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 Automobile Comes to Indiana County

The shiny black Model T Ford clattered down the rutted road, making a racket audible a mile ahead. Started horses drawing a wagon became skittish and had to be pulled off the road until “that infernal machine” sputtered past. Children in one-room schoolhouses left their desks to catch a glimpse of one of the rare automobiles, and heard the frustrated wagon driver’s cry of “GET A HORSE!” go unheeded by the oblivious motorist fast disappearing in a cloud of dust.  The scene could have taken place almost anywhere, around the turn of the twentieth century, and is probably a fair representation of the coming of the automobile to Indiana County.

Rural Western Pennsylvania was not far behind the cities in adopting this newest product of modern science.  Two enterprising brothers, Richard and DeLoss Hetrick of Church Street, built what is thought to be the first auto in the county before any auto dealerships were established.  Clarence R. Claghorn of Wehrum registered his Locomobile auto at the County Courthouse on August 22, 1903, to become the first official driver in the area.  The Claghorn auto was one of eight vehicles listed in the county’s Register of Automobiles before the state of Pennsylvania took over the registration process in 1905.

The most popular of the early automobiles was Henry Ford’s Model T, unveiled in 1908 and costing $850.  Thanks to the introduction of the assembly line, by 1916 a Model T could be purchased for $360, a price within reach of families of modest income.  Like the Studebaker, the Oakland and other touring cars, the Model T had a collapsible canvas top with isinglass curtains, running boards along the sides, and spoked metal wheels with thin rubber tires. The hard-roofed, windowed Model T sedan introduced in the early 1920s stood seven feet talk and could reach the astonishing speed of forty miles per hour propelled by its four-cylinder, ten horsepower engine.  The motorist had to turn a metal crank at the front to start the engine, and doctors treated many cases of “starter’s arm,” a broken forearm caused by a starting crank that kicked back.

Buying a car was an event worthy of note on page one of the Indiana newspapers, even into the second decade of the century. In July 1916, it was reported that “Squire Simon Anthony of Jacksonville bought a new Ford automobile, and accompanied by Dr. W.L. Shields he headed for Clarksburg intending to learn all about the ‘critter’ on the way.”  Accidents involving automobiles were also front page news, and by September 1915, they had apparently become so common that the editor’s irritation was discernible in the terse opening of one accident report: “Carless auto drivers are making news items these days. Somebody will be killed, then a penitentiary sentence will do more to instill caution in the heads of careless drivers, than any other deterrant.”

An automobile ride was a first-rate treat, and sometimes a harrowing experience. In 1907, children and teachers from the Saltsburg Presbyterian Church were rewarded for prompt attendance at Sunday School with a ride to Clarksburg and back. Walter Jackson, writing in the Indiana Evening Gazete in 1958, recalled a “hair-raising ride” in Alex Stewart’s “sweet little, two cylinder, red Maxwell” down Seventh Street to the Fairgrounds and back, at a speed that “could not have been less than 30 miles an hour.” Jackson also described the automotive antics of J.R. Stumpf, owner of the first five-and-ten store in Indiana, who drove his new Stanley Steamer in circles in front of his store at about 10 miles per hour to attract business.

Some Indiana borough streets were paved with brick or cobblestone even before the automobile became common, but country roads were so rutted and treacherous that car owners usually put their autos up on blocks for the winter and resorted to a horse and wagon or sleigh. Many times farmers were asked to hitch their horses to cars mired to the axles in mud, and summer motoring required dustcoats, gloves, goggles, and hats (and veils for the ladies) for protection from the dust. The paving of major roads in Pennsylvania began with the establishment of the state Highway Department in 1906, but the big push did not come until the mid-1920s.

Indiana’s John P. Elkin, state Supreme Court justice, spoke before a 1913 state Good Roads Convention in favor of a $50 million bond for improving and rebuilding Commonwealth highways. Another advocate of better roads and favorable legislation for the motor-owning public was the Indiana Auto Club, established in 1914 and chartered by the American Automobile Association in 1928. Officers of the organization in 1916 were C.M. Lingle, president; C.K. Sutton, secretary; and J.R. Richards, treasurer.

In 1925, there were 1,600,000 licensed drivers in Pennsylvania, and nearly as many registered motor vehicles. The move was on nationwide for more and better roads, and the Indiana Democrat published a regular column headed “Good Roads” which featured items with titles like “Prosperity Will Follow Improved Road System.” Hard-surfaced roads were built to outlying communities, and because of better roadways county farmers found it easier to send milk, wool and other produce to Pittsburgh by the mid-1920s. Unimproved roads, however, remained in a deplorable condition, and the problems they sometimes caused motorists supported the argument for better roads. In 1925, a salesman reported that he had to be hauled out of mudholes five times in one trip form Marion Center to Punxsutawney, at a total cost of $18.

By the 1920s several auto dealerships had been established in Indiana, and they offered a wide variety of makes and models.  Among the earliest was the Indiana Motor Company, and later R.H. Fleming Buick, which, when it began business in 1908, was one of the first Buick dealers in the country.  Sutton-Miller Ford, today’s McGill Motors, opened in 1911 on South Sixth Street, and Indiana Sales and Service sold Studebakers.  The Essex, the Franklin and the Hudson could be bought from R&S Motors, while the Indiana Whippet Garage advertised the Willys-Knight touring coach for $995. As roads improved and people began to see that the automobile was useful for more than a summer touring vehicle, the sale of closed models – sedans – increased, and more automobiles were out and about in all weather.

Once the automobile was purchased, maintaining it and keeping the gas tank full were not as easy in the early years of the century as they are today.  Opportunities to buy gasoline were few and far between, so many motorists kept an extra can full of gas with them.  Before gas stations became common in the mid-1920s, auto dealers, in addition to serving the autos they sold, sold oil and pumped gasoline from rolling carts.  The 1926 Indiana City Directory carried advertisements for several gasoline retailers, including Stewart’s Gasoline – Service Station, near the Fairgrounds, which sold Pennzoil products.  The West Indiana Service Station, at 1501 Philadelphia Street, sold not only Sinclair gas and oil and Firestone tires, but also ice cream, soft drinks and tobacco.  And the C.H. Shaw Hillcrest Service Station on Marion Road urged customers who had never had one of their “barbecue sandwiches” to “drive out and get one.” By this time gasoline was available at 27,000 retailers across the state, and a gallon of Atlantic high test could be had for twenty-seven cents. The average motorist spent $101 annually on fuels and lubrication, according to a state survey.

Public use of motor vehicles kept pace with private use. In 1925, a bus service was initiated between Indiana and Punxsutawney, with the trip taking one and a half hours. The Indiana Express Agency, which delivered railroad freight, switched from horse-drawn wagons to motor trucks in 1930. The Indiana Fire Company bought a Federal motor fire engine in 1915 and a Packard in 1918, while the Clymer Fire Company paid $12,500 for a 750-gallon Seagrave Pumper Truck in 1923.

With heavy trucks, buses, and more automobiles than ever traveling the roads, the need for improved roadways became urgent. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw a boom in road construction, and M. Bennett and Sons of Indiana was responsible for many miles of improved roads in Pennsylvania. Michael Bennett and his five sons had begun their construction business in 1903, and they were the recipients of some of the first contracts let by the state Highway Department: Saltsburg Road, from Indiana borough running toward Saltsburg, and the Creekside Road beginning at Ninth Street. Under Edward Bennett, Sr., the firm completed more than 100 paving projects in Pennsylvania, as well as several in New York and Maryland, and it was at one time the largest construction company in the State. Bennett, who later became a state senator, was instrumental in bringing the state District 10 highway barns to Indiana in 1928-30.  By 1931, the five counties in District 10 boasted 3,025 miles of improved roads, and hundreds of miles of macadam “Pinchot roads” were laid in the area by the Bennett firm under Governor Gifford Pinchot and his successor, George Earle.

With the 1930s came the Great Depression, but roadbuilding went on and auto owners kept driving. State figures showed 1,419,484 automobiles registered in Pennsylvania in 1933, with 10,930 in Indiana County. The Indiana Patriot noted in June 1930, that “Indiana’s parking problem, while not a problem yet, will certainly assume large proportions before long. . . . Limited parking time on Philadelphia Street would be a present move in the right direction.” The city fathers decided in 1940 to try parking meters as a means of controlling congestion downtown; the experiment worked so well that meters became a permanent fixture after that time.

The automobile’s increasing dominance meant the decline of other, older institutions in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, the Robinsteen Collar and Leather Company, which had made horse collars at Third and Philadelphia Streets for many years, was closed. At its peak it employed sixty-five men, and in 1929 did $65,000 worth of business. Better roads, mass production of automobiles, and the Depression made inevitable the closing of the Indiana Street Railways trolley company in 1933 after twenty-six years of operation; the same factors heralded the departure of the last Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train from the Indiana depot in April of 1940.

Sinclair Gas Station, Clymer, PA, 1950s

When the automobile’s good points are weighed against its bad points, the result is nearly even, and people have learned to live with the disadvantages in return for the convenience. The same paved roads that hastened the decline of the blacksmith and the passenger train gave the newly mobile public better access to business in town and helped the farmer get his produce in for sale. The automotive age has brought traffic accidents and has increased air pollution, but at the same time it has brought economic benefits, some of which can be seen here in Indiana County: the McCreary Tire and Rubber Company (now Specialty Tire) was established in 1915, has grown into an important manufacturer of automobile tires and other rubber products employing several hundred persons. The automobile is the vehicle of a faster-moving lifestyle, a way of life that has left the horse and buggy driver behind in a slower time, helplessly shaking his fist as the Model T rattles on down the road.

Horseless

The first and only horseless carriage ever shown in Pennsylvania will be on exhibition at the Indiana Fair.  It travels along without any other motor than that which the carriage itself supplies.  It will be worth a day’s visit just to see this unique conveyance!

Thus spoke the Weekly Messenger in 1896.  Alas, the announcement turned out to be premature;  Delos and Dick Hetrick’s one-of-a-kind vehicle would indeed make its public debut at the Fair, but not until the brothers had worked out its transmission problems three years later.  Their gasoline-powered “automobile wagon” wasn’t exactly greased lightning – it couldn’t outrun most humans, let alone a horse – but those who saw it realized that it marked the turning of an age.

The second car hereabouts was seen by few, stopping in Blairsville on its way from Greensburg to Cresson.  But oh, the third…!

J.R. Stumpf’s steam car took Indiana by surprise on a Monday morning in 1901.  The five-horsepower Mobile had travelled from DuBois in just five hours.  Everyone stared in astonishment as it sped down Philadelphia Street; horses tethered along the hitching rail jumped onto the sidewalk, and small boys sprinted after it in a pack.  The elderly Mr. Stumpf would use that attention to his advantage for the next several years by making the steamer his Five & Ten Cent Store’s delivery vehicle and symbol.

The automotive revolution had actually been underway in Pennsylvania since 1893, when Philadelphia’s EMV Company launched its Electrobat.  Duryea Power made our first “gas buggy” in 1895, and the Crouch Company of New Brighton rolled out its steamer two years later.  In all, some 130 models were invented and/or manufactured in our state during those early days – forty of them in 1908 alone.  A Pennsylvanian even bought America’s very first mail-order car.  We couldn’t get enough!  The new century was off to a roaring (and hissing and humming) start.

horseless
Winton was one of several makes with “agents” here.

Cars quickly worked their way into our popular culture and language.  We spoke of “flivvers” and “Tin Lizzies,” and children behind on their chores were said to be “slower than a Morris going uphill in a snowstorm.”  Standard dress for an outing on our unpaved roads included hat, gloves and a “duster” overcoat…which the fashion industry quickly caught on to.  McLaughlin’s Clothing Store in Indiana carried a ladies’ coat called The Automobile, and toiletries like Fel’s Naptha were advertised as “a necessary part of the man’s motoring outfit”.

But despite their popularity, the number of autos here increased more slowly than in most other parts of the state.  Our middle class was small; until prices dropped dramatically in 1913, few but the well-to-do could afford to “go horseless.”  Our dirt roads were less suited to autos than to wagons (especially from December through April), and our preference for tradition over innovation may have put on the brakes as well.

Early on, many of our cars were ordered from elsewhere and shipped by train or driven cross-country to the buyer.  The first Indiana County “agents” – dealerships – opened about 1908, typically representing many manufacturers at once.  The two largest were Clymer Motor Car and Indiana Motor Company.  The latter offered everything from the economical Pope (no Popemobile jokes, please!) to a top-of-the-line Buick for five times as much.

Competition between the different engine- and chassis-types continued through the mid-teens.  Three-wheeled autocycles like the Keystone were popular as early delivery vehicles; J.M. Cunningham’s steam-powered Locomobile became our first horseless taxi in 1901, and long before today’s Tesla, quiet electrics like the Owen Magnetic found favor with the county’s horse-owning majority.  But in the end, gasoline engines and the closed touring sedan won out with their greater range and comfort.

Automobiles even popped up in our newspapers’ social columns.  When, where, and by whom most cars were purchased was noted, and the phrase “by automobile” was often added to items about out-of-town visitors.  Accidents, on the other hand, always made Page One.

The first auto accident in Indiana County happened outside Blairsville in the summer of 1900.  Like most during that era’s first decade, it didn’t involve two cars; Roy Gerard and his wife were injured and their buggy shattered when a car spooked their horse.  The Johnstown Toll Pike was closed to autos in 1905 because so many motorists failed to slow down when approaching horses as required.  Newspaper accident-reports came to resemble editorials, with one opining in that “someone will be killed, and then a penitentiary sentence will instill caution in careless drivers.”  Yet by 1920, most papers also featured a weekly section devoted to more positive auto-articles, advice columns and ads.

Blacksmiths and machine shops got our business when the family car broke down.  Liveries and wagonworks soon began adding auto repair to their repertoire.  Among those who failed to adapt was the Indiana Carriage Company, sold at Sheriff’s bankruptcy auction in 1910.  In that same year, our first cars-only repair shop was opened by (appropriately) Delos and Dick Hetrick.

As with the automobile itself, auto-friendly roads were in short supply here at first.  Our relative isolation and railroad-dependence had encouraged a casual attitude about the dirt we drove on well into the new century.  The Automobile Association of Indiana led the push for road improvement; it didn’t hurt that many members were influential citizens!  Starting in 1913, they employed Homer City’s E.B. Griffith to make county-wide inspections, and from his reports created a map of road conditions for use by the county government.  By the late 1920s, many borough streets and most wagon roads had been paved – a boon much appreciated by rural mail carriers, who in those days used their own vehicles.

The old saying “If it moves, tax it!” took on new meaning at Harrisburg in 1906.  Whereas our county had charged a one-time, fifty cent fee for combined license and registration, the new State Department of Highways separated the two, doubled the cost of each and charged them both every year.  The license number (painted onto the body before plates were introduced) functioned as the VIN of its day, staying with your car when you sold it.

The last stand for horse advocates came in the late 1920s.  Citing an increase in tack sales and the economy of horse-drawn delivery vehicles over trucks, the Gazette asserted “Old Dobbin Is Back.”  But few of us yelled “Get a horse!” anymore, and our theaters were showing something closer to the truth – a soundie called First Auto: a Romance of the Last Horse and the First Horseless Carriage.  What was once a novelty had become a generation’s norm.  There was no turning back; by the early 1930s, there was one car for every five of us.  Like the trolley, the horse was history.

What happened to Pennsylvania’s auto industry?  Economies-of-scale made possible by Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly-line in 1913 meant only the most heavily-capitalized manufacturers could compete.  American Austin, our last make still in production as of 1929, closed its plant in Butler a few weeks before Pearl Harbor in 1941.