Redbank Valley Rail Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Redbank Valley Rail Trail
Length: 51 Miles
Trail activities: Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Armstrong, Clarion, Jefferson
Surfaces: Ballast, Crushed Stone
State: Pennsylvania

A Brief History

The Redbank Valley Rail Trail is located on former railroad right-of-way and follows Redbank Creek much of the way, extending to Sligo via Lawsonham. All of this property was long-owned by the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, which tapped the region’s extensive natural resources. It was partially constructed by an earlier predecessor during the latter 19th century and later folded into the PRR network during the early 1900s. Over the years, the line remained in use and even survived the turbulent Penn Central years before the era of Conrail began in 1976. After some time it, was sold to a short-line operator until finally being abandoned in the mid-2000s.

According to Albert J Churella’s expansive book “The Pennsylvania Railroad Volume I: Building An Empire, 1846-1917,” the history of railroads serving the Allegheny River and Redbank Creek valleys began with the incorporation of the Pittsburgh, Kittanning & Warren Railroad in April 1837. It was envisioned to connect the Steel City with the Pennsylvania–New York state line and establish a through-connection to Buffalo. However, lack of financial backing resulted in several years passing before any actual construction began. Finally in April 1852, the system was renamed as the Allegheny Valley Railroad (AVRR) and included a projected routing from Pittsburgh to Olean, New York, and a connection with the New York & Erie Railroad (Erie) to reach Buffalo. Work on the new route began in March 1854 and had completed 44 miles between Pittsburgh and Kittanning by January 1856.

Mike Schafer and Brian Solomon point out in their book “The Pennsylvania Railroad,” that in 1859, Edwin Drake discovered oil near Titusville; thus, newfound vigor for the AVRR project took root. With black gold so close, and Pittsburgh already home to a number of refineries, company officials changed plans to reach New York, at least temporarily, to serve these oil fields. A new route was projected to Venango City–Oil City and completed to that point by December 1867. During this time, both railroads began working more closely with one another; the PRR interested in the AVRR’s oil traffic and the latter still wishing to finally reach New York State. The Pennsylvania also eyed the AVRR as a potential secondary main line between eastern Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh.

By the mid-1860s, the railroad was experiencing record volumes of traffic over its primary route and wished to have a freight-only corridor to help alleviate the congestion. Such an idea was proposed by PRR president John Edgar Thompson, who had also served as the company’s chief engineer since 1847. His plan called for the new line to split from Driftwood, Pennsylvania, and connect with the Allegheny Valley at Red Bank. It was somewhat more circuitous, although the route offered lower grades, making it ideal for freight service. For this very reason it became known as the “Low Grade Line” or the “Low Grade Division.” The PRR wanted to build the line itself through a subsidiary known as the Philadelphia & Erie; however, it did not have the necessary charter to do so, which lay with the Allegheny Valley. Through a series of corporate dealings, the PRR became closely aligned with the AVRR. Survey work on the 110-mile line began in 1868 and was completed by May 1874. That year also witnessed a branch completed between Sligo and Lawsonham to tap local lumber and coal traffic. Unfortunately, construction costs had soared to nearly $13 million, more than twice the original estimate, and caused the AVRR to fall into bankruptcy. It was reorganized as the Allegheny Valley Railway and eventually leased by the PRR in 1900.

Thompson’s vision of the Low Grade Line never materialized into the busy freight route he had hoped, though it did prove useful in auxiliary service for many years. As Mr. Churella notes in his book, the corridor would likely have been far more effective had it been extended through northern Ohio, Indiana, and reached Chicago. Thompson had actually hoped to see this realized but was never able to do so. The idea continued to be tossed around for several more decades until the financial struggles of the Great Depression and diminishing traffic volume during that time permanently ended the idea. The once-booming oil industry in eastern Pennsylvania faded at the turn of the 20th century, but the Low Grade Line continued to handle a variety of freight over the years.

During its peak years, the PRR owned an impressive network that stretched roughly 10,000 route miles from New York and Philadelphia to Chicago and St. Louis, linking with virtually every notable city along the way. It proudly proclaimed itself as the “Standard Railroad of the World” and hosted some of the most luxurious passenger trains ever operated. Sadly, its arrogant attitude came at a cost in the postwar years. As freight and passenger volumes dwindled during the 1950s amid shifting traffic patterns toward airlines and highways, the company’s management refused to innovate, sticking with practices that often dated back to the 19th century. Of course, other issues effecting not only the PRR but industry as a whole, lay outside the company’s control, such as government-funded competition (the Interstate Highway System) and stifling regulation that made it difficult to decrease employment and abandon unprofitable routes.

Realizing it would likely need to find a merger partner to ensure its future, the railroad began discussions with long-time rival New York Central in 1957 about just such a union. The merger was approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission on April 27, 1966, and formally occurred on February 1, 1968, creating the Penn Central Transportation Company. Unfortunately, it proved a disastrous idea on many levels, the most striking being incompatible management teams and routes that often duplicated one another, serving many of the same markets. By the end of 1969, the company was losing a staggering half-million dollars a day and declared bankruptcy on June 1, 1970. As service worsened, PC’s issues brought down several railroads with it in the Northeast, many of which also fell into receivership that decade. In an attempt to avoid a looming transportation disaster, the government created Conrail, which began service on April 1, 1976.

Through it all, the old Low Grade Line survived, and remained in use for more than a decade under Conrail until bits were sold off. In 1990, the Sligo Branch was acquired by the Pittsburg & Shawmut, and the short line picked up even more in 1991 when it purchased the Low Grade between Driftwood and Lawsonham. In 1996, the P&S was taken over by the Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., which operates several short lines across the country. With no traffic remaining, on June 29, 2007, it filed to abandon the sections now part of today’s Redbank Valley Rail Trail between Lawsonham-Sligo and Lawsonham-Brookville, an act that was later approved.

Railroad attractions 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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