America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History

Larry Holzwarth - May 15, 2020

Few technologies have affected the United States more than the invention of the railroad. After the War of 1812 and the removal of the Indian threat to the region north and west of the Ohio River, production in that region grew rapidly. Getting finished goods to the western lands, and their products to the eastern ports, became a priority for the coastal states. New York built the Erie Canal, and the port of New York began to dominate trade. Pennsylvania studied ways to compete. A canal connecting Pittsburgh, at the head of the Ohio River, and the port of Philadelphia grew in favor with businessmen and the state legislature. A serious challenge presented itself, literally looming over the planned canal – the Allegheny mountains.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The Allegheny Portage Railroad was the first transportation system to cross the eastern mountains. National Park Service

Engineers proposed a tunnel through the base of the mountain at Blair Gap. Engineering such a tunnel proved too costly, slow, and technically daunting. A counterproposal to build a system of inclines, used to haul canal boats over the mountain, refloating them on the opposite side, gained support. Financing was approved and construction began in 1831. When the system opened in 1834, it connected two sections of the Pennsylvania Canal, shortening the trip between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to between three and five days. Prior to the canal’s completion, the same journey averaged three weeks. The Allegheny Portage Railroad operated for just over two decades, considered an engineering marvel of its time, and a tourist attraction in its own right. Here is its story.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The APRR was part of the Pennsylvania Canal System which crisscrossed the state. National Park Service

1. Its design featured stationary steam engines

The engineers who designed the railroad envisioned a series of inclined planes to ascend the mountain, separated by level spaces. Five inclines on each side allowed the cargo and passengers arriving in canal boats to ascend to the summit. They then descended via the same number of inclines on the other side. At first, the canal boats were unloaded, passengers and cargoes were placed in rail cars. Improvements over time allowed the boats themselves to cross the mountain, carried on articulated rail cars. Each of the inclines featured stationary steam engines, which used a loop of heavy rope to pull the cars to the top. The same engines used steam power to stem the force of gravity and ease the boat down during the descent.

Locomotives in the 1830s lacked the traction necessary to pull loads up the slopes. Once the cars reached the level planes at the top of the inclines they were hauled by mule or horse teams to the base of the next incline. Puffer engines eventually replaced the mule teams on the level grades. At times of peak operation, multiple engines produced smoke, sparks, and noise, creating an entertaining, albeit loud, spectacle for passengers and tourists. The heavy ropes were replaced in the 1840s with wire cables, manufactured nearby by John Roebling, who began to consider using similar cables to support suspension bridges. The portage linked Johnstown and Hollidaysburg, both of which reaped economic benefits from its operation.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
In the 1830s canals were the best alternative for moving large amounts of freight. Wikimedia

2. The Main Line Canal

Pennsylvania’s Main Line Canal did not run through to Philadelphia. Its eastern terminus, the Columbia canal basin, connected to Philadelphia by railroad. Thus, a trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh comprised a rail journey to Columbia, a canal boat to Hollidaysburg, a portage over the mountains via the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and a return to the water at Johnstown for the remaining journey into Pittsburgh. Between Columbia and Hollidaysburg 18 locks raised or lowered the boats, depending on the direction of travel. The leg between Johnstown and Pittsburg contained 66 locks. Mules and horses towed the canal boats from a footpath alongside the canal.

The canal bed was 28 feet wide at the base, about 40 feet wide at the water level, and the minimum depth maintained at four feet. Usually, it was considerably deeper. The entire system covered a distance of 394 miles. Support systems included aqueducts and feeder channels for depth control, the towpaths and lockkeeper’s houses, bridges, basins, and port facilities to service the boats. Inns and taverns appeared at stopping points along the canal. The entire system operated 24 hours per day, every day of the year, except when severe weather forced some sections to shut down. The canal connected the port of Philadelphia across the Eastern Continental Divide to the raw materials of the west.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The canals were tranquil in the rural areas, though they passed bustling waterfronts in towns alongside them. Wikimedia

3. Hollidaysburg boomed with the opening of the canal

In 1827 Hollidaysburg’s population stood at 76 people, which fluctuated as travelers stopped for a time before moving on to their destinations. Ten years later, following the opening of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the town boasted a population of over 3,000. The boom resulted from the selection of the tiny hamlet as the site of the eastern canal basin, for the Allegheny Portage. The confluence of three branches of the Juniata River was widened and deepened into a man-made pool with supporting port facilities. Canal boats arriving from Columbia to the east, or Pittsburgh to the west, were serviced at the Hollidaysburg Canal Basin. During peak use of the canal, an average of one boat every twenty minutes arrived for service.

The early days of the canal required boats unloaded, and passengers and cargoes loaded into the railcars to cross the portage. Conversely, railcars arriving from the portage contained cargoes and passengers which needed to be embarked on the boats. Warehouses, freight brokerages, passenger facilities, boat slips, and docks boomed along Hollidaysburg’s waterfront. Although passengers were common on the boats, the freight trade generated higher profits, in both finished goods and raw materials. Innovative merchants along the canal converted some boats to floating markets, which arrived in canal towns carrying finished goods at bargain prices, and sold to customers directly from the boats.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
John Roebling gained fame as a bridge builder after experimenting with wire rope on the Allegheny Portage. Wikimedia

4. The portage included over 36 miles of railway

The challenge faced by the engineers and designers of the Allegheny Portage Railroad included moving railcars up and down a 1,400-foot mountain. The Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law which prohibited any section of the inclines exceeding a 12% gradient. The inclines were limited in their length by the extant technology. Both the power of the reciprocating steam engines and the strength of hemp ropes shortened the desired length of the inclines. They averaged about a half-mile in length. The inclines connected to level grades, where the cars were initially moved by animal power, later replaced with steam locomotives.

The eleven-level grades varied in length. The shortest of the levels reached only .15 miles, the longest stretched over 14 miles. The 12% gradient limit led the engineers to design the inclines so that none exceeded 10%, the steepest incline, number 8, came the closest at 9.9%. Safely pulling the cars required hemp ropes over seven inches in circumference, connected to drive wheels driven by the stationary engines. For additional safety, whenever possible, cars were connected to each other to serve as counterweights, one rising and the other descending, to ease the strain on the engines. The head (top) of each incline featured an engine shed, while at the base a hitching shed stood to protect workers from the elements while connecting the cars.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The Lemon House on the Allegheny Portage Railroad, fully restored. National Park Service

5. A trip across the portage

The levels and inclines were numbered sequentially, with level 1 at Johnstown and level 11 at the Hollidaysburg Canal Basin. From Johnstown, a traveler first traversed level 1, a distance of just over 4 miles, before arriving at the base of incline 1. Incline 1 carried the traveler just under one-third of a mile at a 9% grade, rising 150 feet. It required a rope of over 3,600 feet. A thirteen-mile level followed, then another incline, and so on to the top. Upon reaching incline 6 the descent to Hollidaysburg began. The inclines on the Hollidaysburg side of the mountain were steeper and longer, the longest of which, incline 6, required 5,858 feet of seven-inch rope, itself an immense weight for the 35 horsepower steam engine to lift.

The engines drove eight-foot vertical cast iron wheels, which operated horizontal sheaves. The sheaves, also of cast iron, were nine feet by seven inches. The machinery to pull the cars was housed in the engine sheds, beneath the rails. They sat above a well, used to accommodate counterweights and connecting chains. Regrettably, none of the original design drawings and specifications for the support facilities survived. Historians have reverse-engineered some of the original equipment to determine how much of the railroad operated during its heyday in the 1840s.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The engine houses at the top of the inclines protected equipment and workers from the weather. National Park Service

6. Improvements to the railroad began soon after it opened

Each of the ten engine sheds which stood at the tops of the inclines contained a single steam engine when the system opened. Within a year most contained two. The additional engines allowed the railroad to continue operation when engines were down for maintenance or repair. Improved engines were also added to the system over time. The single biggest improvement to the railroad over its more than two decades of operation came in the early 1840s. John Roebling observed the weakest link in the chain of systems which comprised the railroad was the hemp rope used to pull the cars. Roebling applied a theory he learned while in his native Germany to the problem.

He designed a rope made of twisted metal wires, which proved in experiments to be more durable and stronger than hemp. In 1842 he installed one of his wire ropes on incline 3, and its success led to a contract to replace all the hemp ropes within the system. He created a company to manufacture the wire ropes, and turned his attention to other uses for his products. They included safer ways of moving trams filled with ore in mines, and most importantly to Roebling, the construction of suspension bridges. The wire ropes on the Allegheny Portage Rail Road led to other improvements, including moving the canal boats themselves across the mountain, negating the need to offload passengers and cargo into railcars.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Some passengers found the journey invigorating, others terrifying. National Parks Planner

7. Opinions of the railroad varied

Passengers who traversed the mountains via the railroad offered a widely varied collection of opinions over the journey. Philip Nicklin, a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, made the journey from Johnstown to Hollidaysburg in 1835. He found the ascent exhilarating. The trip down he described as “much more fearful”. Other passengers echoed his thoughts, with the descent into Hollidaysburg described in terms reflecting the steeper and longer grades found on that side of the portage. Still, he departed Johnstown at 6 AM and arrived in Hollidaysburg shortly after noon, a six-hour trip which took about three days by road.

Charles Dickens made the journey, traveling in the opposite direction, in 1842. He too mentioned the dangers sensed by what he referred to as the “giddy precipice”. He went away impressed with the engineering and the efficient manner through which the system operated. Dickens was one of the last passengers to endure the necessity of debarking from the canal boats, with all his baggage and personal belongings. On the other side of the portage, he embarked on another canal boat. He remarked upon the necessary inconvenience. A method of hauling the boats from the water and over the mountain soon appeared, changing the system and further speeding travelers along their way, thanks to Roebling’s wire rope.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Stones supported the rails until it was discovered that wooden ties were more suitable. Wikimedia

8. Accidents on the railroad were not uncommon

As with other motive devices powered by steam, such as the riverboats common on American waterways, accidents occurred with alarming frequency. Boiler explosions were chief among them. Steam boiler explosions occurred on several occasions during the existence of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, some of them quite dramatic. On May 4, 1852, a boiler in Engine House Number 6, at the head of incline 6, exploded. A piece of the boiler which weighed a quarter of a ton was thrown over 100 feet down the incline. Three men working in the Engine House were badly burned and died later that day from their injuries.

By the end of the day, the damage was cleared away and the incline remained in operation. Injuries along the railroad, no more or less frequent than on more conventional railroads, plagued it throughout its existence. Injuries to passengers were less frequent since most were contained within railcars or boats during the portage. All industrial and mechanical facilities in the mid-19th century were dangerous places for workers. Many of them faced the difficulties and potential accidents of their jobs by bracing themselves with alcohol over the course of the day. The Allegheny Portage Railroad featured many locations where they resorted to liquid courage.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The decorative facade of the Staple Bend Tunnel, the first rail tunnel built in the United States. National Park Service

9. The Staple Bend Tunnel

Staple Bend presented a problem to the railroad designers. Inclines to overcome its height could not be built without exceeding the legislated maximum grade requirement. The solution was a tunnel, 900 feet through solid rock, requiring the removal of nearly 15,000 cubic yards. Workers drilled narrow holes, about one inch in diameter, to a depth of three feet. The holes were drilled by three-man teams, using hand-held boring tools. About nine holes were drilled in a pattern. Once the holes were completed, an eighteen-inch cloth-covered tube of black powder was tamped into the cavity. Fuses were inserted and then lit. The work teams timed their blasting to coincide with their noon meal, eaten as the dust settled.

Other teams cleared the rubble and dust away as the drillers began work on the next set of holes. The process was repeated, day after day, the men working twelve-hour shifts Monday through Saturday. The tunnel grew at the rate of about eighteen inches per day, with crews at both ends working towards each other. On December 21, 1832, the teams met each other, and by the end of April, 1833, the tunnel was completed, with rails laid and the entryways decorated on both ends. The crews who built the Staple Bend Tunnel – the first railway tunnel constructed in the United States – received $13 per month for their labors, as well as room and board during the construction period. The tunnel still stands as a tourist attraction.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The East Portal of the Staple Bend Tunnel was considerably less ornate. Wikimedia

10. Sleeper stones

During the construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, cost considerations drove much of the initial system. Huge amounts of granite and other rock were unearthed, some of it going to line the canal beds and walls. Other uses of granite, which was in abundance, proved less successful. One such use was placing granite stones as the foundation of the rail beds, supporting the weight of the trains as they passed along the rails. Granite stones, known as sleepers were cut and placed beneath the iron rails. They proved unsatisfactory. Water permeated the stones and caused them to split from the weight and vibration of the trains. They also demonstrated a tendency to move, leaving sections of rail unsupported.

When the railroad opened nearly its entire length rode on granite sleeper stones, cut from the walls of the mountain. By 1840 most had been replaced with wooden ties. The wood both supported and cushioned the rails, and replacing them as necessary was easier for maintenance crews. The technology of using wooden ties was adopted by other railways in the United States, including the Baltimore and Ohio, then pushing west toward Harpers Ferry in Virginia, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. The stone sleepers found other uses, including being broken up for stone fences and walls, and building construction. The gaps left where they were cut from the mountainsides can still be seen throughout much of central Pennsylvania.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
As locomotives became more powerful they replaced animal power on the levels. Park Trips and More

11. The puffer engines

Animal power for moving cars and eventually canal boats along the levels gave way to steam in the early days of operation. Small locomotives arrived in 1835 to take their place. Though locomotives were not them capable of the power and traction necessary to make it up the grades they were suitable for the more level sections (which weren’t entirely level, most had a slight grade). The locomotives created a requirement for water towers and cranes to replenish their sources of steam. They also added to the bustle and aura of excitement along the 36-mile portage. At first, they used wood as their fuel source, later supplanted by coal. Both were plentiful in the area.

The engines proved their worth when the portage began hauling canal boats out of the water for their journey across the mountain. Flatbed rail cars, backed into the canal on-ramps, received the boats, and the locomotives hauled them up, across the first level, to the hitching sheds at the base of the inclines. They returned to the canal hauling boats which were refloated in a reverse of the previous operation. Articulated railcars allowed for two or more boats hauled at the same time, an operation which improved locomotives eventually expanded into several boats moving at once. Wire ropes allowed multiple boats hauled up the inclines, connected to each other, their weight countered by boats simultaneously descending.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Much of the railroad’s infrastructure was cut from local stone by master stonemasons. National Park Service

12. The portage fueled the engines of its demise

By 1845 the Allegheny Portage Railroad was known throughout the United States and Europe as an engineering and technological marvel. Economically speaking, it presented limited success. Pittsburgh and other towns along the Main Line Canal, as well as towns connected by feeder canals, grew exponentially. Philadelphia never regained the lead as America’s international trading capital, but its ports and industries grew steadily. Engineers traveled to Hollidaysburg and Johnstown to examine the portage and its infrastructure, particularly its growing dependence on locomotives to move passengers and freight. Central Pennsylvania became a technology center for steam locomotives.

The Allegheny Portage became a testbed for new technologies which quickly came into play in other industries. Stationary engines, installed at the surface, began using wire ropes to haul ore trams along mine shafts, extracting coal, iron ore, and precious metals. More powerful locomotives, with improved drive systems, successfully encountered the previously discouraging grades of the eastern mountains. By the late 1840s, the railroads could move larger amounts of freight at speeds which exceeded those of the canals, which were restricted by the use of animal power to tow boats along the waterways. In 1847 the Pennsylvania Railroad was chartered with building a railroad connecting Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, bypassing the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Taverns and inns supported travelers and workers on the canal and railroad. Pinterest

13. The Lemon House and tavern

Employees of the Allegheny Portage Railroad worked long hours, regardless of the jobs they held. They included animal handlers and stable operators; locomotive engineers, coal handlers, and boiler maintenance men. Trackmen walked the rails and conducted maintenance. Cargo handlers and boatmen worked on the waterfront. Carpenters and stonemasons built and maintained structures. Couplers connected the cars and boats to the hauling cables. Most lived within walking distance to where they worked. Taverns and inns were located at intervals along the 36-mile portage. One, the Lemon House, was both a residence for its owner and a resort to travelers and workers.

Built of stone on the eastern side of the portage, the Lemon House contained a substantial dining room, a barroom, and a lady’s lounge, among other amenities. The latter indicates it catered to upscale clientele, since women of society in the mid-19th century did not socialize in barrooms, which were the province of men. The Lemon House (named for its owner, not the fruit) drew patrons from both the portage and the nearby wagon road known as the Northern Turnpike. In 1966 the National Park Service acquired the property and restored it to its appearance in the 1840s, opening it to visitors through most of the warm months of the year.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Teamsters long opposed the Allegheny Portage as a threat to their livelihood. Baltimore Sun

14. Accommodating the teamsters created problems

During the planning and construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad resistance to the project by wagon freight companies and their drivers rose. The wagoneers – teamsters – opposed the project as a threat to their livelihood. Teamsters opposed the canal system in general, preferring to haul freight in Conestoga wagons along the turnpike, officially the Huntingdon, Cambria, and Indiana Road. For much of its distance, the road ran parallel to the canal and portage. About midway through the latter, the road crossed over. After the portage was graded, but before the rails were laid, teamsters simply drove across. Rails effectively closed the passage to their wagons. The Pennsylvania legislature hired a team of stone masons to build an arched bridge over the portage, carrying the turnpike over the railroad.

At first, the plan called for the teamsters to make a 90-degree turn onto the bridge. They objected, pointing out the difficulty of making such a turn in a laden wagon hauled by a team of six horses or mules. A stone arched bridge was erected, skewed to cross the portage near the base of incline 6, to carry the turnpike without disrupting traffic on either the rails or the road. The teamsters never got over their resistance to the portage, though the arrival of freight at Johnstown and Hollidaysburg increased the number of loads they carried to communities not directly serviced by the canal. The canal and portage dominated through traffic between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, though teamsters still made a living feeding smaller towns throughout the region.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The collapse of the South Fork Dam, built to create a reservoir for the canal, led to the destruction of Johnstown in 1889. Wikimedia

15. Johnstown and the South Fork Dam

Johnstown, on the eastern end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, created a reservoir for the canal’s western division. South Fork Dam, an earthen dam, created an artificial lake, which the residents of the region called Lake Conemaugh. It held approximately 20 million tons of water, reserved to maintain water levels in the canal and aqueduct which connected Johnstown to the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh. Like Hollidaysburg, Johnstown boomed with the opening of the portage, its canal basin lined with warehouses, shipping facilities, boatyards and docks. By 1850, with the canal and portage operating at their peak, Johnstown’s population neared 1,300, over three times that when Main Line first opened.

The South Fork Dam was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad as part of that corporation’s purchase of the Allegheny Portage Railroad in the late 1850s. The Pennsylvania in turn sold the dam and the reservoir to private interests. It became the site of the South Fork Fishing and Yacht Club in 1879. Ten years later, the unmaintained dam failed after a period of heavy rains, releasing the contents of the reservoir to sweep down on Johnstown in the famous flood which killed more than 2,200 people. A stone bridge, built as part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, briefly withstood the torrent for a time before it too was swept away in the floodwaters.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Canals rapidly lost business to the expanding railroads in the 1850s. Wikimedia

16. The beginning of the end

By the mid-1840s a single canal boat carried a little over 10 tons of people and freight, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad could haul three boats connected by cables over the summit simultaneously. At the same time, an equal number of boats were lowered down the other side. The portage hummed with activity except for those periods in winter when the canals froze over. At peak times during the warm months, up to 100 canal boats went up and down the mountain per day. Delays caused by breakdowns were limited through the practice of redundancy, with backup engines in all the engine houses on the railroad. The four main towns on the Main Line, Columbia, Hollidaysburg, Johnstown, and Pittsburgh, thrived.

Though private fortunes were made from the Main Line and Allegheny Portage, the state lost money annually. The Main Line never made a profit for any of its years of existence. Neither did the Allegheny Portage Railroad. A technological marvel in 1840, ten years later it reached the cusp of obsolescence. The Pennsylvania Railroad connected towns and carried passengers and freight faster and less expensively than the canal. During the late 1840s, the railroad conducted studies on the means of bypassing the portage entirely, connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh directly. In 1850 work began on a route along the Juniata River for a rail connection which became known as the Horseshoe Curve.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The Pennsylvania Canals failed to turn a profit throughout their existence. Pennsylvania Historical Society

17. The second Allegheny Portage Railroad

In 1840 the Commonwealth authorized the Main Line to build a second railroad across the portage, eliminating the inclines entirely. They planned the connection between the canals by direct rail, using some, but not all of the technology developed during the six years of operation of the Allegheny Portage. Plans were formulated and studies conducted. Work began on grades, even as the existing Portage hummed with activity. They came to naught. Before the second portage entered operation it was obsolete, and the project ended. The Pennsylvania Railroad completed the connection to Pittsburgh in 1854, and travel between Philadelphia and the forks of the Ohio River was reduced to 13 hours.

The Main Line could not compete in terms of speed, and the legislature decided to stop losing money on its operation. Privately owned canal boats meandered on both legs of the canal, but the main flow of freight and passenger traffic shifted to the railroad. The state first offered the canal system for sale in 1844, though no buyers appeared. It was offered again in 1854 with the same results. In 1857 the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Main Line Canal and the Allegheny Portage Railroad for $7.5 million dollars. The deal was formalized on June 25, at Philadelphia’s Merchant Exchange. Over the course of its existence, Pennsylvania taxpayers paid over $16 million for the system.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The Main Line and the APRR were links in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Wikimedia

18. Jacob Green and the Allegheny Portage Railroad

During the years of its operation, the Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Main Line served as important links with the Underground Railroad supported by abolitionists. One case, in particular, was that of Jacob Green, a slave from Virginia. After repeated attempts, Green escaped with several other slaves, and succeeded in reaching Hollidaysburg. Green was accosted by the son of his owner while on the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The slaveowner’s son was arrested by authorities in Hollidaysburg, in violation of the federal Fugitive Slave Act, and Green subsequently made good his escape, never again being seen in the canal town.

The charges against the slaveowner’s son were eventually dropped and he returned to Virginia, where his story caused public outrage. Virginia’s attorney general protested formally to the government of Pennsylvania. Newspapers prominently reported the story, with differing perspectives, in North and South. The New York Herald ran an article regarding the story under the headline, “Threatened Civil War Between Virginia and Pennsylvania” on January 31, 1856. The incident, just one of many, demonstrated the use of Northern infrastructure to assist slaves escaping from their Southern masters, despite the Fugitive Slave Act being the law of the land in the decade before the Civil War erupted in 1861.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The canals and portage were important links in the Underground Railroad. Johnstown Tribune-Democrat

19. Johnstown became a hotbed of abolitionist activity

The Main Line at Johnstown was another widely used means of aiding slaves escaping to the north, often by hiding them in freight shipments bound for Pittsburgh. Underground Railroad road agents often resorted to the portage to move slaves from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown, from whence they were moved along the canal in privately owned boats to waystations along the canal’s banks. Many of the waystations were where horses for the canal’s towpaths were stabled. After purchasing horses for the escaping slaves the agents provided them with either maps or guides to take them north to Lake Erie, where other road agents helped them enter Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply.

How many slaves escaped via the Main Line and the Allegheny Portage Railroad will likely never be known, since the participants in the activity were breaking federal law. Few who engaged in illegal activities kept records documenting their crimes. Several former slaves established themselves in the communities, where they worked on the canal or the railroad while abolitionists provided them with papers documenting them as free blacks. They also shielded them from the slave hunters who prowled the canal towns bearing descriptions of escaped slaves. The Main Line, like the Ohio River, became a symbol of freedom for many escaping slavery in the antebellum South.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the canals and APRR, eventually shutting them down. Wikimedia

20. The Pennsylvania Railroad shut down the Allegheny Portage Railroad in 1857

After purchasing the Main Line, the Pennsylvania Railroad simply turned its back on the canals. The Allegheny Portage Railroad, and the work begun on the second portage, was dismantled. The engines and locomotives transferred to other sites operated by the Pennsylvania. Canal basins and boatyards at Hollidaysburg and Johnstown fell into disuse and deteriorated. The booming waterfronts in both towns decayed. The summit where the Allegheny operated for two decades fell silent, after the machinery was removed, as well as most of the rails. The engine houses, connecting sheds, and other support structures were left to crumble in their places.

Teamsters continued to use the Skew Arch bridge, though freight traffic carried by wagon continued to trickle down to next to nothing, it too unable to compete with the railroads. The Staple Bend Tunnel was closed to rail traffic. It became a popular picnicking spot for nearby residents, attracted by the decorative façade installed by its builders. The Lemon House returned to private use, no longer the host for visitors to the site. The Pennsylvania Railroad abandoned the canal system in its entirety, and the Main Line’s many support facilities, reservoirs, aqueducts, toll houses, locks, and the canals themselves fell into disrepair.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Pennsylvania’s industrial base was built through use of the Main Line. Wikimedia

21. The Main Line shaped the economy of Pennsylvania

Though it operated for just two decades, the Main Line and the Allegheny Portage Railroad’s impact on Pennsylvania remain an important part of the state’s history. It was the first successful transportation system to penetrate the eastern mountain barrier. It became a vital engine for the economy of the state, creating new industries and businesses. Thousands of skilled workers flocked to Pennsylvania to contribute to the canal and railroad, many of them immigrants. Stone masons from Italy and the German provinces shaped the pavers which lined the canal beds, supported the rails, and decorated the facades of buildings and tunnels. Irish, German, Polish, Italian, and Dutch immigrants became part of Pennsylvania’s population, bringing aspects of their old-world culture to the new, where they flourished.

Some aspects of the Allegheny Portage Railroad survived into the 20th century, including the concept of using inclines to cross the summits of the mountains. Most did not. The Pennsylvania Railroad became the new Main Line across the state, with feeder lines into towns and counties formerly serviced by the canals. Across the United States, similar events transpired. The booming canals were replaced by the much faster trains, steelmaking surpassed boatbuilding, and America began to move at a faster pace than ever before. Railheads connected with steamboats, using the rivers as highways into the interior. The Pennsylvania Railroad entered into competition with the Baltimore and Ohio and New York’s Central Railroad, to dominate American transportation.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
The National Park Service created the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in the 1960s. National Park Service

22. The Main Line and Allegheny Portage Railroad re-emerged in the 20th century

America’s first great canal system, New York’s Erie Canal, continued to be used throughout the 20th century, and continues in use today. Not so Pennsylvania’s Main Line. Gradually the system, ignored by the PRR, was reclaimed by local communities or nature. Some sections were sold to private interests, such as the South Fork Dam above Johnstown. The over 1,000-foot aqueduct which carried canal boats over the Allegheny River into Pittsburgh was dismantled. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was partially dismantled, and for decades was simply an abandoned industrial site atop Cresson Mountain. Vandals and nature gradually erased the evidence of its existence.

In the 1960s the National Park Service took over the site. Finding one engine house relatively intact at the head of incline 6, as well as other scraps of the railroad in place, the Park Service took steps to restore parts of the site. Records of the railroad were sparse. Specifications and design drawings were unavailable, some have never been found. The Lemon House remained standing, but records of its furnishings and appearance in the 1840s were anecdotal. So were most reports of the portage in use during its heyday. Casual mentions in newspapers and magazines from the antebellum era were used to reconstruct how the site appeared and operated.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Bens Creek Culvert, part of the National Historic Site. National Park Service

23. The site of the Allegheny Portage Railroad is a work in progress

The National Park Service created a National Historic Site at the top of Cresson Mountain in the 1960s. The site includes the Skew Arch Bridge, the Staple Bend Tunnel, and the Lemon House, fully restored and furnished as it appeared in the 1840s. The engine house for incline 6 was also restored, some tracks reinstalled, and a visitors center was opened to describe the railroad’s operation during its heyday. During the construction and restoration of the site, the National Park Service made note of the paucity of information regarding the operation of the site. Though records exist in the state archives, including the annual reports of its director, little additional information exists. Though the railroad moved many thousands of people across the mountain, few recorded the event.

It became routine, a mundane portion of the trip to the west scarcely worthy of comment by the 1850s. The thriving site, with multiple steam engines belching smoke and sparks into the sky, ten-ton boats crawling up and down the sides of the mountain, and waterfronts peppered with colorful characters, travelers, runaways, businessmen, freight merchants, con artists, is quiet and calm. It salutes industry and ingenuity, courage and foresightedness, and the humanity which once made the site one of America’s early tourist attractions. Hollidaysburg and Johnstown both acknowledge the links to the Main Line on their waterfronts, with nods to the railroad which once linked them to each other.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Philip Nicklin had breakfast in Johnstown before traveling to Hollidaysburg for lunch. Wikimedia

24. Philip Nicklin’s description of the railroad

When Philip Nicklin traveled the length of the portage in 1838, he described the journey as frightening at times, and beautiful at others. Nicklin expressed great trepidation at being hauled to such a height “by complicated, powerful, and frangible (liable to breakdown) machinery”. He described the prospect as, “very agitating to the simple minds of those who have always walked in humble paths”. From the top of the mountain, Nicklin described the towns of Hollidaysburg and Johnstown far below, and compared the air at nearly 2,400 feet above sea level as “a refreshing and invigorating climate”.

The descent into Hollidaysburg (Nicklin traveled west to east) he described in less laudable terms. Nicklin remarked on the fact that when one ascended the mountain they tended to look up, during the descent the attention was drawn to the steep grade and the distance below. He found the downhill journey far less enjoyable. Nonetheless, his trip was completed without incident, and he arrived in Hollidaysburg just six hours after departing from the basin in Johnstown, crossing the portage at an average speed of just less than six miles per hour. It was Nicklin’s account of the portage which drew the attention of Charles Dickens, who arranged to travel to Pittsburgh via the canal and portage during his 1842 tour of the United States. He too commented favorably on the railroad and the industry he observed on the mountain.

America’s First Technological Titan that Changed the Course of History
Charles Dickens wrote favorably of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and its operation. Wikimedia

25. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was always controversial

In 1838 an American publisher wrote of the Allegheny Portage that the United States, “…now numbers among its many wonderful artificial lines of communication, a mountain railway, which, in boldness of design, and difficulty of execution, I can compare to no modern work I have ever seen”. Less than 5 years later, historian and surveyor Sherman Day wrote of the railroad, “The trip of a boat over the mountain is now no novel sight”. A decade later Eli Bowen referred to the railroad as “miserable” and claimed, “The traveler who has crossed the mountain over it, will not regret to leave it”. Such was the story of the Allegheny Portage. It went from technological marvel, to travel inconvenience, to obsolescence in the span of two decades.

The railroads which replaced it grew to near obsolescence themselves, as passengers eventually grew to prefer private conveyances on the ground, or air travel over rail. The teamsters, long opponents of the Main Line and the Allegheny took on more and more of the freight business in the United States. Railroads learned to tunnel through mountains rather than ascend them. Taxpayers grew ever more leery of public transportation systems funded through their hard-earned dollars. Though it never turned a profit and operated but twenty years, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was an initiative which left a lasting impact on the development of the United States in the years before the Civil War. It was one of the first projects to which the term “American ingenuity” was applied.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“History & Culture”. Article, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. National Park Service (NPS). Online

“Pennsylvania Canals”. Article, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. NPS. Online

“Engine Houses”. Article, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. NPS. Online

“Engine House Number 6 Exhibit Shelter”. Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. NPS. Online

“Modern History of Wire Rope”. Donald Sayer, Atlantic Cable. Online

“Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site: An Engineering Marvel”. Teresa F. Lindeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 19, 2016

“Allegheny Portage Railroad (Film)”. 1993. Available for download at the Internet Archive

“American Notes for General Circulation”. Charles Dickens

“Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site”. Article, American Heritage Magazine. Online

“Pennsylvania’s Canal Era”. Pennsylvania Canal Society. Online

“Uncovering the Allegheny Portage Railroad”. Jim Cheney, Uncovering PA. September 9, 2013

“Allegheny Portage National Historic Site recalls 1834 railroad innovation”. David Hurst, Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. August 16, 2016

“The Allegheny Portage Railroad”. Chris J. Lewie, Funimag. Online

“An experience on the Allegheny Portage Railroad”. History engine, University of Richmond. Online

“Renovated Allegheny Portage Railroad visitor center being unveiled”. Beth Ann Miller, Our Town Johnstown. October 9, 2019. Online

“Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site Commemorates a Great Achievement in Early Transportation”. Bob Janiskee, National Parks Traveler. August 31, 2008