It’s been a while but I want to revive this blog- I am still having adventures and I want to share them with my friends and family. Since my last real post (ignoring the rant about Logan Paul) I became an official Park Ranger with the National Park Service and have worked at two different NPS sites. This experience really enriches my visits to other parks and gives me a level of appreciation for their visitor centers, videos, programs, etc because of my ‘backstage’ knowledge of the work that goes into them. So, on my weekends, I do my best to visit other parks!
I was lucky enough to visit 20+ National Parks on a road trip a few years ago, but realized that National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Monuments, and National Memorials (and others) are awesome too. I have never visited a site administered by the NPS and been disappointed- confused, maybe, about why something was a NP instead of one of the other categories, but not disappointed. There are 58 National Parks but over 417 units in the National Park Service! (A good note is that of those 417, just over 100 charge admission- there is often news about fee hikes at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite, but there are 300+ NPS sites that don’t charge any fee!)
I managed to visit three NPS sites in Pennsylvania in one day- Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, and Flight 93 National Memorial. I’ll put them in three separate posts so you don’t get inundated, so expect one post each Monday!
Allegheny Portage Railroad was a fascinating site for me because I had worked at another canal/transportation site (The C&O Canal NHP), so I knew a little about the challenges of developing transportation in the 1800s. The reason there is history at this particular site is because in the 1820s, it took almost a month to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by wagon. With a canal, travel time could be reduced to four days. (For reference, it’s about 310 miles or 500 km- today a 5 hour drive or a 1 hour 15 minute flight.) Unfortunately there were mountains in the way, so the Pennsylvania Canal System had to figure out how get through, or around, or over them. They considered the possibilities: blast a tunnel through the mountain (expensive, dangerous, hadn’t been done before) or configure some way to tow canal boats safely up and own over the mountain.
I had only heard the word “portage” in reference to canoeing or kayaking, where you have to get out and carry your boat to the next place, so as I pulled in my mind was boggling about how the canal boats I knew from the C&O could possible be portaged over a mountain. Well, here’s how:
The portage railroad was designed so that canal boats (some of which were detachable and could ride on three separate railcars) could be safely towed on railroad tracks through 10 incline planes- 5 going up, 5 going down. Much like the locks of a canal, there would be flat surfaces between each plane. A lot of engineering ingenuity (engineuity?) had to be involved to make this work!
The park has a beautiful visitor center with some hands-on exhibits explaining how the railroad worked. It looks like they’re planning on updating or renovating some exhibits too, since there was a sample panel asking for visitor feedback, which I thought was cool. I didn’t have time to watch the introductory video because I had left too late, but I think I got the gist of it!
From the visitor center, you can take a lovely accessible boardwalk trail down to the portage railroad sites. It was a little muggy when I was there, so the boardwalk was slightly slippery, but it gave you a fantastic Jurassic Park, foggy and ferny feel. Kind of like taking a step back in history.
The first building you come to is this engine house- this is a replica, not an original, but was still fascinating. There were exhibits inside about how exactly a heavy canal boat would be lowered down a relatively steep incline: carefully. The cars would be attached to heavy, heavy rope or cables- in fact, the type of cable invented for the portage railroad was later used in suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge. The engine house held a huge steam engine that would slowly lower the railcars down or winch them back up.
After the engine house, visitors have a chance to see the Lemon house, which was a place for passengers and crew to rest while waiting for their boat to be lowered. It wasn’t technically an inn but served meals, had separate parlors for men and women, and would occasionally host people overnight in inclement weather. It was staffed by a fantastic volunteer who pointed out details and told personal stories about travel in the area when she was growing up. She was awesome!
There are other things to see at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, but I knew since I was trying to visit other parks the same day, this would have to be a shortened visit. For those interested in engineering, transportation, or logistics, this park is sure to be a hit!