The West Side Belt Railroad in West Liberty
(now the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway)

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021

The Historic West Side Belt Railroad
(now the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway)

The opportunity came not long ago to take a walk along the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway tracks from the bridge over West Liberty Avenue to the busway station at Jacob Street.

Although the cause of some anxiety along the way, it proved to be an interesting exploratory trek along the historic railroad that has run along the Saw Mill Run corridor for the past 120 years.

Better yet, the experience prompted some further research into the history of the West Side Belt Railroad and is successors here in Brookline and the neighboring communities along the line.

The following are photos taken while walking the line, along with what information uncovered about the West Side Belt and its lasting legacy in Pittsburgh railway history.

♦ Walking the Line
♦ "A-No.-1"
♦ West Side Belt RR
♦ WSB Photo Gallery

Wabash-Pgh Railway ♦
Wabash Tunnel ♦
Seldom Seen Arch ♦
"Steeler Nation" Station ♦

Click on images for larger pictures.

The West Side Belt Railroad.




Walking the Line

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
The journey began at the Palm Garden busway bridge and the railroad bridge over West Liberty Avenue.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
The Palm Garden Bridge at Pioneer Avenue and the tall rock wall next to the railroad line. This was the
location of the
"1902 incident with the Landau brothers, the stand-off at West Liberty".

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
Moving along next to both the busway and Cadet Avenue. The Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad,
in the 1870s, had a spur line in this vicinity that veered off to the right
into the woods behind
Moore Park, and the Oak Mine.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
Winding through a wooded section parallel to the busway and the hillside leading down to Saw Mill Run.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
The Wabash Railroad bridge at Edgebrook Avenue (built in 1902) and the South Busway bridge (built in 1976).

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
The 119-year old bridge over Edgebrook Avenue and the long, elevated ramp leading to the southern side.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
Walking along the former Reflectorville section of the line between Edgebrook Avenue and Whited Street.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
Approaching the former Ballinger Street crossing and some of the many scattered railroad implements
and other debris seen along the way from a recent track improvement project.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
The Ballinger Street crossing, now blocked off due to the construction of the South Busway in 1976,
and approaching the recently-improved trestle over Whited Street.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
The Jacob Street Busway passenger station (left) and the busway underpass bridge leading southeast into Overbrook.




A-No.-1

At Jacob Street it was time to end this Lee Marvin, "Emperor of the North Pole", track-walking experience. Feeling a little like "A-No.-1, the King of the Road" it was time to hit the pavement for the final leg of my journey home.

In our youth, we would sometimes walk the then-Norfolk and Western rails from Seaton Street to Elm Street in Castle Shannon, then head down to the Linden Grove for some music and dancing.

It was a thrill when the outbound train would pass, slowly rolling up the long grade, cars illuminated by the moonlight while their wheels screeching and the ground shook beneath our feet.

It was hard not to feel that same youthful, invigorating sensation walking the line on this fine spring afternoon, forty-something years later.

The only thing missing was the train itself. It would have made a nice ending frame to have stood back along the tree line and snapped pictures of the passing cars as the wheels screeched and the ground rumbled beneath my feet.

Alas, the train came five minutes after my leaving the line, so the pictures below were captured from the backyard of a Jacob Street home.

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021   Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021




History of the West Side Belt Railroad

The West Side Belt Railroad was incorporated on July 26, 1895 in Harrisburg, with the stated purpose of transporting coal over standard gauge rails from Clairton to the Ohio River docks in Temperanceville (West End). The railway would also engage in passenger and freight service, both to and from the city of Pittsburgh.

The president was James Callery and the majority shareholder was John Scully. Rumors quickly began circulating that the the railway was intended as the local trunk line in George Gould's dream of a transcontinental Wabash system with a hub in the highly competititive Pittsburgh market.

Pittsburgh Press - July 26, 1895

The West Side Belt acquired the existing Bruce & Clairton Railroad and the Little Saw Mill Run Railroad, which already had an established line to the tipples and river docks where the coal barges waited. The twenty miles of connecting track (from Banksville to Monongahela City) between these two existing systems would be constructed through West Liberty, Reflectorville, Fairhaven and Castle Shannon.

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LITTLE SAW MILL RUN

The Little Saw Mill Run Railroad had roots with Abraham Kirkpatrick Lewis, who began mining the face of Mount Washington around 1840. Lewis built one of the earliest inclined planes in Pittsburgh for transporting coal, and he was the first to tunnel through Mount Washington, a one mile mine shaft to the Saw Mill Run Valley.

Lewis built a two-mile horse-drawn tramway, called the Horse Railroad, to serve his mines in the valley. The road delivered coal to a tipple at the mouth of Saw Mill Run on the Ohio River. The railroad was converted to steam and extended into the Little Saw Mill Run valley.

A locomotive of the Little Saw Mill Run Railroad.

The Little Saw Mill Run Railroad Company was incorporated July 23, 1850. From the river docks near Temperanceville (West End), the narrow-guage road followed Saw Mill Run upstream to Shalersville (outside of the present-day Fort Pitt Tunnels). From there followed the course of Little Saw Mill Run to the coal mining town of Banksville, at present-day Potomac Avenue.

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AN INVESTOR'S DREAM

The route through the South Hills to West Mifflin was originally laid out by the B&O railroad when that system opened its Wheeling and Finleyville Division, but never laid down.

The West Side Belt purchased the route, which had at most a 1.5% grade and averaged only one percent. The greatest curve was just eight degrees. Chief engineer J. H. McRoberts secured the property rights-of-way.

By 1897, the initial twelve miles of the route had been surveyed, and there was some discussion about whether the line should an electrified or conventional steam railway.

Pittsburgh Press - May 26, 1901

There was no debate, however, regarding the potential untapped riches that lie along the railroad route in the form of black gold. It was an investor's dream. The region was estimated to have 40,000,000 tons of the finest bituminous coal in the world.

This coal was in high demand in Europe, and the West Side Belt Railroad ensured that the product would now be placed on the market. Prospects for success were so high that the company purchased over 10,000 acres of rich coal land along the railroad route.

Construction of a new railroad line, with direct access to Pittsburgh, was expected to be a boon to development along the route. Castle Shannon projected a 100% increase in property valuations, and there was an increase in home construction in towns like Fairhaven (Overbrook).

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THE DIRECT CONNECTION

On February 1, 1898, the railroad was purchased outright by John Scully, president of the Diamond National Bank. Bonds were issued to fund the continuing modernization of the Little Saw Mill Run Railroad, including the construction of a 1000-foot trestle in Temperanceville to provide LSMRRR cars with a direct connection to both the P&LERR and the Panhandle Railroad.

Pittsburgh Press - October 9, 1901

An interesting anecdote regarding the now defunct Little Saw Mill Run Railroad, pointed out in the November 21, 1899, Pittsburgh Daily Post was that the railroad line had a gradual ascent nearly all the way. It was not unusual to a car loaded with passengers heading inbound through the Banksville corridor to the West End without an engine or motor of any kind. Gravity did all the work, with a conductor continually applying the brake.

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THE WABASH RAILROAD

As the 19th century drew to a close, talk persisted that the West Side Belt was being designed solely to carry George Gould's Wabash rail traffic into the city center. These discussions now involved a tunnel through Mount Washington, and a railroad bridge over the Monongahela River to Ferry Street. Engineers were already working on the preliminary stages of the tunnel.

This arrangement would give partnering systems like the Bessemer Railroad, and the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, a direct connection to downtown Pittsburgh, challenging established giants like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the B&O for a share of the lucrative Pittsburgh market.

Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette - March 23, 1902

These rumors were soon substantiated when Gould officially announced his plans to extend his Wabash Railroad into the heart of the city via the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway. The West Side Belt Railroad was to be the trunk line leading to the Wabash Tunnel and Bridge, then to an elevated freight/passenger platform and terminal building downtown.

In April 1902, the West Side Belt Railroad Company, along with all accumulated land holdings, was absorbed into a new corporation called the Pittsburgh Terminal Railroad and Coal Company.

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LEGAL CHALLENGES

Construction of the West Side Belt line was not without its share of difficulties. Legal challenges by competing railroads, troubles with the terrain, and protests by landowners caused delays.

One particular dispute developed with the nearby Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad. Both railroads followed the Saw Mill Run corridor, running adjacent to each other for a portion of the way. The P&CSRR sued the West Side Belt for encroachments in two locations were their routes ran parallel.

Pittsburgh Daily Post - May 16, 1902

At Oak Station, along Oak (Whited) Street in Reflectorville, the P&CSRR had a mining operation and rail yard. The West Side Belt attempted to erect a trestle it was alleged would interfere with the station's proper operation.

Further down the line, in Castle Shannon, the West Side Belt had to construct a long viaduct that ran over the P&CSRR line. Again, it was alleged that one of the concrete supports interfered with the operation of the line.

Castle Shannon Viaduct.    Castle Shannon Viaduct.
The West Side Belt's Castle Shannon Viaduct running over the light rail lines which follow the former P&CSRR route.

Despite the concern over operational safety, at the heart of the dispute were the rights to the lucrative coal fields and the shipment of the mined product. A decision by Judge Marshall Brown in July 1902 to dismiss the case was a major victory that cleared the way for the completion of the West Side Belt Railroad.

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A TOUCH OF IRONY

Historically, this was not the first time that the two competing railroads went head-to-head, literally. In May 1878, the Little Saw Mill Run Railroad and the P&CSRR were involved in a dispute that resulted in the conflict known as the "Castle Shannon Railroad War".

1900 Whited Street - 1920s
The Hays estate at 1900 Whited Street, shown here in the 1920s. Once a rest stop along the railroad line, this 1850s-era
home has seen many changes over the years. The railroad tracks run along the hillside behind the house.

In a touch of local irony, the president of both of the antagonist railways, the P&CSRR and the Pittsburgh Southern (which leased the Little Saw Mill Run Railroad), was Milton Hays, who grew up in the home at 1900 Whited Street, in what was then Lower St. Clair Township.

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THE LANDAU INCIDENT

A notable incident with a property owner occurred in early-August 1902, when the Landau Brothers, owners of a strip of land at the bottom of Lang (Pioneer) Avenue at West Liberty Avenue. The contractors were forced to cede nearly one-third of their property for the railroad right-of-way and the relocation of the lower portion of the roadway.

Pittsburgh Press - August 13, 1902.    Hopkins Plot Map - 1905

When railroad construction crews arrived to begin grading the property in question, which required a hillside cut and creating a short abutment to reach the West Liberty Avenue railroad bridge. Although having legally obtained the right-of-way from the borough a few years back, the owners were displeased with the encroachment and the reported stand-off developed.

After some tense exchanges, construction eventually finished their work and the property matter between the Landau Brothers and the railroad was somehow settled.

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A PROFITABLE LINE

The South Hills portion of the railroad, construction of which began in June 1901, was completed by September 1902. The entire West Side Belt Railroad line, from the Ohio River docks to Clairton, was fully modernized and operational by the summer of 1904.

Pittsburgh Press - April 13, 1902

Once in business, the West Side Belt became one of the more profitable line in the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway system. In 1909, the West Side Belt Railroad line was upgraded to handle heavier locomotives and increasing freight traffic.

While the West Side Belt Railroad thrived, the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway was bankrupt in four years. In May 1908 the Gould railroad entered receivership. Although the West Side Belt Railroad remained a profitable venture, the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway as a whole was a dismal failure.

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AFTER THE WEST SIDE BELT

As for the West Side Belt Railroad, after years of successful operation, the company was part of a December 1916 reorganization that resulted in the creation of the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railway Company, headquartered in Wellsburg, West Virginia. The P&WVRR purchased the West Side Belt Railway outright in December 1928.

♦ Annual Reports - P&WV Railway and West Side Belt Railway Companies - 1917-1918 ♦

Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad.                Norfolk and Western Railroad.

In October 1964, after nearly a half century rolling along the former Belt Railway line, the P&WVRR was leased by the Norfolk and Western Railroad. A quarter century later, in May 1990, that lease was acquired by the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway, headquartered in Brewster, Ohio.

The Wabash Railroad Bridge, terminal building and elevated platform remained in operation downtown until 1946, when a devastating fire destroyed the Ferry Street complex. Rail traffic into Pittsburgh ceased and the entire complex, including the railroad bridge, were removed in 1947.

The Wabash Railroad Tunnel, known rhetorically as the "Money Pit," has undergone a few expensive modifications over the years. The 118-year old tunnel is now used for automobile traffic.

W&LERR Logo.




Photos/Clippings of the former West Side Belt Line

The following are a few photos and newspaper clippings regarding the West Side Belt Railroad and its successors in Brookline and the neighboring communities along the line. The articles detail the West Side Belt Railroad's association with the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway to acts of sabotage along the tracks in both Overbrook and Castle Shannon.

Another related incident not listed here occurred along the Belt Railway tracks in West Liberty Borough, at the Timberland Avenue Bridge, on May 31, 1903. The event is documented in a Brookline Connection feature article on the riot at High Bridge Station.

Pittsburgh Press - October 13, 1901.
Pittsburgh Press - October 13, 1901

 

Stock Certificate from the Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway.

 

Pittsburgh Press - November 24, 1901.
Pittsburgh Press - November 24, 1901

 

Railroad workers on the West Side Belt line,
along Cadet Avenue and Timberland in 1909.    Line of coal cars pass along Saw Mill
Run near Bausman Street in 1925.
Workers on the West Side Belt Railroad, near Cadet Avenue, in 1909 (left); A line of cars hauling coal
pass along Saw Mill Run, near Timberland Avenue, in 1925.

 

The Saw Mill Run Corridor looking
towards Crane Avenue in Beechview.
Looking in the direction of Crane Avenue in Beechview, along Saw Mill Run valley, in September 1913.
A line of coal cars stand along the West Side Belt tracks to the left.

 

West Side Belt Railroad - 1909.    West Side Belt Glenbury Station - 1917.
The West Side Belt Railway line runs atop the hill over the Wabash Fairhaven Tunnel on Glenbury Road in
Overbrook. (left). The P&CSRR rails run a parallel course along the base of the hill. On the right is
the Belt Railway's Fairhaven Station sits along the side of the rails near the tunnel.

 

Washington Reporter - May 25, 1927.
Washington Reporter - May 25, 1927

 

The Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad tracks
pass under the Timberland Avenue Bridge in 1918.
Tracks of the West Side Belt Railroad pass under the Timberland Avenue Bridge in 1918. It was here that
the crowd swarmed over the tracks during the
"Riot at High Bridge Station".

 

Edgebrook Avenue on April 30, 1929.    Mixing Center at Edgebrook Avenue - 1929.
Loads of aggregate were dumped directly from
rail cars and cement was mixed on the spot.
The Wabash Bridge at Edgebrook Avenue on April 30, 1929, and later that year with an attached cement mixer. Materials
were dumped directly from rail cars into the mixer. The product was then transported via small-gauge rail
to various locations during the construction of
Saw Mill Run Boulevard.

 

Pittsburgh Press January 16, 1932.
Pittsburgh Press - January 16, 1932

 

The Wabash Bridge in 1938.
The Wabash Bridge over the Monongahela River and the Ferry Street terminal complex, shown here in 1938. Trains leaving
Pittsburgh would pass over the bridge and through the Wabash Tunnel to connect with the West Side Belt Railroad.

 

The Wabash Tunnel.
The Wabash bridge leads into the Wabash Tunnel, exiting on the south end along Woodruff Street
at the junction with the West Side Belt Railroad.

 

A P&WVRR train passing Elm
Street in Castle Shannon - 1940.    A P&WVRR train crossing trestle at
Whited Street in Brookline - March 1957.
Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad train at Elm Street in Castle Shannon in 1940 (left), and
crossing the trestle at Whited and Jacob Streets in Brookline, March 1957.

 

Castle Shannon streetcar
passes under Belt Railway Viaduct.
Shannon-Library streetcar passes under the West Side Belt Railway Viaduct in at Route 88 and Castle Shannon Boulevard.
The Shannon streetcar line follows that same path as the former
Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad.

 

Norfolk and Western tracks alongside the
piers for the new Palm Garden Busway Bridge.
Tracks of the Norfolk and Western Railway alongside the piers for the new Palm Garden Busway Bridge on March 4, 1975.
The southern portals of the
Liberty Tunnels stand below along Saw Mill Run.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
Matching pictures from a over a century apart. The upper photo is from March 1915. The lower is from 2020.
They show the West Side Belt Railroad Bridge over West Liberty Avenue, at the bottom of Pioneer Avenue.

 

Wabash Bridge at Edgebrook Avenue.    Wabash Bridge at Edgebrook Avenue.
Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway trains passing over the bridge at Edgebrook Avenue in Brookline, 2014.

 

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021.
Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway locomotives pass over the bridge at Edgebrook Avenue on February 1, 2021.

 

W&LERR train passes Whited Street.    W&LERR train passes Whited Street.
Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway locomotives pass over the trestle at Whited Street in Brookline.




Seldom Seen Arch

Some of the monumental stone architecture associated with the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway was located along the West Side Belt Railway. One such wonder is located along Saw Mill Run in Beechview, near the foot of Woodruff Street.

On the South Hills side of the Wabash Tunnel, at the junction with the West Side Belt Railway, a decorative stone archway was constructed over Saw Mill Run and a roadway leading back into a remote hamlet known as Seldom Seen. The tunnel, which stands along the tree line, often unnoticed along Saw Mill Run Boulevard, was aptly named the Seldom Seen Arch.

The Seldom Seen Arch, near Woodruff
Street, is a Pittsburgh Historic Landmark.    The Seldom Seen Arch, near Woodruff
Street, is a Pittsburgh Historic Landmark.
Looking through the Seldom Seen Arch from both sides of the tunnel.

The Seldom Seen Arch, near Woodruff
Street, is a Pittsburgh Historic Landmark.    The Seldom Seen Arch, near Woodruff
Street, is a Pittsburgh Historic Landmark.

Built in 1903, the stone and brick craftsmanship creates both a sense of both awe and amazement. The awe comes from the sheer scale of the archway and associated masonry, and the amazement from the unique design of the walls inside the arch, built to mirror the reflection of the water, often creating a spectacular visual experience. The Seldom Seen Arch is recognized by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.




"Pittsburgh Steelers" Station along the W&LERR

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad - 2021
A fine place to relax by the fire, put down some cold ones while watching the Steelers on Monday Night and wait for
the 9pm southbound to rumble by. Steeler Nation has stops everywhere, including this one along the W&LERR.

* Written by Clint Burton - June 16, 2021 *

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