This story was originally published on August 19, 2016.
Park ranger Doug Bosley stands at the crest of a quiet, green hillside, looking down a stretch of railroad track that appears to have gotten lost and wandered into the woods. Besides the faint sounds of traffic wafting over the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site from old Route 22, there’s nothing to suggest that this spot in Blair County was home to a revolutionary system that changed Pennsylvania forever.
Bosley shakes his head. “Nothing about this was easy.”
LISTEN: The Canal System that Remade Pennsylvania’s Economy
The track runs uphill at a six or seven percent grade—a pretty steep slope for a railroad. It was one of a series of tracks making up the Allegheny Portage Railroad that stepped its way over Allegheny Mountain. It wasn’t a huge hill, but when the railroad opened for use in 1834, getting over it took some doing.
“The locomotives weren’t very powerful,” Bosley says. “A lot of them were only 20 to 30 horsepower. Your lawn tractor at home is more powerful than the locomotives at the time.”
Still, that railroad somehow ended up in the middle of the forest—in part, Bosley says, because the 1820s was a time of national expansion, fueled by American chutzpah.
“[It was] the everyman age, everybody can rise up, no matter what station you started out in life. That was the can-do attitude.”
As the U.S. border edged westward, there were more opportunities to move raw materials such as timber from the west to the east and finished products back in the other direction. But Bosley says there was no practical way to do it. That is, until the Erie Canal opened in New York in 1825. While it took three to four weeks to ship goods west on pack animals across Pennsylvania, it took just 10 days to send them on the Erie Canal. New York boomed. And Pennsylvania didn’t want to lose out.
“Technology maybe wasn’t quite ready yet, but they made it work because nobody wanted to be left behind,” Bosley says.
The result was the Pennsylvania Mainline of Public Works—the very formal name for a system of canals funded by the state to connect Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and points west. It was comprised of 400 miles of inland waterways—and the pivotal 36-mile Allegheny Portage Railroad.
“The surveyors came through, staked out the line where the railroad would be, and then the first work that was done was cutting a 120-foot wide swath through the forest,” Bosley says.
When the Mainline opened for business in 1834, it was like the Amazon.com of the 19th century: Suddenly, everyday people could afford to buy the things they needed and get them in a timely fashion. But these “modern” conveniences came at a cost. The most notorious instance of this was the canal reservoir outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania. One of the biggest challenges of running a canal system is keeping water levels high enough so boats can run even in dry seasons. So the Mainline system dammed South Fork Creek to create the reservoir. But in 1889, it failed—big time. When the dam broke, the flood killed 2,209 people.
“The respect for the power of nature and how man was changing the landscape—people just really didn’t think about that when they were making all these changes,” Bosley says.
But the canal system of the 1830s continues to inform river traffic today, according to Lewis Kwett, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He spends his days controlling water flow in local rivers.
“It is folly for us to believe that we can control nature,” Kwett says. “But it is certainly reasonable for humans to work with nature.”
About 20 years after it was completed, the whole Mainline system was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Today, few sections of the Mainline survive, and none are used commercially. While the canals may be gone, water is still how we move a lot of goods from place to place. Now everything from coal to farm produce ply the inland waterways through the Army Corps’ river system of locks and dams, which were built starting in the late 1800s.
“We don’t see an end to river navigation,” Kwett says. “Our roads are already crowded and a single standard barge holds as much cargo as 15 railroad cars or 60 semi-trucks.”
Kwett says leveraging the power of water might be an old idea, but it’s one that still works in the 21st century.
Photo (top): The Skew Arch Bridge is one of just a handful of relics that remain of the 400 miles of railroads and canals that once made up the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal System. Photo: Ben Peoples via Flickr