The first day on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) was a travel in contrasts. It started in a reborn great city and ended in a tiny village where we had a wonderful meal.After a simple breakfast at our hotel, we loaded up our bikes, hoping that we didn't pack too much and headed off to the Point, where the three rivers converge, in search of the plaque indicating the beginning of the trail. We circled the fountain at the end of Point State Park a few times and only found the plaque that stated we were at the point where the three rivers--Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela--converge. It was good enough for us and we started upstream the Monongahela.
As I mentioned in a prior post, Pittsburgh is a new city far removed from the one that I remembered in my youth. As we peddled through the city over lightly travelled streets, there is a sense of rebuilding and newness. This chance for quiet reflection was quickly eliminated as we entered the trail, which was nestled in the median of I-376. The noise from the cars and trucks drown out our conversation. But it didn't stop me from noticing that the riverside had changed: Most of the factories were gone.
This was manifested when we crossed the Hot Metal Bridge (which we initially missed due to either the lack of signage or lack of attention on our part) and upon crossing the river stopped in front of the corporate campus of American Eagle Outfitters. The mills that had necessitated the creation of the bridge were replaced by a retailer whose shredded jeans would not meet the safety standards of the plants it had replaced.
As we peddled further, more corporate campuses appeared included a few for UPMC, the Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh football training center. But the industry hasn't gone all away as a few mills across the river continue to function as we see plumes of steam emerge from their smoke stacks.
With Homestead ahead, the river was on our left and train tracks on our right both of which were busy with activity. In the quiet moments, however, we noticed the increased chirping of birds as well as blooming flowers and the sweet smell of honeysuckle flowers. This smell, in fact, followed us down the river the entire day.
Once we reached Homestead, there were but skeletal remains of the past. At the site of the Battle of Homestead, rested parts of an old foundry whose extreme proportions are foreign to us. Up the road a bit are railroad flat houses and a Hungarian Social Club whose hand-lettered sign distinguishes it in today's world.
A crane that rested near a Hampton's Inn Hotel and a line of smokestacks, are the only remnants of factories past resting between a Costco and Lowes Theater. The stacks are abandoned much like the heads on Easter Island, whose origins were uncertain and questioned. This is a graveyard of industrial decline with its large headstones reaching for the sky. We entered this new shopping area, "The Waterfront," and we could only imagine what it must have looked like decades past when the evening sky glowed red with fire from the furnaces that drove America's industry.
Homestead was a linchpin of the Steel Valley, which had factories lining the shores. The railroads still exist, which we passed over and back a few times. A few plants were still in existence, mostly piping it seemed, but there was little activity.
Over the Riverton Bridge, we crossed the Monongahela for the last time on our way to McKeesport and the beginning of the Youghiogheny River, called the "Yough" by locals. To our left, is a series of abandoned factory sites producing wildflowers including daisies, chicory, mugwort, and wild rye grasses. The parking lots and the inside of the factory shells contain only things that Mother Nature has created, not man.
During this segment of our trip, the new technologies of medicine and electronics had mostly replaced the century-old new technology of steel and bridge fabrication. And as we entered McKeesport we noticed the trim around the police station was unpainted and dingy and a nearby police car dented and rusted, a sign of how times have changed.