Gwen Loose was hiking with a friend on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) when a question crossed her mind.
While Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery are considered the founders and fathers of the A.T., “Who was holding down the fort at conference headquarters?” she wondered.
Someone must have been keeping track of all the details that went into the planning of the 2,192-mile-long trail stretching from Maine to Georgia during its formative years, reaching back to 1925.
Loose’s friend encouraged her to search for answers while writing her thesis for her master’s degree. So, began an eight-year journey, which not only turned into a successful thesis but became the basis for a book being released this June.
Her research first pointed to Jean Stephenson (1892-1979), who devoted her life’s work to the A.T. Conference, an organization that became today’s A.T. Conservancy and manages the longest footpath in the world.
“It was like the old adage—‘Behind every successful man is a successful woman,’” Loose said.
“We Were There Too” details previously untold stories of women—primarily Jean Stephenson, Ruth Blackburn and Margaret Drummond—whose contributions in different decades directly led to the creation of the A.T.
“Their untold stories will balance the public perceptions of A.T. work as a boys’ club—it never was that way and isn’t now,” said Brian King, the ATC’s publisher. “It’s not that the record out there is wrong—it’s just incomplete.”
Stephenson’s work helped garner early support for the creation of the trail; Blackburn helped secure the A.T. corridor when development threatened its existence; and Drummond was instrumental in establishing models still used today—for volunteers, regional trail clubs and strategic planning.
King, who works at ATC headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., said he often feels Stephenson’s “ghost” nearby. It was there that Stephenson worked and compiled many of the A.T.’s early guidebooks.
“She was an old-school writer and editor, very careful—meticulous and organized,” King said. “And she was also a lawyer, so she brought all that to the project, trying to keep Myron Avery straight.”
Loose said she was constantly inspired by photographs she discovered.
“There is a classic photograph of Ruth [Blackburn],” Loose said. “She’s in a congressional meeting in Washington, D.C. She was a small woman, and she’s sitting there, surrounded by men, and they’re all looking at her because she’s prepared with all the facts and figures, and they know it.”
Loose said she identifies with all three of the pioneering women.
“They were very comfortable in their own abilities,” Loose said. “They weren’t girly-girls, they weren’t afraid to be themselves, and they knew, if they worked hard enough, they would be good at it. So, they dedicated themselves to their work.”
And Loose should know. As executive director of the York County Rail Trail Authority, she too could be considered a trailblazer. She’s overseen the expansion of the Heritage Rail Trail from 10 to 27.5 miles over the past 23 years—since 1997. A golden spike in the city of York this fall will connect the main trail to its northern spur. And the authority is expanding the trail in new directions. It purchased the former Hanover Trolley Trail from Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., in late February. Grant requests for $8 to $11 million are being submitted to transition the rails into trails stretching west from York to Hanover.
It could be that trails and railroads are in her DNA. Loose grew up in Enola, where her father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a car inspector in the Enola Yard, the world’s largest freight yard at the time.
Just as Loose is her father’s daughter, King also sees a connection between Loose and the trailblazing subjects of her book.
“I do think there’s a parallel, in that women are and have been fully involved in developing and maintaining trails,” King said. “And she [Loose] is part of that. And it’s true in the bigger world of outdoor recreation.”
The ATC is currently being guided by Sandra Marra, the second female CEO in the organization’s history.
Loose serves as vice president of the board of directors for the Appalachian Trail Museum located in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. A resident of Dover, York County, she is an active member of the York Hiking Club, which regularly hikes sections of the A.T.
As Loose researched her book over the past eight years, she was struck by the prevalence of women rising to leadership roles in the daily news.
“It seemed like every year, the book and the theme of women in leadership roles was getting more relevant,” she observed.
She hopes that “We Were There Too” inspires a new generation of female leaders, especially conservationists, to find their paths.
“I hope they’re inspired in their own volunteer work,” Loose said. “Their contributions can make a difference to organizations they’re passionate about, and it’s fulfilling. A lot of our organizations today depend on that type of giving.”
“We Were There Too” is being published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and will be available on the ATC’s website, appalachiantrail.org, as well as Amazon and major book retailers.