Historical Markers
Allegheny Portage Railroad Historical Marker
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Allegheny Portage Railroad

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Intersection of Rts. 53 and 164, Portage Twp.

Dedication Date:
September 11, 1994

Behind the Marker

In the early 1800s, Americans built hundreds of miles of canals in order to carry the wealth of the nation's interior to its commercial centers. America's sprawling canal system revolutionized commerce, but it suffered from one major flaw. No matter how hard they tried, no one could make water run uphill. This was not a great problem for those who conducted their trade along the low coastal plains or on the lowlands and plains west of the Appalachians. Nor was it an insurmountable problem for the builders of the Erie Canal, who had built their canal through the only real break in the Appalachian mountain chain. But for Pennsylvanians, the great mountain ranges that divided east from west were an obstacle that had to be overcome if they were not to lose the great race for access to the nation's interior.

In the 1820s, Philadelphia merchants and investors found themselves in a heated competition with Baltimore and New York for trade with the west. New Yorkers had placed their bets on the Erie Canal and a connection to the Great Lakes; Baltimore was preparing to build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Eastern Pennsylvanians were barred from the west by Pennsylvania by the formidable, 2,400-foot-high Allegheny Mountains.
Inclined Plane #6 etching
Inclined Plane #6 etching

In 1826, the Canal Commissioners of Pennsylvania hired a string of famed civil engineers, including Moncure Robinson, to find a way to cross the Alleghenies. An expert on both canals and railways, Robinson decided that short railroads could span the two rugged portions of the route that canals could not cross: eighty-three miles over the rolling countryside from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River at Columbia and the thirty-six-mile crossing of the spine of the Alleghenies, from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown. The former became the markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&C); the latter became known as the Allegheny Portage Railroad (APRR).

Robinson's solution, funded by the state Legislature, consisted of a string of alternating level sections and steam-powered inclined planes. By marrying these crude, early "rail" roads to proven canal technology, the state hoped to weave a continuous, if disjointed, system. No link in this transportation chain crossing the western portion of the state was more challenging to build and operate than the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Starting at Hollidaysburg–the western terminus of the 172-mile-long canal from Columbia, which followed the Susquehanna and Juniata valleys–it climbed over the Allegheny ridge 2,334 feet above sea level, for an eventual descent into Johnstown. There, the canal flowed more than 100 miles west to Pittsburgh, following the Conemaugh and Allegheny valleys. Constructed between 1831 and 1833, this project cost a staggering $1.27 million. Among its engineering accomplishments was the first railroad tunnel in America, the markerStaple Bend Tunnel near Johnstown.
Portage Tunnel
Portage Tunnel

Opened in 1834, the combined system was called the Main Line of Public Works. (The railroad suburbs just west of Philadelphia now known as the "Main Line" took their name from this system.) The waterborne segments, including branches that diverged from the east-west route, were collectively called the markerPennsylvania Canal.

When the Main Line of Public Works first opened, teams of workers unloaded the cargo from the canal boats, loaded it onto the portage railcars that took it up and over the mountains, and then reloaded it back onto canal boats at the other end of the line. Even though passengers and freight had to be transferred at each of the three canal-rail junctions (Columbia, Hollidaysburg, and Johnstown), the system was still marker a major improvement over the twenty-two-day wagon trip then required for hauling goods across Pennsylvania.

Although a trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh now took anywhere from four and one-half to six days, the APRR was inefficient, expensive, and labor-intensive, a condition that suited the Canal Commissioners just fine, since the entire canal and railroad system was a haven for political patronage. Commissioners appointed workers and then collected kickbacks from their wages.
Lemon House
Lemon House

By 1839, advances in technology had sped up this slow process, and the journey. The replacement of horses by locomotives, both on the P&C and the APRR, speeded up the process, as did the partial elimination of the need to transfer goods and people from canal to train. This was accomplished by the use of sectional packet and cargo boats that could be loaded directly onto railroad flatcars.

These and other innovations reduced the travel time for the 390-mile trip across Pennsylvania to 3-1/2 days, but the concept of a joint rail-canal system ultimately proved to be only a stop-gap solution. As railroad technology improved, Philadelphia merchants, shippers, and travelers increasingly complained about the slowness and unneeded complexity of the system – and its drain on Pennsylvania's taxpayers. The clamor for an all-rail route led the state legislature in 1846 to award a charter for the creation of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), which would build a line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.

When railroad engineer markerJ. Edgar Thomson rose to the presidency of the PRR in 1852, he persuaded the board to approve debt financing, which it had previously opposed, in order to complete the railroad and break the PRR's reliance on the state's railroad. When the PRR opened its completed line on February 15, 1854, its trains could make the run between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in just thirteen hours. Despite a tonnage tax that the Canal Commissioners persuaded the Legislature to impose on the PRR to prevent a wholesale desertion to the all-rail line, passengers and shippers voted with their tickets and their waybills for the new railroad. Within three years, the state's Main Line system was out of business. In 1857, the PRR purchased the remains of the P&C at auction, and incorporated it into its system; it dismantled the APRR tracks and sent the rails west to extend its reach into Chicago.

In 1964, Congress designated part of the old Main Line as a National Historic Site. The National Park Service took over the Lemon House (a former inn for Allegheny Portage passengers) at the summit near Cresson, built a visitor's center, developed a 1,249-acre National Park, and reconstructed a portion of Inclined Plane No. 6 and the stationary steam-engine engine house. Other elements of the APRR route, including Staple Bend Tunnel and the Skew Arch Bridge (over the APRR right of way) of the former Huntingdon, Cambria, and Indiana Turnpike, are now open to the public.
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