Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site Commemorates a Great Achievement in Early Transportation
The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site is situated in southwestern Pennsylvania about 12 miles west of Altoona. Authorized on August 31, 1964, this park commemorates an ingenious inclined plane system that provided a vital trans-mountain link for the canal-dominated transport system that connected Philadelphia with the Ohio River Valley during the mid-1800s.
Establishing trade routes to the trans-Appalachian West was a very big deal back in the early 1800s. The area we now call the Middle West was then the frontier west, and it was a bountiful source of agricultural products as well as a rapidly expanding market for goods manufactured or imported by eastern cities. Tapping this market meant jobs, tax revenues, wealth, and power.
By the late 1820s, port cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston were frantic to establish trade connections with the interior that could emulate the success of New York. Thanks to the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, New York City had the first freight and passenger route to the interior. New Yorkers were reaping huge profits, and the rapidly growing port city at the mouth of the Hudson River was putting all the other eastern ports in its commercial shadow.
The age of the railroad was dawning, however, and New York’s frustrated competitors took heart. This new transportation technology was not only relatively speedy, but also quite flexible, allowing transport routes to be built where canals could not go. Some visionaries of the time could see that railroads would eventually make many canals, if not most, functionally obsolete. (Historians would record that this is exactly what happened – and with remarkable speed. The great canal building era drew to a close during the 1840s and 1850s as America’s rail network blossomed.)
Baltimore’s commerce flourished with the construction of the immensely successful Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, whose first section opened for business in 1830. Philadelphia was at grave risk of losing its competitive advantage.
Although Philadelphia and other eastern Pennsylvania cities had to have a viable trade route to the Ohio River Valley, the budding railroad industry was not in a strong position to provide it. The railroad equipment available in the 1830s was laughably primitive by modern standards. Even grades that we’d consider gentle today stressed the grossly underpowered steam engines of that era to their safe operating limits (and beyond).
How on earth could you establish a link to the interior when you had the Appalachian Mountains in the way? No matter how hard you tried to lay out a locomotive route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, there was no way you could avoid prohibitively steep grades.
Driving numerous tunnels through the mountains was not a practical solution. Constructing even a relatively short tunnel through hard rock was very time-consuming and costly in both money and lives. Indeed, no railroad tunnel project was even started in this country prior to 1831, and some of those initiated in the pre-Civil War era (such as Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel in South Carolina) were abandoned far short of completion.
Another option was to lift freight and passengers up the mountainside and lower them down the other side. This would minimize the need to drive tunnels through hard rock at great expense. Even better, you could use this strategy to link two river-focused canal routes on opposite sides of a mountain.
You wouldn’t even need to build an extensive rail line per se. You could just build short stretches of railroad on nearly level stretches of terrain, then combine these short segments with an intermodal system for lifting canal boats, boxcars, passenger coaches, and containerized cargo up one side of the mountain and lowering them down the other. Yes!
Pennsylvania taxpayers believed in this concept enough to put $1.8 million dollars of state revenues into it. The result was the state-funded Allegheny Portage Railroad, one of the world’s first funicular railroads. Situated at the Alleghany Mountains about 300 miles west of Philadelphia, the APR provided a vital trans-mountain link in the 400-mile freight-and-passenger route between Philadelphia and the Ohio River Valley.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad was opened in 1834 after a three-year construction project requiring the efforts of over 2,000 workers. The APR’s function was to surmount the Alleghany Ridge that separated the Susquehanna River on the east from the Ohio River on the west. To put a finer point on it, the APR helped link two canal divisions of the Mainline (the Main Line of Public Works of the Pennsylvania Canal), one terminating at Johnstown on the western side of the Allegheny Ridge and the other terminating at Hollidaysburg (about four miles south of Altoona) on the eastern side.
To provide a portage enabling “continuous” canal boat traffic between the Ohio River and the Susquehanna River, the APR made use of a system of inclined planes as well as a viaduct and America’s first railroad tunnel, the 901-foot Staple Bend Tunnel.
The vertical ascent from Johnstown was 1,172 feet, and that from Hollidaysburg was just short of 1,400 feet. To overcome this grade, the APR employed ten inclined planes -- five on each side of the Alleghany Ridge -- spanning a total distance of more than 36 miles.
Hauling passenger coaches, heavily loaded canal boats (or boat sections), and cargo containers on these grades was no easy matter. The steepest incline, plane number eight, was nearly six degrees.
Steam engines -- one at the crest of each incline -- and innovative wire rope cables (replacing failure-prone hemp ropes) powered the rail-mounted roller apparatus that lifted and lowered cargo and passengers on the inclined planes. Each of the ten inclined planes eventually had two sets of rails mounted next to each other in counterbalanced fashion, one for lifting and the other for lowering. After 1835, locomotives hauled freight and passengers on the 11 less steep “level” sections.
Due to the steepness of the terrain it traversed, the APR was considered a technological wonder of its day. Even today, visitors to the national historic site marvel at the ingenuity and engineering skill the project required.
In addition to the huge volume of freight handled over the years, the APR transported thousands of passengers. Traveling from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh during the years the APR operated cost ten dollars per passenger and took three to five days, with the APR section requiring around seven hours.
Among the notables who traveled on the APR’s inclined plane system were Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jenny Linn. They all thrilled at the journey over the Allegheny Ridge, but they also took their chances. In the early years, passengers were injured or killed on a weekly basis.
Operating the APR proved quite expensive. Records indicate that the state of Pennsylvania got less than 90 percent of its investment back out of fees and tolls for the original project and the locomotive bypass that followed. The project did, of course, pay for itself many times over in benefits derived from the trade it promoted and enabled during the two decades of its operation.
The APR was finally abandoned in 1854 when a private company, the Pennsylvania Railroad, opened a locomotive route over the Alleghenies. Within a few years, a locomotive bypass of the inclines had been constructed. The Pennsylvania Railroad bought the APR in 1857, left most of it abandoned, and converted the rest to local branch use.
Today, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site preserves and commemorates this early railroading experiment on two main sites situated along the 36-mile long corridor that is the APR’s historic route. Last year the site attracted 123,000 visitors.
The park’s main unit has the Summit Level Visitor Center, the historic Lemon House (an historic tavern), Engine House #6 Exhibit Shelter (with a full-scale model of a steam engine), interactive exhibits on railroad technology, the Skew Arch Bridge, a picnic area, and hiking trails.
The park’s other major component, the Staple Bend Tunnel unit, is located approximately four miles east of Johnstown. Constructing the tunnel that is the centerpiece attraction required three years of hard labor by crews consisting mostly of immigrant Welsh coal miners. Today visitors can drive to the site to see the tunnel. A 2.5-mile trail serving this site is great for biking as well as walking.
Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site offers some special events and tours. The best known is the Ghost Tour of the Staple Bend Tunnel, which has proven very popular.
Many visitors enjoy taking part in our Evening on the Summit Series.
There are some interesting living history presentations as well. Kids especially get a kick out of watching park rangers use early 1800s equipment and skills to cut stone and hew logs.
Traveler trivia, no extra charge: This park’s four-letter code is especially easy for dog owners to remember. It’s ALPO.