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Storm delays grand opening of Somerset tunnel

From the beginning, the Big Savage Tunnel has been nothing but trouble. Workers started on the 3,300-foot rail shortcut, in southernmost Somerset County, on Christmas Day in 1910. They punched through the tunnel’s far side exactly a year later. They fought quicksand conditions to get there.

The men, mostly from New York, worked three-hour shifts, rested for three more, and then started again. Using air compressors, they blew water and silt out of the tunnel, where others shoveled it into train cars. The grit ripped the pipe fittings every few days.

The weather wore on the men, and on the tunnel itself.

By the start of 2002, when bike-trail builders began a $12 million renovation of the Big Savage, by then abandoned for 27 years, run-off puddled ankle-deep in places, and had collapsed the ceiling in others. Icicles as big as railroad brakemen clung to the high side walls.

This month, with the reconstruction work all but finished, the weather swung again. Hurricane Isabel, having roared onto the North Carolina shore, dumped 2.5 inches outside the Big Savage. That soaked the sand piles for the final mix of the concrete line, idling the operation for days.

The storm also forced organizers to cancel a long-planned Sept. 19 grand opening. That left them with empty tents and boxes of Big Savage souvenirs, from flashlights and T-shirts to logo-stamped chocolates and railroad caps.

“It was going to be a very rich, happy, celebratory kind of day,” said Linda McKenna Boxx, the president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, which coordinated the construction funding. She had 200 RSVPs a week before the event.

Instead, she drove to Harrisburg Friday, and handed out souvenir bags to supporters at the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The grand opening is in limbo now. The key players — DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis, former Secretary John Oliver and U.S. Rep. John Murtha, the Johnstown Democrat — have full schedules, and winter is fast approaching. Trail-planners will have to try again next year.

“We didn’t get to ‘Hip, hip, hooray’ this,” Boxx said, “but we did get the work done. That’s the most important thing. It’s a milestone.”

The tunnel is the linchpin of the Pittsburgh-to-Cumberland, Md., bike-hike trail, which will stretch from Point State Park through Sutersville, Smithton, Connellsville and Ohiopyle. At Cumberland, the trail will meet the C&O Canal Towpath, which continues on to Washington, D.C.

The National Park Service has made the trail part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, one of just eight paths of more than 100 miles reserved for non-motorized recreation.

Without the tunnel, organizers would have had to add 17 miles and several road crossings to the trail route.

Even with it, they have to build more trail. At both ends, the tunnel approach is unfinished; the Big Savage crew, down from Canada, drives a bumpy six-mile dirt road to get there. Maryland planners will bid construction of that stretch by December, and trail work should begin in the spring.

With that work coming, and construction inside the tunnel not yet finished, the rained-out grand opening, frustrating as it was to planners, could be a good thing. Without a ribbon cutting, cyclists are less likely to think the Big Savage is ready for riders.

“Now that we’re going to be under construction in the spring, we’re not going to need people up there on the trail,” said Bill Atkinson, an ATA board member who works in the Maryland Department of Planning.

Twenty-nine riders made the trip anyway Saturday. They rode from Frostburg, Md., to the tunnel’s south portal, to see the progress for themselves.

They could not get into the tunnel. The construction crew, now spraying concrete in 12-hour shifts, has filled the tunnel with equipment. The hopper they spray from is 48 feet long, 18 feet high and 8 feet wide. The electric cord that runs to it is as big as a baseball bat. It cost $60,000.

The crew still has 1,600 feet to spray.

“It opens your eyes,” Rolland “Rhody” Rhodomoyer, the trail alliance’s resident construction manager, said of the work, and the weather and other complications that have slowed it. “I’ve done miles of roads. I’ve done bridges. But that tunnel, there’s just something about it. You just don’t realize the magnitude of what you have to do until you start to do it.”


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