I don’t really know why I chose to discuss these railroads for today’s Blogtober post, but here we are down the rabbit hole of research once again. Through research for another Blogtober idea, I stumbled upon a giant Wikipedia list of defunct Pennsylvania railroads and I just couldn’t help myself. I wouldn’t say I’m as big into trains as the Sheldon character is from CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, but their histories are certainly fascinating. It’s also fascinating how some railroads have more records than others. So that’s the challenge for today’s post: who has the most information? Okay, maybe that’s a personal challenge. Y’all can just sit back and enjoy learning about these three defunct Pennsylvania railroads.
The Allentown Railroad and the Panic of 1857
The Allentown Railroad was intended to be a route to haul coal and raw materials from Allentown itself to the main line within the Reading Railroad system. The venture also presented itself an opportunity to create a faster trip, benefiting multiple parties involved. “Such a route would run parallel to the mountains in the region, and a lateral coal railroad already extended west from the Susquehanna.”
Construction of the railroad didn’t begin until 1855, though it was conceived in 1853. At first there was optimism in the project, as several interest parties (the Central Railroad of New Jersey and the Dauphin and Susquehanna Coal Company) but two years after the first sleepers, rails and plates were laid the Panic of 1857 struck.
Known as “the first financial crisis to spread rapidly throughout the United States, […] Because the years immediately preceding the Panic of 1857 were prosperous, many banks, merchants, and farmers had seized the opportunity to take risks with their investments, and, as soon as market prices began to fall, they quickly began to experience the effects of financial panic.”
The companies who’d invested in the line were affected as well, and The Allentown Railroad never came to full fruition. Remnants of its early stages of construction still exist – an unfinished tunnel here, land grading there – and some of it was turned into easy access walking trails.
The Baltimore & Philadelphia Railroad
Fortunately, the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad has a much simpler history than that of The Allentown Railroad. The brainchild of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, it’s purpose was to connect travelers and freight to stops between, well, between Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The line was completed in 1886 – thirty years after the Allentown Railroad would have been in operation had it survived – and proved to be a popular route. However, even after its completion and consistent use by the B&O, they lost rights to the tracks:
“Though a surface alignment through downtown Baltimore was authorized by the Maryland legislature, the B&O instead obtained a charter for the Baltimore Belt Line to provide a completely grade-separated route. This new route entered the long Howard Street Tunnel at Camden Station, running north under downtown, and then turning east through two shorter tunnels to a junction with the Philadelphia Branch at Bay View Yard. The Baltimore Belt Line was completed in 1895, and its expenses drove the B&O to bankruptcy in 1896.“
The Beech Creek Railroad
This long abandoned railroad was originally constructed in 1890 and changed ownership a few times throughout its lifetime. The proposed line would run from Williamsport to Clearfield and its primary purpose would be to carry coal and other freight. “The proposed line was initiated with the backing of the New York Central Railroad, as part of a far-reaching strategy to ensure access to bituminous coal reserves. The New York Central did not itself extend into the bituminous coalfields, making it vulnerable to action both by the coal operators who mined the coal and rivals like the Pennsylvania Railroad, who carried it.”
The Peale Tunnel was built to allow passage through the mountain, and by 1884 The Beech Creek Railroad “was ready for rail traffic by the middle of the next year. 2 miles (3 km) further west, the line crossed the creek on an iron viaduct 112 feet (34.1 m) high, opened for service on November 11, 1884.”
As with the original owners of the Baltimore & Philadelphia Railroad, the owners of this particular railroad also failed. Though the Beech Creek Railroad was used for a little while, it, too, eventually became defunct.
The railroads of Victorian era America lived hard and died fast, with only the strong remaining victorious. Many have been revitalized by rail enthusiasts and engineers, but much of the old tracks laid down in the 1800s have been reclaimed by nature. And, if I may say, Amtrak just can’t be compared to an open car ride on a working Victorian steam train.
The histories shared today were just a snapshot of their full stories. Perhaps one day I’ll expand upon them further in a future post.
The above images were taken by myself on 4th of July, 2022 while visiting the Frostburg Depot with my family. This particular railroad now plays host to Tracks and Yaks: a several hour excursion where one rides a customized pedal bike on historic rails. Visit this post to read more about our adventures!