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History of Portage, PA

The definition of "Portage" is to transport overland between bodies of water. The genesis of the Portage Area began out of such a necessity to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for commerce purposes in the 1800’s. Water travel was possible from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg via the Schuylkill, Susquehanna and Juniata rivers and from Johnstown to Pittsburgh and beyond by way of the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers. However, the Allegheny Ridge provided a non-navigable obstacle to meeting this objective.

After several revisions, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Canal, was to involve a 36 mile long route that contained ten planes, each with a stationary engine at the crest; a stone viaduct across the Little Conemaugh River; a 900 foot long tunnel; a skew-arch bridge of the tow spans, among several other minor bridges; and 11 levels. The portage would involve a 1,400 foot rise in elevation from the east and nearly 1,200 feet from the west. This was to be quite an engineering feat, even by today’s standards. The following is a thumbnail outline of some of the major milestones in the founding and growth of the Portage Area.

The town was named for the function of canal boats being lifted out of the water in Hollidaysburg, placed onto
railroad cars, and “portaged” over the Allegheny Mountain 36 miles to Johnstown. The Borough of Portage was
incorporated on October 7, 1890. The Portage Historic District bounded by N. Railroad Avenue, Prospect Street,
Johnson Avenue and Vine Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 1995.

 

  • 17?? The area may be inhabited by the Turtle Clan of the Delaware Indian Tribe.

  • 1794 The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania grants Arent Sonman’s claim of having 5,000 acres of land, received as debt payment from the King of England.

  • 1826 The Pennsylvania General Assembly gives approval for the Board of Canal Commissioner to begin building the Pennsylvania Canal.

  • 1829 The Itel School was built for the farmer’s children in the Munster Road area.

  • 1830s Portage is established

  • 1831 Construction is begun on the Allegheny Portage, and is completed three years later.

  • 1834 A trip across Pennsylvania, using the canal system and the Allegheny Portage Railroad, now took six days, instead of 22 required before its completion.

  • 1837 The Washington House Hotel is built in Portage to serve the passenger taking the portage.

  • 1848 The Pennsylvania Railroad Company buys both the Old and New Portage from the Commonwealth.

  • 1852 Locomotives begin replacing the horse and mule teams used to pull canal boats along the tracks and issued the birth of the first full-fledged industry on the Allegheny Ridge --- lumbering for fuel for locomotives.

  • 1855 The New Portage Railroad is completely operational.

  • 1868 The Big Survey, later known as Cambria Mining and Manufacturing Co., bought land from the Earnest family. The first coal mine was opened in 1872 along BensCreek.

  • 1872 The First Lutheran Church was established.

  • 1874 April 29th signaled the beginning of the coal industry with incorporation of the Sonman Mine, Portage Colliery Company and Portage Coal Company. Nearly 60 different shaft, longwall, slope, drift, and room and pillar mining operations have operated in the Portage Area since then.

  • 1878 Portage Township is formed from lands of Summerhill and Washington Townships on March 4th.

  • 1890 The Borough of Portage is incorporated on October 7th, following petition of the Portage Township Supervisors.

  See also Living Places, website,
         http://www.livingplaces.com/PA/Cambria_County/Portage_Borough/Portage_Historic_District.html