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Youghiogheny River and Trail

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History and the Youghiogheny River

by Michael D. McCumber

The Youghiogheny River has a varied and rich historical background. Laid out are the events that have transformed this river from the French & Indian War to the boom and bust of industry to the modern era.

The waters of the Youghiogheny River have been witness to many historical events over the past few centuries. Even before white man arrived in what is now western Pennsylvania, this river saw Native American tribes come and go for hunting expeditions, trade, and even war along its banks.

The river saw the face of young George Washington, in 1754, when he led his small army of Virginian militia through the area in the hopes of constructing a fort at present day Pittsburgh, but upon reaching the great falls of Ohiopyle, Washington abandoned hope of using the river as a route to Pittsburgh. Thus changing history, for it was soon after that Washington's men skirmished a group of French scouts at present day Jumonville, which ultimately started the French and Indian war. The river hosted the crossing of French forces as they were on their way to retaliate against George Washington at his hastily constructed "Fort of Necessity."

In 1755, the Youghiogheny was crossed at "Stewart's Crossing" (Connellsville) by an advanced force of 1400 under British General Edward Braddock with which George Washington was serving as an officer. A joined group of red coats and various colonial militias' likely looked confident in their crossing of the river; but they would have had no idea that they were about to participate in likely the most disastrous British defeat of the French and Indian War. Within eight miles of their destination of Fort Duquesne, a force of four hundred French and Indians, well hidden in thick foliage, ambushed Braddock's fourteen hundred men in a heavy crossfire. The British were completely disorganized; out in the open, and attempting to keep in a European style formation against what was really wilderness warfare. Panic quickly ensued as sixty-three of the eighty-six British and Colonial officers fell as casualties in the conflict. The river was host to a broken army's panic stricken unorganized retreat as men, fearing the French and Indian forces were following them, quickly made their way to Colonel Thomas Dunbar's camp below present day Jumonville. The river was also crossed, with the assistance of George Washington and some of the other surviving officers, by the mortally wounded General Edward Braddock, who would die near the remains of Fort Necessity days later.

Following the French and Indian War, the Youghiogheny would have seen the first permanent settlers take hold of the rich lands surrounding the river. Such as Colonel William Crawford who settled in the present day "Yough River Park", at Connellsville. Colonel William Crawford served many civic roles in the area, such as a justice of the peace, before his fiery death at the stake by Indians during the Revolutionary War.

During President George Washington's tenure, the Youghiogheny River saw other events spring up around it. Violence against the Whiskey Tax proved to be a first real test for the nation's resolve. Tax collector's houses were burned and their bodies tarred and feathered as a protest against the crippling tax for this area, which used whiskey as more of a currency than an alcoholic beverage. The rebellion was put down when Washington himself intervened with an army at Carlisle, PA ready to invade the area and set it straight.

The Youghiogheny River saw the region thriving with industry even before the arrival of railroads. Many brickyards, shipyards (Connellsville had three by 1806), tin plate, candy, glass works, and iron furnaces sprang up along the river's banks. The first railroad changed the river's appearance forever around 1855, which connected Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland and points east. More railroads would straddle the river to keep up with demand, as the Youghiogheny River valley became an important national industrial center in the late 1800s.

As the demand for steel, manufactured at Pittsburgh, began to reach its peak, coke became king in Connellsville. The river would have been witness to an amazing sight as coke ovens surrounding the river's banks lit its waters at night in what was known as Dante's Inferno. The great industrial boom, with railroads lining both sides of the river, fed off of the area's abundant coal, which was mined feverishly. The area's population soared higher as immigrants settled in the towns along the Youghiogheny. The river would have seen more riches than ever before, as more millionaires per capita lived in Connellsville at that time than any other part of the country.

Bridges built to cross the river would eventually take on a more technological look as streetcar lines sprang up throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. In the early 1900's, a person could go almost anywhere imaginable by way of streetcar. But with the onslaught of the automobile, people relied less on such an efficient mode of transportation and as fast as they sprang up, they disappeared.

By the 1930's the Youghiogheny's coke oven days were long in running their course. In fact, during the depression many people found them to make a rather cozy home. Though most of the ovens had disappeared by the 1970's, you can still see their faces behind foliage along hillsides above the river. Some have been beautifully preserved.

Following the industrial boom gone bust, the Youghiogheny River would have seen many of its boom towns begin to disappear as mother nature moved in to retake many of the once cleared and settled towns. Populations in many of these communities have dwindled from thousands to less than one hundred persons.

An appreciation for the natural beauty of the river first took hold in the mountains at Ohiopyle, long a popular destination by Pittsburgher's looking for a natural escape. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy bought up many of the lands surrounding Ohiopyle and sold it to the state, which has preserved Ohiopyle State Park for all of us to enjoy.

As railroad business began to dwindle, the railroad line on the west side of the river was shut down in the early 1980s. The Youghiogheny, whose banks were locked up by railroads running on both sides of the river, finally was free for the public to enjoy with the creation of the Youghiogheny River Trail, which utilized the former railroad's right of way and created an ideal level pathway for bike riding and walking beginning in the late 1980's. The trail is now complete from Boston to Confluence, making for over 71 miles of bike riding and hiking adventure along the bends, waterfalls, beauty, and history of the Youghiogheny River.

When riding the trail, keep an eye out for old foundations where towns once thrived in the northern segments. You'll see coke ovens above the trail near Dawson and Adelaide. There are remnants of old coal mines, noticible with water flowing out of them just south of Connellsville. Be sure to think of George Washington when riding near Layton, for he had a grist mill and plantation just above at Perryopolis. Also when riding through the Yough River Park, try to picture poor General Edward Braddock, being carried across the river, or think of Hannah Crawford's reaction to hearing her husband, William, was burned at the stake.

And as you ride across the trail, you'll see numerous reminders that it was once a railroad. A particular joy of mine is railroad bridges themselves, as I know my aunts and uncles used to "cat walk" across them when there was a warranted fear of a train coming in the bygone era. Now, they make for some appreciated openness in the shady trail between Connellsville and Ohiopyle.

The Youghiogheny River has seen the country born and change into a modern society. Of course I couldn't mention every historical detail surrounding the river, each town along the river has a rich history of its own for you to discover. I think the onus should be put on each river trail town to detail its rich history and culture, which will offer an even more rewarding experience to the trail's many users.

 
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