Hollers to Doughnuts: Cycling the Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Beaver Greens Park and Ohio River on a sunny fall day

Picture perfect. View of Beaver Greens Park, Bridgewater Crossing, and the Ohio River from River Road, Beaver

[Breathes deeply, sighs wistfully.]

If only it was October all year long. This…err, last month’s magic powers are almost too numerous to name. Golden, low-angle sunshine fans through dappled multicolor leaves. Crisp morning air yields to warm, t-shirt weather afternoons. Decorative gourd fantasias tell us the aroma of pumpkin spice and mulled apple cider is wafting somewhere nearby as the whimsical array of dismembered body parts, sadistic clowns, and sprays of blood spatter signal the most wonderful of holiday seasons is fully upon us.

elaborate Halloween decorations on house and yard in Monaca, PA

The most wonderful holiday season, Monaca

Give this blogger a day off and a blue sky and you’ll inevitably find him on a bicycle, worldly cares dismissed for the afternoon. This particular October day (it was Saturday, two weeks ago) was just such an occasion. Maps were consulted, timetables checked, and the S.S. Orbit charted a course downriver.

The goal for this particular journey was to construct our own custom bicycle-based tour through a series of nearly-contiguous river towns. We’re calling the route The Beaver Valley Six-Pack. If you get the chance and you’re so-inclined–there is still time–we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous autumn day.

Below is the path we took along with some highlights. That said, as long as you get the interchanges right, it’s pretty much choose-your-own-adventure on this one. Stay off the busy roads–that turns out to be pretty easy–and you really can’t go wrong.

rooftop decoration of Santa with 10 reindeer made from toilet bowls, Monaca, PA

Santa and 10 tiny reindeer-toilets, Monaca

Monaca

We started in Monaca and went north. There’s a good argument to go the other direction, but we’ll get into that later. In any case, one can safely park a car on anywhere around 9th Street and the vehicle should remain unmolested as long as you like.

Don’t be too quick to get across the river! An easy trundle through the longer residential streets  (Washington, Indiana, and Atlantic Aves.) is well worth the poke-see, as are the dramatic river views from Monaca’s pair of waterfront parklets.

View of the Ohio River and train bridge from Monaca, PA

View of the Ohio River from the Monaca riverfront

Right now, the city is well represented in holiday decoration with an ample supply of front yard witches, skeletons, and gravestones. You’ll also not want to miss the Christmas-all-year display of Santa and his ten tiny reindeer toilets (photo above) on the roof of a garage behind the Japanese steakhouse.

ghost sign reading "Monaca Business Block," Monaca, PA

Ghost sign, Monaca

Whenever you’re ready, the giant bridge over the Ohio River awaits. It comes straight off 9th Street and there’s a protected bicycle/pedestrian gangway on the north-bound side. Newish signage states this will part of a future, more formalized Beaver County bicycle trail–but we can’t wait for that.

We saw no other non-vehicles on our crossing and while the views up and down the Ohio River are spectacular, we didn’t manage to get a photo worth sharing. Maybe you can do better.

large elevated sign for DeAngelis Donuts, Rochester, PA

DeAngelis Delightfully Different Donuts, Rochester

Rochester to Bridgewater

Arriving on the north bank of the Ohio, you’d swear the municipality was named DeAngelis for the size and placement of the enormous welcome sign. It’s not. No, Rochester just happens to begin (or end) at DeAngelis “Delightfully Different” Donuts which somehow commandeers the enviable location where the little city’s downtown intersects with the bridge and Routes 51/65 highway through-traffic.

A dirty secret: The Orbit has been to Rochester a dozen times on various field trips and never stopped for a DeAngelis donut (sic.). We’ll rectify that one of these days.

Rochester has a cool–but, sadly, vacant–old downtown just downhill from where you are now. There’s also a riverfront bowling alley whose exterior you’ll recognize from Kingpin the next you see it. This is all well worth exploring–but we didn’t do it this trip. Instead, it was through the roundabout, arriving at six o’clock and getting out at 11, down Brighton to Madison and crossing the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Beaver River between Rochester and Bridgewater, PA

Rochester (right), Bridgewater (left), and a whole lot of blue. View from the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Bridgewater and Beaver Borough

You’ll pass quickly through Bridgewater–so quickly, you might not even realize it was its own place. That said, if you’re looking for lunch, there are a handful of establishments right there at the base of the bridge that all look welcoming and convivial.

A quick left on Market Street, following the road around to Wolf Lane, will lead you directly to a bike/ped trail up under some railroad tracks by the old train depot and into Beaver Borough.

Now, Beaver gets all the name recognition out here and that’s in no small part because it cornered the market on the three W’s: wealthy white WASPs. If you’ve never been there, Beaver is totally out of place among the rest of the area. With its wide streets, well-kept fancy homes, and main street full of boutiques and frivolity, Beaver feels like a tony commuter suburb was plucked out of Connecticut and dropped in among the old mill towns of Beaver County. Don’t let that stop you from checking out the good stuff.

Halloween decorations at home in Beaver, PA

Halloween at Thunberg Acres, Beaver

The bicycle ride around River Road is just terrific. A wide street with no traffic and long views down to Beaver Greens Park, the Ohio River, and back across to Monaca on the other shore. (See photo, top.) River Road also includes numerous park benches, historical markers, and assorted other points of interest along the way.

At the far end, you’ll come up close to Thunberg Acres (our name). Orbit fans know this as the 3rd Street home of Gary Thunberg and his always-in-rotation holiday displays. [See photo above; we’ve reported on Gary’s homemade Halloween and Independence Day displays in years past.] Whatever the time of year, see what Thunberg Acres has in the queue of full-yard displays and please sign Gary’s guest book in the front box–he’s got a collection that goes back 20 years and would love for you to add to it.

fall day in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Dappled sunlight, fall colors, Cyrillic picture graves at Beaver Cemetery

It is hard to overstate this how devastatingly beautiful Beaver Cemetery is–especially this time of year. The cemetery sits directly across 3rd Street from the Thunberg house and basically forms the western end of the town’s business district–you won’t miss it. We’ve reported on the off-its-rocker Leaf Mausoleum already, but there is so much to see here–and it colors so beautifully in the fall–that you don’t even need that.

As an unrepentant taphophile, I can tell you that Beaver Cemetery’s collection of mid-century photo gravestones is the largest we’ve seen in these parts. We first got the bug with the amazing weathered grave markers at Loretto Cemetery, but the town of Beaver bought into the little photos-turned-ceramic insets big time. At some point, we’ll go back for a big story there. For now, you’ll have to go find them yourself.

World War I memorial featuring doughboy statue painted gold in Townsend Park, New Brighton, PA

The golden doughboy, Townsend Park, New Brighton

New Brighton

Fun fact: Beaver Falls (we’ll get there in a minute) was originally called Brighton, which makes the name of the borough right across the river more sensible and explains the prominence of Pittsburgh’s north-west-heading Brighton Road. Once the name change to Beaver Falls, you’d think New Brighton might consider becoming Regular-Old Brighton, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Bicycling to New Brighton is the trickiest of the lot. From Beaver, you’ll make your way across town, down Leopard Lane, back into Bridgewater, and north up either Market or Riverside. There’s a quick little run on the sidewalk and then across the bike/ped lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. From here, you want to go straight across Rt. 65 to 3rd Avenue, which will skirt the through traffic almost all the way to New Brighton.

dark beer in glass on rough wooden table

Ein dunkel, Petrucci Brothers Brewing, New Brighton

The pairing of cycling and a malty quaff go together like…well, basically like anything else where one of the two things is drinking beer. That’s certainly true on the Six-Pack and Petrucci Brothers Brewing served up a rich dunkel that was qualified to satisfy the thirsty rider. In addition to the requisite combined brew/drink space, mismatched seating, and thrown-together bar, the Petruccis are big on games with shuffleboard, ping pong, air hockey, pool, and a big stack of board games all available to play for free.

Before leaving New Brighton, take a gander at the terrific collection of churches in town. There are too many to either discuss or include photos of here, but suffice to say for a small town it ended up with an amazing array of holy architecture.

First Baptist Church, New Brighton, PA

First Baptist Church, one of several beautiful churches in New Brighton

Beaver Falls

You’ll be tempted to ride with the traffic across the 7th Street Bridge because that’s the most direct way to where you’re headed. This stay-off-the-busy-streets cyclist didn’t feel that safe with the handful of speeding cars greasing my hip, so the recommendation is to get across the road and take the safer–if underused–walkway on the south/downriver side of the bridge.

This drops you on 7th Avenue, Beaver Falls‘ Main Street. Like a lot of its fellow old mill towns, Beaver Falls has seen better days and will demonstrate that to you with a certain level of vacancy, empty lots, and underused storefronts up and down.

river, trees in fall colors, and train bridge in Western PA

The Beaver River and train bridge between New Brighton and Beaver Falls

That said, there’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink in town–even if you’re just passing through on two wheels.

The Beaver River’s eponymous falls do indeed break alongside Old Brighton’s eastern shore and there is the shortest of bicycle paths, connecting 2nd Ave. to 6th Ave., to see them from. Don’t get your hopes up: it’s a little tricky to actually get a decent viewing spot, and when you do…well, maybe they should have called the town Beaver Rapids. The gorgeous giant waterfalls of Ithaca or the Columbia River Gorge, these ain’t.

map with bicycling route between six different towns in Beaver County, PA

One suggested route for The Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Yeah, that’s a lot to take in. For anyone who’d actually like to recreate the Beaver Valley Six-Pack, we created a Map My Ride route that should get you through.

One final note: it was mentioned above that departing from Monaca may be the wrong way to do the trip. The argument for the opposite (start/end in Beaver Falls) is that you could bag (literally!) Oram’s Donuts at the start of the journey, do the rest of the ride in reverse, and then be back for the late opening time of Beaver Brewing Company. But then you’re probably getting to DeAngelis too late–what a dilemma!

Whatever you do, an exploration of Beaver Valley’s river towns is well worth the effort–even if you don’t do it on a bicycle. We’ll be back again, for sure, and maybe we’ll see you on the Six-Pack.

exterior of Oram's Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls, PA

Oram’s Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls


Getting there: To get anywhere in Beaver Valley will take you around 40 minutes drive west from downtown Pittsburgh.

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.