Shared from the 3/18/2023 Mon Valley Independent eEdition

GAP users get warm welcome in West Newton

The Great Allegheny Passage is part of a 335-mile route between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

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Above, Johnathan Hayes of Pittsburgh prepares a cup of hot chocolate at the West Newton Visitor Center while taking a break from cycling on the Greater Allegheny Passage trail. He planned to spend the night camping in Ohiopyle.

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Photographs by Peg Luketic / McKeesport Community Newsroom At right, West Newton Council President Brenda Maleski is shown on the trail.

Johnathan Hays, a tall, slender 26-year-old cycling enthusiast traveling the Great Allegheny Passage, set up a camp stove at the West Newton visitor center to brew a cup of hot chocolate for warmth and comfort on an unseasonably windy and cold fall day.

Jonathan started his trip that morning last October at 9 a.m. in Pittsburgh and arrived at the trailhead in West Newton some 3.5 hours later with plans to reach Ohiopyle State Park by dark despite the warnings of winter’s approach.

Dressed for inclement weather and equipped with a hammock, a tarp for a tent and an electric-assisted bicycle, the restaurant worker from Pittsburgh graciously shared his enthusiasm for the trail while resting at the center, a modern replica of a 1910 train station.

He discussed his love of nature, the spiritual lift he gets from biking and the enjoyment of meeting trail travelers and townspeople while visiting businesses along the trail as it winds through some spectacular Pennsylvania scenery.

Hays has made the roughly 70-mile trip from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle to hammock camp every year for the past seven years, although this was his first trip in fall. He routinely stops in West Newton, a near halfway point of the journey.

For Jonathan, the portion of the GAP that he finds to be the most difficult is a broken section between McKeesport and Boston, Pa., where he is forced to ride on a roadway with motor vehicles. He finds the nicest section of the trail is near Connellsville.

The first section of the Great Allegheny Passage from Ohiopyle to Confluence, Pa., got its start in 1978 when the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy handed the deed for 26.75 miles of an abandoned railway corridor to the state park system.

Over the next 35 years, volunteers from West Newton and other nearby towns, including Connellsville, Rockwood and Meyersdale in the Laurel Highlands, and Frostburg and Cumberland in Maryland, constructed segments of the now 150-mile GAP trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md. Trail building also took place in Pittsburgh, around McKeesport and in Homestead.

Today, along with the C&O Canal towpath, the GAP is part of a 335-mile route between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. that is popular with hikers and cyclists.

Brenda Maleski, a lifelong 65-year-old resident of the borough and the council president, lovingly described West Newton “as a very small town that has a very big heart.” She spoke glowingly of how the trail has benefited businesses and residents since its completion around 1995.

“Most of the residents, except for a few visionaries, were indifferent to the trail at the beginning,” the mayor said. Since then, the trail has brought both economic growth and “visitors from many parts of the world” to West Newton. The trail users are friendly and well received by locals who “have learned so much from them,” she added.

Founded in 1788 in Westmoreland County and incorporated in 1842, West Newton is now home to about 2,600 residents. Despite a loss of industry and population familiar to the Mon Valley, the borough has maintained its historic significance with a mix of stately old homes and small businesses.

Open to the public since 2007, the visitor center provides information on local and regional attractions and includes a gift shop with books and souvenirs. It also doubles as the headquarters of the Regional Trail Corporation, a non-profit organization that maintains sections of the trail in Allegheny, Westmoreland, and Fayette counties.

An abandoned brownfield in West Newton’s old commercial district has been transformed into a riverside park named after Alexander Simeral, a pioneer ferry operator and one of the area’s first settlers.

The park is located where the West Newton Bridge crosses the Youghiogheny River to connect the east and west sides of town. It boasts a stage, a sprawling lawn, bike racks, benches and an accessible walkway with views of the river and trailhead across the water.

In West Newton, trail users regularly shop at the local pharmacy and grocery store. They eat at the Trailside Inn, a bar and restaurant next to the trail, and visit other eating establishments including The Outpost — River’s Edge Eatery, a food truck known for smash burgers and fries operated by the Way-point Youth and Community Center to help young people learn to operate a business. The historic West Newton Cemetery, easily accessible from the trail, attracts thousands of visitors annually who tour the beautiful grounds, including a 1905 chapel and a set of Civil War era naval cannons.

There are four adjacent bed and breakfast establishments located across the trail from the visitor center. Several other vacation rentals available through Airbnb recently opened on the east side of West Newton in response to a growing need for overnight lodging. They include the Plumer House, the oldest building in town, built in 1814 and renovated in 2020. The Bloom Brew brewery provides live music during the summer, docking space for canoes and outdoor space for canoeists to eat and drink while enjoying the entertainment.

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