Today when you walk along the path of the former Atglen & Susquehanna Low Grade it is a very peaceful experience. There’s no shortage of lush foliage shrouding rock cuts blasted out of the rolling hills, the elevated fills and stone masonry look they were there since the beginning of time, and the railroad itself is long gone. Today it is hard to fathom the purpose of such a resource and even more difficult to imagine the human struggle that was involved in creating such a line.
Early in the era when railroads engaged in a wave of line and capacity improvements across the country, construction of the A&S commenced in 1903. Its scope was compared to that of the Panama Canal, which began around the same time, but took three times longer to complete. In the course of three years the PRR spent $19.5 million to build an engineering marvel that completed the final piece of a freight by-pass collectively referred to as the Low Grade between Morrisville and Enola, Pennsylvania. With curvature limited to no more than 2% and the maximum grade held to 1% or lower the high cost of building such a line was justified with improved operating ratios and a reduction in fuel and crew demands while providing additional capacity to move freight trains away from the congested main line. With no grade crossings, local industry or stations the A&S was strictly a conduit to move freight to and from the New York and Philadelphia markets across southern Lancaster County to the west via Enola. The premise of the Low Grade is pretty simple until you consider the topography the line spanned; In order to maintain such gradients the PRR had to wage war against the landscape employing thousands of men to construct the line between Parkesburg and the Susquehanna River. The western highlands and the descent into the Susquehanna valley was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the project. It entailed erecting a massive bridge at Safe Harbor to span the Conestoga gap and carving a path high above the river that continued down to Creswell where the line joined the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch. Other notable challenges included the spanning of the Pequea Valley at Martic Forge and the 90-foot deep cut excavated out of solid rock near Quarryville.
According to the late Ernest Schuleen who managed the Safe Harbor Water Power Corp, "The major portion of the laborers were immigrants from Italy, Turkey, Syria and the other southeastern European countries, who were taken directly from incoming boats to do the job... Getting the job done was the thing; safety was secondary.'' Roughly 1000 men and 150 horses were deployed along the bluffs of the Susquehanna and hundreds more worked east and west from Quarryville. Obstacles were met with steam shovels and drills, finishing work executed with pick axes and shovels. Dynamite was a necessary tool to complete the work in a timely manner but its nature made the job that much more hazardous, premature explosions killed some, flying debris others. In the course of three years over 200 died while working to complete the A&S. On a weekly basis headlines pitched tragic stories of workers killed on the job with hardly a mention of who they were. One of the most tragic incidents occurred near Colemanville, the location of a dynamite factory employing local residents to produce materials for the PRR and more recently the construction of the nearby Holtwood Dam. On June 6th, 1906, just weeks before the public dedication of the A&S, a blast ripped through the stamping house containing 2400 pounds of dynamite, triggering a subsequent explosion of nitroglycerin, the disaster killing eleven men. The only identified remains was the arm of 25-year-old Frederick Rice, the rest, all in their late teens or early 20’s were laid to rest in a single common casket. Despite the fact that the plant was no longer producing dynamite for the PRR’s A&S project the railroad faced continued criticism for their lack of concern for their seemingly disposable immigrant work force which ultimately brought such tragedy to southern Lancaster County.
Regardless the project continued and on July 27th of the same year the PRR publicly dedicated the A&S line in the deep cut near Quarryville, where prominent Quarryville citizen George Hensel drove the final spike made of silver. Sadly the human tragedy and loss of life behind the construction of the A&S was the norm rather than the exception. Labor laws and unions had yet to gain a foothold and agencies like OSHA and the FRA had yet to exist. The Industrial Revolution was still very much a time where money ruled and the bottom line far outweighed the value of human life. The human story of the A&S was a dark reality repeated time and time again to build some the most important engineering accomplishments and transportation networks in the country.