Lesson Plan

Allegheny Portage Railroad: Developing Transportation Technology

Allegheny Portage Railroad
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.1, 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10, 11-12.RH.1, 11-12.RH.2, 11-12.RH.3, 11-12.RH.4, 11-12.RH.5, 11-12.RH.6, 11-12.RH.7, 11-12.RH.8, 11-12.RH.9, 11-12.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 4 Standard 2A: Students understand how the factory system, transportation, and market revolutions shaped regional patterns of economic development. Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies.
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

How have humans developed transportation to fit their surroundings?


1. To explain how the topography of Pennsylvania led to the building of the Allegheny Portage Railroad;
2. To describe the innovative technology used to build the railroad and explain how it was applied to other projects;
3. To compare the technology and level of success of the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works with contemporary transportation systems;
4. To discuss the effects of technological change and the future of transportation;
5. To investigate their area's transportation history.


Imagine riding on horseback or hiking through the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania in the summer of 1835. A dusty road climbs through an ever narrowing ravine. You are surrounded by steep hillsides covered with towering hemlocks, many reaching over 100 feet high. A small stream, barely four feet across, tumbles down its shallow and rocky course alongside the road. Here, high in the mountains, the air is cool, despite the season, and a feeling of wilderness pervades.

As you round a bend in the road you notice the sound of heavy machinery--wheels turning, engines cranking, ropes straining. You see a cloud of dark smoke belching from an unseen smokestack somewhere on the hillside to your right. Then, through a break in the trees, you glimpse the front section of a boat slowly moving up the steep slope of the mountain! There cannot possibly be a river or canal in such a location. What is more, the boat appears to be moving up a steep grade under its own power. Clearly, an unusual event in America’s transportation history is under way.

Lesson Hook/Preview

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.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


factory system

Additional Resources

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site 
Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System. The park's web pages include information on nearby historic sites related to industrial development in southwestern Pennsylvania. Also included are sections on the history of the area, photographs, descriptions, and materials for teachers. Go to the expanded web page and click on APRR to examine sections on related transportation history, canals, the 1800s, and more.

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania 
The Railroad Museum houses one of the most significant collections of historic railroad artifacts in the world. Visit their website for a virtual tour of the museum. Go to the Links page for links to teaching resources, other railroad museums, and historical societies.

Smithsonian Institution: National Museum of American History 
Visit the Smithsonian's America on the Move website for the history of transportation in America including railroads.

Ontario and Western Railway Historical Society 
What began as the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad in 1868 later became the New York Ontario and Western Railway. Their web page features short articles with photographs on the history of this railway, as well as links to other historic railway lines. 

Library of Congress, American Railway Maps, 1828-1900
View the Library of Congress collection of Railway Maps by searching with keywords or browsing by geographical location. On the home page, scroll down to links on the "History of Railroads and Maps," "Related Resources" and "Learn More About It!"

Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record
Search the HABS/HAER database using keywords such as Allegheny Portage Railroad to discover resources such historical photographs and architectural drawings of the bridges, tunnels, and inclines related to the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

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Last updated: December 5, 2023