crafted our business plan, we targeted the demographic that was coming through – 35- to 65-year-old professionals,” he said.
“People hiking and biking through from all over the country to spend several days or more in the region, taking in our sites and local history.”
Hoover estimated that trail users represent “well over 50% of our business” throughout the year.
“All of our little towns along the (Great Allegheny Passage) are seeing a big bump in revenue from it,” Hoover said, “and I don’t think even most people in Somerset County understand it unless they are actually sitting here and paying attention to it.”
The prospect of the September 11 National Trail bringing more travelers through the area will only magnify the opportunities, Hoover said.
Linking GAP, 9/11 trails
Pyle’s Somerset County office is tasked with maintaining 43 local miles of the Great Allegheny Passage trail.
But if all goes well, her county parks and trails department will be adding several more miles to its list soon.
Plans are underway to begin a connection path to the September 11 National Memorial Trail north from the Great Allegheny Passage
Thanks to a donation by CSX Railroad Corp., trail advocates will be able to use a 12-mile rail bed right-of-way to extend the September 11 path to the northeast toward Shanksville – and through Garrett and eventually into Brothersvalley Township toward Berlin Borough, she said.
“We’re hoping to build out the first 1.4-mile section by December,” Pyle said, noting the trail’s size and base material will be just like the GAP trail.
As planned, the first new section of trail would travel through Garrett and end under the new Buffalo Creek Bridge at Route 219.
Iron to Arts project
To the north, Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority is working on both ends of the Path of the Flood Trail to extend that trail through parts of Johnstown as well as the National Park Service-owned former South Fork dam site, Director Cliff Kitner said.
Through an effort led by the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy, a section of path will be completed this spring to extend it through Woodvale, partly along a onetime Johns-town Traction Co. trolley path, he said.
To the north, an anonymous donation will enable the authority to extend the Path of the Flood trail to the remains of the onetime South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club dam.
Progress will come as portions of the Stineman mine refuse pile are removed, Kitner said.
“The big picture is the September 11 trail, which is going to go right through Johnstown,” Kitner said. “We want to do whatever we can to make it the best we can make it for visitors.”
Part of that includes Path of the Flood enhancements.
Work is separately moving forward to develop the Iron to Arts Corridor from Gautier Steel through downtown Johnstown, Iron Street and Cambria City.
An initial phase of work will get started this year on Washington Street to add a decorative walking path, bike lane and mural along the corridor, toward the Public Safety Building, Cambria County Redevelopment Authority Director Renee Daly said.
On Feb. 5, the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies awarded $100,000 to the Cambria County Redevelopment Authority, which will enable project partners to add new lights along the corridor.
Daly said work to develop the first section of the walking path will occur once sewer-line upgrades are completed along the same stretch.
Ghost Town Trail shines
Over the past two years, Ghost Town Trail upgrades have enabled the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority to extend the multi-county trail to Revloc. The accomplishment took the two-county trail to 46 total miles, while putting the path five trail miles away from becoming the largest continuous loop trail in the eastern United States.
Efforts also were completed last year to enhance street crossings along the extended Jim Mayer Riverswalk as the path veers off of a dedicated trail path through Moxham and Hornerstown.
The region’s outdoor offerings have attracted outside attention in recent months.
In the fall, The American Trail Running Association, a Colorado-based nonprofit, highlighted the Johnstown area as a “bucket list” destination for trail-running enthusiasts. Its online magazine praised the region’s eclectic, scenic mix of wooded and urban paths, including the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, Path of the Flood and Ghost Town Trail, among others.
In January, the Ghost Town Trail was recognized as Pennsylvania’s Trail of the Year by the DCNR.
To Allegheny Ridge Corp. Director Jane Sheffield, the attention the region is receiving will only grow as the 9/11 trail begins adding mileage.
And so will opportunities to build new trails along the path, said Sheffield, a 9/11 trail alliance board member.
Trail projects shelved for years due to funding shortfalls are suddenly seeing momentum again, Sheffield added.
Efforts to develop the Mainline Trail from Ehrenfeld to the Allegheny-Portage National Historic Site were stuck in neutral for most of the past two decades due to a lack of funding, she said.
Now, an engineering study has been approved for the first leg of the trail, while efforts are moving to explore the feasibility of the second phase, she said.
“The presence of the 9/11 trail rekindled it ... and suddenly we’re seeing progress,” Sheffield said.
“The September 11 trail ... it’s a game-changer,” she said.
Paths to healthier living
At a time when some of the region’s counties – Cambria included – rank near the bottom in statewide health rankings, officials said trail development can serve as a pathway to healthier lives for the region’s residents, too.
As more trails are added, they’ll open up places for people to embrace healthy routines, Baxter said.
“Trails such as this offer people the opportunity to get outdoors and recreate without any expense associated with it,” said Baxter, who helped spearhead the development of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh before becoming president of the September 11 National Trail board.
“A lot of people will be able to walk or bike to this trail,” Barter said.
“In many ways,” Kitner said, “the ultimate goal is to create healthier communities.”