September 1st 1849 marks a day of significant history in the early years of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1838 State and Philadelphia officials acknowledged the failure of the Mainline of Public Works and the need for a privately owned all rail route to preserve Philadelphia’s western trade. As a result surveyor, Charles L. Schlatter was sent to the wilds of western Pennsylvania to survey various routes for such a potential venture. Returning with three options it was suggested that the route following the Juniata and Conemaugh Rivers be pursued and by 1845 the legislature was asked to charter such a railroad.
Much to the dislike of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad who was attempting to build a line into Pittsburgh, an act was passed on April 13th, 1846 incorporating the Pennsylvania Railroad. First chief engineerJ. Edgar Thompson began in early 1847 letting contracts to begin construction of the first 20 miles west of Harrisburg and 15 miles east of Pittsburgh, meeting requirements specified in the charter making the B&O’s own charter to build to Cumberland null and void. By the end of 1848 more contracts for the grading of roadbed would total 117 miles of right way west from Harrisburg to Logans Narrows. The anticipated completion date of the Harrisburg-Lewistown segment was slated for the same time, however due to a number of problems constructing the Susquehanna River bridge, the difficulty of obtaining rails fast enough and the overall lack of labor the opening would be delayed for some time.
The first segment of the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed and open for service providing connection with the Canal and Turnpike system on September 1st 1849. Though one of the easier segments of the original PRR construction this important date begins a chapter in rail transportation history that would forever change the landscape of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Subsequent completion of the mainline in its entirety was celebrated on December 10th, 1852 with the operation of the first through train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The continual evolution of the PRR’s route, technology and engineering would turn the State’s first dedicated east west rail line into a conduit of industry and commerce that would be referred to as the Broadway, a four track mainline that hauled countless freight and passenger trains for many years, part of a corporation that employed thousands of people through out the state. The very same route that visionaries like C.L. Schlatter and J. Edgar Thompson laid out and successor William H. Brown improved upon survives today as a vital transportation link in the Norfolk Southern rail network.
Though for many of Labor Day marks the end of summer, we should all take a moment to acknowledge the countless men and woman that work to keep our rail networks viable, maintaining a transportation system that has been vital to American life for over 200 years. Have a safe and happy Labor Day Weekend!