The $3.5 million purchase of a bridge and railroad track paves the way for the Armstrong Trail expansion

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An old railway bridge spanning the Kiski River that two dogs dared to cross is now a vital link to hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails – and potential economic development.

Armstrong County purchased the 1899 bridge over the Kiski River and 14 miles of the former Kiski Junction Railroad corridor for $3.5 million. The trail and bridge — which are not yet open to the public — will be upgraded and maintained by Armstrong Trails over the next two years.

The railway bridge spans Allegheny Township and Schenley in Gilpin. It’s a critical connection that will connect more than 130 miles of continuous, ADA-compliant off-road trails in Armstrong, Allegheny, Butler, Clarion and Westmoreland counties. It will also connect to other trails including the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail.

“This bridge is everything,” said Chris Ziegler, general manager of Armstrong Trails, which traverses 36 miles along the east bank of the Allegheny River in Armstrong and Clarion counties.

“Without him, there is no Erie to Pittsburgh Trail,” she said.

Long off-road recreation trails can generate revenue for businesses from cyclists who need food, lodging, entertainment and more in small towns along the way.

Some companies are already preparing. They won’t have to wait long, track officials said.

Ice cream, beer and coffee

The 1833 Coffee and Tea Co. in Freeport expects an influx of cyclists and tourists when the railroad bridge opens. Ten or more cyclists already pass by the Butler-Freeport Community Trail daily, with the trail’s trailhead in Laneville just three-quarters of a mile from the shop, said Virginia Lindsay, co-owner of the cafe.

They’re drawn to the signature 1833 brown sugar and cinnamon latte, as well as fair trade organic ice teas and mixed berry pastries from nearby Lil’ Bean Bakery.

The store, which has been serving a steady stream of customers since it opened last August, has sold 12,000 lattes since January, Lindsay said.

“People want to do something after their rides, like a good coffee, dinner or lunch,” she said.

Ziegler added, “Trail users want ice cream, beer and coffee.”

Lindsay has already put up signs with a QR code at the Laneville trailhead directing trail riders to her cafe.

Cyclists need to know more about the city’s businesses, and more businesses should take care of them, Lindsay said. Signage is required.

“The cities have to be ready,” said Ziegler. “A lot of people just want to show up on a trail and need services.”

economic changes

Armstrong County Commissioners see the bridge and trail links as a tourist magnet and a much-needed economic boost for small towns on the Kiski and Allegheny Rivers, including Freeport, Leechburg, Gilpin, Ford City, Kittanning and others.

“We’re about getting people and venues involved,” said Don Myers, chair of the Armstrong County commissioners.

The county commissioners supported the Kiski Junction Trail project and received a $3.5 million grant from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and PennDOT to pay for the purchase of the railroad. County Commissioner Secretary Pat Fabian serves as vice chairman of the SPC.

The grant money comes from a PennDOT fund dedicated to trail development.

“If we hadn’t tracked it, the money would have flowed through the state,” Myers said. “We are going full throttle with the economic development and growth of this county and are seeking all available grants.”

Myers admitted that introducing a cycle path for economic development was different.

“Before I got involved, I had no idea it could generate so much income for small businesses and attract people,” Myers said.

Effects on the track

The Kiski Junction railway line and bridge was owned by Rosebud Mining and used to transport coal from the Logansport mine in Bethel Township. For many years, the short line was also a popular tourist attraction, particularly for autumn trips. The railroad officially closed shortly after the mine closed last year.

The new Schenley Bridge adjacent to the Armstrong Trails is a vital link to the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail, one of the premier hiking trails in the western part of the state.

“This is a critical gap,” said Courtney Mahronich-Vita, vice president of the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail Alliance and director of trail development for Friends of the Riverfront, which manages and develops the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Allegheny County.

“It’s probably the largest trail acquisition in the area in decades,” she said. “That’s a huge achievement.”

The Erie to Pittsburgh trail, estimated to be approximately 140 miles, is 66% complete. Adding the portion of the Kiski Junction Railroad will complete the trail 72%, she said. Most of the remaining gaps are in Erie and Allegheny counties.

Wesley Robinson, spokesman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said connections to create longer trails mean more opportunities for residents and others.

“We’re always looking to evolve and expand and partner with communities that are working on recovery trails,” he said.

The state is home to more than 12,000 miles of existing off-road trails, he said.

“There are many businesses owned by people who are out in nature, whether it’s driving through a park or spending the night. It’s a $12 billion industry in Pennsylvania.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Contributor to the Tribune Review. You can contact Mary via email at mthomas@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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