Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



The Beginnings of the Chartiers Valley Railroad
February 16, 2017



One of my long term projects is to write a chapter about railroads for a book entitled “The Civil Engineering Heritage of Western Pennsylvania”, to be published by the History and Heritage Committee of the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

I immediately realized that the beginning of the chapter should be the story of the beginning of the Chartiers Valley Railroad, the first example of railroad engineering in this region. I knew that a group of developers decided to organize a corporation to build a railroad linking Washington, Pa. and Pittsburgh, in 1830. The construction of the National Road, from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois had opened up a major transportation artery opening up the Midwest to settlers from the East.

Unfortunately the Road bypassed Pittsburgh, crossing the Monongahela River at Brownsville, then proceeding through Washington before crossing the Ohio River at Wheeling, (then) Virginia. The first attempt to connect Pittsburgh with the Road was the Washington and Pittsburgh Turnpike. As soon as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began to lay track in Maryland, it became obvious that a rail link between Washington and Pittsburgh would be far more effective than the Turnpike.

The Washington and Pittsburgh Railroad was organized in Washington in December, 1830 and incorporated by the Pennsylvania Legislature three months later. They hired a local civil engineer, Charles De Hass, to perform a preliminary design of such a railroad and to determine its estimated cost and the revenue it could be expected to generate.

At a time when there were only four railroads in the whole world and the one in this country was only twelve miles long, this assignment required an impressive combination of knowledge, ingenuity, and imagination. Mr. De Hass was obviously the right choice for it. We know nothing of his background or education, but the product of his efforts is proof of his capability.

We have been aware of an article published by the “Jefferson College Times” in 2000 by the Jefferson College Historical Society, in Canonsburg, which described the early days of this railroad. The article describes De Mass’ work and gives a footnote for the source of its information: “’The Chartiers Railway’ and ‘Engineer’s Report,’ Washington Reporter, May 17, 1871. The Reporter reprinted the engineer’s 1830 report in full when the railroad was completed 41 years later.”

In an effort to find a copy of these documents I dispatched emails to everyone I could locate who might have knowledge of this historical society or the old newspaper. I was surprised and delighted to receive a response from a gentleman named Rob Anders, who is Director of Sales and Marketing for the Observer Publishing Company in Washington. He informed me that all of the old copies of the “Reporter” are archived at Citizens Library in Washington, PA, on microfilm and that many of them have been digitized by Google. He also provided me with the link to the May 17, 1871 edition, which included De Mass’ report.

This is indeed a remarkable resource, and the “Engineers’ Report” is a remarkable document. Reading it carefully certainly suggests that Mr. De Mass was an outstanding engineer, who produced an extremely competent engineering report, despite having a minimum of access to the sort of information that became available to civil engineers generations later.

His approach was to survey a route down the Chartiers Valley to the Ohio River, then along the south shore of the Ohio and the Monongahela River to the Monongahela Bridge (now the site of the Smithfield Street Bridge). His judgment that this route should be limited to a grade of 1.5 % (one and a half feet per one hundred feet) and a minimum radius of 385 feet was an impressive prediction of what would be appropriate a century later.

His route was just over thirty two miles long; his estimate of the cost to build it was just over $148,000, roughly $4,625 per mile. This probably is equivalent to $125,000 per mile today, a cost that might be reasonable for a very light duty railroad of the type being built in the mid-1800s. De Hass did a good job of reporting the quantities of excavation and fill, masonry required for retaining walls and viaduct piers, viaducts, sleepers (ties) and rails, and crushed stone ballast.

His unit costs were based on experience with canal construction, the small amount of B & O Railroad construction, and appropriate local experience. For example his cost for viaducts was based on a recent covered bridge over Chartiers Creek in Washington that was built for $300.

Since he didn’t indicate any costs for tunneling we assume the tunnel south of Hill’s Station was not anticipated; apparently he intended to route the railroad around the end of the ridge it currently cuts through.

In addition to surveying and costing his primary route, the engineer also investigated several alternate routes. One alternate followed Scrubgrass Run up over the summit to the beginning of Little Saw Mill Run, then through the West End to the Ohio. The amount of excavation required to obtain an acceptable grade proved to be excessively expense. The same was true of two alternate routes out of Washington to a point about four miles down the chosen route.

The route in the Bridgeville area is not described in much detail. It begins on “Vance’s farm in Allegheny County”, which appears to be on the South Fayette side of Chartiers Creek about halfway between Bridgeville and Mayview, an area known then as Herriotsville. “McDowell’s factory” is two and a third miles farther north, probably at Bowerton, approximately where Vanadium Road crosses the railroad today.

The next referenced location, one and three quarter miles farther north is “a point near Cowan’s”, probably at the north end of Heidelberg. Then a little over two miles north to “a short distance before the mouth of Robinson’s Run” and another two and three quarters miles to “Murphy’s factory”. Looks like we have some work ahead identifying all these landmarks.

The evolution of railroad technology was so primitive at the time that De Hass had to come up with costs for three dramatically different track support schemes. In each case the rail was a small iron bar, lacking the flexural strength to span between sleepers (ties). One approach had wide stone sills under each rail running in the direction of the track. A second method was to support the iron bar on wooden stringers that were then supported at regular intervals by stone blocks. The third design replaced the stone blocks with transverse wooden sleepers. His final estimate was based on the third design, which of course evolved into the standard method as rail production became practical.

Mr. De Hasse then proceeded to analyze the potential traffic and fees that could be generated to pay for building, maintaining, and operating this new transportation mode in the Chartiers Valley. He anticipated cargoes of general merchandise, salt, flour, grain and pork, whiskey, wool, coal, boards and shingles, and the U. S. Mail. All told he forecasted revenue of about $15,000 per year, a very attractive value for potential investors.

All told, his effort was an outstanding example of civil engineering accomplishment at a time when the engineer lacked the information and resources that were available two generations later. One wishes we knew more about the life of this accomplished civil engineer.

Unfortunately the financial and business minds behind the Washington and Pittsburgh Railroad were not as successful at their task as Mr. De Mass was at his. Although the corporation began to acquire right-of-way and perform initial grading in the early years, it took forty years and several reorganizations before the Chartiers Valley Railroad was completed to Mansfield where it could then follow the tracks of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis Railroad to the Ohio and then into Pittsburgh, following De Mass’ original surveyed route.

We are grateful to Mr. Anders for providing us with access to this information and the opportunity to recognize Mr. De Mass’ achievement.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

Previous Articles

This template downloaded form free website templates