By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017
The Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad
April 17, 2017
During his presentation on the “Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery” last month the speaker projected a map of Castle Shannon in 1917 on the screen. When I realized it showed several railroads, my interest peaked. I am in the process of writing a chapter on local railroads for an upcoming book on the Civil Engineering Heritage of Western Pennsylvania, and I need all the help I can get.
I immediately resolved to corner the speaker after his talk and request a copy of the map he was showing, then realized that this is indeed 2017. I promptly pulled out my trusty I-Phone and took a picture of the screen. I was rewarded by a photo that was sharp enough to provide the information I needed.
Sure enough, the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad was clearly shown, snaking its way through Castle Shannon on the same right-of-way currently used by the Blue Line on Pittsburgh’s Light Rail system. In the heart of Castle Shannon the P & CSRR had a wye, permitting engines to be turned around, and shops for engine repair. The line continued a short distance to Arlington Station, located about where Lebanon Shops are today.
The history of this line is quite interesting and serves to provide us with an excellent picture of the early development of this general area in the nineteenth century. Beginning around 1825 Jacob Beltzhoover opened a coal mine on the north face of Mt. Washington, then known as “Coal Hill”. The mine entrance was high on the hill just west of the current Liberty Tunnel.
When it was “mined out”, it was extended through the south face of Mt. Washington and, in 1861 sold to the Pittsburgh Coal Company, to provide access to mines along the Saw Mill Run valley. They built a narrow gauge railroad, the Coal Hill Coal Railroad, to move coal from the new mines to Carson Street via the old tunnel and an inclined plane on the Pittsburgh side of Mt. Washington. On the south face of the mountain it descended to the Saw Mill Run valley via a long horseshoe curve just east of the current South Hills Junction on today’s light rail system.
In 1871 a group of investors, headed by Milton Hayes, formed the Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad to promote development of communities along Saw Mill Run, including Castle Shannon. They purchased the Coal Hill Coal Railroad and extended it up Saw Mill Run, still as a narrow gage (forty inches) line. In addition to coal cars they began running passenger cars through the old mine tunnel. The cars have been described as similar to those on amusement park trains, to get through the tunnel that had an overhead clearance of sixty five inches.
They quickly realized the potential for passenger business to supplement their coal hauling function and enlarged the tunnel to make it possible for conventional locomotives and passenger cars to negotiate it. At that point the passengers transferred to the incline to be transported down to Carson Street.
As was common in the nineteenth century the railroad constructed tourist attractions to build up its passenger business. First was the Linden Grove, a destination aimed at German picnickers, followed by several other picnic groves. Then came a zoological garden, featuring several hundred birds and animals, and two camp-meeting grounds, complete with overnight cabins and public buildings. By 1877 the railroad was running nine passenger trains a day, each way.
In 1891 a new incline was designed and built by the P & CSRR Chief Engineer, Samuel Diescher. Named the Castle Shannon Incline, its cars were large enough to haul wagons (and eventually automobiles) as well as passengers. The old incline it replaced continued to be used for transporting coal to the Carson Street transfer facilities. It was coupled with a new incline on the south face of Mt. Washington, providing passengers with an easy passage over the mountain. The Castle Shannon Incline operated until 1964.
In 1900 after a long conflict with the Pittsburgh Southern Railroad for a route south to Washington, Pa., the P & CSRR was sold to the Pittsburgh Coal Company. In 1905 Pittsburgh Railways leased the track and added standard gauge rails to permit the use of streetcars. For a few years streetcars and passenger trains used the track during the day, and coal trains operated on it at night.
The coal hauling business ended in 1912, and three years later passenger service using steam locomotives also ceased. Since then the route has been dedicated to interurban trolleys and eventually to the current light rail system.
Once again I wish we could roll back the calendar and take a ride into South Hills Junction from Castle Shannon, and then up and over Mt. Washington via two inclines.