This park celebrates a feat of engineering in the early 1800’s; solving the issue of how to transport freight and passengers up and over the Allegheny mountains. In response to the completion of the Erie Canal, Pennsylvania had decided to build it’s own canal system to link markets from Philadelphia to Pittsburg, but the Allegheny mountains looked to be an insurmountable obstacle.
Allegheny Mountain Staircase
What the engineers came up with was a giant staircase, whereby passengers and freight from the canal boats could be off loaded on to railroad cars and then pulled up to the top of the mountain, then slowly let down to the other side where they could be loaded back onto a canal boat on the other side. Not for the faint of heart!
Pulled up the incline by stationary steam engines, and then (at least initially) pulled across the flat sections by teams of horses; boilers would overheat or blow up, and ropes would break. The ranger told us that when passengers got off at the top of the mountain to take a break and wait while the cars were transferred to the downward side; quite often a stiff drink was in order!
What to do at Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS
It really is an interesting part of our history. Be sure to give yourself at least a couple hours there. At the visitor center you can learn more about how all of this worked, and then you can take an easy 1/3 mile stroll along the boardwalk to Engine House No. 6 Exhibit Shelter where you can see examples of the machinery and a stationary engine. It is a self-guided tour – spend as much time as you like!
Be sure to visit the “Lemon House” at the top of the incline. This was the tavern that served passengers and it has been restored to how it may have looked in during the late 1830’s when the portage was in operation. From there you can walk the incline and see how steep it was.
Something we didn’t realize was that this is the site of the first railroad tunnel in the United States – over 900 feet in length. Another pretty amazing engineering feat of the time.
The “portage” didn’t last long – the technology was swiftly overtaken by the development of the railroad, making canals obsolete. But it certainly is a testament to the ingenuity that fueled westward expansion.
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.