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The First Mountains Railroads in the World and their inclined planes!

 

 

The Allegheny Portage Railroad (Pennsylvania, USA)

By Chris J. Lewie, AICP

In the first few early decades of the 1800s, the United States had no real way of transporting bulk goods from its distant and undeveloped interior to markets like Philadelphia and New York other than down the Ohio River toward New Orleans and out to sea. Amazingly, goods as close as Pittsburgh, Pa., only 400 miles west 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 rugged Allegheny Mountains.

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Painting of Engine House No. 6 near the Summit of Allegheny Mountain, and the Lemon House, c. 1830s.

 

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Modern reconstruction of the Engine House No. 6 on its orginal site near the Lemon House (photo taken in 2000).

By 1825, something had to be done to improve the new nations' poor interior trade routes and at the same time, promote growth and commercial development in the heartland of America. Businessmen in Philadelphia, Pa., and legislatures in the state capital of Harrisburg came up with a wonderfully fantastic idea. They would build a massive state-owned and operated canal system the entire 400-mile distance from Philadelphia along the eastern seaboard west to Pittsburgh at the beginning of the Ohio River. The centerpiece of the entire system came at a critical section located about 300 miles west of Philadelphia where the Allegheny Mountains are located. At the base of the eastern slope of the mountains, where the canal boats can no longer continue their voyage west, the canal engineers designed and built a 36-mile funicular railroad called the "Allegheny Portage Railroad" (APRR).

The APRR was one of the first railroads in America as well as perhaps the first mountain railroad (and funicular) in the world. The construction of the railroad started in 1832 and took 2,000 men over two years, and 1.8 million dollars (double the original cost estimate) of public funds to construct through thick virgin mountain forest at a cost of $50,790 per mile. A 120-foot (40 meters) wide swath was cut through the forest from one side of the mountain to the other, utilizing nothing but primitive hand tools, brute force, and tons and tons of black powder. Then the railroad was literally spiked onto the mountain side utilizing stone sleepers, and wooden rails topped with iron straps. During construction in 1832 and 1833, it ranked as one of the largest public work projects in the western hemisphere. The route was composed of 10 individual planes averaged from 7.70% grade to a maximum of 9.90% grade. One plane "No. 8 "(also the steepest) was over 3,116 feet long, and utilized a hemp rope that was over a mile long and weighed thousands of pounds. The pathway between the eastern side near Hollidaysburg and the summit rose 1,400 feet in just the first ten miles.

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Incline Plane No. 6 on the eastern slope of Allegheny Mountian. This Plane was the longest at 2,713 feet and dropped 266.5 feet in elevation.

 

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Reconstruction of the wooden rails with iron straps that supported the first Portage RR. The wood (eastern hemlock and ash) was easily cut and shaped into any size and shape. Much stronger iron rails were used in later years.

When finally completed in the spring of 1834 the 36-mile funicular railroad was called an engineering marvel of its' day. The ten incline planes utilizing stationary steam engines protected by the elements in sheds, hoisted three 7,000 lb. rail cars and later canal boats on flat bed cars, up and over Allegheny Mountain. Between the planes, cars were hauled on 11 less steep areas called "levels", first by teams of horses and then by a few and very expensive locomotives in 1835. Even with all this new engineering and technology it still took most of a day to get from Hollidaysburg on the east side of the mountain to Johnstown. After reaching Johnstown people, freight, and mail were placed back in canals boats for the 100-mile voyage to Pittsburgh; Pa., the gateway to the West.

Each engine house had a steam engine of about 35-horse power, that of a modern day small farm tractor.

A second track was installed in 1835 after the single lane became cloggle down with traffic. Evan a mile post marker created to provide to the train captains to indicate the proper right of passage on the single lane of traffic did not work, so they spend even more money on a second track, which provided for a counter-balance system. Thus the funicular was improved from 1834 to 1835.

After 1835, it was the above mentioned counter balance of about 7,000 lbs of cargo (per car) (times 3 cars in a train) in each direction. It proved to be much better, safer, and more economical system.

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Sectional canal boat and steam locomotive from the late 1830s, on display at the A.P.R.R. National Historic Site. Different canal boats carried different freights including: cargo, mail, and passengers in that order of importance.

 

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Box cars equipped with simply friction braking system called a "buck" to prevent runaway cars from crashing down the mountian killing workers and passengers alike.

 

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The safety braking truck or "buck" as it was known being engaged by the weight of the box car above.

 

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Sectional canal boats could make the entire trip from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown in about a day, and could be reassembled for their final 100-mile journey to Pittsburgh, Pa., and the Ohio River - the gateway to the West. The intacted boat sections were created to avoidand the transference of
cargo to and from the rail cars saved both time and money for commercial and freight users.

 

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Lithograph entitled, "Crossing of the Allegheny, Pennsylvania Railroad" from the 1850s.

 

In 1844, German engineer John A. Roebling (who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge) replaced the dangerous and unreliable hemp roads with safer wire rope in the first such use of its' kind in the U.S.

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 salted pork, smoked beef, dried tobacco, wheat, and finished leather to eastern seaboard markets, just as envisioned by officials during the 1820s. An added bonus to the system came with thousands of paying emigrants from Europe traveling westerly on the railroad to interior farms and towns in the 1840s and 1850s. Traffic was now paying to go in both directions which help to defray the ever increasing maintenance cost of this early funicular.

In response to growing complaints from the public and competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad in the late 1840s, the 10 inclines and 20 stationary engines were removed, and new tracks were laid around Allegheny Mountain instead of over it. In 1854, it no long functioned as a funicular railroad. This made for a longer but more level route of 45 miles instead of 36 miles  on the "New" Portage Railroad. With the removal of the incline planes and their worn out stationary engines, movable locomotive engines hauled freight and passenger cars its entire length with just a few stops. This sped up operations on the Portage RR but came too late to save the entire Pennsylvania Main Line Canal System from economic ruin, as the state financial debt continued to mount.

In 1855, the Portage Railroad went on the auction block, and in 1857, after years of losing tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars; it was sold to its competitor the Pennsylvania Railroad, for five million dollars and then shut down. The closing of the Allegheny Portage Railroad marked the end of a great engineering feat, that of crossing the great eastern divide of America 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. Today, portions of the APRR fall under protection of the U.S. National Park Service in the form of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (NHS).
Located at the NHS an interpretive center, amphitheater, reconstructed Engine House #6, Skew Arch Bridge, the Lemon House, all near the summit of Allegheny Mountain. Walking trails and picnic areas are along the #6 Incline and summit level for public use.

For more information, call the Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS at 1 (814) 886-6150, or visit their website at www.nps.gov/alpo.

 
Chris J. Lewie, AICP is an award winning city planner and author from Columbus, Ohio U.S.A. and the author of "Two Generations on the Allegheny Portage RR: The Men Who Worked on the First Railroad to Cross the Allegheny Mountains", White Mane Press, (2001). The book describes his ancestors from Wales (the Humphreys) who worked on the Portage Railroad for two generations from 1834 to 1857.

 

 

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Drawing of sectional canal boats and their passengers riding on top, near the Summit. Some lesser brave passengers who were too afraid of the new railroad walked the entire 36-mile route instead.

 

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The original Portage RR, one of the first funiculars in the world at this scale, used a counter balance system to raise on lower anywhere from 7,000 to 21,000 lbs. per plane, (times 10 planes) for a total length of 36 miles.

 

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Staple Bend Tunnel west portal. The first railroad tunnel built in America, and is 700 feet long. This is where on of Chris J. Lewie's ancestor (Roland Humphreys) was killed by a train accident in June
1852.
The tunnel was renovated in 2001 by the National Park Sevice and is open to the public.

 

 

Google Map positionning of the railroad track and the Inclined Planes (Michel Azéma)

You may click on the markers (foot markers) to see precise vue of actual locations of the planes
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Technical Datas

Inclined planes
Length (m)
Difference of levels (m)
Gradient (%)
Characteristics
Johnstown
       
up
6646.6
30.92
0.50
 
490
45.72
9.30
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
up
21018
57.78
0.28
 
539.32
40.23
7.50
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
up
2301.4
4.81
0.23
 
451.18
39.77
8.80
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
up
1609.3
5.73
0.36
 
669.02
57.30
8.50
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
up
4119.9
7.86
0.19
 
801.20
61.46
7.70
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
Summit
2607.1
5.80
0.22
 
827.18
81.23
9.70
Etat2.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
down
241.4
0.00
0.00
 
812.30
79.40
9.80
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
down
981.7
1.64
0.17
 
950.04
93.76
9.90
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
down
1899
3.65
0.19
 
829.30
57.76
7.00
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
down
2735.9
9.01
0.32
 
699.70
55.02
7.90
Etat0.gifvapeur.giftypfuni1.giftypvoie3.gif
down
5986.8
44.71
0.75
 
Hollidaysburg
       
Start: Spring 1834
End of the inclined planes: 1840
End of the Allegheny Portage Railroad: 1854

 

 

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Funimag Issue #28 / Funimag Numéro 28

 

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# Funimag 28 #

The First Mountains Railroads in the World!

The Allegheny Portage Railroad (USA)

The Andrezieux - Roanne Le Coteau (France)

Game 28