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 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, presidet; 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:
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 probably was taken at Laramie 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:
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