“Because of the GAP trail, Connellsville and other communities are starting to recover. It’s great to be a part of that.”
For 19 years, Gary Stout worked as a railroader on freight trains between Connellsville and Pittsburgh. When the rail company downsized, it gave him the option of moving to sunny Florida or losing his job. He chose to stay put in his struggling home town and create a new career based along the path of those very rails he knew so well.
“When the kids were younger, we used to bike from Ohiopyle to Confluence a lot," Gary says. “Starting about 30 years ago, there was talk of a major trail extension, one that would connect Washington D.C. with Pittsburgh. I was one of a bunch of citizens who formed the Youghiogheny River Trail Council to prepare for that day. As the Western Maryland [Railway] abandoned the rails, we’d ride through, see what needed to be done, cleaned up the trees, and cleared rights of way.”
Slowly over the years, what is known as the Great Allegheny Passage trail threaded its way north through southwestern Pennsylvania along abandoned railroad rights-of-way: from Ohiopyle to Brunner Run to Connellsville, finally onto Pittsburgh.
Gary, meanwhile, was working as a sales clerk at a local auto parts business of which he was part owner. At the same time, he and wife, Ruth, opened a bike shop, originally with a partner. After a few years, in 1991, they bought out the partner and built the new full-service shop, Bikes Unlimited, on the corner of South Third Street and West Crawford Avenue in Connellsville just a few yards from the trail.
The shop rents bikes to day trippers, and sells all kinds of bikes: from mountain and trail bikes to BMX bikes, as well as comfort and hybrid bikes. Every bike is custom assembled with free adjustments customized to the rider. Bikes Unlimited does al kinds of mechanical work, and during peak season, operates a “trauma center” to help cyclists hobbled by unexpected problems get back on their wheels as quickly as possible.
It’s a family affair, while Ruth handling the financial operations and Gary’s brother, Richard, helping out with repairs.
While there have been ups and downs, in the recent years business has been solid. Amtrak has begun to allow passengers to load bicycles at the local whistle stop. Connellsville is no longer just a place to pass through.
“More and more people are looking for places to stay, to buy health aids, food and camping supplies. We have little coffee shops opening up, a few bed and breakfast places. We are hoping to get a hotel soon.”
At one time the region was one of the world's largest producers of coke -- the key coal-based ingredient in steel making. Six railroads came through, an Anchor Hocking Glass plant employed several hundred workers, streetcars clanged along thriving commercial thoroughfares. With the collapse of the domestic steel industry in the late 20th century, “it went from that to nothing. Now,“ Gary says, “because of the trail and tourism it’s bringing, Connellsville and lots of these little communities are starting to get back on their feet. It’s great to be a part of that.”