This year, 2016, marks the Centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS). On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act, creating a federal agency to administer America’s most important places. Throughout the year, the NPS has been celebrating its 100th Birthday at its 413 parks located all over the United States and its territories. One local NPS unit, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, was part of this celebration. Park Rangers and volunteers presented a series of special programs all summer long to make lasting connections with park visitors, so that the public continues to care for these special places long after the Centennial celebration is over.
Park Rangers conducted several “Heritage Hikes” along portions of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was part of the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works, usually just called the “Main Line Canal,” a nearly 400-mile-long system of canals, railroads, and inclined planes that formed a critical transportation link between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from the 1830s to the 1850s. The “Portage” ran for 36 miles between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown to carry the canal over the Allegheny Mountains on a series of ten inclined planes and eleven level sections of track. These Heritage Hikes allow visitors to the park to really understand how challenging it was to haul trains and canal boats over the rugged terrain of the Allegheny Mountains in the 1830s. The ranger-led hike on the Inclines 6 to 10 Trail in the park is particularly noteworthy as it negotiates the steep Allegheny Front on the eastern slope of the mountains. The park established this trail in the early-2000s to preserve the remains of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and the surrounding natural scenery and to allow hikers and bicyclers to enjoy the same.
The park also offered a series of special concerts on Saturday evenings throughout the summer. Called “Evening on the Summit,” these programs used the music of bygone days to enlighten visitors of other aspects of the area’s history. Most of the workers who built the canal and Portage Railroad were Irish, and these bands, including Full Kilt, Dead Irish Blues, and the Michael O’Brian Band, performed many period tunes or modern updates of traditional Irish music that would still be very familiar to these workers today.
The park’s biggest event of the summer was its annual “Living History Day” on June 25. Costumed park staff welcomed several hundred visitors to the park and demonstrated several period crafts and trades, including stonecutting, spinning, weaving, log hewing, ropemaking, and natural dyes. Also, several park staff portrayed members of the local 1840s Pennsylvania militia unit, the American Highlanders, and presented a musket-firing demonstration. All of the activities were designed to show visitors a small slice of what life and work were like during the days of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
Young visitors were encouraged to become “Junior Rangers” by exploring the park and completing an activity booklet along the way. Once completed, the children recited the Junior Ranger Promise and were awarded their badges. As part of the Centennial celebration, Junior Rangers who completed the booklets at all five Western Pennsylvania National Parks (Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, Flight 93 National Memorial, Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Friendship Hill National Historic Site, and Johnstown Flood National Memorial) received a special, commemorative patch in appreciation of their efforts to learn more about our local national parks.
Even though the Centennial activities of the National Park Service are starting to wind down as we head into Autumn, we encourage everyone to take the time to visit a National Park and remind themselves just how special these places are to all of us. Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is easily accessible from the Gallitzin Exit of US Route 22. The park is open from sunrise to sunset all year long. Park buildings, including the Summit Level Visitor Center, Engine House No. 6 Exhibit Shelter, and the Lemon House, are open seven days a week from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM from mid-April to mid-November. From mid-November to mid-April, the buildings are open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on weekends only. Please give the park a call at 814-886-6150 to find out about upcoming activities or go to the park website at www.nps.gov/alpo.