Leaving the City of Harrisburg behind we will begin to explore the various lines radiating east. On the Philadelphia Division trains traverse routes purchased under PRR President, J. Edgar Thompson in an effort to gain access to Philadelphia. Later these routes would be improved upon or supplemented during President Alexander J. Cassatt’s series of system wide improvements which focused on reducing operational problems associated with the older alignments and increasing capacity
Understanding this network requires a look back to the early 1800’s during the building of canals as a key national transportation network. Pennsylvania followed suit with construction of the State Mainline of Public Works in 1826which was completed in 1834. The system would utilize a series of canals, inclined planes and railroads to move people and freight across the expansive countryside from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. While some considered the network an engineering marvel the seasonal and logistic limitations quickly proved impractical. In time the Mainline of Public Works would begin to struggle financially. Furthermore the State granted a charter to the Pennsylvania Railroad for construction of a private rail line connecting Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in 1846 which would be in direct competition to the Public Works network. While many protested the new technology, the PRR ultimately won building their right of way in many cases parallel to the canal alignments. Shortly after completion of this line, PRR president J. Edgar Thompson secured access east of Harrisburg via control of the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt. Joy and Lancaster Railroad (H&L) in 1849 providing a connection to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway (P&C) in both Lancaster and Columbia.With this connection to the State operated P&C, the only all rail network between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would be created. With limited funding however, the P&C quickly became the operational lynchpin to quality rail service due to primitive trackage and poor right of way construction. By 1857 the PRR successfully purchased all remaining properties associated with the Public Works system, abandoning most of the canal and inclined plane operations but allowing the PRR to rebuild the P&C to suit the needs of the expanding railroad.
Around the same time the PRR would acquire access to Baltimore via control of the Northern Central in 1861 establishing connections to the mainline in Harrisburg and the former P&C and H&L near Columbia. This line also provided connections to the Anthracite fields in Shamokin, Lake Ontario access via the Elmira Branch and a mainline to Buffalo, New York providing connections with Canadian Railways. During the system improvements of President A. J. Cassatt between 1899-1906 the Northern Central would also become the western anchor of a new freight only low-grade from New York and Philadelphia. Built to separate heavy freight traffic from the current mainline with its winding curves and undulating grades of the original P&C and H&L, Cassatt and Chief Engineer, William H. Brown surveyed a line connecting with the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad (C&PD) near Safe Harbor on the Susquehanna River. The C&PD would become the link between Cassatt’s new low-grade, the industrial center Columbia and the Northern Central via a new bridge over the Susquehanna at Shocks Mills, providing access to existing lines to gain access to Harrisburg. Subsequently the C&PD would also become the route of choice for moving freight to Baltimore via connection to the mainline at Perryville due to the water level alignment and lack of grades making the older NC route the default passenger line.
Known as the Atglen and Susquehanna the new line climbed the Susquehanna River valley slowly veering east to cut across the rolling countryside of Lancaster County. Void of road crossings, major industry, challenging gradients or curves, the line came parallel to the mainline in a hamlet known as Atglen. Junction with the mainline was in neighboring Parkesburg via a fly-over arrangement insuring no delays to both freight and passenger traffic. Continuing east the mainline hosted combined freight and passenger traffic on four track mainline for nine miles to Thorndale where freight once again left on a low-grade line known as the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch.
Though large parts of this network have been abandoned the mainline still serves Amtrak’s successful Keystone Service while many of the lines along the Susquehanna River still connect the Norfolk Southern network to York and Baltimore via the old NC and C&PD. This segment of the mainline tour will explore the various routes the PRR used to move traffic between the Harrisburg and Philadelphia Terminals, utilizing imagery, maps and text to explain operations specific to each route.