Lower Merion Historical Society

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TV Documentary tells of our earliest railroad

The nickname ‘Main Line’ came from this early railroad, not the commuter stations set down 50 years later.

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Everybody knows just how important the Pennsylvania Railroad was to the Main Line, if not to the nation. It became the largest company in its day, as powerful as Microsoft is today. Its leaders were at least as rich as the contemporary dot.com millionaires. In fact there are surprising similarities between these men. Separated by more than a century, they would, nonetheless, understand each other. They were middle-class engineers and scientists: men who wanted to do things, such as Pennsylvania’s two most important Andrews, Mr. Cassatt and Mr. Carnegie. But the saga started earlier for the railroads. As today’s Internet exponentially changed the speed of transporting information, the railroads had an equally dramatic impact on transporting goods.

Andrea Elovson is learning all this while producing a documentary about the Pennsylvania Railroad for WHYY television. “We’re called producers, but we also write and direct the program,” he said. Elovson has a Masters of Fine Arts in film and televison production from Temple University, and lives in Philadelphia with her husband, who’s originally from the Main Line.

The creator of the documentary was Trudi Brown, executive producer for WHYY production. “We made a commitment to provide our views with local stories and information. We know it’s a part of our mission,” she said. “We’ve done quite a few local documentary and more live performances.” The station doesn’t just use t.v. “When the program airs, we’ll create an Internet presence,” Brown said. “When the viewer goes to that link, they’ll find things we can’t include in the documentary.” Current plans are for the documentary to run in late June.

Both Elovson and Brown are experienced documentary producers and know the biggest problem isn’t finding out about things, but reducing the information to fit the time available. “A documentary has to deal with great amounts of information as you research it. Then you have to decide what can be included,” Brown said. “We’d love to think we can do five or six hours on the railroad, but we’ll produce an interesting hour.”

“You have to concentrate on certain areas,” said Elovson. “One of which is the Main Line. This was where the first of what became the Pennsylvania Railroad was constructed, the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.” The Pennsylvania Railroad was one of the most powerful companies in the nation, perhaps the world’s first billion-dollar corporation,” Elovson said. For that reason, it’s more than just a local topic.

In the 1820s, railroads were changing the world as the Industrial Revolution hit the America in earnest. Pennsylvania’s leaders recognized they had to make the route to Pittsburgh faster or they’d lose out to New York, with its Erie Canal, and Baltimore, which was busy creating its National Road. All these early railroads had one purpose to connect the industrializing east with the frontier. At that time the frontier started with Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and even Missouri, where the French had created a city called St. Louis. Once you got across the mountains into Western Pennsylvania, transportation was quicker. That’s because the rivers ran where the frontiersmen wanted to go: west to the Mississippi. Civilization followed the water, as pioneers rode down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River.

Out west was the stuff of fortunes beaver pelts were the basis of much early wealth in America. Raw materials abounded, and conquering the land meant moving the flood of immigrants westward taming the land and joining the economy.

But Pennsylvania had a problem. There wasn’t enough water for a canal between the Delaware and the Susquehanna Rivers. In March 1823, the Pennsylvania Legislature solved that by issuing a charter for the state’s first railroad. It was an 82-mile route from Philadelphia, through Lancaster, to the Susquehanna River at Columbia. This was part of the “Main Line of Public Works of the State of Pennsylvania.” The nickname, “Main Line,” came from this early Pennsylvania railroad, not from the commuter stations set down 50 years later. It was one of America’s earliest railroads, and the world’s first built by a government.

Charles Dickens was said to dislike Pennsylvania immensely because he lost money investing in the system’s bonds. Although not financially successful, it laid a groundwork which still exists. Drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and you’re traveling many canal routes first laid out in the 1820s. Head west on a train, and much of railway follows the original way to the Susquehanna. This was the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway and it opened in September 1832, with carriages set on rails and pulled by horses along a 20-mile stretch from Broad and Vine Streets in Philadelphia to the Green Tree Inn, west of Paoli. Upon arrival in Columbia, goods and passengers would transfer to canal boats and make the trek the rest of the way across the state until they reached Pittsburgh, the portal to the west.

The term “rail” road referred to the iron rails upon which carriages rode and initially were pulled by horses. Steam locomotives were first considered, but those who lived near the tracks or used the service much objected. The engines spewed sparks and cinders, smoke and steam as they traveled along the tracks. “At first, steam engines weren’t allowed into the city,” said Jerry Francis, who was interviewed last week for the documentary. “People were convinced the engines would destroy the value of their property, and sparks from them would set fire to their houses and barns,” he said. “It wasn’t until April, 1834 that the first train was drawn from Philadelphia to Lancaster by a locomotive, which was named the ‘Black Hawk’,” he said. Finally in 1836, steam locomotives replaced horsepower and railroads leaped forward in speed and efficiency.

But until that happened, the lay of the land was much more important to the railroad designers. They were constrained by how steep a grade horses could climb. That meant the railway bed followed the easiest route, or they had to find another solution. Problems started quickly as you left Philadelphia. “After crossing the oldest railroad bridge in the country, there was a long incline up to the Belmont Plateau.” said Francis. It required what was one of the most complex and expensive solutions, but it was necessary,” he said.

This was one of the shots that Elovson wants to include in the documentary because 170 years later you can still see the bridge’s remnants. Today there’s a modern railroad bridge built on the original pilings of the old Columbia Bridge. It lies just below Belmont Mansion, in Fairmount Park. “From here you can see the cut that the carriages climbed up to the top of the plateau,” Elovson said. But the carriages weren’t the only thing that walked. So did the passengers and horses, because it was too steep for the horses to pull. “The solution was an ‘Incline Plane,’ powered by an 80-hp steam engine which used ropes to drag one carriage up the incline while it lowered another,” Francis said. “It was too dangerous for the passengers, because there was a rope pulling the carriages up 1085 feet, and if it broke the carriage would crash down to the bottom.” So passengers would walk up the incline, along with the horses, then they’d be off again, heading west.

The carriages they rode in looked much like what we think of as stage coaches drawn by two horses, except they were painted red. “There aren’t any examples left that we know of,” Francis said. What made railway carriages so popular was how extraordinarily smooth and fast they were compared to a coach flying across a mud or dust road. These were pothole-pocked and may have been level the day they were finished. The iron rails were set into “sleeper” stones placed every three feet. “The rails were four feet nine inches apart and there was a clear path between the stones for the horses to walk,” said Francis. Soon the horse-powered carriages would be replaced by steam engines capable of hauling many carriages at one time.

Technology was leaping forward and steam-powered locomotion would quickly expand in size and power far beyond what the experts could envision. In spite of the millions made and spent on digging canals, by the time they these marvels were completed, most were obsolete. Railroads, however, created a nation from a series of former colonies which had stood pretty much alone. Speedy railroads bound them together and a true nation was possible. Speed was essential because each of those colonies was as large as any European nation.

“Originally it took three-and-a-half weeks to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Using the railroads and canals that was reduced to three days, and when the railroad reached all the way between the two, the journey was reduced to a mere 10 hours,” Elovson said. A day’s travel now had a new meaning. Instead of being the distance from Charles Thomson’s Harriton to Philadelphia, it was now the distance between to Pittsburgh, or New York, or even the new capital in Washington, D.C.

In the 1850s, the Pennsylvania Railroad received a charter from the state to build a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. This company was run by men who looked to the future. They weren’t going to just own a railroad from Pennsylvania’s bucolic capital to the headwaters of the Ohio River, they were building a network. One of their first moves was to buy the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad and merge its pioneering routes into what would become America’s foremost company in the industry that made America something its European rivals could never become immense.

The Original Railway Route. The railroad began in Philadelphia and headed in a westerly direction:
It crossed the Schuylkill River at the Columbia Bridge and proceeded up the “Incline Plane” at Belmont Plateau.
There it turned right and paralleled Belmont Avenue and then followed Conshohocken State Road into Lower Merion.
Still paralleling Conshohocken State Road, it passed through the Cynwyd train station, up Bala Avenue and Bentley Road and crossed behind the fire house.
It then crossed over to the south side of Montgomery Avenue (Bowman’s Bridge).
At All Saints Church, it crossed back over to the north side of Montgomery Avenue and went in front of the Lower Merion High School.
From there it curved left onto Church Road and onto Coulter Avenue to the Athensville (Ardmore) train station.
It followed the tracks of the R5 until Haverford where it again curved left onto (Old) Railroad Avenue to the intersection of Bryn Mawr Avenue and County Line Road.
Here it followed Glenbrook Avenue until it crossed County Line Road, then Lancaster Avenue, then up Montrose Avenue and rejoined the R5 line at the Rosemont station where it continued west and left the Lower Merion area.

Eventually, “The Main Line” expanded from the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway to include the Eastern Division of the Canal (from Columbia to Hollidaysburg, 172 miles); the Allegheny Portage Railway (from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown, 36miles, crossing the Allegheny Mountains); and the Western Division of the Canal (from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, 104 miles).