The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, The Little Giant


The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad is one of the smaller fallen flag systems as it operated a main line stretching from Connellsville, Pennsylvania to Youngstown, Ohio, via its home city of Pittsburgh. Interestingly it never reached Lake Erie although it did become quite profitable moving large amounts of raw materials, such as ore, coke, coal, limestone, and steel since the railroad connected the once sprawling steel network located in the region, particularly around Pittsburgh. For much of its life the railroad was under the control of the New York Central railroad but after the collapse of the Penn Central in 1976 the railroad was spun off and for the first time in over a century became a completely independent operation. By the late 1980s CSX Transportation began using the P&LE’s main line heavily as a through route and eventually took over the fledgling carrier in 1993, operating it as the Three Rivers Transportation Company.

P&LE GP7s #1501 and #1500 are power for the railroad's local commuter service around Pittsburgh. The train rests on October 19, 1980 as it did not operate during the weekends. These two Geeps remained on the railroad's roster as long as it operated commuter trains as they were equipped with steam generators.

The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad dates back to May 11, 1875 when a prominent Pittsburgh businessman, William McCreery, chartered the new system. However, the railroad had a very rough start and after two years of little to show for in the way of progress (a single rail had yet to be laid) McCreery resigned his position as president. After a shuffle of leadership at the top of the P&LE construction began in the late 1870s and by 1879 the railroad’s main line between Pittsburgh and Youngstown had been completed. It was then that the NYC subsidiary the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway purchased controlling interest in the railroad in 1880, which remained under NYC control until the collapse of the Penn Central.  Four years later in 1884 the P&LE had opened its eastern extension between Pittsburgh and Connellsville, Pennsylvania via the Pittsburgh, McKeesport & Youghiogheny Railroad, which had been leased to it through LS&MS interests.

Five Pittsburgh & Lake Erie GP38s lead westbound freight LT29 across the diamond at Blasdell, New York on August 20, 1988 as a Buffalo Southern freight awaits in the distance.

This was virtually the extent of the P&LE, as its control by the NYC limited its options to build and expand, along with the fact that profits ebbed and flowed throughout the railroad’s life.  While the railroad was never more than a little over 100 miles in length at its largest (the railroad did have a few branches diverging from its main line including the Ferrona Branch, Walford Branch, Lowellville Branch and Mahoning State Line Railroad Branch), it became very famous for the incredible amount of tonnage it moved, dubbing it the “Little Giant.” Much of this tonnage was due to the fact that the P&LE was strategically located along many of the busiest and largest steel operations in the country. Coal, coke, and iron ore moved in large amounts over the P&LE and the railroad is legendary for hauling these products with massive steam locomotives such as its small fleet of Berkshires (of the 2-8-4 wheel arrangement).

Into the diesel era the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad rostered an eclectic display of EMDs, GEs, and Alcos (for the most part the railroad used a simple black livery with yellow lettering, followed by a herald of the company adorning the front nose or flanking the hood).

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
PA-14204-420719494
PA-24213-421419522
RS38353-835719535
S28537-85491948-194913
S48633-8667195335

Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
SW15001534-1563, 9280-92891971-197340
MP15DC1574-1598, 5030-50391974-197535
GP382025-2041 (Ex-PC)196917
GP38-22051-2056, 2057-2060 (Ex-CRI&P)1976-197710
GP75676-5685, 5713-57371951-195335
NW28705-8714, 8740-87491947-194920
SW98931-8940, 8952-89611951-195220

Faibanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
H10-449100-91031946-19484

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A-1Switcher0-4-0
A-2aBerkshire2-8-4
B-2 Through B-6Switcher0-6-0
D (Various)American4-4-0
E-1Altantic4-4-2
G-1 Through G-3Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
H-1 Through H-3Consolidation2-8-0
H-8, H-10AMikado2-8-2
K-4A/BPacific4-6-2

With P&LE GP38 #2028 on point and several Geeps trailing (one of which is an ex-Conrail unit), an empty string of coal hoppers roll westbound through Blasdell, New York on June 29, 1986.

Still, while the P&LE was part of the NYC and mostly hampered by any type of expansion efforts it was part of one major project, co-owner (with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and later Baltimore & Ohio) of the Monongahela Railway, a coal hauler in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. The Monongahela Railway dates back to 1900 when it was originally created by the Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh & Lake Erie as the Monongahela Railroad to build a line south of Brownsville Junction (just north of Brownsville where the P&LE and PRR met and the Mon’s main line headed south), following the east bank of the Monongahela River to reach Martin, Pennsylvania, where the railroad tapped several coal mines in the region. Interestingly, this line would be one of the only rail lines built by the Monongahela as most of the rest of its system was put together through mergers and buyouts of small shortlines.

A P&LE SW1500, #1564, pulls a string of freight cars through the yard at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1991.

While the P&LE ebbed and flowed with the demand for coal (being that it made up virtually all of the railroad’s traffic) during its final years with demand for black diamonds soaring the Monongahela Railway was quite profitable. Its end came as its owning railroads began selling off their interests in the Mon. First, the financially destitute P&LE sold of its interest to then PRR successor, Conrail followed by CSX Transportation, successor to the B&O a few years later. And so, full control was handed to Conrail in 1993, which slowly integrated the railroad into its system.


Bringing up the rear of a freight at Buffalo, New York on July 23, 1988 is P&LE bay-window caboose #503.

Even though the railroad was spun-off following the Penn Central collapse in 1976 and an independent operation it was running out of traffic as the steel industry slowly declined in northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s. By 1989 it wanted out of the Monongahela ownership in exchange for cash and four years later was purchased by CSX Transportation, renaming the system Three Rivers Transportation and still operates the P&LE’s former main line today (but interestingly did not take ownership of any of the railroad’s former rolling stock, which was slowly sold off).

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