Author's book examines Ligonier Valley Rail Road
Thomas A. Mellon wasn't convinced that a small rail line from Ligonier to Latrobe would be viable in 1877, but he changed his mind when his sons convinced him it could be profitable.
Mellon's sons — James, Thomas, Andrew and Richard — were enthusiastic supporters of the idea and enlisted the help of other family members in convincing their father, said Ligonier native and railroad historian Robert D. Stutzman, whose new book, “The Ligonier Valley Rail Road,” goes on sale Monday.
As part of a traffic survey, James Mellon's 9-year-old son, William, was stationed along the road near Kingston to count the number of wagons and buggies passing through the gorge, their contents and the number of passengers.
Richard Mellon, then 18, was so excited about the project that, in addition to his duties as general freight agent, he served as a conductor, baggage handler, engineer on occasion, and in any other capacity he could find, said Stutzman, 72, cofounder of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association.
“To give his sons business experience was the best thing he could do … to put a business where there was none,” Stutzman said.
Born in Ulster, Ireland, Thomas A. Mellon earned fame and fortune in the United States as an attorney, entrepreneur, investor and founder of the Pittsburgh-based bank that bears his name.
Once completed in 1877, the 10.6-mile Ligonier Valley Rail Road provided a vital link to Pittsburgh markets and spurred lumber and quarry industries in Ligonier Valley and later, coal mining and coke production, Stutzman said.
To increase ridership, Mellon built Idlewild Park on 350 acres near Ligonier in 1878.
Between 1877 and its shutdown in 1952, the railroad hauled more than 30 million tons of freight out of the valley, Stutzman said. Nine million passengers rode the rail line during its 75 years of operation.
“That 8-foot seam of coal north of Ligonier and the Ligonier Valley Rail Road helped the U.S. win two world wars by feeding the steel mills of Pittsburgh,” Stutzman said.
The history of the short railroad was not without incident.
On July 5, 1912, a freight train collided with a passenger coach being pulled by a locomotive between Wilpen and Ligonier when the conductor misinterpreted an informal verbal order. The crash killed 24 people and injured many more.
The railroad implemented a number of corrective measures after the crash, Stutzman said.
The advent of the automobile generally spelled doom for passenger service on railroads, but the Ligonier Valley Rail Road “kept that service right up until the end, which is unusual for a short line,” said Nick Zmijewski, archives collections manager at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
“It was a tremendous economic force,” he said.
The railroad cut travel time between Ligonier and Pittsburgh. The four-hour trip by horse and buggy to Latrobe was reduced to 40 minutes by rail; a ride from Ligonier to Pittsburgh took about two hours, Stutzman said. In the 1920s, the Ligonier Express, with fewer stops, was added and cut travel time to Pittsburgh to 96 minutes.
Photos for the book were obtained from former employees, historical associations and numerous individual collections, Stutzman said.
A copy of the front page of the Pittsburg Dispatch detailing the July 5, 1912, crash was bought by Stutzman, who paid $26 for it on eBay. He was in the right place at the right time, he said.
“I just think it's great for the history,” he said. “I was looking at eBay when that came up.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.