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Reading 1: Riding on the Inclined Plane
*Please refer to Drawing 1 to follow Philip Nicklin's
trip on the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Packet Juniata, near Lewistown, August 21, 1835.

Yesterday at Johnstown we soon despatched the ceremony of a good breakfast, and at 6 a.m. were in motion on the first level, as it is called, of four miles in length, leading to the foot of the first inclined plane. The level has an ascent of 101 feet, and we passed over it in horse-drawn cars with the speed of six miles an hour. This is a very interesting part of the route, not only on account of the wildness and beauty of the scenery, but also of the excitement mingled with vague apprehension, which take possession of every body in approaching the great wonder of the internal improvements of Pennsylvania.

In six hours the cars and passengers were to be raised 1,172 feet of perpendicular height, and to be lowered 1,400 feet of perpendicular descent, by complicated, powerful and frangible [breakable] machinery, and were to pass a mountain, to overcome which, with a similar weight, three years ago, would have required the space of three days. The idea of rising so rapidly in the world, particularly by steam or a rope, is very agitating to the simple minds of those who have always walked in humble paths.

As soon as we arrived at the foot of Plane No. 1, the horses were unhitched and the cars were fastened to the rope.... The stationary steam engine at the head of the plane was started and the cars moved majestically up the steep and long acclivity in the space of four minutes....

The cars were now attached to horses and drawn through a magnificent tunnel 900 feet long.... Now the train of cars were attached to a steam tug to pass a level of 14 miles in length. This lengthy level is one of the most interesting portions of the Portage Railroad, from the beauty of its location and the ingenuity of its construction. It ascends almost imperceptibly through its whole course...and passes through some of the wildest scenery in the state.... The valley of the little Conemaugh river is passed on a viaduct of the most beautiful construction. It is one arch, a perfect semicircle with a diameter of 80 feet....

The 14 miles of this second level are passed in one hour, and the train arrives at the foot of the second plane.... The third level is passed by means of horses. The third plane has a length of 1,480 feet, and a perpendicular height of 130 [feet]. The fourth level is passed by means of horses. The fourth plane has a length of 2,196 feet, and a perpendicular height of 188 [feet]. The fifth level is three miles long, rises 26 feet and is passed by means of horses. The fifth plane brings you to the top of the mountain, 2,397 feet above the level of the ocean, 1,399 feet above Hollidaysburg, and 1,172 feet above Johnstown.

At this elevation in the midst of summer, you breathe an air like that of spring.... Three short hours have brought you from the torrid plain, to a refreshing and invigorating climate. The ascending apprehension has left you, but it is succeeded by the fear of the steep descent which lies before you; and as the car rolls along this giddy height, the thought trembles in your mind, that it may slip over the head of the first descending plane, rush down the frightful steep, and be dashed into a thousand pieces at its foot.

The length of the road on the summit of the mountain is one mile and five-eighths, and about the middle of it stands a spacious and handsome stone tavern. The descent on the eastern side of the mountain is much more fearful than the ascent on the western, for the planes are much longer and steeper, of which you are made aware by the increased thickness of the ropes; and you look down instead of up.

There are also five planes on the eastern side of the mountain, and five slightly descending levels, the last of which is nearly four miles long and leads to the basin at Hollidaysburg; this is travelled by the cars without steam or horse, merely by the force of gravity. In descending the mountain you meet several fine prospects and arrive at Hollidaysburg between twelve and one o’clock.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How much time did it take to travel from Johnstown to Hollidaysburg on the portage railroad? How did that compare with other modes of transportation?

2. In what ways did the portage railroad differ from railroads of today?

3. In your own words, describe how the railroad cars were hauled over the mountain.

4. How did Philip Nicklin feel about traveling on this railroad? How would you have felt about traveling on this route?

5. From Nicklin’s description of the mechanics of the railroad, what problems do you think might have plagued its operation?

Reading 1 was excerpted from Philip Nicklin, A Pleasant Peregrination through the Prettiest Parts of Pennsylvania, Performed by Peregrine Prolix (Philadelphia: Grigg and Elliot, 1836).


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