Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site: An engineering marvel

The 1800s railroad carried everything from cheese to whiskey, nails, tobacco and, of course, bacon.

If there are national parks for nerds, the Allegheny Portage Railroad historic site is one of them.

The story of the railroad itself is about creative engineers and hard-working laborers, with the financial backing of the state government, jury-rigging a way to get railcars up and over the formidable Allegheny Mountains — testing new materials and new technology along the way.

It’s kind of nerdy stuff.

But before everyone else zips on by along Route 22, it’s worth mentioning the bacon.

“Bacon was special,” said Megan O’Malley, chief of interpretation, as she showed off a barrel of fake bacon installed last fall in the park’s visitor center. The staff figured what better way to make the story of a transportation system more compelling than to explain what was in it for regular folks.

More than 23 million pounds of bacon was shipped on the Allegheny Portage Railroad east from Pittsburgh in 1843 alone.

Back then, bacon came in barrels. The railroad also carried cheese, whiskey, nails, tobacco, yarn, lead, even fancy goblets that likely would have been broken if they’d been packed into a wagon pulled by horses. Passengers rode the railroad, too.

The goods were in demand but the profit margin wasn’t high. It was a similar challenge to the ones that Amazon, Uber, Postmates, Macy’s and FedEx deal with as they try to satisfy consumers’ interest in getting things delivered quickly — and still make a profit on the exchange.

An engineer working on the portage railroad construction in the early 1830s predicted that, when it was complete, transporting goods by canal and railroad from Hollidaysburg in Blair County to Blairsville in Indiana County would drop shipping costs from $12 to $16 per ton to $4 per ton, according to “Over the Alleghenies,” a 2013 book on Pennsylvania’s early canals and railroads by Robert Kapsch, published by West Virginia University Press.

Another game changer: rather than a 23-day wagon trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in good weather, according to park literature, the new system could do it in four days.

Chasing the Erie Canal

In the early 1800s, New York had shocked the markets with its Erie Canal, a more than 360-mile-long system of manmade waterways that could get people and goods from Albany to Buffalo in five days, by some estimates.

Pennsylvania’s response was a complicated transportation system that was part canal, part traditional railroad and — because those mountains had to be crossed somehow — part portage railroad.

The 36.69-mile-long Allegheny Portage Railroad was only a link in the project that stretched across hundreds of miles of Pennsylvania, but it was arguably the most creative piece.

The engineers decided they could get loads up and over the mountains by constructing a series of tilted stretches of rail — like the inclines that still take commuters and tourists up Mount Washington in Pittsburgh.

Ten inclines were built, with flat stretches in between, to serve as a link between canals in Hollidaysburg and Johnstown.


The canal and railroad system across the state would later be killed by better technology, political battles and a devastating downturn in the nation’s economy. Pennsylvania took out so much debt to build it — and all the branch canals that legislators demanded in return for their votes — that the state came close to going bankrupt, said Doug Bosley, park ranger at the Allegheny Portage Railroad historic site.

But don’t call it a failure. Many merchants did well because the system opened up access to more markets. Jobs were created, as the politicians like to say. “Pretty much everyone benefited except the state government,” said Mr. Bosley.

John Roebling’s wire rope

The first year, horses pulled the loaded cars along the Allegheny Portage Railroad because the state couldn’t afford locomotives. The animals were leased from nearby farmers, and it’s fair to say they weren’t real happy when locomotives were eventually acquired, Mr. Bosley said.

Technology that both kills and creates jobs didn’t start with the Internet. In some ways, the portage railroad served as sort of a high-tech accelerator for the 1830s and 1840s.

At the top of each inclined stretch of rail, coal-powered stationary steam engines did the hard lifting and lowering work. Sometimes those got overheated and blew up.

Allegheny Portage Railroad

110 Federal Park Road, Gallitzin, PA 16641


Official Website

  • Hours driving from Pittsburgh: About two hours
  • Park hours: Park grounds are every day from sunrise to sunset, although hours can vary due to holidays and inclement weather.
  • Spring/summer/fall: Park buildings are open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from mid-April through mid-November.
    Winter: Park buildings (visitor center, Engine House and Lemon House) are closed.
  • Fees: $5 per person for visits of 1-7 (consecutive) days. Children 15 and under free
  • Special tips: This is a large park — it straddles Cambria and Blair counties -— where people can hike, bike or drive to key points such as the visitor’s center and other buildings or a different area with the Staple Bend Tunnel.

    Check website to identity sites fully accessible to wheelchair users. A free wheelchair is available for loan at the visitor center. In good weather, an electric scooter may also available (safety brief required).

  • Fun fact: The bar in the Lemon House, a tavern run by the Lemon family that served railroad passengers, is painted a crazy bright yellow. The paint was part of an exciting new trend that made brighter colors available to businesses and homeowners. The business also had two dining areas, where customers could pay 25 cents and eat the fast-food of the day — probably stew.

Hemp rope — several inches thick and each piece around a mile long — pulled loaded railcars up the inclines while lowering other railcars down. The year it launched, the system ordered 12 ropes covering a total of 11 miles and 778 yards, and weighing 118,649 pounds, according to Mr. Kapsch.

The heavy rope spent a considerable amount of time out in the weather, since only the part of the incline with the steam engines was enclosed in a building. The ropes broke sometimes — in some cases triggering accidents that killed people.

When John Roebling, a German-born engineer who helped found the community of Saxonburg in Butler County, created a “wire rope” like some he’d read about in Europe, a technological showdown ensued.

The state said Mr. Roebling could test his new product. He just had to pay for the test. If it worked, the state would pay for the wire rope and buy more.

Mr. Roebling, according to Mr. Bosley, chose Incline No. 3. It was the shortest, of course.

Some stories say the wire rope failed that first time because someone tampered with it — presumably someone involved in selling, making or repairing hemp rope. Mr. Bosley has not seen documentation to back that story up.

In the end, Mr. Roebling built a good business selling wire rope to the railroad. That same type of material is still used today to lift elevators and on suspension bridges like one Mr. Roebling built across the Monongahela River at Smithfield Street. That bridge was later replaced.

Stone vs. wood

The Allegheny Portage Railroad visitor center is just off the Gallitzin exit on Route 22, but the park’s Staple Bend Tunnel — the first railroad tunnel built in the U.S. — is a half-hour drive back toward Pittsburgh, near Mineral Point and about five miles from Johnstown.

That’s what happens when a 36-mile-long railroad is turned into an historic site.

These days parts of the original line serve as roads driven by motorists thinking about getting to work on time rather than about bacon, cheese or whiskey.

The railroad tunnel, which was dug at the blistering rate of 18 inches a day, draws day hikers. On “ghost tours” in the fall, the park rangers tell about the load of bacon blown up when the whiskey caught fire and about the people killed trying to squeeze up to the walls in the tight tunnel when a train went by.

Massive “stone sleepers” that once formed the base of the rail tracks can still be found in neat, grass-filled rows embedded in the trail near the tunnel. They were modeled after those used in England.

In what was not so much a technological battle as an issue of resources, the engineers began to turn away from such stone and use more wood — a plentiful resource in the brave, new country.


‘A plunderer from Pennsylvania’

The Panic of 1837 was a bit like the Great Recession or the Great Depression, in that it sent shockwaves through the economy.

As Mr. Kapsch described it in his book, the federal government became concerned about a speculative bubble that developed in the U.S. as a result of the buying up of land without solid financing. As a result of various factors, more than 600 American banks failed in 1837.

After the downturn, Mr. Kapsch wrote, Pennsylvania struggled to deal with a financial mess that was not helped by rising interest payments on debt taken out to fund the canal and railroad system, as well as high repair costs, slowing toll revenues and a general unwillingness to raise taxes.

In July 1842, the state defaulted on its bonds.

Creditors, many of them from England, were not happy. The English minister Sydney Smith took a distinctive dislike to those from the Keystone state, according to Mr. Kapsch.

“How such a man can set himself down at an English table without feeling that he owes two or three pounds to every man in company I am at a loss to conceive: he has no more right to eat with clean men. If he has a particle of honor in his composition, he should shut himself up and say, ‘I cannot mingle with you. I belong to a degraded people — I must hide myself — I am a plunderer from Pennsylvania.’ ”

The state began making payments again in 1845 but Pennsylvanians wanted out of the transportation business. In 1857, the Main Line was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. for $7.5 million, far less than it cost to build.

“Within a year,” Mr. Kapsch wrote, “anything of value was either sold or stripped from the Allegheny Portage Railroad.”

Teresa F. Lindeman: or 412-263-2018