Stories from PA History
Crossing the Alleghenies
Crossing the Alleghenies
Overview: Crossing the Alleghenies

In the early 1840s, British novelist Charles Dickens visited the United States and offered a sarcastic, but often illuminating, travelogue detailing his journeys in the young nation. He crossed the state of Pennsylvania by what was then the standard combination of canal, railroad, and stagecoach. Starting in Philadelphia and moving westward toward Pittsburgh, the hard-to-please writer found his adventures increasingly irregular, distracting, and unpleasant.
Photograph of Allegheny Mountains
A view of Pine Creek Gorge (a.k.a. Pennsylvania Grand Canyon) in autumn.

When he reached the great Allegheny Mountains, Dickens traveled on the Portage Railroad, a series of steep inclines that carried canal boats across the divide. "Occasionally the rails are laid upon the extreme verge of the giddy precipice and looking down from the carriage window, the traveler gazes sheer down without a stone or scrap of fence between into the mountain depths below," he informed his reader. The world-famous author ultimately summed up his trip across the Commonwealth as "sufficiently disconcerting."

What failed to impress Charles Dickens, however, was actually an extraordinary engineering accomplishment that reshaped the economic destiny of Pennsylvania. Prior to the construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which linked the eastern and western sections of the canal system, crossing the state was a difficult task most often accomplished by foot. Walking was more than just an inconvenience; it proved to be a devastating obstacle for inland trade and statewide unity. State leaders grew seriously concerned that they could not hold together a commonwealth whose main cities had such disconnected trade networks. For Pennsylvanians, crossing the Alleghenies - the mountains that divide the state - became a matter of economic and political survival.
NASA satellite photograph of northeastern United States, including Pennsylvania,...

The landscape of the Allegheny Mountains is the most rugged in all of Pennsylvania. Formed nearly 300 million years ago, this great divide was the result of a period of mountain building that occurred as the continents collided. Its eastern edge is dominated by the Allegheny Front, a place where hard rock resisted the forces of erosion. Beyond the front, steep gorges and inclines formed as water cut into areas where the rocks were softer, forming a divide. This rugged landscape led to monumental human efforts, spanning centuries, to overcome the natural barrier and link regions and economies isolated by geography into rapidly emerging national and international economic systems.

When European settlers first arrived, they encountered a series of trails blazed by American Indians through the divide that followed the ridges and valleys of the Alleghenies to connect the valleys of the east to the western plateaus. This was truly America's western frontier. At first, settlement west of the Alleghenies was scattered and sparse, partly due to the difficulties of survival, but also because most of the land had been guaranteed to Native Americans in treaties with the colony. Until the mid-eighteenth century, these settlers were considered squatters, and were occasionally forcibly removed by the provincial government. Strong speculative interest by England and France in the Ohio Country and the eruption of the French and Indian War precipitated tremendous change in the region, bringing with it a trickle of settlers that quickly became a torrent.
Conestoga Wagon with horse team and farmer
Farmer John Shreiner and his Conestoga Wagon, Lancaster County, PA, circa 1910.

In mid-eighteenth century Pennsylvania, most early settlers and traders in the region followed paths used for centuries by the Iroquois, Fox, Senecas, Shawnees, Delawares, and others, or the recently constructed Forbes Road. During the French and Indian War this large road had been constructed over the Allegheny Mountains, beginning at Carlisle and continuing to Fort Pitt in order to move troops and supplies into the region. In these journeys, settlers relied upon horses and small wagons (used more frequently to carry cargo than people), and their journey took up to six weeks. For decades, it was common to see long caravans of pack trains, men leading horses in single file, moving various types of produce to market in painstakingly slow fashion.

New technologies eventually improved overland transportation. Pennsylvania German farmers in Lancaster County developed a larger, sturdier type of land vehicle known as the "Conestoga" wagon, which historians now consider revolutionary because of its innovative construction, braking system, and steering mechanism. These wagons demanded wider, better roads than the colonial-era "King's Highways," and thus the introduction of crushed stone or macadam from England also helped in the creation of a new era of turnpike development and inland travel.

Ultimately, these new technologies coincided with a larger national effort in the years after the Revolutionary War to expand what was then the western marketplace of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Both the state and speculative interests spurred settlement of western Pennsylvania, increasing the need to move goods between the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia markets easily and quickly. The key to this expansion was a transportation revolution, or what American politicians increasingly called "internal improvements."
Map showing canals in Pennsylvania constructed in the 1800s
Map of canals in Pennsylvania

First came the era of roads and turnpikes. Beginning in the 1790s, Pennsylvania emerged as a leader in the national campaign to improve inland travel. The state soon contained a confusing network of more than 3,000 miles of turnpikes managed by over 200 different companies. Advances in road-building technology, such as the introduction of all-weather macadam helped, but did not alleviate, the transportation problem. While these improvements shortened the trip from east to west to three weeks, the "flying" stagecoaches of the turnpike era never exceeded ten miles per hour. By 1808, the federal government became involved in improving transportation between the eastern markets and the west. The result was the National Road, a monumental undertaking that connected Cumberland, Maryland to the state of Ohio.
A broadside advertising the "Pioneer Fast Line," including an image of a steam engine pulling a passenger car, and a canal boat being pulled by three horses.
A broadside advertising the "Pioneer Fast Line," including an image of a steam...

The mania for roads gave way to an era of canal building. The successful opening of the Erie Canal in New York in 1825, at that time the easiest way to cross the Alleghenies, helped convince Pennsylvania's elite that the Commonwealth needed greater man-made waterways to remain economically competitive. The result was the Pennsylvania Canal on which Mr. Dickens traveled in 1842. The building of a statewide canal system decreased the transportation time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from six weeks to six days. Canals were wonderful signs of progress and marvels of engineering. But they would not remain the answer. Within a decade after Dickens's visit, steam locomotives replaced canal barges as the principal mode of product transportation.
Pennsylvania Turnpike through famous Aliquippa Gap.
"Pennsylvania Turnpike through famous Aliquippa Gap," circa 1945.

There were never more than 1,000 miles of canals in use across Pennsylvania. By 1860, the state contained over 2,500 miles of railroad tracks. Railroads dominated the nineteenth century. They seemed perfectly suited for an expanded, industrial nation. By the Civil War, the United States contained over 30,000 miles of rail lines - more than all the rest of the industrialized world combined. During this period, the Pennsylvania Railroad became the state's largest corporation and its most imposing economic force.

New technologies again revolutionized travel over the Alleghenies in the early twentieth century. The rising importance of automobile travel, and the transportation of goods by motor trucks gradually threatened the dominance of the railroad. The opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940 rapidly replaced railroads as the dominant means for transporting goods across the state.

The automotive highway made it possible to go from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in just over six hours - a trip that once took six weeks - and again boasted engineering achievements in the forms of massive tunnels through the mountains. Pennsylvanians had finally conquered the Alleghenies, and while a trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh may be delayed by construction or traffic accidents, it is a much less "disconcerting" voyage than Charles Dickens faced a century and a half ago.

Back to Top