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"West Penn" Tribute
Many rail lines are indelibly linked with a particular region or geography. Think of the Santa Fe Railroad's association with the American Southwest or the New York Central's presence in the Hudson River Valley.
On a smaller scale, the West Penn Railways system will forever be linked with the Connellsville coke region of Southwestern Pennsylvania. At one time, coal from this region -- from the "Pittsburgh Seam" -- was widely considered to be the finest metallurgical coking coal in the world. Beginning in late 1870's, the area boomed with new mines and coking facilities, all spurred on by competition among such industrial barons such as H.C. Frick, W.J. Rainey, and J.V. Thompson. The icon of the region was the "beehive oven", an outdoor coking oven that emitted clouds of smoke and an eerie light that lit up the night sky. Some operations had hundreds of these ovens, and the spectacle of all of them burning at once became internationally renowned.
In the decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century, thousands of immigrants from Europe flocked to the Connellsville coke region to work in the many mines and coking operations. These workers settled in small communities or "coal patches" that strongly reflected the Italian, Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, and other nationalities of the miners. During the first half of the twentieth century, the region experienced raw industrial development, violent labor strikes, the growth of the union movement, and eventual decline as the coking industry switched to more efficient methods of producing metallurgical coke.
Witness to all of this was the West Penn Railways system, which threaded its lines over the hilly geography of Southwestern Pennsylvania to link together the numerous mines, industries and communities. In its final form, the company represented the combination of literally dozens of smaller traction and trolley lines that were combined in various mergers over several decades. The corporate name "West Penn Railways" dates to 1904, but it was not until 1917 that the company reached its largest size.
At its zenith, West Penn Railways controlled or operated roughly 340 miles of track in several distinct and geographically separated segments. Most segments were in Southwestern Pennsylvania, with the "main line" extending between Greensburg and Uniontown via Mt. Pleasant, Scottdale, and Connellsville (see map of lines in Pennsylvania). A few segments also operated in West Virginia and Ohio as subsidiaries such as Wheeling Traction and the Monongahela-West Penn Public Service Company. The soul and heart of the system, though, were the lines in the coke region where big orange cars transported miners, shoppers, visitors, newly arrived immigrants and anyone else needing transportation between work, home, and town. The lines were "broad gauge" -- wider than standard-gauge railroads -- and extended into the city of Pittsburgh in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Railways Company. While the company was primarily known for passenger service, it did operate a brisk freight business transporting newspapers, groceries, and all kinds of supplies to both commercial and domestic customers.
The forces that led to the demise of the West Penn Railways system include the familiar reasons that led to the decline of all traction lines in the United States. Improved roads, increasing use of automobiles, and industrial decline all contributed to the gradual abandonment of West Penn routes over several decades. Freight service ended in 1941, and the final curtain on passenger operations fell in 1952 with the cessation of service on the main line. There is still a West Penn Power Company, but it is not a direct successor to West Penn Railways Company. Both companies existed simultaneously. The railway corporation was dissolved in 1960; the power company survives.
Preservation of the West Penn Railways heritage continues, however. Several publications (see notes) have been written on its operations, with a recent book "Pennsylvania Trolleys" by William Volkmer showing all color photos. Several pieces of equipment have been preserved at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum near Washington, PA. On a smaller scale, railroadiana collectors continue to collect and preserve various West Penn artifacts. All of these will continue to serve as a tribute to the big orange cars that were once such a familiar part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania landscape.
On this page are shown West Penn artifacts from the collections of various collectors.