publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
  • Over the Alleghenies: Early Canals and Railroads of Pennsylvania by Robert J. Kapsch
Robert J. Kapsch. Over the Alleghenies: Early Canals and Railroads of Pennsylvania. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2013. 376 pp. Maps, illustrations. Paper, $39.99.

In Over the Alleghenies, Robert Kapcsh provides a detailed and insightful description of the politics, engineering, and financing that enabled the construction of Pennsylvania's nineteenth-century state-owned transportation network. The first chapter, "Early America and the Coming of the Transportation Revolution," provides a historical context within which the development of state-sponsored public transportation systems can be understood. With the political stabilization of Europe that followed the Napoleonic Wars (1815), Pennsylvania and other states began accessing European funds, via bonds, to construct state-sponsored transportation networks. The primary goal of these networks was to convey goods, primarily flour, to the ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore for export to European and Caribbean markets. Because overland roads were tortuous and navigation on rivers and streams was treacherous, it was concluded that networks of still-water canals would be the most efficient way to transport goods across long distances. In 1825 the first state-sponsored public canal system, New York's 368-mile Erie Canal, was completed, establishing a direct link between Lake Erie at Buffalo and the Hudson River at Albany. Incentivized by New York's accomplishment, Pennsylvania and Maryland began working in earnest on their own state-funded trade networks. Maryland opened the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) along the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay to the National Road at Cumberland in 1831, followed by the Pennsylvania Main Line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 1834, and by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) from Baltimore to the National Road at Cumberland in 1841.

In chapter 2 Kapsch describes the inception and actualization of Pennsylvania's state-sponsored transportation network. The text presents details about the individual engineers, board members, and commissioners who participated in the project, and describes the steps, and missteps, that were taken en route to achieving this engineering feat. The primary goal of the Pennsylvania Main Line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was to divert products to the ports of Philadelphia and away from Baltimore. Prior to its completion, virtually all the goods from central Pennsylvania were floated [End Page 428] down the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay and the ports of Baltimore, while exports from the eastern part of the state were transported to Cumberland, Maryland, via the federally sponsored National Road, and thence to Baltimore via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. This goal was achieved with the completion of the Main Line in 1834, and the creation of a network of interconnected ancillary canals that radiated throughout the state by 1837. When combined, Pennsylvania's transportation network extended approximately 1,120 miles.

The five subdivisions of the Pennsylvania Main Line are described individually in chapters 3 to 7. The three segments of water-based transport, the Eastern, Western, and Juniata divisions, are described in chapters 3–5, while the two overland segments, the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&CR) and the Allegheny Portage Railroad, are detailed in chapters 6 and 7. Each chapter not only presents the history of a particular segment, but also provides detailed descriptions of many of the individual structures (locks, aqueducts, viaducts, rail lines, and dams) associated with the section at hand. An important innovation of the Main Line as a whole was the design and use of multipart canal boats that could be disassembled to facilitate their transport by rail. The two rail lines, the P&CR and the Allegheny Portage Railroad, were similar in that each utilized one-of-a-kind steam locomotives to pull cars along level sections of track, and stationary steam engines to hoist cars up and down the inclined planes. Completion of the Allegheny Portage Railroad stands apart from the P&CR by its use of ten (compared to two) inclined planes by the excavation of the 870-foot Staple Bend Tunnel, the first railroad tunnel built in the United States. Changes in track design from straps to T-rails and the transition from stone sleepers and sills to wooden crossties are among the important advances ushered in by the Main Line railroads.

The state-owned canals of central Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna, West Branch, and North Branch divisions, and the North Branch Extension, are described in chapter 8. The Susquehanna Division extended north from the Main Line at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers to the juncture of the West Branch and North Branch divisions at Northumberland Borough. Although it was originally intended to extend from Northumberland to the Allegheny River basin, construction of the West Branch Division ended at Farrandsville in Clinton County. From Northumberland, the North Branch Division was completed [End Page 429] to the mouth of the Lackawanna River in Luzerne County in 1831. The North Branch Extension, initiated in 1836 but not completed until 1856, extended from the North Branch Division in Luzerne County to the New York border of Bradford County. There it met the Chenango Canal, thereby gaining access to the transportation network that included the Erie Canal.

Chapters 9 and 10 describe the state-owned canals of eastern and western Pennsylvania, respectively. The primary function of eastern Pennsylvania's Delaware Division, which extended from the Delaware River at Bristol to the privately owned Lehigh Canal in Easton, was the transport of anthracite, while the goal of the western network, comprised of the French Creek and Beaver divisions and the Erie Extension, was to connect the statewide transportation system to the markets availed by the transportation networks of northern Ohio and Lake Erie. The French Creek Division connected the Allegheny River at the mouth of French Creek to Lake Conneaut, while the Beaver Division connected the Ohio River at Rochester in Beaver County to the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal in Pulaski Township in Lawrence County, thereby gaining access to the markets of Ohio and Lake Erie via that privately funded canal. The goals of the Erie Extension were two fold: to connect the Beaver and French Creek divisions at Lake Conneaut, and to construct a canal linking Lake Conneaut and Lake Erie. Although completed to Conneaut Lake in 1840, the passage to Lake Erie was never completed.

The final chapter describes two seemingly disparate topics, the ill-conceived and never-completed Gettysburg Extension Railroad, and the demise and disassembly of Pennsylvania's state-owned transportation network. The story of the Gettysburg Extension is apparently included in this chapter because it illustrates how political influence enabled poor decisions. In this case the primary benefactor of this aborted line from Gettysburg to the B&O railroad at Hagerstown would have been its primary proponent, US Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who just happened to own several ironworks along the route. The remainder of the chapter describes the collapse, divestment, and disassembly of the state-owned transportation network.

When the canal system was conceived, the Canal Commissioners expected toll receipts to be more than sufficient to pay for costs of construction and maintenance, and that surpluses might even reduce or eliminate the need for other sources of state revenue such as taxes. However, [End Page 430] this expectation failed to materialize due to a variety of factors. During the earliest stages of design, the ability to acquire highly qualified engineers was hamstrung by the Canal Commissioners' decision to limit engineer salaries to $2,000 per year, when competitors were offering $5,000. In another bid to save money, the commissioners decided to use wooden components in structures rather than solid masonry. By the time that the wooden elements of locks and aqueducts had rotted, there were insufficient funds to make the repairs. As early as 1829 the program was in financial trouble due to interstate competition for workers, cost overruns, and lower-than-expected toll receipts. Adding to these travails, the network was plagued by perennial floods, droughts, mudslides, and ice jams, all of which caused extensive damage, delays, and temporary closures. Poorly designed dams resulted in frequent blowouts, the widespread use of conventional (rather than hydraulic) cement caused the failure of submerged masonry, and rudimentary sanitation resulted in rampant disease (initially typhoid, and cholera after 1832) and the deaths of many workers. Almost from the beginning, Pennsylvania borrowed to pay the interest on old debt, a pattern that could not be sustained. The system was dealt a fatal blow by the Panic of 1837 and the recession that ensued. On July 1, 1842, Pennsylvania, the wealthiest state in the union, defaulted on its bonds, precipitating the death of the state-owned transportation network. By the mid-1850s the network was being dismantled and segments sold to the highest bidder for pennies on the dollar.

Over the Alleghenies is highly recommended to historians, architectural historians, industrial archaeologists, and anyone else with a keen interest in the political history, economics, design, and construction of Pennsylvania's state-owned canal and railroad network. In support of the detailed text, this handsome book, manufactured from heavyweight paper in an 8.5×10-inch format, includes more than 180 figures and nearly 80 pages of endnotes. All of the figures, which include technical drawings, etchings, engravings, panoramic views, and reproductions of news articles and legal notices, are presented in their original full color. My only criticism is that the publisher neglected to include a list of figures, making it difficult to locate specific images without thumbing through the various chapters; an unfortunate omission for this valuable and noteworthy volume. [End Page 431]

Gary F. Coppock
Terracon, Inc.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.