A New Path Forward

A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening of the newly completed Path of the Flood Trail on May 23rd, realizing a key link in both the Trans Allegheny Trails and Industrial Heartland Trails networks in western Pennsylvania — as well as a symbolic link to the area’s past and future.

The “Flood,” of course, is the infamous Johnstown Flood, which killed thousands and leveled hundreds of homes on May 31, 1889. The “Path” refers to its 14-mile course down the Conemaugh Valley from the South Fork Dam to the city of Johnstown, where the Johnstown Flood Museum now stands. In the century that followed the tragedy, the same stretch of river valley bore witness to economic cycles that continued to shape its natural environment and the lives of its residents. The new trail memorializes that history of resilience in the face of disaster and change while, at the same time, offering what its advocates see as a new way forward.

People involved in the completion of the Path of the Flood Trail line up for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday, May 23.

Around one hundred people convened to celebrate the fulfillment of a vision that’s been almost a decade in the making. Many of those gathered were old enough to remember a time when million-ton refuse piles flanked the valley, leaching toxic metals into the Conemaugh River. But on Tuesday, only green grass and wildflowers lined the gravel path.

“It’s a phenomenal day, it’s a historic day,” Clifford Kitner, executive director of the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority, told the crowd. Kitner has spent the last eight years helping to finish the 14-mile trail, and he gave a special thanks to his “trail dream team” for their hard work.

State Senator Wayne Langerholc, Jr. touted the collaboration between companies, organizations, various levels of government, and the individuals who volunteered their time to make this dream a reality. 

Cambria County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky gives a speech during the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Path of the Flood Trail.

A lifelong Richland Township resident, Sen. Langerholc plans to run in the Path of the Flood Historic Races scheduled for Saturday. Six hundred people have signed up to race this year, some from as far away as Alaska, in a striking illustration of how trails and outdoor recreation opportunities are revitalizing Pennsylvania communities.  

“It’s a great showcase for what our area has become, how our city and our region are coming back,” Sen. Langerholc said. 

Cambria County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky called outdoor recreation the “front door” of economic development.

Trailside markers educate reveal the history of the area and highlight projects that helped transform it from an industrial hub to a great place to recreate. One example is the Stineman Coal and Coke Company Reclamation Project, which handled the equivalent of roughly 181 Olympic swimming pools of mining refuse, developing 8,875 linear feet of trail in the process.

People in nearby South Forks now have trail-front properties, some of which are already generating income from vacation rentals, while local businesses are happy to accommodate visitors who come to hike and bike.

Cambria County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky shakes the hand of Mark Voelker, the creator and direct of the Path of the Flood Historic Races. The 2023 races are scheduled for Saturday, May 27.

“When these visitors come to our area, they eat at our restaurants, visit shops,” Chernisky said. “It gives us a boost to our local economy and promotes positive image of the area.”

The Path of the Flood Trail also provides connections to other trail networks in the region. In addition to linking the Trans Allegheny Trails and the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, it provides an off-road, multi-use section to the September 11 National Memorial Trail.

“These trails are connecting our communities; these trails are connecting our people,” Chernisky said.