The railroad never stops, nor does the industry it serves. In the shadow of the Coatesville bridge spanning the west branch of the Brandywine River the former Lukens steel mill hums with activity around the clock providing jobs for people in the surrounding communities. As we enjoy the company of family during the holidays, men and women leave home to work in the plant day and night, producing specialized steel to build America's bridges, buildings and infrastructure. For some, working through the holidays seems unthinkable, to the folks in the steel or transportation industry its business as usual. Whether you are home with loved ones or on the job, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas !
Photographs & History
As the main line tour progresses I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my blog posts during my seemingly endless research on the physical plant of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. In the process of producing this tour I have been ignoring a large part of the project, the towns the railroad traveled through. These places large and small developed around natural resources and manufacturing, much of which revolved around iron and steel production. The landscape of Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West VA first began expanding because of natural and man-made waterways, which provided industry with a means of transportation to expand their markets. Though a major advancement, canals and rivers were subject to seasonal changes shutting down shipping with the winter freeze and summer droughts. It quickly became evident that a better mode of transportation was needed and the railroad was the answer. Politicians, lobbyists and industrial magnates fought for access to prime locations, rail lines were chartered, built and continually improved through the late 19th Century. As a result towns along the railroad boomed, people were no longer in isolated communities but part of an industrial chain that drove the American economy. With the new ability to move large quantities of raw material and finished product across the country the steel industry expanded and so did the need for labor. Immigrants came by the thousands to places scattered across the region to work the mills, mines and for the railroads. The ethnic diversity was reflected in the various churches, neighborhoods and shops that brought the familiar comforts of the old country to this new place of work. Throughout the years there have been high times and lows in many of these towns, rocked by labor disputes, natural disasters and the eventual decline of the American steel industry.
Today many of these places serve as a monument to industry and a way of life that has disappeared. The villages, company towns and entire sections of cities often look onto the mill, celebrating the pride and prosperity these now abandoned places once provided for many hard working families. I have found myself completely entranced by places like Johnstown and Braddock, places that are a fraction of their former self, wondering what it was like when these places were in their prime. In residential areas there is little uniformity from house to house with the exceptions of clusters of company housing yet all of these places look oddly the same. Frame houses on hill sides, all slightly modified over the years or just plain neglected, empty streets and brown fields, virtually deserted town squares flanked with grand commercial buildings constructed of stone and terracotta, town by town the theme repeats.
Like much of my work, this imagery is an observation, part of connecting the dots to understand a particular place or landscape. To many its a bleak and depressing place, I am often asked why bother visiting let alone taking pictures, some locals even get mad that an outsider would objectify their struggling community. To me the typical mill town is a comforting and familiar place, one of repetition and rhythm. You can find something different in every visit, grand and ornate homes in a row of company buildings, five story apartment houses in a town that doesn’t even rate a gas station, and the rail line that once fed this industrial giant snaking along from town to town. This is where the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad once travelled, the towns it built, nurtured and its predecessors served until the industry dried up. The railroad still thrives but like many places, the trains don’t stop here anymore. The mill town is a place of beauty in its own right, and I am happy to have experienced every one of them and look forward to sharing a different viewpoint of the built landscape that came as result of the railroads and industry. Over the coming months you can expect images celebrating these places as work continues on understanding the late Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travelled. Enjoy!
The town of Wilmerding Pennsylvania was a significant place in the history of railroads, not only for its trackside affiliation with the PRR, but because of a local manufacturer, The Westinghouse Air Brake Company. In 1890 George Westinghouse opened a plant in Wilmerding, 13 miles east of the City of Pittsburgh to build one of the primary devices that lead to the rapid growth and speed of the modern railroad, the air brake. Peaking at aprx. 3000 employees, Westinghouse was a forward thinking employer, the first to offer 9 hour work days, 55 hour work weeks, affordable housing for employees that diverged from the typical dismal "company towns" typical through out PA, and cultural activities for employees and their families. Further East the PRR had a sprawling yard complex know as Pitcairn Yard. The facility, originally built in the late 1880's, served as a classification facility for Westbound Pittsburgh Division traffic and Eastbound Panhandle Division Freight. Once the largest facility on the Pittsburgh Division, having multiple roundhouses, car shops and two hump yards, Pitcairn lost its status as in the 1950's with the construction of the Samuel Rea Car Shops in Hollidaysburg and the modernization of Conway Yard, west of Pittsburgh.
One last and final significant note on the Turtle Creek valley was the divergence of the Port Perry Branch from the Mainline. The Port Perry Branch was part of a traffic bypass for the PRR, joining the Monongahela Branch in Duquesne to route traffic around the congested Mainline and Station Terminal Complex of the Steel City. Traffic from the Mainline could take the Port Perry to the Mon, connect with the Panhandle Main, or back to the Fort Wayne Mainline West via the Ohio River Connecting Bridge. In addition, the Perry also provided connection with the Mon Valley Line south to the various coal mines, coke facilities, and mills along the Monongahela River, and ultimately connected to the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie and infamous coal carrier Monongahela Railroad in West Brownsville Pennsylvania.
Part 6: Cambria City and the Western Suburbs: Leaving Johnstown proper, the Mainline of the PRR crosses another site associated with the history of the Great Flood of 1889. A seven span stone arch bridge over the Conemaugh River, officially know as Bridge 222 built under the guidance of Chief Engineer William Brown in 1888, was the sight of tragedy as flood waters washed across the valley, trapping over 500 people and debris, eventually catching fire and killing all but 80 in the blaze. While the structure survived the damage, over 2200 lives collectively were lost in what is still considered America’s worst natural disaster.
Later, in the history of this structure the PRR modernized the bridge reinforcing it in concrete on the South Side and expanding the bridge to accommodate the four track system the PRR was know for. Today, there is more plans for the bridge with the City planning its South Side re-facing to incorporate decorative lighting for night time illumination, tying in the Point Stadium, Inclined Plane, and Festival Park, adding another visual landmark to the Johnstown Discovery Network.
As the Mainline again follows the Conemaugh River westward, it hugs the base of Brownstone Hill in the back lots of Cambria City. Opposite, on the North Side of the river, the C&BL takes a wondering path, servicing the area know as the Lower Works, the original Cambria Iron Works that established Steel Making in area circa 1852. While the mainline is pretty straight forward, the C&BL runs through ruins of its former self. In the neighborhood of Minersville, vacant yard trackage and a quiet engine facility, far to large to be justified for the sometimes monthly operations of today stands testament to a company railroad that once thrived on terminal switching, moving in raw materials to the mill and finished product to the PRR and B&O.
Further West, past the engine house the C&BL once again crosses the Conemaugh one last time on the Ten Acre Bridge to access the Wire and Rod Works in the Morrelleville Section one of the last facilities still doing what it was intended to do by Bethlehem Steel. From the North Side, a spur continues on from the locomotive shops only to be lost in the weeds along Cramer Pike.
On the South Side of the River we make one more significant observation on the PRR main. At MP 277.3 stood SG tower in the Western Suburbs of town. Here interchange was conducted with the C&BL. More significantly on the mainline, tracks 1, 2, and 3 (4 split off remotely 3 miles West) divided along the South Bank, while track 5 and 6 ran along the North to Conpitt Junction some 13 miles further West. Track 5 and 6 known as the Sang Hollow Extension, was built between 1881-83 to handle heavier freight traffic through the area, eventually connecting back with the Mainline and elusive Conemaugh Line, a low grade back road into Pittsburgh, at JD Interlocking just west of New Florence PA.
This concludes our tour of the Greater Johnstown Area, check back soon for more in depth posts on other towns related to the Pennsylvania Railroad. For more imagery from my Mainline Project please visit my website.
For more information on the PRR and the neighboring landscape check out some of the links below. As a side note, I would like to thank the many deicated people that spend so much time and energy preserving, interpreting, and sharing the past, present, and future of our Railroad, Social and Industrial Heritage in this Country! Please feel free to send me more links and I will be sure to add them!
Part Five: Johnstown Proper: Although Johnstown has lost a good deal of manufacturing the City still has a lot to offer including several great museums, walking tours, the historic Inclined Plane to Westmont, Point Park and a Minor League Baseball Stadium among other key features that are part of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Below are several images made over the past five years of the City Center, exploring both the City's relationship with the railroads as well as the landscape and architecture in general.
Part Four: Johnstown's Old Conemaugh Section: Moving into Johnstown from Franklin we enter a historic neighborhood that at one time was served by several railroads. The Baltimore and Ohio’s Somerset & Cambria Branch was a line incorporated in 1879, to tap local coal resources and serve the Bethlehem works. Though not nearly the operation of the PRR, the B&O nonetheless maintained a presence in town. Coming up from the South along the Stonycreek River, the line comes into the Old Conemaugh Section of town and forks, moving West toward a connection with the C&BL along Washington Street, and East along the sprawling Gautier Works between Clinton and Short Street toward the former Station area and Freight house that still stands today.
As mentioned the B&O and C&BL served the Gautier Works located along Clinton Street, accessing the sprawling facility from the North Side. The Gautier Works produced wire fencing, plows and other steel products for the agriculture industry. The size of this facility is quite evident from high views such as the one afforded from the surrounding hill sides.
Part Three: Franklin
Franklin is directly across from East Conemaugh, spread in two small neighborhoods, the eastern section is stacked on the hillside overlooking the former mill and river valley, once a home to many steel workers and the actual “hot side” of the Johnstown Works.
Further West, down Rt 271, heading South West, you cross the Conemaugh River and enter the western end of town, including a small area of housing and churches that also was home to the Rail Car Division later spun off to FreightCar America Works, which was to become one of the last remaining steel related manufacturing facilities of the former Bethlehem Johnstown Works.
In 2008 the works closed its doors, taking much need jobs and tax revenue from this struggling little town. As of the Fall of 2010, the facility was being leveled, ending hopes of manufacturing jobs that were once plentiful in a small town with big industry.
Not far off the beaten path of the PRR, in the steel producing areas around Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River Valley, was a small industrial railroad that was incorporated in 1889 to build and service the McKeesport - Port Perry line that was held under capitol stock by the National Tube Works of New Jersey. The railroad was a terminal company who's primary role was to support operations of its owner's mill and make outside connections to the B&O, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie, Union Railroad, Bessemer and Lake Erie and PRR. Transferred to US steel in 1942 and later, outside contractor Transtar Inc, the company became part of the larger Union Railroad conglomerate that still serves predecessor Camp Hill Corporation making pipe with materials supplied from the US Steel Irvin and Gary works for both the water and gas industry. In addition the Union Railroad still serves the region's remaining coke production facilities in Clairton, the sprawling Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, and finishing mills in Irvin with interchange to all major class one railroads in the region.While the Union Railroad has consolidated maintenance facilities to the Monroeville area shop complex, the original 1906 McKeesport Connecting RR shop and roundhouse still stand in the company's namesake town, open to the elements and quietly rusting away, another relic of steam era architecture that could be lost in time.
Further West of the Junction of the Mainline and Philadelphia and Trenton Branch in Thorndale and East of the Junction of the Atglen and Susquehanna Branch, the Freight bypass to Enola Yard in Harrisburg, lays an Industrial town called Coatesville. Situated in the Brandywine Creek Valley, Coatesville, plays host to the former Lukens Steel Mill Complex, a "mini mill" facility that produces high quality plate and slab steel. While the mill is still active the town is very reminiscent of areas like Johnstown and Bethlehem, some neighborhoods in need of much attention. The station house, located at Third and Fleetwood Streets, is currently shuttered and vacant. The historic structure dates back from 1865, according to the City and has served a long career for the PRR and its predecessors. Currently, one or two sections of the Eastbound canopy still stand, and the Westbound Platform has a lone and battered bus shelter for passengers. While not all buildings have the opportunity to be saved or restored, this Station would certainly be a great candidate and much needed anchor for the surrounding neighborhood.