Allegheny Portage Railroad

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Allegheny Portage Railroad
Incline 6 Trail and Recreated Tracks
Allegheny Portage Railroad is located in Pennsylvania
Allegheny Portage Railroad
Allegheny Portage Railroad is located in the US
Allegheny Portage Railroad
Location Blair and Cambria counties, Pennsylvania, United States
Nearest city Altoona, Pennsylvania
Coordinates 40°27′15″N 78°32′25″W / 40.45417°N 78.54028°W / 40.45417; -78.54028Coordinates: 40°27′15″N 78°32′25″W / 40.45417°N 78.54028°W / 40.45417; -78.54028
Area 1,296 acres (524 ha)
Built 1831-1834
Architectural style Wood, Stone, Wrought Iron
Visitation 118,931[2] (2009)
Website Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site
MPS Allegheny Portage Railroad MPS
NRHP Reference # 66000648[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Designated NHL December 29, 1962[4]
Designated PHMC April 01, 1947[3]
Profile of the original line of the portage railroad from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown. Despite the obsolescence of the canals in the face of rapid developments in steam locomotion and railroads, the route was adjusted and straightened in 1856. In 1854 the Legislature chartered the Pennsylvania Railroad to cross the entire state in response to a petition by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that would enable it to reach the Ohio. The PRR raised sufficient investment and had enough quick success that they bought the Portage Railroad and other parts of the Main Line of Public Works in 1857.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was the first railroad constructed through the Allegheny Mountains in central Pennsylvania, United States; it operated from 1834 to 1854 as the first transportation infrastructure through the gaps of the Allegheny that connected the midwest to the eastern seaboard across the barrier range of the Allegheny Front. Authorized as part of the Main Line of Public Works legislation in 1824, it was a series of ten inclines connecting to a branch of the Pennsylvania Canal at either end, approximately 36 miles (58 km) long overall. It had five inclines on either side of the drainage divide running athwart the ridge line from Blair Gap through along the kinked saddle at the summit into Cresson, Pennsylvania. The Portage Railroad utilized cleverly designed wheeled barges to ride a narrow-gauge rail track with steam-powered stationary engines lifting the vehicles. Except for peak moments of severe storms, it was an all-weather, all-seasons operation. Along with the rest of the Main Works, it cut transport time from Philadelphia to the Ohio River from weeks to just 3–5 days. The roadbed of the railroad did not incline monotonically upwards, but rose in relatively long, saw-toothed stretches of slightly-sloped flat terrain suitable to animal powered towing, alternating with steep cable railway inclined planes using static steam engine powered windlasses, similar to mechanisms of modern ski lifts.

It connected two canal 'divisions' of the Main Line of Public Works of the Pennsylvania Canal System, from Johnstown on the west through the relative flats to Hollidaysburg on the east, thus allowing continuous barge traffic between the Ohio and the Susquehanna rivers. Considered a technological marvel in its day, it played a critical role in opening the interior of the United States beyond the Appalachian Mountains to settlement and commerce. It included the first railroad tunnel in the United States, the Staple Bend Tunnel, and its inauguration was marked with great fanfare.

Today, the remains of the railroad are preserved within the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service. The site was established on 1,296 acres (524 ha) in 1964 and is about 12 miles (19.3 km) west of Altoona,[citation needed] in Blair and Cambria counties.[5]

The Samuel Lemon House, a tavern located alongside the railroad near Cresson that was a popular stop for railroad passengers, has been converted into a historical museum by the National Park Service. The park service also operates a visitor center with interpretive exhibits near the Lemon House.

The Staple Bend Tunnel is preserved in a separate unit of the historic site 4 miles (6.4 km) east of Johnstown.

A skew arch bridge, a masterwork of cut stone construction, is another feature of the site.


Construction of the railroad began in 1831 and took three years to complete. The project was financed by the State of Pennsylvania as a means to compete with the Erie Canal in New York and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland. The work was done largely through private contractors. The railroad used ten cable inclined planes, five on either side of the summit of the Allegheny Ridge. The vertical ascent from Johnstown was 1,172 feet (357 m). The vertical ascent from Hollidaysburg was 1,399 feet (426 m). The barges were drawn by horses along level sections, which included a tunnel 900 feet (274 m) long as well as a viaduct over the Little Conemaugh River upstream from Johnstown. A typical voyage took between six and seven hours. The entire Main Line system connecting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia was 400 miles (644 km) long. Charles Dickens wrote a contemporary account of travel on the railroad in Chapter 10 of his American Notes.[6]

In 1854 the portage railroad was rendered obsolete by the advance of railway technology--more powerful locomotives allowed construction by the Pennsylvania Railroad of a railroad over the Alleghenies. Construction on the New Portage Railroad, a $2.14 million realignment to bypass the inclines, continued despite this, opening in 1856. On July 31, 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought the portage railroad from the state, abandoning most and using the rest as local branches. Nearly half a century later, the graded roadbeds of the descending section east of the Gallitzin Tunnel was re-railed with standard gauge freight tracks and reopened as a freight bypass line in 1904. Pennsylvania Railroad successor Conrail abandoned this line to Hollidaysburg and most of the branch trackage along the Juniata River in 1981 and removed the rails.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ National Park Service (2006-03-15). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ "NPS Annual Recreation Visits Report". National Park Service. 
  3. ^ "PHMC Historical Markers". Historical Marker Database. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Retrieved December 10, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Allegheny Portage Railroad of the Pennsylvania Canal". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on October 7, 2012. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  5. ^ Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site Boundary Revision Act (Public Law 107-369). Accessed 2009-10-21.
  6. ^ Dickens, Charles. American notes for general circulation. ISBN 978-0-7607-6892-1. 


  • Mahlon J. Baumgardner and Floyd G. Hoenstine; The Allegheny Old Portage Railroad 1834-1854: Building Operation and travel between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown Pennsylvania
  • Harley J. McKee, Introduction to Early American Masonry: Stone, Brick, Mortar, and Plaster

External links[edit]