Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway

In working on genealogy, particularly that of my wife and her family, ties to the railroads of northern Indiana became readily apparent. One branch of my wife’s family comes from what I call “over the mountain.” My family is from the Westmoreland County, PA, area. Hers are from Somerset and Cambria Counties, which are on the east side of the Laurel Mountain ridge which marks the boundaries between the three counties. The one thing that Cambria and Westmoreland Counties have in common is the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. That, in turn, has a direct connection to northern Indiana from Pittsburgh to Chicago along the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago (PFtW&C).

The railroad line that would become the PFtW&C was built in three sections from Pittsburgh west. The main part in Indiana started life as the Fort Wayne & Chicago, incorporated in 1852. The Fort Wayne and Chicago (FtW&C) was to connect the Ohio & Indiana (O&I) Railroad, connecting Fort Wayne to Crestline, Ohio, to Chicago. The Ohio & Indiana, in turn, connected to the Ohio & Pennsylvania (O&P), which connected Crestline to Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. (Allegheny City is now known as the north side of Pittsburgh.) By 1856, the FtW&C had managed to build to Columbia City, 19 miles west of Fort Wayne.

Due to financial difficulties in the O&I and the O&P, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) found itself investing heavily into both roads. The O&P was in dire need of a bridge from Allegheny City to Pittsburgh across the Allegheny River. The FtW&C and the O&I also found itself building a railroad through sparsely populated, unimproved areas, limiting business availability. The FtW&C had also spent all of their credit in building the 19 miles between Fort Wayne and Columbia City. The total debt of the three lines was estimated, at the time, to be $800,000. It was later found to be $1.4 million. That, on top of a combined mortgage debt of $5.75 million, and the three lines were in serious trouble.

The only answer that the owners of the three lines could come up with to fix the problem was to consolidate the entire complex into one line: the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago. This would happen effective 29 July 1856. With an infusion of cash from both loans from the PRR and the Harrisburg & Lancaster, and new mortgage bonds, the PFtW&C managed to complete building to Plymouth by the end of 1856.

Connections and conditions along the line were getting better. 1857 saw the completion of the Allegheny River bridge, but it would be another year until political considerations in Pittsburgh allowed the connection of the PFtW&C to the PRR. It got better in 1858 when a new Chief Engineer was assigned to complete the 78 miles of track from Plymouth to Chicago. That Chief Engineer was J. Edgar Thompson, who also happened to have been the first Chief Engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. (His greatest feat was the “Horseshoe Curve,” track west of Altoona, PA.) By the first day of 1859, the line was completed to a station at Van Buren Street in Chicago. This station was not far from, and was replaced by, Chicago Union Station.

When the road was completed, it still found itself in financial difficulties. In 1860, a lawsuit in Cleveland, coming as a complete surprise to the company, ended with the railroad to be sold at foreclosure. This caused the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Rail Road Company, in 1861, to be reorganized as the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway Company.

Ultimately, the PFtW&C would become a jewel in the crown of the Pennsylvania Lines West of Pittsburgh and Erie, the holding company that controlled all PRR owned properties outside of Pennsylvania. As Chicago expanded, especially due to its logical location connecting the eastern railroads to the western railroads, traffic exploded. Chicago ended up “hosting” what would be a daily “race” between to the two best known passenger lines between it and New York City. Those two lines were, first, the “20th Century Limited,” the New York Central limited train leaving Chicago, through South Bend, Toledo and Cleveland along the “Water Level Route” through upstate New York. The second eventually would be named the “Broadway Limited,” taking a PRR train from Chicago through Fort Wayne and Pittsburgh to New York City.

There are many pictures available on the internet of both of these named trains leaving side-by-side from Chicago. At the New York City end, the NYC would pull into Grand Central Station, and the PRR would connect to Penn Station.

The PFtW&C would also make Fort Wayne a major rail hub city. Major yards and shops were built there, earning the city the nickname of “Altoona of the West,” after the largest railroad facility in Pennsylvania of the PRR.

After World War II, assorted problems began to show along the route. Deferred maintenance, and a slowing of freight and passenger traffic began to take its toll on the PFtW&C. In 1957, the PRR assigned its interests in the route to the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore, its mainline between New York and Washington, DC. Also assigned to the PW&B at the time was the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis, aka the Panhandle. A little over ten years later, the PRR would be no more. On 1 October 1968, the PRR and NYC would become one company, known as the Pennsylvania New York Central Transportation Company, or Penn Central. Three years later, the Penn Central became part of the largest bankruptcy proceedings in United States history at the time. (Only to be surpassed by that of Enron years later.) 1 April 1976 saw the folding of the Penn Central into the Consolidated Railroad Company, or Conrail. In later years, most of what was once the Pennsylvania’s mainline between Chicago and Pittsburgh would be sold off to short lines or abandoned completely.

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