Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
It’s not unusual to drive through Ohiopyle on a warm summer day several times, looking for an open parking spot. Dozens of states are represented by the myriad of license plates on the vehicles passing through the relatively small borough.
By the census last count, less than 60 people live in Ohiopyle. Yet, hundreds of people — hundreds of strangers and unfamiliar faces — crowd the sidewalks, river banks, eateries and Ohiopyle businesses on any given day in the height of summer.
It’s almost hard to believe that Ohiopyle was once described as a place in which “everybody knew everybody.”
There weren’t many strangers. If a new face was seen in town, families would call one another to keep an eye out.
Days were spent at the Youghiogheny River or riding bikes through town after youth attended school right in the borough, while evenings were reserved for walking through town and greeting elders as they sat on their porches.
That’s the Ohiopyle that Kevin Ravenscroft remembers growing up.
“There were a lot of watchful eyes on us,” Ravenscroft, 55, said with a laugh.
In his childhood years of the 1960s, the population hovered around 120, many of whom were widows whose husbands had died during the World Wars.
The children in town had a lot of unofficial grandparents, according to Ravenscroft.
“We couldn’t get away with anything. My mother knew what I did before I got home,” he joked.
Ravenscroft recalled the sounds of trains that ran along the popular B&O and Western Maryland railroads on the far side of the mountain area borough.
That’s where Ravenscroft’s story begins. His mother Ruth, a housewife, met his father Marcellus (Sam), when he was employed by B&O Railroad and worked in a tower near the tracks. Kevin and his two brothers grew up in the small borough.
His mother was also a lifelong Ohiopyle resident.
“At my mother’s time, it was during the Great Depression. They didn’t have a lot of money to do things, so they spent most summers at the river or at square dances,” Ravenscroft said.
Connie Smithburger also recalls days at the river, jumping in from a rope swing attached to the bridge. Carnivals held at the playground, days at the skating rink and walks to the soda shop also pepper her childhood memories.
For her, a resounding note in her childhood memories was the level of safety and security in the small town.
“Everyone in town was family, even if you weren’t blood relatives,” said Smithburger, who was one of eight siblings. Her family grew up on the top street in the borough with their mother, Cecilia, and father, Bill, who was killed in a lumber accident.
“We were never afraid to walk to the store or down to the water slides. It was very safe,” she recalled.
The constant train traffic brought a number of freight hoppers, also known as “hobos,” to the town.
She remembers her mother giving fresh bread and a jar of beans to hobos who would knock on the door. They would sit on the porch for a short talk and be on their way.
They were a byproduct of the railroad industry and a thrill to meet — a novelty in a sleepy railroad/river town. Now, the industry is made up of strangers — a sea of millions of new faces each year.
“Nobody locked their doors then — you never had to be afraid,” she said.
“It was a very close-knit community,” Ravenscroft said.
According to the last census taken in 2010, Ohiopyle borough was home to 59 full-time residents, including Ravenscroft.
In the summer months, though, it becomes a bustling home to nearly 120 people including seasonal workers and river guides.
“It’s typical of any tourist town that employs college kids. Some of the guides have even decided to stay,” Ravenscroft said, “and pursue employment and residency.”
With its official distinction as a state park that encompasses 20,500 acres around the borough, Ohiopyle is a tourism mecca.
Strangers are a new norm now with an estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million tourists who come through the park each year, according to park manager Ken Bisbee.
Bisbee, who has been with the park for four years now, said last year was particularly busy due to the nice weather.
“It was a long, busy season,” Bisbee said with a laugh. “We love the people here, but it’s nice to take a breather in the winter.”
Anna Weltz, director of public relations for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, attributed Ohiopyle’s success to its unique charm.
“It’s unique, both from the charming little town with great personalities, to all of this incredible adventure packed into one area,” Weltz said. “There’s white water rafting for beginners and families, all the way up to our more veteran adventurers. The great hiking trails and preservation work, and the education here, makes it so special.”
LHVB hosts a visitor center along the Great Allegheny Passage in Ohiopyle, located at the old train station. As reported in their 2016 winter newsletter, LHVB workers greeted 12,706 visitors who came through the train station doors in 2016.
“It was the second busiest season since 2009, probably because of the weather,” Weltz added. The top three nationalities represented by international visitors were Canadian, German and French, she said.
Ravenscroft, who has made a career at Ohiopyle State Park and now operates as a park maintenance supervisor, said he remembers early vibes of tourism, but nothing to the magnitude that it is now.
“There was Hostetlers Store across from the falls. Everyone stopped there after looking at the falls,” he recalled.
“Families from Pittsburgh would come to the river to spend the day,” he added, noting that there were four hotels at the time and a number of picnic tables in what was then established as a picnic area in the Ferncliff Peninsula.
As a whole, the atmosphere in Ohiopyle changed in the Project 70 acquisition of homes, Ravenscroft said.
According to articles in the March 18, 1964, edition of the Morning Herald, which predated the Herald-Standard, state legislature was approved then to allocate $70 million to acquire land and water sites throughout the state in the hopes of preserving them and increasing recreation outlets.
“It would help preserve those now in existence and point the way toward restoration of many which would have fallen by the wayside or are in the danger of being lost forever,” the newspaper read.
In Ohiopyle alone, the development would cost $1,140,000, with another $150,000 in land acquisition and $100,000 in road construction.
Ravenscroft said they called it “eminent domain.”
“They came in and offered property owners, at the time, what they thought was a fair price,” he said. “In reality, it wasn’t nearly what the property owners needed to relocate.”
“It was really hard on property owners that didn’t get enough money to move. A lot never recovered from that,” he said. Some moved to nearby towns like Farmington and Confluence, while others moved in with family.
Three rows of homes between Route 381 and the river were torn down. A parking lot, several buildings including the new visitor’s center and grassy areas are there now.
The acquisition also included homesteads and farms in the surrounding townships.
“I understand what the park’s mission is and why they purchased property,” Ravenscroft said, “though maybe it could’ve been done differently. There would have been a lot less animosity if residents would’ve had a choice.”
In the passing years, though, Ravenscroft said the animosity has gone away. Though some still hold major grudges, he said, more recent generations are more amenable towards the park.
“There’s such a close relationship between the outfitters, the restaurants, the bike shops and the beautiful, natural resources that bring people here,” Bisbee said. “It’s unlike any state park in Pennsylvania. We have to work with the community — they’re an integral part to what is Ohiopyle.”
The sense of community is evident, particularly during annual events along the river or in town. The spring and fall buckwheat dinners draw crowds from all over to sample the homemade buckwheat cakes and pancakes.
Weekly church services are still held at the United Methodist Church on Sherman Street.
Dedicated in 1883, the church remains an architectural masterpiece and spiritual hub in the center of town.
A respite from the influx of strangers, the community center remains a popular destination on Monday nights for bingo, where Ravenscroft said a lot of regulars go.
The park is alive with foot and bike traffic through much of the spring and summer months.
Ravenscroft said the bike trail and access to the Great Allegheny Passage, which connects from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., has brought many new tourists to the area.
“Free recreation is not something you find anymore. More and more people are bringing picnic lunches and stopping along the bike trail,” he said.
Michele Solarchick-Akins and her family are some of the many frequent visitors to Ohiopyle, though her story began there in the 1970s.
Solarchick-Akins grew up in Ohiopyle and fondly recalls summer days with her siblings and cousins at the river. Now, she brings her own children to the bustling park to experience the river and outdoor wonders.
The river in particular is unique and a great place for those learning to kayak, she said.
Coming back to her stomping grounds is a nostalgic homecoming for Solarchick-Akins, who now lives in Scottdale.
“I’ll sit on the rocks and watch my kids swim in the river, and remember how I used to do that with my family,” she said. “This place has always fascinated me — there’s just so much here.”
Though fall brings chillier temperatures, it also offers some of the best foliage in the region, and hundreds of spectators.
With a majority of eateries and recreation outlets closing in October, the hustle and bustle of Ohiopyle finally tapers off to locals going to Falls Market, the bakery, the pizza shop or Falls City Pub, or other winter adventurers.
“When there is snow, there’s a lot of people here to cross country ski along the bike trail,” Ravenscroft said, noting that they groom the trail for those interested in doing so.
With warm summer months and a stampede of strangers on the horizon, Ohiopyle will wake from its winter slumber.
The river, as it has for centuries, will continue to draw thousands of unfamiliar faces to this gem tucked away in the Laurel Highlands.