Historic Inn at Saratoga Captures Sense of Place, Gracious Victorian Style

The Inn at Saratoga, Saratoga Springs’ oldest continuously operating hotel, dating from 1843, offers Victorian gracious style and a sense of place © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Saratoga Springs, one of America’s first tourist towns, has been drawing visitors since the 14th century when Native Americans discovered the mineral springs which still draw visitors today. But it is also where formal horse racing began, and over the years, has also developed an amazingly rich cultural menu of offerings, especially in summer, when its Performing Arts Center is home to the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. It is fitting that among its key attractions are the National Museum of Dance (who knew there was such a thing?) as well as the National Racing Museum (fascinating), historic racetrack, lively live-music venues, stunning boutiques (you know a top-notch town by its olive oil shop and haberdashery).

It doesn’t take long, as you walk among the giant painted horses and ballet shoes to recognize this unbelievably charming town is a combination of Louisville, Kentucky and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a touch of a spa-wellness destination thrown in. And totally enchanting.

But walking around and taking in the breathtaking Victorian architecture, you also realize that Saratoga Springs has had its ups-and-downs. Indeed, the celebrated historic Racetrack even closed down in 1896 because of financial hardship, and historic markers on Broadway point to whole historic streets that were torn down in the 1960s until a preservation movement took root.

This makes you appreciate all the more the work underway ($30 million worth) on the historic Adelphi Hotel, where the colorful Irish-born prize-fighter, horse-racing impresario, gambling entrepreneur , New York State Senator and Tammany Hall enforcer John Morrissey, a regular of the hotel, died in 1878.

You get to live Saratoga Springs’ history at the Inn at Saratoga, which has basically “seen” it all. Built around 1843, it is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Saratoga Springs, and its own history mirrors that of the village.

The Inn at Saratoga, which dates from 1843, puts you into the city’s story © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Anyone who appreciates as I do how a historic hotel is like a direct line to a place – putting you on the inside track rather than being an outsider merely passing through – seeks out historic hotels wherever possible. They have presence, and give you a sense of place.

These historic hotels immerse you into the collective memory and heritage of a place – like being inserted into the scene of the village as it might have been 150 years ago. They are so much more than brick and mortar – they have personality, character, even soul (not for nothing that many also harbor a ghost or two).

It is also about providing the gracious hospitality we associate with times past – the personal attention, the tranquil pace, a quiet calm.

So, coming to Saratoga Springs, I do what I always do when I plan a trip: seek out Historic Hotels of America website (historichotels.org, 800-678-8946), a membership program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation with nearly 290 historic hotels that have faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity. I discover the Inn at Saratoga, which turns out to be the oldest continuously operating inn in Saratoga Springs, dating back to 1843.

Over the years, the inn’s fortunes have had its ups and downs along with the city (now decidedly up in its fortunes)  and, like the city and hospitality industry, has gone through many incarnations – a physician tapped Saratoga Springs’ legendary mineral waters for his patients and operated the inn as an early version of a spa hotel; a Cuban owner had a travel pipeline for visitors from Cuba; a rabbi catered to Jewish vacationers escaping New York City’s oppressive summers.

Fortunately, it is now in the loving hands of the Israel family, who acquired the inn in 2003, and who bring a deep appreciation for historic preservation and their role as stewards.

Indeed, when you experience such places, you cannot take their existence for granted – rather, they are to be celebrated as survivors against long odds – surviving wrecking balls, economic and natural disasters, and new owners’ predilections to go “modern.”

Owners of these historic properties take on their stewardship with a sense of obligation and humility, recognizing they are links in a chain, without which, these places will simply cease to exist.

The Israel family, who are active in Preservation Society for Saratoga Springs, has spent considerable resources removing the “modern” that previous owners had installed, and restoring the hotel’s period features and charm, while providing the amenities that guests crave today, including spacious bathrooms, in-room coffee maker, flat-screen TV, voicemail, dataports, complimentary wired and wireless high-speed Internet access and such.  As they say it is “the perfect marriage of past and present.”

Painting along three sides of the inn’s elevator depicts Saratoga Springs of 150 years ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I joke about the hotel having an elevator (which has an exquisite pastel painting of Saratoga Springs as it might have been 150 years ago that spreads across three sides) and the receptionist says, this place didn’t even have running water in 1843. But to install the elevator, Liz Israel, who has the role of General Manager, tells me, the previous owners removed a formal staircase.

The inn once had around 100 rooms, more than twice the number, 42 rooms and suites, as today – because traditional hostelries had tiny rooms with a washbasin and guests shared a bathroom.

Best of the past and present: four-poster bed and period furnishings create the atmosphere in the guest room at the Inn at Saratoga; modern amenities including spacious bathroom, TV and WiFi heighten the guest experience © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Big band music plays in the hallway as I make my way to my room (you can’t hear it when you are in the room) but you use a modern key-card to enter. It is pure pleasure to sink into a four-poster bed so high you need a step ladder, and of course a spacious modern bathroom. Each room is different and appointed with period furnishings.

Robert Israel, a tax attorney who first came to Saratoga Springs in the 1960s when it was in decline (and property was cheap) bought the hotel in 2003, has meticulously gone about acquiring period furnishings at auction – a stunning bookcase that adorns the dining room; wood paneling that as a young man in his 20s, he salvaged from a hotel in Newburgh that he kept for 40 years before finding just the right place, in the inn’s lobby; the side board we take our coffee cup from for breakfast came from the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. The walls are graced with stunning oil paintings (purchased at auction) as well as prints that Israel collected from the Grand Union Hall, which when it was built, was the largest in the world (it burned down). He acquired a shuttered railway ticket cottage which he reassembled and repurposed in the inn’s garden to serve as a bar for special events. The ballroom has an intricately “carved” fireplace which came  from a movie set. And the dining room has a specially made red velvet banquette that captures the Victorian ambiance perfectly.

Inn at Saratoga is justifiably proud of the full breakfast served buffet style in the tradition of a bed-and-breakfast inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One feature of the Inn at Saratoga is the complimentary full buffet breakfast that is included – a lavish affair that reminds you more of a bed-and-breakfast inn where the host seeks to really out do themselves with memorable meals. One breakfast consisted of delectable scrambled eggs seasoned with herbs, served on a fresh croissant, along with bacon, potatoes, selections of fresh fruit, cereals, bagels, pastries and muffins, perfectly delectable coffee, served on beautiful china.

Liz Israel was 18 years old when her father bought the property. She grew up waiting tables, handling the reception desk, and went on to get a degree in hospitality management in Ireland, where she worked at the Shelburne Hotel in Dublin before returning to the Inn at Saratoga with her Irish husband.

Liz takes me on a walking tour of the hotel, recognizing how much I appreciate the restoration.

Once an open porch, The Tavern bar has big picture windows that overlook the street bustle on Broadway, Saratoga Springs’ main street, and where there is live music five nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday.

The inn’s original lobby is repurposed for a dining and lounge space; the couch is an Israel family heirloom © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Primo’s Restaurant, where you enjoy breakfast and which serves dinner, is a Victorian confection. Liz says that they lifted up the carpet and removed a cement layer to expose the original hardwood floors.

There is a beautiful ballroom that opens to a garden where a tent has been erected for a wedding reception; there is also an old railroad ticket cottage that Israel acquired and repurposed for a bar.

The inn has a few vintage Roadmaster bikes available for guests’ use (two hours at a time). Guests also enjoy complimentary access to Victoria Swimming Pool located in Saratoga Spa State Park and the nearby YMCA. Complimentary parking in its on-site lot is a significant amenity as well. (The inn offers a spa package with the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa in the park.)

The Inn at Saratoga offers a gracious setting © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition to the hotel, there is a separate Brownell Cottage (which was purchased along with the hotel) which features four luxurious suites, accommodating up to four people depending on the suite. Beautifully appointed, the cottage offers an array of modern amenities: whirlpool tub, heated bathroom floors, steam shower with multi-head massage shower, authentic Franklin Stove fireplaces, cable TV, coffee/tea maker, speaker phones with data port, voice mail and in-room safes and free high-speed wireless Internet.

The Inn at Saratoga is an ideal venue for wedding or family function or meeting because of its scale, the charming ambiance, and facilities.

Inn Follows Fortunes of Saratoga Springs

I love the back story to the inn: it was built as a large boarding house in 1843 by Isaac Hall, a carpenter from New Hampshire, 11 years after the railroad provided easy access to Saratoga’s spa for tourists.

In 1846, Hall sold the property to Thomas Smith of Virginia, who turned over the management to Dr. Richard L. Allen, who, like other physicians of the time, operated boarding houses to treat “chronic cases” – an early version of a health spa. That lasted until 1853, when the property was sold to Hervey P. Hall (Dr. Allen remained in Saratoga Springs and published a popular guide for health seekers in Saratoga).

The hotel passed through three other owners until 1865 when it was acquired by Benjamin V. Frasier, brother-in-law of Thomas Marvin, the proprietor of the huge United States Hotel (largest hotel at the time). “The wealth created by the Civil War and the pent-up demand for pleasure created the greatest boom Saratoga had ever seen.”

It isn’t a coincidence that organized horse racing, brought by casino operator and future congressman, the prize-fighter John Morrissey, had begun in Saratoga Springs.

Frasier significantly expanded the hotel, building the three-story wing in 1866 and added a brick veneer, and re-named the hotel Everett House.

The historic Inn at Saratoga pays tribute to Saratoga Springs’ horse-racing tradition with one of the painted horses © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Frasier gave up the hotel in 1875 (the same year as the first Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky) and it was sold to Nathaniel Waterbury, a prominent Saratogan, who made improvements but quickly  went into foreclosure. The US was in the midst of a major economic Depression. The property was purchased at an 1878 sheriff’s sale by Thomas Marvin’s daughters, Mary Louise Sackett and Virginia Perry. By 1882, they had leased it to Primo M. Suarez, who catered to Cuban vacationers for 35 years; he rebuilt the front of the hotel in 1887 in the High Victorian style that was fashionable at the time.

After World War I, Saratoga’s old clientele was slipping away; and instead of two-week sojourns, auto touring was the newest fad. But there was a growing audience of Jewish New Yorkers who sought to escape the city’s summer heat and could afford a country retreat. In 1919, Nathaniel Heller took over Everett House and by the 1924 season, renamed it Hotel Brenner, operated by Rabbi Charles Brenner and his extended family. That continued until 1973 when the hotel was purchased by Dom Nardelli of Saratoga Springs who “updated” the facility and renamed it the Coachman Motor Inn.

That was a fairly dark time for Saratoga Springs, when many of its historic buildings were taken down. A historic preservation movement took hold in the 1980s, and when Nardelli put the hotel on the market in 1987, it was sold to four businessmen who sought to recreate the graciousness of a Victorian hotel.

In 2003, the hotel was acquired by the current owners, Robert Israel of Franklin Square Associates, a historic preservation professional who has sought to restore the hotel’s historic quality and enhance the guest experience.

Liz tells me her father uses the inn as an excuse to shadow auctions and indulge his passion for antiques.

The Inn at Saratoga offers several package options, including:

GirlFriends Getaway Package, featuring dinner, wine, mineral baths and massage treatments at the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa in Saratoga Spring State Park.

(The Roosevelt Baths & Spa Saratoga Springs opened in 1935 largely because at the impetus of President Franklin Roosevelt who wanted to develop the mineral baths at Saratoga Springs as well as Warm Springs, Virginia. Today, the Roosevelt Baths & Spa offers 42 original treatment rooms and a complete menu of services, including mineral baths, massages, facials, scrubs and body wraps, and a full-service salon.)

The inn’s Victorian Romance Package features a deluxe guest room or suite accommodations, a rose, chilled bottle of Champagne delivered to the room, plus morning buffet breakfast and gourmet 3 course dinner for two at The Inn at Saratoga’s Restaurant. Upgrade to a suite for the ultimate experience, most Brownell Cottage suites have a whirlpool tub, heated bathroom floors, steam showers and a Franklin stove fireplace.

The Israel family also owns another boutique hotel, in St. Thomas in the Caribbean.

The Inn at Saratoga is near most of Saratoga Springs’ attractions, such as the National Museum of Dance and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is summer home to the New York City Ballet © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Centrally located, The Inn at Saratoga is conveniently near center of the village and its attractions including Congress Park, Skidmore College, Saratoga Performing Arts Center (summer home of the New York City Ballet), the famous Saratoga Thorough-bred Racetrack, the Saratoga Harness Track, the Saratoga National Museum of Dance, the National Museum of Racing, and the Saratoga Spa State Park.

On the Friday night that I am in town, I can choose from seeing the New York City Ballet, see a polo match or a live folk performance at Café Lina, among many other options.

Besides the nearby attractions of Saratoga Springs (see story), The Inn at Saratoga is well situated to year-round attractions, including Lake George (half hour); Gore Mountain (hour), and the Revolutionary War-era Saratoga National Historical Park (20 minutes).

The Inn at Saratoga, 231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-583-1890, 800-274-3573, theinnatsaratoga.com. 

See next: Exploring Saratoga Springs 

____________________

 

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mansions on Fifth Historic Hotel is Steps Away from Pittsburgh’s Top Cultural Attractions

A parting shot of the Carnegie Museum of Art © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I must admit to relishing my stay in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, where I am staying at Mansions on Fifth, two mansion homes originally built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick for himself, his wife Mary and their 10 children, that have been turned into a boutique hotel. The neighborhood was also home to most of the city’s (and therefore, the nation’s) leading industrialists, innovators and bankers, including George Westinghouse, Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and the rest of Pittsburgh’s exceptionally wealthy families of the era, and boasts stunning mansions, churches as well as some of the city’s most important cultural attractions.

Staying at the mansion, you really feel part of that whole privileged Gilded Age society.

A young woman from the hotel spends a lot of time with me suggesting how to best spend my afternoon exploring. It turns out, the hotel (a true mansion) is only a short walk to the Carnegie Museum of Art. She also tells me about the Cathedral of Learning a few blocks beyond, in what is technically the Oakland neighborhood.

The neighboring mansion to Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I set off for the short walk to Carnegie Museum of Art (it is attached to the Carnegie Museum of National History, two of four Carnegie museums; the others are the Carnegie Museum of Science and the Warhol Museum, downtown), dazzled when I pass the neighboring mansions along Fifth Avenue. It reminds me of Newport or Palm Beach.

The Carnegie Museum of Art is arguably the first museum of contemporary art in the United States, collecting the “Old Masters of tomorrow” since the inception of the Carnegie International in 1896 – held at various times, from which much of the present museum’s collection came (there are notes that say if the painting was in an exposition).

“While most art museums founded at the turn of the century focused on collections of well-known masters, Andrew Carnegie envisioned a museum collection consisting of the ‘Old Masters of tomorrow.’ In 1896, he initiated a series of exhibitions of contemporary art and proposed that the museum’s paintings collection be formed through purchases from this series. Carnegie, thereby, founded what is arguably the first museum of modern art in the United States. Early acquisitions of works by such artists as Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, and Camille Pissarro laid the foundation for a collection that today is distinguished in American art from the mid-19th century to the present, in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, and in significant late-20th-century works. Today the International remains an important source for the museum’s acquisitions of contemporary art. Presented every three to five years, it features works by contemporary artists from around the globe.”

Some of the galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art are organized as you might expect the Carnegie International exhibits of a century ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a stunning collection – much of it coming out of annual Carnegie International Art Expositions, or from other important benefactors including Mellon and Scaife. Some of the galleries are arranged much like those expositions, with multi-levels of paintings; some of the rooms are more intimate, like private collections, and some are more institutional. The notes and themes that accompany the rooms and individual pieces are wonderful.

Just about every artist of note is represented with at least one piece – including a superb collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

I take particular note of Childe Hassam’s snow scene, “Fifth Avenue in Winter,” of New York City, painted circa 1892, when here I am on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh.

The entire museum, though, is a reminder of how an economy that is designed to bestow such riches on a small segment, at the expense of the vast majority produces a society in which “the public” depends on the kindness and charity of the ultra-wealthy.

“The Chariot of Aurora,” an Art Deco bas-relief masterpiece, was a gift to the Carnegie Museum of Art by the renowned collector Frederick K. Koch in 1994 © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This juxtaposition was absolutely clear in one room where the massive (18 feet high and 26 feet long) gilded and lacquered relief, The Chariot of Aurora, takes up an entire wall. The stunning example of Art Deco was a gift of the renowned collector Frederick K. Koch in 1994 (brother of billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have their names on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, PBS, and scores others, as well as significant donors to political candidates and entities).

Pittsburgh artist Raymond Simboli’s “Pinkerton Riot” is an homage to the Homestead Strike at the Carnegie & Frick steel mills so brutally put down in 1892 © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just next door is a room devoted to Pittsburgh artists, including Raymond Simboli,, whose “Pinkerton Riot” depicting the Homestead Strike at the Carnegie & Frick steel mills so brutally put down in 1892, uses the dress is of the 1940s. Another artist, Sam Rosenberg, similarly paints from the perspective of working class Pittsburghers in such stark contrast.

I set out for the Cathedral of Learning and find myself in the Carnegie Library, another cathedral of Learning, just across the street from the academic tower.

Truly an inspiring place, Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning looms large over the city – in fact, I am told, the largest academic structure in North America.

The Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh Historic Landmark, 1926-37, Charles Z. Klauder, Architect © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is part of the University of Pittsburgh which “was well on the way to becoming an acropolis of neoclassical buildings on an Oakland hillside when John G. Bowman became the University’s 10th chancellor in 1921. In those years following World War I, student enrollment had dramatically increased, causing a critical shortage of space. A 14-acre plot known as Frick Acres, which housed residences, gardens, and tennis courts, became the focus of Dr. Bowman’s plans to erect a monumental building. A structure expanding upward, though unorthodox, would solve the growing University’s problems of space and distance. More important, a tower would be a visible inspiration to all who approached the city. It would carry the message that education was the result of aspiring to great heights. The parallel lines of the truncated Gothic form, never meeting, would imply that learning is unending. The sweeping proportions would symbolize the spirit and achievement of Pittsburgh.  Architect Charles Z. Klauder translated these concepts into drawings that guided the placement of steel and stone.”

Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman, himself, offered the reasoning behind designing such a dramatic tower: “The building was to be more than a schoolhouse; it was to be a symbol of the life that Pittsburgh through the years had wanted to live. It was to make visible something of the spirit that was in the hearts of pioneers as, long ago, they sat in their log cabins and thought by candlelight of the great city that would sometime spread out beyond their three rivers and that even they were starting to build.”

The Cathedral of Learning is as much a monument to the immigrants who flooded its halls in their quest for education as a ticket to the American Dream.

Following World War I, Chancellor Bowman was charged with developing a great university in a city richly populated with first-generation immigrant families. He wanted to provide students with unique classrooms which would reflect a highly-creative period in the motherlands of Pittsburgh’s new citizens. He conceived the idea of inviting community representatives of diverse nations to plan and build classrooms depicting an era or aspect of the heritage they had brought to America – known today as the Nationality Rooms – appointing Ruth Crawford Mitchell as his special assistant. It took 30 years.

Peeking through peepholes to the Irish Room, one of dozens of Nationality Rooms in Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Cathedral of Learning, I seek out the “Nationality Rooms” – each one for a different nationality, such as Irish, Hungarian, Polish, Armenian, of ethnic groups who settled in Allegheny County. Rooms were subsequently added – like the Israel Room, in 1987 after a 30-year hiatus, which is modeled after a 1st-century stone dwelling in Galilee.

Unfortunately, when I get to there, the rooms are locked for the weekend, but I get to peek through peep-holes to the Irish room (the other rooms have peep holes much too high).

Members of Quo Vadis, a student organization, conduct guided tours for nearly 30,000 visitors each year. Special interpretations are adapted for children, senior citizens, the handicapped, and groups with special interests such as architecture, interior design, art, mythology, or religion. (See http://www.nationalityrooms.pitt.edu/content/touring-options-requesting-group-tours ).

 

Pittsburgh Neighborhoods

Shadyside has been Pittsburgh’s premier upscale address for more than a century. It is fairly obvious that this was once home to Pittsburgh’s robber barons – who could enjoy the clean, cool air well away from the choking smoke belching from their steel mills that shrouded the rest of the city – and now features a legacy of stunning housing on leafy green streets, awe-inspiring churches, and two active and growing business districts (Walnut Street and Ellsworth Avenue) with retail stores and eating and drinking establishments, including several that are considered among the best in the city. Shadyside is also home to Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, Shadyside Hospital of UPMC, and the Hillman Cancer Center.

I take my bike for a spin around the neighborhood and am dazzled by the architecture.

Shadyside is distinguished with stunning homes built by Pittsburgh’s high society © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The large residential area includes beautifully restored Victorian mansions alongside modern homes and condos (I notice that many of the houses have lawn signs stating in three languages, “No matter where you are from, we are glad you’re our neighbor.”)

Shadyside is also walking (or an easy bikeride) distance from two other distinctive Pittsburgh neighborhoods:

Home to prestigious museums, world-class hospitals and universities and international cuisine, Oakland is considered the cultural, academic and medical center of Pittsburgh, where you will find the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Carnegie Library and Cathedral of Learning, among other cultural venues.. It is also one of Pittsburgh’s liveliest neighborhoods, with cool coffee shops, multi-cultural eateries and interesting specialty shops alongside grand architecture. Oakland offers all of the attractions of a major university in terms of concerts, lectures, theater and other entertainment, along with a wide variety of retail offerings, bookstores, restaurants and bars (ethnic and otherwise). (onlyinoakland.org)

I am particularly intrigued as I drive to Mansions on Fifth from the highway, to pass a synagogue. This is Squirrel Hill, one of the fastest growing sections of Pittsburgh, which has also been a home to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community for many years. That history is reflected in the storefronts of the neighborhood’s two main business streets, Forbes Avenue and Forward Avenue, which feature a variety of grocery stores, retailers and restaurants honoring the Jewish heritage. But Squirrel Hill is also one of Pittsburgh’s most delightfully diverse neighborhoods as well, with residents (many connected to nearby universities and hospitals) from all over the world, reflected in the diversity of the cuisine of the various restaurants and eateries. Five minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill combines tree lined residential streets, a bustling business district, internationally recognized educational institutions, and two large public parks spanning 1100 acres.

Mansions on Fifth, 5105 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, 412-381-5105, 800-465-9550, http://mansionsonfifth.com/.

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.comwww.visitpittsburgh.com.

See also:

Mansions on Fifth Historic Boutique Hotel in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Sends You Back to Gilded Age

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

____________________

 

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mansions on Fifth Historic Boutique Hotel in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Sends You Back to Gilded Age

The jaw-dropping grand Mansion on Fifth, in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood, home to Carnegie, Frick and other celebrated industrialists and bankers, now a boutique hotel where you get to feel as if you were transported back to the Gilded Age © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

I return to Pittsburgh when I come back to do my second Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage, a fantastic rail-trail that stretches across Western Pennsylvania, from Cumberland, Md. to Pittsburgh, this time a longer trip, 150 miles, that finishes on the Montour Trail (see stories).

I had been dazzled by Pittsburgh on my first visit a year ago, and the same is true this time. It is no wonder that this city, built on steel and coal, rejuvenated, revitalized, has been named one of America’s most liveable cities. What is best about it is how it retained the best of old and new.

This time, as luck would have it, I choose a historic hotel, Mansions on Fifth, that is in the Shadyside neighborhood, a short walk away from the Carnegie Museums and the Cathedral of Learning, so that my all-too-brief time in this glorious city is spent immersed in the city’s leading cultural attractions that I had not been able to visit a year ago.

Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood is the sort of place that when you pull up, your jaw drops. And for the brief time that you are here, you feel what it must have been like to be part of Pittsburgh’s upper-crust, the society of industrial titans. You know how historic places being “living history” places because of people? That’s what you feel like when you stay and inhabit these rooms, continuing the life and spirit of these structures that seem to have a life of their own and stories to tell. People come and go, after all, but these structures remain, albeit in the care of stewards who take on the responsibility. (Whenever I travel, I first check out Historic Hotels of America’s site, historichotels.org, to see if there is a member property because the experience is always extraordinary; for my last visit, I stayed at the Omni William Penn Hotel, an iconic property right downtown. Mansions on Fifth used to be an HHA member, prior to being acquired in 2016 by Priory Hospitality Group, Pittsburgh’s premier owner, operator and developer of independent hotels and event spaces. Among its other holdings, Priory Hospitality Group owns and operates the Priory Hotel and Grand Hall at the Priory on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.)

Indeed, Mansions on Fifth puts you right back into Pittsburgh’s history and its story:

“The late 1890’s and early 1900’s were in many ways Pittsburgh’s golden age, measured by prosperity and economic might, if not by a clean environment. Pittsburgh was a financial and industrial powerhouse as well as a center of river and rail transportation. In 1900, Pittsburgh produced more than half of the crucible steel in the nation, and by 1910, it was the eighth most populous city in the country.

“It was also a time where giants of the business world traversed Shadyside’s Fifth Avenue – ‘Millionaire’s Row’ – on a daily basis. Names such as Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse and Heinz were among the leading citizens of the day.”

This 20,000 sq. ft. mansion was built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick for himself, his wife Mary and their 10 children.

The main house of Mansions on Fifth, built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

McCook was most famous for having represented Frick, but he was highly accomplished in his own right, the notes show.”A groundbreaker in modern day corporate law, McCook studied law at Columbia University following his graduation from Yale in 1873. He was also a pioneering athlete, serving as captain of Yale’s first football team and playing in the first intercollegiate football game in the nation. Later in life, he served as president and director of the Pittsburgh Steel Company, and was a partner in the law firm McCook & Jarrett. He died in 1923 at the age of 72.”

Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, which was also home to many of the city’s leading industrialists, innovators and bankers of the city, including George Westinghouse, Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and the rest of Pittsburgh’s exceptionally wealthy families of the era.

Here among the leafy green trees on a hilltop, it is easy to imagine how clean and cool the air in comparison to the choking atmosphere of the steel mills that shrouded the city below.

The Amberson House, built for McCook’s daughter, Bessie McCook Reed, next door to the main mansion. She lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. It is now part of the Mansions on Fifth historic hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As his mansion was being built, McCook’s daughter Bessie became engaged, so he contracted to build a more modest (but still spacious at 8,000 square feet) home adjacent to his own. The smaller mansion (now the Mansions on Fifth Hotel’s Amberson House) was completed first, and the main house (now called the Fifth Avenue House), was finished in 1906.

The two mansions were designed in the Elizabethan Revivalist and Tudor styles by the architectural firm Carpenter & Crocker, of Pittsburgh’s East End. Many of the firm’s other projects, which range from Florida to Washington state, exist today, including the iconic Trinity Cathedral Parish House in downtown Pittsburgh. The contractor on the McCook estate was Thomas Reilly, who also built the massive and magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral just down Fifth Avenue from the estate. Reilly also worked with Carpenter & Crocker on the Parish House at Trinity Cathedral.

“McCook and his designers and builders spared no expense, using some of the finest craftsmen of the era, including master ironworker Cyril Colnik (fixtures and decorative items), Rudy Brothers Art Glass (leaded and stained glass installations), and Rookwood Ceramic Tile (for the decorative tile around the fireplaces in the houses). The stunning carved wood in the Grand Hall of the Fifth Avenue House was produced by Woolaeger Manufacturing of Milwaukee. The total cost of the project was $300,000 in 1906 ($7.6 million in today’s dollars).

Light streams in to a wood-paneled lobby from stained glass windows on the staircase of the Mansion on Fifth to one of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After McCook died in, 1923, the family continued to live in the main mansion through the 1930’s. But the Great Depression took its toll and the family was unable to keep current with their property taxes. Seized for sheriff’s sale by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department, the mansion was purchased in 1949 by Emil Bonavita, Sr. and his wife Margaret for $28,000. The Bonavitas moved into the mansion with their two children, Emil, Jr. and Charles.

As a way to pay for upkeep for the massive building, the Bonavitas rented out rooms on the upper floors to students at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Students were thoroughly screened, and many of those attracted to the historic property were studying at CMU’s prominent arts and theater schools. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette architecture writer Patricia Lowry, tenants included Albert Brooks, Andy Warhol, Shirley Jones and George Peppard. Margaret, who acted as a house mother to the many students who resided at the home over the years, resided in the McCook mansion until her much mourned death in 2003.

Bessie McCook Reed, for whom the Amberson House was built in 1905, lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. Three years later, Emil Bonavita, Jr. and his wife Marie acquired the Amberson House and moved in to raise their family of four children. Emil and Marie also assisted in the boarding operations at the larger Fifth Avenue House.

In 2004, the Fifth Avenue House, the main mansion, sustained a horrific fire which caused extensive damage to the upper floors. The building became uninhabitable, and its tenure as a home for students ended. Emil and Marie looked to sell the damaged mansion to a purchaser who would restore it.

Pittsburgh preservationists, husband and wife Mary Del Brady and Richard Pearson, acquired both houses of the former McCook estate from the Bonavitas for $1.5 million. Their idea was to redevelop the property into a boutique hotel and event center. Restoration and repair work, which was extensive given the fire damage, began in January 2010. The Fifth Avenue House, the primary mansion, was completed in early 2011 and opened to the public in March of that year with 13 guest rooms and suites, the grand hall event space, a library, the Oak Room pub, and two private dining rooms. The adjacent Amberson House, with 9 guest rooms and suites, opened in November 2012. Total cost of the project exceeded $8,000,000.

The properties were recognized as an historic landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.

New Era for Mansions on Fifth

In late September 2016, Pittsburgh-based boutique hotel owner/operator Priory Hospitality Group acquired the operating assets of the Mansions on Fifth Hotel and assumed operations of the Shadyside property. Owned and operated by the Graf family since 1986, the Priory Hospitality Group’s properties include the award winning Priory Hotel (a Tripadvisor Hall of Fame member), Grand Hall at the Priory event facility (Best Wedding Venue – City Paper 2016; Best of the Knot 2006-2016; Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant 2012 & 13), and Priory Fine Pastries commercial and retail bakery (Runner Up – Pittsburgh Magazine Best Bakery 2012 & 13).

Priory Hospitality Group invested considerably to upgrade the properties and amenities.

The Mansions on Fifth today offers 22 elegant guest rooms (each one different; you feel more like a family guest than an out-of-towner) in the two distinct historic buildings – the main 20,000 sq. ft. Fifth Avenue House and the adjacent 8,000 sq. ft. Amberson House. The Fifth Avenue House also has the hotel’s reception desk, dining room, Oak Room pub, chapel, library and wine cellar.

The Front Desk is staffed 24 hours a day to provide help with directions, restaurant recommendations, check in, , while butlers are available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day to assist.

My room is in the Amberson House, which for your all-too-brief stay makes you feel like you are really at home in a mansion. The Amberson House offers its own cozy and comfortable first floor common areas in addition to guest rooms. It would be perfect for a family or group to take over (indeed, during my stay, there is a large wedding party.)

One of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace at Mansions on Fifth, a Gilded Age mansion converted to a boutique hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can appreciate the renovations: each of the elegant guest rooms and suites features a spacious bathroom with glass and ceramic shower enclosures, Gilchrist and Soames organic bath and shower amenities, and soft, thick towels woven with bamboo fibers.

Some guest rooms and suites also feature fireplaces and jetted tubs. The spacious Presidential Suite has two separate bedrooms and baths and nearly 1,000 square feet of living space.

My room at Amberson House makes you feel more like a weekend guest of the McCook family rather than an out-of-towner © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition, the Mansions on Fifth Hotel offers a wide variety of amenities and services, including:  complimentary continental breakfast (with a more hearty ala carte breakfast available at an additional cost); complimentary newly upgraded Wireless Internet service; complimentary on premise parking (not a small matter in Pittsburgh); guest computer with WiFi access and printer; Fitness Center and The Oak Room pub, open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, featuring craft cocktails, fine wines, and a variety of microbrew beers.

The Oak Room pub also is the venue for a variety of weekly events, from wine flights, to whiskey tastings, to live music.

Mansions on Fifth is a delightful venue for weddings (there is one that had just finished when I arrive), family reunions and special events. You can basically take over the two mansion homes.

(I am also intrigued to visit the Priory Group’s historic, 42-room boutique hotel that was once a Benedictine monastery, built in 1888, meticulously restored to modern standards and featuring all the amenities of a large downtown property with the intimacy of a small European hotel, located in Deutschtown on the North Shore, a near walk to the Andy Warhol Museum and downtown Pittsburgh. The Priory Group spent $2.7 million to upgrade the property, adding a new, larger front desk and a cozy pub — the Monks’ Bar – in the original building, a Fitness Center and Business Center, as well as state of the art meeting space in a new wing.)

Mansions on Fifth, 5105 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, 412-381-5105, 800-465-9550, http://mansionsonfifth.com/.

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.comwww.visitpittsburgh.com.

Next:

Mansions on Fifth Historic Hotel is Steps Away from Pittsburgh’s Top Cultural Attractions

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

Pascal’s “Seated Torso,” the largest glass sculpture in the world, is now in an annex the Dunbar Historical Society built, to house the piece, donated to the town by Donald Trump © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Taking the Sheepskin Trail off the Great Allegheny Trail – a fantastic railtrail that extends 140 miles across Western Pennsylvania, which is the focus of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn biketour – you bike through woods, over the railroad tracks, over a stream, and suddenly, the forest opens up and suddenly, Dunbar appears, like Brigadoon.

It is as if time stopped still. There are no people on the street. Nothing is moving.

Dunbar, PA was a bustling town a century ago largely because of glass manufacturing; a piece of glass that began here 60 years ago may hold key to the town’s resurgence © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dunbar once bustled as a manufacturing center for wire corrugated glass – the kind of glass you likely grew up with in schools and government buildings; as a transit center and coke ovens. The buildings, from 1904 and 1906 (a common date we find as we go through these small towns), look vacant now. It reminds me, again, of a movie set. We are greeted here at Dunbar’s Historical Society, housed in what used to be the US Post Office building (constructed 1903-1907), which harbors a really wonderful collection of artifacts. But in just the past two years, Dunbar has acquired a world-class piece of art that has put this tiny town back on the map – and not just for the internationally renowned artist, but for how the piece, “Seated Torso” – the largest glass sculpture in the world – came to Dunbar: Donald Trump.

Pat Trimbath a member of the Historical Society’s board, tells us the wonderful story of a 60-year odyssey of this piece of glass, which began here as an abandoned two-ton chunk.

Pat Trimbath a member of the Dunbar Historical Society’s board, tells us the story of the 60-year odyssey of this piece of glass, which began in Dunbar as an abandoned two-ton chunk. © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dunbar used to be a center for glassmaking, and specifically, the manufacture of shatterproof glass reinforced with corrugated wire but when the Pennsylvania Wire Glass Company shut down in 1955, it was full of large chunks of glass, including a two-ton piece of green/blue glass in its furnace.

Artist Suzanne Regan Pascal learned of the treasure trove of glass in Dunbar in 1960 and stayed in Dunbar for an entire year, working on sculpting glass. She bought all the glass and had it moved to her Beverly Hills studio. (There is a marvelous display with photos of Pascal chiseling the “Seated Torso”.)

A photo of Pascal chiseling her “Seated Torso” is part of the exhibit on display at the Dunbar Historical Society, where the sculpture is now housed © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

She produced many sculptures from the Dunbar glass between 1961-67, had various gallery shows, and ultimately sold many of them to patrons including President and Nancy Reagan, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Henry Mancini, and Armand Hammer who presented a sculpted glass necklace to Princess Diana for her wedding.

In 1994, Pascal sold the Seated Torso to billionaire John Kluge for $3 million. He moved it to Charlottesville, Virginia, where it was placed in the center of a fountain in his Morven Carriage House.

After Kluge died in 2010, Donald Trump purchased his estate including the carriage house. About this time, Donna Myers, Dunbar Historical Society secretary, put a question on Askart.com seeking information of the Seated Torso.

In 2013, the head winemaker at what became the Trump Vineyard Winery found the two-year old question and contacted Myers, offering the Seated Torso to the Dunbar Historical Society if the society could raise the funds to move it back to Dunbar – $11,000.

Trimbath tells us that once the association with Trump was known, “donations poured in.”

The framed letter and photo sent by Donald J. Trump to the Dunbar Historical Society donating a glass sculpture by Pascal valued at $3.5 million, though the Trump Organization, which acquired it when it bought the Kluge estate, never actually paid for the sculpture and even had the town raise $11,000 to pay to move it © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Dunbar Historical Society built an annex to its building, and the sculpture was officially opened to the public in May 2016 (coinciding with our Sojourn). We noticed a change from last year: the letter and photo from Donald J. Trump was moved to a slightly less prominent corner.

The sculpture and the rest of the historical society is really worth seeing (www.dunbarhistoricalsociety.com).

See also:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

Rails-to-Trails’ Great Allegheny Passage Bike Tour Side Trip into Dunbar Brings Surprise Encounter with TrumpWorld

$3.5 Million Glass Sculpture in Dunbar, PA is Clue to Donald Trump’s ‘Charitable’ Donations

______________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

Biking through the Pinkerton Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Trail on the way to Confluence, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Our first day on this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn biketour on the Great Allegheny Passage and the Montour Trail, 140-miles biking over six days through Western Pennsylvania, brought us from Deal to Meyersdale with a side-trip that brings us across the Eastern Continental Divide (with gorgeous murals on the tunnel depicting the story), to the Mason-Dixon Line and a striking monument. It is a relatively short ride that brings us to the tented city we create at Meyersdale’s community park. We have time to explore, and to enjoy the town’s gracious hospitality with a dinner at the firehouse and pancake breakfast, complete with Meyerdale’s famous maple syrup, in the gym of the former high school. 

Meyersdale, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2: On the second day, we also have an option: to cruise an easy 31 miles downhill to the Confluence Outflow Campground, riding through an enchanting tree tunnel, or taking an on-the-road route to ride up to Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis. 

The forecast of rain all day makes the choice an easy one: the easy tree-tunnel route through tranquil forest. Despite some shelter from the trees, we get soaked, but it is a warm rain, and the amount of good cheer keeps us warmer still. The rain stops just as we arrive at Confluence, where we are greeted with two representatives of Confluence in period dress, inviting us to follow the balloons lining a route into the town center for free bike washes at the local cycle shop (and a gift!) and ice cream at the gazebo on the village green. Confluence, I am told, has a population of 700; for these two days, the census swells by 200 more. That evening, no one complains about the rain.

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are welcomed to Confluence, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The campground is absolutely magnificent, literally at the base below the enormous dam, constructed in 1944 to control flooding and more recently, to generate hydroelectric power. It is a popular place for fishermen.

Just after our evening “talk” (a workshop on repairing our bike), and sitting around waiting for phones to recharge, we get word that there is a major storm at Ohiopyle, about 11 miles away. We have 10 minutes before it hits us. Sure enough, small drops start to fall as I am just steps away from the tent. By the time I get there, rain is coming down in sheets. 

The Rails-to-Trails Sojourn campsite in the Outflow Campground, beneath the dam at Confluence, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 3 is our “Fun Day” when we don’t cycle (unless we want to), but instead have a choice of activities: Fallingwater tour (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), Kentuck Knob tour (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), a rafting trip on the Middle Yough Class 1 – 2, or, the one I choose, a class 3 whitewater rafting trip on the Lower Yough.

In fact, 81 of us choose this option, organized by Wilderness Voyageurs, the same company that organizes the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn rides including this one (the company has a catalog full of bike tours). I’ve done a fair amount of white water rafting trips in the past, but this one on the wonderfully scenic Youghiogheny River was absolutely the best – truly thrills and chills, especially since this is the only Class 3 rafting experience offered as a “guide-assisted” instead of having a guide in each raft. That means we are arbitrarily put into rafts and we “elect” a captain. This proves a great challenge and  a great experience (I lasted about 5 minutes as captain, exactly one set of rapids, when one of our four rafters got bounced out and we all decided to go into other rafts, leaving one of the guides to portage the raft to a point where he could deflate it and pick it up later). Getting bounced out of the raft – going for a “swim” – is not unusual and we have been cautioned to only wear what can get wet or lost.

We aren’t really on our own – one guide positions himself on a rock and gives us hand signals how we should “attack” the rapid, where to enter and so forth (though the instructions are for naught when inexperienced paddlers can’t follow directions, forget which is left and right, or are being bounced so high, they can’t reach paddle into the water); other guides in a kayak and in a raft are there to pick up anyone who is bounced out, and three of the rafts have guides in them (that’s the one I go into). Over the course of the trip, several of us get tossed out of the raft; one fellow gets a bit beat up.

A view of a portion of the lower Youghiogheny River where we had our class III whitewater rafting trip just the day from the overpass on the Great Allegheny Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is one point, though, where we come to an ominous sign warning that anyone who doesn’t want to raft through this particular set of rapids can portage their raft around it. The reason is because there is an underwater cavern, and if you get bounced out here, it is possible to be sucked down under. (Our guide says that most people die of heart failure rather than drowning. Small comfort.) The lead guide says that if any one of us in a raft wants to portage, the whole raft has to. We are in the lead raft and get to watch everybody coming through, cheering them on. Everyone makes it through.

We pull in for lunch at a small lagoon – we fill pita with chicken salad (fantastic) or tuna, cheese, lettuce and tomato, and have a wonderful time before continuing on down the river.

I don’t even know how long we are on the river – it all goes by so fast. But we are back at the campground by around 3 pm.

Storyteller Pennsylvania Jack © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A few of us climb up to walk across the dam – the lake that was formed is popular for swimming and boating.

That evening, we are regaled by Pennsylvania Jack, a storyteller, and there is a campfire with s’mores.

Day 4 is our longest ride – 58 miles on the schedule (albeit mostly downhill), but with an option that increases the distance to a touch over 62. This section of the Great Allegheny Passage, between Confluence and West Newton, where we camp, is the most scenic, with much of it going through the stunning Ohiopyle State Park (Pennsylvania’s largest in land area). We ride along the river for just about the entire distance. When we reach the Ohiopyle State Park Visitors Center, about 11 miles into the ride, I go off the trail to do a hike that I had heard about the year before: Cucumber Falls. I had seen a painting of it in the Visitors’ Center, where there is an excellent historic exhibit, and heard about a hike starting a short walk from the center, and always regretted not doing the hike then.

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage, Confluence to Ohiopyle © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Follow the yellow feet on the sidewalk,” they tell me. The hike is just about 25 minutes each way – a little over a mile – and proves absolutely enchanting: you follow yellow markings on trees and rocks, do some scrambling, and then, you make a turn and there ahead of you is the most magnificent falls, tucked into the woods. I felt as if I were John Muir coming upon Yosemite Falls for the first time.

Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA, reached by an enchanting hike scrambling through the woods, along the Youghiogheny River from the Visitors Center © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lighting is perfect – just a touch of sunlight hitting the waterfall. It is a magical experience and I am transfixed.

(I heartily recommend this hike, which should add 1 to 1 ½ hrs to the day’s ride time.)

Climbing up behind Cucumber Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m calculating the extra time, as I get to mile 25.9 (not even halfway), when we have another option: to steer off about 2.1 miles on the Sheepskin Trail connector off the GAP, to go into the tiny town of Dunbar. Having visited last year, I knew this was an off-trail visit not to be missed, especially when you come in this way, off a back trail (even worth the half-mile over a rocky unimproved section). (See: Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar) 

The sculpture and the rest of the historical society is really worth seeing (www.dunbarhistoricalsociety.com).

Dunbar, PA, once a glass-manufacturing center that depended upon railroads, now seeing a new lease on life with rail-trails and the Pascal “Seated Torso” sculpture, donated by Donald Trump, on view in the historical society © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The train tracks come straight through the middle, as if a main street. On the village green is a coke oven and a memorial to those who died in a nearby mine accident.

RTC has basically adopted Dunbar as an example of how a town can be revitalized through tourism and culture.

Dunbar, PA was a bustling town a century ago, © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 5: This proves our most challenging day – not just because it is 48 miles of cycling after yesterday’s long ride, but I suspect because of the humidity and also because much of it, it seems, is uphill. But it also proves very interesting, as we leave the GAP after 17 miles (just after Boston, PA, where the trail becomes very urban, bringing a certain culture shock after such pastoral scenes.). To get from the GAP to the Montour Trail, we ride six miles on urban streets, through a small town of Glassport (where we are treated to snacks and cold water at a church), ride over a bridge to Clairton that gives us an eyeful into what I expect defined Pittsburgh just a couple of decades ago: a humongous pile of coal dwarfing the trucks scooping it up, and across the railroad tracks, a giant carbon materials and chemical plant. We finally get to the beginning of the Montour Trail, which includes several places where you are on/off the trail, on/off a shared road.

Culture shock as we leave the pastoral Great Allegheny Trail, ride through Clairton, on our way to the Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At one point, I ride around a bend and find myself in a different time zone or the Twilight Zone – a hodgepodge of train cars, trucks, firetrucks, gas pumps and signs from the 1940s or so, as if they were just left there.  After a rocky start, the Montour Trail becomes as idyllic as the GAP, nestled in trees. A highlight is the 600-foot long National Tunnel.

Biking through the National Tunnel on the Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finally arrive at the small town of Cecil, where we camp at the Cecil Township Ballfield Park, and are treated to an absolute banquet (no kidding), Sierra Nevada beer, and finish off with a talent show.

It pours during the night (I am snug in the Comfy Camper tent), but amazingly stops just in time for breakfast. We are told to expect a break in the rain from 8 to 11am – exactly how much time we need to go the 26 miles to the end of our ride, including the last mile of the Montour Trail (actually an added mile that goes beyond the zero-milepost that they are working to improve), which is very definitely “off road”. The trail is really nice – it is wonderful to see how local communities show their pride and appreciation for the trail with beautiful gardens and rest stations. It also offers an example of the serendipity that takes place on the trail: I suddenly come upon what appears a depot of antique trucks, cars, gas station pumps and signs – either the historical society or a warehouse for theatrical props.

Local volunteers worked to improve rail bridges for bikers on the Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This last day’s ride also lets us see some of the “hybrids” and innovations in repurposed multi-use trails – a section of the Montour is a trail-beside-a-rail – the multipurpose trail is carved out of the right-of-way beside the active rail line.

We also literally ride over the “Panhandle” Trail which goes to Parkersburg West Virginia, with the connector that ultimately will allow bikers to cycle from Pittsburgh to Parkersburg (PtoP).

As for the rain, sure enough, as I pull into the parking lot at 11:15 am, the drops turn into deluge in a matter of moments.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Washington, DC 20037, 202-974-5150, Railstotrails.orgTrailLink.com. 

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn is a wonderful introduction to bike touring.

Wilderness Voyageurs, which operates the Sojourn on the GAP for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, offers Ride the GAP trips with bed-and-breakfast accommodations (they portage luggage from inn to inn), as well as a full catalog of guided bike tours that includes Colorado; Missouri’s Katy Trail; Idaho’s Hiawatha & Coeur D’Alene; South Dakota’s Mickelson & the Badlands; the Erie Canal, Finger Lakes, and Adirondacks in New York; Shenandoah and the Civil War; Gettysburg & the Civil War; Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay; Pittsburgh to DC on the GAP & C&O; Pennsylvania’s Amish Country; Kentucky’s Bike & Bourbon; Georgia’s Gold Coast; and a biking trip in Cuba. (855-550-7705, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com)

See also:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

 

______________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Riding over the Eastern Continental Divide on the Great Allegheny Passage railtrail on the first day of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn biketour © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

The ages of the 200 of us on this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn, biking 150-miles along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and Montour Trail across western Pennsylvania, ranges from 9 to 83 years old. Indeed, there are 15 young people and three octogenarians among us.

A bike tour such as this, along relatively flat trails free of cars and other hazards, is a great equalizer: youngsters feel competent, accomplished, adventurous; and oldsters, well, feel competent, accomplished, adventurous and youthful.

Our group comes from more than 30 states plus Canada and as far as Alaska, including families, three generations (a grandfather who is a retired physics professor, his three sons and two grandsons); grandfathers with grandsons, a mother with her son; husbands without wives; wives without husbands; and single women relishing the simultaneous independence with community.

Three generations of the Parsegian family who have come from Massachusetts, Texas, Michigan and New York to bike the Great Allegheny Passage on the RTC Sojourn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I reconnect with a couple from DC whom I first met on the 400-mile Erie Canal bikeride two years ago, again last year on this RTC Sojourn on the GAP, and this year, we find ourselves sitting next to each other on the bus from the drop-off to the start of the ride – he is the 83-year old. I meet people like Ed Holowinko of Connecticut, who was one of the activists who helped save the Walk over the Hudson, when otherwise, the bridge would have been taken down and instead has become one of the most popular attractions in the state. I meet people who defy the stereotype of an environmentalist cyclist: a woman who is as comfortable riding her motorcycle as her bike and a man who proudly defends the NRA (though political discussions are assiduously avoided, just as at any family gathering).

Comfy Campers set up 81 tents for the RTC Sojourners – the closest thing to “glamping” – creating a tent city at Meyersdale © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The supported ride is ideal for singles and families as well as those on their first biketour or experiencing their first long-distance ride: a luggage truck brings your stuff from one campsite to the next; there is breakfast and dinner provided daily; shower trucks and portasans supplement the campsite’s facilities; charging stations. If you don’t want to set up a tent, you can luxuriate in hiring Comfy Campers which provides a terrifically comfortable, watertight tent with air mattress, chair, fresh towel daily, cooling area with water and lemonade and chargers – the closest thing to “glamping” you can find. (Those who don’t want to camp can take advantage of bed-and-breakfast accommodations along the route.) In addition, there is a bike mechanic and massage therapists, and a volunteer nurse who travel with us.

There is such a sense of community that immediately forms in our tent city – sitting around long tables at breakfast and dinner; waiting for a turn at the shower truck, brushing teeth at the sinks – it’s like a giant pajama party. The kids come together in games and activities; we gather around for an evening talk (one night Pennsylvania Jack, a storyteller, regaled us), a campfire, and, for the final night, a talent show (contestants competed for the grand prize, a Fuji bike!). Another nice feature this year: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company joined as a sponsor, and we have free beer (terrific Pale Ale!) on a few of our dinners.

Oldest and youngest among us on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 140-mile Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are endless conversations with people who have never heard your stories before that typically begin, “Where are you from?” I meet a woman from Michigan who, now retired, takes one of these long-distance biketours on rail-trails practically monthly – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; the Katy Trail, in Missouri; the Louisiana Bayou.

Many of us (one-third, in fact), had been on this Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage before, including me, but the destination and the experience is so fantastic, it is delightful to return over and over. Each day provides a different highlight, and each person will have a different experience. And each day brings its own serendipity, its own uniqueness – the season, weather, lighting, chance encounters, different things to explore. Indeed, even the sections of the Great Allegheny Passage that I had traveled last year in spring were very different this summer.

The Great Allegheny Passage crosses over the Mason-Dixon Line © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is more, there are significant differences in the itinerary – this year’s trip was longer in distance and days, starting out closer to the Mason-Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide (and the beginning of the 150-mile long GAP, which starts in Cumberland, Maryland, 21 miles further east from the Mason-Dixon line, but would involve a steep uphill climb; the way we do it, there is only a slight incline and most of us ride the mere 4 miles out and back, adding a mere 8 miles to the first day’s tally); featured a “fun day” in Pennsylvania’s magnificent Ohiopyle State Park when we get to choose among four different activities (I choose a Class III whitewater river rafting experience which is sensational; others choose a milder Class I river rafting trip, or visits to one of two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes, Fallingwaters or Kentuck Nob, and still others just do their own thing), which also meant we had two days at one campsite.

Also, the ending of the trip takes us back toward Pittsburgh (actually Coraopolis, PA) on the Montour Trail, which, like the Great Allegheny Passage – both award-winning trails – and a superb example of how obsolete rail lines (or canalways, or right-of-ways alongside active rail lines) can be turned into multi-use recreational trails. These linear parks, if you will, not only provide wellness and outdoor activities for families to do together, but also revitalize towns and villages whose economies have been upended by shuttered factories and mines, towns and villages that for so long had been defined by the railroads, the steel mills, the coal mines. Along the way, I will capture images of the cyclists on the rail trail cutting into hillsides topped with wind turbines above the Pennsylvania towns founded on oil, coal and gas. The rail-trails provide a new lease on life, as it were, and we realize it as the chambers of commerce, tourist bureaus, volunteer firefighters, Rotary and Lions Clubs go out of their way to greet us.

RTC bikers on the Great Allegheny Trail pass by wind turbines on the Pennsylvania hilltops © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And so we are welcomed at Meyersdale, our first night’s destination, where the railroad station along the Great Allegheny Passage has been turned into a delightful historical society display, refreshment stand and shop, by representatives of local chamber; a special Sunday evening service at the church features a prayer for all the Sojourners to have a safe ride, dinner at the fire department and breakfast at what used to be the town’s high school. This is a town that once supported six hotels, a bank, a high school and elementary school – today, all but the bank (built in 1904) are shuttered. And while the GAP goes over one railroad line that has been turned into the railtrail, there is still an active railroad line that goes right through the middle of town.

Walking about after our dinner, there is this eerie quiet and stillness – a sense of being in a movie set, rather than a town, or a scene in Twilight Zone (granted, it is Sunday and Fathers’ Day at that). I pass a barber shop and peer in: there is a crumbled newspaper, brown and deteriorating with age; the leather barber chairs are cracked; the shop seems to have been left alone for decades- I take note of a Sheriff’s notice on the door handle. I pass a porch with a Confederate flag and “Don’t tread on me” banner.

Meyersdale shows its pride © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Meyersdale is a very proud community – it showcases its history on markers, on magnificent painted murals that fill entire sides of buildings, even on the placemats that picture the town’s history and attractions which are laid out for our breakfast that features Meyersdale’s famous maple syrup (who knew this was the capital of maple syrup making?).

The towns we get to visit are absolutely wonderful – quite literally, Smalltown America -and the contrast with seeing nothing but trees, rocks and river along the trail is stimulating and intriguing.

You are deep in the forest – for much of the way, riding alongside a river or creek on one side, and outcroppings of rocks on the other, riding through a literal “tree tunnel” that envelopes you. Occasionally we ride by a farm, but most of the time, the solitude is just stunning – the kind of serenity you feel when you are hiking. The only sound is the wind you create by riding, the crunching sound of the bike wheels on the hard-packed gravel, and birds. Many, many birds. Occasionally we pass by a small waterfall. It is surprising with so much land all around we don’t see that many animals, though on one day, we come upon several deer on the trail; chipmunks who scurry across the path (amazing how they time their dash), making a huge leap into the bushes just as I am about to reach them. The quiet is occasionally broken by a train whistle and the chugging as they haul something like 8000 tons of coal on tracks on the opposite riverbank.

The serenity of biking on the Great Allegheny Passage © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

If you are a writer or poet, this is better to get creative juices flowing than holing up in isolated cabin – your imagination and your thoughts dance in your head as you ride, nurtured by the rhythms and the endorphins. If you are an artist, you will be inspired by the scenes that stream by.

At one point, I think to myself, “We are like nomads, like pioneers, steadily picking up stakes and moving on, each time setting up a new community.”

The trail also has some wonderfully thrilling  and dramatic features – it is tremendous fun (exciting too) going through these old rail tunnels, over viaducts and steel bridges – that have been built for the trains, but now rebuilt and repurposed, largely because of the efforts of local communities and volunteers, for bikes.

Riding through the Pinkerton Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Passage © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride at our own pace – and can go off the trail to explore if we like – and depending upon the length of ride (from about 30 miles to the longest ride, 62 miles with some optional add-ons, averaging 35-40 miles a day), we would have one or two rest stops with snacks and cold water. They offer suggestions for lunch or ice cream or attractions we might want to explore, like Rockwood’s Opera House (our cue sheets offer great detail). And in many cases, people from the town set up to welcome us.

This is clear from the first day, when we have the option of either riding a mere 8 miles to the first night’s campsite, just 8 miles to Meyersdale, or add four miles out and back to explore several iconic sites, including the Eastern Continental Divide, the Big Savage Tunnel, the Big Savage Overlook and the Mason-Dixon Line monument.

At that night’s dinner, held in the Meyersdale Fire House, the trip leader, Tom Sexton, Director of the Northeast Regional Office of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Who is leading the Sojourn, talks about the mission of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and our role as Sojourners.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has played a key advocacy role to promote the creation and use of these repurposed trails. RTC has been a partner, providing technical assistance – such as negotiating with railroads, advising localities on visioning and feasibility studies as well as construction, and coordination with nonprofits and volunteer efforts, such as the Montour Trail Council that has been so active in building and improving the trail we will take.

A current project underway will link trails in four states, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, creating an Industrial Heartland Trail Network. (New York State, which has the Erie Canalway that extends from Buffalo to Albany, is creating the Empire State Trail, finishing 350-miles of new trails that would complete the Eric Canalway and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, and connecting them to form a 750-mile pathway, the longest in the nation, from New York Harbor, through the Adirondack Mountains, to the Canadian border, and from Lake Erie to Albany.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy promotes the use of rail-trails – there are some 23,000 miles of rail-trails- and its TrailLink.com website helps you locate them.

RTC is also an advocacy group lobbying Congress and the administration, which will be important coming up, because Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the earmarks for rail-trails.

RTC’s Tom Sexton: federal funding for rail-to-trail projects like the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail are in jeopardy © 2017 Karen Rubin /goingplacesfarandnear.com

As Sexton explains, since 1991, the major funding for these rail-to-trail projects has come from the federal government, with matching funds from states and localities. The Highway Bill had typically included mass transit and railroad funding but beginning in 1991, also earmarked funding for 10 categories, including rail-trails, given as grants to states to use for acquisition, planning and construction.

But that is under threat by the new administration:

“The president’s budget proposal eliminates all funding for the wildly popular TIGER program, which is bad news for trails and active transportation,” RTC states. “Without TIGER, trails could miss out on hundreds of millions in funding. Since the program began in 2009, TIGER has provided nearly $340 million in funding for active transportation projects and trail networks like the Circuit Trails in PhiladelphiaCleveland Metroparks and the Atlanta BeltLine. What’s more, using the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ methodology to calculate jobs per mile of trail built, we project that TIGER investments in active transportation have generated thousands of jobs.

“TIGER is much more than a program that supports trails; it funds all transportation modes and is unique in that it encourages cross-jurisdictional and multimodal cooperation, breaking down traditional bureaucratic silos and looking at balanced transportation systems as a whole. This makes the program intentional, focused and efficient in the projects it selects—and effective in achieving outcomes after construction.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation has thus far awarded TIGER funding to diverse projects including roads and bridges, ports, railways, transit, freight operations and, of course, trails and other walking and biking infrastructure. However, the new president and transportation secretary will set their own funding priorities….

“The budget also calls for an end to general fund infusions to the Highway Trust Fund, eliminating $95 billion in expected transportation spending over the same 10 years, raising further doubts about the extent to which infrastructure investment would increase if the president’s budget proposal were to pass.”

Map of our 2017 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn ride on the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, we Sojourners are ambassadors and advocates and increasingly now, also activists.

“Everyone here is an ambassador,” says Brandi Horton, RTC’s VP of Communications. “We show the towns, the communities, city and town and state governments just how important rail trails are to building community, generating economic development, building tourism and getting people out together.”

Tips for advocating include bringing a friend out with you on the trail, use social media, lobby state and federal legislators to make sure trails are included in infrastructure funding; let your Congressmember know you use the trails, send a photo.

RTC has also its “take action” section of the website, where you can plug in your zipcode, find your official and send a note.

“Be a spokesperson, do community outreach. If you want to get a trail in your community, you need your voice heard not just at the federal, state and regional level, but at the local level.”

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Washington, DC 20037, 202-974-5150, Railstotrails.orgTrailLink.com.

See next:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

 ____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures