Ligonier Valley Trail Officially Opens Mill Creek Bridge on April 27

The story of the Ligonier Valley Trail is one that I’ve followed for the last few years in Ligonier.  And it’s a story that I’ve enjoyed writing about because it’s such a positive story, with some interesting history behind it.   If you plan to spend any time in Ligonier, please stop by the trail and see the results of a lot of hard work, dedication and passion from dedicated community members and groups.

If you plan to be there TOMORROW (Saturday, April 27), you should try and attend the official ribbon cutting for the new bridge that extends the trail over Mill Creek.  The ceremony is scheduled for 9:30a.m. I hope to be there!

A hiking and biking trail in Ligonier has been in the works by the Ligonier Township Recreation Board  for the past ten years, if not longer. The trail originally started as part of a Rails to Trails initiative designed to re-purpose former railroad lines into walking trails. Phase One of the Ligonier Valley Trail opened in October 2010 and runs about a half-mile on the former Ligonier Valley Rail Road rail bed behind Weller Field from Peoples Road south to Mill Creek.

The rail bed used for the Phase One portion was an extension of the original Ligonier Valley Rail Road line, which spanned approximately 10 miles between Ligonier and Latrobe and served the region with passenger and freight traffic for 75 years until its final run on August 31, 1952.   A six-mile extension was added so the railroad could reach the coal fields north of Ligonier, which were part of the Pittsburgh Seam of coal famously used to produce coke and, subsequently, steel.

How cool is it that pedestrians and bicyclists can now walk where trains brought people, coal and coke from the Fort Palmer and Wilpen communities into the town and beyond a hundred years ago?  Not only is the new trail meant to provide recreation to the community but when extended beyond the the creek it will also afford them an alternate way to travel between the borough and township instead of using the main highway, State Route 711.

After Phase One was complete, the Ligonier Valley Trail Committee imagined further possibilities with the trail, all of which required producing a feasibility study that would plot the future course of the trail, securing easements from property owners, working with the borough and outside groups, securing volunteers to help work on the trail and generating funding.

Ligonier Township Recreation Board members celebrate the arrival of the trail bridge to the Mill Creek location behind Weller Field. From left to right: Elizabeth McCall, President Sharon Detar, Larry Shew and Project Manager Rose Stepnick. (photo courtesy Rose Stepnick)

Ligonier Township Recreation Board members celebrate the arrival of the trail bridge to the Mill Creek location behind Weller Field.
From left to right: Elizabeth McCall, President Sharon Detar, Larry Shew and Project Manager Rose Stepnick. (photo courtesy Rose Stepnick)

But the first obstacle the committee faced was building a new 90-foot-long bridge to expand the trail south over Mill Creek.  All that was left of the former railroad bridge was the abutments flanking both sides of the creek.  After an eleventh-hour push for donations to secure a matching grant for the project, followed by a nerve-wracking search for construction bids within the budget last year, the committee was able to purchase the new steel Pratt truss-design bridge and connecting ramp, which were both installed earlier this month.

Now that the bridge will enable the trail to stretch south into Ligonier Borough, the committee sees the route generally winding through town near major facilities and attractions and continuing west along the Lincoln Highway to the intersection of Route 259 near Idlewild Park.  Hopefully the Ligonier Valley Trail will help to draw more business to the area from visitors using it to explore the area and also give residents another recreational amenity.

For more information, see my past Latrobe Bulletin articles for some additional background on the trail,  the Phase Two feasibility study, the committee’s efforts to secure the bridge and future plans!

Many people from the Ligonier community have been instrumental in realizing the trail project, including the Ligonier Valley Trail Committee, Ligonier Township, Ligonier Borough and the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, not to mention the volunteers who have worked to clean and prepare the trail, as well as those who have contributed financially.  I have to specifically mention Rose Stepnick, trail project manager, who has been extremely dedicated to the project throughout its duration and who has helped me greatly with my trail articles! Thank you Rose!

Follow the progress of the Ligonier Valley Trail through the official blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed!


Ligonier Valley Vignettes: A Visit to Washington Furnace Inn

Washington Furnace Inn

Photo by David Zajdel

Bad Boy Blues Band at Washington Furnace Inn

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

After wanting to visit the historic Washington Furnace Inn ever since its new owners reopened the defunct roadhouse last year, I finally took the opportunity to do do so when the Bad Boy Blues Band performed there last Sunday afternoon.  While reporting for the Latrobe Bulletin, I had the opportunity to speak with the new owners Brad Heberling and Rod Beck, when the business partners approached the Ligonier Township governing boards a few years ago with their idea to open a new restaurant and bar in the Ligonier Valley.  I followed up with some research and even contacted the daughter of one of the former owners for some information on the inn.

Washington Furnace Inn

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Named after a nearby 19th century iron furnace, Washington Furnace Inn is located on the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) in Laughlintown, Pennsylvania, only a few miles east of Ligonier.  The inn is not only a cool roadside attraction that harkens back to the days when hungry, thirsty and tired travelers needed a place to pull their cars into, grab a bite to eat and maybe rent a room for the night after a long day of driving along the highways; its also located on the famed Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway, which ran right through the center of Ligonier and is celebrating its centennial in 2013.

You can find out more about the Washington Furnace Inn and the Lincoln Highway in my new book: Ligonier Valley Vignettes: Tales from the Laurel Highlands!

Vacation Values: “Rush”-ing Around Toronto

As I mentioned in a previous post about my vacation priorities, whether it means checking out a local band at a bar, attending a concert or simply visiting musically significant sites and venues around town, I love connecting with music while I’m traveling. So, to satisfy the music portion of our Easter vacation in Canada, Dave and I paid homage to one of our favorite bands, the Toronto-based Rush by casually visiting a few places in and around the city connected to members of the band.

Peart’s Place

St. Catherines

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

On the way up to Toronto, we stopped to have lunch in the beautiful city of St. Catherines, located about 32 miles south of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario.  The waterfront village of Port Dalhousie, which was incorporated into St. Catherines in 1961, is where Rush drummer Neil Peart grew up – hence our first Rush connection. We didn’t get to spend much time exploring the outskirts of the downtown area during our brief visit, unfortunately, but I learned that “The Garden City” garnered its nicknamed from the beautiful gardens and parks that are found within its boundaries.  St. Catherines is also considered the metropolis of the Niagara Region and lies along a major telecommunications route between the United States and Canada.

I’d love to go back and see more of the city now that I’ve learned a bit about its history, which dates back to the late 18th century (1760s perhaps), when the area was settled by United Empire Loyalists. Since its inception as an agricultural settlement over 250 years ago the character of St. Catherines has evolved into the thriving city it is today.  First an agricultural community called “The Twelve,” the settlement was later known as Shipman’s Corners and became populated by sawmills and gristmills, leading to its establishment as the principal milling site of the eastern Niagara Peninsula.

By the first quarter of the 19th century, the area was renamed St. Catherines, probably after the wife of a prominent businessman, the Honorable Robert Hamilton.  Thanks to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and businessman William Hamilton Merritt’s canal system connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, St. Catherines transformed into an industrial hub.

The town of St. Catherines, incorporated in 1845, continued to grow and develop throughout the 19th century thanks to farming and industry, but it also became renowned as a health spa due to salt springs that had been discovered earlier in the century.  It was also a critical location for fugitive slaves and abolitionists after the American Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and served as the home base for Harriet Tubman for a period of time.

In 1876 St. Catherines was officially designated as a city and became increasingly urbanized thanks to the introduction of manufacturing and the expansion of business throughout the city.  The city’s boundaries grew with the absorption of surrounding towns and villages, including Port Dalhousie, in the latter half of the 20th century.  As mentioned before, St. Catherines functions today as a major city in the Niagara Region, which is distinguished by the vast number of local wineries that benefit from its fertile soils and streams.

The Merchant Ale House Brew Pub & Restaurant

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Anyways, getting back to our journey, we enjoyed some wonderful local beers brewed on site at the Merchant Ale House Brew Pub and Restaurant, which was an adorable brew pub recommended to us by friends who had discovered it during a previous trip to Canada.  I’ll elaborate more on our experience trying the beer at the ale house, plus some additional information on the Niagara Region in a later post. Needless to say we had a very lovely afternoon filled with sunshine, beer and appetizers, even thought we tried to order fried pickles and our waitress somehow misconstrued that to mean we wanted fish and potatoes (still yummy, though).

If we had more time, I would have like to stopped at Port Dalhousie and checked out Lakeside Park, immortalized in the Rush song of the same name.


Rogers Centre

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Thanks for indulging my historical ramblings while in St. Catherines.  Continuing along our journey, once we arrived in Toronto, we headed over to the CN Tower to have a drink and see the city from the clouds.  Rogers Centre – the home of the Toronto Blue Jays – stands right next door to the tower.   Rush bassist Geddy Lee is a huge baseball fan and so it was neat to see the home of his beloved team, even though I am a die-hard Pittsburgh Pirates fan.  If we were in town longer we might have been able to grab a pair of tickets to the April 2 home opener, where Lee threw out the first pitch.


Another friend recommended dining in the quaint Little Italy section of town that evening.  After wandering along the main drag, College Street, we finally chose the small yet classy Trattoria Taverniti.  Our choice of restaurant was an example of what I picture as the quintessential Italian restaurant – warm brick interior, red and white checkered tablecloths and the Italian grandmother (executive chef Rosina Taverniti) slaving away in the kitchen creating our delicious margarita pizza and fried calamari.  Anyways, it turns out that we planned on heading to that area anyways to check out a small music club with our third Rush connection.

The Orbit Room

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

After dinner at Taverniti, we hopped right across the street and grabbed a drink at The Orbit Room, a music club that was co-founded in 1994 by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and features live local bands every night of the week, including classic rock, blues, reggae pop, funk and soul and Stax groups, even a Steely Dan tribute band.   I really liked the cool vibe of the small, dimly-lit dive bar located on an upper floor in the building, which wasn’t indicated by the narrow, nondescript entrance.  If it wasn’t for the sign outside we would have passed the place right up.  In fact, it actually looked closed and abandoned!  We tried to get in earlier before dinner to have a drink but found out that the club didn’t open until 9:00p.m.  The Dave Murphy band, the featured band on Friday nights, didn’t take the stage until 10:30p.m. After already being up for twelve hours and traveling for over six of those, we were too exhausted to make it to see the band.  Another time!

“Ligonier Valley Vignettes” is here!

I came home today to find a nice surprise waiting for me at my door…

Ligonier Valley Vignettes

Thank you to The History Press for sending me copies of my book, plus some promotional materials! My dream of publishing a book-length work has become a reality! Ligonier Valley Vignettes: Tales from the Laurel Highlands is here!

Vacation Values

I need a vacation.

I’m only a few days back to the real world after my last vacation and already I’m craving another adventure.

That’s a good thing, though!  I think that you should constantly have plans on the horizon to help you endure the daily grind.  You need a light at the end of the tunnel.  You need motivation to get you through the day, the week, the month – whatever amount of time you have standing between today’s monotony and tomorrow’s adventure.

I work extremely hard at my day job and when I’m working on my writing projects, so when I do tear myself away from that workaholic lifestyle and take some time off,  the last thing I want to do is waste that precious time.  I don’ t like to fritter away my vacation sitting like a slug on a beach for a week, but I don’t want to spread myself too thin.  Rather, I want to spend quality time learning about the area I am visiting and enjoying both popular and unique attractions.

For me, travel is a way for me to not only learn about the history of the new and familiar places that I visit, but it also adds layers to my own personal history.  Even though I may not be formally conducting research for an article, and I may be traveling beyond the scope of my usual historical region, I still like to absorb information so I can better myself intellectually.  Who knows, I could end up with a neat historic topic to write about further on up the road!

Over the long Easter weekend, my boyfriend Dave and I visited Toronto and Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada.  We hoped that despite the holiday, we would avoid the large annoying crowds of tourists that would most likely flock to the Falls in warmer weather and fill up our four days away with fun, educational activities based on a general list of attractions and information rather than a completed scripted agenda. As I prepared for this trip, I started thinking about the best ways to plan things to do while away.   In the succeeding posts I plan to share some of our experiences, but first I’d like to share the four general criteria that I feel add tremendous value to my travel.

Into the Great Wide Open

I think it’s essential to stay out of your lodgings as much as possible and enjoy the fresh air and scenery around you instead!  However, this doesn’t mean that you must do something physically taxing.  Simply walking around town to check out the shops and eateries, visiting a small local park or taking a guided tour of a historic site will keep you active and ensure that you sleep like a rock that night.  My legs are still sore from the amount of walking I did this past weekend, but it’s a good hurt.  I will walk my little legs off until I can’t go any further and then some.

History Buff

Why go away on vacation and learn nothing about the new place you are visiting!? To me that’s an incredible waste of time.  I want to come home from vacation feeling educated.  I want to come home feeling like I actively participated in my vacation experience.  Besides spending time outdoors I think learning about the building blocks of the place you are visiting is an absolutely worthwhile use of your time and so I love visiting historical sites, museums and historical districts.  I’m a nerd, what can I say?

Sweet Soul Music

Whether it means checking out a local band at a bar, attending a concert or simply visiting musically important sites and venues around town, I love connecting with music while I’m traveling.  Oh, and I love listening to music while driving around.  One of the reasons why I like road trips so much is that they provide the perfect opportunity to drown my ears in my beloved satellite radio.

Spill the Wine

I am by no means an adventurous eater and tend to settle for my favorite tried-and-true fare at restaurants whenever I travel.  To make up for my picky palate, I really make an effort to try the regional beer and wines offered in the area.  I like comparing and contrasting what I try in order to determine what I like the best and what I like the least  Oddly enough, this writer finds it difficult to accurately describe all of my sensory experiences when sampling a pint!  I have fun scrambling for words and I think it’s also a good mental exercise for me.  It’s a bonus when I  can visit local wineries and microbreweries to learn more about how these beverages are created – it’s another means of imbibing local history.  Pun intended!