Stories from PA History
Story Details
The Railroad in Pennsylvania
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, railroads transformed Pennsylvania into an industrial giant and brought about monumental social, economic, and political changes. From Thomas Leiper's experimental quarry tramway through the heyday of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, the Commonwealth has long been a center of American railroading and railroad innovation.

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Bring this subject into focus through the following chapters. These stories take exploration of the main story further by providing more detail for you to learn and explore.

Overview: The Railroad in Pennsylvania
Chapter One: Building Pennsylvania's Railroads: The Story of Capital and Labor
Chapter Two: The Pennsylvania Railroad: "Standard of the World"
Chapter Three: Technology - The Nuts and Bolts of Railroading
Chapter Four: Shipping by Rail - The Freight Story
Chapter Five: Traveling by Rail - The Passenger Story

Historical Markers In the Story
marker icon Civil War Prison Train Wreck (Pike) marker icon Cumberland Valley Railroad (Cumberland)
marker icon Hanover Junction (York) marker icon Kinzua Viaduct (Mckean)
marker icon Lewistown Station (Mifflin) marker icon Logan House (Blair)
marker icon Pennsylvania Station (Philadelphia) marker icon Pennsylvania Turnpike (Bedford)
marker icon Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (Philadelphia) marker icon Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike (Chester)
marker icon Philip Berlin (Franklin) marker icon Reading Terminal and Market (Philadelphia)
marker icon Switchback Railroad (Carbon) marker icon The "Pioneer" (Lackawanna)
marker icon The Baldwin School (Montgomery) marker icon Williams Grove (Cumberland)
marker icon World War II Connellsville Canteen (Fayette)

Lesson Plans for this Story
Take your students back in history with these discussions and activities for the classroom

Story Bibliography

1809 Thomas Leiper builds first railroad in Pennsylvania to serve his quarry near Chester, Delaware County.
1825 Erie Canal opens to Buffalo and the west, giving New York City the means by which to challenge Philadelphia's dominance as an East Coast port.
1827 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad chartered in Maryland; B&O later challenges Pennsylvania interests for access to Pittsburgh.
1828 Legislature authorizes building of Main Line of Public Works, a canal system that includes the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. System is completed in 1834.
1829 English-built Stourbridge Lion, first commercially operated steam locomotive in America, makes trial run on railroad of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Co. at Honesdale, Wayne County.
1831 A contest sponsored by B&O to build a successful locomotive is won by York foundry man Phineas Davis, who, with Israel Gartner, builds and submits a coal- burning engine named York. Davis wins the $4,000 prize.
1832 Jeweler Matthias W. Baldwin of Philadelphia diversifies into locomotives and builds his first locomotive, Old Ironsides, which begins service on the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad. Baldwin's company will become the largest, longest-lived, and most successful of all American steam-locomotive builders.
1833 Andrew Jackson becomes the first U.S. president to ride a train, traveling thirteen miles from Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, to Baltimore, on the B&O.
1833 Staple Bend Tunnel, first railroad tunnel in America, is completed on the Allegheny Portage Railroad east of Johnstown.
1837 Cumberland Valley Railroad opens from Lemoyne to Chambersburg, fifty miles. The trip takes four hours.
1838 An act of Congress makes every railroad a mail route.
1842 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (later renamed Reading Company) is completed for its ninety-four-mile original length between its namesake towns and Mount Carbon (near Pottsville) in the anthracite region.
1846 Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) is incorporated by Philadelphia merchants who fear falling behind Baltimore and New York in trade.
1848 New York and Erie Railroad (later, Erie Railroad) opens the seventeen-arch stone Starrucca Viaduct, 1,040 feet long and more than ninety feet high, near Lanesboro.
1849 PRR opens first portion of its line, Harrisburg to Lewistown, sixty-one miles.
1854 PRR completes its all-rail route across the state by opening its Mountain Division with the landmark Horseshoe Curve, linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with thirteen-hour passenger-train service.
1856 Near Fort Washington, two North Pennsylvania Railroad trains collide head-on, killing more than sixty people, the worst railway accident in American history to that date. Many victims are children en route to a Catholic Sunday School picnic.
1857 PRR buys the Main Line of Public Works for $7.5 million, assimilates the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, and in time abandons most of the rest of the system, including the canals.
1861 - 1865 Railroads play a role in military operations for the first time during the Civil War, moving troops and materiel to the front and evacuating wounded soldiers.
1862 President Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railway Act.
1863 Predecessor of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers is founded in Detroit, the first union to organize for railroad employees.
1863 Changing railroads at Hanover Junction in York County, President Lincoln rides by train to and from Gettysburg to deliver his Gettysburg Address.
1864 Forty-nine confederate prisoners and war and seventeen Union guards are killed in a head-on train collision on the Erie Railroad near Shohola, Pike County.
1869 First transcontinental U.S. railroad is completed with the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah.
1869 First use of George Westinghouse's air brake, initially on a PRR passenger train operating out of Pittsburgh.
1871 B&O completes its ninety-five-mile extension from Cumberland, Maryland, to Connellsville, PA, giving it access to Pittsburgh. This breaks the monopoly of PRR, which had successfully blocked B&O from entering Pittsburgh since 1847.
1877 Following the Panic of 1873, railroads cut wages, and rail labor riots erupt around the nation, beginning at Martinsburg, West Virginia. Clashes between National Guard troops and mobs prove fatal in Pittsburgh and Reading.
1879 Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad opens for freight service. Passenger service begins two weeks later.
1881 The Broad Street Station opens in Philadelphia.
1883 Railroads standardize timekeeping by adopting four uniform time zones across North America.
1885 Financier J.P. Morgan brokers a truce between warring railroad moguls, resulting in abandonment of work on the Carnegie-financed South Pennsylvania Railroad–an intended competitor to the PRR–which was more than sixty percent graded.
1887 Congress passes the Interstate Commerce Act, the first step in a trend of growing federal regulation over railroads' financial affairs, including rates and abandonments.
1893 The palatial Reading Terminal opens in Philadelphia.
1893 Congress passes Safety Appliance Act, requiring all railroads to install air brakes, automatic couplers, and uniform handrails and ladders on all cars and locomotives.
1897 First production of all-steel freight cars–a fleet of 200 coal hoppers is built for a predecessor of the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad.
1901 Ornate Pittsburgh and Lake Erie terminal opens in Pittsburgh.
1902 PRR opens the 48-arch stone-and-concrete Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg.
1902 PRR inaugurates the fast Pennsylvania Special–renamed Broadway Limited in 1912–as its flagship New York-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Chicago passenger flyer. It makes the 907-mile run in twenty hours; later, time is cut to less than sixteen hours.
1904 Wabash-Pittsburg Terminal Railroad extends from Ohio into downtown Pittsburgh as financier George Gould attempts to challenge PRR's dominance in the Steel City.
1905 Pennsylvania Railroad opens its Enola freight yard near Harrisburg; for a while it is the nation's largest.
1906 Licensing of automobiles begins in Pennsylvania.
1907 Congress passes the Hours of Service Act, limiting engine and train crews to sixteen hours of continuous duty with a 10-hour rest period.
1908 Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad opens ornate Scranton passenger station.
1909 Eleven-week strike by 3,000 immigrant workers and resulting riots at Pressed Steel Car Co. in McKees Rocks, Pa., results in deaths of about a dozen people, including some police.
1910 PRR opens its $112 million Pennsylvania Station complex in Manhattan, giving it parity with its rival, the New York Central Railroad.
1912 Last major mainline track construction project in Pennsylvania takes place when the Western Maryland Railway opens its eighty-six-mile extension into Connellsville from Cumberland, Maryland.
1913 Lincoln Highway, first transcontinental road, is laid out; in Pennsylvania, it links Philadelphia and Pittsburgh via Lancaster, York, Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Bedford, and Greensburg.
1914 PRR modernizes Philadelphia commuter service by electrifying its line to Paoli.
1915 Opening of the Tunkhannock Viaduct (also called Nicholson Viaduct), the largest reinforced concrete-arch bridge in the world at the time, on the main line of the DL&W Railroad northwest of Scranton. Length is 2,375 feet and height is 240 feet.
1916 Congress passes the Adamson Act, which establishes an eight-hour workday (with overtime for additional time on duty) for employees of railroads. This opens the door for general adoption of the eight-hour workday in all industries.
1916 Nationally, railroad mileage peaks at 254,000 miles.
1918 - 1920 Federal government seizes control of American railroads to ensure the movement of troops and materiel for World War I.
1920 Route-mileage of railroads in Pennsylvania peaks at 11,551 miles. Pennsylvania Railroad employment peaks at 279,787 workers.
1922 Nation's railroad shop workers go on strike but PRR leads the industry in opposing unions and breaking the strike, which ends in September.
1923 Fire destroys train shed of Philadelphia's Broad Street Station.
1925 Black Pullman porters organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, civil rights activist and trade unionist.
1926 Railway Labor Act goes into effect, supposedly granting railroad employees the right to collectively bargain, but has little real power.
1930 PRR's underground Suburban Station opens in Philadelphia.
1931 Reading Company inaugurates electrification of its Philadelphia commuter lines, eventually electrifies 180 route-miles.
1933 PRR opens its New York-Philadelphia electrification, ninety miles.
1933 PRR opens its 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, the last major urban train station built in the state.
1934 The Budd Company of Philadelphia builds the first stainless-steel diesel-powered streamliner in America, the Burlington Route's three-car Pioneer Zephyr.
1934 Amendments to the National Railway Labor Act go into effect, outlawing company unions, guaranteeing workers the right to organize into collective bargaining units, and setting up federally run channels for resolving disputes between organized labor and carriers.
1934 General Electric at Erie, Baldwin Locomotive Works at Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania Railroad collaborate to build the first GG1 streamlined electric locomotive, No. 4800. By late 1943, the fleet reaches 139 engines and the 100-mph, 4,620-horsepower passenger type becomes the most successful electric locomotive in the Western Hemisphere.
1935 PRR opens its electrification extension southward to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
1935 The first diesel passenger locomotive in the East enters service on B&O's Royal Blue passenger train between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington
1937 Federal Railroad Retirement Act goes into effect.
1937 Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters wins recognition.
1938 PRR extends its electrification from Paoli to Harrisburg, eighty-three miles.
1940 Pennsylvania Turnpike opens using roadbed and tunnels of stillborn South Pennsylvania Railroad. The limited-access superhighway concept eventually becomes the blueprint for the 40,000-mile Interstate highway system, the largest public-works project in history, which undercuts the financial health of all American railroads.
1941 - 1945 American railroads haul unprecedented volumes of freight, passengers, troops, and war materiel in support of World War II. The carriers do so without being seized by the federal government, as occurred in World War I.
1943 PRR's Congressional Limited wrecks at Frankford Junction, killing seventy-eight passengers and one crewmember, the worst train wreck (in terms of fatalities) in Pennsylvania history.
1946 PRR builds its final steam locomotive at its Altoona shops, a T1-class 4-4-4-4 passenger engine, No. 5524.
1946 PRR posts its first-ever financial loss.
1952 PRR's Broad Street Station in Philadelphia closes, additional tracks added at 30th Street Station to compensate.
1952 Nationwide ownership of diesel locomotives reaches 20,492 units, exceeding the number of steam locomotives in service for the first time.
1956 Main line of Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad, a major coal and ore carrier, is converted to Centralized Traffic Control to govern movement of trains.
1956 Baldwin Locomotive Works, now Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corporation, builds its last locomotive, a diesel, after having produced more than 75,000 locomotives since 1832.
1957 Pennsylvania Railroad ends steam-locomotive operations after 110 years.
1957 Automated Conway freight classification yard near Pittsburgh is opened by Pennsylvania Railroad.
1958 B&O abandons intercity passenger service Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York, the former Royal Blue route.
1958 Strasburg Rail Road, a moribund Lancaster County rural short line, is taken over and revived as a steam tourist railroad. By the 1990s, it is carrying more than 300,000 passengers a year.
1959 Starting with a Philadelphia-Shamokin round-trip, the Reading Company revives several of its remaining T1-class 4-8-4 steam locomotives for a five-year run of "Iron Horse Rambles" steam excursions to places such as Gettysburg, Williamsport, and Allentown.
1960 Erie and DL&W railroads, both financially ailing, merge to form Erie Lackawanna.
1960 General Electric's Erie locomotive plant builds and tests the company's first diesel-electric road freight locomotive, the U25B model. By the 1990s, GE dominates that field.
1961 Lehigh Valley Railroad's last intercity passenger trains, between Buffalo and Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Bethlehem, and New York, are discontinued. This makes LV one of the first major railroads in America to go to freight-only status.
1963 Weakened B&O is taken over by wealthy Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.
1968 Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads merge.
1970 Erie Lackawanna discontinues its Lake Cities passenger train (Hoboken, N.J.-to-Chicago), ending all service to the Pocono's and Scranton, Corry, Meadville, and Greenville.
1970 Penn Central declares bankruptcy, the largest corporate failure in Wall Street history to that point.
1971 Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, takes over operation of the nation's long-haul passenger trains, with Penn Central being the largest operator. East-west service on the former PRR main line drops from 13 trains daily to six, then four. Baltimore-York-Harrisburg and Harrisburg-Williamsport-Buffalo service ends.
1971 Reading Company enters bankruptcy for a fourth and final time.
1972 Tropical Storm Agnes destroys much railroad infrastructure across central and eastern Pennsylvania, and forces Erie Lackawanna into bankruptcy.
1976 Consolidated Rail Corporation is formed to rescue bankrupt Northeastern lines, all of which have a major presence in Pennsylvania: Penn Central, Reading, Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Jersey Central, and Lehigh and Hudson River.
1980 The Staggers Act deregulates railroads, reversing much of the strangling federal oversight that had pushed many eastern and Midwestern lines into bankruptcy.
1980 The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation sponsors a new Philadelphia-Pittsburgh daily daylight Amtrak train, the Pennsylvanian. Within a few years, it is extended to New York.
1983 Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority takes over operation of former Penn Central and Reading rail commuter service in Philadelphia area.
1983 Touring Swedish X2000 and German ICE high-speed passenger trains tour the United States, including running and testing on the Northeast Corridor and the Philadelphia-Harrisburg line, and traveling across the state during their national tours.
1984 Center City Commuter Tunnel ($330 million, 1.7 miles) is fully opened, connecting former PRR and former Reading commuter lines in Philadelphia. Reading Terminal closes and is replaced with $75 million underground Market East station.
1985 New seven-mile-long commuter rail line is opened to Philadelphia International Airport.
1987 Conrail becomes profitable and emerges from federal control in the largest public stock offering ($1.6 billion) to that date.
1995 $100 million project to raise overhead clearances–allowing double-stack intermodal container trains–on former PRR main line through Pennsylvania is completed. Biggest element of work: enlarging the Allegheny Tunnel at Gallitzin.
1995 Amtrak discontinues the 93-year-old Broadway Limited and replaces it with a mail-and-express train, having Spartan passenger facilities, named The Three Rivers.
1999 Norfolk Southern Corporation and CSX Transportation acquire Conrail for $10 billion and split its physical assets 58 percent for NS and 42 percent for CSX. For the first time in 153 years, Pennsylvania is not home for the headquarters of a major American railroad.
2000 Amtrak's Acela 150 mph high-speed train enters service between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.
2003 Celebrations are held to mark the 150th-year anniversary of the opening of Horseshoe Curve.
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