The region around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is now home to a long laundry list of trail projects that use the rights-of-way of many rail lines that once served the Steel City years ago. One of these recreational corridors is the Montour Trail, which follows most of the former Montour Railroad’s main line west and south of Pittsburgh. This little short line was incorporated during the late 19th century and, despite its small size, became very profitable thanks to the many coal mines once located along its main line. It also benefited from having interchanges with most of the region’s notable railroads. In later years, the Montour became a subsidiary of other larger systems. When coal mines closed over the years, the railroad found itself in a difficult position and was finally forced to shut down during the mid-1980s.
The history of the Montour Railroad begins in 1877 when the company was chartered as a subsidiary of the Imperial Coal Company to serve its mines located around the small area of Imperial, Pennsylvania, about 9 miles southwest of the Ohio River. The new railroad branched from a connection with the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie at Montour Junction (where its main shops and terminal was located), just south of Coraopolis along the banks of the river. It then snaked southward to Imperial, listed at 9.51 miles, according to the Montour’s timetable. Here, the railroad not only served its parent’s mine, but also would reach other tipples that later opened at nearby Scott Mine (owned by the Montour Collieries Company), Dickson Mine (owned by Pittsburgh Coal Company, which later owned the Montour), and Marshall Mine (owned by the Marcon Coal Company).
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The Montour remained roughly the same length until a flurry of construction began in 1912 to reach additional mines. Once completed in 1917, the line reached Mifflin Junction and connected there with the Union Railroad and Bessemer & Lake Erie (via trackage rights over the URR). Its system made a rough “C” shape, heading west from Imperial for 3 miles and then swing southward into Washington County for 22 miles before reentering Allegheny County and eventually on to Mifflin Junction. It also added a spur at Library Junction, which reached Snowden to the east, and another connection with the Baltimore & Ohio. All across its network, which stretched 44.89 miles from Montour Junction to Mifflin Junction (not including other spurs and secondary lines), the railroad opened service to numerous mines—more than a dozen in all.
Aside from connections with the aforementioned railroads, the Montour also interchanged with the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad (at four different locations), Pittsburgh & West Virginia, and the West Side Belt Railroad. Its growth continued through the 1930s when additional short spur lines were built to reach additional mines. While the railroad offered passenger service, it was a low-key affair since most communities along its system were small. As a result, it survived only until the 1920s.
During the steam era, the Montour relied primarily on a small but rugged fleet of 2-8-2 “Mikados.” When diesels began arriving in 1950, starting with Electro-Motive SW7 #72, the railroad decided to stick with the switcher model to move freight. This is interesting since switchers were not normally used in such a way—most railroads assigned them to switching and/or other light duty work—although on small railroads they could sometimes be found in standard road service, as on the Montour. Through 1953, it continued to purchase switchers, adding 12 more, all of which were SW9s (also Electro-Motive products).
After World War II, the Montour’s fortunes slowly began to decline when the mines it relied on so much for its freight traffic started to close. During 1946, its then-parent, the Pittsburgh Coal Company, sold the property to the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central subsidiary Pittsburgh & Lake Erie. After 1968, the Montour was under sole ownership of the newly formed Penn Central. However, this railroad’s bankruptcy in 1970 resulted in the short line being sold to a now independent Pittsburgh & Lake Erie in 1975. By this time, just a few mines remained open, and the Montour was only operating about half of its original system (a little over 20 miles). In 1980, it lost its largest remaining customer; Consolidation Coal’s Montour number 4 mine near Hill was flooded following heavy rains and later closed. During 1983, the last mine still served by the Montour Railroad was also closed, so with no remaining customers, the system was abandoned in 1985.
Railroad attractions near the Montour Trail include the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitzin; Fayette Central Railroad in Uniontown; Greenville Railroad Park & Museum in Greenville; Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East; Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad in Titusville; Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona; and the Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum in nearby Wheeling, West Virginia.