Great Allegheny Passage History

Maryland, Pennsylvania

At a Glance

Name: Great Allegheny Passage
Length: 153.22 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Allegany, Allegheny, Fayette, Somerset, Westmoreland
Surfaces: Asphalt, Concrete, Crushed Stone, Dirt, Gravel
State: Maryland, Pennsylvania

A Brief History

The Great Allegheny Passage through Pennsylvania is primarily made up of two former railroad corridors stretching from McKeesport (just south of Pittsburgh) to Cumberland, Maryland, and spans more than 150 miles. The rights-of-way once belonged to the Western Maryland Railway. The former’s route was a relatively new line completed around 1912, while the P&LE corridor is somewhat older, dating to the 1880s. The purpose of the P&LE’s new extension, originally known as the Pittsburgh, McKeesport & Youghiogheny, was to offer a connection to Connellsville, a city served by three other major railroads, including the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), Pennsylvania (PRR), and aforementioned Western Maryland (WM). Coal became a major source of interchange freight at this location for the P&LE. As the years passed, traffic began drying up on the line and interchange partners were lost through mergers and takeovers. In the early 1990s, the route was abandoned altogether.

The history of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie begins with its chartering on May 11, 1875, by William McCreery, a Pittsburgh businessman. McCreery had become tired of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s unfair shipping rates, so along with a group of associates, he set about building his own railroad to serve the Steel City. Their hope was to push the line to the northwest, interchange with other major railroads, and reach Lake Erie. Unfortunately, the original investors, including McCreery, could not find the needed capital and were replaced in July 1877. The new group were more successful in obtaining funding, and construction of the railroad soon began. By February 10, 1879, the original main line was opened between Pittsburgh (where a connection was made with the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad’s [B&O] depot) and Youngstown, Ohio, a distance of 61.9 miles. Here, the new P&LE interchanged with the B&O, Erie Railroad, PRR, and Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway (LS&MS).

At the time, the LS&MS was already controlled by the growing New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (New York Central). Within a year of the P&LE’s opening, it was acquired by the LS&MS. From that point forward, the railroad remained within the NYC fold until the Penn Central era, giving it access to Pittsburgh’s steel mills and an additional route into rival PRR’s territory. The P&LE’s new owners looked to push the road southward to reach the coalfields of southern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia; they also wanted access to additional interchange partners. What was named the Pittsburgh, McKeesport & Youghiogheny Railroad (PMcK&Y, AKA the “P Mickey”) received financial backing from the LS&MS and steel mogul Andre Carnegie. Thanks to this infusion of capital, the PMcK&Y built a line from Pittsburgh, southeast to Connellsville (58.3 miles), which opened in 1883. It was soon formally leased by the P&LE beginning in January 1884.

Grand schemes for the PMcK&Y included being part of the proposed South Penn Railroad connecting Pittsburgh and the state capitol at Harrisburg. While this corridor was never built, the line to Connellsville became an important part of the P&LE system, interchanging freight with the three other roads that reached there (B&O, WM, and PRR). Thanks to Pittsburgh’s significant steel mill industry, the P&LE soon became a profitable operation funneling in coke and coal and shipping out new steel. To continue fueling the mills’ needs, the railroad looked to extend its PMcK&Y subsidiary deeper into the coal fields south of Pittsburgh. This extension began as early as January 1890 when it acquired the small McKeesport & Belle Vernon Railroad, opening between its namesake cities a year earlier. Through the formation of several other smaller companies, all of which were eventually merged into subsidiary PMcK&Y, the road was opened to Brownsville on August 31, 1903. Three years earlier, the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie and Pennsylvania had formed the jointly owned Monongahela Railroad Company to construct a line south of Brownsville Junction. The line would follow the east bank of the Monongahela River to reach Martin, Pennsylvania, and tap several new coal mines in the region.

The Monongahela eventually built or purchased significant trackage throughout southern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia to further expand its coal presence. When the Monongahela reached Morgantown, West Virginia, around World War I, the B&O came in as a third owner of the railroad in 1926. In general, this concluded the growth of the P&LE. Although it was always a small system, the railroad did operate a few classes of bigger steam locomotives, including 2-8-4 “Berkshires” and 2-8-2 “Mikados,” often only found on larger railroads.

The P&LE remained a subsidiary through the formation of the Penn Central, a massive railroad created primarily through the merger of its parent and the PRR in 1968. The doomed PC began losing money almost immediately and entered bankruptcy in 1970. When the railroad was on the verge of a complete shutdown, the government stepped in and created the Consolidated Rail Corporation—Conrail—that began service on April 1, 1976. As a result, the P&LE was spun off and became an independent company again for the first time in nearly a century. The railroad was somewhat successful early on, but the Connellsville line saw less and less use over the years.

Around the time the P&LE became independent, it lost its important connection to the Western Maryland there, whose line was abandoned by successor Chessie System in 1975. Throughout the 1980s, traffic continued to decline across the railroad, as steel mills and other industries began rapidly closing around Pittsburgh. Poor management also took its toll, and because the P&LE needed money, by the late 1980s, it elected to abandon the northern end. I+n 1991, a distance of 43.3 miles. It also sold off its share of the Monongahela Railway in 1989 for much needed cash. Two years later, the P&LE was acquired by CSX Transportation and became part of its reorganized Three Rivers Transportation. Most of the original Pittsburgh & Lake Erie is still used by CSX today.

If you’re interested, Pennsylvania is home to numerous railroad museums and excursion trains. Some of the closest to the trail include the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitizin; Fayette Central Railroad in Uniontown; Greenville Railroad Park & Museum in Greenville; Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad in Titusville; the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington; and the Station Inn at Cresson (a railroad-themed B&B).

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