Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site

Location: Gallitzin, Pennsylvania

Website: National Park

General Description: In the early 1800s, canals became the cheapest mode of transportation throughout the northeast and were critical to the economic growth of the western United States, including western Pennsylvania.  This economic boom was due to cheaper and more reliable transportation of pioneers heading west to Ohio,  manufactured goods from the eastern cities, and raw materials in the form of agricultural products, coal, steel, and wood being transported east.  The building of the Erie Canal in New York, the subsequent Ohio and Erie Canals in Ohio, and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Maryland threatened to leave Pennsylvania behind.  Pennsylvania also wanted to reap the benefits, however, they had one major problem: the Allegheny Mountains.  A complex system of canals had been dug in eastern Pennsylvania, but only extended to Holidaysburg at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains.  Likewise canals were dug from Pittsburgh to Johnstown on the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains.  Cargo had to loaded onto wagons to make the arduous journey over the Mountains.  With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Pennsylvania had to find a better solution.  Their solution was an ingenious system using incline planes and steam locomotives along with tunnels and viaducts.  Construction began in 1831 on the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  Using a series of incline planes, five on each side of the mountain separating Johnstown from Holidaysburg, they pulled the canal boats over the mountain, taking approximately 6-8 hours to complete.  The canal boats were constructed to be separated into two or three sections and while still fully loaded would be floated onto flatbed railcars.  On the flatter sections these railcars would be initially be pulled by mules, but after a year the mules were replaced with steam locomotives.  At each of the incline planes the railcars would be attached to a continuous loop of rope which was eventually replaced by a newly invented steel cable.  This loop ran continuously by stationary steam engines at the top of the incline.  Those cars traveling uphill would be pulled by the cable and those descending would be slowed using a water break, also in the engine house.  The Portage Railroad was completed in 1834 and for the next 20 years hauled approximately a railcar per hour over the mountain.  By 1854, the power of the steam locomotive had increased to the level that it was possible to construct a railroad that bypassed the inclines by the Pennsylvania Railroad, known as the New Portage Railroad.  This line operated for only two years before it was replaced by a better route that is still in use today. Today the National Historic Site preserves Incline 6 along with the engine house at the summit of the Portage.  In addition to the incline and engine house, the National Park Service also maintains the Lemon House, which operated a way station for passengers at the summit that served food and beverages.



1) When we arrived at the National Historic Site, we had no idea what to expect since the name Portage Railroad seem to imply both a canal and a railroad and this is exactly what you find.  At the Visitor Center they have a number of exhibits that provide scaled models and explanation of how the system operated.  There is even one of the locomotives used on the flat sections.  Finally, they have one of the best videos we have ever seen at a National Park.  The story of the Allegheny Portage Railroad is told from the perspective of an old man reminiscing about his life, which included the entire 20 year span of the Portage Railroad.  Along with scenes from his childhood, he talks about the building of the Portage Railroad and then what life was like working in a number of positions on the Railroad.  It is very well done!!


2) From the Visitor Center a nice elevated boardwalk takes visitors down to Incline 6 where they have reconstructed a short section of the track leading up to the engine house.  You can look down the remaining section of Incline 6 towards Holidaysburg on one side of the engine house and along the flat section leading towards Johnstown on the other side.

3) The original engine house was demolished in the early 1900s, so the NPS has constructed a larger enclosure to protect the original foundation of the engine house.  They have also reconstructed the parts of the steam engine, which was actually underground, and the boiler which was above ground.  In addition, they have recreated all of the gears and mechanisms, including the water break, that would have run continuously to pull up or lower down the railcars.  There are also some hand-on exhibits about the working of the steam engine and the water break.

4) The National Park has restored the Lemon House to its original condition and it is an impressive sandstone structure.  The bottom floors were a tavern for the men, a fancy sitting room for the women and families, and a common eating room that resembles a present day fast-food restaurants with tables and chairs.  For $0.25 a person could get all they could eat of a stew that was cooked continuously in the kitchen since guests had less than an hour to eat before reboarding their canal boat.

5) Hikers can walk along the cleared raillines either down the steep incline to the east (about a 7% grade) or along the flatter section heading west where they can still see the sandstone blocks used to hold the thin rails.  Initially wooden ties were not used to accommodate the mules that had to walk between the rails, however, they discovered that these stone blocks held up better through the winter and spring rains.


6) There is also a nature trail loop of about 1.5 miles that snakes through the Pennsylvania woods at the summit of the Allegheny Mountains before finishing along the flat leading back to the Lemon House.

7) About halfway down Incline 6 is the Skewed Arch Bridge, which is where the Turnpike crossed over the Portage Railroad.  It is skewed since the two routes did not cross at right angles of each other and loaded wagons had difficulty making right angle turns, therefore the bridge was constructed on a curve.  Today Old US Highway 22, which is a four lane highway that general follows the path of the Portage Railroad, splits to go around the bridge in order to preserve it.