History of the Baker Trail

An AYH recap circa 1976

The First Decade: The Idea

Strangely enough the Baker Trail began on a canoe trip. Tony Pranses, first Chairman of Pittsburgh A.Y.H. (1948--1950) wrote recently:

The canoe trip during which Betty Bierer and I conceived the Baker Trail idea was a two-day event starting at Freeport, camping overnight on 14-Mile Island and concluding at the Point, using Red Cross canoes furnish­ed by Emil Bonavita, then a member of our Board and a Red Cross Executive. It was either the first, or nearly the first, canoe trip sponsored by the Pittsburgh Council, hence a new experience for many. Betty and I were paddling slowly and pleasantly down the river somewhere between Freeport and Tarentum when it occurred to us that it would be equally special to be up on top of those scenic cliffs looking down on the river as it would be where we were looking up. The idea was expanded at camp that night and grew from there.

That was in August 1949. The project was developed in more detail by the Trips and Trails Committee in September, and then presented to the Board of Directors. In October 1949 the Board of the Pittsburgh Council authorized construction of an "extended trail to connect Pittsburgh and Cook Forest, an estimated distance of 125 miles." The trail was called the Horace Forbes Baker Trail to honor the prominent Pittsburgh attorney who had been instrumental in establishing the Pittsburgh Council in 1948, and who died in the Spring of 1950.

Between November 1949 and January 1950 all but a few miles of the Allegheny Sector were scouted. Blazing started on this section (Aspinwall to Freeport) and within a few months Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops were beginning to walk the trail. It was planned to devote one year of work to each of three sectors and to complete the trail sometime during 1952.

One of the first trips led by AYH on the new trail was an overnight hike on the section between Freeport and Aspinwall on June 10th and 11th, 1950. The Council at the time had a wide ranging interest in hiking for it was reported by the Golden Triangle that "many hikers were getting in shape for the Adirondacks Trip." The original plan for the trail was to have it start at the end of public transportation lines for easy access. The mushrooming of the suburbs along Route 28, however, led to the abandonment of the Aspinwall-Freeport section before the decade was over. Now the official beginning of the trail is near Freeport.

The Winter, 1950, issue of Hosteling magazine carried an article by Tony Pranses, "Pittsburgh Opens the Baker Trail". This announced the opening of the trail to A.Y.H. councils and members all over the United States. Pranses hoped that other councils would emulate this example, suggesting that "AYH fulfills part of its civic responsibility" by such activities, and that they were necessary for growth in status and membership.

Phil Ewald recalls that in November, 1950, a party of three: John Crable, George Howe, and Ewald scouted the section from Mahoning Dam to Cook Forest. From notes taken and from earlier material, he says, "George did the chart work and we put the first BT guidebook together." This first guide was released in March, 1951.

In July, 1951, a group of six hikers from the Chicago Council, AYH, walked from Springdale to Crooked Creek, loaded with heavy packs. That was even before the official opening ceremony held in Cook Forest State Park on August 18, 1951. To get to that ceremony, Betty Bierer and Wes Bunnelle hiked the entire length of the Trail and arrived just in time.

Although the Golden Triangle proudly announced in August of 1951, "The Baker Trail is complete from Pittsburgh to Cook Forest" work continued. The goals for 1952 were "completion of blazing and clearing 136.7 miles of trail" and a "guide book late winter 1952." At that time the trail was divided into 13 sections, 9 to 13 miles each. They were assigned to: Hartley Saxon, Fred Freuthal, Ed Worrell, June Merritt, George Cohen, Fred Mauk, Joan Walczak, Grace Kriner, Herb Buchwald, Hank Fisher, Jim Zimmerman, Betty Bierer, Walt Williams.

Blazing and re-blazing was a constant concern of those years. There were "def­inite plans to finish blazing by June 1, 1953." but in 1954 the Golden Triangle announced that there will be "a grand scale blazing party of the entire trail one day or one weekend." In 1955 George Poland directed "the coordination of Boy Scouts' effort in respect to the Baker Trail." Much of their work was blazing. In 1956, the Golden Triangle noted, "Baker Trail blazing will suffer a relapse when George Hughes goes to Washington." In 1957 Don Woodland said, "It is difficult to keep sectors blazed," There was “wholesale trail blazing" in May of that year. At the end of the decade, Harry Rhule, whose many contributions to the trail include spending most of the summer of 1954 working on it, summed it all up in an article, "Going to Blazes on the Baker Trail."

So the trail building went on through the decade of the 50's. However, as decade ended, the trail was really established and was being used. The first guidebook had been published and two shelters were built under the direction of John J. Matthews. These were Schenley built in 1953 and Crooked Creek in 1955. Both were assembled using logs. The total cost of Schenley Shelter was $72.82, not costing out the necessary volunteer labor. In 1957, Ralph Weaver and Eileen Hagan had hiked the trail "from bottom to top, all 137 miles of it" on weekends and holidays. In 1959 Walter Urling walked 12 miles of the Baker Trail--so did a lot of other people--but Walter was 74 years old.

Second Decade: Development

The Baker Trail Guide Book, the Baedekker to the Baker Trail, became a reality in 1961. It was free to A.Y.H. members, $1.00 to non-members. It used sketch maps, and had a sketch map on the cover.

This second phase of Baker Trail Development, generally the decade of the sixties, owes much to the leadership and enthusiasm of Don Woodland. A member for many years, Don had been Hostel Development Chairman and on the board of directors before becoming Baker Trail Chairman. In fact for the first 15 years, the Baker Trail was assigned to a subcommittee under the Trips and Trails Committee, whose primary responsibility was program. Those in charge of the trail were not even members of the Activities Board until the late sixties.

During the period 1963--1968 when Don Woodland was responsible for the Baker Trail, seven shelters or lean-to's were built; most were equipped with a latrine, table, fireplace and nearby camping spot. Hundreds of signs were routed and placed at key points along the trail. A Baker Trail information sheet was prepared. Per­haps a motivation Don shared with his wife, Billie, is suggested by her statement at the dedication of the North Freedom Shelter:

"This is Pittsburgh Council's most important service project" she said, "it should enable people, not only Scouts....to enjoy backpacking...to get close to God by getting close to nature. People who have such experiences should be better people, better able to solve their own problems and society's. That's what the Baker Trail is all about. That's really what the shelters are for."

Development didn't all happen at once. In January of 1963 the Activities Board approved "a rebirth of the Baker Trail which involves reblazing the Trail, building a third shelter, and lengthening the Trail." In the spring there were work parties. In an article in the Golden Triangle, "A Trail Reborn," Don Wood­land anticipated additional lean-to sites all the way to Fisher; information centers; a new information sheet; new Trail signs (and a contest for the best design of a 14 inch galvanized sheet metal triangle). By December 1963 the Cochran's Mills, shelter was completed and a site for the Idaho shelter has been selected.

By the fall of the following year Schenley, Crooked Creek, Cochran's Mills, Idaho, and Mahoning were completed, and plans were being made to construct shelters #5 and #6 (Atwood and Plumville). Among many helpers were: Harry Rhule, Winifred Roensch, Bruce Sundquist, J. D. and Elinor Myers. Scoutmaster Victor Wise and scouts from Troop 12, Butler, helped with several shelters.

As with any project, there were setbacks. Perhaps the worst was the news in the fall of 1964 that the Schenley shelter had been destroyed by fire. One of the first accomplishments of 1965 was the rebuilding of Schenley shelter on the same site.

Despite setbacks the progress was steady under Don Woodland's guidance. The marking system for the trail was changed to the present one of "traffic marking yellow" paint with standard 2 inch by 6 inch blazes. A new, revised Guidebook was issued in June 1965. This edition was the first to use photocopies of USGS maps. A Baker Trail Patch was designed by Barbara DiGregorio and became a popular item with scouts and other hikers. Don Woodland urged the development of a "Master Plan Book" for the Baker Trail listing policies, specifications for trail maintenance and shelters, names of land owners, and other important information.

In 1966 the Milo Weaver shelter at Plumville was constructed. Expenses for the Baker Trail that year were $274.97. Locations for new shelters were sought by combining fun hikes with searches for appropriate sites. In August, Analee and Chuck Fitzgibbons led another exploratory hike to search for a “possible route to join the Baker Trail to a trail in the Allegheny National Forest”. Some consideration was given to the re-establishing the trail south of Freeport, to allow walking of the magnificent bluffs above the river and to "take in the scene of the Indian massacre". Hikes were led by Cathy Lynch, Bob Fewkes, and Don Woodland, among others.

The Baker Trail budget for 1967 was set at $265. These figures were for material alone. They do not reflect the countless hours of volunteer labor that went into building shelters, hauling equipment and wood, planning and scouting. Or the hours spent blazing and re-blazing, routing signs, placing signs and all the other work that made the trail what it is.

Much of the work of trail maintenance is carried on by dedicated individuals and groups who are assigned as sector leaders for various sections of the trail, Perhaps symbolic of them all is Walter Tereszkiewicz who, besides maintaining and improving his section of the trail, in 1967 completed a covered bridge crossing Horney Camp Run. Its heavy timber trusses and solid construction are certainly the highlight of architecture created for the trail. He also erected "two beauti­ful highway signs for Route 66 and Cochrans Mills".

In 1967 Don Woodland asked to be replaced as Baker Trail chairman. The Activities Board praised him for "a fine job well-done". He continued on the job until the Fall of 1968.

Third Decade: Extension and Beyond

Late in 1968 just prior to the chronological third decade, Eberhard Moll took over where Don Woodland had left off. Under Eberhard Moll, the final three shelters were constructed, the Trail was almost totally relocated north of Interstate 80 to provide magnificent forest walking, and the Trail was extended to Allegheny National Forest. When he began his work, the Trail was 108 miles long; today it is 141 miles (226 km). While in one sense the Trail will never be finished -- there will always be need for some relocation, reblazing, maintenance, and possibly a shelter or two--to all intents and purposes the Trail was complete by Fall 1972 when the last of the eleven shelters was erected and the Trail was in excellent shape from Freeport to the Allegheny National Forest near Muzette.

In 1968 two shelters were built. The Pine-ees shelter near Atwood was built with the assistance of Keith States and the Pine-ees Chapter of National Campers and Hikers Association of Indiana. 1968 also saw the production of a slightly revised edition of the Guidebook.

In 1969 the Idaho shelter was moved up the hill to a location away from Highway 210. 1970 saw yet another edition of the Baker Trail Guide and the rerouting of the Trail from Corsica to the Clarion River Bridge (Gravel Lick). 1971 saw the construction of the Fisher Shelter and the Corsica Shelter. During the summer of 1971 A.Y.H. sponsored a series of 16 hikes covering the entire span of the Baker Trail. Some of the leaders were Rich Bartoo, Morie Oberg, Tess Henry, Eb Moll, Fran Czapiew­ski, Dianne Moll, John Henry, Cathy Lynch, Larry Giventer, Marilyn Ham, and Jim Hurst. As a result of the program, at least half a dozen AYH-ers, plus many Boy Scouts and others did make the Honor Roll for hiking the whole trail. In 1972 the Trail was rerouted around Idaho Shelter, avoiding Highway 210 and going instead through a beau­tiful Christmas tree farm.

Eberhard Moll resigned in October of 1972. Just before he returned to his native Germany, he and his wife Diane led a farewell hike on the Trail. Thirty hikers walked with them on the first section of the Baker Trail, from Garvers Ferry to Schenley Shelter. No one who was there has ever forgotten the surprise at the Shelter. The Golden Triangle reported.

"A waiter in tuxedo stepped from behind a rock to start serving (lunch). The next apparition was a waitress in a proper pantsuit. Nothing could have been more unexpected than those two gentle people serving such delicacies as cheese and crackers, baked whole ham, tossed salad, Blennd, and ice cream topped with out-of-season fruits and berries. Eb and Dianne's good friends did a superb job of serving a gourmet meal. It would be a hard act to follow!".

Chosen to follow Eb's "act" were two Baker Trail Co-chairmen, Cliff Ham and Dave Porterfield, elected in October, 1972. Essentially the planning and construction was over; the tasks remaining were continued maintenance, and improvement; some relocation; and linking the Trail to others to create a "trail system". New opportunities arose to develop the use of the Baker Trail, to encourage hiking, and to make the Trail even more appealing.

A new edition of the Baker Trail Guide was issued in 1974, the first to show the location of all eleven shelters and a tentative link to the North Country Trail in Allegheny National Forest. (This 25th Anniversary edition shows the final ap­proved link through State Game Lands 24). The Pittsburgh Council members were pleased when Cliff Ham and Joe Levine announced that in February 1975 they had painted the last blaze on the Rachel Carson Trail, a 50 kilometer path linking the Baker Trail near Freeport to much of northern Allegheny County. The Trail follows the bluffs above the Allegheny River to Springdale and thence west to Hartwood Acres and North Park. This new trail re-established part of the earliest sector of the original Baker Trail. In 1975, a Baker Trail Bikeway Guide was published showing routes which bicyclists could ride and use Baker Trail shelters at night.

In early 1976 the Baker Trail was formally linked to the newly-relocated and extended North Country Trail through Allegheny National Forest. Another connection completed in July of 1976 means hikers can walk from Pittsburgh to New York via the Rachel Carson, the Baker, and the North Country Trails with no discontinuities. Lately the Corps of Engineers proposed to build several miles of trails along the Little Mahoning and Mahoning Creeks. With some relocation, the Baker Trail can connect these trails and provide a continuous thirty-mile (fifty kilometer) loop hiking system. David Porterfield is working on this plan.

As the 25th Anniversary edition of the Baker Trail Guide is being prepared, the Trail is complete, well-blazed, and well-used. Eleven shelters offer refuge hikers (although the wise user will carry along his own tent or other protection ­from the elements.) Relocations are being studied near Crooked Creek, in the Mahoning Dam and Reservoir area, and in the strip mine areas above North Freedom. The trail requires some road-walking, although most of this is pleasant. More and of the Trail is on publicly-owned lands State Game Lands, along the reservoirs controlled by the Corps of Engineers, state parks and forests, or public right-of‑ways. Section leaders are currently working along almost every one of the fourteen sectors of the Trail.

Beginning in 1976, Baker Trail responsibilities have been placed under "Trail Coordinators". Presently, the American Youth Hostels, Pittsburgh Council, maintains or is working on four major trails:

Baker Trail                141 miles       226 kilometers

Tuscarora Trail (part)      20 miles        32 kilometers

Rachel Carson Trail         32 miles        52 kilometers

Conemaugh Gorge Trail about 35 miles        55 kilometers

               Total        228 miles       365 kilometers

The Baker Trail Links to Other Trails

Twenty-five years ago when Pittsburgh AYHers were planning and constructing the Baker Trail, it stood alone as a unique opportunity for hiking in Western Pennsylvania. Over the course of the quarter century, many other trails have been developed, and in some instances they have been linked to the Baker Trail. During this time there were many proposals put forward for such links; the pages of the Golden Triangle carried the following:

1956 - proposed relationship with the Armstrong-Kittanning Trail;

1957 - proposed link to Todd Sanctuary in Butler County, asked by the Audubon Society;

1962 - early suggestion of linking U.S. and Canadian hiking Trails;

1966 - anticipated relationship with the Travellers Trail;

1966 - "Is it possible that some day there will be a trail from Tobermory to Pittsburgh and if so, why not on to Washington, D.C., via Forbes Trail, Warrior Trail, and the C & O Canal Towpath?"

1967 - proposed link to New Bethlehem, Pa., sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of that city.

Unfortunately, few of these proposals came to fruition. The Traders Path (Travellers Trail?) was built, but lately has been neglected. AYH does suggest a long 1oop trail using both trails; see page xx  of this Guide. Over the last decade many hiking trails and other opportunities for recreational walking, hiking, and backpacking have been developed. Many of these trails are described in the Hiking Guide to Western Pennsylvania.

Fully as exciting is work on a Western Pennsylvania Trail System, a series of trails running from the New York State line to the Maryland line, proposed by AYH and now sponsored by the Keystone Trails Association. The hiker within a few months will be able to start in Allegany State Park, New York, and traverse the North Country Trail, 100 miles of beautiful forest walking to the Baker Trail; then about 115 miles to Crooked Creek; by 1978, continue on the Conemaugh Gorge Trail, under construction by Carnegie-Mellon Explorers Club, connecting the Baker Trail to the northern end of Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail at Seward; then 70 miles southward to Ohiopyle; join a Boy Scout Trail to the Mason-Dixon Trail at the Maryland border.

Further possible links: the Finger Lakes Trail System currently runs from the New York line about 100 miles to East Aurora, New York, and is planned to run to Niagara Falls, where it would connect with the Bruce Trail of Canada, and further with the Voyageur Trail half-way across the continent. The Finger Lakes System also extends eastward to Vermont and the Long Trail.

To the south there is the possibility of a linkage to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, part of the Potomac Heritage Trail System, either via the Western Maryland railroad abandonment or by a trail under consideration by the Department of Natural Resources, State of Maryland. The latter trail would run from the Youghiogheny Reservoir eastward through Savage River forests and parks to the C & 0 Canal east of Cumberland. This, in turn, crosses both the Appalachian and the Tuscarora Trails.

In a few years, then, we may have in actuality what hikers have dreamed about--a trail system linking many of the major trails in the mid-Atlantic states. Other proposals suggest a trail across the northern tier of Pennsylvania, linking several trails already built by the Bureau of Forests, Department of Environmental Resources.

Two other links may be established with the Buckeye Trail of Ohio, via Glacier Ridge Trail through Moraine and McConnells Mills State Parks; and with the Mid-State Trail.

The Rachel Carson Trail, which re-establishes several miles of the old Baker Trail close to Pittsburgh, is being planned to run through Beaver County and possibly join the Buckeye Trail.

All of this takes time, energy, ideas, and loads of volunteer effort. Almost all of these trails have been built by volunteers, with little or no government aid (excepting, of course, the right to traverse State Game Lands, national forest lands, state parks and forests, county parks, local parks, and other public right-of-ways). If you can help, please write or call the editors, the American Youth Hostels, the Keystone Trails Association, or another trail club.

Volunteers: Please check with the Trails Coordinator, AYH, before doing any blazing, trail clearing or shelter renovation. We will supply paint, materials and other aids, but we want to be sure you are working on the current trail and using the correct procedures. Metal blazes are not acceptable now. Please write to AYH trails coordinator, 6300 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15232.