To Understand the Spirit Of A Wonderful Place
And Pennsylvania's Railroad Heritage....
By James Alexander Jr.
Visitors traveling east of Strasburg on Route 741 suddenly encounter a wondrous array of locomotives hard by the road -- steam engines, diesels, even several electrics. One locomotive rests on a massive hundred-foot long turntable. A sign announces "Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania," beyond which a massive building stands as a memorial, a veritable shrine, to one of the Commonwealth's most significant industries and cultures -- railroading.

Museum Turntable.The importance of railroading not only reaches back in time, but to those of thoughtful inclination it embraces the present and the future, and touches all corners of the Keystone State. More than 145,000 visitors traveled to the museum last year. Some arrive humming Amtrak's commercial jingle, "There's something about a train that's magic!"

The 'magic' first came to the Strasburg area in 1823, when Colonel John Stevens (1749-1838) passed through. Travel in the fledgling nation then was difficult at best; man moved no faster than he had in the days of the Roman Empire. A trip from Philadelphia to Baltimore took five days, and commerce of any significance was largely limited to travel by coastal waters. Stevens came by horse-drawn coach because there were no railroads in America then. He came because he believed that there should be, and his dreams were eventually fulfilled with the development of a mighty industrial force that shaped the lives and fortunes of the nation.

Colonel Stevens, like many others who contributed to the richness and development of the Commonwealth, was neither born nor lived in Pennsylvania. A patriot of the American Revolution, Stevens spent most of his life in Hoboken, NJ, initially devoting his energies to the use of steam engines to propel boats in commerce. His early work paralleled that of inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815), and in 1809 his steamboat Phoenix was engaged in regular commercial transport between Philadelphia and Trenton. Later hailed as both a "genius of steam" and "the father of American railroading," Stevens himself never built a railroad, but his was the first voice in America to firmly proclaim their need and their feasibility.

John Stevens' Steamwaggon.In an alcove inside the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania rests a strange vehicle, apparently part farm wagon and part boiler-driven steam propulsion system. It is a replica of the first steam locomotive built in America to run on rails -- a circle six hundred and sixty feet in circumference, on John Stevens' estate at Hoboken, now the site of the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Built in New Jersey in 1825, it was intended to encourage the construction of railroads in Pennsylvania. Fifteen years earlier, Stevens had turned over operation of his steamboat lines to his sons, and shifted his attention to the use of steam for propulsion on land. A visionary who saw the need for railroads, he spent much of his personal fortune advocating their construction.

Colonel John Stevens' initial efforts had been to dissuade New York's Governor De Witt Clinton (1769-1828) from building the Erie Canal. Canals, he maintained, would not be efficient, and would be frozen when the farmers most needed them to move their threshed grain to market. In 1812 he argued:

So many and so important are the advantages which these States would derive from the general adoption of the proposed steam railways, that ... the necessary surveys [should] be made in all directions, so as to embrace and unite every section of this extensive empire. It might then ... be truly said that these States would constitute one family, intimately connected ... in bonds of indissoluble union.

Unable to block the Erie Canal, and lacking capital for a railroad in New Jersey, Stevens turned to Pennsylvania, which was also considering construction of a series of canals. His locomotive was designed to propel itself by a rotating cog-wheel, not unlike that in use today on New Hampshire's famous Mt. Washington Railway, for he had to show the feasibility of railroads climbing the hills and mountains that had blocked westward development.

Recognizing the great potential of Pennsylvania's timber, minerals and fertile land, Philadelphia financial leaders were in fierce competition with the competing ports of Baltimore and New York. Should Pennsylvania follow New York's initiative in creating the Erie Canal-Hudson River route to open up the interior?

Not so, argued Col. Stevens. He joined with a group known as the Pennsylvania Society for Internal Improvements to argue for railroads rather than canals. He wrote:

A railroad ... will insure to the farmer a fair price for what he brings to market.... Diverging from a centre like the rays of the sun, railroads will diffuse light, heat, and animation to every extremity of the Commonwealth.

In 1823, "on the memorial and representation of John Stevens," the Pennsylvania Legislature had enacted a charter establishing the "President, Directors, and Company of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company." The line, extending from Philadelphia to Columbia, was to be erected "under the superintendence and direction of John Stevens." Thus, while still trying to raise supporting capital in 1823, Col. Stevens engaged in making the preliminary survey of the route, and in so doing passed through the Strasburg area, performing the first exploration of a route for a railroad in the western hemisphere.


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This article has appeared in several forms in Pennsylvania Heritage, the Quarterly of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and in Milepost, the Journal of the Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

At first they laughed.Unfortunately, Stevens was unable to convince financiers to support construction of the proposed route, notwithstanding his having demonstrated that a locomotive could climb the hills whereas canals could not. Not limiting his thinking to the Philadelphia - Columbia route, he had written:

...when this great improvement in transportation shall have been extended to Pittsburgh, and thence into the heart of the extensive and fertile State of Ohio, and also to the great western lakes, Philadelphia may then become the great emporium of the western country. The improvement will unquestionably be extended from Philadelphia across New Jersey to the City of New York.

Stevens' ideas would eventually become reality. The Pennsylvania Railroad, under a new charter of 1846, was to become a giant among American railroads, representing the consolidation of over six hundred smaller lines, extending from its Philadelphia headquarters to New York, Washington, DC, Chicago and St. Louis. Its main line followed much of the route surveyed by Stevens, and it passed through Paradise, PA, at a place called Strasburg Junction, where a short line known as the Strasburg Rail Road came into existence as a result of an 1832 charter.

At the other end of the Strasburg Rail Road is the location destined to see the opening of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in 1975. But what was there to house? Why did the state need a railroad museum? The answer lies in more than a century of railroad growth and activity that impacted the Commonwealth and its people as no other development had.

It was the massive web of railroads, mostly of compatible rail width, that gave the North a major advantage over the Confederacy during the Civil War. Railroads allowed the Union's industrial might to be brought to bear at the battlefront. The battle of Gettysburg was preceded by an almost continuous line of trains on the Western Maryland Rail Road, carrying Federal troops and supplies from Baltimore to Westminster, MD. Operating under Federal military authority, it became a major line of supply for the Army of the Potomac. For several days after the battle, it transported prisoners, the wounded and the dead.

Later, President Lincoln traveled by train to Gettysburg to deliver his famous address, and even later his body was carried over a series of railroads to its final resting place in Illinois.

Pennsylvania was to be crossed by dozens of railroads, reflecting its keystone location and providing the arteries of its industry and commerce. The Pennsylvania Railroad was joined by, and often competed with, the Baltimore & Ohio, the Reading Company (a major anthracite hauler), the Bessemer and Lake Erie (serving the steel industry), the Lehigh Valley, Norfolk and Western, and even parts of the Pennsylvania's arch-rival, the New York Central. Many short lines sprang up to connect backwoods towns, and to serve mines, factories and timber cutting industries.

On the main lines ran thundering expresses like the Broadway Limited, carrying passengers from New York to Chicago, while other trains seemed to stop at every hamlet or industrial siding to pick up the milk from the farms, the raw materials or finished products of industry, or to pick up and drop off passengers.

Towns sprang up along the railroads. It seemed that every town had its own depot that was the center of news, commerce and information. Cities like Philadelphia, Reading, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Harrisburg became hubs for major railroads. Thousands of Pennsylvanians earned their living working for the railroad, many in jobs supplying the huge quantities of goods consumed by the railroads.

Railroad towns such as Altoona grew into major manufacturing and repair centers for the industry. Here the Pennsylvania Railroad built hundreds of its own locomotives. In Philadelphia, the Baldwin Locomotive Works became the world's largest, turning out hundreds of locomotives a year.

In 1915, Pennsylvania's railroads peaked at 11,693 miles of roadway, reflecting a national trend leading to the end of the Golden Age of Railroading in America by the 1930s. Other forms of transportation had arrived, often with government subsidy. Ironically, part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, opened in 1941, was built on land originally acquired for a railroad right-of-way. Overhead, airplanes carried passengers, mail, and even freight. The nature of our society was changing, and railroads suffered from the change.

In one of the last expressions of the railroad industry's stature, the Eastern Railroads Conference sponsored a major exhibit at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40. Such exhibits were not new for railroads, which had participated in many worlds' fairs and expositions.

As the railroads gathered together equipment to exhibit, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which lacked any formal program of saving important relics, searched for visually impressive and historically important locomotives, in some cases the last of their kind. It also constructed two full size replicas of very early locomotives.

One was an operating replica of the John Bull, which had been shipped from England in 1831 to start the Stevens family's Camden & Amboy Railroad. The other was a replica of John Stevens' 1825 prototype locomotive.

After the World's Fair, the equipment that the Pennsylvania Railroad had assembled found its way into storage, mostly at its Northumberland engine house. By the 1960s, facing financial collapse and eventual merger with its former rival New York Central into the Penn Central, the Pennsylvania Railroad began seeking a permanent home for these treasured relics. It endeavored to set conditions -- the equipment was to be cared for and preserved. Several rare locomotives made their way out of the Commonwealth.

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