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 gauntlet 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. 

 

The Cost of Labor | Constructing the A&S

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.

Workers pause for a photograph, likely made by Lancaster based photographer Harry P. Stoner who was commissioned to document the construction of A&S. Blasting, the high cliffs and large loose rock along the stretch in Manor Township presented many hazards to the men while constructing the final few miles of the A&S along the Susquehanna River. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

Workers pause for a photograph, likely made by Lancaster based photographer Harry P. Stoner who was commissioned to document the construction of A&S. Blasting, the high cliffs and large loose rock along the stretch in Manor Township presented many hazards to the men while constructing the final few miles of the A&S along the Susquehanna River. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

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.

An excavation crew pauses with a rail mounted steam shovel that appears to be down for repairs. Steam shovels and air powered drills were initially utilized to excavate the right of way in Manor township as well as the deep cuts along the line to the east. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

An excavation crew pauses with a rail mounted steam shovel that appears to be down for repairs. Steam shovels and air powered drills were initially utilized to excavate the right of way in Manor township as well as the deep cuts along the line to the east. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

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. 

One of the deep cuts near Quarryville takes shape as crews blast and dig their way through solid rock to maintain the 1% maximum ruling grade on the A&S branch. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

One of the deep cuts near Quarryville takes shape as crews blast and dig their way through solid rock to maintain the 1% maximum ruling grade on the A&S branch. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

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.

Susquehanna Reprise

Approaching thunderstorm and Hill Island from the east bank, Royalton, Pennsylvania.

Approaching thunderstorm and Hill Island from the east bank, Royalton, Pennsylvania.

Though we've discussed the trials and tribulations the Pennsylvania Railroad endured sharing the banks of the Susquehanna River, particularly on the Columbia and York Haven lines, I would like to take a chance to celebrate the river itself. The Susquehanna runs approximately 464 miles from the uplands of New York and Western Pennsylvania to create the longest river on the east coast to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The river's watershed drains some 27,500 square miles encompassing nearly half of the State of Pennsylvania. The broad shallow river winds a wandering course to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at Harve De Grace, Maryland. Through various routes including the mainline, York Haven, Port Road and Northern Central the PRR follows considerable lengths of the Susquehanna. In particular, for this post at least, we celebrate some of the natural beauty of the mighty river in context of Lancaster County and the PRR York Haven and Columbia branch. Enjoy!

Clearing fog, Roundtop Mountain, from the mouth of Chiques Creek. Marietta, Pennsylvania 

Clearing fog, Roundtop Mountain, from the mouth of Chiques Creek. Marietta, Pennsylvania 

Confluence of Chiques Creek and the Susquehanna, framed by the York Haven Line Bridge. Marietta, Pennsylvania

Confluence of Chiques Creek and the Susquehanna, framed by the York Haven Line Bridge. Marietta, Pennsylvania

Mooring posts and Turkey Hill Point, Washington Boro, Pennsylvania.

Mooring posts and Turkey Hill Point, Washington Boro, Pennsylvania.