First Rail Line in Pennsylvania

The excitement that came with the discovery of anthracite coal in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania (now known as Jim Thorpe) in 1791 faded a little as businessmen wondered how to get the heavy material to market in other parts of the Commonwealth. At the time, horse- or ox-drawn wagons and river barges were the only options. Near what is now Chester, PA, the first quarry tramway in Pennsylvania (known as the Leiper Railway) was created. It is considered the first railroad, although it relied on horses or mules for power. Freight was put on rails, which were much smoother than the rutted dirt roads of the time.

In the early to mid-1820s, canals were dug, which helped alleviate road traffic and get around river hazards, but it was the creation and refinement of the steam engine that helped Pennsylvania businesses boom.

On Independence Day, 1828, Charles Carroll began construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which became the first common carrier in the United States. One year later in Honesdale, PA, the Stourbridge Lion, a steam engine imported from England, was the first to run on commercial railroad tracks in the country, but it was too small to move significant amounts of freight over the Allegheny Mountains. It took people tinkering with the steam engine design over many years to perfect the railroad industry.

Pennsylvania had numerous railroad firsts, including:

  • In 1833, the first railroad tunnel in the Western Hemisphere was built east of Johnstown.
  • In 1837, the first-ever sleeping car was on a train on the Cumberland Valley Railroad line between Harrisburg and Chambersburg.
  • In 1844, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad became the first line in the United States to carry one million tons of freight in a year.
  • In 1845, the first iron railroad bridge in the United States opens on the Philadelphia & Reading near Manayunk.
  • In 1867, the first domestic steel rails are rolled by the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown and installed on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

To view a comprehensive timeline of rail in Pennsylvania and the United States, click here.