Stories from PA History
The Railroad in Pennsylvania
The Railroad in Pennsylvania
Chapter Four: Shipping by Rail - The Freight Story

Kaghns Freight Yard in Philadelphia
Kaghns Freight Yard Philadelphia
Gilded Age Pennsylvania's abundance of raw materials, farm products, and industrial output made it an economic powerhouse. But its iron ore, coal, quarried stone, lumber, grain, steel, and other commodities would have done it little good without a reliable way to get them to market. Pennsylvania's dense network of railroad tracks brought these bulky goods to factories and urban centers, where they could be bought and sold.

Before railroads, overland transportation was unreliable and slow. Teams of horses, mules, or oxen provided the best means of propulsion over roads that were unpaved, often unmarked, and at times compromised or made impassable by ice, mud, and washouts. To overcome these limitations, toll roads with plank or log "paving" were built to lift the road surface above ground level.
Photo of Lehigh Canal along river with RR also in view
Lehigh Canal

In 1795, Pennsylvanians constructed the markerLancaster Turnpike, the nation's first paved highway. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Americans and Pennsylvanians poured millions of dollars into the construction of canal systems that crisscrossed the eastern United States. But, like toll roads, canals had serious limitations: they required fairly level ground, froze in winter, needed constant repair, and couldn't cross the mountains of Pennsylvania.

To solve its transportation crisis, Pennsylvania turned to railways - that is, placing goods aboard wagons or railcars that rode on a guided system of tracks. These cars could then be pulled by horses - or even better, by steam engines.
Birmingham PA Freight station near Tyrone PA
Birmingham PA Freight
To get across the "endless mountains" that lay across the middle of the state, steam locomotives proved to be the only practical solution. Soon, steam-powered freight railways carried massive loads across mountains, swamps, and other lands that were previously difficult, if not impossible, to cross.

Railroad companies soon demonstrated an unprecedented ability to move and to concentrate economic resources. Because the railroads controlled who could ship goods along their lines - and for how much - they also could determine which companies would prosper along their tracks. And the benefits of capital concentration, speed, and all-weather availability quickly trumped any advantages canals could offer in lower costs.

Bridgeport Coal Storage Facility
The Bridgeport Coal Storage Facility, along the main line of the Philadelphia...
In Pennsylvania, markerThomas Leiper in 1810 built Pennsylvania's first experimental railroad to haul quarried stone in Delaware County. It was in the anthracite coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania, however, that freight railroads received their first extended use. In 1827, Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company constructed the markerSwitchback Railroad to carry coal from Summit Hill to Mauch Chunk (later renamed Jim Thorpe). The markerDanville-Pottsville's pioneering line included six inclined planes.

In 1828, the markerDelaware and Hudson Canal Company broke new ground when it ran the markerStourbridge Lion on its track near Honesdale; it was the first locomotive ever used in the United States. A decade later the markerCorning and Blossburg Railroad became the first of the coal line to use locomotives rather than horses or mules.

William Rau photograph of Philadelphia Greenwich coal yard. Soft Coal Hollow, Greenwich Point, 1891
Soft Coal Hollow, Greenwich point
Coal literally fueled the Industrial Revolution. Its value for iron and steel making, home heating fuel, and later, electric power-plant generation made it a valuable commodity both to mine and to move. In Pennsylvania, the anthracite fields in the northeast and the great bituminous fields in the west provided coal that was used across the state and the nation.

Production peaked in 1918, when Pennsylvania mines produced 277 million tons of coal, far and above the total of any other state at that time. The industry continued to be a major player and a major employer until after World War II, when oil, gas, and electricity eroded the coal home heating market. Until diesel locomotives emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, the railroads themselves were one of the largest consumers of the coal that they carried.

Train yard filled with Oil tank cars
Train yard filled with Oil tank cars
Across the state, the freight railways built an elaborate network of branch lines, staging yards, and engine terminals to serve the coal mines. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR); Reading; Lehigh Valley; Lackawanna; Erie; Delaware and Hudson; Jersey Central; and New York, Ontario and Western railroads served the anthracite fields. The PRR; Baltimore and Ohio; Erie; New York Central; Pittsburgh and Lake Erie; Pittsburgh and West Virginia; Bessemer and Lake Erie; Monongahela; Pittsburgh and Shawmut; Pittsburgh, Shawmut and Northern; and Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh railroads served the bituminous fields.

Small carriers like the 32-mile-long East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Co. in Huntingdon County and the neighboring 52-mile-long Huntingdon and Broad Top Mountain Railroad in Huntingdon and Bedford Counties thrived on revenues generated by short-haul movement of coal.

By 1891, the PRR was the nation's largest coal-hauling railroad, often carrying more than 100 million tons a year – the equivalent of a coal train stretching from New York to St. Louis. In addition, it consumed 15 million tons annually just to feed its steam locomotives. Both the PRR and the Reading built docks on the Delaware River at Philadelphia to export coal, and to transport imported iron ore from around the world to steel mills in Bethlehem and Pittsburgh.

Blast furnaces of the Carnegie Steel Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photograph shows an exterior of Steel Plant with smoke stacks and railroad tracks. Undated Photograph.
Blast furnaces of the Carnegie Steel Corp
The railroads also hauled cement and slate from the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area. In the late nineteenth century, logging railroads hauled freshly cut timber from small lumber companies throughout the state, transporting to sawmills and rivers. These lines employed three kinds of specialized steam locomotives that used gears rather than rods to produce high torque at very low speed. Significantly, two of the three geared-locomotive designs were built in Pennsylvania, the markerClimax at Corry, and the Heisler at Erie.

Railroads also revolutionized agricultural production throughout the United States, linking the American west and Florida to eastern markets. In Pennsylvania, moving farm products to market was also an important business for rail carriers like the markerCumberland Valley Railroad, which serviced the agriculturally rich region that extended from Virginia's northern Shenandoah Valley through West Virginia and Maryland to Franklin and Cumberland Counties.

The railroads accelerated the growth and regional specialization of American agriculture by carrying millions of tons of farm products to markets, far beyond what was possible in horse-and-wagon days. The downside for farmers was that railroad companies, which held a monopoly on transportation, often charged freight rates that squeezed farmers into bankruptcy. In response, farmers across the nation banded together in the American Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the markerGrange, to protect themselves against unfair shipping conditions and to lobby for state and federal regulation of the railroads.
Conway Yard, Electronics in Railroading,  by Grif Teller This painting illustrates only half of the yard, which consisted of 197 tracks. Tracks are filled with cars, a water tower, as well as the town, are visible to the far left of the painting.
Conway Yard, Electronics in Railroading

The development of the iron and steel industry in Pennsylvania also grew hand in hand with the rise of railroads, which hauled the coal, iron ore, and limestone to the steel at mills in Fairless Hills, Bethlehem, Coatesville, Steelton, Burnham, Sharon, and the entire Pittsburgh area. The railroads moved castings, billets, and other kinds of semi-finished steel from one plant to another for processing; delivered forged or machined steel components either to end customers or to fabricators or manufacturers; and carried the assembled fittings or equipment to the customer.
Color photo, 40 Conrail 6006
Conrail 6006

The railroads were also among the iron and steel industries' larger customers, buying huge volumes of rail, and the metals needed to fabricate their locomotives, rolling stock, bridges, and terminals. The iron and steel producers of Pittsburgh believed that the PRR discriminated against them and charged higher rates to ship their metal products to the East Coast. Ill will in Pittsburgh over the PRR's rates contributed to the wildcat markerRailroad Strike of 1877, the first nationwide strike in American history.

As the railroads grew, so did the American economy, which packed the railroad with traffic of all kinds. From 1890 to 1910, the PRR widened its New York-Pittsburgh main line to four, and in some places, six, tracks; replaced dozens of bridges; created freight-only bypass routes to relieve the pressure on the passenger main lines; and built or enlarged the sprawling freight classification yards at South Philadelphia, Morrisville, Enola, Pitcairn, and Conway. By 1929, the PRR boasted that it carried as much freight over the Alleghenies in a day as the old canal-dependent markerAllegheny Portage Railroad did in an entire year.
Interior of Climax factory, showing locomotives.
Interior of Climax factory
Map of Trunk Lines
Map of Trunk Lines

While a tremendous volume of freight originated or terminated in Pennsylvania, the state also served as a gateway for the immense tide of "overhead," or through freight that moved between the East Coast and the rest of the nation. By 1913, a network of six corridors competed for this overhead business - four great trunk lines (the PRR, B&O, New York Central, and Erie), as well as two lesser coalitions (the Nickel Plate-Lackawanna alliance, and the Alphabet Route, five connecting lines that linked Chicago with New York via Pittsburgh, Connellsville, Chambersburg, Harrisburg, and Allentown.

While Americans' love of the automobile led to the collapse of passenger rail lines in the second half of the twentieth century, the rail freight industry continued to grow. Today, coal, grain, and lumber still make up much of the freight traffic. Much of the business is now intermodal, meaning that it is carried in self-contained boxes. Intermodal freight also includes truck trailers known as Road-Railers that are mounted on railroad wheels. Contrary to popular belief, railroads now carry more tonnage than at any time in their history – 1.56 trillion ton-miles of freight in 2002. With three of the state's six historic east-west corridors still carrying dozens of trains a day, Pennsylvania remains a vital link in east-west movement of rail freight.

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