There is a rich history associated with what became known as the Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Starting in the mid 1830’s the State owned Mainline of Public Works would construct a railroad between Philadelphia and Columbia, Pennsylvania connecting to a network of canals that was intended to compete with the Erie Canal. The system was troubled from the start as the advent of the railroad quickly triumphed over the slow, seasonal travel of the canals. The 1846 charter of the Pennsylvania Railroad eliminated any chance of the system succeeding as the new railroad paralleled the canal from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. Upon arrival at the Ohio River, the young PRR looked to expand from its current terminal points aiming to secure access to lines reaching West as well as to Philadelphia and New York. Initially the PRR had negotiated the right to operate over the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway in 1853 but poor track conditions, a result of the Mainline of Public Works financial distress, presented major limitations.
Seeking an alternative to the P&C the PRR surveyed a route in 1853 known as the Lancaster, Lebanon and Pine Grove Railroad, a route that would bypass the P&C all together, creating direct competition while taking away some of the State Works only railroad revenue. Construction however never took place, as the PRR finally purchased the failing Mainline of Public Works in 1857 for $7.5 million. This purchase included the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad providing exclusive control of the railroad to Philadelphia.
Another formative railroad in the evolution of the PRR expansion east from Harrisburg was the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad. It was chartered in 1837 to connect Harrisburg and Lancaster to the Portsmouth Canal Basin in modern day Middletown. One of its founders and first president was a young James Buchanan who would later become the United State’s 15th President. Indicated by its name, this route provided an attractive connection with the PRR in Harrisburg to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in Lancaster via the new line, eliminating part of slow trip on the P&C. In 1848 the PRR contracted a lease for 20 years, which was later extended to 999 years to operate the HPMtJ&L, making it the first of many independent railroads the PRR would absorb to build its empire.
As the railroad expanded and traffic grew, this mainline network proved to be outdated to meet the needs of the PRR. Extensive rebuilding, expansion, realignment and added infrastructure continued to alter the railroad landscape in bucolic Lancaster County. By the 1880s Chief engineer William H. Brown had begun improving the mainline, expanding the route to the trademark four-track mainline, and replacing lighter bridges with the ubiquitous stone arch bridge he became known for. Though these improvements alleviated congestion, the undulating grades of these alignments, which dated from the formative years of American railroad development, were far from ideal for the future.
Enter PRR President Alexander J. Cassatt who undertook a monumental system improvements project between 1902 and 1906 to eliminate operational bottlenecks and further modernize the PRR network. Cassatt and Brown would begin constructing what Chief Engineer and 3rd PRR President J. Edgar Thompson had envisioned many years before. Building a Low Grade route that provided freight traffic a dedicated right of way free of major grades, obstructions and curvature that would span the system between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, with the intention of going as far east as Colonia, New Jersey as well as a by-pass of the original Mainline into Philadelphia along Darby Creek.
A major piece of the this network was the Atglen and Susquehanna Branch, a two track mainline that ran from a connection with the Northern Central south of Harrisburg, improving upon existing trackage to a location just south of Columbia, where the branch diverged off on what was the largest piece of new construction the PRR had taken on to date. Running across the rolling hills of Southern Lancaster County through cuts and fills, the A&S would connect back to the mainline at Parkesburg continuing on a shared right of way to Thorndale where the routes split yet again, with the Low Grade continuing on the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch and the Trenton Cut-Off to Morrisville, and the Mainline into Philadelphia via Paoli. Opening in 1906, the A&S thrived for many years providing the capacity the railroad needed to handle the spike in traffic during World War I and II but would later fall prey to the Penn Central merger and subsequent creation of Conrail. As Amtrak inherited the Mainline between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, efforts were made to separate freight and passenger operations on the new railroads, forever changing the PRR network on the Philadelphia Division.
Starting next week we will resume our exploration of both routes, with many new photos, graphics and historical images to tell the story of the evolution of this important division on the Pennsylvania Railroad.