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Turtle Creek short-line rail marks 125th anniversary

Patrick Varine
| Thursday, July 23, 2015, 10:09 a.m.
A Turtle Creek Railroad engineer exchanges waves as the train crosses over Saunders Station Road in Monroeville.
Warren L. Leeder | For Trib Total Media
A Turtle Creek Railroad engineer exchanges waves as the train crosses over Saunders Station Road in Monroeville.
Above, a map of the original Turtle Creek Valley Railroad, which ran from Trafford to the Saltsburg area.
Courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives
Above, a map of the original Turtle Creek Valley Railroad, which ran from Trafford to the Saltsburg area.
Above, a map of the original Turtle Creek Valley Railroad, which ran from Trafford to the Saltsburg area.
Courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives
Above, a map of the original Turtle Creek Valley Railroad, which ran from Trafford to the Saltsburg area.

The rail bed that runs past Dura-Bond in Export has been in the news lately because of plans to convert it from a working rail line to a portion of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail.

But there's another reason to take note of the rail line — it turns 125 years old this year. The railway dates to 1890, when it was established as a short-line rail originating from a Trafford interchange with the Norfolk Southern Railroad.

The line ran east to Monroeville — Saunders Station Road bears the name of one of its stops — and Murrysville, continued into Export and ran out to the Saltsburg area.

“It started by where the Westinghouse plant was, in Trafford,” said Wayne Norris, president of Dura-Bond Industries in Export where the rail line now terminates. “It went through Murrysville's Newlonsburg Station, Export and other small-town stations, and it connected with the Conemaugh branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.”

Established as the Turtle Creek Valley Railroad, the line originally ran southeast to Greensburg and northeast to Saltsburg, and even operated a passenger service from 1894 to the mid-1930s. However, a flood in the mid-1920s destroyed a large portion of the line in the Saltsburg and Slickville areas, Norris said.

“They elected not to rebuild it, and it terminated (in Delmont) off of Route 66,” he said.

The line was eventually taken over by Conrail, and according to Danish railroad enthusiast Carsten Lundsten, it was likely one of the less-profitable branches. That's why Conrail elected to stop using it about 35 years ago.

In 1980, the federal government passed the Staggers Rail Act — which deregulated the American railroad industry to a significant extent — and replaced the regulatory structure that existed since the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act. One of its provisions allowed railroads to abandon unprofitable lines, Norris said.

“We got together with the other folks who shipped or received material on the line at the time — 84 Lumber, the National Aluminum Corp., Beckwith Machinery and others — when we had this window of opportunity to either buy or subsidize the line,” he said. “I was the last guy on the line, so I figured I'd just buy it and service everyone at the same time.”

Dura-Bond was the first company in the state to buy a short-line railroad through the Staggers Act process as a for-profit venture.

“We owned it from Export Tire to Trafford,” Norris said. “We bought a locomotive and started the Turtle Creek Industrial Railroad in 1982: we hauled our own product, originated and terminated traffic.”

Business dropped off quite a bit over the years, particularly with the continued closure of Pittsburgh-area steel mills, Norris said. In the late 2000s, flooding once again became an issue.

“Water was coming down Turtle Creek much more rapidly than in the past, due to new construction and buildings and parking lots at the upper end of the stream,” Norris said. “It became clear that if we kept running it, we'd have a lot of flood-related costs.”

Dura-Bond filed for a discontinuance of service, and railbanked the Turtle Creek Industrial Railroad corridor, which preserves it for future rail use but also allows its use as a hiking and biking trail.

Carl Izzo, 83, of Murrysville can still remember his father catching the train in Export when his job with West Penn Power required him to travel to Pittsburgh.

“That railroad was a very important asset to this part of the county,” Izzo said.

Patrick Varine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2365 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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