A Brief History
The “Wild Mary,” as the road was affectionately known, stretched through three different states, including Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, it was the last major railroad to be built toward the west from the East Coast, not to mention one of the smallest. The railway always battled larger and better entrenched competitors to serve the Baltimore and Pittsburgh markets, as well as the northern coalfields of the Mountain State. This was particularly true in the case of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), one of the major eastern trunk lines that paralleled the WM in several locations.
The history of the Western Maryland can be traced back to the Baltimore, Carroll & Frederick Railroad of 1852, which was chartered by the Maryland General Assembly to connect the port city with Hagerstown in Washington County. A year later, the assembly renamed the chartered rail as the Western Maryland Rail Road Company, although it was not until 1872 that it was able to fulfill its charter by reaching Hagerstown. In 1902, the still rather small WM system was acquired by the Fuller Syndicate, headed by George Gould, son of legendary rail baron Jay Gould. It was George’s intention to create a true transcontinental railroad from coast to coast, and he planned to do so by owning several systems to accomplish that task. Ultimately, Gould failed in his attempt; however, thanks to his efforts, the Western Maryland grew prodigiously. In the process of this expansion, he forced the company into receivership in 1908, from which it emerged in 1910 as the Western Maryland Railway Company.
In 1906, the road reached the important city of Cumberland, and a year earlier had purchased a smaller system to tap the lucrative coal deposits of West Virginia. In 1910, Gould began construction of the Connellsville Extension (the line that is now part of the Allegheny Highlands Trail) to continue the WM westward and to establish connections to his other interests. In 1912, this route was opened, initially interchanging with the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie. Later it interchanged with the Gould-owned Pittsburgh & West Virginia (P&WV) once that railroad had completed its own line to Connellsville in 1931. The 88.4-mile extension was known on the WM as the Connellsville Subdivision and used the best engineering practices of the day, resulting in an enormously high price tag of $12 million.
Despite the route’s incredible expense, it was built to manageable grades and sweeping curves, particularly over Sand Patch grade. Compared with the B&O’s line, the WM’s was nearly 4 miles shorter between Connellsville and Cumberland. Overall, the Connellsville Extension featured three tunnels (Big Savage, Borden, and Brush), two towering viaducts (Salisbury and Keystone), and several other smaller bridges. On the Allegheny Highlands Trail, you will be able to enjoy the sights of both viaducts as well as the 3,294-foot Big Savage Tunnel.
During the steam era, you could be treated to some incredible action, since the WM regularly employed its Class I-1 and I-2 Decapods (of the 2-10-0 wheel arrangement) across the subdivision in standard freight service. Other large steam locomotives used here included Class M-2 4-6-6-4 “Challengers” and Class J-1 4-8-4 “Northerns.” The freight these steamers moved included a mixture of interchange traffic, general merchandise, and coal from branch mines north of Connellsville as well as south in West Virginia (both reached via trackage rights over the B&O). With the 1931 opening of the P&WV line to Connellsville, an entire new era emerged on the Western Maryland, expediting fast freights.
While the railroad was already known for its customer-friendly nature, it would also gain a reputation for high-speed service—coining itself as “The Fast Freight Line.” In conjunction with seven other railroads, the name “Alphabet Route” emerged as a through high-speed corridor, stretching from New York and Boston to St. Louis and New York. The line gave customers another option outside of the New York Central, Erie Railroad, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore & Ohio for shipping products between those four points. In all, the railroads in this affiliation included the Nickel Plate Road; New Haven; Lehigh & Hudson River; Jersey Central; Reading; Pittsburgh & West Virginia; Wheeling & Lake Erie; and Western Maryland. The high-priority trains became known as “Alpha Jets”and regularly sped along the Connellsville Subdivision, over the Keystone Viaduct, and through Big Savage Tunnel.
The WM lost its true independence in 1964 when it was acquired by the B&O. However, the railroad began losing its actual identity with the 1972 formation of Chessie System (primarily a marketing company for the B&O, Chesapeake & Ohio, and WM). Here, the new railroad chose to divert WM traffic to and from Connellsville along the parallel B&O route instead. As a result, much of the extension was abandoned around 1975, leaving the property available for reuse and resulting in recreational paths like today’s Allegheny Highlands Trail.
To explore more railroad history in Pennsylvania, the state is home to numerous museums and excursion trains. The closest attractions to the Somerset County include the Western Maryland Scenic Railway (Cumberland, Maryland); East Broad Top Railroad/Rockhill Trolley Museum (Rockhill); Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site/Tunnels Park & Museum (Gallitzin); Pennsylvania Trolley Museum (Washington); and the world-famous Horseshoe Curve (and nearby Altoona Rail Roaders Memorial Museum).Do you have Historical Photos of the Allegheny Highlands Trail?
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