Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Fire on the Line!

The massive Safe Harbor Bridge was just west of the temporary block station named Fire which was put into service in 1959. The block station and crossovers were located on the A&S Branch up on the embankment pictured here in the top right of the image, the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch is the line in the foreground.

The massive Safe Harbor Bridge was just west of the temporary block station named Fire which was put into service in 1959. The block station and crossovers were located on the A&S Branch up on the embankment pictured here in the top right of the image, the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch is the line in the foreground.

In a previous post, Managing the Line, we detailed the operations of dispatching trains on the Atglen & Susquehanna branch, one particular anomaly escaped the article. Thanks to the work of Abram Burnett who interviewed the late H. Wayne Frey a former PRR Block Operator, I am pleased to share an account of a brief occurrence on the A&S that necessitated an additional block station for a short time.

On Thursday, July 30th, 1959 Philadelphia Region general order No. 710 was put into effect to address a rising situation on the A&S branch just east of the Safe Harbor Bridge over the Conestoga River. Officials and crews discovered settling in the eastbound main (No. 1 Track) the result of an underground blaze ignited by a recent brush fire on the embankment. Officials found that the fill the A&S rode on comprised of dredged material that was suspected to contain river coal making the soil susceptible to fire.

Annotated track chart and General Order No. 710 effective July 30th, 1959 outlining the implementation of temporary block station Fire, Documents from the late H. Wayne Frey courtesy of Abram Burnett. 

Officials faced the issue of how to mitigate the situation while keeping trains moving through the area. The railroad installed a set of electric powered crossovers and signals between the compromised No. 1 track and the in-service No. 2 track to create a single-track gantlet of approximately 700 feet. The railroad established a block station aptly named Fire; In service 24/7, the small wood shack outfitted with four small table interlocking switches (two for switch controls, two for signals) operated around the clock until sometime between February and April of 1961.  The stub-ended sides of the crossovers on No. 1 were retained to house tank cars supplied by Dupont Chemical who was contracted to extinguish the fire. As a means to prevent the situation from compromising the No 2 main track, the railroad drove sheet piles in between the tracks and installed a pipe system to feed the chemicals and water down into the subterranean fire.  Late in 1959, the nearby Susquehanna River was experiencing particularly severe ice jams that impacted the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch located at the bottom of the same smoldering embankment. A road crew on the Port Road brought a train to stop in the vicinity of Safe Harbor due to ice when an underground explosion occurred blowing out a part of the embankment. Fearing the worst the crew jumped from their locomotive. Fortunately, the worst injury was the broken ankle of the engineer, and there was no significant loss of life or property. In the first quarter of 1961, Dupont successfully extinguished the fire, and the A&S resumed normal operations. With No. 1 track rebuilt and the tempory switches and signals removed, the railroad closed its newest block station just shy of two years in existence.