Stories from PA History
The Railroad in Pennsylvania
The Railroad in Pennsylvania
Chapter Three: Technology - The Nuts and Bolts of Railroading

1856 Train crash litho (with people flying in air) The Dreadful Accident of the North Pennsylvania Railroad
Dreadful Accident of the North Pennsylvania Railroad
Railroad pioneers faced a series of daunting challenges. How could they push or pull loads of increasingly heavy weight on their tracks? What kind of track could best bear those great weights and increasing speeds? How were they to span rivers and gorges and cross high mountains? A body in motion tends to stay in motion. How were they to stop a train of many cars filled with tons of coal or steel hurtling along at fifty miles an hour? To each of these challenges, they found a solution; each solution, in turn, created new challenges.

In the 1830s, steam locomotives were a revolutionary breakthrough, but had only slightly more power than horses.
A brightly colored green, yellow, and red Norris locomotive
Norris 4-6-0 locomotive
By the end of the railroad era, however, locomotives were much faster and larger, and thousands of times more powerful. If the early locomotives seemed comparable indeed to "iron horses," later locomotives made the comparison between horseflesh and metal seem quaint.

The British-built markerStourbridge Lion's rumble down the hemlock tracks of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company in 1828 was the first locomotive trip in the Western Hemisphere. In the decades that followed, Pennsylvania became home to a wide range of steam-locomotive builders. In 1831, York foundryman markerPhineas Davis built America's first successful coal-fired locomotive.

Baldwin Tiger, advertising the Baldwin company Locomotive builders.
Color engraving of "The Tiger," built by M. W. Baldwin & Co. Locomotive...
In the 1850s, the Norris Locomotive Works of Philadelphia was the largest producer in America. In 1853, its 1,100 workers produced a hundred locomotives. Norris would soon be dwarfed by the markerBaldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. The most prolific manufacturer of locomotives in American history, Baldwin built 76,000 locomotives over its 125-year history, most of them steam engines. Smaller locomotive builders elsewhere in the state built a wide variety of engines. Heisler of Erie and the markerClimax Manufacturing Co. of Corry both produced specialty engines for the logging industry. The Vulcan Iron Works of Wilkes-Barre and H.K. Porter Co. of Pittsburgh specialized in building smaller locomotives for industrial use.

In addition, the shops of the Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Reading, Lackawanna, and Lehigh Valley railroads, like other builders, designed and built locomotives of increasing size and power.
Heaviest Baldwin Steam locomotive, largest ever mfg. in PA.
A 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone locomotive, manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works,...
While early locomotives weighed as little as seven tons, by the time steam-engine production ended in the 1940s, the largest engines weighed 300 tons and generated nearly 8,000 horsepower.

Even the earliest locomotives were too heavy for the wooden and primitive iron tracks upon which they were supposed to run. Pennsylvanians met the challenge by manufacturing and using the markerfirst iron rails and soon afterwards the markerfirst steel rails, which enabled manufacturers to build even larger, more powerful locomotives that hauled even longer and heavier trains behind them. This, in turn, heightened the problem of braking and the costly and deadly consequences of the failure to do so.

First Pennsylvania Railroad Train to use Westinghouse airbrake
First PRR Train to use Westinghouse airbrake
Great train wrecks of the nineteenth century terrified and fascinated Americans, and cost railroads dearly. The problem of braking was finally solved by George Westinghouse, whose markerair brake, first patented in 1867, saved the lives of thousands of railroad brakemen, and enabled railroads to move heavier and faster trains more safely and with far fewer workers per train. Pennsylvania inventors and manufacturers also contributed mightily to improving the less-glamorous infrastructure that makes or breaks an operation. Among these fields were the development and production of signaling systems.

William H. Rau Photograph of Conestoga Bridge, 1891.   A lone man stands in his boat and pushes it along the water with an oar. A train passes over the Conestoga Bridge as the sun casts shadows of the bridge, the train, the man, and his boat.
Conestoga Bridge
In terms of sheer labor and expense, no engineering feat was greater than the construction of the thousands of miles of railroad tracks that linked previously isolated regions into the national economic system sewn together by railroads.

To cross the state's sprawling mountain ranges, deep gorges, and wide rivers, Pennsylvania railroads constructed some of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pennsylvania boasted the nation's markerfirst railroad tunnel, and markerfirst iron railroad bridge, markerthe world's highest railroad bridge, and the markerworld's longest composite concrete and stone-arch bridge. It boasted the towering stone-arch markerStarrucca Viaduct, and massive steel railroad bridges, including the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad's bridge over the Allegheny River near Oakmont, the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad's bridge over the Ohio River at Beaver, and the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railway's (now Wheeling and Lake Erie) bridge over the Monongahela River at Belle Vernon. These marvelous feats of engineering, in the midst of the majestic landscapes, provided opportunities for artists such as Jasper Cropsey (in the 1860s) and photographers such as William H. Rau (in the 1890s) to define and redefine the image of the American railroad.

The master builders of Pennsylvania's railroads made skilled and innovative use of old and new materials. Reading's markerSkew Bridge demonstrates their skill at stone bridge building, and their pioneering use of concrete in the markerTunkhannock Viaduct. Not all of their innovations were successes. In 1911, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad built model worker housing out of the concrete that had proved so successful on its bridges and its retaining walls in suburban cuts. Within two decades, however, the houses of markerConcrete were so damp and cold they had to be abandoned.

Signals on Reading Line
Signals on Reading Line
Railroads were complex economic enterprises that sprawled across great distances. They were massive purchasers and consumers of fuel, coal, steel and iron, rolling stock, wood, tools, machinery, and all of the food, furnishings, and other materials, large and small, necessary to provide for their millions of passengers. At its markershops in Altoona, a city built by and for the railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) operated the nation's largest and best equipped product testing lab. There, beginning in the 1870s, its engineers tested everything from oranges, gloves, and broom handles to massive 250-hundred-ton locomotives, which they ran on stationary rollers at speeds as high as 100 miles per hour to evaluate thermal efficiency, fuel and water consumption, power output, characteristics of different grades of coal, and other performance measures.

The streamline Crusader crossing a Railway Bridge
Crusader Crossing Railway Bridge.
Because of its early role as a cradle of American railroading, Pennsylvania grew into a railroad workshop that was capable of inventing and refining everything needed for successful railroading, from steel rails to signals to complete locomotives. With its many railroads, the state attracted and nurtured a railroad-supply manufacturing sector that was constantly probing the technological limits of science for new developments that could make the industry more efficient, more profitable, and safer.

Pennsylvania also developed a huge industry in commercially manufacturing cars for railroads nationwide. Near Meadsville, the Densmore brothers built the nation's markerfirst oil tank cars in 1865. Freight cars were built by the American Car and Foundry Co. of Berwick and Milton; Greenville Steel Car Co. of Greenville; Bethlehem Steel Corp. of Johnstown; Pullman-Standard, Inc. of Butler; and Pressed Steel Car Co. of McKees Rocks, site of the infamous markerMcKees Rocks strike. Some of these firms, notably ACF and Pressed Steel Car, also built passenger cars.

Most railroads also maintained shops that repaired cars, and many of those company-owned shops built new freight cars as well. The Budd Co. of Philadelphia became a national leader in building streamlined passenger cars from the 1930s through the 1950s, using patented techniques to create gleaming stainless-steel trains. Among them were the Santa Fe Railway's Super Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles), the Reading's Crusader (Philadelphia-New York), and the PRR's Congressional (New York-Washington).

Interior view of the Budd Company Factory
Budd plant interior
In the twentieth century, Pennsylvania's railroads were among the first to experiment with electric power for propulsion. The markerCumberland Valley Railroad electrified its eight-mile Mechanicsburg-to-Dillsburg run in 1906, placing traction motors on the axles of two wooden coaches and designating other coaches as trailers to be pulled by these units. The PRR began electrification of its commuter operations when it wired the Paoli Local in 1914. The Reading Railroad electrified its Philadelphia commuter lines in 1931. Both of these systems were cleaner, cheaper, and easier to operate than with steam power, and both survive today under the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, providing service to tens of thousands of passengers every day.
GG1 First pr Electric Locomotive
First pr Electric Locomotive
Electrification of all of its East Coast main lines enabled the PRR to handle the tremendously heavy loads of World War II.

In the 1900s, Pennsylvania locomotive manufacturers, however, were late to switch to the production of electric and diesel locomotives. Baldwin dabbled in electric power, but as the nation's dominant steam-engine builder, its corporate culture was heavily invested in that earlier technology. So its line of diesel locomotives was introduced late and did not succeed against the better-engineered products of General Motors Corporation. Unable to catch up, Baldwin exited the locomotive business in 1956.

Back to Top