Slice of summer: Once upon a time, inclines formed a railroad

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Packing up the family for a trip east over the Allegheny Mountains may pose a logistical challenge, what with jamming everybody and their gear into a too-small vehicle, along with the prospect of patchy radio and cellphone reception during the journey.

But a trip to the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, on Route 22 between Ebensburg and Altoona, should tamp down any complaints.

The chore and inconvenience of modern-day travel pales in comparison to the daunting problem that was solved by the engineering marvel that was the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Here was Pennsylvania's dilemma in the early 1800s: With construction of the Erie Canal, which stretched all the way across New York by the mid-1820s, the Keystone State lost its ability to compete for travelers and trade moving from the east coast to the west and back. In what now seems a predictable fashion, the state Legislature authorized construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, to run from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, without deciding just how the boats would clear the mountainous middle.

Engineers devised a system in which the flat-bottom canal boats were placed atop railroad flatbeds and then pulled up and over the mountains through a series of 10 steam-powered inclines. When it opened on March 18, 1834, the 36-mile Portage Railroad cut the Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh trip from 23 days to just four.

But it was expensive to operate, requiring 54 employees, 12 stationary engines, 12 teams of horses and nine locomotives. In 1836 alone, its losses totaled $22,000. Even a lottery launched by the Legislature to cover the costs -- a go-to funding scheme that continues today -- couldn't keep the system competitive once the steam locomotives of the Pennsylvania Railroad could traverse the state. By 1857, the testament to ingenuity had been abandoned.

Today, a modern museum run by the National Park Service, a restored inn/tavern and a full-sized reproduction of one of the engine houses -- complete with gears, brakes, engines and boilers -- take visitors back in time. Getting to the destination now is a snap.

"Slice of Summer" will appear through Sept. 1 to highlight pastimes that Western Pennsylvanians enjoy throughout the season.

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