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.



  1. Very cool. Thanks for the photos.

  2. Love the write up, very interesting. id love to check this out some time, is there any way, like a trail, to reach the eastern portal from the avonmore canoe launch?

    1. Yes! There's a small trail that goes up there. It's easy to locate. Just be careful if you do go up there. There's a little bit of debris falling inside the tunnel. Nothing big, but it's a tall tunnel. I wore a hardhat and make sure you go up there with somebody else. Other than that have fun!! Oh yeah, the west end of the tunnel is a flooded mess but it was frozen the last time I was up there, so check it out soon!

    2. Thanks, plan on hiking up there soon but don't have plans on entering, just some historic sight seeing!

  3. What is the shortest way to get there? I want to go see it with my husband, but he's not one for walking far distances lol. Should I go from Salina or Avonmore?

    1. The easiest way is going from Avonmore. There is a little park off of 1'st st. where you can catch a trail that goes up there. The other end is easy to get to from Salina if you walk the tracks. That end is flooded though. The Avonmore end is better because you can see the old bridge piers and abutments. Either way, it's not a far walk. Your husband should be fine!! Be careful if you decide to go in the tunnel. I'd wear a hardhat just to be safe.

  4. Great stuff Mike! I just discovered your blog and will be reading regularly. I grew up near Avonmore and Saltsburg and love poking around and learning more about the area. I think some of these sites you find should be dug up and preserved as archaeological sites for future generations. So much great history and I'll bet there is a lot more under the dirt!

    1. Thanks Ben!! I agree 100% about these sites being preserved. At least the huge stone bridges crossing the Conemaugh are preserved. It's unbelievable the stuff that's just laying out there in the woods. The engineering and labor involved is just amazing. There's hundreds of ruins of old coke plants just laying out there and would make such an incredible learning tool. Only 100 years ago this whole area was fueling industry that was expanding the whole country. It was all happening right in our own back yards. It's amazing what you can find just by a little bit of poking around. Keep poking around Ben!

  5. Great Photos and history. Brings back memories of the summers in the early 60' when me and my buds would hike to the tunnel on hot days to feel the cool air flowing out of the tunnels.Loved to walk though them as u get to the middle u could not see light from either side and would have to walk in the blind for several feet to get the light from the other side.

    1. That's what I liked about it too. The first time I walked into the tunnel it was a warmer winter day. The tunnel was full of fog and you really couldn't see five feet in front of you even with a bright flash light. At one point I turned around and couldn't see the portal I came in from. At the point I left and came back on a non foggy day. It is a great tunnel!!

  6. Have you checked out the old canal in the same general area? Also have you looked into the coke ovens at Adrian Pa.? Supposed to be the "longest string of coke ovens on the world."

  7. Great history Mike. Are you aware of "Ramsey Furnace" which is located above the tunnel west portal? It is on private property and to be honest, very dangerous. It's nothing but a huge hole in the ground, probably 40-50 feet deep. The sides slope inward so a person cannot get close enough to look down the hole. Getting too close means slipping over the edge and disappearing into the darkness. But it's very old and probably was there before the tunnel!
    Just be careful out there.

    1. Hey Kevin! I think we were emailing each other about that a while ago. Did you work for Norfolk Southern and Conrail? If not I apologize. I never got a chance to get back out there and check that out. What's the story with the huge hole? What's that all about?

    2. I worked for both Conrail & Norfolk Southern, retiring in March of 2015. I was a bridge inspector, & the Conemaugh Line from mile post 25 to mile post 77 was my territory from 1995 to 2000. I saw the west portal of the old Salina tunnel many times, but I never entered the tunnel due to the falling debris inside the tunnel. When the track was realigned in 1950, they didn't update the mile posts, so the distance between mp 28 & mp 29 was almost 2 miles! I referred to it as the longest mile in my reports. Norfolk Southern finally updated the mile posts shortly after the takeover.

    3. Thanks Pat! That's interesting. I guess it was easier than renumbering the whole route.

  8. I have correction to make on my last post: the longest mile was between mp 29 & mp 30, not mp 28 & 29. I also snooped around in the old Salina brick plant back in 1999 & 2000. I saw an old log book in one of the offices, the last entry was in 1972, so I think the plant was closed sometime in 1973 or maybe in late 1972. I plan to take my wife to the east portal of the Salina tunnel next weekend, so thanks for the heads up of the trail from the Avonmore park. She won't let me go in the tunnel, even though I did this for a living for my last 20 years on the railroad(I wore a hard hat as the railroad required me to).

  9. I went in the tunnel this morning! I wore rubber knee high boots, but I still couldn't walk all the way through to the west portal as the water was over 12 inches deep. I was impressed with the masonary work, and was awe struck with the fact that the last time a train went through the tunnel was in 1950; probably a steam engine!

    1. Wow! It was that deep! I took a group of people back there in June and you could only get so far. I didn't know it got that deep. It's a little sketchy looking at all the bricks that fell from the ceiling.

    2. Believe or not, Norfolk Southern has a brick arch tunnel that was built in 1877 that’s still in service. It’s on the Port Perry line, which runs from Wilmerding to Duquesne