The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was chartered in 1846 by the state of Pennsylvania to connect Harrisburg with Pittsburgh. The line was surveyed by J. Edgar Thompson, who had built the Georgia Railroad. Instead of summiting the mountains with a small but steady grade, Thompson laid a line at water-level from Harrisburg to Altoona, where a steeper grade began for a short hill climb.
Construction began in 1847, and in 1849 the PRR made an operating contract with the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mountjoy & Lancaster Railroad (HPMtJ&L). By 1852 rails ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and the summit tunnel was opened in February 1854 thus creating a continuous line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and fulfilling the original charter.
Through purchasing the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway, the railroad reached Chicago in 1856, and by 1873 the PRR had reached New York City. By the first part of the 1900s the PRR had reached St. Louis, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Columbus. In 1910, with the completion of a tunnel under the Hudson River, it became the only railroad to enter New York City from the south. By mid-century, the Pennsy served nearly every town north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and had amassed a staggering 10,000-mile system.
Throughout most of its history the Pennsylvania was a prosperous railroad, losing money for the first time in 1946. It suffered from the disadvantage that its route to Chicago had to cross the Appalachians, with grades of greater than 0.5 percent. Its chief competitor, the New York Central, had a water-level route to Chicago. In February 1968 the two railroads merged to form the Penn Central Transportation Company, which absorbed the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company the following year. The new corporation also had a number of subsidiaries in real estate, oil refining, and a variety of other industries.
Penn Central encountered serious management and financial difficulties, however, and was forced into bankruptcy in June 1970. Its passenger services were taken over by the federally established National Railway Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) in 1971. The Penn Central continued to lose money, and, when efforts at reorganization failed, the assets of the railroad were acquired by Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) in April 1976. Operation of the New York-Washington route was later transferred to Amtrak. The Penn Central Corporation continued in business as a diversified corporation not connected with the railroad industry.
Long after its demise through the disastrous Penn Central merger, the PRR is remembered chiefly for it’s legendary GG-1 locomotives, the Broadway Limited passenger train and it’s grand Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The GG-1 came on the heels of one of the most impressive accomplishments of railroading history, the electrification of its lines from New York City to Washington DC, and from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.
Once electrification was complete, the GG-1 was unveiled. Able to operate bi-directionally, and cruise effortlessly with freight and passenger trains at over 100 miles per hour, the GG-1s owned the rails along the eastern electrified lines. These locomotives were designed by Raymond Loewy, who also gave the famous cat whisker pinstripes, and they continued to operate for more than 50 years, outlasting the railroad itself, and operating into the Conrail era.