ONE of the subjects which attracted much attention at the outset was inclined planes, and the extent to which they should be avoided or adopted. As the primitive locomotives possessed very limited power as hill-climbers, and were mere pigmies in contrast with their successors in size and capacity, it seemed at one time to be absolutely necessary that railways intended to traverse mountainous countries over routes which necessitated heavy grades should be supplemented by inclined planes, on which stationary engines would furnish the motive power. It was in accordance with this idea that some of the earliest coal railways, and especially the Delaware and Hudson, were supplied with inclined planes, and that such adjuncts were originally provided at both ends of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, and on the Portage Railroad. It should be remembered that each of the important improvements in locomotives that helped to increase their power to ascend steep grades diminished the necessity for inclined planes.

As the Portage Railroad was used to cross the summits of the Allegheny mountains, it was the most important undertaking of the kind in this country, and in the world, at the period of its construction. Of this road Mr. Solomon W. Roberts says: "There were eleven levels, so called, or rather grade lines, and ten inclined planes, on the Portage, the whole length of the road being 36.39 miles. The planes were numbered eastwardly from Johnstown, and the ascent from that place to the summit was 1,171.58 feet in 26.59 miles, and the descent from the summit to Hollidaysburg was 1,398.71 feet in 10.10 miles."

The planes were all straight, and their lengths and elevations, together with the length of the grade lines or levels, which were worked first by horse power, and subsequently by locomotives, are stated in the following table:—


In regard to the economic considerations involved in the use of inclined planes and stationary engines, Jonathan Knight, said in 1832: "So recently as the beginning of the year 1829, the relative economy of the stationary and locomotive systems, upon level railways, or upon those but slightly inclined, was warmly contested in England, and the question was not put to rest until the recent improvements in the locomotive engine took place." He added that on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, after the improved engines (of Stephenson) were used, it was found that "the expense per ton per mile, by these engines, will be .164 of a penny, and by the stationary system .269 of a penny." Knight estimated in 1832 that in this country it was probable "that an engine, capable of conveying 30 tons of freight 120 miles in a day, will cost, including interest, repairs, renewals, engineering attendance, and fuel, from $9 to $15 per day, according to the price of fuel at the place demanded; and the cost per ton per mile, in the one case, will be ¼ of a cent, and in the other something less than ½ of a cent—more exactly .417 of a cent." In brief, as locomotives were improved the utility of inclined planes diminished.

The necessity of overcoming heavy grades by some methods is so imperative in all the mountainous portions of this country that the field of railway usefulness, and the limitations to the speed and cheapness of railway movements, would have been greatly restricted if the power of locomotives to draw relatively heavy loads over steep grades had not been greatly increased by American expedients and invention.

The nature of the delays and increase of expenditures caused by the enforced use of inclined planes may be inferred from the statement of Mr. Solomon W. Roberts that, on the Portage Railroad, "at the head of each plane were two engines, of about thirty-five-horse power each; and each engine had two horizontal cylinders, the pistons of which were connected with cranks at right angles to each other, which gave motion to the large grooved wheels, around which the endless rope passed, and by which the rope was put in motion. The engines were built in Pittsburgh, and could be started and stopped very quickly. One engine only was used at a time, but two were provided, for the greater security. Hemp ropes were at first used, and gave much trouble, as they varied greatly in length with changes in the weather, although sliding carriages were prepared to keep them stretched without too much strain; but wire ropes were afterwards substituted, and were a great improvement."

In the absence of inclined planes, horse power was sometimes used on the heavy grades of early roads, even after locomotives drew trains on level portions of such lines.

In the famous work of Charles Dickens, entitled American Notes, he gives the following description of his


"We left Harrisburg on Friday. On Sunday morning we arrived at the foot of the mountain which is crossed by railroad. There are ten inclined planes, five ascending and five descending; the carriages are dragged up the former, and let slowly down the latter, by means of stationary engines; the comparatively level spaces between being traversed, sometimes by horse, and sometimes by engine power, as the case demands. Occasionally the rails are laid upon the extreme verge of a giddy precipice; and looking from the carriage window, the traveler gazes sheer down, without a stone or scrap of fence between, into the mountain depths below. The journey is very carefully made, however, only two carriages traveling together; and while proper precautions are taken, is not to be dreaded for its dangers."


The application of a number of the early railways to purposes similar to those served by portages in the Indian and primitive American systems of transportation, was probably better illustrated by the Portage Railroad than any other line, and this fact presumably suggested its name. Soon after its construction it was applied to the novel purposes described in the following statement: "In October, 1834, Jesse Chrisman, from the Lackawanna, a tributary of the North branch of the Susquehanna, loaded his boat, named 'Hit or Miss,' with his wife, children, beds, furniture, pigeons, and other live stock, and started for Illinois. At Hollidaysburg (on the east side of a high ridge of the Allegheny), where he expected to sell his boat, it was suggested by John Dougherty, of the Reliance Transportation Line, that the whole concern could be safely hoisted over the mountain and set afloat again in the canal. Mr. Dougherty prepared a railroad car to bear the novel burden. The boat was taken from its proper element and placed on wheels, and under the superintendence of Major C. Williams the boat and cargo at noon on the same day began the progress over the rugged Allegheny. All this was done without disturbing the family arrangements. They rested a night on the top of the mountain, descended the next morning into the valley of the Mississippi, and sailed for St. Louis. After this incident boats were so constructed that they could be divided into sections and hauled over the railroad on trucks without breaking bulk, but they were not extensively used until about 1840. Cars were also used which could be lifted from their trucks and loaded on boats of special construction."


At a meeting, held in 1885, of Juniata boatmen, at Hollidaysburg, Captain D. H. Boulton read a paper describing the travel on the Portage Railroad, which contained the following statement:—
"The cars were loaded at Hollidaysburg, freight lifted from the gunwale to the cars by main strength. As many of you remember, if we worked hard all night, and started off in the morning, we had the pleasant assurance that, if we were so fortunate as to get over our thirty-six miles of road that day, we would have the privilege of loading in the Johnstown freight house the next night, sometimes working seventy-two hours consecutively in busy seasons. This we called 'a bad run.' When loaded, they were hauled by teams to Gaysport. The official in charge was not then called conductor, but captain. We were all captains. He having received from the collector's office his passport or right of way (the cars were weighed by H. A. Boggs, or some other weigh master of the honest old commonwealth), we were ready to start. A boat loaded from ten to twelve cars. This made two trains of five or six cars each, and was taken in charge by two men. The front car was the lever car. The brakes were wooden blocks drawn down on top of the wheels by means of it long pole at the side of the car. It was a rare thing to have more than one lever car to a train. We now attach to an engine, and are hauled to the foot of Plane No. 10 up a fifty-foot grade by Barney McConnell or Eli Yoder. Here Galbraith, McCormick, or Gardner, with their strong teams, would drag us, two or three cars at a time, to the hitching ground. 'Your clearance, captain,' would cry the familiar voice of Thomas Holiday or James McKee. After satisfying them, that this was the train entitled to pass, they would attach our cars to a hempen rope by means of a hempen stop. (In after days wire rope and iron chains took the place of these). Two cars being drawn up, the process was repeated until the entire train bad arrived at the top of the planes."


In the reminiscences of Mr. W. Milner Roberts, one of the distinguished early American railway engineers, which he read at a meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers, in May, 1878, he said:—
"In 1836, my friend William Norris, invited me to meet a number of gentlemen to witness a promised performance of one of his locomotives, namely, to take a passenger car (eight-wheeled), with fifty persons in it, up the Schuylkill inclined plane, at the rate of ten miles an hour. The first morning this experiment was to be tried it was found that some malicious or humorous individual had greased the track, which prevented the test for that time, but shortly after, when the grease had been removed, his locomotive actually performed as he had promised. A careful record of the performance was printed in a quarto pamphlet at the time, but I have not seen it for a great many years. One of the passengers was an English officer, who (as Mr. Norris afterward told me), when be related the occurrence in England, was not credited, the railroad savants on the other side having already 'decided' that the limit of locomotive possibilities stopped very far short of 422 feet per mile rise, which was the grade of the Schuylkill plane. The length of this plane was about half a mile."

Other notable performances in hill-climbing of American locomotives, constructed by various builders, occurred at later dates, and after the fact became well established that locomotives could ascend grades as heavy or even heavier than those on which inclined planes bad been constructed, few or none of these devices were applied to new roads intended for miscellaneous traffic, and those in existence were supplemented. by tracks available for locomotives as speedily as possible. This remark, however, does not apply to some of the coal or other mining roads.

Transport Systems | Antebellum RR | Contents Page

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery