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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Impressions of the Portage Railroad

[The United States] now numbers among its many wonderful artificial lines of communication, a mountain railway, which, in boldness of design, and difficulty of execution, I can compare to no modern work I have ever seen, excepting perhaps the passes of Simplon, and Mount Cenis, in Sardinia; but even these remarkable passes, viewed as engineering works, did not strike me as being more wonderful than the Allegheny Railway in the United States.

--David Stevenson, 1838

Occasionally the rails are laid upon the extreme verge of the giddy precipice and looking down from the carriage window, the traveller gazes sheer down without a stone or scrap of fence between into the mountain depths below. The journey is very carefully made however, only two carriages travelling together and while proper precautions are taken, it is not to be dreaded for its dangers.

--Charles Dickens, 1843

The trip of a boat over the mountain is now no novel sight.... Since this road was constructed such improvements have been made in the construction of locomotives, that a project has been suggested for relocating the whole road.

--Sherman Day, 1843

At this place the western division of the Pennsylvania Canal commences, and the miserable Portage Railroad, with its short splintery rails and curvatures, its stationary steam engines and abominable inclined planes, terminates. The traveller, who has crossed the mountain over it, will not regret to leave it, but will thank the stars that a better road will soon supersede it.

--Eli Bowen, 1853

Questions for Reading 3

1. How did opinions about the portage railroad change from the 1830s to the 1850s? Why do you think the change occurred?

2. Despite the improvements made on the portage railroad, its passenger traffic declined greatly after the 1840s. What may have accounted for that decline?

3. Based on the descriptions you have read, would you have wanted to travel on the portage railroad? Why or why not?

Reading 3 was excerpted from Anna Coxe Toogood, "Historic Resource Study for Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site," National Park Service, 1973.

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