‘Stopper Hitches’ on the Allegheny Portage Railroad

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was built in 1834 to carry freight over the mountain from the ends of the canal, located at Holidays­burg and Johnstown. It was thirty-six miles long and reached the summit of the mountain at 2700 feet above sea level. There were ten Inclined Planes, five on each side of the mountain. These were numbered #1 to #10, beginning on the west side.

These planes were of different lengths and steepness. Number 2 was the flattest with a grade of 7 1/2, percent. Number 3 was the shortest, being 1408 feet in length with a grade of 8.8 percent. Number 8 was the longest and steepest; it was 3117 feet in length with a grade of 9.8 percent. The rope for #8 was 6600 feet in length, or 1 1/4 miles.

At the head of each plane was a reversible 35 H.P. (horsepower) steam hoist, which by a system of gears and big sheaves operated the haulage rope which lay on the center line of the two tracks. These were generally operated “in balance” so that the weight of the de­scending train counterbalanced the ascending train.

Cars were hauled up and down by hemp ropes, 7 inches in cir­cumference, or 2 1/4 inches in diameter. Sylvester Welch, in his report of 1833, stated that a hemp rope of this size had a working strength of 9,800 pounds, or five tons. They must not have used the same factor-of-safety as we use today. Today, a manila rope of this diam­eter would be good for five tons, based on a factor-of-safety of five. Manila rope is much superior to a hemp rope; during the wartime shortages in 1942 we had to use hemp, and we called it “grass rope.” These ropes laid out in the sun and rain all summer and their safe life was said to be only two years.

The train was attached to the haulage rope by a “Stopper Hitch.” This is the Rolling Hitch, a sailor’s knot, which is used to hold the anchor rope when changing from the windlass to the bitts. I have used this knot in heavy construction and, frankly, I don’t trust it. It is a simple looking knot but it takes an expert to tie it.

A Safety Car, or “Buck.” was developed by the master mechanic. This was hitched to the haulage rope immediately behind the train. If the rope broke or the hitch slipped, the rear car would run up onto the skate of the Buck, which would set the brake and, hopefully, stop the runaway train.

In 1841, John Roebling (builder of the Brooklyn Bridge) introduced wire rope on plane #3. It was so successful that by 1849 wire rope was in service on all the planes. This rope was one inch in diameter and of course was made of wrought iron because that is all they had in those days, and it had been spun on a home-made rope-walk at Roebling’s farm near Saxonburg. Today, a one inch diameter wire rope, made of improved plow steel, would have a working strength of 8 tons. We could assume today that Roebling’s rope, a pioneer product in the United States, would have only had a strength of six tons. But it was much superior to hemp rope and most important, did not deteriorate. I have seen an old piece of Roebling’s wire rope on an incline of the Delaware & Hudson Canal that looked, after 100 years, almost as good as new.

Of course. the Rolling Hitch was very liable to slip on wire rope. I have tried this myself: I have made two hitches in series and then tied the end of the hitch rope with a piece of twine, but they are still liable to slip on a greasy wire rope. In 1844, John Tittle, Master Mechanic for the State Railroad, invented the “Iron Stop” for wire rope. I don’t know what it looked like but I imagine that it was a grooved steel forging with two U-bolts, something like today’s cable clamp.

I have seen one Inclined Plane in operation: this was the Ashley Plane, near Wilkes-Barre, owned by the CRR of New Jersey. It was 2 1/2 miles in length, double-tracked, with a grade of 10 percent. When I saw it, it was operated by a steam hoist and was handling three and four car trains. After over a hundred years of service it was abandoned in 1948 and trains now run over a 12 1/2 mile section of track with heavy grades.

Here they used “Barney Cars” for pulling the trains up or letting them down the hill. The Barney was a four wheeled car which normally ran on the standard-gauge track. But it had sliding axles and the wheels had outside flanges so that as it came down the hill and hit the frog, it would narrow the gauge until the Barney could pass underneath the cars waiting at the foot of the plane. It could then be pulled out of the pit and up behind the cars waiting to ascend.

I suppose that this was the “last word” in Stopper Hitches for handling trains on Inclined Planes.


Editor’s Note: The article appeared in the November, 1974, issue of American Canals, now published in Shepherdstown (Canal Town). Box 842, West Virginia 25443.


Robert S. Mayo, who can be contacted at P.O. Box 1413, Lancaster, is a tunnel engineer and rail and canal enthusiast.