Penn State History Lessons: The University’s Railroad Connection
Anyone who comes to Penn State today is treated with either one of at least four major interstates surrounding the area or the University Park Airport, which flies almost nationwide. Back in 1855 when Penn State was founded, cars were in their earliest stages, and flight was a futuristic idea.
So, how did Penn State grow to be one of the largest universities in the world with no means of reaching campus? The answer lies in the method in which the United States was founded on — railroads.
The Bellefonte Central Railroad began in 1886 as the Buffalo Run, Bellefonte, and Bald Eagle Railroad. It was primarily used for hauling iron ore. However, as the iron industry started to decline in Bellefonte, the railroad went under and had to be sold. On May 9, 1892, the railroad was renamed to the Bellefonte Central Railroad after it was purchased by a pair of Philadelphia bondholders.
It was at this point when the railroad company decided to extend a branch from Struble to State College in order to carry passengers to Penn State. Because of the university’s growth, a market for transportation arose; students had to get to State College somehow. Thus, a station was set up on what is now the corner of Frazier Street and College Avenue.
The Penn State Power Plant also served as a major revenue source for the railroad company. In order to sustain the plant, Penn State needed shipments of coal. Since the coal was shipped via railroad, the company began to haul passengers along with the coal on the short branch from Struble to State College. It turned out to be a major success, helping to stimulate the railroad’s revenue stream.
The railroad line — which now ran to State College — opened its doors for more students to come to Penn State. As transportation methods developed over the years, students had the capability to travel by automobile, but no major interstates connected Pennsylvania’s to State College. The Bellefonte Central Railroad did, however, and it was utilized as the primary method of transportation to Penn State. The railroad ultimately linked the isolated areas of central Pennsylvania to major cities such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Buffalo. This helped the University expand its overall reach, which in turn allowed more students to attend the school.
Numerous mining operations began to open around the State College area, which helped sustain passenger trains to State College. Iron mines in Scotia, lumber mills in Waddle, and limestone mills in Nittany Valley all extended the Bellefonte Central Railroad, and kept it running until 1915 when many of the mining operations were abandoned due to a lack of resources.
As mining operations reached its peak, passenger trains to State College began to experience a similar peak in operation. In fact, the revenue the rails received from the passenger cars surpassed revenue generated from mining operations.
In 1917, the Bellefonte Central Railroad decided to abandon its service operations from Bellefonte to State College, reducing it to one single round trip Monday through Saturday. The railroad continued to carry passengers at this rate until 1964, when the Bellefonte Central Railroad suspended passenger service to State College. This was about the same time that highways were being built to State College — something that significantly hindered the train industry. The railroad discontinued service to State College altogether in 1974, leading to the abandonment of the railroad as a whole.
For as much history as this university has, it’s interesting to see how something as simple as a railroad had such a significant impact on the growth of Penn State.