The Pennsylvania Railroad
came into existence in 1846, when it was chartered to provide rail service between Harrisburg
, replacing an obsolete network of two canal
s and a portage railroad
The line to Pittsburgh through the Alleghany Mountains was completed by 1852, including the famous Horse Shoe Curve near Altoona. By this time, the PRR had already expanded eastward to Lancaster, PA. In 1857, the PRR purchased the Pennsylvania State Works, which was a network of railroads and canals connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The PRR bought the entire State Works in order to buy one strategic 81-mile stretch of railroad, the Philadelphia & Columbia. The P&C was built in 1829, and at one time was the largest double-tracked railroad in the world.
The driving force behind the early PRR was J. Edgar Thomson, who had been Chief Engineer of the PRR before assuming its presidency in 1852. He held the presidency until his death in 1874. Under his leadership, the PRR grew into an industry giant, reaching Baltimore in 1858, Washington D.C. in 1867, Chicago in 1869, and New York City in 1871. This was primarily accomplished not by new construction, but by leasing or purchasing already-existing railroads.
The PRR was one of four rail giants in the Northeast, along with Cornelius Vanderbilt's New York Central, Jay Gould's Erie, and the Baltimore and Ohio. All four lines reached as far west as Chicago, and provided service as far east as New York. The PRR, by the time of Thomson's death in 1874, was clearly the dominant force.
The PRR's motive power was somewhat unusual. They built a large majority of their locomotives in-house at Altoona. Traditionally they were slow to embrace new innovations in locomotive design, but also built some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives in their respective classes. The PRR's locomotives were easily distinguished by the squarish look of their Belpaire fireboxes (Radial-stay fireboxes were standard equipment on most other railroads), and by the red keystone-shaped number plate on the smokebox front of their passenger engines.
Notable PRR designs were the E6s "Atlantic" type, the K4s "Pacific" type, the M1 and M1a class "Mountain" types, and the huge freight-hauling I1 class "Decapod" type. The PRR also tended to buy locomotives in tremendous quantities; they owned 598 I1 engines, 579 L1 class "Mikado" types, and 425 K4 Pacifics.
In 1910, the PRR built a tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City proper. They built a magnificent terminal at the intersection of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, called Penn Station, to rival the New York Central's Grand Central Station. Sadly, the original Penn Station building no longer stands. A tunnel was also built under the East River to connect with the PRR-owned Long Island Rail Road.
The PRR was an early proponent of electric power. The Northeast Corridor was electrified between New York and Washington, as well as the main line between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Electrification began in 1910, as steam locomotives were prohibited from operating in Manhattan, and reached Harrisburg by 1938. The PRR's most famous electric locomotive was the GG1 type, designed by Raymond Loewy. A fleet of 139 were assembled between 1934 and 1943, for passenger and fast freight service, and some lasted until the early 1980s on New Jersey Transit and Amtrak.
The PRR was in financial trouble by the late 1940s. The railroad failed to turn a profit for the first time in its history in 1946, and the motive power department in particular made a string of poor decisions. The PRR made several unsuccessful experiments with Duplex-drive steam locomotives, and the steam-to-diesel transition was poorly handled, as several types of diesels that could be charitably called lemons were purchased. The steam locomotives hung on until December of 1957, before dieselization was complete.
Like the other Northeastern railroads, the PRR attempted to slim down by divesting itself of unprofitable branch lines and passenger routes. One by one, the other railroads became fallen flags, first the New York, Ontario & Western was abandoned in 1957, then the Erie and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western merged into Erie-Lackawanna in 1960.
The PRR lasted until 1968, when it was merged into Penn Central with the similarly struggling New York Central, and the already hopeless New York, New Haven & Hartford.
The Remnants of the Pennsylvania:
Many of the PRR's lines are still key components of the country's rail network. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington is former PRR trackage, and the 1852 Philadelphia-Pittsburgh main still sees heavy traffic from CSX. Several steam locomotives survive to this day. This is a partial list:
H-class "Consolidation"--#1187, #2846, #7588. At Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
L-class "Mikado"--#520, at RR Museum of PA.
I-class "Decapod"--#4483. On display in Hamburg, NY. Cosmetically restored but not operational.
D-class "American"-#1223. At RR Museum of PA. Ran for many years on the Strasburg Railroad, until at least the late 1980s.
E-class "Atlantic"--#460, #7002. Both at RR Museum of PA. 7002 is an interesting locomotive. A PRR Atlantic numbered 7002 once held the unofficial land speed record of 127 mph. This is not the same locomotive. This is a con job perpetrated by the PRR for the World's Fair of 1949. This is a locomotive from the same class, originally numbered 8063. Like #1223, it ran on the Strasburg RR until the late 1980s.
G-class "Ten Wheeler"--#5741, at RR Museum of PA. Two Long Island Rail Road locomotives, #35 and #39, also survived. #39 is in Riverhead, NY, and #35 is in Oyster Bay. Both are in various stages of disassembly.
K-class "Pacific"--#1361, #3750. 3750 is at the RR Museum of PA, while 1361 is currently disassembled inside the Scranton shops of Steamtown National Historical Site. The 1361 is being re-restored to operational condition. It was displayed on Horseshoe Curve until the mid-1980s, and was restored and operated briefly thereafter.
M-class "Mountain"--#6755. At RR Museum of PA.
1. PRR Triumph, V.1, by Charles S. Roberts. Published by Barnard and Roberts of Baltimore, 1997.
2. PRR Triumph, V.2, by David W. Messer. Published by Barnard and Roberts of Baltimore, 1999.
3. Pennsy Power, by Alvin F. Staufer. 1962.