On this date, April 12, in 1831, the Allegheny Portage Railroad began work on the the first railroad tunnel in the United States.
Once it was completed in 1834, the Staple Bend Tunnel linked Hollidaysburg and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, making the Allegheny Portage Railroad the first railroad to go west of the Allegheny Mountains. The completed tunnel, now restored as a National Historic Site, was was 901 feet long, 25 feet wide, 21 feet high. and lined with 18 inch thick masonry.
The project was overseen by Philadelphia civil engineer Solomon White Roberts (1811-1882). Roberts would later hold executive positions with several transportation companies, including the North Pennsylvania Railroad, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, Schuylkill Navigation Company, and the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1848, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he was instrumental in the passage of legislation regarding transportation in the state.
Roberts' career began early. At sixteen, he began working for his uncle, Josiah White, the superintendent of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania (now Jim Thorpe), a town founded in 1818 to serve as a railroad and coal-shipping center to move coal mined by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company to markets along the east coast. This photograph, taken around 1895 by local photographer James Zellner (1836-1897), shows the town of Mauch Chunk.
Notable buildings and landmarks depicted in the image include Susquehanna Street, the Mansion House Bridge over Lehigh River, Bear Mountain, the G.W. Hooven Mercantile Company, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, the station of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Asa Packer mansion and Harry Packer mansion, the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway station, and, of course, the office of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, where Solomon White Roberts' career began.
This image is from Hagley Library's collection of James Zellner glass plate negatives (Accession 1974.278). During Zellner’s life in Mauch Chunk, he operated out of at least two photography studios, and is credited as being the first operator of a photograph gallery in the town. The images in this collection document life and scenic views in Mauch Chunk (including its famous switchback railway), views of Glen Onoko (a scenic tourist attraction located nearby Mauch Chunk), and images of miscellaneous locations along the Lehigh Valley Railroad. To view this collection online now in our Digital Archive, just click here.