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Book recounts railroad days on Conemaugh Division

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 1:57 p.m.

Considered by many to be a secondary, back-up route for trains if traffic got tied up on the Main Line tracks, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Conemaugh Division was much more to those who lived in the communities it served along the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny rivers.

Following the relatively brief boom years of freight and passenger traffic along the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, the Conemaugh Division, following the same route, was the lifeblood for communities such as Blairsville and Saltsburg, providing local jobs on the railroad as well as a means of shipping the coal that issued from the numerous mining communities that dotted its branch lines.

Though the railroad jobs have dwindled and shifted elsewhere, the Conemaugh Division continues to play an important role.

Its current operators recently have reactivated and even expanded portions of track to haul coal more efficiently to the area's coal-fired power plants.

All branches of the division's track, in past eras and the present, are documented in the recently released book, "Pennsy's Conemaugh Division: Pittsburgh to Johnstown and Oil City."

The 128-page volume features more than 30 pages of text, several maps and 341 photos, most never published before.

Touted as "the most definitive work ever put together on the Conemaugh Division," it is the third book about Pennsy operations in Western Pennsylvania co-authored by Bethel Park resident Ken Kobus and published by the non-profit Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.

Kobus wrote the book in collaboration with Gary Rauch, a former Murrysville resident who now lives in Boulder, Colo.

Kobus noted the book resulted from his desire to arrange a bus tour along Conemaugh Division sites for fellow members of the 3,000-strong society who gathered in Pittsburgh for the group's annual convention this past May.

The book was intended to supplement with historic photos and details, the places the group would visit in its whirlwind 6 1/2-hour, 140-mile tour that included lunch near the Conemaugh Dam and the current and past remnants of rail tunnels and bridges that are showcased in the adjacent Tunnelview historic site operated by Indiana County Parks and Trails.

Kobus met with success in 1996, when he penned the previous PRRT&HS volume, "The Pennsy in the Steel City," to coincide with an earlier Pittsburgh convention.

"It was really well received and became a cult thing," Kobus said, noting that first book included many vintage images of PRR operations and sites in and around Pittsburgh--photos that others had assumed didn't exist due to the difficulty of taking photos under the smoggy skies that dominated that city during its early steel- and iron-making era.

That 88-page book went into a second printing, prompting Kobus to author a second book, and now "Pennsy's Conemaugh Division."

According to Kobus, sales are "going well" of the edition of 2,000 copies, issued in May.

The Blairsville Area Historical Society will be selling copies of the book, while supplies last, for $25 each, at this weekend's Diamond Days festival in Blairsville and during regular operating hours at the historical society museum, at 116 Campbell St. For more information, call 724-459-0580.

Several pages of the book are devoted to photos from Blairsville, where the Pennsylvania Railroad once operated a major maintenance yard, along with freight and passenger stations.

The respective stations now serve as the borough building and the downtown Blairsville branch of S&T Bank.

"I was blown away by the number of photographs we got," Kobus said. "This provides a record of the community...and shows how important a place Blairsville was."

"Blairsville was a very important part of the railroad," he notes. At one time, "There was local passenger service all the way into Pittsburgh."

Blairsville was one of the few spots where the PRR Main Line and Conemaugh Division came together.

A branch line crossed the Conemaugh River into Blairsville from a passenger station at Torrance, originally known as Blairsville Intersection.

"It was the first branch route that they (PRR officials) allowed to be built," Kobus noted.

Eventually, Conemaugh Division maintenance tasks were shifted west, to PRR's Kiski Junction, near Freeport.

Other sections of the Conemaugh Division and its various branches also get their due in the book.

On the Indiana Branch, several photos show former PRR sites in Homer City.

Along the primary Conemaugh route, photos in the book depict all but one of the numerous bridges that crossed the Conemaugh River near Bow Ridge over the years, as tracks were repeatedly regraded and realigned to provide an easier route for trains over the tricky terrain, or to avoid high water caused by flooding and by the post-World War II impoundment area created by the Conemaugh Dam.

From Saltsburg, photos depict what is said to be the arrival of the first train into town, as well as the former PRR passenger station--now the borough offices.

Many of the images in the book come from the extensive collection of the late Dick Adams.

In addition to the mark he left on the local faith community, through his chief profession of Presbyterian pastor, the book brings to light the devotion of the Adams to his avocation as an area train buff.

A founding member of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society and a native of Tyrone, Adams had compiled "an extensive collection" of Conemaugh Division photographs during his years serving as a pastor of Presbyterian congregations in Saltsburg and Indiana.

Just as Kobus was seriously considering putting together a volume on the overlooked Conemaugh Division, Adams became ill and eventually died.

As a result, Kobus abandoned the idea of doing the book, until he learned that Rauch, who previously had worked with Adams on rail history projects, had borrowed the late pastor's photos and was beginning to scan them into his computer.

"It all just started clicking," Kobus said. "I knew I had enough information and enough photos (for a Conemaugh Division book)."

To create the book, Kobus supplemented his own research and photo collection with the information and many more images Rauch had at his fingertips.

"Gary knew a lot more of the details," Kobus said. "We had many discussions on the Internet."

Also contributing photos from their collections were two Blairsville natives: fellow train enthusiast Jim Burd, who currently resides in Chicago, and Cos Stasio, a history buff who still resides in Blairsville and counts two generations of railroaders among his family tree.

As a child, Burd recalled his father taking him to the Blairsville Intersection to watch the passing trains. He noted that he and his wife "both crossed the tracks, though in different directions, to go to grade school."

Burd, who grew up on Brown Street, crossed the rail crossing on East Market Street to attend the SS. Simon & Jude Catholic School. His wife came from the opposite side of the tracks to attend the public Third Ward School.

Burd recalled the last gasp of the steam locomotive in Johnstown.

As noted in Kobus and Rauch's book, the PRR phased out steam engines in favor of diesel engines. But Blairsville, due to the ready availability of coal from local mines, was one of the areas that saw the brief return of steam locomotives in the mid to late 1950s, when the PRR has a shortage of diesel engines to handle a surge in rail traffic.

"Then the traffic slowed down in the '60s," Burd noted. With the closure of the Blairsville yard, local rail employees "had to go to Pittsburgh, Kiski Junction or Conway (in Johnstown)," depending on where their jobs were relocated.

In high school, Burd purchased a camera from the late Bob Swenk and started taking some photos around the community, including some of the still-active railroad operations.

But, he noted, it wasn't until after he left town, in 1965, to work in the steel mills of Chicago, that he became interested in railroads and recently began amassing a collection of vintage PRR images, purchased through the eBay Internet auction site.

"I started collecting old postcards," he said, noting, "I've got about 100 images from the Packsaddle Gap."

Using his photos, he noted, he's put together a Power Point presentation on the scenic, isolated Packsaddle Gap section of the PRR rail line between Torrance and Bolivar.

He provided four large photos that made their way into Kobus and Rauch's finished book.

Cos Stasio is among those who are happy to have the book in release. He said, "It's something that needed done for years," to document the relatively rural and obscure branch of the mighty PRR.

Stasio believes as many as 700 people were employed by the PRR in Blairsville at the height of its operations there.

Among those who were on the railroad payroll over the years were his father, C.D. "Cosie" Stasio, who worked as a rail car inspector at the Blairsville yard, and his grandfather, Nick Stasio, who was employed in the Blairsville car repair shops.

Burd and Kobus pointed out that the Conemaugh Division, while providing a route for traffic to bypass any traffic holdup on the PRR Main Line, also offered a more gentle initial grades for freight headed east from Pittsburgh to Altoona and beyond.

It ran at water level along the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers, some 200 feet lower than the PRR Main Line on the opposite bank of the Conemaugh in the Packsaddle Gap.

The Pennsy's Conemaugh Division book also may be ordered from the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society. An order form can be printed from the society's Web site at

A companion piece also is available: a Conemaugh Division tour CD featuring 45 aerial photos from the late 1930s and 13 additional close-up images.

Blairsville's Diamond intersection, at West Market and Liberty streets, was the focal point of the town's civic and business activities in its early years as a borough.

Since the resurrection of its vanished bandstand, in the 1990s, the intersection has once more become a prominent spot--particularly during community occasions such as this weekend's 10th annual Diamond Days festival.

Some of the history behind the key crossroads is revealed in pages from The Blairsville Courier, which was an earlier incarnation of The Dispatch.

The July 20, 1906, edition of the Courier recounts how the town came close to losing one of the past features of the Diamond intersection: a drinking fountain that had been erected as a memorial to the nation's 25th president--William McKinley, who was fatally shot by an anarchist in September 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.

According to the article, the monument was dedicated in November 1903. But, more than two and a half years later, contractor C.F. Murray still was owed $68.82 for installing the fountain. Murray successfully sued for the overdue amount. As a result, the monument was listed for inclusion in an upcoming July 21 constable's sale.

But Blairsville avoided loss of the fountain and "a blemish that nothing could remove:" a reputation as a "welcher" and "a town without civic pride, a community that had no regard for the proprieties...."

Donating $1.50 himself, McAnulty solicited contributions from fellow townsfolk-- enough to cover Murray's remaining bill and to pay legal fees.

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