The Railroad That Never Was: Vanderbilt, Morgan, and the South Pennsylvania Railroad

The Railroad That Never Was: Vanderbilt, Morgan, and the South Pennsylvania Railroad

The Railroad That Never Was: Vanderbilt, Morgan, and the South Pennsylvania Railroad

The Railroad That Never Was: Vanderbilt, Morgan, and the South Pennsylvania Railroad

Synopsis

This 200-mile line through Pennsylvania's most challenging mountain terrain was intended to form the heart of a new trunk line from the East Coast to Pittsburgh and the Midwest. Conceived in 1881 by William H. Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and a group of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia industrialists, the South Pennsylvania Railroad was intended to break the Pennsylvania Railroad's near-monopoly in the region. The line was within a year of opening when J. P. Morgan brokered a peace treaty that aborted the project and helped bolster his position in the world of finance. The railroad right of way and its tunnels sat idle for 60 years before coming to life in the late 1930s as the original section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Based on original letters, documents, diaries, and newspaper reports, The Railroad That Never Was uncovers the truth behind this mysterious railway.

Excerpt

Drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike through the Alleghenies, and you will be touched by a ghost the entire way. You will catch it briefly in the remaining tunnels, but elsewhere along the highway it hides well, showing itself only fleetingly and then only if you know when and where to look. It is always close by, though, usually lurking beneath the trees and undergrowth. It is a phantom, to be sure, but one with solid form—high earth embankments and deep cuts through the forbidding terrain, and small stone bridges and culverts lost in deep backwoods. Now mostly engulfed by nature or intermittently paved over, these are the tangible remains of what was once heralded as one of the boldest and most daring railroad projects of its time: a 208-mile-long mainline railroad that would blast its way through the Alleghenies over a route that earlier surveyoween Pittsburgh and the East Coast. It is also a ghost with the best of breeding, fathered in the early 1880s by a distinguished roster of capitalists with names like William H. Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Clay Frick. It was designed and built by some of the best engineers in the business and finally put to an uneasy rest by J. Pierpont Morgan in one of the more legendary episodes of Gilded Age finance.

Its formal name was the South Pennsylvania Railroad, usually simply shortened to the “South Penn.” But mention the South Penn today, even to many serious railroad historians, and the best you may get is a noncommittal mumble or a quizzical stare. Even the few who do connect usually think of it . . .

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