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The Railroad That Never Was

Vanderbilt, Morgan, and the South Pennsylvania Railroad

Herbert H. Harwood, Jr.

Publication Year: 2010

Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., tells the story of one of the most infamous railroad construction projects of the late 19th century. 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.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Railroads Past and Present

Title Page

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pp. vi-vii

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Sources and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

As will be noted from the source notes, much of the material in this book came from original documents that at one time had been in the files of the corporate secretary of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which inherited the records of the South Pennsylvania Syndicate, South Pennsylvania Railroad, ...

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pp. 1-3

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, ...

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1 Prelude: The Omnipotent Pennsylvania Railroad

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pp. 4-13

After the Civil War, U.S. railroads rapidly reshaped the country’s economy, making possible mass production, large-scale mining and farming, and mass markets for it all. Railroading, too, had become a spectacular growth industry; capital was poured into building new lines seemingly everywhere—some of them soundly based, ...

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2 The Back Story

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pp. 14-18

In picking up the South Pennsylvania’s corporate charter and its negligible other assets, Vanderbilt and his allies bought into a legacy of doomed dreams. Until then the history of efforts to build a rail route across Pennsylvania’s “southern tier” had been long and notably unproductive, if not downright dismal. ...

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3 Why?

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pp. 19-29

So whatever possessed Vanderbilt to take on this kind of challenge? The common story is that he became enraged at what he thought was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s support of the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railway, a projected new line directly paralleling his New York Central’s main line between New York Harbor and Buffalo. ...

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4 Vanderbilt Takes Charge

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pp. 30-35

No one knows precisely how and when Vanderbilt gained control of the old South Penn company. Secret negotiations were carried on through agents, so one can only spot names and dates in the company records and make associations. Up to late 1881 the dormant railroad had been in the hands of those ostensibly independent ...

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5 The Spoilers

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pp. 36-38

Vanderbilt may have thought he was moving into the South Penn under deep cover, but it took no time for word to get out that something serious was going on in southern Pennsylvania and that Vanderbilt probably was involved. And when it did, several similar projects miraculously materialized, created by promoters ...

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6 The Syndicate Forms

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pp. 39-51

All this was happening before the South Penn was even fully organized and its financing put in place. And that took some time because Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Gowen, and their allies wanted to keep the project tightly controlled by those with a direct stake in its success without the risk of PRR agents or any other ...

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7 A Rugged Route

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pp. 52-64

While the South Penn was always intended as a Harrisburg–Pittsburgh main line, there were early arguments about how it would do so. The assumption, of course, was that it would join the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie’s PMcK&Y subsidiary at some point along its Monongahela–Youghiogheny River route east of Pittsburgh. ...

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8 Building a Mountain Railroad

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pp. 65-75

Since the South Penn’s promoters wanted to get the entire railroad into operation as soon as possible, little thought was given to opening it piecemeal to points where there might be immediate traffic opportunities, such as in the relatively well settled Cumberland Valley or the Broad Top coal connections ...

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9 The Second Front

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pp. 76-80

The South Penn was surely the most dramatic and expensive element in William Vanderbilt’s war with the Pennsylvania. But as the South Penn’s contractors were blasting through the mountains, he, Franklin Gowen, and General George J. Magee of the Fall Brook Coal Company were also invading Pennsylvania Railroad ...

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10 Cooler Heads and Colder Feet Emerge

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pp. 81-89

Vanderbilt was in poor health, suffering from his chronic high blood pressure and, later, from the effects of a mild stroke. Back in 1880 he had arranged with J. P. Morgan to sell half of his considerable New York Central stock holdings, and in May 1883 he had resigned the New York Central’s presidency, ...

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11 A Summer Cruise on the Hudson

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pp. 90-100

As the railroad builders worked toward finishing their job, Vanderbilt’s secret talks with the Pennsylvania picked up again. In February 1885 PRR vice president Frank Thomson resumed the dialogue, using General George Magee as the intermediary. Magee, it will be recalled, was a Vanderbilt associate and member ...

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12 Not Quite Dead

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pp. 101-112

Business historians have told the story of J. P. Morgan’s Corsair victory innumerable times, with varying degrees of accuracy, but few have noted that it quickly went awry and was never consummated in the form intended. As it turned out, the Pennsylvania Railroad was forced to renege on its part of the bargain. ...

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13 The End

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pp. 113-126

So things stood as the twentieth century rolled around. Although inert, overgrown, and mostly forgotten, the South Pennsylvania Railroad still existed with its original charter intact, and thus still potentially dangerous to the Pennsylvania should some outsider manage to get his hands on it. While Jay Gould himself ...

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14 Railroad to Superhighway, More or Less . . .

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pp. 127-134

Times had dramatically changed by the mid-1930s. The Great Depression was raging, or rather slouching, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was looking for ways to create jobs. By then, too, the nature of transportation was changing. Ever since the end of World War I, motor vehicles had been taking increasing numbers ...

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15 Epilogue: Ghost Hunting along the South Penn

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pp. 135-150

Many historians seem to take it for granted that the original Pennsylvania Turnpike alignment followed the defunct railroad right-of-way. It did, but mostly only in a general way, not as a duplication of the line that was surveyed and partly built. As we have just noted, except for the tunnels and a few short stretches ...


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pp. 151-156


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pp. 157-160


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pp. 161-165

E-ISBN-13: 9780253001559
E-ISBN-10: 0253001552
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253355485

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 50 b&w illus., 20 maps
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Railroads Past and Present