[Blogtober Day 12] Three Fascinating Railroad Sites in Pennsylvania

When one lives in a state with a very long history, it’s often difficult to choose what to research. Do I go the easy way out? Discuss things that are popular or that everybody already knows? Or do I go off the beaten path and dig up what may not be known? I think today’s Blogtober topics is a combination of the two.

Now I could’ve chosen to talk about trolleys, but I’ve already done that this year with this post. I could’ve talked about the more recent history of the Kinzua Bridge, but I’ve done that already as well. In today’s post, we’re going to take a look at three historical train sites: the “world famous” Horseshoe Curve, the Gallitzin Tunnel and the Steamtown National Historic Site.

The Horseshoe Curve

Train tracks depend on several factors to be successful: stable ground, reliable engineering, and its usefulness. These three things are what sealed the Horseshoe Curve’s fate: use far into modern times. According to Uncovering PA, the Curve was so popular and in so much use that “it was a target of Nazi saboteurs who landed in the US in 1942.”

My mother greeting the engineers of another train
photo by Leigh A Hartman

Incline house above the Curve

Freight being pushed through the Horseshoe Curve
photo by Leigh A Hartman

The Horseshoe Curve, also a national historic landmark, was first conceived in the late 1840s by those who owned and operated the Pennsylvania Railroad. In fact, the Pennsylvania Railroad had just replaced the aging Allegheny Portage Railroad, and they saw an opportunity to expand west with the Horseshoe Curve. Wikipedia actually puts it best with this:

“[…] the Chief Engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, John Edgar Thomson, chose a route on lower, flatter terrain along the Juniata River and accepted a steeper grade west of Altoona. The valley west of Altoona was split into two ravines by a mountain; surveys had already found a route with an acceptable grade east from Gallitzin to the south side of the valley, and the proposed Horseshoe Curve would allow the same grade to continue to Altoona.”

The Horseshoe Curve was completed in 1854, and the route quickly became one of the most used in the nation. So much so that more tracks were added to accommodate the traffic. Primarily used for freight and goods transportation, accommodations were eventually added for passenger traffic as well. “Train count peaked in the 1940s with over 50 passenger trains per day, along with many freight and military trains. Demand for train travel dropped greatly after World War II, as highway and air travel became popular”

The Curve now features fewer rails as there are now more options for hauling freight, and passenger travel aboard trains has seen a dramatic decline. Instead of the Pennsylvania Railroad, it is now operated and maintained by both CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Pittsburgh Line. Folks can also take a historic train ride from Lewistown to Gallitzin.

Gallitzin Tunnels

The history of the Gallitzin Tunnels actually begins with the Allegheny Portage Railroad. This has its own storied history, as it was the first railroad built to cross the central part of Pennsylvania through the Allegheny Mountains. The “Old Portage Railroad” ran from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown, but the railroad’s overall route covered a much greater distance:

The entire Main Line system connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh via the Philadelphia-Columbia railroad, the Columbia-Hollidaysburg canal, the Portage railroad linking Hollidaysburg to Johnstown, and a canal from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, was 400 miles (644 km) long. A typical ride took 4 days instead of the former 23-day horse-wagon journey.

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Whereas the old Allegheny Portage Railroad used a combination of methods to ferry its passengers across the state, the newer Pennsylvania Railroad would eventually see a cross state railway to fruition. But, more on that in a future post.

In the 1850s, the Main Line of Public Works and its portage railroad was rendered obsolete by the advance of railway technology and railroad engineering. Early in 1846 the Legislature chartered the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to cross the entire state in response to plans by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to reach the Ohio Valley through Virginia. In December 1852 trains started to run between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh shortening the travel time from 4 days to 13 hours.

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Sorry…I couldn’t help but include that tidbit! Moving on to the tunnels.

The aforementioned Pennsylvania Railroad ended up purchasing the New Portage Railroad, who had initially begun construction on the tunnel. It took two years – from 1902 to 1904 – to begin and complete the work. For a time, Amtrak showed interest in the tunnel, and even expanded the original tunnel system in 1995. The Gallitzin Tunnel, however, was never considered for Amtrak use and was closed to the public. Today, these tunnels are now part of the Gallitzin Tunnels Park & Museum.

Steamtown National Historic Site

There sits in Scranton a nationally known historic site called Steamtown. Now a national museum for steam trains, this was once a working train yard, complete with a fully operational turntable, from 1899 to the 1964. It’s location was considered highly strategic, as it serviced railroad companies from New York, Pennsylvania (naturally), and Maryland. Today it sits at a major intersection of crossroads coming from the aforementioned states: Interstates 81 and 84. 476 and 380. And Route 6. It’s almost as though these roadways followed their railroad predecessors into Scranton.

F. Nelson Blount, the heir to the largest seafood processor in the United States, was an avid railroad enthusiast. When he was 17, he wrote a book on steam power; later, he amassed one of the largest collections of vintage steam locomotives in the United States. By 1964, part of his collection — 25 steam locomotives from the United States and Canada, 10 other locomotives, and 25 pieces of rolling stock — was housed at North Walpole, New Hampshire. The Monadnock, Steamtown & Northern Railroad, as the enterprise was then called, ran excursions between Keene and Westmoreland, New Hampshire.

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It was Blount who built up this impressive locomotive collection, and Blount who established the Steamtown Foundation. The collection consists of 31 locomotives, with many having been sold to other heritage sites – some operating and others not operational. These owners are still very well-known: The Pennsylvania Railroad, The Canadian National Railway, and The Norfolk and Western Railway.

Blount chose the site not only due to its working turntable but vast track system with its ability to house his locomotives. It was originally owned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. Today this historic site plays host to train enthusiasts from all around the world. While not as popular as Blount may have liked, it is an important part of Scranton, indeed Pennsylvanian, history.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Electric City Trolley Museum, which also shares facilities with the museum. The museum’s name is a nod to Scranton’s history with the electric streetcar. “November 30, 1886 was the day the first electric streetcar operated from the corner of Lackawanna Avenue on Franklin Avenue to the Green Ridge section of Scranton.” One could say that Scranton is the birthplace of electric streetcars.

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Budding #historian. Writer of #adventures and #sciencefantasy. Lover of mushrooms and libraries. Fan of #chocolate, #books and Pennsylvania history.
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