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10.09.2016

Allegheny Portage Railroad: Hollidaysburg to Johnstown

In the age of the infancy of Pennsylvania's canal and rail era, traversing the state was a huge challenge. The nation's iron, steel making, and coal industries were centered around western Pennsylvania, thanks to the region's then plentiful resources and easy access to rivers for shipping. The problem Pennsylvania had was in getting these products to the extensive and exponentially growing markets of Philadelphia, New York, and points east. The terrain, however, was not so cooperative in making this happen. New York came up with an engineering marvel to connect the booming Great Lakes and the growing markets on the eastern seaboard with the creation of the Erie Canal. This 363 mile canal was an unprecedented wonder that transformed industries and regions. Pennsylvania needed a similar mode of transportation to get product from east to west, and to carry passengers from Pittsburgh to the port city of Philadelphia. The solution was to create a canal, one of the largest civic projects in the history of the state. This plan was easier said than done though. The planners had a huge challenge when it came to traversing the rugged terrain of the Alleghenies. Some tunnels were created to cross through the rugged terrain, including this one at Tunnelton, one of the first tunnels ever built. Once it came to the Johnstown and Altoona areas, something else needed to be done.

A 4.5 mile tunnel was initially proposed to cross the Alleghenies on the canal, though this idea was deemed to be impractical. If that had occurred, it would still rank as one of the longest canal/rail tunnels in the world. I assume that the tunnel would have likely been converted into rail by the Pennsylvania Railroad, had the tunnel been bored. The solution to this conundrum was the creation of an unprecedented system of rail combined with a series of funiculars pulling the canal boats up steep cliffs. The plan even included the creation of the Staple Bend Tunnel, the first rail tunnel in the country. The Allegheny Portage Railroad completed the first direct and expedient link between the port of Philadelphia, and the forks of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad ran from  Hollidaysburg and to Johnstown.  The railroad was 36 miles long and an architectural wonder. The famous engineering feat of Altoona's Horseshoe Curve alleviated the need for this set of inclines, however, this engineering feat still proves to be impressive. The right-of-way of parts of the old railroad were converted into conventional rail, and created an important bypass off of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line. If the areas around Altoona, primarily the Curve, were blocked for any reason, this bypass line was essential. Blockage reasons included issues such as derailments, landslides, weather, and maintenance issues. During World War II the Germans plotted to destroy Horseshoe Curve, which was a critical artery for transporting supplies to the efforts in Europe. Had this plot not been foiled, the bypass line would have proven essential.
This is the Skewed Arch Bridge. It dates back to 1834 and is one of the oldest remaining bridges west of the Alleghenies. The canal boats ran under the bridge, and wagons once crossed over it. Number six of the ten funiculars was located in this spot. Later on, when the historic William Penn Highway/Route 22 corridor was built, great care was taken to preserve this awesome old bridge.

Here is the Lemon House Tavern, a popular place for travelers on the Pennsylvania Canal to spend the night. One of these travelers was Charles Dickens. He even wrote about his journey on the canal. The house is now currently used as a visitors center and museum covering the history of the canal. Several other remnants remain, including Staple Bend, the first railroad tunnel in the country, and a recreation of the engine house for one of the inclines, a rail trail on the old right-of-way, and multiple bridges and culverts.

The railroad ended near Johnstown in South Fork, where the canal picked up once again. A dam was built there that supplied the water for the canal to finish its run to Pittsburgh. When the canal was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad and subsequently abandoned, the lake and dam near Johnstown were passed off to private owners. The lake area was eventually converted into a resort for the wealthy, and over the next few decades the relief valves for the dam were removed, and screens were put onto the release area to keep the fish in the lake. This caused the dam to fail during storms in 1889, leading to the 1889 Johnstown Flood, one of the biggest tragedies to ever hit our nation. The transportation history of this region is incredible and well worth checking out.
Be sure to check out our Interesting Pennsylvania 2017 wall calendar, available through the drop down menu at the top of this page, or through this link. It is available on early-bird special for free with purchases of our book through the page, or individually for $9.99 plus shipping. 


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