Between the coastal plain and the Piedmont to the east and the great Mississippi Basin to the west, the Allegheny Mountains have presented a formidable barrier since man first set foot in this part of the continent.
Geologists tell us that the Alleghenies were once vastly higher than they are now, but wore down through millions and millions of years of erosion. The sediment from the old mountains washed down in ancient westward rivers into a great inland sea that rose and fell as climate changed and the surrounding area changed.
What the sediments became depended on what was happening at the time. An ocean floor became limestone; shale and siltstone settled out in quiet waters of coastal bays washed down on land; coal formed from vegetation in warm coastal swamps and sandstone was originally river channels, dunes and beaches along the coastal plain. In a subsiding basin, layer upon layer built up and became western Pennsylvania.
In the last million years, a series of ices ages caused the once-flat western Pennsylvania landscape to erode away, giving us our now-rugged topography.
The trail is an excellent geology classroom; you can see all the ancient geological history preserved in the rocks along the trail.
The First People
Archaeologists say that people were living here for about 12,000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene. From 900 A.D. to about 1650, the area was inhabited by what are known now as the Monongahela People. They lived in stockaded villages of a couple of dozen houses. They farmed, growing corn, beans and squash along the floodplains and terraces of major rivers. They left in a cloud of mystery; none still lived here when the Europeans came over the mountains.
No Native American sites are accessible to the general public, but Ancient habitations have been identified along the trail at Cumberland, Meyersdale, Fort Hill, Confluence, Connellsville, the Sewickley Creek area and McKeesport.
The Indians that moved here after the Monongahelas were refugees from the east: the Delawares (Lenape), the Shawnee and later the Iroquois. These were the people encountered by the first French and English traders who came down the rivers and over the mountains.
For the first hundred or so years after they arrived in the early 1600s, British colonists were content to live on the eastern side of the Alleghenies, but as the population grew and immigrants continued to pour in, traders, trappers and settlers started pushing toward and then over the mountains.
At the same time, the French were exploring and setting up trading posts, then forts in the interior of the continent, establishing beachheads in Quebec and Louisiana at the mouths of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers. The French population numbered in the tens of thousands spread out over a thin line 3,000 miles long. The English population grew past a million in number concentrated in an area less than 200 miles wide and 600 miles long along the Eastern Seaboard. The Indians were threatened by feeling heat from both groups.
The War for Empire
Across the ocean, France and England had been warring for military and trade dominance off and on for the first fifty years of the 18th century. It was inevitable that their conflicts would come to North America. The French began building a series of forts to secure their claim on the interior of the continent. They built Ft. LeBoeuf, near Erie, by the winter of 1753.
The colonial governor of Virginia, who claimed the area that's now western Pennsylvania, sent Major George Washington, Adjutant-General of the Virginia militia, age 21, to Ft. LeBoeuf to learn the French plans, carrying a letter telling them to leave. The French commander received Washington politely with more than a bit of condescension and sent him back to Virginia with a letter saying he would take the matter under advisement.
In the late winter of 1754, the Virginians sent a hastily-organized troop to the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh) to build a fort to stop the French. In April of that year, the French moved in, chased the Englishmen away and built their own fort, Fort du Quesne.
As far as the Virginians were concerned, war had been declared. They sent out now-Lieutenant Colonel Washington with a force of men to recapture the Forks. On his way there, he took a side trip down the Youghiogheny to determine if it could be navigated to the Forks. He camped at the Turkeyfoot, (Confluence) and turned back when he found the falls at Ohiopyle to be impassable.
The French, hearing Washington was coming, sent out a party under Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville de Villiers, brother of the commander of Ft. du Quesne with a letter telling the English to leave French territory. Jumonville is supposed to have crossed the Youghiogheny at Stewart's Crossing, now Connellsville.
Washington's Indian scouts found the French first; Washington and his men ambushed the French and Jumonville was killed in the fight. The French, hearing of Jasonville's death, declared this an act of war and sent out an army of 900 from Fort du Quesne to avenge the killing. Washington's troop, which had grown to about 350 fighters, built a small stockade up on Chestnut Ridge that Washington named Ft. Necessity. There they were surrounded and defeated on a rainy July 3, 1754. The victors allowed Washington to surrender with honor, but forced him and his men to walk back to Cumberland.
The ensuing resulting hostilities became known as the French and Indian War on this side of the Atlantic and the Seven Years War in Europe. Historians have called it the first world war. F; from the little glen now called Jumonville, the war spread across North America, Europe and Asia, where both France and England were trying to establish colonies.
With war declared, England's King George II sent General Edward Braddock in early 1755 with two regiments to attack the French at Ft. du Quesne. To move his considerable force, Braddock built the road through the wilderness that later became part of the National Road, now Route 40. He, too, crossed the Youghiogheny at Stewart's Crossing, both on his way to what he thought was imminent victory and back, mortally wounded, after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the French and their Indian allies.
Washington, sick with fever, accompanied Braddock into battle and survived with four bullet holes in his clothes and two horses shot out from under him. Braddock's defeat was the last great French victory in North America. The route of the Great Allegheny Passage overlooks the battlefield in what is now the town of Braddock.
The next three years were marked by almost constant Indian attacks goaded by the French that raged through the western English colonies. It wasn't until 1758 that Brigadier John Forbes methodically and successfully routed the French, built Fort Pitt and named the town Pittsburgh in honor of William Pitt, the Prime Minister of England. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris in February, 1763 and effectively ended France's hopes of becoming a global power.
Even after the war, smaller battles went on between the colonists, who rapidly moved into the area, and the Indians whom they forced out, culminating in Pontiac's War in 1763, a desperate effort to drive the settlers back over the mountains. The Indians under Chief Pontiac were defeated at the Battle of Bushy Run on August 5 & 6, 1763.
With peace, immigrants flooded the area. Indian trails became roads that carried wagon-loads of settlers over the mountains. The rivers became highways carrying flatboats with settlers and goods downriver. Pittsburgh became the Gateway, the great jumping off point to the west.
Forge of the Universe
In the 1810s and -20s, flatboats gave way to steamboats that could make the river journey both ways. Pittsburgh supplied the coal to fuel the new steamboats and the industry to build them using the abundant coal, iron and timber resources in the area. In the early 1850s, the railroad came to town, bringing reliable year-round transportation that wasn't dependent on the vagaries of the river.
The railroads demanded huge amounts of iron and steel for their tracks, locomotives, and bridges, and coal to fuel their engines. Mines and mills sprang up to feed the iron horse. Railroads were the mill's lifelines bringing raw materials in and taking finished goods out and they were the mill's best customers.
The mills, factories, railroads and steamboats turned the sky around Pittsburgh sooty black by day and gave it an orange glow by night. There wasn't enough local labor to work the enormous enterprise and immigrants from all over Europe and the rural South came to work here, bringing their wonderfully diverse cultures with them.
Beginning with the Civil War, Pittsburgh became an arsenal, turning out guns and armor by the millions of tons and even building seagoing vessels in World War II.
But a century of intense industry took its toll. Pittsburgh became ugly beyond belief. It was called hell with the lid off and worse. After World War II, a coalition of political, industrial, financial, and labor leaders worked to clean up the city in a landmark redevelopment program known as Renaissance I. Today, aside from the fact that the rivers still join here, the now-gleaming downtown Pittsburgh is barely recognizable from the gritty steel town of a half-century ago.
But there were other forces at work. After World War II, the steel industry went into a long, slow decline which accelerated sharply in the late 1970s and early 80s. Mill after mill shut down, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs. In the same period, demand for coal not only decreased, but much of the Pittsburgh Coal Seam was worked out, closing mines by the score. Loss of the mines and mills hurt the railroad's freight traffic and passengers left the rails to ride the new interstate highways and jet airliners.
Smoky Pittsburgh is gone; in its place is a thriving center for medicine, technology and finance with clean air, cleaner water and a growing network of trails on the old railroad grades. Virtually every mile of the trail from old Fort Cumberland to Fort Duquesne, as it's now called, has its own story to tell.
Here are some of the more important places you'll encounter along the entire corridor.
Milepost 0 for the Great Allegheny Passage is here. The steam-powered Western Maryland Scenic Railway leaves from the old Western Maryland station and recreates the thrilling climb where the railroads challenged the Allegheny Mountains. This is the western end of the C&O Canal and the site of Fort Cumberland, in colonial times the last point of civilization before the trek west.
Crammed into this spectacular water gap through Wills and Haystack Mountains are U.S. Route 40, the historic National Road, two railroads and Wills Creek.
Mason Dixon Line
The line is usually considered the boundary between the North and the South. Between 1763 and 1767, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon of England surveyed the boundary that settled a long-running dispute between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland. The line, which by agreement is 15 miles south of the southernmost point of the city of Philadelphia, is five degrees of longitude west of the Delaware River in length.
Big Savage Tunnel
Big Savage Mountain is also known as the Allegheny Front, the ridge that marks the beginning of the High Allegheny Plateau. The Western Maryland Railway built the 3,300 foot long single-track tunnel between 1910 and 1912. It was rebuilt for trail use in 2002.
Eastern Continental Divide
The Great Allegheny Passage reaches its highest point, 2,375 above sea level, here. This is also the Eastern Continental Divide, the boundary between the waters of the Potomac River and the Mississippi Basin.
To cross Flaugherty Run, the Western Maryland Railway built this 900 viaduct that also affords a great view of CSX trains crossing underneath.
The renovated Western Maryland station is now a visitor's center that will house an interpretive exhibit telling the story of the region.
At 1,908 long, Salisbury Viaduct crosses the Casselman River valley west of the community of Meyersdale. The viaduct crosses CSX tracks and U.S. Route 219 and from it you can see a wind farm that generates electricity on the site of an old strip mine.
Wymp's Gap Fossil Quarry
The rock here is filled with marine invertebrate fossils that are between 330 and 360 million years old. Feel free to poke around and take some with you. The small quarry, marked with a post that says GR-5, is between Rockwood and Garrett.
The place has traditionally been called Turkeyfoot because the three streams coming into one, the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers and Laurel Hill Creek, look like the track of a turkey when viewed from the surrounding hills. The small broad valley here was the site of ancient Indian villages and a resting place between the mountains. George Washington camped here and this is the site of the Yough Dam, a major flood control and recreation project built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Ohiopyle State Park
Since the coming of the railroad in 1871, Ohiopyle has been a popular tourist destination. Visitors are attracted to the Falls, the terrific scenery in the 19,000-acre state park and the recreation that includes white water rafting and kayaking, hiking and biking. Ferncliff Peninsula in the park is a National Natural Landmark.
Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail
The 70-mile trail begins here and meanders along Laurel Ridge over rugged sandstone formations, under deep hemlock cover, and along ledges high above the Youghiogheny River. The only fully state-maintained long distance hiking trail in Pennsylvania, this trail connects Ohiopyle State Park to the western extreme of the Conemaugh River Gorge, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
This marks the western end of the Allegheny Mountains and the last mountains a westward traveler will see until the Rockies. It's also the end of the Youghiogheny River Gorge, the deepest in Pennsylvania. "Bowest" is a contraction of B&O and Western Maryland, so named because the two railroads had a junction just south of here.
Because of its location at the edge of the mountains, this was an important transportation hub. Old Indian paths crossed the river here, as did Braddock's Road. It became the booming financial center of the Connellsville Coke District during the region's coal and coke boom at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Old Indian paths crossed the river here, as did Braddock's Road. Five railroads and an interurban electric railway once converged here. It's still a manufacturing town where bottles and baby food jar lids are made.
The Adelaide Works were named for coke baron Henry Clay Frick's wife Adelaide Childs Frick. Frick had a beehive coke operation here that at its peak employed 230 men at 375 coke ovens and accompanying mine. Coke is the fuel that is essential in making iron and steel. Adelaide, like Whitsett, Van Meter, and Smithdale along the Passage, is an example of the coal patch towns that were built by the coal and coke companies to house their workers.
Pittsburgh Coal Seam
Between Dawson and Adelaide, the Pittsburgh Coal Seam outcrops and you can take a close look at the rock formation that in 1934 was called "the most important mineral resource in the history of the world". During the late 1800's and early 1900's it fueled the Industrial Age in western Pennsylvania and the U.S.
Miners and mine owners lived side by side in the town of Dawson which still includes some stunning Victorian-era residences and commercial buildings.
This is an intact coal patch town that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Port Royal Tufa
On the east side of Cedar Creek Park is the Port Royal Tufa, a fast-growing outdoor stalactite, one of the few in the United States. The naturally-occurring carbonated spring leaves a deposit of dissolved limestone as it flows down the cliff side.
Indian Post Office
Just west of Cedar Creek Park is a textbook example of what geologists call "boxwork structure". While iron bearing minerals became concentrated along fractures and bedding planes in a sandstone rock, sulfate bearing minerals were left in between. Near the surface the sulfate minerals form crystals and expand, breaking apart the rock, while the iron bearing zones remain intact. The differences in weathering create the post office box, cubby-hole appearance.
Located on the Glades Road, an early highway, West Newton was a popular jumping off point for pioneers heading downriver. Because of its strategic location and abundant coal, the town became noted for manufacturing. Paper, radiators and prefab houses, among other things, were made here.
One of the detrimental effects of coal mining is acid mine drainage, also called AMD. AMD occurs when water comes in contact with un-mined coal and dissolves iron and sulfur from the coal. In a series of chemical reactions, the iron becomes iron oxide which coats everything it comes in contact with and the sulfur becomes sulfuric acid which kills aquatic life. Thousands of miles of streams in western Pennsylvania are devoid of life as a result of AMD.
Revolutionary War veterans are buried in this isolated little cemetery which has been restored by the local trail group and historical society. The meadow near the cemetery has been replanted in native prairie grasses.
Strategically located where the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers join, McKeesport became a major steel center. Today the major industries are telecommunications, pipe making and steel fabricating.
General Braddock and his men crossed the river here on their way to their defeat, but it's also the scene of what was some of the most intense industrial activity in the world. Two steel mills, the abandoned U.S. Steel Duquesne Works and the working USX Edgar Thomson Works, can be seen from here, and lines of the Norfolk Southern, CSX and the Union Railroads all converge here. Along with barge traffic on the navigable Monongahela River, more freight traffic was concentrated here than any place else on earth during and after World War II. Even now, there is almost always a moving train in sight. The graceful arches of the George Westinghouse Bridge can be seen crossing the Turtle Creek valley in the distance.
Also known as the Golden Triangle, downtown Pittsburgh has evolved from an industrial-era eyesore to a gleaming jewel of urban development, complete with a state park and fountain at the Point where the rivers meet. Fort Pitt Museum at the Point tells the story of the town that became the first Gateway to the West.