The History of the Railroad in Indiana County Part IV

The automobile and the Depression took a heavy toll. In an effort to cut operating costs PRR had put a gasoline combination baggage-passenger car in service between Indiana and the Torrance intersection with the mainline.  B&O put a similar car on the Punxsutawney-Indiana line.  These were known as “hoodlebugs.”

In 1940, plans were underway by the U.S. Army Engineer Corps to build the Conemaugh flood control dam near Tunnelton.  This would flood the PRR lines in many places and necessitate rebuilding them on higher ground.  The railroad bridge between Blairsville and Torrance Junction was within the flood control area and had to be razed late in 1940, thus cutting Indiana County’s connection with the mainline.

Passenger train “Groundhog Flyer” of the B&O in 1949

Due to this and dwindling passenger use, PRR discontinued passenger service to Indiana.  The last passenger train ran from Indiana to Blairsville on April 18, 1940.  Ralph E. Forrester was the conductor and C.A. Taubler the engineer on this last run by gasoline car No. 4656.

While work proceeded on the Conemaugh Dam, the West Penn tracks were being re-routed in several places.  Below the dam a high-level bridge replaced the old Bow Ridge tunnel and bridge.  In Saltsburg, the entire line was abandoned.

The last passenger train passed through Saltsburg in 1947 and the last freight train in September 1951.  The railroad had been built on the old canal towpath which is now known as the Saltsburg Canal Park.  The Saltsburg station gradually deteriorated and was razed in October 1975.

Elsewhere PRR ended its passenger service from Clymer to Cresson.  The last passenger train left Clymer on October 4, 1947.  That left only one railroad in Indiana County offering passenger service – the B&O “hoodlebug” from Punxsutawney to Indiana.

Finally on June 10, 1950, the B&O gave up; gasoline engine No. 6040 made its last run operated by engineer M.S. Reams, and conducted by Thomas Baird, both of Punxsutawney.

The age of steam was also ending.  On January 3, 1954, the last steam freight locomotive, a 124-foot J-1, left the Blairsville railroad yards enroute to Pitcairn and the scrap yards.

Over the years, many miles of railroad have been abandoned, some branch lines to coal mines and others trunk lines.  The B&O from Juneau through Trade City and Plumville was abandoned and tracks torn up.  In February 1975, the old Indiana Branch of PRR was abandoned and the tracks torn up in 1980.

Disaster befell the PRR and NYC.  Both railroad giants were in financial trouble in the 1960s.  A merger of the two was effected in 1968 and named Penn Central – the largest railroad in the U.S. Various economies were tried.

On May 29, 1967, PRR terminated all its operations at the Blairsville yards and moved them to Kiskiminetas Junction.  In July 1969, all railroad structures in Blairsville except the station were torn down – the round house, a 100-foot turn table, coal tipple, sandhouse and repair shops.  By 1975, Penn Central was bankrupt and a new corporation was formed with Federal government help – Conrail – to continue freight service.

The History of the Railroad in Indiana County Part III

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s 48-year monopoly of railroad traffic on its Indiana Branch was about to end.  In September 1902 BR and P officials gave a contract to Alexander Patton for the construction of a 15-mile section from McKee’s Mills (Ernest) to Black Lick.  About a year later in August 1903 it was revealed that, in consideration of a contract with Pittsburgh Coal and Gas Co. to carry its entire output, BR and P had agreed to build another 17-mile line from Ernest southwesterly to Iselin at a cost $677,000.  This branch was known as the “Ridge Line.”

The cost of building the Indiana-Punxsutawney line as of June 30, 1903 was $1,095,841.72.

At last the tunnel was completed, and the Gazette informed its readers that “the first BR and P train, hauled by Engine 84, had been run into Indiana.  On last Monday morning, February 8, 1904, “Squirrel” Repine, manager of the Union Transfer Company, loaded the first load of freight…Miss Daisy Conner of West Indiana, was the first woman to walk through the new tunnel.”

This tunnel is still in use today and may be seen by driving out North Ninth Street and turning toward Fulton Run.  The south end of the tunnel is seen as you cross the bridge over the B and O tracks.

On Monday May 2, the first passenger train arrived amid a crowd of more than 1,000 cheering people.  The train consisted of Engine 193 with Engineer William Murray at the controls, an express car, and two passenger cars loaded with about 80 passengers including many Punxsutawney officials.

The Indiana Station, 28 by 86 feet, had not yet been completed.  J.J. Archer was the first agent.  He sold the first passenger ticket to Edward Rowe.  The fare to Punxsutawney was $1.10, round trip, $2.  During the first week of operation Archer sold 426 tickets to points north of Indiana. 

Possibly the first fatality on the new railroad occurred May 7 – only five days after the arrival of the first passenger train in Indiana.  Sherman Thayer, a freight conductor, was killed between Engine 73, which was backing southward on the “Ridge Line” with a caboose in front, when it met a work train coming north at the curve near Creekside Station.  The caboose was smashed to kindling wood.

On July 18, 1904 the first passenger train on the BR and P Blacklick Branch arrived in Indiana, a combination passenger and baggage car attached to a train of coal cars.  It left Vintondale a few minutes before 7 a.m. and, through an arrangement with PRR, traveled on the PRR tracks to Black Lick, and from there to Indiana on its own tracks by way of Coral and Homer City, reaching Indiana at 8:45 a.m.

In September 1904 BR and P carried 1,400 passengers to Indiana in one day – Thursday of fair week.

For a few months in 1904, BR&P had a passenger service to Vintondale with the train traveling part of the way over Pennsylvania Railroad tracks by special arrangement, but it was discontinued on October 22, 1904.

Additional branch lines were built to mines at Fulton Run and Whiskey Run (1906); along Yellow Creek (1907); to Tide, Coy and Luciusvoro (1908); to Jacksonville, Aultman and Nesbit Run (1910); and to Guthrie and Tearing Run (1913).

In 1912, improvements were made to the tunnel near Indiana.  It was the height of the coal boom.  In May 1910, a BR&P motor car, “The Comet,” was exhibited in Indiana – an example of the coming demise of steam power.

Among other railroads planning extensions was the Pittsburgh & Eastern, which had a line to Glen Campbell by 1896 and announced ambitious plans in 1897-98 to construct a 70-mile railroad through Indiana County to West Newton on the Youghiogheny River. Nothing came of this, however, and in 1899 that railroad was sold to the New York Central.

In 1898, an item headed “At Work on a New Railroad” told of a private, standard-gauge railroad being built from the P&E at the forks of Cush Creek up the north branch of the creek past Gipsy and across Gorman Summit to a timber tract in Grant Township near Nashville.  This logging railroad built by Nathan L. Hoover was about seven or eight miles long.  On May 20, 1899, a Shay geared locomotive was purchased.  In December 1902, Hoover sold the line to the NYC for $68,500, and it was used thereafter to haul coal.

Another logging railroad was the Black Lick & Yellow Creek, organized June 15, 1904.  Most of the lines were in Cambria County, with projections into Indiana County at Rexis in Buffington Township and Burns in Pine Township.  It was also standard gauge.

After the owner, Vinton Lumber Co., had completed timber operations, the coal interests eyed the railroad.  A Gazette item in October 1910 spoke of a preliminary survey for an “extension of the old Blacklick and Yellowcreek Railroad to Pine Flats” nearing completion for the NYC and J.H. Weaver Coal Co., who apparently had purchased it about that time or earlier.

On April 20, 1911, the name was changed to the Cambria & Indiana Railroad, and the extension to Malvern near Pine Flats opened for service on December 24, 1911.  At Possum Glory it connected with NYC, and at Rexis it connected with PRR. 

At first passenger service was steam-powered, but on June 16, 1912, a self-propelled storage battery car was put in service – an unusual feature.  The battery cars were replaced in October 1922 by gasoline cars.  Passenger service terminated in 1931.

NYC was interested in the coal deposits of Indiana County for use in its steam locomotives and had constructed the Beech Creek Railroad from Williamsport to Clearfield for this purpose.  By 1896 rumors were circulating that the Vanderbilts, owners of the NYC and the Beech Creek, were planning to extend the line to Pittsburgh.

In 1903 a possible ruinous competition with PRR was averted by an agreement reported in the Indiana County Gazette, May 20, 1903:

“It seems that both the PRR and New York Central will extend from Cherrytree to Fleming Summit at once, occupying the same right of way.”  This cooperative arrangement was known as the Cherry Tree & Dixonville RR.  By August 1903 the Beech Creek Railroad had reached Cherry Tree.

In September of that year, another Gazette story said the road to Fleming Summit was “almost completed” and was to be extended south along the north branch of Two Lick to Joe Hine’s place near Mitchell’s Mills (Diamondville), where it would branch, one branch going to the mouth of Dixon Run (in what became Clymer) and up that run about six miles to Dixonville.  The other branch went to Possum Glory near Heilwood.

Passenger trains operated by PRR were running by December 1904 from Cherry Tree to Hines, making stops at Fleming Summit, Purchase Line, Lovejoy, Shanktown and Possum Glory.

Before the line could reach Clymer, a deep cut through a hill had to be made, known as the “Diamondville Cut.”  The first train reached Clymer in November 1905.  In 1906 a station was erected there and the line was extended farther to Dixonville and Idamar.

Regular PRR passenger service from Cresson to Clymer began April 1, 1907.  For a time both PRR and NYC operated passenger trains over the same track.  In 1922, the line from Idamar was extended to a mine at LaRayne located at the southeast corner of East Mahoning Township.

In July 1903, it was reported that surveys and coal testing were underway in the area of Plumville and northwestern portions of Indiana County for the Buffalo & Susquehanna RR.  An agreement was made in February 1905 with the BR&P to use the BR&P tracks from Juneau to Stanley in Jefferson County two miles east of Sykesville.

From Juneau a new line was built 15 miles to Sagamore, Armstrong County, completed 1905-06.  In 1932, the railroad was sold to B&O.

While these and other lines were being built, PRR did not stand idle.  In 1888, the people of EAst Wheatfield Township were angered by the construction of a 10-mile PRR line on the old canal towpath between Johnstown and Cramer, destroying the only good road between these places.

PRR had a disastrous year in 1889.  The headquarters of the former West Penn RR (now W. Penn Division of PRR) was moved from Blairsville to Pittsburgh.  In January, a locomotive which had been repaired in Blairsville shops was being brought out when the cap blew off the dome.  Machinist Hugh Connoll was killed and fireman Scott and two others, were seriously injured, along with two others.

A coroner’s jury decided that the explosion of Engine 247 “was due to some imperfection in the iron cap, not possible to have been observed.”  In May the Johnstown Flood caused extensive damage to the lines and rolling stock of PRR.

In August the Indiana Branch passenger train operated by Engineer Delos Hetrick crashed into a freight locomotive in the lower part of the Blairsville Railroad Yard.  Engineer Shepard on the freight engine was en route to Bolivar Junction train heading toward him.  Putting the locomotive in reverse, he jumped out.  

No one was seriously hurt, but both locomotives were badly smashed and a baggage car was slightly damaged.

The freight locomotive went by itself for about five miles and passed a gang of workers who put a hand car on the rails and gave chase.  About two miles further they caught and stopped the runaway.

In July 1889 the Indiana Times mentioned that the Indiana Branch passenger train consisted of an engine, three coaches and a baggage and express car.  “It is only a few years,” said the Times, “since an engine, one coach and baggage and passenger car was sufficient.”

In 1892 a new bridge at the west end of the Bow Ridge tunnel (W. Penn Division) was built, and in 1895 a new bridge was erected over the Conemaugh at Social Hall.

In 1898, the stock yards and the locomotive turntable at the Indiana Station were removed and a “Y” for turning constructed on a more than 10-acre tract purchased from Wilson, Sutton & Clark at the southwest corner of the old Experimental Farm.

In July 1900 PRR contracted with H.S. Kerbaugh for a 4-½ mile extension from Vintondale down Black Lick Creek to Buffington.  By September 1902 the line was being pushed down the creek from Dilltown to Social Hall.  Farmers were paid $4 a day for a team and labor. “Foreigners” got $1.35 a day and were housed in shanties at Buena Vista.

In 1902, PRR acquired the Pennsylvania & Northwestern RR, one line of which ran from McGee’s Mills through the northeastern corner of Indiana County to Punxsutawney.

In 1906 nine miles of the West Penn line was double-tracked from Blairsville to Tunnelton and a new 600-foot tunnel bored through Bow Ridge.  Six new masonry bridges were erected over the Conemaugh at various points.

A scandal surfaced in March 1907 when a PRR agent was arrested in Johnstown for attempting to bribe Blairsville Councilman David Miller.  It was alleged he offered Miller $1,000 “and a mileage book in return for a promise to fight any attempt to repeal the street-vacating ordinance.”

At last in May 1911, after considerable delay, a new passenger station was constructed in Indiana.  W.R. Artley was the contractor for the 40-by-90 structure, which enclosed the walls of the old freight depot in a buff brick casing.  The interior was finished with cement and plaster.

An old engine house at the corner of Eighth and Water streets was torn down.  The new passenger station was 60 feet back from Philadelphia Street.  “This will enable the loading and unloading of trains without blocking the street, as has been the custom ever since the railroad was built.”

PRR Train at the train station in Indiana at 8th and Philadelphia Streets (1949)

Excursions from Indiana to Atlantic City were offered in 1916 at $10 and $14, round trip.

About 1900, the automobile began to be seen occasionally on the muddy or dusty roads of Indiana County.  At first the railroads were uncensored about the newcoming transportation, and many railroaders no doubt laughed at the flimsy “putt-putters.”

As time moved on, more and more automobiles were seen and great strides were made in improving their performance and comfort, as well as the public roads on which they traveled.  The railroad people felt this was unfair competition because they had to maintain their tracks at private expense, as well as pay taxes; whereas automobiles, trucks and buses did not have to maintain their roadbeds.

For some time and in some parts of Indiana County, from 1907-1933, the railroads also had competition from streetcars.  Then the Great Depression occurred, which killed the streetcars; it did little to nothing to help the railroads.  Passenger volume declined, as well as coal hauling – so much so that the Iselins and other coal magnates of the R&P Coal Corp. sold their railroad to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1932.

In 1931, the Cambria and Indiana Railroad terminated passenger service, followed by the New York Central in 1933 which ended its passenger service to Clymer.  The PRR continued service to Clymer.

In 1928, just prior to the 1929 stock market crash, an experimental section of concrete ties were laid on the West Penn Division near Tunnelton, replacing the standard wood ties.

One November 25, 1938, Santa Claus made a trip on the B&O to Indiana where he was welcomed by a large crowd and afterward went to Troutman’s Store.

The History of the Railroad in Indiana County Part II

The manufacture of coke (from coal) began in Indiana County in 1886 and in November a railroad station named “Mikesell” for George A. Mikesell who erected the first coke ovens, was erected south of Homer City at what is now Graceton.

In 1866, a disastrous accident was narrowly averted in April when the “cow catcher” of a locomotive got caught in one of the boards of a narrow boardwalk on the railroad bridge over the Conemaugh River three miles west of Blairsville at a place called Social Hall.

The board walk was for the purpose of allowing railroad workers to cross the river.  The locomotive and some of the cars were derailed, with some of them projecting out over the edge of the bridge – a 72-foot fall if they had gone over.  There were 15 passengers aboard.

In 1867, another bridge over the river above Livermore was swept away in a flood a few days before Christmas.

Business was going well, J.M. Robinson reported that grain sent from the Saltsburg depot during the period of October 1, 1867, to January 31, 1868, was 49,376 bushels of wheat, oats, rye and ear corn, plus 232 bushels of clover seed.

In November 1870, the wooden bridge at Social Hall, with weather-boarded sids and sheet iron roof, 800 feet long, burned.

Beginning in 1881, WPRR began some major reconstruction of routes and building new ones.  An 8-mile extension from Blairsville through the Pack Saddle Gap on the northern (Indiana County) side of the Conemaugh River to Bolivar was begun early in October 1881 by Campbell and Bush of Altoona, contractors, employing 200 Swedes.

Western Pennsylvania Railroad Office Blairsville PA

The extension was completed in 1883 and at the same time a portion of the tracks west of Social Hall were realigned.  Other sections of the line were rerouted so as to reduce the distance between Blairsville and Allegheny City by 18 miles.

This involved enlarging the railroad tunnel below the present Conemaugh Dam, and changing the route through Saltsburg by building new tracks on top of the old canal towpath, then continuing on the Indiana County side of the Kiskiminetas River to Coalport (Edri).

Here the railroad crossed the river on another bridge and continued to Salina through a 1,400-foot tunnel.  Laying of rails on this new line began in Saltsburg in November 1882.  A new station was erected in Saltsburg in 1884.

During this time the Foster Coal Co. built a narrow-gauge connecting line from a tipple along the WPRR tracks at Coalport to its mine about a mile away. This was the first narrow-gauge railroad in Indiana County.

An item in the Indiana Times February 28, 1883, told of fighting at Coalport between a gang of Italian workers and Mr. Weaver, contractor on the Foster Coal Co. Railroad.  The dispute was over the deduction of railroad from Pittsburgh to the site from the wages paid to the Italians.  A constable assisted by a posse of twenty men arrested five or six workers.

In January 1882, the Indiana Times quoted from the Pittsburgh Commercial an item regarding the proposed Clarion, Mahoning & Pittsburgh Railroad Co. which was planning a line from North Warren to Pittsburgh by way of Plumville, Elderton, West Lebanon, Clarksburg and “near Saltsburg.”  This was no doubt very disturbing news to the Pennsylvania Railroad.

An editorial in the Indiana Times March 8, 1882, urged PRR to extend its lines from Indiana to Cherry Tree.  By then some of the businessmen of Indiana may have had second thoughts about the desirability of the PRR branch line ending in Indiana.

In June 1882, a meeting of Indiana businessmen was held in the office of General Harry White to consider building a narrow gauge railroad.  A.W. Wilson presided.  On motion of White, it was unanimously “Resolved, that it is the desire of the business men of Indiana that a narrow gauge railroad be built from Indiana to Reynoldsville via Punxsutawney.”

In July another meeting was held at the St. Elmo Hotel, Punxsutawney.  General White, G.W. Hood, and John W. Sutton spoke, “giving assurance that the business men of Indiana were in hearty sympathy with the project,” and letters to that effect were read from S.M. Clark, A.W. Taylor, A.W. Wilson, W.B. Hildebrand, W.B. Marshall, J.M. Thompson, and others.

J.R. Caldwell, a civil engineer, estimated the cost of construction at $7,000 per mile.  Another meeting was held August 1 in Marion and solicitation of stock subscriptions began afterward.  Some people, however, hung back, as reported in the Marion Independent December 23, 1882: “The majority of our citizens, as did many others…did not enter into the enterprise with much push, and this, no doubt, to a great extent led to the failure of the effort.”

Soon afterward (March 1883) the Independent reported that the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Railroad was surveying in Indiana County.  In July 1883, the first R&P train entered Punxsutawney. 

The entry of the R&P into Indiana County was delayed by financial problems.  In 1885 the railroad was sold at sheriff’s sale to Adrian Iselin, a New York banker who held a mortgage.  The sale was contested in court but the eventual decision favored Iselin.  All R&P property was transferred to him in March 1887, and the company was reorganized as the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad.

The Indiana Times had earlier (March 1883) reported that surveys were under way of four different railroads through Indiana County and that they would leave “Indiana high and dry.” In June 1883, a charter was issued to the Central Pennsylvania Railroad for a line from Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, through Blairsville and east of Indiana to Punxsutawney, 70 miles.

In August a corps of engineers for the railroad were running lines from Dixonville by way of Decker’s Point, Nashville and Locust Lane to Punxsutawney, and the Times informed its readers “It is said that the Pennsylvania railroad company will try to keep the B&O company (Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, backers of the Central) from building this road.”

Wooden Railroad Bridge in Saltsburg PA

In 1886, the Pennsylvania & Northwestern Railroad was completed from McGee’s Mills to Punxsutawney, going through Sidney and Hillman in the extreme northwestern corner of Indiana Country.  Regular service on this line began December 1, 1887.  This was the first railroad not controlled by PRR to enter Indiana County.

The second independent line to enter the county was the Clearfield & Jefferson Railroad.  By April 1889 there was a great activity along the route of the railroad from McGee’s Mills to Glen Campbell.  The object of the railroad was to open up the coal fields around Glen Campbell, Indiana County’s first mining town.  It was named for Cornelius Campbell, an Altoona railroad contractor, who built the railroad and was the first superintendent of the Glenwood Coal Co.

The first car of coal left Glen Campbell on October 21, 1889, to make the 9-mile trip to McGee’s Mills. By May 1892, two passenger trains a day were making the trip.

Surveys and plans for other railroads continued.  In September 1889, engineers were said to be surveying between Plumville and Marion for a railroad heading east from Butler.  In August 1890, a charter was issued at Harrisburg to the Saltsburg & West Lebanon Railroad, whose directors were all from Philadelphia.  In April 1894, lines were being surveyed in Young Township in the interest of the Beech Creek Railroad.  In September, the Indiana County Gazette spoke of a “battle royal” being fought between the projectors of the new Pittsburgh & Eastern Railroad and the PRR.

The PRR for its part had decided by 1890 that it could not ignore the threat from new lines.  The Cherrytree Record reported that a local wagon factory had received an order to build 500 wheelbarrows, and that the Cherry Tree Foundry had an order for 2,000 picks to be used in building a railroad to Cherry Tree.  The railroad was an extension of the PRR from Cresson through Spangler.

In March 1892, a heavy blast during construction threw rocks all over Cherry Tree.  One struck a young son of Vincent Tonkin, knocking out several teeth.  Another broke a horse’s leg and the animal had to be shot.

The first PRR passenger train entered Cherry Tree on April 25, 1893.

The PRR also eyed the old abandoned and partially graded line of the defunct Homer, Cherry Tree and Susquehanna Railroad.  In May 1890, J.M. Guthrie organized the Homer & Susquehanna Railroad, with the backing of PRR.  In December 1891, PRR engineers surveyed the route from Homer City to Two Lick Creek.  In March 1892, the Indiana Times announced that PRR would lay rails along the old right-of-way in the spring.  However, the work was delayed for some reason until January 1893 when tracks were laid for five or six miles to a coal operation.

From time to time plans also were made to extend PRR from Black Lick up Blacklick Creek.   Laying of tracks finally began in April 1894, but the line was not finished to Ebensburg until some time later.

By 1895, another PRR was being built from Robinson north of the Conemaugh River through Centerville to Johnstown following the tow path of the old canal.  Indiana County was on the verge of a major railroad boom and the PRR was soon to see some real competition.

In July 1896, rumors were afloat that the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad would construct a line into Indiana County.  By March 7, 1898 a contract for construction of a branch line from Punxsutawney to Indiana had been signed and BR and P was paying the landowners for rights-of-way.

At the same time, a subsidiary railway, the Allegheny and Western, had been organized (Jan. 22, 1898), and construction began on a line from Walston Junction near Punxsutawney southwest and west to Butler.  This railroad traversed the northwestern corner of Indiana County through West Mahoning Creek on a high steel bridge.

Passenger service began October 16, 1899.  In January 1900, a delegation of citizens from Smicksburg went to Butler to see railroad officials about a passenger station at Goodville.

During the last week of September 1900, a group of officials of the BR and P and of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Co. visited Indiana, according to the Indiana County Gazette.  Afterward they went to Pittsburgh and awarded Carnegie Steel Co. a contract for 2,500 tons of 80-pound steel rails at $26 a ton.

On February 21, 1901, the Gazette triumphantly announced “That Railroad is Surely Coming.”  The accompanying story stated the railroad would be built from Valier through Marion Center and that “Prominent members of the Board of Trade have very, good assurances…”

Construction began in 1902.  One of the major engineering projects was the boring of a tunnel through a hill in White Township just outside the Indiana Borough limits.  This work began on December 1, 1902.  

By early April 1903 tracks were laid as far as Marion Center, and by April 15 the track-laying crew of 300 men and a patent Holman tracklayer reached Home, PA.  In May, a regular passenger schedule was announced between Punxsutawney and Ernest:

Before the railroad could reach Indiana, however, problems developed at the tunnel.  Charles S. Streele, a civil engineer in charge of tunnel construction, suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle on July 10, 1903 when his foot was caught between two rails being dragged by a mule team.  Two days later about 10 feet of tunnel caved in.  Since it was a Sunday, no one was injured.

In August it was announced that the trains would run as far as the north end of the tunnel during Indiana County Fair Week, and from there a line of hacks would take passengers to the fair.

On September 2, the Gazette rejoiced that “The Tunnel Is Through The Hill” and “Today a mule can pass through from end to end of the tunnel.”  The Italian work gangs celebrated by coming to town parading and yelling.  “They may have drunk some beer, too. At any rate, they were very hilarious.”

It was hoped that “1903 will yet see trains running to Indiana over the BR and P” and that this would “connect the two sections of railroad that is almost complete from Blacklick to Punxsutawney.”

The celebration was premature.  Later in September there was another cave-in, and in October still another.  The Gazette noted that the hill contained no solid rock formations.  The tunnel would have to be arched with concrete.

The History of the Railroad in Indiana County Part I

From the Pennsylvania Canal system, the railroad in Indiana County was born.  The Pennsylvania Canal was completed along the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas rivers in 1829-30; however, canal transportation had some serious limitations.  During the winter months, the system had to be closed because the canal waters became frozen.  This caused a sentiment among the citizens to look for a better, more reliable, faster means of transportation.  Thus, the railroad was born.

Charles L. Schlatter, was authorized by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1839 to make surveys “for a continuous railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.  He submitted his report on January 9, 1842, which recommended a “central route” via the Juniata Valley, over the Allegheny Mountain, and then through the valley of Black Lick Creek.

On November 21, 1845, a meeting was held in Blairsville to discuss a “continuous Rail Road from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, by way of the Juniatta and Blacklick vallies.”  Another similar meeting was held on December 24, 1845 at the Indiana County Courthouse.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) was chartered by the Pennsylvania General Assembly on April 16, 1846, on the condition that it obtain $3,000,000 of subscriptions to its stock, 30 percent of which must be paid up, and had under contract 15 miles of railroad at each end of the line on on before July 30, 1847.  These terms were met and the charter was validated.  

The prospect of the railroad in the Black Lick Creek valley was influential in causing enterprises like Buena Vista and Black Lick Furnaces to locate there during 1843-1847.  An advertisement for the sale of lots in Mechanicsburg (now Brush Valley) stated it was “directly on the route intended for the CENTRAL RAILROAD.”  The PRR decided on the Conemaugh Valley route in 1848.

One of the company’s first three locomotives was named the “Indiana” and was ready for delivery in January 1850.  By December 1851, the PRR main line had been completed from Johnstown to just southwest of Latrobe.  The point nearest to Blairsville was Liebengood’s Summit (now Torrance) in Westmoreland County.  Other convenient stops were Nineveh (now Seward), New Florence, Lockport, and Bolivar.

An April 6, 1850 Act of the General Assembly, authorized PRR to construct a branch line from Liebengood’s Summit to Blairsville.  Liebengood’s Summit became known as “Blairsville Intersection.”

On July 31, 1850, the PRR directors agreed to build the branch provided the citizens of Blairsville and the vicinity subscribed $40,000 to the capital stock of the company and secured a free right-of-way and station site of three acres.  Beginning September 1, 1850, subscriptions were to be received and payable in installments of $5 per share until the full cost of $50 each share had been paid.

On December 20, 1850, Clark presented council with a diagram of the proposed depot which was to be located on a one-acre tract owned by William Maher.  Two hundred dollars was paid for the tract by deed dated February 26, 1851.

By December 10, 1851, the track was sufficiently completed that a locomotive, the “Henry Clay,” and a single coach – the first ever to enter Indiana County – came to Blairsville from the Intersection to pick up Edmund Smith and his bride for their wedding trip. 

Early in 1852, the Blairsville Branch opened for general passenger and freight traffic, but operated with horse power for a time.  A single passenger car was put in service and descended the 90-foot grade from the Intersection to a bridge over the Conemaugh River by gravity and up the grade toward Blairsville as far as its momentum would take it.  At that point, the brakes were applied, horses attached to haul the car to Blairsville where a passenger and freight station had been erected at the northeast corner of Main and Liberty streets.  The station agent also served as conductor, and after selling tickets, boarded the car and collected them.

After seeing the success of Blairsville in obtaining railroad service, the citizens of Indiana were determined to have the branch line extended to Indiana.  January 29, 1852, an act of the General Assembly, authorized extension of the Blairsville Branch north to Indiana.  

The PRR Board of Directors agreed to build in the Indiana Branch on May 28, 1852, provided the citizens subscribed $170,000 to the company’s stock (3,400 shares at $50 each) and conveyed a “clear right of way, free from all cost, together with the clear title to four acres of land at the terminus” in Indiana.  Ten percent of the stock, or $5 per share, was to be payable July 1, 1852, and another 10 percent by September 1.

James Sutton, John H. Shyrock and Thomas White were authorized to receive the installments and forward the money to PRR.  By September 8, 1852, it was found that many people had failed to pay the second installment and therefore, “the Railroad Company are holding back and refuse to take any step towards making the road.”

The issue regarding the installment issue was soon cleared up and by October 6, 1852, it was reported that the PRR engineer had arrived in Indiana.  Dr. Robert Mitchell wrote in November 1852, “Our Railroad is going on slowly and Depo (station) will be at the west side of town.”

Indiana County’s first railroad line was 2.8 miles long.  In September 1852, a “Daily Stage Line” and a “daily mail” began between Blairsville and Indiana by George Cunningham of Blairsville and James Clark of Indiana.  The train would leave from Scott’s Exchange or Gompers Hotel in Indiana every morning, except Sunday, at 7:00 a.m.  Stopping at the Exchange Hotel in Blairsville, the stage connected with the 11 o’clock westbound train and the 2 p.m. eastbound train.  Leaving Blairsville at 3:00 p.m., the traveler arrived back in Indiana at 7:00 p.m.

The Register announced January 11, 1854, that Leonard Shryock “who owns the ground upon which the depot has been located, has released, without consideration, all his interest and claim therein to the Railroad company.”

In April 1853, another issue was encountered when it was learned that there was a scarcity of iron for rails.  On August 1,1853, the Register had an item headed, “Have We a Railroad Among Us?” complaining “it were desirable that the work should progress more rapidly than it does.”  The “great demand for railroad iron” has “caused a scarcity of the article.”

By September, PRR engineer William Warnock was operating the locomotive “Henry Clay” on the branch line so far as it had been laid.  By October 1, Collins & Co. had completed grading a five-mile portion south of Indiana Borough line, but other sections were “not so far advanced.”  In December, P&T Collins advertised for 20,000 cross ties for sections between Bell’s Mills and Indiana.

Construction dragged into 1855 and by July 10 the Register lamented that the railroad was “not likely to be completed before next spring, the excuse for the delay being that sufficiency of laborers cannot be procured.”  On September 18, it was announced the laying of track had begun.

By December, the tracks had been laid as far as Phillips Mill (adjoining Homer City) and James Johnston, Jr. was running hacks twice a day from Indiana to Phillips Mill “to connect with the train on the Indiana Branch Railroad.”  The second locomotive put into service on the line was said to have been the “United States,” operated by engineer Warnock and used to haul iron and supplies for Collins & Co.

On May 27, 1856, the Indiana Branch was completed.  R.D. Walkinshaw was named conductor and Fergus Moorhead appointed ticket agent at the Indiana depot.  Regular passenger trains began operating on June 1, 1856.

On June 10, 1856 the Indiana Branch was put in full operation, with two daily passenger trains to Blairsville Intersection.

The single-track line was 18.8 miles in length and cost $310,000.

During the first week of operation there were 188 passenger tickets sold at the Indiana station.

The railroad through Western Pennsylvania continued to grow, with the North-Western Railroad being chartered on February 9, 1853, with the purpose of connecting with the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad and permit through service from Philadelphia to Chicago without going through Pittsburgh, where the citizens, at the time, were blocking Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) attempts to obtain a through right-of-way.

On September 9, 1853, Joseph Loughrey, an agent or officer of the Northwestern Railroad Company (NWRR), requested the Blairsville Borough Council to permit tracks on one or more streets of the Borough.  On September 13, Council granted a right-of-way and release for damages, provided NWRR’s tracks were located at one side of the street and not over 22 feet wide.

The first locomotive to travel this line is believed to be operated by W.C. Richey on March 16, 1854, and pulled a baggage car and three coaches loaded with officials.  The track at this time may have only been a short section, perhaps no further than from Blairsville to the point where a bridge was to be erected over the Conemaugh.

By 1858, the grading and ballasting of the line between Blairsville and the Allegheny River had been completed and the superstructure of several bridges erected, but the financial problems were so acute that work had to be suspended.

On July 5, 1859, a group of bond holders foreclosed, and the NWRR was sold for $16,000 after expending about $2,000,000.  On March 22, 1860, a new company, Western Pennsylvania Railroad (NPRR), was charged. However, before the line could be completed, the Civil War broke out and caused further postponement of the project.

By early spring of 1863, work once again resumed and it was hoped it would take only a few months to finish it.  By fall of 1863, the first passenger train ran from Blairsville as far as the west end of the wooden bridge at Saltsburg which crossed to the Westmoreland side.

The formal opening was held on July 4, 1864, with a special excursion from Blairsville.  By fall 1864, trains were running as far as the Allegheny Junction near Freeport.

On August 1, 1865, a wooden bridge over the Allegheny River was completed, and the line was completed to Allegheny City by the fall of 1866.  The PRR advanced funds to do the work and received as security a $500,000 first mortgage from WPRR.  The main office of WPRR was in Blairsville and the relationship between the two companies was very close.

The WPRR engine house and two locomotives at Blairsville were destroyed by a fire on November 19, 1865.

An Act of April 19, 1854, chartered the Mahoning & Susquehanna Railroad Company.  

On July 15, 1856, a meeting was held in Punxsutawney.  By October the Jefferson Star of Brookville reported that a corps of engineers headed by Geroge R. Eichbaum had reached Punxsutawney from Indiana.  In November, Eichbaum was said to be completing a draft of the survey and “the route is declared favorable.”

In February some extracts from the engineers’ report were published, but after this nothing more was heard of the project.

After the completion of the WPRR in 1864, there were no other railroads were completed in Indiana County until 1882.

Becoming well established in Indiana County, the PRR embarked on a program designed to eliminate competition from the Pennsylvania Canal for freight traffic.  Hauling freight by water had always been cheaper than any other method.  Over the years, the state-owned canal system had suffered mismanagement and political pork barreling.

After the first train ran from Johnstown as far as Lockport on August 25, 1851, the canal was still needed because freight had to be transferred, first at Lockport and then at Blairsville, to boats going to Pittsburgh.  Not until December 1852 was the railroad completed to Pittsburgh.

The state began efforts in 1844 to sell the canal.  By 1854, an Act of the General Assembly authorized the Governor to accept sealed bids for the main line of the canal, the minimum being set at $10,000,000.

No bids were received, and another Act, passed on May 8, 1855, directed Governor Bigler to hold a public sale, the minimum price was reduced to $7,500,000.  The Act further provided that, if the PRR was the purchaser, the price would be $8,500,000 and the railroad would be exempt from the 3-mill tax on freight tonnage.

This intent behind the tax was to protect the canal system from price gouging by the PRR.  Still, no buyer presented themselves.  On December 20, 1855, the PRR offered $7,500,000 to be paid in installments over 30 years, and provided the tonnage tax be repealed.

These terms were accepted, on the condition that the PRR pay an additional $1,500,000 for the repeal of the tax and for exemption from all other taxes. The Act of May 15, 1857, finalized the sale and on August 1, 1857, the operation of the canal was turned over to PRR.

In October, the canal railroad over the mountains was closed.  This ended canal traffic from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  PRR President John Edgar Thompson tried to sooth people who feared the railroad intended to close the canal.  On March 17, 1863, PRR officially abandoned the canal from Johnstown to Blairsville and the next year, following the opening of the WPRR to Saltsburg in July, the rest of the canal followed.

In October and November 1865, the slackwater dam at Blairsville was removed and the railroad thereafter deliberately set about destroying almost every vestige of the canal.  The railroad did not want any possibility, however remote, of future competition from low-cost freight going by canal.

In February 1872, the canal lock in Saltsburg was torn apart.  Numerous other canal structures were systematically robbed of stone to build railroad structures.  In April 1882, the canal bed in Saltsburg was filled in and the railroad tracks were laid directly on top of the old canal tow path.

The railroad at times resorted to outright deception to accomplish its ends.  The old canal aqueduct between Lockport and the Indiana County side had been used as a wagon road of the Conemaugh River to the other for a number of years after the canal had been abandoned.

In 1888, according to James Riddell of New Florence, a party of railroad workers appeared and began digging around the piers of the aqueduct.  When local people asked what was going on, they said they were strengthening the bridge.  The truth came out that night when a loud explosion shook the people out of their beds to find the entire structure blasted into the river.

The railroad also mounted a campaign to get rid of the tonnage tax on freight.  As a result of an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the repeal of the tonnage tax by the 1857 legislature had been declared null and void.

In 1859, the PRR attempted withholding the tax but the State sued and the PA Supreme Court ruled that the accumulated tonnage taxes amounting to $850,000 must be paid.  Finally, through intensive lobbying and other means of “persuasion” the railroad succeeded in 1861 in having the tax repealed.

Shortly afterward the Civil War distracted the people’s attention and the PRR escaped taxation.

For 28 years from the time the first time the first tracks were laid to Blairsville in 1851 until 1889, no other railroad penetrated Indiana County except the PRR or its subsidiaries.

One effort to break the PRR monopoly was the Homer, Cherry Tree and Susquehanna (HC and S) railroad.  In 1867, meetings were held in Cherry Tree, Greenville (Penn Run) and Homer to discuss the idea of a railroad from Homer to Cherry Tree on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

On March 19, 1868, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill that originated in the House to incorporate the HC and S Railroad Co. Robert F. McCormick, a Cherry Tree PA House Democract representing Indiana County, was one of the principal backers of the bill.

The Indiana business community was very leery of the project.  On February 2, 1871, the Progress commented on a “continual line of sleds loaded with boards” passing the Progress office, and posed the question, “Would we lose this trade if the Homer and Cherrytree road should be constructed?”

Earlier when the PRR Branch line from Blairsville to Indiana was being promoted, the Indiana people insisted that the line end in Indiana, feeling it would enhance the growth and prosperity of the town.  On February 9, the Progress admitted that “our moneyed men would not subscribe of their means to help construct” the Homer, Cherrytree and Susquehanna Railroad.

Despite this, the backers, principally from Cherry Tree, Homer and points in between, broke ground on January 31, 1871, at Homer.

By August 1871, the grading was suspended and it was reported that Mr. Bird, the chief engineer, had moved from West Indiana.  Signs of financial difficulty appeared in September 1872 when the board of directors, meeting at Pine Flats, named a committee to confer with PRR officials to obtain assistance to complete the railroad.

Another committee was named to look into the feasibility of standard gauge.  On October 30, 1873, the Progress somewhat gleefully reported on “A Little Unpleasantness” between the HC and S and some of its stockholders who were refusing to pay, and the directors were suing.

After this the project died; the PRR monopoly continued for the next 32 years.  The first full year of operation of the Indiana Branch in 1857 revealed that 13,126 passenger tickets were sold, yielding $22,844.81 in fares.  Freight shipped was 9,685,305 pounds from Indiana; 6,786,755 pounds from Blairsville; 1,868,751 from Homer; and 515,644 from Phillips’ Mill.

Total costs of operation were $23,329.23 – so the passenger receipts alone nearly met the costs, and freight income was profit.

Consumption of wood by the locomotives was 1,998 cords, and about 1,000 additional cords were sent to Pittsburgh.  About 1860 locomotives began burning coal, and by 1862 all freight locomotives were burning coal and passenger locomotives by 1864.

In 1858, the tonnage of freight increased enormously from 4,842.6 tons at the Indiana station in 1857 to 127,315 tons.

In January 1860, a “new and handsome passenger car” which was “much needed” was placed in service.  R.D. Walkinshaw, conductor on the Indiana Branch, retired about October 1860 and was succeeded by J.D. Hibbs.  Total income at the Indiana depot alone, as furnished by G.W. Sedgwick, PRR agent at Indiana, was freight $31,945.72, and passenger $10,606.36.

After the Civil War broke out, business boomed.  In January 1862, alone, 2,194 horses, 979 cattle, 4,088 sheep, and 154 mules were shipped from Indiana.  In addition, there were 1,846 tons of products including flour, grain, seeds, beans, butter and wool.

After the war, the volume continued to be high.  From January 1 to June 9, 1866, the Indiana Weekly Register said not less than 675 carloads of products were shipped, including 263 carloads of sawed lumber, 184 of bark, shooks, staves and shingles, 67 of livestock, and 181 of other freight – an average of five carloads a day.

In 1870, Railway Express deliveries were wheeled from the Indiana depot in a wheelbarrow by J.W. McCartney to the homes and business places of town.

An interesting activity in January 1871 was the cutting of ice from Black Lick Creek by PRR employees who cut and loaded 241 cars of ice which were sent mostly to Pittsburgh.

In 1875, the PRR reduced the wages of common laborers to 10 cents an hour.  This and other oppressive actions led to a violent railroad strike in 1877 centered in Pittsburgh.  Locomotives, cars, warehouses and other railroad property were burned and the governor called out the National Guard to restore order.

The United States Centennial in 1876, featured a magnificent exposition in Philadelphia, which the PRR capitalized on by selling excursion tickets to the exposition.  The first excursion from this area occurred in July with 100 person on a round-trip fare of $8.  In September there were about 900, of whom 700 left in the morning and 200 in the evening.  The Indiana Progress reported that those in the evening group had to ride box cars to the Blairsville Intersection because passenger coaches were not available.

There were 400 excursionists in October to the Centennial at a round-trip fair of $7.50 each.  Later in October and November cost $7.  By October 19 there were 1,836 tickets had been sold at Blairsville and over 1,000 at Indiana.

1877 figures of livestock shipments from Indiana were: horses 1,571, cattle 3,556, sheep 21,445, hogs 10,334, calves 551, mules 9, and poultry, three car loads.  Total value was estimated at $433,053.

Blairsville was the location of some major PRR facilities.  An 1878, engineering drawing shows an engine house 150 by 46 feet, two repair shops 126 by 30 and 123 by 40 feet, three woodsheds, a cement storehouse, paint shop, sand house, offices, etc.

In 1879, 2,000 bushels of chestnuts were shipped from Indiana. 

Almost

Let’s face it: we history buffs are spoiled.  Sitting here in the present, we have the luxury of browsing through heroic successes and happy endings, a habit obliged by four centuries of positive Pennsylvania history.  But is it really those outcomes that we savor, or is it the character of the players – their vision, faith and ingenuity, win or lose?  Surely the latter.  So come with me back to Indiana County at the close of the Guilded Age for a tale of dreamers and what might have been. . . .

Marion Center’s Independent broke the news in August 1892, a coup for that town’s tiny paper.  Unnamed backers were proposing a 28-mile link between Indiana and Punxsutawney, in a corridor which had no train service at the time.  But that wasn’t the half of it: it was to be the first long-distance electric railroad in the United States!  America’s first electric trolley had debuted four years earlier in Virginia, and contiguous towns like Altoona and Hollidaysburg had been connected by electric “street railways” since 1891, but. . . cross-country?  Unheard of!

There were four challenges facing such a project from the start: technology, geography, economy and monopoly.  Then-standard DC power had to be resupplied at intervals along a line to compensate for losses during transmission, and this limited a railroad’s length outside urban power grids.  We’d have to build a generator mid-way at, say, Marion Center.  Geography ran a close second, since electric locomotives couldn’t handle grades steeper than 6%.  Ever driven between Indiana and Punxsy?  As for economics, well, remember that public works were often private works in those days, so funding for things like mass transit came not from tax dollars but from venture capital.  Six figures worth of it, in this case, which meant a lot of fundraising.  Finally, monopoly: traditional railroad companies did not take kindly to such competition, and they weren’t known for playing fair.

There were critics, of course, but we didn’t flinch.  As the Reynoldsville Star observed, “There are always those who make light of a matter and think it an impossibility, yet these very fellows are ever ready to enjoy the blessings of prosperity that result from the enterprise of energetic citizens.”  And isn’t that the difference between a critic and a dreamer?  So the backers, still anonymous, went to work.

almost.jpg
Electric Locomotive, 1890s

General Electric’s chief engineer arrived in early autumn and surveyed each of several possible paths.  “There are two very desirable routes which we would not have difficulty utilizing,” he told the Gazette after his inspection.  “Of course, the future depends on the reports of a civil engineer.”  He returned with just such a fellow a few weeks later.  Pittsburgh’s S.L. Tone concluded that “The grades are not so heavy that they cannot be overcome, (and) it can be done with much less work than first supposed.”  Ultimately, the route recommended was: Indiana > Kellysburg > Marion Center > Rochester Mills > Covode > Horatio > Punxsutawney.

So much for technology and geography.  How ‘bout economy?

That was a different matter.  Though low operating costs ensured a reliable profit for investors once the line was up and running, estimates of construction cost rose by 25 then 50 then 75 percent as the autumn weeks passed.  Potential investors started wavering.  Time to bring out the big guns!  The chief of those previously-anonymous backers stepped forward.  It was none other than Judge Harry White.

The idea had come to him in Beaver, of all places.  On his way there the year before, Judge White had gotten off at the wrong train station; he was transferred to Beaver Valley’s electric line for the final leg, by the end of which he’d conceived the Indiana-to-Punxsutawney project.  “With the proper energy, effort and support of our counties’ people,” he told the Gazette.  “I am sanguine of success.  I think it would be possible and politic to have at least half of the stock subscribed by citizens and farmers along the route.  If that is done, I know where the rest of the money can be secured.”

That was enough to calm the jitters.  Would-be investors and every newspaper along the route resumed their enthusiasm for what was dubbed the Electric Express.  Articles peppered with White-isms (like the archaic use of “sanguine” to mean “confident”) appeared almost daily, touting the advantages to citizens and urging farmers to grant free right-of-way.  The Messenger even printed a schedule showing that one could travel from Punxsutawney to Pittsburgh via Indiana, go shopping and return before 9:00 PM, a day-trip not possible on existing lines.  Yes, that November was truly the project’s Indian(a) Summer. . .

But winter wouldn’t be denied.  Something must have put another chill on the project, for a spate of articles denying loss of momentum appeared in December and January: interest was “not on the wane” and “only sleeping.”  This time the rallying-cries even went national, with a stories appearing in The Electrical Engineer and Electrical Age.  Ironically, the latter’s claim that the company had already been formed was the last time our chimera would be mentioned in print until 1896, save for a postmortem that spring.  The paper that first broke the story now had the last word: “We wonder if the electric railroad through this place is slumbering so soundly that it cannot be awakened,” mused the Independent.

So just what pulled the plug on the Electric Express?  No one knows.  Perhaps the investors Judge White spoke of backed out, or the $250 blocks of stock that were to have been offered to “citizens and farmers along the route” proved too expensive for most.  Then again, the combine that included Jefferson County’s Low Grade Railroad may have found a way to ensure that the switch would never be thrown.  Yet it was all academic in the end, for the second worst depression in American history struck that February.

The Panic of 1893 virtually shut down commercial credit for three years;  five hundred banks failed nationwide, dragging countless projects with them, while Coxey’s Army and the Bituminous Miners’ Strike made Pennsylvania ground zero.  So in a way, whatever stopped our Electric Express did us a favor in the end, avoiding what may well have been the last straw for local banks, landowners and investors.

We dreamed of our Electric Express one last time in November 1896.  With the Panic at last behind us, our papers again noted a push by unnamed backers and another survey, this time by engineers from Western Electric.  Though the articles were positive (and again, similarly worded), they didn’t make the front page.  Once burned, twice shy?  That caution proved wise, for the Electric Express was never heard from again.

Or was it?  The Indiana, Punxsutawney and Sagamore Street Railway Company was launched in 1907 when “trolley fever” swept America.  Okay, so it wasn’t a real cross-country railroad with electric locomotives – we loved it while it lasted.  Sometimes our children have to finish the dreams we start.

Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971). 

Indiana County Rail Transportation

The Pennsylvania Railroad Comes to Indiana 

One of the important aspects of the county’s history comes with the modes of transportation. In today’s society we know the importance of being able to get from Point A to Point B. Today it is simple enough, we just jump in our car and drive, but in the history of Indiana County it was not that simple. In the early days people traveled by foot, horseback, or horse drawn carriage. What could be considered even more important was the advent of the railroad. 

August 1, 1854, the Indiana Register, published a story with the following headline: “Have We a Railroad Among Us?” In 1852, the Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized the Blairsville Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to extend north to Indiana. The Board of Directors of the PRR agreed on May 28, 1852 to build the Indiana Branch, to which the residents of the county subscribed $170,000 to the company’s stock. The mass amount of money provided by the residents showed how important the railroad was to their interests. 

street car
Indiana Street Car

Construction proceeded, although slowly, over the next few years. One of the difficulties came with receiving an adequate number of rails for the track. The P&T Collins Company advertised for 20,000 cross ties for the section between Campbell’s Mills (Black Lick) and Indiana, this was in December of 1854. By mid-December the track had been laid to Phillip’s Mill (Homer City) on the east side of Yellow Creek. 

Progress continued until May 27, 1856 when the Indiana Register reported the railroad had been completed. By June 10, 1856 the railroad was fully functioning, there were two daily passenger trains running between Indiana and Blairsville. The railroad consisted of a single-track totaling 19 miles and costing $310,000 to construct, but Indiana had its railroad. 

The Railroad Enables Business 

With the introduction of the railroad into Indiana County society, businesses were able to ship their products further geographically but also much more quickly.  

In 1887 the Prairie State Incubator Company was founded. The factory produced incubators that were regarded as the finest incubators being produced and were used for raising chicks from eggs. By 1913, the factory was reported as the largest in the world. 

There was a total of three factories; the first two were located at the present-day site of Floodway Park, but were destroyed by fire. The third and final plant was built in Homer City.  Beginning in 1937, the site was the home of Iler Manufacturing, the Syntron Company and later the FMC Corporation. Thanks to the expansion of the railroad Prairie State Incubator Company was able to ship its products to market in a more efficient way. 

Indiana County Street Railways Company 

The Hoodlebug operated on the Pennsylvania Railroad line, the nearby Indiana Street Railways Company operated their own separate trolley line. The Company served the town of Indiana, with branches to Ernest, Clymer, and Blairsville. Operations began in 1907, remaining in service until 1933, when streetcars were abandoned in favor of buses and automobiles. 

There were numerous trolley companies proposed, but the various proposals were combined into one company. Ridership of the trolleys declined thanks in part to the Great Depression. During the Depression the area coal mines downsized and factories closed – these were many of the people using the trolley line. Further buses and automobile travel came into popularity and now people could travel as they pleased and did not need to wait for the trolley to take them to town. Furthermore, the Company had an inability to make interest payments on its bonds. All of these factors taken together eventually led to the trolley’s demise. 

Indiana-Clymer Street Car Motorman_Andy Salsgiver_ Conductor Fred Kier_ unknown passenger
Indiana-Clymer Street Car. Pictured from left to right: unknown passenger, Motorman Andy Salsgiver and Conductor Fred Kier

So how important was the trolley system during its 26 years of existence? It transported millions of passengers to work, to shop, and to leisure excursions at trolley company-owned parks. According to records, some years the trolleys transported as many as three million passengers. The trolleys were also used to haul freight, supplies, and mail between the local businesses. There were also occasions where the trolleys transported injured miners and other workers to Indiana for emergency medical treatment. 

The Indiana County Street Railways Company coupled with the Railroad enabled the County to become more connected with the outlying communities. The system worked as a shipping line, mail service, and in emergency situations as an ambulance.