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Reading 3: The Johnstown Inclined Railway

The inclined plane railway was built as a "lifesaver" after the Johnstown Flood. It was constructed with a 986.5-foot runway at 71 percent grade. The wheels, rails, and other parts were adapted from standard railroad equipment by the Cambria Iron Company which built the railway, at least in part, to provide easy transportation for the residents of the iron company's new real-estate development, the town of Westmont. The lower entrance to the railway, crossing Stony Creek, consisted of a heavy iron bridge constructed with three-foot-thick iron girders and supported by immense stone abutments. The railway itself was made up of two cable-driven cars, each of which weighed 42 tons with a 15-ton capacity. The cable was 2 inches in diameter, 1130 feet in length, and consisted of one pulling cable and one safety cable capable of supporting over 165 tons. The unique design of the cars provided a level ride for horses and wagons (and later cars and trucks) and pedestrians. Because of its convenience and access to the heart of the business district, the railway was directly responsible for Westmont's development into one of the nation's first residential suburbs.

In 1935 Bethlehem Steel,the successor to the Cambria Iron Company, sold the railway to Westmont for $1.00. The next year, on March 17, it carried more than 4,000 men, women, and children to safety from the flood waters of the Conemaugh River and Stony Creek. In 1962, the railway was restored and operated under the auspices of the Cambria County Tourist Council and the Johnstown Chamber of Commerce. Even though good roads were built and the use of the railway declined, the people of the region cared enough about it to spend public funds to restore the railway. By 1972, the inclined railway had carried over 40 million passengers and countless vehicles with the loss of only one life due to an accident involving a truck on one of the railway cars and not because of equipment malfunction. It is one of the longest and steepest hoists in the world and one of the few transportation systems of its kind still in existence.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What purposes does the Johnstown Inclined Railway serve?

2. Are there any such "safety" devices in your community? What purpose do they serve?

3. Are there any comparable restoration efforts that have been undertaken in your community? Do you think public money should be spent on such efforts? Why or why not?

Reading 3 was compiled from the National Register nomination form "Johnstown Inclined Railway" (Cambria County, Pennsylvania), Pennsylvania Historic Sites and Landmarks, 1972.

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