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By Darwin H. Stapleton
For the Herald 

The Cove Region's Role in Early Railroading at Home and Abroad

The Herald Publishes History


August 29, 2019

Photo courtesy of

A drawing of No. 6 engine house of the Allegheny Portage Railroad by George Storm, 1839.

The Morrisons Cove region played a small but significant role in the early history of American railroads – with effects that reached to Europe.

The story begins not in Pennsylvania, but in Virginia, with Moncure Robinson, a native of Virginia, whom a Pennsylvania state official later called the "First Master" of railroads in America.

Born in 1802, Robinson attended William and Mary College (in Williamsburg, Virginia), and after graduation worked on the James River Canal west of Richmond, Virginia.

With a thirst for further knowledge, he traveled to see the Erie Canal in New York while it was in the final stage of construction, and then went abroad to Paris in 1825 to study advanced engineering. Importantly, he made two side trips to England to observe the first modern railroads operated with steam locomotives.

When Robinson returned to the United States two years later in 1827, he was a confirmed advocate for railroads, but found his native state of Virginia unreceptive. Drawing on contacts with two Pennsylvanians who had studied with him in Paris, Robinson connected with the Pennsylvania Canal Commissioners, who needed expert advice regarding the anticipated railroad connection between the eastern and western sections of the Pennsylvania mainline canal then under construction. In 1828, the Canal Commissioners sent Robinson to survey the route between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown. Braving what he described as an "untamed wilderness teaming with wild animals," Robinson completed the survey in five months.

Met with skepticism

The Canal Commissioners were at first skeptical of his results, which called not only for railroads with steam locomotives (none of which were made in the United States at the time), but also for several steam-powered inclined planes to tow canal boats up and over the Allegheny summit. (Visitors to the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site will find this description familiar.)

However, follow-up surveys largely confirmed Robinson's plan, and his demonstration of railroad knowledge (at a time when the United States had only a few miles of railroads) helped to make Robinson a hot commodity in the rapidly developing railroad era in America.

Over the next several years he went on to be the engineer of four railroads that connected the Anthracite coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania with ports and waterways, including the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, as well as others in Virginia (which by then recognized the importance of the new technology).

The Bedford Springs connection

In 1834, while engaged in those projects, Robinson met Michel Chevalier, who had been sent to the United States by the French government to study railroads and other important accomplishments of American industry.

Chevalier traveled with Robinson in 1834-35, including on the new canal from Harrisburg to Hollidaysburg, passing over the just-completed Allegheny Portage Railroad that Robinson had first surveyed. Afterward they went through Bedford on their way to the resort of Bedford Springs, where for several days they had in-depth discussions of American railroads. Chevalier was impressed with Robinson's engineering skills, which he had personally seen showcased on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (now familiar to readers as the Reading Railroad on the Monopoly board).

Chevalier published his travel observations in a book that was soon translated into English and appeared as "Society, Manners and Politics in the United States," The title that did not reflect the book's frequent references to American railroads, including a mention of "the many fine works which Mr. Robinson, the engineer ... has executed in Pennsylvania and Virginia."

This book and other writings by Chevalier over the next several years brought Europeans attention to Robinson's accomplishments, and Robinson was invited to undertake the engineering of railroads in Ireland and Russia. When he declined the invitations, other American engineers undertook the projects, adapting Robinson's methods. Railroad engineers in Germany, having read Chevalier's works, also adopted what became known as the "American way."

Looking back at Robinson's survey for the Allegheny Portage Railroad, Robinson's and Chevalier's travels through the Cove region, their discussions at Bedford Springs, and Chevalier's publicity regarding Robinson's accomplishments, it can be said that the Cove region had a significant role in the global spread of American railroad technology.

Editor's Note: Dr. Darwin H. Stapleton, Ph.D., is a certified archivist, executive director emeritus of the Rockefeller Archive Center, and vice president of the Herman J. Albrecht Library of Historical Architecture. He is also the brother of Herald Correspondent Margaret Steinfurth and the uncle of Herald Publisher Allan J. Bassler.

If you've got a story about Morrisons Cove's history, the Herald would like to publish it. Contact us at 793-2144 and ask for Allan.


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