Railfans are probably familiar with the ill-fated Penn Central railroad, described by the Wikipedia as follows:
The Penn Central Transportation Company, commonly abbreviated to Penn Central, was an American Class I railroad headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that operated from 1968 until 1976. It was created by the 1968 merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad was added to the merger in 1969; by 1970, the company had filed for what was, at that time, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
However, you might not be aware there was another ill-fated Penn Central, a short trolley line that briefly operated about 50 years before the more famous one. I certainly knew nothing about it until recently, when a few mysterious snapshots from 1918 surfaced:
I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out it’s an interesting story.
The web site of CamTran, a Pennsylvania bus operator, gives the following information:
Southern Cambria Railway Co. 1908-1928
The “fabulous Southern Cambria, dread of the timid traveler,” is a story of a transit line that tried to conquer the tortuous terrain of the Alleghanies. Extending from Johnstown to Nanty Glo, South Fork, and Ebensburg, the line was plagued by numerous accidents, the most tragic of which was the head-on crash of two trolleys on August 12, 1916. Twenty-seven lives were lost and 80 injured. The Southern Cambria continued operating until December 17, 1928.
South Fork-Portage Railway Co. 1912-1928
The South Fork-Portage Company was originally chartered as the Johnstown & Altoona Railway Co. with the intention of connecting the two cities by rail. But money problems narrowed the vision to a three mile trolley line between South Fork and Summerhill. In 1918, the company failed and reorganized as the Penn Central Railway Co. with the goal of extending the line to Portage. Numerous derailments resulted in the termination of the company in 1928.
Even these few facts may be subject to correction. According to Department Reports of Pennsylvania, Volume 3, Part 4, the date of reorganization was 1917, not 1918:
The captions on the 1918 snapshots make me wonder if the 1928 termination date is accurate. They indicate that the line did not run long enough for the crews to get uniforms. They also allude to the short operation being accident prone, with several runaway trains leading the local government to place a barrier across the tracks. Since there the entire fleet seems to have been two cars built in 1913 by Niles, it wouldn’t have taken much to finish it off.
There seems to have been a cozy relationship between the Penn Central and the Southern Cambria. There may have been perfectly good reasons for forming a separate entity in this case, but perhaps the Penn Central operated only briefly in 1918 and existed on paper until the demise of the Southern Cambria ten years later.
It should be remembered that interurbans were the hi-tech enterprises of their time, chronically underfunded and overextended, with a very short peak coming around the time of the first World War– just the time we are dealing with here. From all accounts, the first Penn Central was a marginal operation at best, with a quick demise.
George W. Hilton and John Fitzgerald Due, in their classic The Electric Interurban Railways in America (1960), speculated that if highways had been developed a few years earlier, there might not have been an “Interurban Era” at all.
However, I for one think America is better off today for having had such marvelous electric interurban railways as the North Shore Line, South Shore Line, Chicago, Aurora & Elgin, Pacific Electric, and Lehigh Valley Transit, among others too numerous to mention. These were giants in their field, and long stood the test of time. With a bit more help, we could have saved a great deal more of this heritage than was actually done. Still, we are undergoing a true “trolley renaissance” today, and if transported into the past, some of today’s light rail surely has much in common with the earlier interurbans.
In that sense, the word “interurban” itself has a sociological meaning that ties it to an earlier era, mainly the first half of the 20th century. Nowadays, most people who ride the South Shore Line (the last classic passenger interurban) probably think of it as commuter rail.
Perhaps the second Penn Central would have been better off choosing a different name. It seems that 50 years before the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad, this name was already jinxed.
Electric Traction magazine reported on page 513 of their August 1918 issue:
NEW ELECTRIC LINE OPENED
The formal opening of the new line of the Penn Central Railway Company, of South Fork, Pa., from South Fork to a point beyond Summerhill, took place recently when a car traversed the line bearing officials of the company, and others who had been invited to attend the event. Without the slightest hitch the car moved over the line from South Fork to the eastern terminus, where a stop of an hour was made before the return.
The roadbed over the entire 3 1/2 miles was found to be in splendid condition and the car negotiated the distance with all the ease and comfort of a Pullman coach. Secretary and Manager O. P. Thomas was congratulated over the achievement of the company in pushing its line through as far as it has gone, and the brilliant prospects for completing the line to Portage at no very distant date.
The car is of the heavy side entrance type and ideal for suburban traffic. Practically the only heavy grade on the line is encountered immediately after leaving the South Fork terminal. From the end of the eastern terminal on to Portage the trolley company will use the old roadbed of the Pennsylvania Railroad the greater part of the distance. Grading for the balance of the lines is 90% completed and the only factors that may handicap its early completion are lack of rails and labor.
The new line will draw on a rather thickly populated territory, including South Fork, Ehrenfeld, Summerhill, Wilmore, Portage, Beaverdale, St. Michael and other places. The original charter has been extended to Gallitzin, still further paralleling the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The latter has aided the trolley company in the development of it project in every way.
One car is now running regularly on the completed line; the fare is 10 cents.
Officers of the Penn Central Railway Company are: Robert Pearce, of Portage, president; Henry J. Raab, of Johnstown, vice-president; Andrew Strayer, of Johnstown, treasurer; and O. P. Thomas, of Johnstown, secretary and manager.
Forgive me if the above seems imbued with a sense of rosy, unwarranted optimism, trying to mask a sense of imminent dread and desperation. Ten cents seems to be a lot to charge for a 3 1/2 mile ride in 1918. There were many operators of the time charging a fraction of that for much longer journeys.
Why did it take five years to build a 3 1/2 mile line? Perhaps we will never know, but for part of that time, there was a war going on.
The first Penn Central turned out to be a trolley so obscure that there is nothing to be found about it on Don Ross‘ excellent and voluminous web site.
As for the rolling stock, the Electric Railway Journal reported as follows on page 768 of their April 26, 1913 issue:
NEW CENTER-ENTRANCE COMBINATION CARS
Two cars designed by W. A. Haller, of the Federal Light & Traction Company, have just been built by the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company for the South Fork-Portage Railway. This road is now under construction between South Fork and Portage by the Portage Construction Comapny, of which G. U. G. Holman is president. An extension of the line will be made as rapidly as possible so as to operate through cars crossing the mountain range between Johnstown and Altoona. Between South Fork and Johnstown the cars will run over the tracks of the Southern Cambria Railway Company.
Owing to the almost continuous climb from both Johnstown and Altoona to the summit, it was considered necessary to have cars as light as possible yet with great seating capacity to accommodate the mining population in the small coal towns though which the road runs. In fact, for a considerable portion of the distance, these mining towns are at close intervals, and the traffic at present will be primarily local. Larger cars of the same type are contemplated for through service when the road is extended. while the extreme length of the present car is only 45 ft. 7 in. and 44 ft. 7 in. over vestibules, the seating capacity is fifty-six persons. There is also a baggage compartment 8 ft. long which also can be occupied by passengers.
One of the novel features is the folding motorman’s cab, which isolates the motorman at the front end and which, when at the rear end, swings transversely with the car and supports two folding seats, increasing the seating capacity by four persons. The left sides of the center vestibule and of the baggage room also are fitted with folding slat seats as it is intended to open only the right-hand side.
Each side of the center vestibule is fitted with four pairs of two-panel folding doors glazed with clear glass from top to bottom, so that the conductor can observe the pavement from his station. These doors are operated by handles from the conductor’s station only. The step openings are covered by Edwards automatic steel trap doors.
The entire underframe, side frame and outside sheathing are of steel– the interior finish being of agasote and mahogany. Each car is equipped with four Westinghouse 1200-volt, 75-hp motors with HL double-end control and geared for a speed of 45 m.p.h.
On account of local clearances, the car is mounted with the bottoms of side sills 7 in. above the rails, the first step being 15 in. high. This may, however, be lowered to 11 in. if obstructions permit.
This summary, from a World War I-era McGraw Transit Directory, shows that the principals of the South Fork-Portage Railway were the same as those of the Penn Central, which is was reorganized into in 1917:
Daria Phoebe Brashear writes:
I have some clippings for you regarding the line.
Also of note, the line had no passing siding, so apparently (I recall, probably from a Ben Rohrbeck book) that one of the 2 cars was sold off at some point, having otherwise been stuck at the end of the line.
That 1915 “subway” trackage dispute probably killed the line, given they would then have had no good way to pass the PRR line’s embankment what with the old Portage Railroad right of way consumed by what became route 53.
Altoona Mirror, 24 May 13:
SOUTH FORK PORTAGE RY. ON PENNSY TRACK
Valuable concessions. which will hasten the completion of the trolley line from this city to Johnstown, have been granted to the South Fork • Portage Railway Company by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The concessions have been secured by Mr. George Holeman, who is promoting the new railway. The line between South Fork and Portage is nearing completion, and cars will be operated there before many days, be(sic) those two points. Following is a summary of the agreement which has been secured from the Pennsy by Mr. Holman : “The exclusive use of the Old Portage and New Portage roadbeds between SummerhiII and Gallitzin. The use of the Pennsylvania’s own right of way and property at six places—through Cassandra borough ; a piece of land, east of Cassandra upon the main line right of way at the deep cut. between Cassandra and Lilly; a plot of land in Cresson borough, and a plot of ground between Cresson and Gallitzin.” The right is also granted to cross the P. R. R. main line at eight under-grade and five overhead crossings. together with the right to cross branch tracks at grade. Mr. Holman is to be congratulated upon the successful negotiation of this valuable right to the trolley company. He expects to be able to announce the date of the opening of the line within the next few weeks.
Altoona Times, 27 May 13:
BURY CORPSE ON RIGHT OF WAY OF S. F.-P. RAILWAY
Effort Is Made To Prevent Trolley Line From Crossing Cemetery
SOUTH FORK, May 26.—In an effort to check work of the South Fork•Portage Railway company upon the property of St. James Cemetery Association for the reason, it is understood, that the right-of-way has not been paid for, interested persons are alleged to have disinterred a body from the burial ground near Summerhill last evening and buried it again just in front of the steam shovel used in constructing the trolley line. This was not accomplished however, until two foreigners, laborers for the trolley company, had been arrested for trespass.
About 9 o’clock last evening people who are protesting against the progress of the traction line over cemetery property before legal matters are adjusted went to the right-of-way and dug a grave in front of the steam shovel. They then went to that section of the burial ground known as the “potters’ field,” it is said, and disinterred the body of an unknown man, killed on the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks several months ago. Before they removed the body to the prepared grave, officials of the traction company learned of the move, and sent two foreigners to the shovel to till the grave. This was done, large stones being dropped into the hole. Undaunted, however, the other party dug a new grave close to the shovel and placed the body in it, it is said.
The two foreigners were then arrested on charges of trespass. The body was placed close to the winding roadway that leads from the township highway up through the cemetery.
Attorney Arthur C. Simler, an official of the South Fork – Portage line, said today that permission to construct the line hail been given by Bishop Eugene A. Garvey, pending the granting of a petition by the court.
“The title to all church property in the diocese is vested in the Bishop,” said Mr. Simler. He was willing that we build the line through the St.James cemetery, as the tracks are beside the township road, on a strip separated from the cemetery proper by a fence. “We have the option on the property, but can’t close up the right-of-way til we get an order from the Court for the transfer. Our petition for that must be presented during a session of a court, and it it will be presented the first Monday in June. Pending the granting of the order Bishop Garvey indicated his willingness that we proceed with the grading.”
The body will not be moved, at least not for a short time, said Mr. Simler. The steam shovel will be moved to the other end of the cemetery strip, from where work will be done toward the grave. Squire Schofield has not given the two foreigners a hearing, as an attempt is being made to settle the case.
Thomas McGuire. who made the informations against the foreigners, could not be reached today, and an effort to communicate with Father Quinn, pastor of St James Church this afternoon elicited the information that he was at the cemetery.
The body that was placed in the right-of-way was never identified, it is said. The man was thought to have been from Sharon. He was killed near South Fork by a freight train.
Harrisburg Telegraph, 17 Aug 15:
Cunningham Insists on Public Utilities Co. Complying With Law
Highway Commissioner Cunningham and Chief Engineer Uhler served notice to-day by a ruling that public utilities corporations must conform with the law when dealing with the State Highway Department. The South Fork – Portage Railway Company, in Cambria county, has been endeavoring for some time past to secure right of way along a State highway route. Permission to pass beneath a subway, now occupied by the State highway, had been denied, but, through a misunderstanding, the railway company proceeded to lay tracks without a permit along this road.
Chief Engineer Uhler ordered the tracks removed and, on the failure of the company to do so, the State highway employees tore them up. Notwithstanding this, the railway company relaid the tracks and then secured a preliminary injunction in the Cambria county courts preventing the State Highway Department from removing the tracks. Officers said the work had been done without orders. Commissioner Cunningham observed that the officers of the company were responsible for the acts of subordinates.
The representatives of the company were told that unless the tracks were voluntarily removed and the preliminary injunction not acted upon, the department would be perfectly willing to take the subject into the courts for a ruling. After some argument the railway officials acceded to this demand and the tracks in dispute will be removed.
Also, The Johnstown and Altoona Railway was apparently a competitor. See page 32:
We are grateful to Daria Phoebe Brashear for sharing this information.
Editor’s Note: Benson W. Rohrbeck (1933-2015), mentioned above, authored about a dozen books on various Pennsylvania trolley lines, starting in 1964. These were self-published (by Ben Rohrbeck Traction Publications) and spiral-bound. They are an excellent resource.
Again, from Daria Phoebe Brashear:
Stephen Titchenal (Stephen@Titchenal.com)’s guess at the line (heavy yellow line). Mostly matches what I had but I’m unsure what the situation was with the first two underpasses east of Summerhill, why those were okay but the third wasn’t. My guess was that it followed the route of what’s now route 53 (thin yellow line) but the aerials from 1939 don’t obviously show such. Also a small fragment of a 1918 PRR valuation map which I don’t have publication permission for, which confirms the line ran (there) on the north side of the portage railroad, and made it to what would be the 3rd subway east of Summerhill, which is presumably the one the court case was about, which makes sense given that was the “deep” Portage Railroad cut, square in the middle of that fragment.
Given this, it seems pretty likely that that case, making the line unable to use that subway, was what did it in so early (and why it never made it to Portage.)
Of course, looking carefully, the fragment shows the trolley in the 2nd of 3 tunnels at the left. So. Yeah. I guess his map is right!
Last little bits: Since you still wonder about it on the page, I can identify the locations of all 4 pictures.
The two in the portage cut are one end of the line. The other two are in the same spot on Maple Avenue, at the other end of the line, what appears to be at Grant St.
We’re looking up the hill, northeastward out of South Fork. The Line would have logically started where the Southern Cambria connected, which was via the bridge over the PRR, now gone, but shown in this aerial, and still standing when I was in high school, complete with what were probably the bents that held the trolley wire spanning the bridge still standing 60+ years after the Southern Cambria ceased service. On the right side of the street there’s a tailor, and another building behind it, further from us, right out against the street, but on the corner we can see in one of the pictures that the building is set a bit back. It matches Maple and Grant on this image which is 50 years later… but it’s not like there was a lot of reason for South Fork to turn over heavily.
Also, if you look at the image which shows the top of the hill, note that the track appears to move from the center, toward the left, but at the same time the street is narrower and on a shelf? The grade separation is visible in the aerial.
I’ll attach Sanborn 1916s for South Fork which came from sanborn.umi.com and thus can’t be distributed today; alas the Penn State library’s scans of originals only include 1910, and Library of Congress’s aren’t online, or those would be publishable.
The other end was taken looking basically east, from a point slightly west of this:
The trolley line ran on the north of the Portage Railroad (which is now Portage St, route 53) through the cut which is mostly still there just to the west of this point. The railroad cars were on the track to the right — that is, south — of the line outbound from South Fork, and basically just behind the car from our vantage was the other car that never ran, and then the line would have turned slightly left, northeastward, to go through the subway that Cunningham and Uhler scolded them over.
I get it, I suppose. All 3 such subways look like this.
And the problem wasn’t even just that: staying along route 53 would have involved 3 such tunnels between here and Wilmore, and staying on the south side of the PRR here would have bypassed only two of those, leaving the line to need to still somehow get under the PRR and into the middle of Wilmore. Doable, but not cheap. Or they could have bypassed all 3, missed the center of Wilmore and showed up on the south side of the PRR in Portage, but presumably they hadn’t secured usage of any right of way to have let them do that, and they apparently had already used up all their funds getting done only what they did. So that story from 1915 was, realistically, the death of the line, in spite of the opening 2 years later. All I can guess is they hoped to make a good show of opening in the hopes they’d get more funds somehow, but the era of that was over.
Looks like you have solved the mystery for sure… kudos to you, thanks!
More Mystery Photos
If you can help us identify some of these pictures, we would greatly appreciate it. You can either leave a comment on this post, or drop us a line at:
Editor’s Note: Our readers (see the Comments to this post) have helped us reach a general consensus about most of these pictures.
1. The picture of Met “L” cars was taken at the Laramie shops on the Garfield Park line.
2. The Douglas picture may show the Kenton Yard.
3. We have a difference of opinion about the gate cars in the yard, but this could very well be Linden Yard in Wilmette looking north from Maple Avenue. The contemporary view lines up well with the older photo, and this is a place where you would have expected to see gate cars. They were, of course, used throughout the CTA system but in the 1940s and 50s you would have been more likely to see Met cars in the Laramie Yard.
4. and 5. Theses two pictures likely show the Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago operation which ran until 1940. You can read more about that here. This had common ownership with the South Chicago City Railway Company, which explains why these cars look so much like Chicago’s.
6. We are now certain that the picture of car 242 shows the Chicago and Joliet Electric.
Thanks to all who contributed information.
To round out today’s post, here are a few more interesting shots. No mysteries, however:
Help Support The Trolley Dodger
This is our 138th post, and we are gradually creating a body of work and an online resource for the benefit of all railfans, everywhere. To date, we have received over 163,000 page views, for which we are very grateful.
You can help us continue our original transit research by checking out the fine products in our Online Store.
As we have said before, “If you buy here, we will be here.”
We thank you for your support.