Entire libraries could be written on the Pennsylvania Railroad ranging from its history to the different businesses it owned, far, far too much to cover here which is a mere brief history of the railroad. The Pennsy was an institution to the City of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. For over 100 years the keystone represented the PRR as much as it did the state itself. For history’s sake you cannot really speak of the Pennsy without also mentioning the New York Central (and vice versa). It’s quite amazing how similar both were outside of their operational practices. Both were institutions, two of the largest railroads in the country, and the class of the industry for decades.
In a perfect world both would have found other, more logical merger partners and likely would still be competing today, thus completely changing the landscape and history of U.S. railroading as we now know it. However, we do not live in a perfect world, of course, and despite all of their success both wound up making horrendous decisions during their final years of independence and died a horrible death as the Penn Central Corporation in 1968 (aside from competing in virtually every market, from a management and operations standpoint they were polar opposites, which became painfully clear upon merger day when management teams began working together).
The Pennsylvania Railroad had its beginnings in 1846, chartered by the state to connect Philadelphia with Pittsburgh. Completed eight years later and opened in 1854 the direct main line followed the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers through southern Pennsylvania to reach Pittsburgh via Harrisburg and Altoona (Altoona would later be the railroad’s most famous shop complex complete with everything from car shops and machine shops to foundries). It’s interesting to wonder how the eastern United States rail map would have appeared had the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad chartered nearly 20 years earlier and already well established been allowed to build into Pennsylvania and connect Pittsburgh and Philadelphia itself.
In any event, all of that is now history and by the late 19th century the Pennsy was rapidly expanding, reaching Chicago by 1869 via the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago and by 1873 had entered New York City. By the first part of the 20th century the PRR had reached cities such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Columbus. By mid-century the Pennsy was a true behemoth, almost literally serving every town, large and small, north and just slightly south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a staggering 10,000-mile system (an enormous railroad for the eastern U.S. where markets and cities are much closer in proximity than in the west).
It then comes as no surprise that a system that reached such large cities and markets, with a fast and swift main line across southern Pennsylvania, would allow the PRR to grow to become the largest and most dominate railroad in the east. Throughout the first half of the 20th century both it and the New York Central commanded an astounding amount of the freight and passenger traffic moving from the Northeast to Midwest and were literally the only true competitors in their respective markets. Third in this trunk line race was the venerable B&O (a road that the Pennsy held a controlling interest in for a brief time in the early 20th century) but with only a minor presence in the Philadelphia, New York, and Boston markets and a main line that was forced over the rugged Alleghenies between Harpers Ferry and Parkersburg, West Virginia the B&O was no match for the Pennsy and NYC in terms of speed and freight/passenger traffic (although, interestingly, the B&O outlived its competitors by 20 years!).
The PRR is remembered for many things with two of the railroad’s most lasting achievements its grand monument to New York City, Pennsylvania Station and its legendary passenger train, The Broadway Limited. The The Broadway Limited was a plush train operating between New York and Chicago on a schedule of right around 16 hours; and whereas the NYC’s 20th Century Limited was bedecked in a more business-like atmosphere and tone (with grays, blacks, and whites used inside and out) the Limited was adorned in soft and relaxing tones along with an atmosphere that was very easy-going and laid back. The Pennsylvania also had the most extensive electric operations of any private carrier in the country, most of which is still operated today by Amtrak and regional commuter systems. Beginning in 1915 the railroad began to electrify portions of its eastern main lines where commuter and passenger operations were the heaviest and by the late 1930s electrification had reached south to Washington, D.C., west to Harrisburg, and north to New York City. In all, most of the PRR’s system east of Harrisburg was electrified by the late 1930s. It was during this time, 1935, that the Pennsylvania Railroad unveiled an all time classic, the legendary GG1 electric.
Able to operate bi-directionally, cruise along effortlessly with both freight and passenger trains at over 100 mph, and a sleek design from renowned industrial designer, Raymond Loewy (who also gave the locomotive its famous “cat whisker” pinstripes), the Gs owned the rails along the eastern electrified lines and were a common sight for nearly 50 years, outliving the Pennsy herself into the early Conrail era. Despite the PRR’s enormous success, following World War II and the traffic downturn of the 1950s, the future was uncertain for the carrier. Mounting losses and old-fashioned management practices were bringing down the iconic railroad (so legendary was the PRR that even as things continued to worsen, no one felt anything terrible would befall the company) and by the 1950s things were getting desperate. It was during this time that the Pennsy began exploring the idea of merger with bitter and longtime rival, New York Central.
In the end and despite a long search for another partner by the New York Central (a carrier that was now much stronger financially due to the excellent oversight of president Alfred Pearlman), it was eventually decided that a merger with the Pennsylvania Railroad was the only option for the NYC. Surprisingly the ICC approved the merger that virtually allowed for a monopoly in the Northeast and the ill-fated Penn Central Corporation was born on February 1, 1968. On merger day chaos ensued and the new railroad literally began to fall apart from the very beginning. With a merger that was not only a terrible fit but also unplanned it comes as no surprise that the railroad ended up in bankruptcy. To make matters worse the PRR and NYC could not have had more opposite corporate cultures.
The NYC’s management was more laid back, open to new ideas, and the chain of command was “loose” (one reason for its renewed success in the 1950s under Perlman); whereas the PRR was extremely strict, new ideas were shunned and looked down on (the railroad was still using practices that had been out-dated since the 19th century!), and orders came down through the chain of command. Naturally, then, these two management teams did not get along and pandemonium resulted across the entire system. The PC was losing over $1 million a day and trains were becoming lost throughout the system, as dispatchers were not properly trained on how to dispatch and track their trains. To make matters worse as the red ink began to become an unstoppable flash flood maintenance was deferred and derailments became the norm with large sections of main line reduced to 10 mph slow orders.
After only two years since its creation, the destitute Penn Central
officially declared bankruptcy on June 21, 1970. The result of this was
a ripple effect throughout the entire Northeast, as other railroads,
which depended on the PC to ferry traffic, no longer had a means to move
their freight. It became so bad that the Penn Central was facing total
shutdown if financial assistance, any means of help at all, were not
located. Realizing the severity of the situation the federal government
stepped and setup the Consolidated Rail Corporation, which comprised the
skeletons of several bankrupt Northeastern carriers, and began
operations on April 1, 1976.
Admiral: (New York - Chicago)
Akronite: (New York - Pittsburgh - Akron)
Broadway Limited: (New York - Chicago)
Clevelander: (New York - Cleveland)
Cincinnati Limited: (New York - Cincinnati)
Colonial: (Boston - Washington)
Congressional: (New York - Washington)
Duquesne: (New York - Pittsburgh)
East Wind: (Washington - Bangor, Maine)
Edison: (New York - Washington)
General: (New York - Chicago)
Gotham Limited: (New York - Chicago)
Golden Triangle: (Chicago - Pittsburgh)
Jeffersonian: (New York - St. Louis)
Kentuckian: (Chicago - Louisville)
Liberty Limited: (Washington - Chicago)
Manhattan Limited: (New York/Washington - Chicago)
Montrealer/Washingtonian: (Washington - New York - Montreal)
Pennsylvania Limited: (New York/Washington - Chicago)
Penn Texas: (New York - Washington - St. Louis)
Pittsburgher: (New York - Pittsburgh)
Red Arrow: (New York - Washington - Detroit)
Senator: (Boston - Washington)
South Wind: (Chicago - Miami)
Spirit Of St. Louis: (New York - St. Louis)
St. Louisan: (New York/Washington - St. Louis)
Trail Blazer: (New York - Chicago)
Union: (Chicago - Columbus)
(A deep thanks to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University for allowing Ron Nixon's historic collection of the PRR to be featured here.)
With federal backing Conrail began to slowly pull out of the red ink (it took many years, into the 1980s) and by the late 1980s was a profitable railroad after thousands of miles of access trackage was abandoned and/or upgraded. Today even Conrail is no longer with us being split up amongst CSX and Norfolk Southern in 1999, with CSX Transportation taking much of the NYC while NS got a good chunk of the Pennsy. Many parts of the legendary PRR continue to serve an important role in moving goods (and people) today (such as its main line to Chicago and St. Louis along with the famous Horseshoe Curve).