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The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site

Uncovering the Allegheny Portage Railroad

Prior to 1834, a trip across Pennsylvania was a long and arduous journey. Using a combination of horses and wagons to cross the Allegheny Mountains, the trip could take as long as 23 days. However, that all changed in 1834 with the construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Using an ingenious combination of canals, horses, and steam locomotives, the Portage Railroad cut travel time to a mere four days. The leap forward was amazing. I mean, imagine a new airplane technology that shortened the travel time from Philadelphia to Australia to only an afternoon.

Surpassed in speed by the Mainline Railroad and Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve it closed operations in 1854. However, during those 20 years, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was one of the nation’s most important transportation route for people and goods heading west.

Today, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting places in Pennsylvania.

When I visited Altoona, I really didn’t know too much about the Portage Railroad and decided to check it out.

The rebuilt engine house at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.

The rebuilt engine house at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.

From the moment I walked in the visitor center, I was impressed by the detailed displays they offered and clear explanation of how the railroad worked. Even better, their information video was absolutely fantastic! Easily the best I’ve seen at a historical site in a long while. When you visit the railroad, make sure you take the time to watch the video.

From the visitor center, my wife and I headed over to the actual historic site. Included in the main area of the site are one of the engine houses and a restored tavern that served riders. There is also an auxiliary area near Johnstown that has the nation’s first railroad tunnel. I’m definitely looking forward to stopping there at a later date.

The engine house is one of ten that were built along the 36-miles of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The job of the engine house was the haul boats, goods, and people up and down the inclines that made up the Portage Railroad. Using rope, railroad track, and specially designed cars, the steam engine pulled each car to the top of the incline before sending them on their way, led at first by horses and later by steam engines, to the next incline.

The Lemon House - a popular place for passengers to get a bite to eat.

The Lemon House – a popular place for passengers to get a bite to eat.

Also on site is the Lemon House. Serviced primarily as a restaurant and bar to patrons of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Lemon House served an important function in the haul of people over the Allegheny Mountains. Inside, rooms have been restored to show what they looked like during the 1840s, with one room set aside as a bar, one as a restaurant, and one as a parlor.

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    In my opinion, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is a fantastic place to visit for anyone interested in transportation or history in general.

    I personally found it to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve been to in Pennsylvania.


    Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site

    Grounds Hours: Daily: Dawn-Dusk

    Cost: Free

    Website: NPS.gov/ALPO

    Address: 110 Federal Park Road
    Gallitzin, PA 16641

    See map below for other area attractions.


    AUTHOR - Jim Cheney

    Jim Cheney is the creator of UncoveringPA.com. Based in the state capital of Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania and has visited all 67 counties in the state. Jim has also traveled to more than 30 different countries around the world.

    1 Comment

    • Jonathan

      Great write-up. I too found this place surprisingly interesting. A hidden gem for sure.

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