Where did the Riverfront Trails come from?

southsidePhoto by Flickr Member robjdlc

A history of activism helped make the once unimaginable trail system a reality

This story went out in the most recent Friends of the Riverfront email newsletter.  Their story is really striking and inspirational, especially considering what Pittsburgh was like in the early 90’s.  In BikePGH’s work, we run into continuous roadblocks, naysayers, and people that are downright hostile to our ideas.  But, times have changed, and we probably have it easy, compared to what the early trailblazers were up against almost twenty years ago.  At the time, Bicycling Magazine rated Pittsburgh the worst city in the country to ride a bicycle, and anyone will tell you that’s not the case anymore.

De-industrialization freed up a lot of riverfront property, allowing Pittsburghers to reconnect with the Rivers and see the City in a way that was previously impossible.  As the rivers shifted from an industrial dump to a recreational amenity, a cultural shift was also underway.  Given the new opportunity to more easily enjoy the outdoors and the rivers, Pittsburghers changed their attitude not only towards the rivers, but towards cycling in general.

Things are very different now than it was then.  It’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh without our popular and extensive Riverfront Trail system, and we owe it to these folks for having a vision and proving any naysayers wrong.

We share our office with the Friends of the Riverfront, and they gave us permission to republish this brief history.  They now concentrate on Riverfront stewardship and the expansion and maintenance of the trail system.

A brief history

Friends of the Riverfront sprang from a realization—emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s—of a once-in-a-century opportunity to reclaim much of the city’s 35 miles of riverfront for continuous public access and greenway/recreational use. While initial official planning documents and efforts settled for nodes of riverfront access to the water for boating, Friends of the Riverfront championed a more far-reaching and transformational vision: continuous public access to the water’s edge as multi-use public space.

The Friends’ early efforts were led by a small cadre of activists and writers, galvanized by State Representative Tom Murphy.  The group included Edward Muller, urban geography professor at the University of Pittsburgh; John Stephen, a young environmental lawyer; R. Todd Erkel, a magazine and policy writer; and Sierra Club member Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley had been active with Friends of the Earth and Save Mono Lake in California, and lobbied for the “Friends” name based on his Friends of the Earth past. The Friends did not wait for official sanction or for slow-moving bureaucracies to respond, pushing forward with clean-ups and other shovel-ready activism.

First drawn up in a meeting at Tom Murphy’s North Side office, the Three Rivers Heritage Trail concept was unveiled in December of 1990. Murphy, meanwhile, worked official channels as a key and vocal member of Mayor Sophie Masloff’s Working Group.  Murphy also supported early Rails to Trail efforts (Montour Trail and Allegheny Highlands Trail) underway in Allegheny County and elsewhere.

Clean-ups and plantings on the North Shore and South Side Riverfront Park jolted city officials into action, such as on April 19, 1991 when city crews indiscriminately cut a swath through the natural tree canopy between 10th and 18th streets.

In 1993, the Friends moved toward wide-spread credibility when it secured transportation enhancement funds for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail under the new federal transportation funding act (ISTEA).  In November 1993, Tom Murphy was elected Mayor and he quickly made riverfront access and recreational trails a priority.

The organization proceeded to play a major role in acquiring more land, collaborating with municipalities, completing more sections of trail and incorporating programs for stewardship and care.  The first major trail project constructed with funds raised by FOR was the Herrs Island Bridge. This $700,000 project opened in 1999 and completed the link from the Washington’s Landing development to the North Shore.

Friends became a charter member of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, a coalition of seven trail groups formed in the late ‘90s to spearhead the development of the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland Maryland.  The organization, now almost 20 ears old, set an early example of ground-up activism in a town not known for that impulse, and later inspired such groups as the Sprout Fund, PUMP and others.


  • nathan says:

    This is a really nifty article and seeing people using the rivers, whether they’re bikers or Kenny Chesney fans, makes me incredibly happy. Having been down in Austin for several months of the past year, I was amazed at how much the city put into their river — people were out kayaking, boating, even surfing it believe it or not, daily — the trails were always packed with people jogging after work, commuting or just out with their kids or the dog.

    As Pittsburgh continues to develop these trails you can bet we’ll attract more and more of these “healthy types” and as they come, so we shall build it. Um, in some order…

    On another note, I was really impressed with the number of people out there on bikes! Having been gone for almost a year, there is a HUGE noticeable difference in the amount of people I saw riding around, even in the rain on game 7 last Friday. Great work to BikePGH and everyone on two wheels!

  • BradQ says:

    I can honestly say as one of the target demographic educated-twentysomethings that has stuck around that the riverfront trails have been one piece of the puzzle as to why I’m still here. They’re an amazing resource, I use them every chance I get, and am totally stoked to see the day that they all truly connect, forming a huge triangular bicycle loop.

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