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Setting the Stage


As the 19th century dawned, it became clear that the transportation problems facing the new United States were as enormous as its territory. Post roads ran along the Atlantic seaboard, but by the 1820s, it seemed everyone wanted to move west, beyond the coastal mountains. As these new lands were opened for settlement, the few roads penetrating the mountains became clogged with wagons and travelers on horseback and on foot. Railroads and canals would provide more efficient transport, but early railroads could not handle the steep slopes of the Allegheny Mountains. The Allegheny Portage Railroad, which consisted of a series of 10 inclined planes connected by level sections of track, provided an innovative solution to this problem. Stationary steam engines towed railroad cars up the first five inclines and lowered them down the remaining five. This railroad was part of a much larger system, the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works, built by the state of Pennsylvania to compete with the Erie Canal in New York.

Begun in 1826, the Main Line system consisted of sections of canal linked with sections of railroad. Eventually this system stretched nearly 400 miles to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad section of the Pennsylvania Main Line system began in 1831, and the railroad opened to traffic in 1834. For 20 years, the railroad hauled passengers and freight, including sectional canal boats, over the Allegheny Mountains. Eventually, advancing transportation technologies overtook the portage railroad. In 1854 the Pennsylvania Railroad, a private company, completed a route through the mountains without using inclined planes, making the Allegheny Portage obsolete. In 1857 the Pennsylvania Railroad bought the entire Main Line system from the state and began dismantling the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site preserves what little remains of this unusual transportation system.

 

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