Branch Line Empires: The Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads

Branch Line Empires: The Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads

Branch Line Empires: The Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads

Branch Line Empires: The Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads


The Pennsylvania and the New York Central railroads helped to develop central Pennsylvania as the largest source of bituminous coal for the nation. By the late 19th century, the two lines were among America's largest businesses and would soon become legendary archrivals. The PRR first arrived in the 1860s. Within a few years, it was sourcing as much as four million tons of coal annually from Centre County and the Moshannon Valley and would continue do so for a quarter-century. The New York Central, through its Beech Creek Railroad affiliate, invaded the region in the 1880s, first seeking a dependable, long-term source of coal to fuel its locomotives but soon aggressively attempting to break its rival's lock on transporting the area's immense wealth of mineral and forest products.

Beginning around 1900, the two companies transitioned from an era of growth and competition to a time when each tacitly recognized the other's domain and sought to achieve maximum operating efficiencies by adopting new technology such as air brakes, automatic couplers, all-steel cars, and diesel locomotives. Over the next few decades, each line began to face common problems in the form of competition from other forms of transportation and government regulation; in 1968 the two businesses merged.

Branch Line Empires offers a thorough and captivating analysis of how a changing world turned competition into cooperation between two railroad industry titans.


Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Chairman of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad and one of America’s wealthiest men, arrives by special train in this community of some 1,800 residents high on the Allegheny Plateau. Accompanying him on this overcast, unseasonably cold afternoon are his brother William K. Vanderbilt and a host of coal company investors and local dignitaries. They have traveled over the newly constructed Beech Creek, Clearfield and South Western Railroad—a carrier within the New York Central’s orbit—from the town of Jersey Shore, 74 miles to the east.

They intend to inspect a site proposed for the Beech Creek’s station, to be built in a flat, treeless area called Beaver Meadow, off Presque Isle Street just across the Moshannon Creek from the downtown. the new station, with a supporting roundhouse nearby, represents the spearhead of the NYC’s attempt to break the monopoly that the Pennsylvania Railroad has enjoyed in the coal-rich Moshannon Valley for more than twenty years. the monopoly fills the PRR’s gondolas with nearly 4 million tons of coal annually and is the largest single source of bituminous riches in the railroad’s eleven-state system. Many of the valley’s coal operators, merchants, and mill owners see in the coming of the New York Central deliverance from what they regard as unwanted by-products of the monopoly: unreasonably high freight rates and poor car service.

The Vanderbilts’ train is unable to reach the Meadow because the Pennsylvania has obtained a court order that prohibits the Beech Creek from crossing the PRR’s existing Tyrone and Clearfield Branch at grade.

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