Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works

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The Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works, variously known as the Pennsylvania Canal, the Main Line Canal, and the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, was a system of canals and railroads built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide the transportation of goods across the state. Under increasing pressure from New York's Erie Canal and Maryland's National Road and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, there was concern that Pennsylvania would soon lose its place as a dominant region of trade. In addition, the city of Pittsburgh was growing, and wanted a way to export goods. Once complete, the system drastically reduced the amount of time to cross the state, helping to colonize western Pennsylvania. However, the system rarely showed a profit. As the Pennsylvania Railroad grew in size, it began to pass the Main Line as a transportation system. Finally, the Commonwealth sold off the entire network to private interests. While this was the end of the system as a whole, several of the canals continued to be used into the twentieth century.

A Need for a Western Route

The first suggestion for a canal across Pennsylvania was in 1760, when a proposal was made for a Juniata-Allegheny passage. This idea languished for thirty years, until Daniel McClay surveyed the area from modern Johnstown to Poplar Run on the Juniata River. The following year, a committee in the state legislature recommended that the Juniata, Little Conemaugh and Kiskiminitas rivers be made navigable and a portage road be built over the Allegheny Mountains.[1] At the time, this idea was not taken seriously.

However, in the years following, New York began construction on the Erie Canal. When, in 1823, the Erie Canal began to provide service, Pennsylvanians took notice. When a Pennsylvania delegation was unable to obtain federal funding at a national canal convention, the state legislature passed a series of three bills on the adoption of a canal system. The final one, passed on February 25, 1826, authorized construction to begin on the canal.[2] The design consisted of several canal divisions stretching from river to river, along with two railroads. The full length of the system was completed in 1834, and the Main Line was operational. The weeks it used to take to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was reduced to four and a half days (when steam locomotives replaced the horses pulling rail cars, the time was reduced to three and a half days).[3] The entire project cost an estimated $10 million.[3]

Divisions of the System

There were five sections to the Main Line system. In addition, there were five further canal divisions owned and operated by the state, but were not part of the Main Line, and were not part of the deal with the Pennsylvania Railroad (and so are not covered here). However, they are the Beaver Erie Division, the Delaware Division, the North Branch Division, the Susquehanna Division, and the West Branch Division.

Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad

Construction of the Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad began in February 1829. When it opened in September 1832, it stretched 82 miles from Vine and Broad Streets in Philadelphia to the canal basin in Columbia.[2] When it opened, it was considered a public thoroughfare (although it collected tolls). And so, it actually had a hybrid of horse and steam locomotive power - the state operated steam locomotives, but privately-owned horses would also pull cars. It was not until 1844 that horses were disallowed on the railroad.[4]

Eastern Division

The Eastern Division was originally intended to connect with the Union Canal, and stretch north along the Susquehanna River to the Juniata River. However, in 1828 the state authorized the canal to stretch 19 miles further east to Columbia. The full length of the canal was 43 miles from Columbia to Duncan's Island on the Juniata River, with 14 locks along the way.[2] The division began carrying canal boats in 1833.

Juniata Division

Two locks allowed boats coming from the Eastern Division to cross Duncan's Island and reach the Juniata Division. This stretch was authorized in 1827 for 40 miles. However, additional length was authorized, eventually stretching it to Hollidaysburg with a total length of 127 miles and 86 locks.[2] Large reservoirs were built at Hollidaysburg to feed the canal. The canal was opened in 1832; however, it was found that several of the locks and aqueducts between Huntingdon and Hollidaysburg needed to rebuilt, and it reopened in 1833.

Allegheny Portage Railroad

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was something of the afterthought of the system. The original proposal to connect the canals on either side of the Allegheny Mountains was a four-mile tunnel. However, this very quickly was decided to be completely impractical. Finally, they decided to construct a Portage Railroad, and this concept was approved in 1831.[2] The first track was laid in 1834, with the second track to allow traffic in both directions was completed in 1835. The entire railroad stretched 37 miles. It was originally powered by horses on the level planes, and steam engines pulled cars up and down the inclined planes.

Western Division

Work on the Western Division started in 1827, beginning with an aqueduct across the Allegheny River to allow the canal to enter downtown Pittsburgh. The citizens of Pittsburgh refused the original design which had the canal on the other side of the river. The canal stretched from there for 105 miles to Johnstown, with a total of 68 locks.[2] A large dam was constructed at Johnstown to create a reservoir to feed the canal. Traffic began to move on the western part of the canal in 1830, and the canal was fully open in 1831.

End and Evolution

While never terribly profitable (and often losing money), the Main Line system gave Pennsylvania its first fast transportation system, helping unify the state. However, its future was foretold almost as soon as it was completed. The cost of maintaining the Portage Railroad was high, and the volume of goods could not complete with the Erie Canal: in 1844, the Erie Canal moved more than 350,000 tons of goods, while the Pennsylvania Main Line moved 75,000.[5] The Pennsylvania Railroad, which received its charter in 1846, was both the future of transport for Pennsylvania, and the end of the road for the Main Line. In 1854, the Horseshoe Curve was completed near Altoona, completing the rail line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With powerful locomotives able to cross the state directly, goods and passengers began to migrate in large numbers. The people of Pennsylvania began to complain to their legislature about maintaining the Main Line. As a result, the state government sought buyers for the system in 1855, and sold the entire Main Line system to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857 for $7.5 million.[3] The Pennsylvania Railroad immediately began cannibalizing the Allegheny Portage Railroad (both new and old); within a year it had stripped the rails for its own use. It continued to use stretches of the canal system for freight up until 1901. The Columbia-Philadelphia section fared the best; the Pennsylvania Railroad incorporated it into its own network, and sections of it are still in use today.


  1. Historic Structure Report: Staple Bend Tunnel, Allegheny Portage Railroad, National Historic Site
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 William H. Shank, P.E. (2001) The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals ISBN 0933788371
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Historical Markers: Pennsylvania Canal
  4. Historical Markers: Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad
  5. Emory Richard Johnston (1922) History of Domestic and Foreign Commerce of the United States ISBN 0527464201

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