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.
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.