A Quick Visit to the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum

I really enjoyed the drive up Route 30 to Ligonier on Saturday mornings, especially when the sun is shining like it is today.  You’d never think that a giant snowstorm is slated to pound this area by Monday.  WHERE IS SPRING?

The restored Darlington station, taken March 2013

The restored Darlington station, taken March 2013. (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

Anyways, on my way up to the library today, I stopped by the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association Museum, which is located in the beautifully restored Darlington station near Idlewild Park & SoakZone on Idlewild Hill Lane, just off the eastbound lanes of Route 30.  I needed to return a few materials that I borrowed quite a while ago for my Ligonier Valley Vignettes book.   Association board president Bill Potthoff was there and chatted with me about the organization’s upcoming plans.

Eight engines can be seen in this photograph taken at the Ligonier wye. - Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library

Eight engines can be seen in this photograph taken at the Ligonier wye. – Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library

To me, the Ligonier Valley Rail Road is one of the most interesting stories in the valley’s modern history.  Former judge and prominent Pittsburgh businessman Thomas Mellon purchased and established the Ligonier Valley Rail Road in 1877 as a business venture for his sons, rescuing the unfinished line from 25 years of obscurity.  The railroad sparked an industrial boom in the Ligonier Valley and transported 9 million passengers and 32 million tons of freight during its 75-year history.    While the railroad transported materials such as timber and bluestone out of the valley, its best known freight was the coal mined from the Pittsburgh seam of coal north of the Ligonier and the coke that was produced in local ovens.  In addition, the Mellon family developed the scenic Idlewild Park along the line as a attraction to increase the line’s passenger traffic. Sadly, various factors including the popularity of the automobile and availability of other modes of freight transportation during the twentieth century, caused the the railroad to disband after its final run on August 31, 1952.

The Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association was the brainchild of railroad enthusiasts Bob Stutzman and Bill McCullough, who established the non-profit association in 2004.  According to the organization’s website, its mission is to preserve the legacy of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, conserve its vestiges, collect relics and memorabilia and educate the public about the history of railroading in the Ligonier Valley.

The original Darlington station, August 26, 1906 - Courtesy of the Pennsylvania, Room, Ligonier Valley Library

The original Darlington station, August 26, 1906 – Courtesy of the Pennsylvania, Room, Ligonier Valley Library

Thanks to funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Allegheny Foundation, the LVRRA worked tirelessly to renovate the Darlington station as a home for its museum, which opened in May 2010.  The station was one of the earliest stations established along the line and one of the few survivors.  Idlewild parent company Kennywood Entertainment donated the station and encompassing land to the association.

The restored bobber caboose at the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

The restored bobber caboose at the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

The museum not only features pictures and relics that tell the story of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, but it also touches upon the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Pittsburgh, Westmoreland and Somerset Railroad, as those lines connected with the Ligonier Valley Rail Road at both ends.  One highlight of the museum is a 1905 bobber caboose (specifically a PRR Class ND cabin car) which the association acquired and installed at the museum in February 2008.  My favorite part is the large interactive map in the main room.  The map shows the route of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road through the valley marked with color coded locations of the stations, coal mines, coke ovens and bluestone quarries along the line. Each location lights up at the press of a button, depending on the category you choose.  I love pressing those buttons!

The LVRRA  has been so very kind and obliging to me with all of my research requests throughout the past few years and I really enjoy visiting when I have the chance.  I hope to continue learning about the history If you would like to learn more about the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, I’ve included a section on it in my upcoming book of historical stories about the Ligonier Valley, entitled Ligonier Valley Vignettes: Tales From the Laurel Highlands.  If you are in the area, I highly encourage you to also visit the LVRRA’s website and its museum, which is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11:00a.m. until 3:00p.m.  Admission is $5.00 for adults and yearly memberships are available.

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