Allegheny Portage Railroad, Cresson

#58 of 232 in Historic Sites in Pennsylvania
Must see · Historic Site · Tourist Spot
The Allegheny Portage Railroad was the first railroad constructed through the Allegheny Mountains in central Pennsylvania, United States; it operated from 1834 to 1854 as the first transportation infrastructure through the gaps of the Allegheny that connected the midwest to the eastern seaboard across the barrier range of the Allegheny Front. Authorized as part of the Main Line of Public Works legislation in 1824, it was a series of ten inclines connecting to a branch of the Pennsylvania Canal at either end, approximately 36mi long overall. It had five inclines on either side of the drainage divide running athwart the ridge line from Blair Gap through along the kinked saddle at the summit into Cresson, Pennsylvania. The Portage Railroad utilized cleverly designed wheeled barges to ride a narrow-gauge rail track with steam-powered stationary engines lifting the vehicles. Except for peak moments of severe storms, it was an all-weather, all-seasons operation. Along with the rest of the Main Works, it cut transport time from Philadelphia to the Ohio River from weeks to just 3–5 days. The roadbed of the railroad did not incline monotonically upwards, but rose in relatively long, saw-toothed stretches of slightly-sloped flat terrain suitable to animal powered towing, alternating with steep cable railway inclined planes using static steam engine powered windlasses, similar to mechanisms of modern ski lifts. It connected two canal 'divisions' of the Main Line of Public Works of the Pennsylvania Canal System, from Johnstown on the west through the relative flats to Hollidaysburg on the east, thus allowing continuous barge traffic between the Ohio and the Susquehanna rivers. Considered a technological marvel in its day, it played a critical role in opening the interior of the United States beyond the Appalachian Mountains to settlement and commerce. It included the first railroad tunnel in the United States, the Staple Bend Tunnel, and its inauguration was marked with great fanfare.
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Allegheny Portage Railroad reviews

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TripAdvisor traveler rating 4.5
103 reviews
  • Thunder rumbled throughout our visit and eventually it rained on us, but we were still able to see much of the site. Unfortunately, Covid keeps the Lemon House, the Engine House, and movie closed...  more »
  • The idea of dragging barges up a mountain, on rails, by horses and stationary steam-powered winches seems so preposterous that you really need to see it. The recreated Engine House No. 6 Shelter...  more »
  • Who knew that the railroads in PA were so important! Great history lesson for trivia buffs! Touring the Lemon House was interesting. The hike down to the Skew Arch bridge was fine but the way back up is hard (if you’re not in shape). So much to learn about how they got goods across the mountains and how it made travel faster for people as well. Knowledgeable Rangers were available and even offered to play the movie for us, even though they were getting ready to close up for the day (I’ll watch next time, I don’t like to make people stay later than necessary!). Definitely far more enjoyable than I expected.
  • All-around excellent! This is a piece of Pennsylvania history that deserves more attention than it gets. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Pennsylvania was being left out of the loop, and decided to build its own canal. To get across the Allegheny divide, they built this incredible dingus that took the canal boats over the top of the mountain on rails. The current park has an excellent visitor center, with exhibits and a well produced introductory movie. The walk down to the railroad tracks/steam engine house is lovely, and the Lemon House (the inn for canal travelers) is nicely laid out with more exhibits. The engine house has been reconstructed to appear the way it did in the 1800s. Everything is clean and well-maintained. The guides are friendly and quite knowledgeable.

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