The Allegheny Portage Railroad -- Canal Boats above the Clouds
By Chris J. Lewie
In the early decades of the 1800s, western Pennsylvania had no real way of transporting bulk goods to distant markets like Philadelphia other than down the Ohio River toward New Orleans. Amazingly, goods as close as Pittsburgh, only 400 miles from Philadelphia, would take the long southern route of a couple thousand miles and up to six weeks to the Gulf of Mexico and up the east coast, simply because it was cheaper and more established than crossing the Allegheny Mountains.
By 1825, something had to be done to improve the new states' poor trade routes and, at the same time, promote growth and development in the heartland of America. Businessmen in Philadelphia and legislatures in Harrisburg came up with an idea. They would build a massive state-owned and -operated canal route the entire distance from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The centerpiece of the canal system came in a section interrupted by steep mountains in Cambria County: a 36-mile railroad over the rugged terrain called the Allegheny Portage Railroad (APRR).
One of the first railroads in America and one of the first state-owned railroads, the APRR ranked as an engineering marvel in its day. The mountain railroad took two years, millions of dollars, and 2,000 men to construct through thick virgin forest. A 120-foot-wide swath was cut with nothing but hand tools, brute force, and tons of black powder. During construction in 1832 and 1833, it ranked as one of the largest public projects of its time. In 1834, the railroad and the whole Pennsylvania Main Line Canal System opened for business from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River.
Ten incline planes on the Portage Railroad hoisted rail cars and canal boats over Allegheny Mountain by hemp rope. In 1844, engineer John A. Roebling replaced the dangerous and unreliable hemp with safer wire rope in the first such use of it in the U.S. Between the planes, cars were hauled on 11 levels, first by horse and then locomotives in 1835. It took most of a day to get from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown.
Today, portions of the railroad fall under protection of the National Park Service in the form of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (NHS). Located at the site, 12 miles west of Altoona, is an interpretive center, amphitheater, reconstructed Engine House #6, Skew Arch Bridge, and the Lemon House, near the summit of Allegheny Mountain. Walking trails along the Number 6 Incline and summit level and a picnic area are also provided. And nearby you'll find the famous Gallitzin Tunnels and Horseshoe Curve National Historic Site, to make it a complete trip.
More than just part of the industrial age, the Portage Railroad was the start of the industrial and transportation age in America. From the 1830s to the 1850s, it hauled thousands of tons of freight such as pork, beef, tobacco, wheat, and leather to eastern markets, just as envisioned by officials during the late 1820s. An added bonus came with thousands of paying emigrants from Europe traveling west on the railroad to midwestern farms and towns. Traffic was paying to go in both directions.
However, by 1850, wear-and-tear on the railroad and maintenance costs proved financially strangling to the state. Competition from the upstart Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 1850s also threatened the railroad's existence. The great engineering marvel of 1834 was now becoming a white elephant.
In response to complaints and competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad, the 10 inclines and 20 stationary engines were removed, and new tracks were laid around Allegheny Mountain instead of over it. This made for a longer but more level route of 45 miles on the "New" Portage Railroad. With the removal of the incline planes and their worn out stationary engines, movable locomotive engines hauled cars its entire length. This sped up operations on the Portage but came too late to save it from economic ruin, as the state debt continued to mount.
By 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad had finished the now famous Horseshoe Curve and Gallitzin Tunnels to cross over the Alleghenies toward Johnstown and distant Pittsburgh. This new rail line spelled an end to the slower "New" Portage Railroad and state-owned canal system. In 1855, the Portage Railroad went on the auction block, and in 1857, after years of losing thousands of taxpayer dollars, it was sold to its competitor, the Pennsylvania Railroad, for five million dollars and then shut down. The "Pennsy" Railroad went on to become the next great chapter in railroading and transportation history in the Northeast.
The closing of the Allegheny Portage Railroad marked the end of a great engineering feat, that of crossing the great eastern divide for the first time by rail. In 1987, in recognition of its contribution to American engineering, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Allegheny Portage Railroad a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
For more information, call the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site at 814-886-6150, or visit their website at www.nps.gov/alpo.
Chris J. Lewie is a city planner from Columbus, Ohio and the author of Two Generations on the Allegheny Portage RR: The Men Who Worked on the First Railroad to Cross the Allegheny Mountains.