Washington, Pennsylvania Shamrock Tour®: Forgotten Corners

Washington, Pennsylvania Shamrock Tour® | RoadRUNNER Magazine Motorcycle Tour
Elizabeth Bridge provides some welcome color and beauty along a heavily industrialized section of the Monongahela River.

Jeff Arpin and I have been eagerly anticipating our Pennsylvania Shamrock Tour®, but historically high August heat promised
sweltering rides. A more recent weather forecast, however, now predicts cooler temperatures. But there’s a meteorological catch-22—the remnants of a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico are set to bring incessant rain. We’re used to riding in rain, but how will we get those eye-catching photos that RoadRUNNER expects?

Rain Dance Along the Ohio

We’re based in Washington, PA, which is a historical community about 28 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. European settlers first arrived here in the 18th century. Between then and now, southwest Pennsylvania’s principal economic activity has transitioned from agriculture to boat building, to regional commerce, to heavy industry (specifically steel production), and finally to a more knowledge-based economy. The footprints of those earlier industries, though, are still visible in the region.

Leaving our hotel on the first morning, we’re immediately traversing a wet, fog-laden landscape. We follow backroads northwest until we arrive at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village. This Pennsylvania historical site illustrates the region’s human history. The Rockshelter section is an ancient rock overhang some of the earliest Native Americans used for shelter. Fast forward a few thousand years and visitors find Meadowcroft Village, which is a recreated community depicting rural life here some 150 years ago.

Washington, Pennsylvania Shamrock Tour® | RoadRUNNER Magazine Motorcycle Tour

Although the U.S. once had around 12,000 covered bridges, only about 850 to 1,000 remain. Of those, Pennsylvania has preserved around 200. A sizable collection of them is in the state’s western areas. Venturing farther north, we locate the Jackson’s Mill Covered Bridge, near the border with West Virginia. Although the builder and date of construction are unknown, the 35-foot-long truss-type bridge is still in use. Jeff crosses and re-crosses it repeatedly, while I try to get a clear photo of him in the darkening mist and fog.

Afterward, an eastward trajectory takes us over the mighty Ohio River through the graceful spans of the 1,907-foot-long Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge. We put kickstands down at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, PA, to better understand the pre-industrial American communal life that took root here. This National Historic Landmark tells the story of the Harmony Society. It was one of several different communal religious settlements in 19th century America. Their aim was to create a utopia for German Lutheran separatists, mostly farmers and craftsmen. On six acres of the Society’s original plot, 17 restored buildings have been preserved to articulate the community’s yearning for a better life.

Motorcycles & Gear

2014 BMW F 800 GSA
2013 Honda CB1100

Helmets: Schuberth C4 Modular
Jackets: Olympia Textile Mesh, Olympia Airglide
Pants: BMW Summer Riding Pants, Olympia Airglide
Gloves: Held EVO Thrux
Boots: Alpinestars Distinct Drystar GORE-TEX, BMW Pro Touring 2

Southwest Pennsylvania was a different place before it became the steel-producing leviathan of the 20th century. It’s fitting that we began our exploration at historic sites commemorating early human habitation and 19th century life in the area.
Steel Rails and Bridges

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most transportation of people and goods took place by train. Accordingly, the U.S. had an insatiable demand for steel to build its nationwide rail network. Adoption of the Bessemer process—which transformed iron production into steel production—together with easy access to coal for the blast furnaces and relatively inexpensive river transportation of raw materials helped turn Pittsburgh into America’s Steel City.

The Hilton Garden Inn Pittsburgh/Southpointe served as our base of operations and overnight accommodation during this Shamrock Tour. The hotel provided a welcome respite after a day of exploring the Pennsylvania and West Virginia countryside. The amenities include an upscale dining facility, an indoor swimming pool, meeting rooms, a spacious and well-appointed reception area with comfortable seating around an inviting hearth, a well-equipped exercise facility, expansive outside parking, and friendly staff.

Although our busy touring schedule didn’t leave a lot of time for enjoying our attractively decorated rooms, we appreciated the flat-screen televisions, cable channels, free Wi-Fi, expansive desk area, Keurig coffee machine, mini refrigerator, and comfortable bedding. The hotel’s convenient location, just off I-79, made it a natural choice.

Rail travel has long triggered my curiosity. I never hesitate to visit a train or streetcar museum when the opportunity arises—so I can’t miss the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington. After purchasing tickets at the Visitor Education Center, we board a vintage trolley for a four-mile roundtrip to the museum’s spacious display building to view its extensive collection of rolling stock from the streetcar era.

Docents explain the evolution of these electrified people movers. The placed-in-service date of one specimen was way back in 1905. The collection of street and interurban passenger cars, work cars, locomotives, and railway structures total more than 60. One of the streetcars came all the way from Rio de Janeiro.

Washington, Pennsylvania Shamrock Tour® | RoadRUNNER Magazine Motorcycle Tour
Riding through Jackson’s Mill Covered Bridge in Hanover Township, PA, offered only the briefest break from the rain.

An eastwardly loop from Washington takes us deep into what might be called the supply corridor for the steel mills. Barges filled with coal and other essential manufacturing materials transported cargo on the Monongahela, feeding the downriver blast furnaces’ ravenous appetite. The river’s high-banked shoreline retains the gritty appearance of the past. We ride over the Mon (the local nickname for the Monongahela) via the Elizabeth Bridge. Its elegant blue steel superstructure stands in vivid, colorful contrast to this industrial landscape.