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Railroads: Lifeline to the region

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 11:48 a.m.

The area's early economic development would not have been possible without the railroads. Before they were built, Southwestern Pennsylvania commerce depended on rivers that weren't always navigable.

The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was the only viable transportation alternative. Wagons could not effectively move heavy goods over the hilly, wooded terrain.

The Baltimore & Ohio railroad was the first proposed to be built through Western Pennsylvania. The plan was to link Baltimore with inland areas, bypassing Philadelphia. However, some Fayette County and National Pike Route 40 interests were opposed because they were prospering from early road traffic.

Henry W. Beeson of Uniontown made a significant speech extolling the virtues of the National Pike over railroad transportation, citing the number of horseshoes made by local blacksmiths. Political opposition from the Pennsylvania Railroad and National Pike interests delayed the B&O's plans to build a rail line through Southwestern Pennsylvania, bypassing the state with a more southern route.

The first railroad to operate in the Youghiogheny River Valley through Sewickley and North Huntingdon Townships was the Pittsburgh & Connellsville. The P&C's goal was to connect with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Cumberland, Md.

A charter was originally granted to the P&C in 1837 to build along the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers to "some suitable point at or near Connellsville." Then, in 1843, a charter renewal provided that its route could be extended along the Yough to any point in Pennsylvania. Ten years later, Maryland granted permission to build from the state line to Cumberland with the objective of connecting with the B&O there.

In 1854, contracts were awarded for the first segment of the P&C between Connellsville and West Newton. When that section was completed the following year, a schedule was established so that connections could be made with a steam boat at West Newton bound for Pittsburgh, or with a stage coach at Connellsville destined for Uniontown. The line was finished from West Newton to Pittsburgh in 1857.

Political disputes and an embezzlement of funds by the P&C president delayed completion of the full route. With no further progress, the charter was revoked in 1864 for lack of completion. In 1868, the revocation was repealed and work was resumed. By early 1871, trains were operating as far as Ohiopyle with the remaining work progressing rapidly.

On June 14, 1871, rails from both directions met near Fort Hill, where P&C President W. O. Hughart and B&O Chief Engineer Benjamin Latrobe drove a golden railroad spike to complete the project. The long-time goal of connecting Baltimore and Pittsburgh by rail was finally achieved.

The P&C was leased to the B&O in December 1875 and, in effect, became part of that railroad and its successors, the Chessie System and CSX. The new rail line quickly became a financial success, easily surpassing the earlier, more southern, route to the Ohio River.

There were many early drift and slope mines in the hills above the Yough. Before the arrival of the railroad, the only means of transporting coal to market in the Youghiogheny River Valley was by way of the river, but shipments were undependable because the water level was often too low or too high, and the river would freeze during the winter.

Most of the coal produced here was sold in Cincinnati, Louisville and New Orleans. Some of those trips down the Yough, the Monongahela, the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers must have been real adventures.

Dams were constructed on the Yough to make the river navigable to transport coal. The dams only lasted from 1849 until 1866 when they were destroyed by ice. Because of the arrival of the railroad, the practice of using the river to ship Sewickley Township and North Huntingdon coal had become almost obsolete.

In 1859, most of the valley's coal mines were operating on the Westmoreland County side of the river along the P&C rail. An 1859 directory of the Yough River Valley described the operating coal works. Among those listed were Dravo, J.S. and Brothers; Duncan, Cornell and Co.; Jenkins Bros.; Markle, SB&CP; McCune and Co.; McQuiston, RR and Co.; Robbins, Jenkins and Co.; and Rupert, Smith and Co.

A tremendous volume of coal was mined here, resulting in the development of a number of support industries.

It wasn't until 1883 that the Pittsburgh, McKeesport & Youghiogheny Railroad, known as the "P-Mickey," was built on the Allegheny County side of the river, greatly aiding the development of coal mines there. In 1884, it was leased in perpetuity to the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, which eventually filed to abandon the line in 1990, leading to construction of the Yough River Trail.

Stops along the way

There were numerous stops along the P&C and, eventually, the B&O, during the peak years of coal and coke production in the Yough River Valley. Some of the North Huntingdon and Sewickley Township stops included Robbins, Guffeys, Shaners, Buena Vista and Armstrongs.

Revolutionary War veteran, Britnel Robbins, bought 320 acres along the Youghiogheny River in 1799. Primarily located in North Huntingdon, the property is in the vicinity of an old Indian village. Robbins, the first white settler in what is now known as Turner Valley, carried out farming, milling and, eventually, mining. Robbins Station became an active coal mining community in the late 1800's when the P&C Railroad began operations.

Guffey's Station, originally known as Guffey's Landing, was named after early settler Alexander Guffey. Guffey, who operated salt wells along the Yough in the 1840's, was a descendent of the Guffeys who purchased the land from the Penn family in 1780.

When the P&C was built, Guffey granted a right-of-way for what later became the B&O, near the Sewickley-North Huntingdon Township border. The agreement stipulated that all trains, including through passenger expresses, make a water stop where the old family house stood.

Shaner was an early railroad station on the P&C in Sewickley Township. Miners developed the town after the Youghiogheny Coal Co. was established in 1863. At one time, it was the largest village in the township. Now only a few houses remain.

Yough River Trail users are familiar with the Buena Vista community at Milepost 27, but few are aware that the area across the river in Sewickley Township was also known as Buena Vista. The village served as the railroad station and post office for the town of the same name on the Allegheny County side before the Pittsburgh, McKeesport & Youghiogheny Railroad was completed.

Settled by Robert Hamilton in 1782, Buena Vista was the site of an early Yough River dam. The name probably came from the 1847 Mexican War battle of that name in which many from this area were involved. When the mines closed, the village on the Westmoreland side was abandoned and, eventually, reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Armstrong Station was a 19th century Sewickley Township coal patch town along the east bank of the Yough between the villages Scott Haven and Shaner. Charles H. Armstrong owned several mines in the area, including what was then known as the Armstrong Mine. What is thought to be the first mine shaft in the township was located here.

By 1885, the Armstrong Mine was operated by the Shaner Gas Coal Company. A P&C mileage table indicates that Armstrong Station was located 26.1 miles from Pittsburgh.

It's hard to imagine what the Yough River Valley must have been like with 1,000 coal miners working here. Many of the towns that thrived in the valley have almost disappeared or have been renamed. For example, Scott Haven was a mining town between Sutersville and Armstrong Station. According to the History of Sewickley Township, 525 people lived here in 1890. By 1962, the population had declined to about 125; today there are only a handful of homes remaining.

The P&C was the first to operate in the Yough River Valley nearly 150 years ago. Although the P&LE and the B&O Railroads are more familiar names, it was the P&C that paved the way.

The eventual decline of the coal industry, along with the elimination of passenger rail service and the train stations, hastened the decline of the small towns along the railroad. But the majority of these communities have retained their name recognition to this day.

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