South Penn Railroad Right of Way

One of my favorite associate web pages

The Right of way of the South Penn Railroad was a section that ran between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on todays Pennsylvania Turnpike. Roughly between the mile markers 68.3 and 126.00. The reason the 68.3 mile marker is stated is that this is known for sure as the exit or entrance onto the turnpike by the proposed railroad in its survey of 1884. This is located just east of the Irwin interchange.

When the Pennsylvania turnpike opened on October 1, 1940 12:01 am. Irwin was the western terminus or exit 1. This interchange was where you had to enter the turnpike to go east. People traveling east from Pittsburgh would have to travel route 30 to get to the toll plaza.

On the other side of the turnpike, Middlesex interchange was exit 11 and was the eastern terminus of the turnpike. People traveling west from Harrisburg would access the toll plaza by way of highway 11.

The whole length of the highway was 160 miles long and remained that way, till just after the second world war. In 1948-50 the eastern extension was constructed. It opened on 11/20/1950. The western extension was constructed between 1949-1951 It opened on 12/26/1951.

The exits along the original turnpike were:

Exit 1. Irwin now Exit 7.

Exit 2. New Stanton now Exit 8.

Exit 3. Donegal now Exit 9.

Exit 4. Somerset now Exit 10.

Exit 5. Bedford now Exit 11.

Exit 6 Breezewood now Exit 12.

Exit 7. Fort Littleton now Exit 13.

Exit 8. Willow Hill now Exit 14.

Exit 9. Blue Mountain now Exit 15.

Exit 10. Carlise eliminated, now a bird sanctuary

Exit 11. Middlesex now renamed Carlise Exit 16.

This page deals mainly about the Grades, Fills, Cuts, Culverts, Tunnels, and other constructed structures that the South Penn Railroad built in 1884. I endeavor to reveal to you, the remaining work sites. I want to point out that it took me several years to aquire these photos.

The first time I learned of the South Penn was when I visited the Johnstown flood dam site which is off of route 219 northeast of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I learned as a student in school about the great flood and always wanted to visit the site. I finally journeyed to the site in 1997 after completing my work job that was in the vicinity and stopped in and asked some questions. The question that got me on my way was why was the dam built. The answer was it was built for the rich to have a place to spend away, but not to far away from their homes and businesses in Pittsburgh. But there was a statement made by the ranger that the dam was originally built for the Pennsylvania state run canal system. The state sold all the canals to the Pennsylvania railroad after they did performed poorly. The dam site was sold by the Pennsylvania Railroad to a private owner who turned it into a resort for the rich. Just a note, The rangers stated that the dam had a previous history of falling in disrepair under the railroad ownership. It had burst once before but so little water was in the reservoir that little damage was done before it reached Johnstown some 14 miles down stream. The new owner repaired the dam site and as history shows it was done rather poorly.

The Pennsylvania Railroad history is summed up this way, The Pennsylvania state run canal system was a failure and the state sold it to the only bidder who happened to have been the only major railroad in the state. It was sold for seven million dollars and the major sections were covered over by the rails of this railroad. The sections that the railroad didn't use were sold off such as the Johnstown dam site. The Pennsylvania Railroad grew to such levels that they soon became a giant in the railroad industry. Their position brought them to a point where they didn't care where they went to aquire goods to carry across there lines. Several smaller railroads were brought to their knees and folded when the Pennsylvania became there competitor.

This was a common practice amoung many railroads and sometimes the threatened railroads would fight back. This was the case of the New York Central and Hudson River Rail Road. and its owner William Vanderbilt. His railroad was located in New York state and ran north, from New York City, on the east shore of the Hudson river to Albany New York. Than it traveled west through Buffalo, Cleveland and finally to Chicago. The Pennsylvania Railroad is said to have backed a competing railroad that was building on the west shore of the Hudson to compete with the NYC. Vanderbilt was furious. He decided to build a competing line in the Pennsylvania Railroads back yard.

This back yard is the area which we will discuss. It is located just about thirty miles south of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is said that the Pennsylvania Railroad was a little angry when they found that they were being invaded by the NYC. The new grade was not going to be just a spiteful venture but one that was going to give the Pennsy a run for their money.

This attack and counter attack was timed just right for several rich industrialist in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. This was perfect for them because they were also angry with the Pennsylvania railroad who was gouging the big business giants. They approached and encouraged Vanderbilt to build this new line by investing heavily in his new route.

Men like Carnegi, Frick, Phipps, Oliver even Rockafeller. They all jumped on this scheme to bring the PRR to its knees. In 1884 a survey was completed and this is its route. It is said that at least three surveys were done before this one was chosen.

When I heard of this story I again asked questions on this subject and was told that this route is now a part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and that the turnpike used its right f way as the turnpike route. I thought how interesting it might be to find some of these remaining sites. I never thought I would find so much of it. It wasn't easy at first, I first found a book by William Shank and it told me in general where these tunnels were. I of course found that there were originally nine tunnels started by the South Penn and that the turnpike only used seven when they constructed the pike. I found that today there are only four tunnels used . I sought out the locations of the remaining tunnels.

One of the books that I have shows that in 1935 a study was done on this route and is shown to have been well thought of and planned and no section was to be in shoddy condition. It was considered an engineering wonder.

The first tunnel I found was the Laurel Hill Tunnel and was originally used by the turnpike between 1940 and October 30, 1964, it was bypassed by a 3.1 mile cut to the north between the 99.8 mp and the 102.5 mp. This is east of the Donegal interchange 9.

The second tunnel is the Quemahoning tunnel at the 106.3 mp. It was never used by the pike but was a functioning railroad tunnel for the Pittsburgh Westmoreland & Somerset railroad which ran from 1909 to 1916 from the small town of Ligonier Pennsylvania in Westmoreland County. It was a short cut for passengers to access the Pennsylvania Railroad line to Pittsburgh by using another railroad which was owned by the Mellon family which was called the Ligonier Valley Railroad from Ligonier to the Pennsylvania Railroad station ( now DeSalvo's Italian Resturaunt) in Latrobe. This tunnel is best seen by traveling west from Somerset interchange 10.

The third tunnel is named Negro Mountain. It is at a cut at the 116.0 mp. This is off the turnpike to the north and there is a opening about 400 feet in the woods. The pike never used this tunnel and is in rough condition. To access this east portal you would best travel east on highway 31 east of Somerset. When you find yourself crossing over the turnpike, and you no longer see the turnpike on your left, watch for a bar on your left. Turn around and make a right just past the bar. Cross the pike and as the road curves to your right than left the area where a pull over is on your right is a good place to walk, down over the hill along a fence which will be on your left. the opening is deep in the woods on the right. As you walk down over the hill, you should see the turnpike ahead of you. This will tell you that you are headed in the right direction. It also is a utility path right of way.

The fourth tunnel is in a valley just east of the well known town of Breezewood Pennsylvania. The best way to access this site is to enter through the toll booths at exit 12. and just as you approach the ramp for Breeezewood. take the Chambersburg ramp to route 30 east. Follow this up the mountain till you see a sign on the left for an auto body repair establishment. Make this left at the sign and follow it down hill till you see an overpass above you. turn around and find a place on your right and park. walk up the embankment to the top of the overpass. this is the old abandoned turnpike route which will lead you to the west portal of the Rays Hill tunnel.

To access the east portal of Rays Hill tunnel, travel back to route 30 and continue climbing the highway to the top of the mountain. Just as you level out you should see a highway that will permit you to travel down hill onto highway 915 south, instead of taking this highway though, make a left onto a gravel road. Follow for 3 miles to Oregon Camp. This is just a short piece on the right after you pass under another overpass. This overpass is again, another section of the same abandoned turnpike. Just to the left of the rangers cabin, is an access trail which will lead you to the old pike. To the right is a four mile walk to the Rays Hill tunnel.

While at the trail, which lead you to the abandoned pike at Oregon Camp, you will most likely have seen on your left as you came out onto the old pike, the western portal of the fifth tunnel. This is the Sideling Hills west portal. Like the Rays Hill tunnel, it was completed by the turnpike in 1940 and abandoned in the bypass project on November 26, 1968.

The east portal of the Sideling Hill tunnel, is accessed by continuing on the gravel road east of Oregon Camp and making a right turn as you reach a paved road which is highway 915 north. At the top of the mountain, make a left at a split onto another paved road. Travel this till you reach a stop sign ( about four miles) and make a right. Continue straight even if the road seems to want you to make a turn to the left. This will bring you to another overpass. Again this is another section of the abandoned turnpike and just before the overpass make a right. This will lead you to the old Cove Plaza which was one of the original rest areas of the 1940 turnpike. It was demolished, but the parking lot remains. You will have to walk to the right for about two miles to reach the east portal of the Sideling Hill tunnel.

A bit of information about the Allegheny Mountain tunnels which is near the 123.4 mp.( 13 miles east of Somerset exit) The two tunnels that you as a traveler travel through were not built by the old railroad crews, but the turnpike in the 1937 era. The turnpike decided that the railroad tunnel was unsafe and in a way was the first abandoned railroad tunnel by the pike engineers, in 1937-40. The turnpike first built the west portal as part of the original turnpike and than built the east portal during the years 1962-66. The original South Penn tunnel still exist and is accessible by traveling west on the pike from the Bedford interchange 11. The tunnel is just as you reach the tunnel portals. Pull over and park before entering the tunnel. Walk the gravel access road on the right side of the building, and just as the road turns left over the building continue straight into the face of the hill, there is a sort of pit in front of you, watch your step and view the opening below you.

Most people stop short of describing the South Penn structures. I read a few web pages on the internet but they all show a few of the tunnels but not any of the grades that still remain. I wanted to find as many of the sites as possible and still venture out especially in the winter months and spring and fall season to get as many good sites into my collection. So the following photos will enlighten the reader into continuing their search as well.

There is about 60% of the old railroad grade stretched out across the state. Some of it is on private property and most if not all of it can be seen by an access road near the grades and structures. The report I have, state that the railroad had about one more year of work to complete before it was to be an operational ralroad. The fact that the railroad had to make a lot of winedy curves, while on the other hand the turnpikes goal was to keep a straight as possible route it would be a good guess that a lot of the old South Penn curves were abandoned like some of the tunnels previously mentioned.

Another interesting topic of the South Penn Railroad is the two railroads that did use part of the South Penn grade. They were the Pittsburgh Westmoreland & Somerset Railroad which used the grade from the east side of the Laurel Hill Mountain to the north east side of Somerset. It started out as a lumber railroad than changed to a passenger service between Ligonier and Somerset.

The second railroad is the Reichly Brothers. This was another lumber operation. They used part of the now abandoned South Penn Railroad/Turnpike route located east of Breezewood. This section supposidly has some trace of the grade in the valley between Rays Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels.

The last information I would like to inform the viewer is that this route was always considered to be a possible route for a railroad even upto and including the year 1937. This is the same year that the turnpike started construction which ended anymore talk of it becoming a railroad.

The following photos are all South Penn structures built in the 1880s by Vanderbilt's crews. They are mostly located in the mountains of south central Pennsylvania.