Thursday, July 4, 2013
Today's Train of Thought: Pitt-riotic Display, July 4th, 2013
Today's Train of thought takes us to one of the busiest portions of rail line in the Keystone state- and the Norfolk Southern system for that matter.
I make sure there's zero ambiguity regarding my love for the main streets of small towns (and/or curvaceous bikini clad women) decked out in bunting for 4th of July Parades, but from rickety branchlines that see maybe one train a month to well polished mainlines that get 70 trains a day, nothing says "America- fuck yeah!" to me more than the rail network. Do you want to know why we don't have high speed intercity passenger trains outside of the northeast? It's not because of an ignorant and intransigent public like some HSR advocates claim- it's because of the sheer volume of goods and commodities that move to market by rail. High Speed Rail would either take one of these vital arteries offline by using it for dedicated passenger service or future HSR lines would have to be built from scratch- both of which are cost prohibitive. Freight- for lack of a better term- pays the freight.
During the 1999 breakup of Conrail, Norfolk Southern obtained the former Pennsy Pittsburgh line between the Enola and Conway yards [just outside of Harrisburg and Pittsburg, respectively- NANESB!]. Dubbed the Pitt Line, this 248 mile mainline traverses some of the most difficult terrain east of the Mississippi. Between Harrisburg and Altoona, the line avoids the difficult terrain by hugging the western bank of the Susquehanna River before turning west and paralleling the Juniata River for much of the way into Altoona. West of Altoona, the Pitt Line's assault on the Alleghenies begins in earnest, climbing grades as steep as 1.86% before traversing the famed Horseshoe Curve and cresting the Alleghenies at the town of Gallitzin- a mountain town named after an 18th century Russian aristocrat who became one of the first ordained Catholic priests in the newly-formed USA. Along the route, the Pitt line cuts through an interesting and often overlooked cross section of American history that dates from before the French established Fort Duquesne to the current natural gas drilling boom along the Marcellus Shale.
Heading west, the line coasts downgrade about 25 miles towards Johnstown, PA. From Johnstown, the Pitt Line follows the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas Rivers into Pittsburgh and onto the massive yard at Conway, PA from there.
The line provides a sampler of early US History along its route- Harrisburg was a key supply and logistics center for the Union and the ultimate objective for Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during the Battle of Gettysburg. Further west, despite being rendered obsolete nearly a decade before the Civil War, the Allegheny Portage railroad (which hauled passengers, cargo and barges between canal termini in Hollidaysburg and Johnstown) feature America's first railroad tunnel in Conemaugh township and is now part of a National Historic Park. Horseshoe Curve itself is considered an engineering marvel and was important enough for the US Army to assign troops to guard it against sabotage during the Civil War and World War II.
West of the Alleghenies are the six counties who were among the first locales to rebel against the United States government during the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion after the government attempted to levy a tax on the production of distilled spirits. Johnstown itself is infamous for a catastrophic 1889 flood that killed more than 2000 people. A Pennsylvania Railroad employee became part of Johnstown flood lore that day when Engineer John Hess saw a massive wall of water and debris heading towards his locomotive in East Conemaugh, PA. Acting quickly, Hess reportedly tied down the steam whistle and threw the engine into reverse, the shriek of the steam whistle serving as a warning to the townspeople of Conemaugh of the deadly wall of water and debris hearing their way. Hess was said to have barely escaped his locomotive by the time the deadly onslaught caught up with him.
More recently Johnstown was put back on the map thanks to the eccentric goons of the fictitious Charlestown Chiefs in the 1977 cult hockey comedy Slap Shot. The 'Charlestown Chiefs' are widely believed to be a stand-in for the real life Johnstown Jets of the early 1970s and much of the movie was filmed in and around the Johnstown, PA area with the closure of a steel mill being one of the movie's backstories. Less than a decade later, the East Coast Hockey League established a team in the city and a contest was held to name the new ECHL. Sure enough, the fictional Chiefs were the hands down winner and the team remained in Johnstown for 22 seasons before moving to South Carolina in 2010 in what was clearly a case of life imitating art.
Here, eastbound Norfolk Southern Conway-Enola freight 10A is seen beginning its attack on the Alleghenies at Vandergrift, PA on June 21st, 2008. This mixed freight set to traverse this historic line and the communities alongside it with former Conrail C40-8W #8415 (still in blue) leading and a Helm leasing former Union Pacific SD60 still in armour yellow. Railpictures.net contributor Tom Granville framed this shot beautifully with Old Glory in the foreground.