Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad

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The Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad, or Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, was the easternmost section of the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works. It consisted of 82 miles of rail from Vine and Broad Streets in Philadelphia, to the canal basin Columbia where the Eastern Division canal began.

Design and Construction

The Main Line project was authorized in 1828. The easternmost section of it was to be a railroad, starting in Philadelphia. The construction of the railroad was begun in February 1829.[1] The line had two inclined planes (similar to the Allegheny Portage Railroad's inclined planes). The Belmont Plane was at the western bank of the Schuylkill River, was 2,805 feet long and had a lift of 187 feet. The second plane was in Columbia on the west end of the line, was 1800 feet long with a lift of 90 feet, and would lower and raise cars to and from the canal basin.[2] Instead of wooden rails topped by iron bands, a common design on railroads of the time (including the Allegheny Portage Railroad to the west), the Columbia and Philadelphia was built using both strap-iron rails and rolled-edge iron rails.[1] These were mounted on the same kind of sandstone sleeper stones used by the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

The first twenty miles of track from Philadelphia opened in September 1832. When the first rail line fully opened on April 15, 1834 by Governor George Wolf, its 82 miles of track traveled up 600 feet from the eastward end to the westward end. Six months later, a second rail was finished and opened. It was initially designed to be horse-drawn for its entire length, as there were no steam locomotives powerful enough to pull the distance and grade. However, by the time it opened, steam locomotives had progressed to where the first trip across the line was made by an English-built locomotive called the "Black Hawk", taking two days.[2] Still, privately-own horse-drawn carts were a common sight on the railroad for years. It was considered a public, toll thoroughfare, and this led to some confusion between steam locomotive-powered trains run by the railroad, and horse-drawn cars run by private citizens. The railroad attempted to put down rules on conduct, and to regulate when private drivers could run. Finally, horses were outlawed on the line on April 1, 1844, and the state took over control of driving all cars.

Overtaken and Consumed

The Columbia and Philadelphia had drawbacks. It was built at the dawn of steam locomotive ability, and so was built to be as gentle as possible. As the years passed, these were viewed as shortcomings. The line attempted to correct these: in 1840, it built a new line to go around the inclined plane at the Columbia end, and in 1850 it did the same for the Belmont plane. However, even with its many curves and slowdowns, the railroad was profitable. a tremendous volume of goods was transported to and from Columbia and Philadelphia each year. Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining the entire Main Line system was too great. Once the Pennsylvania Railroad completed its track across Pennsylvania in 1854, the state began looking to sell the Main Line.

The Columbia and Philadelphia railroad didn't meet the same fate as much of the rest of the Main Line, however. It was a useful line, and the Pennsylvania Railroad continued to operate it. It modernized and straightened the line to run its newer locomotives on it, and integrated it into its New York-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Chicago corridor.[1] The Philadelphia-Paoli 20 mile stretch (the first section to open) was electrified in 1914. By 1938, the entire original length was electrified, and further length out to Harrisburg. The line is now owned and operated by Amtrak for commuter service.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Historical Markers: Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad
  2. 2.0 2.1 William H. Shank, P.E. (2001) The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals ISBN 0933788371