Work is underway on a 14-mile section of rail-to-trail in Armstrong that, once complete, will provide vital connections to regional and interstate trail systems while boosting local economies.
The Kiski Junction Railroad, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, is expected to open for public use in early 2024. This summer and fall, construction will convert the rail line into trail surface. Crews currently are in the process of pulling out the tracks.
“That’s a really huge effort to haul out the rails and ties for 14 miles,” said Chris Ziegler, executive director of Armstrong Trails.
The route follows the eastern bank of the Allegheny River from the Kiski Bridge across the Kiskiminetas River to Crooked Creek, as well as a four-mile spur from Schenley to Bagdad in Gilpin Township. Armstrong County acquired the Kiski Junction Railroad in 2022, the longest such acquisition east of the Mississippi that year. County commissioners secured a trail development grant from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Included in the acquisition is the 726-foot Kiski Junction Railroad Bridge, built in 1899. The bridge will also be converted for trail use thanks to funding from PennDOT and DCNR. Ziegler said they are treating the bridge as a separate project. It’s currently in the design phase, with construction scheduled to begin in September. Once complete, the southern end of the bridge will connect with Pittsburgh’s outer suburbs along the Allegheny River via the Tredway Trail.
North of the bridge, the new trail segment will connect the 52.5-mile Armstrong Trails system, which runs into Clarion County, five miles past the Brady Tunnel. The Brady tunnel is also undergoing renovation and is expected to open around the same time as the Kiski Junction section in 2024.
Kiski Junction will eventually link with regional trail networks such as the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail, the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway, and the larger Industrial Heartlands Trail.
“Without this critical connection, the Erie to Pittsburgh [Trail] doesn’t exist, and neither does a proposed Pittsburgh to Harrisburg Mainline Greenway Canal,” Ziegler said.
Before its closure in 2021, the Kiski Junction Railroad served freight trains hauling material from the now-shuttered Allegheny Technologies Inc.’s Bagdad plant in Gilpin as well as coal from Rosebud’s Logansport mine in Bethel Township. In the fall, tourists come to see its antique locomotive and cherry red riding cars. The repurposed corridor will continue to honor that history.
“There’s a lot of railroad heritage — you just have to have your eyes open to it,” Ziegler said.
With the trail connections from the Kiski Junction acquisition, more people will use the Armstrong Trails, which means more money flowing into nearby communities.
Tourism along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) drove $121 million in economic impact in 2019 and supported nearly 1,400 jobs, according to a year-long analysis published in 2021. The communities along that trail, as in Armstrong County, are typically small and once relied on industries like coal, coke, paper, lumber, and manufacturing. Organizers anticipate the trail network in and around Armstrong County to have a comparable economic impact to the GAP.
Already, trail-facing towns in the area are thriving from the benefits of improved access. Ziegler described many new businesses opening in Leechburg; Freeport boasts a new coffee shop and a new microbrewery — the only such business in Armstrong County.
“There’s a lot of activity going on,” Ziegler said.
A local campground will begin making tent camping available to trail users, while retired trail cabooses are getting converted to Airbnbs.
“This is more than a trail connection,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn. “This really connects western Pennsylvanian communities, and it really gives them an avenue for hope for their economic future.
She added that Pennsylvania stands to benefit from the economic positive impacts on outdoor recreation.
“We are a post-industrial state with little communities dotted along the rivers. These communities are near the rail Ines. They make excellent places for rail trails to be built. It breathes economic life into these communities,” Dunn said.
In addition to recreation, systems like that in Armstrong County also improve equity of transportation access and quality of life for residents. Trail development offers a way for people who don’t have access to a car or public transportation to get to work, school, daycare, and other places, which further improves communities.
An opening celebration for the Kiski Junction is planned for the spring of 2024. For more information on that event and the trail project, visit armstrongtrails.org.