The 1800s railroad carried everything from cheese to whiskey, nails, tobacco and, of course, bacon.
If there are national parks for nerds, the Allegheny Portage Railroad historic site is one of them.
The story of the railroad itself is about creative engineers and hard-working laborers, with the financial backing of the state government, jury-rigging a way to get railcars up and over the formidable Allegheny Mountains — testing new materials and new technology along the way.
It’s kind of nerdy stuff.
But before everyone else zips on by along Route 22, it’s worth mentioning the bacon.
“Bacon was special,” said Megan O’Malley, chief of interpretation, as she showed off a barrel of fake bacon installed last fall in the park’s visitor center. The staff figured what better way to make the story of a transportation system more compelling than to explain what was in it for regular folks.
More than 23 million pounds of bacon was shipped on the Allegheny Portage Railroad east from Pittsburgh in 1843 alone.
Back then, bacon came in barrels. The railroad also carried cheese, whiskey, nails, tobacco, yarn, lead, even fancy goblets that likely would have been broken if they’d been packed into a wagon pulled by horses. Passengers rode the railroad, too.
The goods were in demand but the profit margin wasn’t high. It was a similar challenge to the ones that Amazon, Uber, Postmates, Macy’s and FedEx deal with as they try to satisfy consumers’ interest in getting things delivered quickly — and still make a profit on the exchange.
An engineer working on the portage railroad construction in the early 1830s predicted that, when it was complete, transporting goods by canal and railroad from Hollidaysburg in Blair County to Blairsville in Indiana County would drop shipping costs from $12 to $16 per ton to $4 per ton, according to “Over the Alleghenies,” a 2013 book on Pennsylvania’s early canals and railroads by Robert Kapsch, published by West Virginia University Press.
Another game changer: rather than a 23-day wagon trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in good weather, according to park literature, the new system could do it in four days.