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Bellefonte Railroads

Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Railroad

Centre County's first railroad, the Bellefonte and Snow Shoe, was the idea of a group of Bellefonte businessmen, which included Andrew Curtin (elected Pennsylvania Governor in 1860), Hugh McAllister (a prominent attorney and banker), and James Irvin (ironmaster and former Congressman). With the backing of Philadelphia investors (nearly all of whom were Quakers, or Friends [1]) , they acquired thousands of coal-rich acres on the mountaintop near Snow Shoe. The line extends from Bellefonte to Snow Shoe, a distance of twenty six miles, where the company owned fifty six thousand acres of valuable timber and coal lands, purchased of J. Gratz, of Philadelphia. [1]  Hampered by the problem of transporting lumber and coal to Bellefonte and the Pennsylvania Canal, they engaged William Harris to design a railroad for the 1,000 foot drop from the mountaintop area to an outlet in Bald Eagle Valley.  He came up with a right-of-way for the Bellefonte-Snow Shoe Railroad Co. and the famous "switchback" system down the mountain. 

Construction began in 1858.  By 1859 the Bellefonte-Snow Shoe Railroad was in operation, as far as Milesburg.  The unique switchback route down the mountain had proven successful and was even becoming an attraction.  The road was completed at a cost of eight thousand two hundred and fifty-nine dollars and some cents per mile, all of which was paid as the work proceeded, leaving the company free from debt, when the first train passed over the track. [1]  The Bellefonte & Snow Shoe Railroad opened for service between the coal lands and Bellefonte in 1862 and promoted rapid growth for the Snow Shoe area, establishing hotels, coal mines, and other businesses as well as providing new housing, and accumulating vast tracts of land for lumbering. [2]  This road was the first, and until 1864, the only railroad in operation in Centre county. [1]

About the time the road was completed the Snow Shoe Land Association, composed of members of the railroad company, was organized, and purchased the entire tract of forty-six thousand acres held by the latter company, and subsequently re-sold to that corporation three thousand acres which include the tract on which the town and mines are located. [1]

After leaving Milesburg the road ran up the Bald Eagle valley with an average rise of about twenty feet to the mile, as far as the Intersection (now Wingate). Leaving the valley at this point the ascending grade is sixty feet per mile, until the base of the Allegheny mountain is reached, the ascent of which is made by what is called the "switch-back" system, an elevation of eight hundred and sixty feet being acquired in an actual distance of about four miles. Owing to the zigzag course necessarily followed by the road in climbing the mountain, it has a length of track three miles more than the air-line distance. In other words, the road runs seven miles to gain four, at an average grade of one hundred and twenty feet per mile. Snow Shoe is eight hundred and eighty-sex feet higher than Milesburg, and fifteen hundred and sixty-five above the level of the sea. [1]

Underlying a large portion of the Shoe lands were several workable veins of the best quality of bituminous coal, aggregating a thickness of not less than twenty-five feet. Coal, it is said, was first mined on these lands as early as 1812, when it had to be hauled over rough roads in wagons.  In 1877 the company worked three different mines, with a force of about sixty men; generally, about one hundred were employed. If the demand required it there could be produced from these mines seven hundred and fifty tons daily. [1]

The lands connected with the road not only contained extensive deposits of coal and iron ore but a large extant of the surface was covered with valuable timber, and the manufacture of lumber was conducted more or less extensively on the property ever since the road was built; in addition to which a large quantity of charcoal was burned each year, not less than ten thousand cords of wood being consumed every season for that purpose. [1]

Aside from their lands and railroad the property of the company consisted of about one hundred buildings at Snow Shoe, including a hotel, capable of accommodating seventy-five or eighty guests; and about sixty miners' souses, five locomotives and a hundred cars; also a roundhouse and repair shops at Bellefonte. [1]

The officers of the road in '77 were: Richard H. Downing, President; Wistar Morris, Jacob P. Jones, William Helme, of Philadelphia, and Robert Valentine, of Bellefonte, Directors; General Superintendent and Treasurer, Daniel Rhoads, of Bellefonte; Chief Engineer, James L. Sommerville, also of Bellefonte.

During this period the Pennsylvania Railroad was financing the construction of a line linking Tyrone and Lock Haven.  This line was completed in 1865.   They used the Bellefonte & Snow Shoe Railroad track between Wingate and Milesburg.   The Pennsylvania Railroad bought the Bellefonte & Snow Shoe Railroad in 1881 and then became the Snow Shoe and Bellefonte branches of the Pennsylvania Railroad. [1]  They felt that the possession of this line would give the Pennsylvania railroad facilities for the control of the bituminous coal tonnage which it had not previously enjoyed, and is therefore regarded by the officers of the company as an important acquisition. [3] Also in 1881 their coal interests were sold to Berwind White Co. In 1885 the Lehigh Valley Coal Company took over Berwind White's coal lands and became the area's prime employer for the next 65 to 70 years. [2]

The scenery along the route was truly picturesque; for a few miles, evidences of civilization and progress meet the eye on either side then the traveler was ushered into and along a valley that grows wilder and more picturesque the further it is penetrated. As the mountain was being ascended new scenes of grandeur and beauty appear. [1]

[1] Keystone Gazette July 20 1900, page 11; The Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Rail Road
[2] Centre County Historical Society online; http://centrecountyhistory.org/ABCsS.html
[3] Democratic Watchman August 15 1879, page 8; Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Railroad

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3 November 2004

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