The Railroad Heritage of Portage, Pennsylvania

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Located 20 miles east of Johnstown, in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountain region, Portage offers the visitor a glimpse into its railroad past.

Developing, as a town, round the Allegheny Portage Railroad’s Plane #2, it sprouted its first seed in 1826 when the Pennsylvania General Assembly granted approval for the Board of Canal Commission to commence construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, an integral component of the inter-modal, rail-and-water transportation system traversing the previously-impassable Allegheny Ridge section of the route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Defined as “overland transport between bodies of water,” “Portage” was implemented over a 36-mile, ten-plane, train-and-canal boat interchange, reducing the previous, 22-day journey to just six when it became operational in 1834, or three years after the first shovel had penetrated the dirt.

The town of Portage evolved with it.  In 1837, for example, the Washington House Hotel opened its arms to weary passengers needing accommodation during the journey.

Subjected, itself, to improvement, the Portage system was acquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1848, and four years later, the original, horse-and-mule propulsive method was succeeded by locomotives, which now pulled the canal boats along the tracks.  The New Portage Railroad became operational in 1855.

A handful of sights allows the visitor to re-glimpse this railroad heritage.

Remnants of the NY Tower, for instance, can be found west of the South Railroad Station dead end.  Located at Milepost 259.1, its third such position, and built in 1891, it rested on a cement foundation to elevate it to track level, overlooking the south side of the mainline, which itself connected with the Bens Creek Branch here.  The dual-level, wooden structure sported three lower- and five upper-floor, track-facing windows.

The oddly-designated “NY Tower,” controlling, like all such facilities, a railroad block, initially had jurisdiction between Wilmore at Milepost 261 and Cassandra at Milepost 256, but was later extended to Lilly when its own LY Tower was eliminated in 1931.

Demand, originally meriting 24-hour occupation, soon waned, resulting in its progressive reduction until it was altogether discontinued with its mid-1960s closure.

Portage itself had once had three railroad stations.  The first, built in 1854 and located on Main Street, was demolished during the late-1880s when it was obviated by the new rail line, while the second, of wood, was located on Washington Avenue and used during the first quarter of the 20th century.  The third, a two-floor, brick depot, constructed by John T. Gray and Son, rose from Lee street in 1926 and was used by the Pennsylvania Railroad for 28 years until declining passenger demand could no longer economically sustain the service.

Post-rail users included the Knights of Columbus and Stager Enterprises, which relegated it to a storage facility, but its present application, as the Portage Station Museum, began in 1992 when the Portage Rotary Club donated artifacts from the Mainline Mining Museum, another significant area industry, which had gained its first foothold as far back as 1868.  Big Survey, which later became known as the Cambria Mining and Manufacturing Company, purchased land from the Earnest family and opened its first coal mine along Bens Creek in 1872.

A mural depicting Mountain Avenue during the 1920s appears on the building next to the museum.

Part of the Heritage Trail–a series of landmarks along the Allegheny Ridge which collectively offer a life-along-the-mainline theme—the Portage Station Museum is like a pocket of arrested-time, enabling the visitor to re-enter it and glean insight into its era by means of its architecture, artifacts, and exhibits.

Highlight of the museum is the original Station Master’s Officer.  Heart of the operation, it was the location of ticket purchasing, luggage processing, and freight shipping and receiving, and had been furnished with two desks, a safe, and a sink.  On display today are a vintage adding machine, a typewriter, a telephone, a hand signal lamp, a railroad lamp glass, train tickets, daily reports from 1954, and a wooden water bucket used by the Irish crews who laid the original rails.

Amid the first floor’s waiting room, which features its original woodwork, wainscoting, and light fixtures, is a full, 20th-century kitchen and display cases with both temporary and permanent exhibits.  From here, with tickets in hand, passengers would leave the deport, walk toward the arched, railroad underpass, and then ascend its concrete steps to a covered, inter-track waiting room, which provided boarding access to both east- and west-bound trains.

The building’s second floor, originally used as a fright storage area, now offers three main features: a reference section, a relief map of area mines, and a 173-quare-foot, “Miniature Mainline” HO model railroad layout designed by train enthusiast Charles Edwards and funded by the late Robert “Bing” James.  Multiple train operations representing different time periods negotiate track, which passes the Portage Station building, penetrates the Gallitzin Tunnels, and arcs through the Horseshoe and Mule Shoe curves.

An outdoor viewing platform, level with today’s elevated—and real—track, facilities passenger and freight train viewing. 

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