Moving railroad east from Rockville on the mainline we enter the capitol city of Harrisburg. Beginning in 1836 the city has been host to railroads including the Pennsylvania Railroad, Philadelphia & Reading, Northern Central (NC), Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster and the Cumberland Valley (CV), the later three eventually absorbed by the PRR in an effort to expand service under J. Edgar Thompson. Though there were numerous stations built in the general vicinity of the current Harrisburg station, the terminal complex was in constant flux through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, growing and changing with needs of this important terminal.
During the late 1920’s the City of Harrisburg sought to expand the Market Street Subway crossing under the terminal, while a State project commenced to build a grand new bridge over the PRR at State Street; both projects necessitated a major reconfiguring of the terminal on the west end of the passenger station. With this construction the PRR saw an opportunity to replace several older mechanical switch towers that controlled various parts of the terminal with one state of the art facility utilizing an electro-pneumatic Union Switch and Signal interlocking plant. Opening for service in April of 1930, Harris Tower operated 82 signals and 74 switches with additional controls for the train director to set up directional flow of traffic through the six bi-directional station platform tracks for operational flexibility. All these operations were controlled by a new US&S Model 14 interlocking machine from one centrally located building. The operating territory of the new facility spanned a length of 3,250 feet and would regularly handle over 100 scheduled passenger trains, approximately 25 freights, and scores of switch and light power moves.
Operations at Harris and the train station itself were unique in that it was a place where various sections of westbound passenger traffic from both DC and New York were combined, with the opposite occurring for eastbound movements. Equipment moves including mail, express parcel, baggage and even dining cars were switched here by a number of yard crews through out a 24-hour cycle. While the engine changes were common in the early years, the location became far more significant when Harris became the western end of electrified service in 1938, becoming a place where electric motors, steam and later diesels co-mingled on a regular basis. Though Harris continued to play an important role in passenger operations after World War II the terminal and station complex would begin to fall victim to declining traffic as a result of the widespread popularity of the automobile and airlines. Through the turbulent transition of the ill-fated Penn Central merger and its subsequent bankruptcy, passenger service suffered critical blows eventually leading to the creation of Amtrak and later Conrail. Operations at Harris began to shrink as Conrail began to migrate away from using electric locomotives and Amtrak’s Philadelphia – Harrisburg line slowly became a stub end line with only one or two round trips continuing further west to Pittsburgh. During Conrail’s effort to separate themselves from Amtrak operations, piecing together an independent freight mainline, the Reading Company branch from Rutherford was rebuilt to link the PRR mainline and yards west of Harris with the Lurgan and Lebanon Lines. Part of the 9 million dollar Capitol interlocking reconfiguration the remaining responsibilities of Amtrak’s Harris Tower were eventually moved to neighboring State interlocking in 1991 making the historic facility surplus after 61 years of continual service.
Amazingly enough, this would not be the demise of Harris Tower, as several visionary people with the Harrisburg Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society would rally to not only save Harris, but resurrect it as a hands on learning experience for generations to come. Led by dedicated chapter members the Harris Tower project included a full structural and architectural renovation bringing the building back to its original design and appearance. Even more significant, the interlocking machine and model board was fully restored, unlocking seized levers and restoring the model board to reflect the terminal at its peak operations during the height of World War II. Restoration also included development of a computer system that interacts with the interlocking machine to recreate the full experience of a working interlocking tower, giving visitors a hands on experience of being a lever man in Harris Tower, lining simulated routes and signals based on operating schedules from the period. Like many other towers, Harris is no longer responsible for directing traffic over the PRR system, but today it serves as a living history museum to many of us who never had the opportunity to experience a piece of railroading once so common in America.