Even though we started the day using socks for gloves because of the mountain cold, we arrived in Connellsville about 5 p.m. hot and tired. Before finding our lodgings, we stopped at the Mile Marker Lounge for a beer.
Neighborhood taps fall into two categories. In one kind the patrons purposely don’t make eye contact much less talk. In the other people go out of their way to come over, say howdy and strike up a conversation. The Mile Marker was strongly into the latter category, and we had to turn down free drinks to get to our digs for the night. On our way out we picked up a six-pack of Yuengling. Pronounced “yingling,” it is made by the oldest brewery in the country and it’s only distributed on the east coast. It’s delicious and sold at the same price as the national brands.
Connellsville is the “Coke Capital of the World.” We’re not talking coke as in “driving that train high on cocaine” nor as in “always Coca-Cola™.” This is the heart of coal country, and here coke is processed coal.
In the mid-1700s early area settlers found coal in seams exposed on the sides of hills. Mining grew from a few canoe loads delivered a week in the 1760s to 400 tons a day in 1830 to Pittsburgh alone.
Then in the 1870s, Andrew Carnegie opened the first steel mill using the new Bessemer Process. There was one problem. The coal was bituminous, or soft, and didn’t burn hot enough for the making of steel. The coal had to be turned into coke. A stone oven resembling an igloo or large beehive was used. The coal was set on fire inside the ovens and then left to smolder for a few days to bake into the purer burning coke. By the early 20th century 40,000 of the beehive ovens glowed and belched black smoke through the night, every night, around Connellsville.
The mining of coal was hell on ground water and acid runoff still leeches out of the mountains of tailings. On the Great Allegheny Passage trail you pass two such runoffs, springs gurgling out of the bluffs staining the rocks with iridescent colors. Don’t drink or even touch. Burning coal, making coke and forging steel are also hell on air quality. Pittsburgh streetlights burned 24 hours a day because the dense smoke blocked out sunlight. Simply standing outside soiled people’s clothing. For environmental, economic and political reasons the area is no longer the juggernaut of coal and steel but its legacy lingers in lung disease wards and polluted waterways.
Yet “Stop the war on coal, fire Obama” signs abound in yards and on billboards. I don’t understand their politics, even if I like their beer. If Pennsylvania had the first in the country primary instead of Iowa, we’d be producing a lot more coal and less ethanol.
The Coke Capital has survived but its boom days are a faint memory. At one time the city boasted the most millionaires per capita of any city in the country. Now, 28 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. A town of nearly 19,000 in 1905; it’s down to 7,000 as of 2010 and falling fast.
The people we met were friendly and we’d have liked to stayed longer but we were determined to make Pittsburgh 50 more miles down the trail that day so we biked off about 8:30 a.m.
Before we left I inventoried our larder and was a bit concerned that we were running low. The jar of peanut butter was finally gone. In fact, all that we had left were a couple of bottles of Yuengling.
I lovingly wrapped them in newspaper and tucked them in my cooler bag nuzzled against ice. Like every day we headed out not knowing what the day would bring. The two cold ones in pannier gave comfort. How was I to know they’d be the perfect compliment to the best potato I ever ate in my life?