The Montour Trail is named for the creek that runs nearby for the first eight miles of its route. That stream also gave its name to the Montour Railroad, the original user of the trail. The civil engineers who laid out the route designed it for long, heavily loaded coal trains. Their work resulted in gentle grades, accomplished through digging multiple tunnels, building dozens of bridges, and blasting through rock outcroppings.
The Montour Railroad Company was organized in 1877 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Imperial Coal Company, to bring coal from mines near Imperial to a barge-loading facility on the Ohio River at Coraopolis.
Passenger service commenced in 1879, also carrying U.S. mail and local farm produce to market in Pittsburgh via a connection with the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. This service was terminated in 1927.
A 35-mile extension looping around Pittsburgh’s South Hills to West Mifflin was constructed in 1913-14 to serve several newly opened coal mines, and track mileage grew to about 50 miles. Interchange points were made with five other railroads, establishing shipping connections with markets outside the Pittsburgh area.
During WWII, the Montour shipped over 300,000 tons of coal each month. Although the majority of traffic was coal, other freight was shipped to and from local businesses along the line.
With the downturn of the coal market in the 1970s, traffic slowed, revenue declined and track mileage was slowly taken out of service. Finally, the Montour ceased operations in 1984, with total abandonment occurring in 1986, after a century of railroad operation.
You can learn much more about the the railbed’s history at the Montour Railroad website, whose aim is to research, preserve and educate.