Historical Markers
Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad Historical Marker
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Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Edgley Ave. and Belmont Ave. (Fairmount Park), Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
May 17, 2001

Behind the Marker

"These Pennsylvanians think the reign of Time is over; they are marker building for eternity."
            J. B. W.,  1835.

To keep Philadelphia competitive with New York and eventually Baltimore as an anchor for the trade of the Midwest, the city's merchants in the 1820s clamored for construction of a transportation system across Pennsylvania. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and Baltimore's plans for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Pennsylvania merchants feared falling behind. So they petitioned a sympathetic Legislature to build a canal to Pittsburgh; in 1828, the Legislature authorized the project and the state began building a patchwork system of canals, stitched together by two primitive railroads over the rugged sections of terrain where waterways were impractical.
Lithograph of the Belmont Inclined Plane.
Belmont Inclined Plane.

The easternmost leg of this ingenious system was the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&C), which stretched eighty-two miles from Philadelphia to the eastern end of the canal: the town of Columbia on the Susquehanna River. P&C's route began at Broad and Vine Streets in Philadelphia. To lift its cars out of the Schuylkill River valley at Philadelphia and again to lower cars to the canal at Columbia, it constructed two inclined planes. Combined with the affiliated markerPennsylvania Main Line Canal and markerAllegheny Portage Railroad, this network, which opened in 1834, became known as the Main Line of Public Works.

Construction of the P&C began in February 1829. Along a route that generally followed the markerPhiladelphia-Lancaster Turnpike, it climbed from sea level at Philadelphia to 500 feet at Paoli, 20 miles west of the city; and to 600 feet at Gap, another thirty miles to the west. The railroad located its locomotive and car shops at Parkesburg. Despite extensive preparation and planning, railroads in 1829 were still an unproven technology, and the P&C was almost abandoned when the Legislature failed to appropriate funds for the work in 1830. By the next year, however, public opinion had been reversed and popular support for railroads surged ahead.

Unlike the wooden track rails of its predecessors, P&C built its sturdy new line with markerstrap-iron rails imported from Wales, laid atop stone blocks, and of rolled-edge iron rails mounted in fixtures secured to the same blocks. Much of the labor was done by Irish immigrants, fifty-seven of whom died in the summer of 1832 of cholera at a place called markerDuffy's Cut.
Columbia Basin with canal boats
Columbia Basin with canal boats, Columbia, PA, circa 1900.

In September 1832, P&C opened its first twenty miles of track westward from Philadelphia. To celebrate the line's completion on October 7, 1834, two trains carrying markerGovernor George Wolf and other state officials were drawn by steam locomotives named Lancaster and Columbia. The trains left Columbia at 8 a.m. and arrived at Philadelphia at 6 p.m. In those first years, however, horses were a main source of motive power on the P&C. Indeed, for the first several years of its operation, private owners of horse-drawn rail cars shared the tracks with the locomotives. This became increasingly unsafe and impractical as the railroad began supplementing its horses with powerful new steam locomotives. By 1836, P&C had forty locomotives at work, of which thirty-six were manufactured by three Philadelphia builders: markerMatthias W. Baldwin, Richard Norris, and Garrett and Eastwick. For the first ten years, P&C operated with a combination of its own locomotives, and horses owned by others. Conflicts prompted a law that abolished the use of horses for power on April 1, 1844.

Steam locomotives quickly proved their worth. The hybrid Main Line of Public Works reduced the time it took to cross the state from the twenty-two days it had required by freight wagon, to just three and one-half days. In 1840, P&C built a new line at Columbia to eliminate the inclined plane there, and did the same at Philadelphia in 1850 to eliminate the Belmont Plane. Despite the railroad's profitability the complex system, as a whole, lost money. When the Pennsylvania Railroad opened its all-rail Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh line via Horseshoe Curve, on February 15, 1854, the handwriting was on the wall for the state's canal-and-rail system. In 1857, the PRR purchased the state's deficit-plagued Main Line at auction. For $7.5 million, it acquired the canals, Allegheny Portage Railroad, and P&C Railroad. Within a very short time, travel and shipping across Pennsylvania became seamless. On April 1, 1861, PRR closed the former P&C's Parkesburg shops and consolidated its Philadelphia Division shop work at Harrisburg.
Lancaster N Queen Street
Lancaster N Queen Street

After PRR modernized, straightened, and smoothed the P&C line, it became an integral part of the heavily traveled New York-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Chicago main line. In the 1870s, the PRR developed upscale suburban communities along the section between Philadelphia and Paoli, which is still known today as the Main Line. Soon, its rails echoed to the sound of more than a hundred trains each day. The PRR electrified the Philadelphia-Paoli section for commuter service in 1914, and in 1938 extended electrification to Harrisburg. Today Amtrak owns the line and daily dispatches Keystone Service passenger trains that routinely cruise at ninety miles an hour over a route where horses once pulled passengers in open cars.
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