Expanding Passenger Travel

Pride of the Cumberland Valley

A PRR passenger train pulls into the Chambersburg Station in this 1988 print.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) was chartered by the state legislature in 1846 to build a private railroad line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.  Construction began in 1847. Less than forty years later, it had become not only the largest railroad in the world, but also the largest corporation. Under the leadership of President John Edgar Thompson, the PRR expanded its routes, gained control over other railroads, built new bridges and stations, embraced technological advances, and improved equipment. These developments allowed people to travel farther with greater speed, safety, and comfort.

By 1925, the PRR had 10,515 miles of rail line in thirteen states. The Broadway Limited was one of the most heavily trafficked passenger routes, operating from 1912 through 1995. It ran between New York and Chicago with ten stops in Pennsylvania, including one in Harrisburg that could connect passengers to the CVRR. The name of the train did not refer to the famous street in New York City; instead, it was a reference to the broadness of the PRR’s four-track main line. 

Revenue from passenger travel peaked in 1944 with 13,047 million passenger miles. After that year, it declined rapidly.    

Pennsylvania Railroad train crossing a bridge

PRR passenger and freight trains traveling on PRR tracks and bridges circa 1949.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

Expansion

When the PRR first began its operations in Pennsylvania, passenger rail across the state was disjointed. Many different railroads controlled different sections of rail line. In 1852, people who wanted to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh had to travel on PRR trains until they reached Lancaster. There, they would disembark from the PRR passenger cars to passenger cars owned by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad. Passengers would not get off onto a platform but instead balanced themselves as they walked from car to car on a wooden board.  From there, they would travel to Harrisburg and board another PRR line that would end at the Alleghany Portage Railroad. On the other side of the mountains, another PRR line took passengers to Pittsburgh. 

To end this fragmentary system, the PRR purchased the Main Line of Public Works from the state of Pennsylvania and replaced the existing double track and canal infastructure with four tracks as well as bridges over the waterways. It also began purchasing majority stock positions in competing companies. The PRR bought controlling interest in the Cumberland Valley Railroad in 1859. This consolidation of ownership and management was beneficial to passengers. Travel distances, safety, and comfort increased while travel times and fare prices decreased significantly.

Bridging Pennsylvania

Bridge construction was a major part of the PRR’s program to expand its trademark four track main line across the state of Pennsylvania and beyond. These bridges altered the Pennsylvania landscape.

The man in charge of this ambitious engineering project was William H. Brown. When Brown became chief engineer for the PRR in 1881, he had already worked for the company for thirty-one years, starting as a rod man on a survey crew. Brown replaced many older iron bridges with heavier steel ones; however, he is best remembered for his stone bridges, especially the Rockville Bridge that spans the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg. It is the world’s largest stone bridge. His preference for stone over iron bridges when crossing non-navigable streams proved well-founded, especially since his bridge at Johnstown successfully withstood the huge mass of debris that swept against it by the 1889 flood. By the time Brown retired in 1906, he was credited as making 133 revisions to the main line and building fourteen elevated railways through cities, forty-one tunnels, and 163 stone bridges. He reputedly knew every grade, curve, and crossing on the PRR. 

Cumberland Valley Railroad Station in Shippensburg

The Shippensburg Station on Orange and Earl Streets circa 1910.  Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilimington, DE.

Train Stations

As the PRR expanded, it assumed control of the passenger stations within its jurisdiction and built new ones to accommodate greater volumes of people. In 1876, a new passenger station was constructed for the Cumberland Valley Railroad in Shippensburg on Orange and Earl Streets. The station was sixty-seven feet long by twenty-five feet wide and the waiting room was fourteen feet high. At that time, trains ran down Earl Street, through the center of town.

Birdseye View of Pennsylvania Station

Outside view of the Pennsylvania Station as it looked in 1910.  Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

The company also constructed or partnered with other railroads to build many important and imposing stations like Washington DC’s Union Station, Chicago’s Union Station, St. Louis’ Union Station, and the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. The most impressive was Pennsylvania Station in New York City. When it was completed in 1910, it was the largest through station in the world. Combined with the Sunnyside Yard (used for train repairs), it covered a total of eight acres and held sixteen miles of track beneath the station. Several Shippensburg stations could be placed in the 277-foot-long, 103-foot-wide, and 150-foot-high main waiting room. 

Pennsylvania Station

1910 map of Manhattan showing the massive size of the Pennsylvania Station.  Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

Safe and Comfortable Travel

Until the 1870s, locomotives had manual breaks on their tenders and each car had a hand break. When the engineer whistled for brakes to be applied, brakemen needed to move quickly from the engine to the caboose to tighten the brake wheels. They ran across the roofs of the cars as the train moved, until it was halted. This cumbersome system not only made emergency braking to avoid crashes difficult, it was also extremely dangerous work for the brakemen. Thousands were injured or died from falls.

In 1869, George Westinghouse patented an improved air brake. These brakes operated through a reduction of pressure and allowed the engine operator to easily stop the train. The system was fail-safe: any failure in the train line would cause a loss of pressure, causing the brakes to be applied. With financial assistance from future PRR president Alexander Cassatt, Westinghouse Air Brake Co. was incorporated and soon every PRR passenger train was equipped with them.

In the 1870s, other safety improvements followed, including elongating the roofs of the cars to provide greater shelter over the open ends for boarding and disembarking. Seventeen years later, the PRR inaugurated the first vestibuled train with enclosed ends and a flexible gangway connection.

Pennsylvania Railroad passenger car no. 3556

This PRR passenger car that was built in 1886, like the others that were built in the late 19th century, were made of wood and had open vestibules at the ends.  Courtesy of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Ronk, PA.

Pennsylvania Railroad passenger car no. 1006

Steel cars with closed vestibules like this one from 1928 became the standard for the PRR as more safety features were adopted.  Courtesy of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Ronk, PA.

To enhance the experience for passengers, window sizes were increased, allowing better visibility and airflow, springs were placed in the trucks to stabilize the cars and prevent rocking, and electric lighting and heating systems were installed. Dining cars were also added in the late 1870s. Until this time, the common practice was to stop for meals at restaurants along the way.

in 1858, the Pennsylvania Railroad contracted with Thomas Woodruff to supply his sleeping cars for every night train with an additional car provided on request. The PRR used this type of sleeping cars until the 1880s when it switched to the more luxurious and ornate Pullman Palace cars.

The first all-steel passenger cars were adopted in 1905. These cars were lighter weight and more streamlined.   

7th Annual Beach Train Atlantic City

1961 advertisement for a day excursion to Atlantic City.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

Exploration

The three primary passenger routes operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad were from New York to Washington DC, completed in 1885, New York to Chicago, finished in 1887, and New York to St. Louis, concluded in 1905. With this expansion, residents of the Cumberland Valley had more opportunities to explore far-off places. Many people in central Pennsylvania took advantage of special discounted tickets to various vacation spots. 

To compete with automobiles and airplanes that had gained in popularity after World War II, the PRR promoted train travel by creating destination excursion trips. In the early 1960s, bargain tickets were offered to people in the Cumberland Valley to visit Atlantic City. Baseball fans were also courted with trips to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where they could enjoy peanuts and Cracker Jacks while rooting for their favorite team.

Extra Phillies' Excursions to Connie Mack Stadium

1960 advertisement for an excursion to go see the Phillies provided by the PRR.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

These promotions were not enough to halt the decline in passenger usage. Facing serious financial difficulties, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the New York Central Railroad in 1968. Even though the PRR no longer exists, its legacy endures through the bridges and stations it constructed and the safety comfort measures it pioneered and as a valuable asset in the game of Monopoly.