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In the steep heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains of south central Pennsylvania is an obscure historical treasure that most people have never heard about and probably never will. We stumbled upon it quite by accident while exploring and geocaching along the Path of the Flood Trail. In these hills, 30 years before the Civil War, America’s first railroad tunnel was built. It was drilled, blasted and carved through 900 feet of solid rock – the length of three football fields.
From 1826 to 1833, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania built a canal system linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. To get over the Allegheny Mountains in the center of the route, they built a railroad. Canal boats were taken out of the water, mounted on flatbed cars, dragged over the mountains via a series of inclines by mules or locomotives, then put back in the water to finish the journey. It was a giant two way 40 mile portage between Hollidaysburg in the east and Johnstown in the west. The 395 mile canal was called the Pennsylvania Main Line. The railroad was called the Allegheny Portage Railroad. One of the many technical challenges they faced was to build a tunnel through a mountain of bedrock. When it was completed, the Staple Bend Tunnel was the final link in the canal and the first railroad tunnel in America.
The northeastern end of the Staple Bend Tunnel near Johnstown, PA. The two hikers silhouetted in the southwestern portal add some interesting perspective. Believe it or not, they are 1,000 feet away. And even though you can see both ends, the middle half of the tunnel is pitch black inside when moving through it. Bring a flashlight.
Running from northeast to southwest, construction started in November 1831 and was completed in June 1833 at a cost of $38,000. To build it, workers had to blast through 900 feet of bedrock and haul away 15,000 cubic yards of debris. It was drilled and blasted from both ends at the combined rate of 36 inches a day. The final rock face in the center of the tunnel was blown in December 1832 and the tunnel became one. The two halves matched up perfectly. Abandoned in 1854, it served as a carriage route and lover’s lane until the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which destroyed the routes leading to it. After over a century of neglect and disrepair, it was restored to its present condition in 2001 by the National Park Service.
The southwest portal. Note the rather large and elaborate cornice. The other end had one too, but it was stripped away by looters. In the original design documents, they are described as “Roman revival” architecture with “Doric columns”. Half the money spent on the tunnel was for these two entryways, however, there was a method to the madness. They were designed to keep rocks and debris from falling off the mountain and on to the tracks. The names and initials of several of the original stone masons are still visible.
The canal and the portage railroad were technical, engineering and logistical triumphs. The transit time between Philly and the Three Rivers went from four weeks in a Conestoga wagon to a four day canal boat ride. One of those days was spent on the portage railroad. Unfortunately, it was a financial disaster and lost money every year it was in operation. It simply didn’t generate the volume of traffic needed. Much of it was siphoned off by the highly successful (and profitable) Erie Canal in New York, which didn’t have to contend with bedrock mountains. The Main Line Canal became a black hole for the state’s money and by the time it went under, they had thrown $20 million into it. Meanwhile, railroad technology was growing by leaps and bounds and entrepreneurship was booming. In 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad, a publicly traded company chartered in 1846, completed a continuous rail line between the two cities. To negotiate the mountains, they built the world famous Horseshoe Curve. A four day canal boat ride was now done on a train in 13 hours. The Main Line was finished. In 1857, the railroad bought it for $5 million and dismantled it.
The trailhead of the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail. You can bike or hike to the tunnel along the flat two mile long crushed limestone trail. Dogs are allowed but leashes are required. The GPS coordinates for the trail head are N40.376243° W78.835094°.
The decayed ruins of the Allegheny Portage Railroad became a National Historic Site in 1992. The National Park Service has done an incredible job of salvaging, excavating and reconstructing it to be enjoyed by all. Parts of the Pennsylvania canal system have been preserved by local governments or private organizations. The best source of information on restored canals is the Pennsylvania Canal Society.
Every year on Halloween weekend, there are ghost tours and demonstrations from the tunnel building days. Click these links for more information on the Staple Bend Tunnel and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. And while you’re in the area, check out the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
This entire area of south central Pennsylvania is filled with fascinating places and events that most people have never heard of. If you like to explore off the beaten path, this is a great place to do it.
Cheers … Boris and Natasha