Saturday, December 28, 2013

Return to Wilpen, PA- Wilpen Mine and Coke Works

The Shenango Furnace Company was incorporated on January 23, 1906. The Company was founded by William Penn Snyder, who was familiar with the coal and coke industry through serving as Vice President of The McClure Coke Company of Pittsburgh. 

The Shenango Furnace Company owned three blast furnaces in Sharpsville (Mercer County), PA and also controlled two shipping companies. The Shenango Steamship Company operated the steamers W.P Snyder and the Wilpen. The Shenango Steamship And Transportation Co. operated the Shenango, the Col. James M. Schoonmaker (once the largest steamer on the Great Lakes, currently docked in Toledo and available to tour in 2014), and the William P. Snyder Jr. The steamship companies operated on the Great Lakes shipping limestone and ore from the companies extensive properties in the Marquette (Michigan) and Mesabi (Minnesota) regions. Also included in the inventory were 1,300 acres of coal lands in the Ligonier region as well as the coke plant at Wilpen. All the coke produced at Wilpen was shipped to their Sharpsville blast furnaces. 

The coke works were served by the Ligonier Valley Railroad on the Wilpen Branch, sometimes referred to as the Mill Creek Branch. The mine was listed as new in 1906 and the coke works contained 167 beehive ovens. During World War I, the company opened another drift mine near Wilpen. The Lytle Mine did not include a coke plant and it's coal was sent to the Wilpen works.

In 1925, The Baton Coal Company acquired the Lytle Mine and the Wilpen Mine and Coke Works. In 1930 the Lytle Mine was shut down followed by the Wilpen Mine in 1945. Sixty two coke ovens remained in operation until at least 1951 using strip mined coal.

The majority of the ovens remain intact today as well as mine ruins including foundations, pier walls and supports for the tipple and bridges. The bridge piers leading to the coke ovens can be followed from two separate directions. I'm assuming one was from the Wilpen Mine and the other was from the Lytle Mine. It is extremely grown in back there though and sometimes the only way through was crossing and recrossing a stream that runs down the middle.

The pier wall where the coke was loaded on the trains.

The old rail line siding for the coke yard.

Ovens. Sun was out today.

Trunnel hole.

The fire brick tile floor is very intact in this oven.


The local kids are having fun in the ovens.

This one's even carpeted.

I'm thinking the ovens with the newer brick fronts were part of the sixty two used until the 1950's.

Older block arch.

This block is falling out.

Pier wall.

A couple arch blocks. These are huge.

A big steel screw used to tie something down.

Ladder rungs.

A couple pieces of stamped brick. It's hard to make out what they say.

These are the bridge piers that lead across the stream.

This is one of the tipple piers leading to the bank of ovens.

The end (or beginning) of the bank of ovens.

This wall going up the side of the hill looks like part of an old foundation.

There are a row on supports at the top of the hill. The sun was really working against me here.

Bridge abutment.

More track piers.

This old piece of track is sticking out of the side of the bridge pier.

Bridge piers.

Looking between two old bridge piers leading to the other side of the valley. They are huge.

The great steamship Col. James M. Schoonmaker today.

Photo courtesy of

The William P. Snyder Jr. This great steamship was scrapped in 1987.

  Photo courtesy of

The steamship Shenango.

Photo courtesy of

The St. Mary Challenger. This was the William P. Snyder and was the oldest steamship operating on the lakes until 2013 when it was converted to an articulated barge.

Photo courtesy of

The Wilpen. Renamed the Joseph S. Young after it was sold to The American Steamship Company in 1969.

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The entire Shenango Furnace Company fleet.

(Left to right) Col. James M. Schoonmaker, William P. Snyder Jr., Shenango, William P. Snyder and Wilpen.

Photo courtesy of



Saturday, December 21, 2013

Salina Tunnel-Western Pennsylvania Railroad-Salina & Avonmore, PA

The improvement of the Western Pennsylvania Railroad extending from Allegheny City (North Side, Pittsburgh), to the Pennsylvania Railroad line, 53 miles east of Pittsburgh, began in the Spring of 1881. Improvements included the maximum grade from 52 feet to 21 feet per mile. Active work, however, did not begin until Fall of 1881 and was concluded in the Fall of 1883.

The most important improvement was the construction of an entirely new line from Roaring Run to Saltsburg. The biggest jobs of the new construction included the building of a tunnel at Salina and a bridge crossing the Kiskiminetas River at the eastern portal of the tunnel.

The work was put under contract on December 22, 1881 with Thomas Rutter & Co. of New York City as contractors and John Brotherlin, Assistant Engineer. The contract involved ten miles of the new road including the tunnel and bridge. Other Thomas Rutter projects included the first Galitzin Tunnel at Horseshoe Curve and The Potomac Tunnel in Baltimore.

After the necessary surveying and planning, the workers finally got underground. Beginning with the east end of the portal in April, 1882 and the west end in June of the same year. The headings met in March 1883 at a point on the 6 degree curve inside the tunnel.

The tunnel is 28 feet wide, which was considered the widest tunnel in the world at the time. The height of the tunnel is 20.5 feet from above the rail to the top of the crown of arch.

The total length of the tunnel is 1,365.6 feet between faces of keystone. 815 feet is constructed of arched brick and the remainder is cut directly through stone. Man holes were placed every 200 feet on alternating sides of the tunnel.

The tunnel remained in operation until the early 1950's when the Conemaugh Dam flood control project forced the railroad to be moved further away from the rivers.

I've been in a few abandoned railroad tunnels but never one that curved. At the point in the curve, where you can't see either end of the tunnel, it's a little sketchy (to say the least). On this day, it was unusually warm and a thick fog hung in the tunnel making visibility with my spotlight probably less than ten feet.

This is from the 1902 geographic map of the area:

The circled area is the tunnel and bridge, which was the main line. The curved part following the course of the river is the Avonmore Branch of the railroad.


Heading up the current Norfolk Southern tracks from Salina.

Misty, foggy river.

Nice waterfall along the tracks. Probably not much of a waterfall when the weather is dry though.

Approaching the west portal of the tunnel.

Work was begun on this portal in June, 1882.

A look inside. There was about 8 inches of water in this section. I wasn't going through it.

Some brickwork.

The masonry is still so intact after 131 years. This stuff was built to last.

Heading down the tracks looking for the eastern portal. The current Norfolk Southern bridge coming up.

I took this trail right before the bridge. It runs below the Avonmore Branch.

Some railroad ties that fell down the hill from the Avonmore Branch.

Looking up at the remains of the Avonmore Branch.

Piers remaining in the river from the bridge.

Finally reaching the eastern portal. There was a rain drop on my lens. Nothing supernatural here. The bridge above the tunnel is part of the Avonmore Branch.

A closeup of the pier from the western abutment.

Looking inside. Still a rain drop on the lens.

Looking up at the bridge for the Avonmore Branch. It was hard to get a good angle on this plaque but zooming in you can see it was built by the American Bridge Company, of which the company town of Ambridge, PA got its name. The date looks like 1915 but it's hard to make out.

Let's go inside the tunnel. No flood here.

Looking out. The masonry didn't hold up so well on the eastern side.

Going deeper into the mountain.

Photos were really tough to get in here due to the fog. The flash on the camera reflected right off of it. This is one the manholes on the southern side of the tunnel. I'm assuming these were placed here to jump into when a train was coming through. I would imagine a tunnel full of smoke from a steam engine was not very pleasant at all. Hey, at least you didn't get run over but you probably suffocated.

Following my spotlight onto the brick work.

This is how the photos turned out when I used the flash.

More brickwork.

Deep inside the mountain.

A little bit of the tunnel in daylight.

The pile of rubble.

It amazes me how tight this block still is.


Norfolk Southern train passing over the current bridge.

The tunnel and Avonmore bridge from the abutment.

Old utility pole on the Avonmore Branch.

Heading across the Kiskiminetas into Armstrong County on the current bridge.

Looking over at the foggy bridge piers.

I passed under this bridge to get to the Armstrong County side of the old bridge.

Looking across the river at the eastern portal and the bridge piers.

The old main line is all overgrown.

An interesting piece of history about the tunnel and bridge. On Dec. 24, 1906, at 5:00 PM at the east end of the tunnel, a train accident occurred. A train hauling a huge shipment of structural steel or iron on twin cars (the load being so large that it has to be hauled on two cars) had an incident while turning a bend. One of the two fastenings gave way and caused the load to shift to the right, far enough to scrape quite severely the brick arch in the tunnel all the way through.

Coming out of the tunnel, the load caught the framework of the bridge with such force that it pushed the entire bridge off its west abutment. This caused eight cars of the train to plummet into the river in a huge mass of ruins. None of the train crew were on any of these cars and nobody was hurt.

West Penn Railroad Superintendent R.I. Morrow immediately had arrangements made to reach the wreck site via a special train. In addition to the West Penn crew, he summoned two carpenters from the main line and also a crew from the River Division of the B & A.V. Railroad. A kitchen car was sent from Altoona with enough provisions to keep the crew fed, enabling them to work around the clock.  The west bound track was back in service just 43 hours after the accident.

During the obstruction, the passenger, baggage and express traffic was routed over the Avonmore Branch. At the point where the county bridge led to Avonmore Station, the train picked up the baggage and express matter after it was moved across the bridge by wagon. 

By Friday, December 29 at noon, both tracks were again opened to traffic.

Update 7/30/2014

These are just a few photos of the old railroad piers from the river.