The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Atglen and Susquehanna Branch was an integral segment of the Low Grade network, a through route dedicated to freight traffic that stretched approximately 140 miles from Morrisville to Enola, bypassing the congestion of Philadelphia and Lancaster. At a price of nearly $20 million dollars, the A&S Branch spanned Lancaster County creating the final link of this ambitious project. Constructed on earthen fill and etched through the stone hills of the Chester and Susquehanna Valleys the route connected to the Northern Central Railway at Wago Junction continuing east to Parkesburg where it linked back to the mainline. A major piece of this route would include a new 33-mile segment between Cresswell and Parkesburg. To construct the A&S the Pennsylvania Railroad excavated an estimated 22 million yards of earth and rock while building roughly 80 bridges and culverts to create a modern superhighway for freight traffic. At the time of its dedication on July 27, 1906, the line would be the largest construction project in the railroad’s history to date. Once completed, the A&S and the larger Low Grade would give the PRR an unrivalled route that provided access to all the major port cities the railroad served with a vital link to the four track mainline system west.
During the 1938 electrification project, the A&S and the rest of the Low Grade would see the change from steam to electric locomotives with power coming from the Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Plant located on the Susquehanna River. This early “green” facility not only powered the trains of the A&S but through a tether of high voltage transmission lines along the route, fed major sub-stations along the Mainline and what is know today as the Northeast Corridor. The engineering accomplishment would serve the PRR well through the onslaught of traffic during World War II without major issue, but after the war, traffic would decline sending many railroads into financial crisis. Through bankruptcy and merger the ill-fated Penn Central and subsequent creation of Conrail, the A&S and other parts of the Low Grade would be abandoned in favor of the former Reading route to Harrisburg. On December 19th, 1988 the last freight train would traverse the A&S bringing an end to 82 years of freight service on this remarkable piece of railroad.
Since the last train the right of way languished in abandonment, however the transmission lines were retained to continue feeding the substations on the former PRR electrified network. In 2011 Amtrak moved to upgrade the former catenary / transmission line supports with modern mono-poles, while the local municipalities have taken possession of the right of way with some creating a beautiful rail-trail route through the heart of Lancaster County.
Over the next several months we will explore the A&S in detail, looking at the modern remains as well as historical images of the line during construction and operation. I am excited to share a thorough account of an engineering project that speaks to the ability and character of the Pennsylvania Railroad and their claim to being the Standard Railroad of the World!