The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad

With predecessors tracing back to 1830, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s legacy is one of the oldest in the United States, and with more than 10,000 miles of track at it’s peak, the PRR is recognized as one of the greatest business enterprises of the 20th century.

Let’s explore the history and legacy of what is perhaps one of the world’s most well-known railroads.

The Beginning of the Pennsylvania Railroad

Constructing the Pennsylvania Railraod Reliance Transportation Company via Pennsylvania Rail Roads and Canals From Philadelphia to Pittsburg

Like many railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad can be traced back to the era of canals in the early 19th century. With the Erie Canal to the north, and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to the south, the thriving Port of Philadelphia was at risk of losing business to both southern and northern competitors. To counter this, the Main Line of Public Works was commissioned in 1826. This ambitious plan called for a trans-state canal system linking Philadelphia with the budding industrial city of Pittsburgh – some 300 miles inland.

As route options were surveyed however, it became clear that this trunk route could not be practically completed as a single canal, as the mountains which stood between the two cities were simply too vast and widespread to be conquered by waterway. To add to this, there was concern among designers as to whether enough water could even be sourced to fill the amount of canal required.

The Pennsylvania Railroad hybrid route The Pennsylvania Railroad hybrid route

In response to these issues, a hybrid route consisting of both canals and railroad technology was developed. The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad was constructed from Philadelphia to the banks of the Susquehanna, where the first of two canals following the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers would begin. To negotiate the imposing barrier range of the Allegheny Mountains, a second railroad, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, was also constructed, linking the eastern and western canal systems. Traveling 36 miles between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown, the line transported barges over almost 1400 feet in elevation with the use of steam powered stationary engines (and later steam locomotives). The railroad featured 10 inclined planes and a single 900 foot tunnel. Once west of Johnstown, the route joined the Western Division canals for the final leg to Pittsburgh.

Despite its success at linking the two major city regions, the journey over the system was considered cumbersome and problematic, with both passengers and cargo having to change transportation modes multiple times. In the harsh mountain winters, another serious flaw was encountered, as the canals would frequently freeze. It was clear that an alternative was needed.

Building the Pennsylvania Railroad

The early years of the Pennsylvania Railroad The early years of the Pennsylvania Railroad

Due to the state of Pennsylvania’s fairly late adoption of canal technology, the route was close to being technologically obsolete by the time it was completed in 1834. Other regions were already developing independent railroad systems, and just a few miles to the south, the Baltimore and Ohio already had 66 miles of track in operation. Concerned that Philadelphia would lose traffic on the canals to the Baltimore and Ohio, the Pennsylvania State Legislature formed a new railroad company known simply as the Pennsylvania Railroad. Organization was finalized in 1846, and construction of a new cross-state route commenced the following year.

Veteran railroad engineer J. Edgar Thompson was brought onboard, chosen for his experience surveying and constructing the Georgia Railroad, which opened in 1834. While not utilizing exactly the same right of way as the Main Line of Public Works, his routing followed fairly closely to that of the canal system, navigating the banks of the Susquehanna and Juniata before negotiating the mountains through a series of curves and tunnels which allowed the railroad to maintain a maximum gradient of less than 2%. Working from both ends, the original chartered route was completed in 1852, and with the granting of trackage rights over the Philadelphia and Columbia in 1853, trains could finally make their way across the entire state – shortening the journey time from 4 days to just 13 hours!

Segments of the Main Line of Public Works were purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857, including the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which had been expanding locally as an independent railroad. Being surplus to the PRR’s needs, the Portage was largely abandoned, and by 1866 all remaining canal operations were shuttered.

Expansion and Growth of the Pennsylvania Railroad

Steam locomotives on the Pennsylvania Railroad Steam locomotives on the Pennsylvania Railroad

The PRR expanded aggressively throughout the second half of the 19th century. From Harrisburg, the railroad purchased the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mountjoy and Lancaster Railroad for a more direct route to Philadelphia, while expansion into the midwest became the primary focus. Through mergers and acquisitions of lines which were struggling to fulfill their charters independently – most notably the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago and the

By the turn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Railroad was operating in 12 states across the east and midwest, and had become one of the most respected and powerful corporations in American history.

The First High Speed Rail Line

Construction plans for the expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad Expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad

Thanks to its financial success, the Pennsylvania Railroad was able to innovate at a rate that other railroads could only dream of. In the last decades of the 19th century, through acquisition of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, and Camden and Amboy Railroad (one of the first 10 railroads in the country) among others, the PRR was able to create the first single mainline between Washington DC and New York City. Although having run services on this route since 1885, the railroad in actuality only delivered passengers as far as Jersey City, where they would have to transfer to another mode of transportation to cross the Hudson into Manhattan. This changed in 1910 with the opening of the railroad’s palatial Beaux Arts Pennsylvania Station in midtown, linked to the existing mainline by way of two new tunnels under the Hudson River, creating the first and only direct rail link from midtown Manhattan to Washington DC.

In Philadelphia, advancements of a different type were concurrently taking place. In 1905 the Pennsylvania embarked on the overhead electrification of its suburban commuter lines, negating the need for more labor-intensive steam locomotives on short distance runs, while also providing a faster and smoother service. This technology was slowly expanded to mainline use, reaching Wilmington, Delaware by 1928, Trenton, New Jersey by 1930, and between New York and New Brunswick, New Jersey, by 1933. With the aid of a Public Works Administration loan, electrification of the entire route was completed by 1935.

Train on the Pennsylvania Railroad Passengers on the Pennsylvania Railroad

Electrification, coupled with the broad curves and long straightaways on the route, allowed the PRR to introduce faster service than ever before, with new locomotives, known as GG1s, reaching speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. The GG1 was both a technological and artistic masterpiece. Constructed with a stylish Art Deco appearance by famed designer Raymond Loewy, the type became the poster child for modern rail technology, operating such prestigious services as the Broadway Limited (in electrified territory) and the Congressional.

Electrification continued beyond the New York to Washington route on both freight and passenger lines in the mid-Atlantic region, however despite grander plans, wires never made it west of Harrisburg.

The Decline and Reorganization of the Pennsylvania Railroad

1950s Pennsylvania Railroad 1950s Pennsylvania Railroad

Throughout the early to mid 20th century, the PRR continued to grow and prosper. However as with most railroads, this would change in the 1950s with the advent of the Interstate Highway System, the increasing availability of affordable air travel, and the persistence of an archaic and crippling tax system. In many ways however, the PRR was also a victim of its own prior success. While other railroads merged and reorganized, PRR management insisted on soldiering on, despite decreasing profits and struggling ridership.

In 1968, on the verge of bankruptcy, the PRR sold the air rights to their flagship Pennsylvania Station in New York, allowing the grand structure to be demolished, and later in the same year entered into a merger agreement with the New York Central, once considered their primary rival, forming the ill-fated Penn Central Railroad.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Today

Modern-day Pennsylvania Railroad Modern-day Pennsylvania Railroad

Today the Pennsylvania’s remaining system is operated primarily by Norfolk Southern, while the electrified passenger lines are under Amtrak and local transit authority ownership. Despite this, the railroad retains a strong legacy. The New York to Washington route (along with the Harrisburg cutoff) is now the southernmost segment of the Northeast Corridor – America’s only high speed electrified passenger rail line. And while the GG1s are long gone, new passenger technology continues to be developed, capable of taking full advantage of the infrastructure in ways that were never possible during the Pennsy era. Additionally, the greater Pennsylvania system continues to play a major roll in regional, national, and even international trade, forming the bulk of Norfolk Southern’s mainline freight network from the east coast to the midwest.

Perhaps the most iconic legacy of the Pennsy however is the stretch of railroad between Altoona and Cresson on the eastern slope of the Allegheny Barrier Range. It was here that J. Edgar Thompson put the grandeur and innovation of the Pennsylvania Railroad on full display, and it is here that the railroad’s most iconic landmark still lies; at Horseshoe Curve. At 2,375 feet in length, the four track mainline (now three track) curves gracefully around the contours of the mountains to achieve a change in elevation from 1600 to 1640 feet without more than a 1.45% gradient. It is considered to be the most pivotal section of track in the railroad’s pursuit of cutting travel time over the mountains, and it remains an indispensable component in transporting freight and passengers across Pennsylvania from the midwest to the east coast.

Modeling the Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Railroad model train Pennsylvania Railroad model train freight car

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