I’d fretted about my upcoming bicycle trek along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, my attitude stuck somewhere between nervousness and fear. I’d never attempted anything like it before, a 150 mile (240 kilometre) rails-to-trails ride between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland.
Every time I conquered a fear I created a new one to replace it. I wasn’t "experienced enough" so I rode all through the winter in the cold and the wind getting into shape. I wasn’t used to extra baggage so I loaded my panniers with 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of dead weight and rode around like that for several weeks. I didn’t have the right equipment so I had the bike overhauled, packed for every roadside repair imaginable and scoured the Intertubes for suggestions from riders who’d finished the trail successfully. It might rain a lot in early Spring so I packed waterproof everything. I even threw in a couple of bungee cords because — well why not — bungee cords might be useful. How did I ever get to this? A younger version of me with some friends took a 28-day roadtrip with barely a map and a vague idea of wanting to visit national parks. Now much older and supposedly more experienced, I was afraid I might get wet.
Eventually I eliminated every rational and even some irrational fears with the exception of possible attack by hillbilly meth addicts hiding along the trail. Roving feral methamphetamine gangs were one tick above sassquatch sightings on the probability scale so I knew I’d finally arrived at the proper mental state. I was ready. Besides, we were spending four days on the trail, an easy pace that one website described as a classic for "recreational cyclists with some experience." That seemed to fit my demographic.
We parked in Cumberland, Maryland and hitched a shuttle ride along with our equipment to Pittsburgh through a local bicycle shop. We would need to finish the trail if we wanted to see our cars ever again and return home. We burned the bridge behind us, figuratively.
The Journey Began
Point State Park; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mile 150 began in Pittsburgh. We planned to ride all the way back down to Mile 0 in Cumberland. The shuttle dropped us off at Point State Park at the joining of the city’s famed Three Rivers, where the Monongahela and Allegheny formed the Ohio (map). I wished we’d been able to spend a little more time exploring the history at the park, the place where Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne stood at the river confluence during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). However it was already approaching 2:00 pm and we needed to get moving even though it was a light ride, 35 miles (56 km) on relatively flat terrain.
We posed for the obligatory photos at the fountain in a cold, steady rain. We were all thoroughly waterproofed, warm and ready to roll so the weather didn’t bother us. The route followed city streets for a about a mile before turning onto a dedicated path that would last for the remainder of the trip.
CSX Railroad Train; near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The GAP Trail followed decommissioned railroad rights-of-way primarily along riverbeds, first the Monongahela as we began the adventure and later the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers, each growing progressively smaller as we pushed farther back into the watershed. Trains became our constant companions for the entire route. While some lines had been decommissioned and turned into trails, others continued to haul coal from the mountains in an unending stream. All day, all night, along every mile of pathway and in every sleepy hamlet the train whistles and the clackety-clack burst into waking hours and even seeped into my dreams. I saw the first train just outside of Pittsburgh (map) and then came hundreds more.
The Homestead Works; Homestead, Pennsylvania
The trail leaving Pittsburgh displayed an unusual mix of post-apocalyptic ruin and suburban sprawl, and reminded me why the local football team became the Pittsburgh Steelers. The steep decline of the Rust Belt loomed everywhere though, in remnants large and small. Entire factories of broken windows stood abandoned along the banks of the Monongahela. Concrete blocks and iron trusses poked from the earth in unexpected places, crumbling, rusting, decaying. Every once in a while an actual working mill continued to belch pillows of steam over the valley, a remnant clawing its way into the 21st Century. Perhaps some might find this industrial backdrop a bit grim for riding. It rather fascinated me though. I imagined the prosperity that old robber barons brought to the area only to see a way of life collapse decades later, emptying towns and scattering people as economic winds shifted to other parts of the world.
Not everything I saw reflected a tale of decline. Modern suburbs grew into many of the vacant spaces once filled by factories. We peddled past an odd array of well-preserved smokestacks (map) in front of a shopping center known as The Waterfront. Those were remains of Homestead Steel Works, once the world’s largest steel-producing plant.
The poles are the 12 towering smokestacks that used to vent heat from red-hot steel ingots waiting to be reshaped in the 45-inch slab mill. They now stand like lonely sentinels at the edge of the Loews Theater parking lot.
Homestead Steel Works dated to the 1880’s, once owned by industrialist Andrew Carnegie who later sold it to U.S. Steel where it became the company’s flagship factory. It was also the site of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 that lasted for several months with significant violence and loss of life.
The Works closed in 1986. Almost thirty years later I rode across the place where molten metal rivers once poured.
Scars Upon the Landscape
Red Waterfall; Buena Vista, Pennsylvania
We began to leave city behind and pushed past McKeesport, now switching from the bank of the Monongahela River to the Youghiogheny. The trail’s paved surface turned to gravel and would remain that way for the remainder of the ride. City gave way to suburb and finally to countryside as the miles slipped away. Next came smaller towns like Boston and Sutersville and historic sites such as the old Dravo Cemetery.
Nature reclaimed many of the old industrial sites although a toxic legacy remained behind. A red waterfall (map) hid a dark secret. The rich color came from iron. The acidity killed aquatic life and poisoned the waters. Toxins seeped from abandoned mines, an environmentally harmful condition called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The waterfall reminded me that even something ugly could appear somewhat beautiful on its surface.
We arrived in West Newton for the night, wet and layered with ashen grime from the crushed limestone used on the trail. We hosed-off our bikes and congratulated ourselves on a successful first day.
I came across the oddly named River Great Ouse as I researched Pathway to Bedford. The river ran through Bedford, the County Town of Bedfordshire.
The Great Ouse at St Ives by sean_hickin, on Flickr (cc)
I was amused even further when I discovered that it was pronounced somewhat akin to "Ooze." A body of water likened to a great ooze seemed awful, as if it flowed with black tar or sewage. That wasn’t the case of course. In fact, photographic evidence made it appear quite lovely.
The Great Ouse became great because there were actually several rivers Ouse located throughout England and this one happened to be the largest and longest. In fact this one was the fourth longest river in the United Kingdom extending 143 miles (230 kilometres) from Syresham to the Wash on the North Sea in East Anglia (map).
One of its more interesting features might have been the Cardington Slalom Course in Bedford, the first artificial kayaking facility constructed in the United Kingdom.
Opened in September 1982, Cardington is a 120m long S-shaped trapezoid concrete channel with movable boulders fixed to the base which can be moved to make different river patterns. The maximum drop is 1.7 meters, but it’s enough for a good white water training facility and you can warm up on the main river. It offers safe moving water for paddlers at any level, and is suitable for up to Division 2 Slaloms, and also for recreation groups to hire.
What about some of those other Rivers Ouse?
River Little Ouse
Little Ouse River, Thetford by Alan Winter, on Flickr (cc)
One might consider that River Little Ouse would be an ideal name for a tributary of River Great Ouse, and that was indeed the case. Little Ouse flowed into Great Ouse near Littleport in Cambridgeshire after passing Thetford (map). Indeed it was little, a mere 37 miles (60 km). However it also hid a greater significance, the dividing line between Norfolk and Suffolk for a considerable distance. Portions of it were also navigable by canal boats.
The other Rivers Ouse were not part of the Great and Little Ouse watersheds.
River Ouse, Yorkshire
River Ouse at York by Tim Green, on Flickr (cc)
The River Ouse in Yorkshire (map) might not have been designated as Great, however it flowed through the rather significant city of York. As the city explained, "The city of York owes its existence to the Rivers Ouse and Foss. These natural barriers made it an ideal defensive site which was settled by the Romans in AD71."
A couple of towns incorporated the river’s name, Newton-on-Ouse and Linton-on-Ouse. A Royal Air Force base located nearby adopted the name by extension, RAF Linton-on-Ouse: "RAF Linton-on-Ouse is one of the busiest airfields in the country. Tasked with the training future fast jet pilots for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, the Station operates the Tucano T1."
River Ouse, Sussex
The River Ouse at Lewes, East Sussex by Henry Hemming, on Flickr (cc)
Another River Ouse existed in Sussex (map). It was notable for a more painful reason.
The English author Virginia Woolf suffered from depression for much of her life. A number of tragic events befell her during the early years of the Second World War including the destruction of her London home during the The Blitz.
These seemingly insurmountable facts motivated Woolf’s decision to, on March 28, 1941, pull on her overcoat, walk out into the River Ouse and fill her pockets with stones. As she waded into the water, the stream took her with it. The authorities found her some three weeks later.
Why were there so many rivers named Ouse? The Free Dictionary offered an explanation.
Ouse is a perfectly appropriate name for a river, but one whose etymological meaning is likely to raise a smile. The name of these two rivers is derived from the Celtic languages that were spoken in England before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles. Their Celtic name, Ūsa, is derived from *udso-, “water,” which is in turn derived from the Indo-European root *wed-, “wet, water.” The same root *wed- gives us the English words water and wet as well. Thus the Ouse River etymologically is the “Water River” or the “Wet River.” Of course, the speakers of early forms of the English language who borrowed the name from the Celts did not know the meaning of the word—as is rather frequently the case when foreign topographical terms are borrowed.
So in a since they were all really the River River.
One of the more obscure examples provided in New Difference involved New Bedford Inlet in Antarctica. The chilly inlet derived its name from New Bedford in Massachusetts, which in turn had been named for Bedford, the County Town of Bedfordshire, England. I encountered several other places named Bedford or New Bedford as I examined that original curious occurrence. Sequential hops between three interrelated names seemed pretty good. However, I did discover a more impressive example that featured sequential hops between five names.
(1) New Bedford, Ohio
New Bedford, Ohio, USA
The sequence began with New Bedford, a small unincorporated community in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. According to the History of Coshocton County, Ohio (1881)
New Bedford… was laid out in March, 1825, by John Gonser, while the country around it was scarcely all settled… Mr. Gonser was ably seconded by three sons Henry, David and Adam, each whom erected a house for himself in the town plat. The Gonsers were from Bedford county Pennsylvania hence the name of the village.
I followed the thread back to Pennsylvania.
(2) Bedford County, Pennsylvania
The Coffee Pot, Bedford, PA by Joseph, on Flickr (cc)
Bedford County had its local seat of government in the town of Bedford. It took an effort to avoid confusing those particular Bedfords with another town found elsewhere in Pennsylvania called New Bedford (and named for Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, an early landowner). Clearly Pennsylvania had an affinity for Bedford.
The correct Bedford, the original homestead of the Gonser family, dated to 1771. According to the county itself, it was carved from "parts of Cumberland County, and is named for the fort that tamed the area for settlers to follow."
The most interesting sight in Bedford had to be the Coffee Pot-Shaped Building. It was built along the old Lincoln Highway during the 1920’s to attract passing motorists. The building fell into disrepair until moved and restored by preservationists in 2003. (Street View). That had nothing to do with this story. I’m just a sucker for offbeat roadside attractions.
(3) Fort Bedford
Fort Bedford Museum by Darren and Brad, on Flickr (cc)
The so-called "fort that tamed the area" was Fort Bedford located in what later became the town of Bedford in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t difficult to find. The Fort Bedford Museum marked the proper spot (map).
Fort Bedford had its heyday during the French and Indian War, a part of the larger Seven Years’ War between Britain and France et. al. As described in Legends of America,
Completed in the summer of 1758, the fort featured five bastions with walls that enclosed an area of approximately 1.45 acres and was surrounded by the river and a dry moat that was nine foot deep, ten feet wide at the bottom and fifteen feet wide at the top. The main gate was located on the south side of the structure and was protected by an earthen rampart. The north side, which faced the river, featured the unique gallery to the riverbank. Described as the "Grand Central Station of the Forbes campaign", the fort became an important communications and supply link for Forbes’s army as it moved deeper into the wilderness.
An older source, the History of Bedford, Somerset, and Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania (1884), revealed the source of the name.
It appears that when Forbes troops first occupied this point it was termed in letters and orders the "Camp at Raystown" or "Raystown Fort" but before the close of a twelve month it was called Fort Bedford in honor of "his Grace the Duke of Bedford" one of the "Lords Justices," also one of “his Majestie’s Principal Secretaries of State” during the reign of George II
The hunt was on for the namesake Duke.
(4) Duke of Bedford
John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford
via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
The Duke of Bedford at the time of Fort Bedford’s establishment was John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford. He held a number of high positions in the British government and had various places named in his honor in North America. Fort Bedford was one example. Others included Bedford, New Hampshire and Bedford County, Virginia.
The Bedford peerage was named after Bedford, England.
(5) Bedford, Bedfordshire, England
Bedford Bridge On The River Great Ouse. by Jim Linwood, on Flickr (cc)
Bedford (map) in Bedfordshire ultimately inspired the naming of tiny New Bedford, Ohio through that rather laborious, circuitous route outlined above.
The story should end there although I wondered if I could take it one step farther. Where did Bedford get its name? The Bedford Bureau Council’s Brief History of Bedford said, "Bedford probably takes its name from an otherwise unknown Saxon chief called Beda who settled with his followers where the River Great Ouse was fordable some thirteen centuries ago."
(5½ – Bonus!) The Bedford Name
I quickly checked the Bedford surname for additional clues. Ancestry.com explained,
English: habitational name from the county seat of Bedfordshire, or a smaller place of the same name in Lancashire. Both are named with the Old English personal name Beda + Old English ford ‘ford’. The name is now very common in Yorkshire as well as Bedfordshire.
The Bedford Surname Origins Study offered additional hypotheses. The "ford" portion was obvious; a place where one could cross a river. "Bed" might have derived from the personal name Beda or from Anglo-Saxon terms for prayer or battle, or maybe even from other more obscure sources.
I arrived at the final stopping point: New Bedford, Ohio → Bedford County, Pennsylvania → Fort Bedford → Duke of Bedford → Bedford, England → possibly some dude named Beda who controlled a crossing point on the River Great Ouse.