Friday, September 27, 2013

2013 Fall Bike Tour


Tom Snyder and I have been taking a fall weekend bike tour since 2009. They've usually ended up on the slightly to the excessive side of epic. In 2011, we finished day three with 128 miles on the GAP trail and the C&O towpath
For 2013, I tried to dial it back some, and get some better buy-in from Tom on the route.


I used the same bike from 2010 and 2012, a Reynolds 531 Zeus from the mid-70s. I did spend nearly an hour looking for the panniers, which I had very carefully stored in an unlabeled box in the attic. Why?

Day 1: North Potomac, Md to Caledonia State Park, Pa

We  had planned to leave at 8:00AM. At 7:15 I  wheeled my bike out to the car, and noticed that the front brake was dragging. At 8:00 I was still trying to replace the front canti with one stolen from my spare parts box. Apparently I had sheared off the pin that sets the spring tension. Maybe that's why it was such a drag when I rode it to work the day before.
We finally rolled out of Tom's house at 9:00--only an hour behind schedule. Our history of military-precision departures was over. Within 45 minutes were were lost in Clarksburg. None of the roads were the same as when Tom Hoeger promoted the district road race there.  Eventually we found our way to the first waypoint of they day: the ford on Prices's Distillery Rd.
Luckily, the water was low. I remember tipping over crossing this same ford in the early 90s, and going completely underwater. It was an absolutely glorious, wonderful day to be goofing around on a bike.
After an unpleasant, traffic-filled detour around Frederick, we lunched at Loys covered bridge.
From then, on to Emmittsburg where we picked up dinner.
We knew the last 20 miles would be the hardest, as we would climb up onto South Mountain. Cold Spring Rd did not disappoint: long stretches of 5% interspersed with ramps up to 18%. The road wound up through commercial apple orchards, all of which were still harvesting.
Appropriately we finished the day on a dirt road. The combination of the loaded back end and the anemic front brake made the descent to US 30 a little dicey and not as fun as it could have been.
The tent sites at Caledonia State Park were all gravel. I had an inflatable pad, but Tom enjoyed tested his back on the  gravel. Dinner for me was peanut butter and salami sandwiches. Tom ate hobo soup.
Distance: about 80 miles in 8 hours total.

Day 2: Fort Frederick State Park

The weather forecast for Saturday did not inspire confidence. Fortunately, we had scheduled a short day from Caledonia to Fort Frederick. We'd be racing the rain.
   We dropped down on the west side of South Mountain. Immediately the farms and terrain changed, and were reminiscent of my '86 tour of central Germany. Frequently, the corn and soybeans were planted right up to the edge of the pavement, and when they weren't, the strip of grass was manicured to golf-fairway level. The lawns of every house were similar: manicured right up to the edge of the pavement. The answer was quickly revealed, when we saw a woman in a long brown dress mowing her lawn: Mennonites.
The first raindrops were falling while we were still on the C&O towpath, and Tom set up the tent in the rain, while I paid for the space.
Fort Frederick is a stone star fort from the French and Indian War era, when western Maryland was the wild west.
The rain drove off the tourists, so we had a private tour of fort
given by this delightful English re-enactor (whoops, "living history ranger"). We even got some of his backstory: English Medieval History Ph.D. meets American astrophysics Ph.D, falls in love, and moves to Hagerstown for love. The backstory on the restoration of the fort was similarly interesting. After being abandoned in the late 18th century, it was farm until the great depression when the Daughters of the American Revolution turned it over to the state.
We hung out in the rocking chairs on the veranda of the gift shop until dark avoiding the rain, but eventually we had to return to our tiny tent. We had chosen our site poorly, and were stuck next to two rednecks. These guys seriously need to attend a story-telling workshop. I thought the pointless story about "I'm not go-in to have my dawg faht yer dawg" was never going to end.
Distance: about 55 miles.

Day 3: Fort Frederick and Home to Gaithersburg

Sunday dawned again like Friday. Another amazing day to be out on a bike. Just outside of Williamsport, we turned off the main road, and I spotted three VW van hulks outside what looked like an auto repair place. Knowing that Tom was a VW freak, I pointed them out and we circled back to Cookers Vdubs. A couple minutes later, Cooker himself was showing us around the bays.  I was amazed that there were any VW vans to refurbish, but the owner pointed out a hulk outside the shop that he said the owner had paid $55000 for, sight unseen. Pretty amazing stuff. 
On, through Williamsport, Smithsburg, and Brunswick.  We crossed the Potomac at Brunswick, fueled up at the 7-11 in Lovettsville. After a loop through Waterford, we took Old Waterford Rd back to Leesburg. I hadn't been down that road since Sandra and I lived in Leesburg 21 years ago. It's probably ridable uphill with 23s. 
We made it back to South Gaithersburg around 4:30PM


The trip wasn't as epic as previous versions, but that was probably a plus. I should examine why I want to turn every ride into a death march.  More gravel would have improved the experience. Too much pavement. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

19th Century Technology Road Trip

Day 1. Scranton, Pa

McDade Park, Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum and Coal Mine tour

After dropping Sandra's friend Mik off at the metro station, we hit the road four minutes ahead of schedule bound for Scranton. Today's stop was McDade Park, for the Coal Mine and the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum.

Both museums come close to my ideal of the local technology museum. The Anthracite Museum has a bunch of stuff in display cases and a long, wordy exhibit on the 1902 mine workers' strike.  What I learned about silk weaving (apparently the second industry in Scranton in the 19th century) was that most of the work involved unwinding the thread off of one spool and winding it onto another spool. Also that I would not have made it as a 10-year old coal miner.

The coal mine tour was complete value. It lasted more than an hour, and included descending about 250 feet vertically into what was last operating mine in Scranton. For those of you who grew up in Chicago, this coal mine tour far eclipsed the tour at the Museum of Science and Industry. Plus the tour guide was completely wired on coal mining and coal-mining history.  This mine was the first real coal mine I'd ever been in. It looked amazingly like every 1950s Hollywood movie mine--in other words, completely fake.  I never realized how accurate those movies really were!
Sandra at the entrance to the coal mine
The only disappointment of the day was that the coal-mine tour part of the museum closed as soon as the tour ended, so we missed those exhibits.

Personal Historical Note

I started two editions of the Moosic Mountains Road Race from McDade Park in the 1980s. The first year was my second race as a newly minted Cat 3, and was so excited that I went in the first attack, and was already counting my prize money when I got completely shelled on the first climb. The second  year (1989?) I turned myself inside out for 19th place--got my entry fee back!

Amusing Note

While waiting for the coal-mine tour, the only other person in line looked me over and said, "How long have you raced?" Turned out his brother also lived in Gaithersburg. 

Lodging and Dining

Our room at the Scranton Radisson overlooked the railroad tracks (after all, it's a former railroad station) and the soccer field of Scranton University. We got to watch the women's field hockey team practice. We had dinner at  a little Italian Restaurant across the railroad tracks. Awesome garlic bread--probably an entire head of garlic on it. Disappointing espresso at City Lights afterwards. 


Day 2: Scranton Steamtown and Iron Works

Steamtown National Historic Park is an National Park Service-run railroad museum housed in the grounds of the former Delaware and Lackawanna Rail Road main yards. The rebuilt roundhouse contains a museum that covers mid-19th century railroading and railroad people, and the history of the DLWR. The layout of the museum is a little confusing, and exhibits don't flow easily into another. 

Steamtown is not the finest train museum, even on the east coast. The former Pennsylvania RR collection in Strasburg ( contains dozens more engines. The former B&O collection, maintained by the Smithsonian in Baltimore also has a comprehensive history of railroad locomotives. But Steamtown has a 4-8-8-4 on display. The walking tour of the restoration shop was informative. For fans of The Office, a bridge connects the site to the Steamtown Mall.
Sandra on the restoration shop, in front of a Baldwin switcher

At the other end of site is the Electric City Trolley Museum. Trolleys don't hold the same appeal to me that steam locomotives do, but it's still an interesting specialty museum. 

The drive to Erie was longer than I anticiipated. We took NY17, (now US84), which allowed us to pass the site where the bottom fell out of my '77 Chevette Scooter in a snowstorm in 1986. 



Day 3: Erie: Maritime Museum and Titusville Drake Well

The Erie Maritime Museum has a single focus: Oliver Hazard Perry and the battle of lake Erie in the War of 1812.  The fourth reconstruction of the Brig Niagara, which Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie, floats in a slip behind the museum. We tagged on to a tour of the ship, which sails regularly, but as soon as we went below deck, I got claustrophobic and fled for the quay. Too many elderly people in too small a volume...

The Drake Well Museum documents the history of the discovery of oil in NE Pennsylvania in 1859. Skip the "orientation" film. It's a mixture of Terry Gilliam/Monty Python animation that segues into a long piece on the importance of gasoline to NASCAR. Weird--smacked too much to me of a need to be "relevant to the kids." The pre-1900 exhibits seem pretty balanced, but after that the focus reveals the influence of the founder of the museum--the American Petroleum Institute. On the grounds, the museum has erected a replica oil well building over the actual well that Col. Drake drilled. Based on the pictures of Oil Creek in 1860, it seems impossible that anyone could have found the original well.
The focus on American Oil discovery is a little disingenuous. Drillers had already found oil and started producing in both Canada and Russia before Col. Drake even started drilling. 
Sandra pointing out Col. Drake's toothbrush. Nothing better than artifacts in glass cases!

Erie was definitely the most prosperous of the three cities


  • Forgettable Hampton Inn out at the interstate. Did score the Government rate. 
  • Forgettable sports bar across the highway from the Hampton.


Day 4 Johnstown Flood and the Allegheny Portage Railroad

Of the four days, I was least sure of the schedule and attractions for Johnstown. Although I knew the basic outline of the Johnston Flood  (fat-cat industrialists fail to maintain aging dam, which fails during heavy rain. The resulting flood killed 2200 people) I didn't realize that the dam was tied to our second destination, the Allegheny Portage. It had been build originally to supply water for the Johnstown side of the "Main Line" canal to Pittsburgh, serviced by the Allegheny Portage Railroad. 
The Allegheny Portage Railroad was a short-lived absolutely amazing piece of technology. From 1835 until about 1850, it was possible to take a canal boat from Philadephia to Pittsburgh, over the eastern continental divide. When the canal reached its terminus near Altoona, the canalboats were split into thirds, loaded onto rail cars, and hauled over the mountains, pulled up steep rail inclines by stationary steam engines and cables. In the early days, the cables were manila ropes, but pretty soon John Roebling (of Brooklyn Bridge Fame) got his start supplying wire rope to replace manila ropes. 

The run of the Allegheny Portage Railroad was amazingly brief--less than twenty years--before being eclipsed by the railroads.

The Johnstown Flood museum and National Memorial adequately describe the history of the flood and resulting outpouring of international support for the victims. Until 9/11, the flood was the structure failure that killed the most people. Interestingly, the disaster seems to have absolutely no effect on regulation of dam safety in the US. 

We finished off the day with a walk to the Johnstown funicular, which I didn't know existed until we saw it from the hotel. The city built the funicular in 1891 to service the new neighborhoods built on high ground after the flood. It's even possible to have your car taken up it. 

Sandra riding the funicular

Amusingly, we had to pay for parking at the Holiday Inn (which was really quite a nice hotel--much better than I expected). From the funicular overlook, we could see that most of downtown Johnstown is actually a parking lot. And we had to pay for parking for the flood museum because we couldn't find their parking lot.

Dining and Lodging

  • Holiday Inn. Very spiffy for such a run-down city.
  • Boulevard Grill. Completely acceptable. Waitress wasn't very knowledgeable about the menu or beer selection. 


Day 5: Carrie Blast Furnace Tour and Paw Paw Tunnel

Carrie Blast Furnace

The entire trip was built around the final day tour of the Carrie Blast Furnace. In a word: amazing. Wonderfully unsafe.  Don't skip it if you go to Pittsburgh.

We got off to a shaky start in Johnstown when I obeyed Serena, the GPS lady, instead of taking the road I knew was right. After starting late, going the wrong way, and then getting lost, we were thirty minutes behind behind schedule. We pulled in Rankin at 9:53 for a 10:00AM tour. Luckily we blundered on to some signs, and at 9:57 we were bouncing down a single lane dirt road into what looked like a superfund site. 

The 1930s-technology Carrie furnaces last made iron for the Homestead works across the river in 1980. Only the really easy and high value parts had been scrapped.  Our tour guide for the next 3 1/2 hours was a retired railroad worker who started his career shuttling the hot-metal and slag cars. 

The highlight of the tour was being able to stand in the cast house.

In the cast house. During tapping, molten iron comes out that little hole in the center of the image. Slag goes left into waiting rail cars and molten iron goes to the right into other insulated rail cars.  The big pipe around the furnace (the bustle) supplies the hot air to the bottom of the furnace. 

The scale of everything in an operation like this defies description. So I won't bother...

Paw Paw Tunnel

On the way back to Falls Church we added one final 19th century stop--the Paw Paw tunnel on the C&O canal. Like the Allegheny Portage railroad, it was completed around 1850, and just in time for the railroad to make it obsolete. The 1-km long tunnel itself, part of the C&O canal towpath, cut off 10 km of winding canal. In the end, it's just a tunnel, but there's something odd about a tunnel built for boats. 
Sandra at the west entrance to the Paw Paw tunnel.