Panhandle Trail History

Pennsylvania, West Virginia

At a Glance

Name: Panhandle Trail
Length: 29.2 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Allegheny, Brooke, Hancock, Washington
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone
State: Pennsylvania, West Virginia

A Brief History

The Panhandle Trail uses a short segment of what was once a primary component of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad’s (PRR) main line to St. Louis and secondary route to Chicago. The history of this corridor traces back to the mid-19th century via a collection of predecessor systems that became the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (PCC&StL). The PCC&StL is more commonly remembered as the “Panhandle Route” and was integrated into the PRR network early during its push across the Midwest. Throughout this principal corridor, the Panhandle witnessed heavy use during much of its time under PRR ownership. During the late 1960s, the railroad merged with New York Central to form the ill-fated Penn Central. After the latter collapsed, Conrail was formed during the mid-1970s to save rail service in the region. It later felt the Panhandle was superfluous and abandoned large segments, including the section that is today’s trail.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was chartered on April 13, 1846, by an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature in hopes of initiating rail service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. With strong financial backing, the PRR quickly expanded. By December 1852, through new construction and acquiring smaller systems, it was operating a main line from Philadelphia to the Steel City. Even with the opening of this important route, company interests were already working on additional components west of Pittsburgh, providing the railroad with key connections across the Midwest. Three primary subsidiaries formed what became the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway; between Pittsburgh and Columbus, these included the Pittsburgh & Steubenville, Steubenville & Indiana (S&I), and the Hollidays Cove Railroad.

The first system out of Pittsburgh was the Pittsburgh & Steubenville (P&S), first chartered in 1849 to complete a corridor between its namesake cities and link with the Steubenville & Indiana, which was working on a line across Ohio toward the Indiana state line via Columbus. Both railroads were under construction simultaneously, although the plan to link the two at the Ohio River ran into legal trouble. Virginia had little desire to allow the P&S across its Northern Panhandle (now West Virginia), a short sliver of land less than 10 miles in width. According to Mike Schafer and Brian Solomon’s book “Pennsylvania Railroad,” an act of Congress was required to break the stalemate. As a result, Virginia chartered the Hollidays Cove Railroad (HCRR) in 1860 to construct a 7-mile line from Weirton to the Pennsylvania state line. Later, a new bridge across the Ohio River, the HCRR, and P&S all opened in 1865, providing a through-route between Pittsburgh and Columbus 193 miles long.

In 1864, the S&I fell into receivership followed a few years later by the HCRR and P&S. The latter two roads were reorganized as the Panhandle Railway Company in January 1868. The Pennsylvania had largely financed all three projects and consolidated the properties involved into the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway during May of that same year. While the “Panhandle” was short-lived as an independent company, it was long recognized as the route’s moniker (derived from its location). Even today, historians and those interested in the PRR refer to it as the Panhandle.

The second-half of the 19th saw a great era of expansion for the PRR; it had reached Chicago in 1869 (through lease of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago), and the Panhandle was a vital link in its push toward Cincinnati and St. Louis. Notable predecessors in this cause included the Little Miami Railroad; Terre Haute & Indianapolis; and the St. Louis, Alton & Terre Haute. By 1870, the PRR boasted its coveted route to St. Louis, which would not have been possible without another predecessor known as the Columbus, Chicago & Indiana Central Railroad. It had been created in 1868 through the merger of smaller systems, running west from a connection with the Panhandle at Columbus, reaching Chicago (via Bradford, Ohio and Logansport, Indiana offering a secondary route to the Windy City) and Indianapolis.

At its peak size in the early 20th century, the mighty Pennsylvania operated a network spanning roughly 28,000 total miles from New York City to locations previously mentioned, as well as to many others. Mike Schafer notes in his book “Classic American Railroads” that Fortune Magazine once described the PRR as “a nation unto itself.” It was once the most powerful railroad in the country and proudly proclaimed itself as the “Standard Railroad of the World.” While the Panhandle line hosted numerous freight trains, it also witnessed several famous streamlined passenger trains, such as the “St. Louisan” (New York/Washington–St. Louis), “Spirit of St. Louis” (New York–St. Louis), “Penn Texas” (New York/Washington–St. Louis), and “Jeffersonian” (New York–St. Louis).

Despite its size, the company struggled after World War II in part due to a management style that refused to change or modernize over time. In an effort to improve efficiencies through consolidation, the PRR and long-time rival New York Central announced their intent to merge in the late 1950s. After nearly a decade of planning, the new Penn Central Transportation Company was formed on February 1, 1968. The massive conglomerate failed almost immediately and entered bankruptcy of June 21, 1970, causing many smaller railroads throughout the Northeast to also fail. In an effort to preserve rail transportation in the region, the federal government created the Consolidation Rail Corporation (Conrail), which began service on April 1, 1976. Thanks in part to the new Staggers Act of 1980, which greatly deregulated the industry and allowed railroads more freedom in abandoning what they deemed unnecessary trackage, Conrail began focusing on a core group of lines to provide the highest concentration of long-haul freight (notably intermodal).

Its plan did not include the Panhandle Route, and despite opposition, particularly with the state of Ohio, Conrail abandoned many sections of the corridor during the 1980s. Its loss remains controversial even today, particularly with the industry’s current capacity issues as demand for rail service continues to grow all across the country.

Railroad attractions across West Virginia include

West Virginia Central/Durbin & Greenbrier Valley excursion trains in Elkins

Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass, featuring historic geared steam locomotives

Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum & Joy Line Railroad in Harpers Ferry

Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum in Wheeling

Oglebay Good Zoo in Wheeling, featuring scale train rides

Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad excursions in Romney

Railroad attractions across Pennsylvania include

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, Tunnel Park & Museum in Gallitzin

Bellefonte Historical Railroad in Bellfonte

Electric City Trolley Museum, Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton

Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia

Greenville Railroad Park & Museum in Greenville

Harris Switch Tower Museum in Harrisburg

Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark, Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona

Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East

Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe

Ma & Pa Railroad Heritage Village in York

Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad in Middletown

National Toy Train Museum, Strasburg Railroad, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg

New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in New Hope

Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad in Titusville

Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington

Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine & Steam Train in Ashland

Portage Station Museum in Portage

Reading Railroad Heritage Museum in Hamburg

Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace

Tioga Central Railroad in Wellsboro

Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern Railroad in Kempton

West Chester Railroad in West Chester

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