Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Guest Post by Ray: Getting the Pass at the Portage Railroad

Our good buddy Ray Beimel from St. Marys, Pennsylvania, sends today's blog post. Enjoy!

Getting the Pass at the Portage Railroad
There are a few perks to turning 62. One is the Senior Lifetime Pass from the National Park Service and other Federal agencies. For a onetime fee of $10 you get free admission to all sites that charge a fee. The nearest place I could get one was at the Marienville Ranger Station in Allegheny National Forest. But if I was going to travel to get one, I wanted to go to a place worth the drive. Thus I walked into the Visitor Center at Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic and told the ranger I was here for my pass. He reached under the counter, brought out a binder, and blank card. He asked to see my driver’s license, took my money, had me sign the book and the card and there I was. I had my lifetime pass.

Now it was time to explore the Portage Railroad. The railroad provided the link between the Juniata River and the Conemaugh River over the Allegheny Mountains that separate the two watersheds. Canal boats could travel from Harrisburg to Hollidaysburg. Then the railroad took the boats and the freight up 5 inclined planes with flat stretches in between to the summit at Cresson. From there it went down 5 more inclined planes with flat stretches in between. The western end of the railroad was Johnstown where the boats went back into the canal as far as Freeport, upstream from Pittsburgh on the Allegheny River. It would take 6 hours to transit the 36 miles over the mountains. It opened in 1834 and only operated for 23 years. Advances in railroad and civil engineering made it obsolete so very quickly.

I had a more than passing interest in the Portage Railroad because this was the path that my great great grandfather Hoffman would have followed on his way to settle in St. Marys. I only wish that he or one of the other many St. Marys families that took this route would have left a description of their travels on this unusual and short lived system of defeating the mountains.

The Visitor Center has a model of one the primitive locomotives that pulled the cars between the inclines. Most lawn tractors have more power than this thing. In the early days, horses were used. There are also maps and other exhibits that explain the workings of transportation marvel. And a small bookstore with a lot of books with local interest.

Most of the facilities at the site are at the summit near Cresson. There is a restored engine house where a stationary steam engine pulled cars up the incline and lowered them down safely. There is a short section of track built the way it would have been in the 1830s. The engine house has exhibits that explain the operation of the Portage Railroad. New York connected Buffalo with New York City using the Erie Canal, an all water route. Pennsylvania connected Philadelphia with Pittsburgh using a canal and this railroad. The Erie Canal was much more successful and New York City passed Philadelphia to become the biggest city in the country.
Boiler House
Since this was the high point of the railroad, there was an inn and tavern at the Lemon House. This has been nicely restored. The restaurant is set up just like it is ready for people to sit down to eat. The tables are complete with fake food. The bar looks ready to serve a thirsty traveler.
Fake Food
Lemon House Bar
There is another unit of the Historic Site that is some distance from the summit. This is the Staple Bend Tunnel, the first railroad tunnel built in the United States. From the parking area in Mineral Point it is a two mile walk to the east portal. You hike right on the original right of way of the Portage Railroad. In some places, the original stone blocks that served as ties to hold the rails are still in place. These did not work well and when later railroads were built, they used wooden crossties just like railroads do today.
Stone Ties
The tunnel is in good shape, drier than most. This is the west portal where the fancy stonework is intact. That stone was removed from the east portal. As you hike to the tunnel, you are really close to the Pennsylvania Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) mainline. The early surveyors chose a route that really couldn’t be improved upon later. This valley is also the path of the Johnstown flood. There is a lot of interesting history in this area.
Staple Bend Tunnel
The path is as well built as any rail trail I have been on and yet this sign was posted. Of course, no one was getting off their bikes. If you look at the far left you can see the rails of the mainline.

Since I was in the vicinity and had a Pass, I stopped at the Johnstown Flood National Historic Site. The Visitor Center has exhibits like the one below and shows a movie about the flood that makes you want to go piss on Henry Clay Frick’s grave. Today the rich guys (or their insurance companies) who owned the dam would have taken a big hit for the lives lost and property damaged. But the courts of the time believed big businessmen could do no wrong. The tale of the deaths in the villages along the way and especially in Johnstown is heartbreaking. If you are not moved to tears you have no heart at all. The dam is still there except for the big hole in the middle where it gave way. Later, a railroad line was built through the hole.

Of course, there is a lot more to tell about the Portage Railroad and the Johnstown Flood than I can put here. If any of my readers are over 62, I strongly recommend getting the Senior Lifetime Pass. And if you are in the Johnstown/Cresson area, check out the National Park Service sites. There are hiking trail that follow the inclines and another called The Path of the Flood that follows, obviously, the path of the flood. The 2 mile walk up to Staple Bend tunnels goes through pleasant woods and if you are lucky, a train or two will pass on the nearby mainline. There are picnic tables at the tunnel. The tunnel entrances are bricked but the major part of the tunnel is not and with a good flashlight you can see the work of the tunnel builders. The tunnel is short enough that lights aren’t necessary and it is straight so you can see through to the other side.
Johnstown Dam

If you go into Johnstown proper there is another museum about the flood. And if you want to get a real feel for the flood tragedy go to Evergreen Cemetery to see the graves of the unknown victims.

The next story will be Coke Ovens and Ghost Towns, about some place I explores in the Altoona area.

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