“A tavern stop along the Huntingdon, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike”.[i] That was Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, circa 1820: an overnight stop along the wagon route between Huntingdon and Indiana, PA. A dozen years later, thanks to New York’s Erie Canal, the political clout of some Juniata Iron masters and an intransigent Frankstown farmer, this small tavern stop was transformed into a thriving Port Town. The driver of this growth was the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works – the Pennsylvania “Main Line Canal.”
By the late 1820s the success of the Erie Canal was threatening to diminish Philadelphia’s stature as a commercial port vis-à-vis New York City. Spurred by competition north and south, by 1833 Pennsylvania’s “Main Line” was bringing goods, entertainment, even women’s fashion to the western frontier as far as Hollidaysburg.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad (APRR), however, was the key to competing successfully with New York–and the keystone for Hollidaysburg’s growth. Completed in March 1834, the APRR connected Philly in the east to Pittsburgh in the west via a single transportation network, the Public Works. Not a “railroad” as we think of them today, the Portage Railroad used rope, a series of stationary steam engines and ten rail inclines–five on each side of the Allegheny Ridge—to literally pull cars loaded with goods or with passengers up one side of the mountain and down the other. There, cargo would be re-loaded onto boats making their way east or west.
Off-loading cargo onto rail cars for the trip up the APRR, and loading of cargo back onto canal boats for eastbound travel was the business of Hollidaysburg’s canal basin. It was the lifeblood of Hollidaysburg for 20-odd years. In 1837, the Port of Hollidaysburg had 14 daily canal boat lines; at its height, it serviced a canal boat every 20 minutes.[ii]
By mid-century, new, more powerful steam locomotives made the APRR and Hollidaysburg’s canal basin virtually obsolete. In 1854 the first “iron horse” passed over the tracks at the Horseshoe Curve, constructed at Altoona by the privately-owned Pennsylvania Railroad Company. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Main Line Canal—including the APRR—from the Commonwealth in 1857, transferring the region’s economic base to the “Railroad City” and building the rail system in use to this day.
There were actually three interconnected basins in the Hollidaysburg port complex. The main one—six feet deep, 120 feet wide, and two miles long—was located where the railroad yards are now. This was connected by a short canal segment to a smaller basin located just below present-day Juniata Street. The third pool was really a feeder reservoir for the other two. Created out of the Beaverdam Branch of the Juniata River, this “upper basin” fed the other two in the spring and the fall.
During the dryer summer months the basin was kept navigable by water from the Eastern Reservoir, carved out of the Juniata’s Frankstown Branch high above the town and basin proper.
By mid-century, new, more powerful steam locomotives made the APR and the Hollidaysburg canal basin virtually obsolete. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) purchased the Main Line Canal—including the APRR—from the Commonwealth in 1857, and built the rail system in use to this day. The Juniata Division of the Main Line Canal remained in operation for local transportation needs until Hollidaysburg canal basin , although its economic, social, and cultural impact had been eclipsed by the PRR.
In April, 2002, the Hollidaysburg Canal Basin Park opened at the site of the original basin with support of the Allegheny Ridge Corporation.
[i] “Historic Hollidaysburg Walking Tour,” p.1.
[ii] “Historic Hollidaysburg Walking Tour,” p.2; Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, “Hollidaysburg Canal Basin”: http://www.nps.gov/alpo/learn/historyculture/hburgbasin.htm