Discussion relating to the PRR, up to 1968. Visit the PRR Technical & Historical Society for more information.
  by Allen Hazen
Before the Pennsylvania Railroad's line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was completed, freight service on this route was provided by the "Main Line of Public Works," a combination of canals and railways: rail from Philadelphia to Columbia, boat up the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers through Harrisburg to (I think) Hollidaysburg (near Altoona), then the "Portage Railway" over the mountains to Johnstown, then boat downstream to Pittsburgh: three inter-modal transfers. One technique for minimizing the labor-intensive transshipment (think of it as analogous to containerization!) was the sectional canal boat: a canal boat designed to be disassembled into segments that could be carried on railway cars, then reassembled when water was reached. With the freight staying where it was stowed in a boat-segment from end to end.
Question: how were canalboat segments loaded onto the flat cars? Were there cranes big enough to lift them? Or were the cars heavy enough that they would stay on track running down a ramp into the water, so boat segments could be floated on and off them?
(I've known about the "Main Line" for half a century, and have visited the semi-restored site of one of the Portage Railway's "inclined planes" outside Altoona, but -- embarrassingly -- have never learned the details of the operation!)
  by ExCon90
I raised this question today with a friend of mine who has done a lot of research on that operation, including some tramping through the underbrush around the tunnel. He has never seen anything giving details of how the transfer was actually carried out. All we could think of was that since cranes would have meant a significant capital investment they might well have organized gangs of men to haul the sections with ropes up wooden ramps to the level of the flatcars, and restraining the eastbound sections similarly on the descent.

That would have taken a lot of men, but in an age of cheap labor and cheaper management it might not have seemed out of the ordinary.
  by Allen Hazen
Ex-Con 90--
Thanks! that's an option I hadn't thought of. ... heavily laden canal boat segments would be hard to haul up-grade. I don't know enough about the economics of the period to know whether, for such hauling, a large team of me would be cheaper or more expensive than, say, a smaller team of oxen. Nor do I know when stationary steam "donkey" engines became common. (Small steam engines were, I think, common on late sailing ships: used for such things as hauling up sails. So, by the end of sailing cargo ships, a "donkey" was economically preferable to having a larger human crew to turn capstans. But that, I think, dates from several decades after the Main Line of Public Works.)
  by ExCon90
Now that you mention it, oxen or donkey engines (or actual donkeys?) might also be a possibility, assuming the dates work out. My friend mentioned later that the New Portage Railroad National (or State?) Park may have a website, if you haven't already checked that.
  by Allen Hazen
Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. (Thanks for the suggestion, Ex-Con 90!)
It does have a website, but I've only glanced at it, not explored it yet.
(It is the site I visited back n the early 1970s. I enjoyed it... Of course, the Altoona region has lots of other things for a person interested in railroads and their history to visit (Grin!).