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. 

 

Managing the Line: Communications on the A&S

This 1906 view shows the wood frame tower at Quarryville (Milepost 10.8), the first interlocking tower west of Parkesburg. "Q" had control over the two main tracks and four additional sidings to manage helper movements assisting trains to Mars Hill Summit. Additionally four water columns were available to top off steam locomotive tenders on their journey east or west. Image collection of William L. Seigford

This 1906 view shows the wood frame tower at Quarryville (Milepost 10.8), the first interlocking tower west of Parkesburg. "Q" had control over the two main tracks and four additional sidings to manage helper movements assisting trains to Mars Hill Summit. Additionally four water columns were available to top off steam locomotive tenders on their journey east or west. Image collection of William L. Seigford

Running over 53 miles in length the PRR's Atglen & Susquehanna Branch was a shining example of modern railway construction, running across rolling countryside and up the Susquehanna River on a gentle gradient. Fittingly for such a contemporary piece of railroad engineering, another advancement of modern times accompanied the line; the telephone. By the time the A&S opened for business in 1906, the PRR was rapidly working towards constructing one of the world's largest private telephone networks, laying cable along its system for critical functions like dispatching trains in addition to providing an extensive "in-house" communication network. The PRR's interest in telephone technology dates back to 1877 when officials invited Thomas A. Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell for a demonstration in Altoona. While the railroad made a modest investment for non-critical communication following this meeting, it wouldn't be until 1897 when the technology was employed to dispatch trains entirely by phone on the South Fork Branch of the Pittsburgh Division.

The Pennsylvania Railroad maintained standard plans for watch boxes and telephone shelters among countless other items on the property. These structures were common along the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch; At one point there were 11 watch box locations in addition to line side telephones were spaced approximately 1.25 miles to provide direct contact with block operators and dispatchers in the event that a track inspector needed to report a problem with the line. Collection of Pat McKinney, courtesy of  Rob Schoenberg's PRR page

The Pennsylvania Railroad maintained standard plans for watch boxes and telephone shelters among countless other items on the property. These structures were common along the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch; At one point there were 11 watch box locations in addition to line side telephones were spaced approximately 1.25 miles to provide direct contact with block operators and dispatchers in the event that a track inspector needed to report a problem with the line. Collection of Pat McKinney, courtesy of Rob Schoenberg's PRR page

As technology was improved, the PRR began investing heavily in building a communication network, and by 1920 almost the entire system was dispatched by telephone. East of Paoli in the electrified territory, cable was laid in an underground duct system, west of Paoli the cable lines were often above ground on lineside poles and west of Harrisburg an extensive line side open wire system was employed. By 1955 the PRR boasted some impressive statistics in their company magazine, The Pennsy stating, "Today the PRR's network is generally accepted to be the largest private telephone system in the world. Its transmission lines stretch 41,000 miles. It's cost, together with that of the associated Teletype network, totals $35 million. On any typical day, PRR lines carry an estimated half-million calls." 

With the start of operations, the A&S was dispatched by phone from Harrisburg, out on the line local control via eight block stations provided the means for changing tracks and relay orders to passing trains. These included Parkesburg (PG), Atglen (NI), Quarryville (Q), Shenks Ferry - (SF - later Smith), Cresswell (CO), Columbia (LG-42), Marietta (RQ) and Wago Junction (WJ). Additionally, the PRR constructed 11 watch boxes along the A&S that were staffed 24/7 due to the continuous risk of washouts and cave-ins with the numerous cuts, fills, culverts and bridges along the line. Track inspectors could reach dispatchers via the watch boxes or line side phone boxes spaced roughly every 1.25 miles for field access in the event a situation should arise.

L.  Shenks Ferry (Smith) interlocking tower circa 1967. This tower survived the electrification and addition of automatic block signals in 1938 and was employed as needed in the event of a wreck or track work in the area. Photo by William R. Fry, Jr.  R.  LG27, one of 11 watch boxes on the A&S Branch, located just west of the Safe Harbor Viaduct where sharp cliffs and rock cuts posed concerns. These were staffed 24/7 and equipped with the necessary tools, a stove and telephone box for inspectors to conduct their work while staying in constant contact with block operators and dispatchers. Collection of the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society

L. Shenks Ferry (Smith) interlocking tower circa 1967. This tower survived the electrification and addition of automatic block signals in 1938 and was employed as needed in the event of a wreck or track work in the area. Photo by William R. Fry, Jr. R. LG27, one of 11 watch boxes on the A&S Branch, located just west of the Safe Harbor Viaduct where sharp cliffs and rock cuts posed concerns. These were staffed 24/7 and equipped with the necessary tools, a stove and telephone box for inspectors to conduct their work while staying in constant contact with block operators and dispatchers. Collection of the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society

Consolidation of block station and train order offices began during the Depression, with Quarryville placed out of service on August 11th, 1928. More change in operations came with the final phase of electrification completed in 1938. The project, which included the installation of automatic block signals and the implementation of established Current of Traffic Rule 251 eliminating the need for intermediate manned block stations. An additional benefit of the signal system was the integration of slide detector fences in areas prone to rockslides, eliminating the need for staffed watch boxes. Cola tower opened in Columbia sporting a 120 lever centralized traffic control machine, dispatching over 175 miles of freight only territory.  Under its jurisdiction on the A&S were Cresswell, LG-42 and Marietta (Shocks) as well as trackage down the Port Road south to Holtwood. Parkesburg was also rebuilt, relocated to a one of a kind brick single story building, containing a 39-lever Union Switch & Signal Model P interlocking machine. The last block station of note proved to be a bit of mystery, NI at Atglen just a few miles west of Parkesburg closed sometime between 1928 and 1945 based on various employee resources, but at this time I have found little else to narrow the dates of its demise. By the time electrification was complete all but one remaining manned block station survived on the A&S between Parkesburg and Cola; Shenks Ferry (SF), later renamed Smith, was retained as a part-time facility due to its location approximately midway between Cress and Parkesburg. While Smith ultimately met its demise, Cola survived into the Conrail era, closing in March of 1987, followed by the A&S in 1988. On the opposite end of the line, Parkesburg survived well into the 21st Century under Amtrak. The closing of Parkesburg during the Keystone Corridor improvements was the first in a string of tower closures that mark the end of an era in technology and dispatching that lasted longer than the company that helped pioneer the technology.

 

Quarryville | 19th Century Railroading With Big Aspirations

TM Fowler Map circa 1903, illustrating the town of Quarryville. Though construction of the A&S had just commenced in 1903, the line is clearly depicted In the bottom left corner, complete with a connection between the new route and Quarryville Branch that was never constructed. Collection of the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society scanned from Mary Boomsma

TM Fowler Map circa 1903, illustrating the town of Quarryville. Though construction of the A&S had just commenced in 1903, the line is clearly depicted In the bottom left corner, complete with a connection between the new route and Quarryville Branch that was never constructed. Collection of the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society scanned from Mary Boomsma

Quarryville has always been a crossroad of activity in the fertile farmlands of Southern Lancaster County. Farmers purchased lumber, grain, and fertilizer here and reciprocally exchanged their bounties in town and beyond via the local county railroad, a lifeline to the outside world. Commonly known as the Quarryville Branch this rail line had an interesting early history that started with big hopes and ended with financial disaster. The Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad was chartered in 1871 to build a narrow gauge network between Safe Harbor and Reading via Lancaster including a branch to Quarryville, competing directly with the neighboring Reading Company subsidiary the Reading & Columbia.  Before construction commenced it was decided to build the line to standard gauge instead, but the Panic of 1873 quickly stalled progress. Falling into financial distress, the Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad was ironically leased to the Reading Company becoming an extension of its Lancaster Branch, part of the R&C. 

A typical PRR train traversing the former Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad between Lancaster and its southern terminus in Quarryville. Walter G. Minnich Jr. collection

A typical PRR train traversing the former Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad between Lancaster and its southern terminus in Quarryville. Walter G. Minnich Jr. collection

With the contract secured for the branch to Quarryville, the Reading looked to another opportunity, the potential of connecting with the B&O mainline by extending south from Quarryville to Elkton, MD, a move that would involve the financially strapped narrow gauge railroad the Lancaster, Oxford & Southern. When presented the idea of becoming a bridge route, the LO&S optimistically commenced plans to build new extensions on its existing route including a new line to Quarryville, with the intention of everything being converted to standard gauge. Once complete perhaps the small common carrier would see financial success or even be purchased at a profit by the Reading or the B&O. The plan, however, began to crumble when the Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Railroad defaulted on their mortgage, rendering the Reading lease null and void, and the property went up for auction in 1900. At the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, a tense bidding war played out between extended representatives of the B&O, Reading Company and PRR. Charles H. Locher, a Lancaster businessman, minor shareholder of the L&RNGR and friend of the PRR attended the auction, outbidding the competition and thus protecting their coveted territory by eliminating the plan for the competitor's line once and for all. Regardless the LO&S completed the branch to Quarryville but the hopes for financial success or being converted to standard gauge were never realized, the railroad toiled in bankruptcy through 1910 scrapping its Quarryville Branch in 1917 with the rest of the railroad ceasing operation the following year. 

Quarryville Station, view before the Lancaster Oxford & Southern abandonment in 1917. Note the dual gauge trackage in the foreground, an area shared by the LO&S and the PRR. Image Walter G. Minnich Jr. collection, Southern Lancaster County Historical Society

Quarryville Station, view before the Lancaster Oxford & Southern abandonment in 1917. Note the dual gauge trackage in the foreground, an area shared by the LO&S and the PRR. Image Walter G. Minnich Jr. collection, Southern Lancaster County Historical Society

While the drama of railroad barons and hopes of back-road competition unraveled, another chapter in railroad history was playing out in the small town. The PRR commenced construction of the new Low Grade route across Southern Lancaster County. Situated at the approximate center of the eastern segment of the new Atglen & Susquehanna Branch, Quarryville was the epicenter of construction and staging between 1903 and 1906. Despite the building of the new line, it was very evident that the PRR had no intention to tap the small agricultural market with any additional resources other than the branch it maintained from Lancaster. When construction was completed the A&S cut through the Borough on an elevated fill with little more than a water stop, a telephone box and overpasses over its branch and another on Church Street. 

Pennsylvania Railroad track chart showing the grades and curvature of the former Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Quarryville Branch circa 1940. 

Pennsylvania Railroad track chart showing the grades and curvature of the former Lancaster & Reading Narrow Gauge Quarryville Branch circa 1940. 

For the next half a century the railroads continued to operate separately from one another. As the PRR entered its final year's maintenance on marginally performing branches were often deferred, and the Quarryville Branch was certainly no exception. Entering the Penn Central era, with finances already tight, management looked to shed money-losing lines; the Quarryville Branch made the short list when the Penn Central petitioned the ICC for the abandonment of over 138 line segments in 1971. Making matters worse the branch suffered an even greater blow in 1972 when it sustained significant damage from Hurricane Agnes placing most of the branch out of service.  Regardless, the shippers in Quarryville rallied, seeking a deal with Penn Central, who had estimated that a 1700’ line connection to the A&S would come with a price tag of $130,000 a burden the broken railroad could not afford. Shippers agreed to pay the cost of construction, and the PC withdrew 2.26 miles from the ICC petition, saving the most lucrative piece of the branch and rail service to local shippers. Finally, after 67 years of trains flying over the town, Quarryville had a connection to the A&S, but that too would only last another 15 years.  

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.

Revisiting the Atglen & Susquehanna

The Bridge at Martic Forge

Returning to the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch, part of the PRR’s Low Grade freight network we pick up from Shenk’s Ferry where the line pulls away from the Susquehanna River to cross southern Lancaster County. From the high fill above the river the A&S makes a hard turn east to face the first formidable obstacle; crossing the switchback divide between Martic and Conestoga Townships in the deep Pequea Valley.

 

View looking south from the Martic Forge Trestle reveals the rugged terrain the PRR had to contend with when creating the Low Grade, cutting through hills and spanning valleys to maintain an acceptable ruling grade for moving high volumes of heavy freight. 

View looking south from the Martic Forge Trestle reveals the rugged terrain the PRR had to contend with when creating the Low Grade, cutting through hills and spanning valleys to maintain an acceptable ruling grade for moving high volumes of heavy freight. 

The Martic Forge trestle was situated between two deep cuts excavated through Prospect and Red Hill deriving its name from a neighboring charcoal iron furnace that was active during the Revolutionary War. Utilizing a similar approach to the Conestoga (Safe Harbor) and the Little Brandywine Creek crossing in Downingtown, the trestle is a combination of 10 plate steel deck girders on bents supported by masonry piers with an inverted deck truss for the expanded section over the creek itself. The bridge measured approximately 630’ long and soared 149 feet above the valley floor. The structure was originally constructed with an open timber deck, which was later closed and ballasted at an unknown date. In addition to spanning the creek, the Low Grade also crossed the Pequea Electric Railway, a trolley line that ran until 1930 between Lancaster and retreat camps near the village of Pequea where the creek empties out into the Susquehanna. Places like the Martic trestle illustrate the Low Grade’s intention to bridge the land rather than to foster growth in between, soaring over life in the valley, a theme common to this line across southern Lancaster County. 

Construction of the Martic Forge Bridge was completed in 1905. These remarkable photographs illustrate the challenge the PRR had constructing this bridge in the remote Pequea Valley. (L) Image collection of The Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC (R) Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA

Construction of the Martic Forge Bridge was completed in 1905. These remarkable photographs illustrate the challenge the PRR had constructing this bridge in the remote Pequea Valley. (L) Image collection of The Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC (R) Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA

Over the last few years Martic Township has restored the deck of the Martic Forge Bridge, providing the current eastern anchor point on the continually growing Low Grade trail. Visitors are treated to beautiful views of the Pequea Valley where countless freights once moved in an area that was largely inaccessible until the railroad’s abandonment. 

The Martic Forge Bridge is now a major highlight on the Martic Township section of the Enola Low Grade rail trail. Once the Conestoga bridge in Safe harbor is complete hikers and cyclists will be able to travel from Creswell to Martic on one continuous and very scenic section of the former PRR Low Grade. 

The Martic Forge Bridge is now a major highlight on the Martic Township section of the Enola Low Grade rail trail. Once the Conestoga bridge in Safe harbor is complete hikers and cyclists will be able to travel from Creswell to Martic on one continuous and very scenic section of the former PRR Low Grade. 

Shenks Ferry

Green Hill Road underpass on the Atglen and Susquehanna. This alignment diverges from the Susquehanna Valley heading east toward Quarryville in Southern Lancaster County.

Green Hill Road underpass on the Atglen and Susquehanna. This alignment diverges from the Susquehanna Valley heading east toward Quarryville in Southern Lancaster County.

Low Grade | A&S Branch: Moving geographically southeast from Safe harbor on the Atglen & Susquehanna and Columbia & Port Deposit we come to an area know as Shenks Ferry in Conestoga Township. Here the elevation difference becomes readily evident between the two alignments with the A&S running on a high fill diverging from the river valley heading east to Atglen. Along this stretch is the Green Hill Road underpass, a massive masonry tunnel bisecting the high fill and survives as a great example of the engineering undertaken to construct this high volume freight bypass.

USGS topographical map circa 1912 of the area around Shenks Ferry. You will note that on the east side of the river where both the A&S Branch and C&PD are located is referred to as Shenks Ferry Station. Also of note is the Pequea Electric Trolley Line that follows the Pequea Creek below Colemanville.

USGS topographical map circa 1912 of the area around Shenks Ferry. You will note that on the east side of the river where both the A&S Branch and C&PD are located is referred to as Shenks Ferry Station. Also of note is the Pequea Electric Trolley Line that follows the Pequea Creek below Colemanville.

The area was initially documented as being inhabited by European colonists in the early 1800's, however when Donald Cadzow of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission excavated a Native American village near Shenks Ferry in the 1930’s he uncovered a civilization that had been lost for almost 400 years. Cadzow had initially thought he had dicovered some unusual Susquehannock artifacts but later realized he had uncovered a new Native American group. This group was given the name the Shenks Ferry People due to the locale of where they were first discovered, but nobody knows what they actually called themselves. Evidence suggests that this site has been used as a hunting camp by different Native American groups for about 4000 years or 2000 years before Christ, it also suggests that the Shenks Ferry culture first appears in this area around 1300 AD. The Shenks Ferry People are identified as pre-historic, which means that there was no written history from the group. Most Native groups, like the Shenks Ferry People, passed their history and culture down orally, so when the last person died this information died with them. It wasn't until archaeologists began studying their villages that this lost history began to reappear. Still, not much is known about the history of the Shenks Ferry People, nor do we know where they came from. Without a written history of the group all that is known about them is what can be learned from material dug up by archaeologists at their villages.

Alternate view of the Green Hill underpass shows the extensive stone work and size of this underpass, a considerable expense for an unpaved road.

Alternate view of the Green Hill underpass shows the extensive stone work and size of this underpass, a considerable expense for an unpaved road.

Dynamite plant near Colemanville, close to Shenks Ferry in Conestoga Township, Pennsylvania. Several weeks before the dedication of the A&S Branch an explosion on June 9, 1906 would claim 11 lives, leveling the entire facility and surrounding woods. The decimation of the casualties was so bad that a single common casket was used for remains of all lost in the tragedy. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

Dynamite plant near Colemanville, close to Shenks Ferry in Conestoga Township, Pennsylvania. Several weeks before the dedication of the A&S Branch an explosion on June 9, 1906 would claim 11 lives, leveling the entire facility and surrounding woods. The decimation of the casualties was so bad that a single common casket was used for remains of all lost in the tragedy. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

Main Line Tour Resumes!

Interior detail of the 1929 Lancaster passenger station. Lancaster is the county seat of Lancaster County and was an important junction between the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt Joy and Lancaster Railroad and the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway. After the PRR assumed operations of both railroads, Lancaster remained an important terminal for both passenger and freight operations in the area with many consignees including the large Armstrong Industries facility. 

Interior detail of the 1929 Lancaster passenger station. Lancaster is the county seat of Lancaster County and was an important junction between the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt Joy and Lancaster Railroad and the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway. After the PRR assumed operations of both railroads, Lancaster remained an important terminal for both passenger and freight operations in the area with many consignees including the large Armstrong Industries facility. 

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 Main Line 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 Main Line 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 Main Line 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.

At the top of a complicated and dense triangle of heavy freight and passenger traffic funneling west from major costal cities, the Philadelphia Division was the gauntlet that fed traffic to the Middle and Northern Divisions. Map created with help of Elizabeth Timmons.

At the top of a complicated and dense triangle of heavy freight and passenger traffic funneling west from major costal cities, the Philadelphia Division was the gauntlet that fed traffic to the Middle and Northern Divisions. Map created with help of Elizabeth Timmons.

MAinline_ETT

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 main line 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 main line, expanding the route to the trademark four-track main line, 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.

Insets: Route guides based on 1954 Employee Timetables of the PRR Philadelphia Division - adjusted for eastward direction and  annotated to simplify presentation. You will see more of these for better reference and context of other locations as we continue our tour of the Main Line and Low Grade. 

Insets: Route guides based on 1954 Employee Timetables of the PRR Philadelphia Division - adjusted for eastward direction and  annotated to simplify presentation. You will see more of these for better reference and context of other locations as we continue our tour of the Main Line and Low Grade. 

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 Main Line into Philadelphia along Darby Creek.

A major piece of the this network was the Atglen and Susquehanna Branch, a two track main line 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 Main Line 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 Main Line 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 main line 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.

Conestoga River Bridge at Safe Harbor

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Since the construction of the Columbia & Port Deposit Railroad in 1877 trains have operated through Safe Harbor, where the Conestoga River joins the Susquehanna. When construction of the A&S began in 1902 the route was planned to diverge from the Port Road six miles north at Creswell beginning a gentle climb out of the Susquehanna Valley. The first formidable obstacles the PRR would encounter on the new alignment would be the approach and spanning of the Conestoga River Valley. Beginning excavation in 1903 contractor H. S. Kerbaugh converted a former rolling mill in Safe Harbor to provide compressed air to drill pilot holes for blasting in the rock face high above. The dynamite would be hoisted up the cliffs by hand, detonated and the process was repeated. The resulting debris caused the Port Road below to be closed for extended periods of time due to the dangerous conditions, which often buried the right of way.

Blasting to create the new A&S alignment approaching Safe Harbor. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

Blasting to create the new A&S alignment approaching Safe Harbor. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

Perhaps one of the more dramatic locations on the PRR, the new A&S Bridge would stretch 1560’ in length at roughly 100’ higher than the Port Road below. While construction was underway on the new span a flood in 1904 would destroy the Port Road Bridge. Taking advantage of the ongoing construction, engineers decided to incorporate a new crossing on the Port Road, rather than rebuild the existing stone arch bridge. The new span would provide a stronger bridge for the growing freight traffic with the added benefit of increased clearance from the Conestoga River below.

Rare view of the original Columbia and Port Deposit Bridge spanning the Conestoga River. This bridge was destroyed by floods in 1904 during the construction of the A&S bridge. It was decided to replace it with a new span rather than rebuild the remains of the stone bridge. Collection of the Lancaster County Historical Society

Rare view of the original Columbia and Port Deposit Bridge spanning the Conestoga River. This bridge was destroyed by floods in 1904 during the construction of the A&S bridge. It was decided to replace it with a new span rather than rebuild the remains of the stone bridge. Collection of the Lancaster County Historical Society

Chief Engineer, William H. Brown would design the bridges utilizing different style spans to meet the specific needs of each route. The A&S bridge, much longer in length included a 300’ pin connected Pratt deck truss over the river supplemented by plate girder viaducts on steel bents - nine spans measuring 480’ to the north and seventeen spans to south measuring 780’. The bridge would carry two main tracks at height of almost 150 above the creek. Down below on the Port Road, the new bridge would feature 3 riveted deck plate girder spans carrying the two main tracks at a height of 55’ above the 1905 water line.

Construction progresses as contractor H. S. Kerbaugh begins the southern approach viaducts. Once the steel erection is complete workers could begin working below on the Port Road bridge. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

Construction progresses as contractor H. S. Kerbaugh begins the southern approach viaducts. Once the steel erection is complete workers could begin working below on the Port Road bridge. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

The steel work for the bridge was fabricated in Steelton by PRR owned subsidiary Pennsylvania Steel and was erected by contractor H.S. Kerbaugh Inc. who had been one of two key contractors during the A&S project. The construction of the masonry piers and retaining walls was unique in that the upper and lower spans shared a monolithic L shaped pier on either side of the river. The piers for the main A&S span went up as the falsework was constructed to support the new 300’ Pratt deck truss, once this was completed, assembly of the approach viaducts proceeded, the northern first then the southern approach. When the majority of the high level erection was completed, contractors could commence work on the lower level Port Road bridge. By July of 1906, trains were running on the A&S and the Port Road, which had suffered from months of closure and restriction due to the construction, would finally resume normal operations later that year in August.

Modern view of the Safe harbor Hydro-electric power plant during an approaching storm.

Modern view of the Safe harbor Hydro-electric power plant during an approaching storm.

In 1930 construction would commence to build the northern most of three Depression Era hydroelectric dams along the Susquehanna River at Safe Harbor. Erected just above the confluence of the Conestoga River the first turbine went online in December of 1931 and by 1940 a total of seven were in operation. Two of these turbines were dedicated to generating the 25 Hz single-phase power required to feed the Pennsylvania Railroad’s newly electrified railroad. By 1938, the final phases of the electrification were complete and included the A&S, Port Road, Columbia Branch and Main Line west to Harrisburg. With the eastern main line and freight network complete, power from Safe Harbor began supplying the PRR grid, with tethers of high voltage transmission lines mounted above the tracks, feeding various substations along the PRR’s electrified territory. The railroad understood the value of the Public Works project and the advantage of a renewable energy source. Today Safe Harbor operates 12 turbine generator units and continues to supply the Northeast passenger rail network today.

View from the Port Road looking to the South. There is a passing siding here that ends just to the north of the Conestoga Bridge, giving the appearance of double track. Most of the Port Road south is single track with passing sidings. The A&S Bridge stands silent today, with no rail activity since 1988.

View from the Port Road looking to the South. There is a passing siding here that ends just to the north of the Conestoga Bridge, giving the appearance of double track. Most of the Port Road south is single track with passing sidings. The A&S Bridge stands silent today, with no rail activity since 1988.

Turkey Hill

View of Turkey Hill from the north, near Creswell Station, PA.  Turkey Hill, a prominent feature in the local geography along the Susquehanna River became a household name as a result of a resourceful dairy farmer during the Great Depression. Situated on the east side of the Susquehanna River in Manor Township, the hill rises roughly 500 feet above the valley floor. Both the Columbia & Port Deposit and Atglen & Susquehanna routes of the Pennsylvania Railroad make there way around the western face as they move east toward Conestoga Creek at Safe Harbor.

View of Turkey Hill from the north, near Creswell Station, PA. Turkey Hill, a prominent feature in the local geography along the Susquehanna River became a household name as a result of a resourceful dairy farmer during the Great Depression. Situated on the east side of the Susquehanna River in Manor Township, the hill rises roughly 500 feet above the valley floor. Both the Columbia & Port Deposit and Atglen & Susquehanna routes of the Pennsylvania Railroad make there way around the western face as they move east toward Conestoga Creek at Safe Harbor.

Detail of a 1912 USGS topographical map of the McCalls Ferry Quadrangle. Notice the distinct notch that Turkey Hill creates off the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River. Collection of  Mytopo.com

Detail of a 1912 USGS topographical map of the McCalls Ferry Quadrangle. Notice the distinct notch that Turkey Hill creates off the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River. Collection of Mytopo.com

The name of the family owned Turkey Hill based dairy business dates back several generations to Armor Frey during the Great Depression. Starting as a small supplement to make ends meet, Frey built his dairy route into a profitable company, with his sons taking over in 1947. It wasn’t until the 1980's however that the name Turkey Hill made it into most of our lives when the Frey family made a considerable investment in growing their ice cream production. By 1981 independent markets in the Philadelphia area picked up the product line and soon after Turkey Hill would be one of America’s best-known dairies.

The former A&S right of way climbing toward Turkey Hill is one of two lines that round the point at different elevations. The Columbia and Port Deposit is at a lower elevation to the right, along the Susquehanna’s east bank. Note the wind turbine in the distance, the absence of the fan blade is due to the longer exposure while the turbine was in motion.

The former A&S right of way climbing toward Turkey Hill is one of two lines that round the point at different elevations. The Columbia and Port Deposit is at a lower elevation to the right, along the Susquehanna’s east bank. Note the wind turbine in the distance, the absence of the fan blade is due to the longer exposure while the turbine was in motion.

The forward thinking company installed two wind turbines on Turkey Hill in 2010 to provide up to 7.2 kWh or 25% of their facility’s power demands. The towers stand at 262 feet and are the tallest structures in Lancaster County. Ironically the same bluff that Armor Frey allegedly watched the sunrise from everyday before going to work is part of Lancaster County’s Frey Farm Landfill site, a massive facility that handles Lancaster County’s waste that cannot be converted to energy or recycled. While the facility is considerable in size, they have taken great measure to preserve the environmental integrity of the areas rich with wildlife and ornithological diversity. Currently Lancaster County is developing a walk in park and hiking trails to enjoy the breathtaking view from atop of Turkey Hill. Though I have yet to explore this particular location, you can be certain that I will report back with images from this prominent scenic viewpoint!

Creswell Station

Plate drawing circa 1963 of Port and Cres interlocking, controlled by the operator in Cola tower, which was in Columbia. Interlocking plate collection of       The Broad Way    .

Plate drawing circa 1963 of Port and Cres interlocking, controlled by the operator in Cola tower, which was in Columbia. Interlocking plate collection of The Broad Way.

Just five miles south of Columbia we come to a small village named Creswell Station, the location where the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch diverges from the Columbia & Port Deposit.  By far the longest stretch of new trackage built during the Low Grade project the diverging A&S alignment runs roughly 33 miles from Creswell across Lancaster County to the main line connection in Parkesburg. South from this junction (railroad east) the C&PD and A&S ran parallel along the Susquehanna as far south as Shenks Ferry with the A&S climbing a gentle .3% grade accumulating a significant difference in elevation between the two routes.

Wide view of Port Interlocking and the Susquehanna River. Note the grade separation with the A&S branch beginning the gentle climb over the Port Road .

Wide view of Port Interlocking and the Susquehanna River. Note the grade separation with the A&S branch beginning the gentle climb over the Port Road .

Originally controlled locally by an interlocking tower, two remote control points know as Port and Cres were implemented during the 1938 electrification project, controlling a single jump-over arrangement allowing the two lines to intersect with out fouling the opposing main track. Controlled by the operator in Cola tower, this was one of several remote controlled interlocking points along the A&S and C&PD. Port controlled the east and west connections between the A&S and Port Road and was the boundary between the Chesapeake and Philadelphia Divisions. Cres controlled the convergence of the two main tracks to one on the eastern limit of the interlocking on the Port Road. The C&PD to the south/ east of here was all single track with passing and sidings.

A&S jump-over bridge looking east at Port/ Cres interlocking. The track below is the westward main track of the Columbia and Port Deposit branch. Around the bend below is Cres, where this track meets with the eastward main and narrows to one track. Note the transmission poles that are still used to support Amtrak’s feeder line from Safe Harbor to Royalton preserving for now some of the visual characteristics of the original PRR infrastructure.

A&S jump-over bridge looking east at Port/ Cres interlocking. The track below is the westward main track of the Columbia and Port Deposit branch. Around the bend below is Cres, where this track meets with the eastward main and narrows to one track. Note the transmission poles that are still used to support Amtrak’s feeder line from Safe Harbor to Royalton preserving for now some of the visual characteristics of the original PRR infrastructure.

Creswell Station served as a strategic junction until Conrail abandoned the A&S branch in favor of the Reading Main Line in December of 1988. The A&S languished for many years, rusting away until the property was turned over to the local municipalities to create a network of rail trails for the general public. Though the segment from Creswell to Shenks Ferry has yet to be converted, planning has begun to transform this former right of way into a linear park along the beautiful Susquehanna River.

Atglen and Susquehanna Branch

Highlights of upcoming posts on the PRR’s A&S branch which completed the Low Grade network between Morrisville and Enola. Historical Images included in grid from the (Top row, middle, center row middle) Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA; The Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC (center row, right) and Moores Memorial Library, Christiana, PA (bottom row, left).

Highlights of upcoming posts on the PRR’s A&S branch which completed the Low Grade network between Morrisville and Enola. Historical Images included in grid from the (Top row, middle, center row middle) Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA; The Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC (center row, right) and Moores Memorial Library, Christiana, PA (bottom row, left).

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 main line. 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 main line 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 Main Line 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.

Map highlighting the A&S Branch from Safe Harbor to Parkesburg.

Map highlighting the A&S Branch from Safe Harbor to Parkesburg.

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!

Columbia, Pennsylvania: 20th Century and the PRR Improvements Project

The area of Columbia along Front Street is host to Cola Interlocking. In this view looking east from the Chestnut Street bridge you can view the eastern limits of expansive interlocking which provides access to the original Philadelphia and Columbia Branch to Lancaster (diverging left) with the original Columbia and Port Deposit (Main Line to the right). To the west the PRR would become known as the York Haven line or Enola Branch. Note the 1877 PRR station, which survives along North Second Street.

The area of Columbia along Front Street is host to Cola Interlocking. In this view looking east from the Chestnut Street bridge you can view the eastern limits of expansive interlocking which provides access to the original Philadelphia and Columbia Branch to Lancaster (diverging left) with the original Columbia and Port Deposit (Main Line to the right). To the west the PRR would become known as the York Haven line or Enola Branch. Note the 1877 PRR station, which survives along North Second Street.

By the late 1800’s the Pennsylvania Railroad had developed into a well-heeled transportation system but the rapid growth of industry would necessitate system wide improvements to bring the railroad into the 20th century. In 1902 PRR President Alexander J. Cassatt and Chief Engineer William H. Brown would embark on a series of projects to eliminate bottlenecks and operational problems across the system. 

After the PRR acquired control of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway through the purchase of the Main Line of Public Works in 1857, various segments were improved during the second half of the 19th century. The route between Philadelphia and Lancaster became an integral part of the PRR Main Line connecting with the former Harrisburg & Lancaster creating the line we know today as Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor. The western end of the P&C would become a branch connecting the industrial and agricultural areas of Lancaster and Columbia. Due to the stiff grades both segments were less than ideal for heavy freight traffic. In addition to the P&C property accessing Columbia, the PRR had also gained controlled of the Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad’s Columbia branch via Royalton and the Columbia & Port Deposit by the mid to late 1800's, further establishing Columbia as an important railroad hub. Though much of these water level alignments provided a network to move freight to Harrisburg, Cassatt sought to build a new route east from Columbia running across Lancaster County to create a modern freight bypass from New York and Philadelphia to the Harrisburg area and the main line west.

Plate drawing circa1963 Cola Interlocking which controlled the junction of the York Haven line, Columbia branch and Columbia and Port Deposit as well as access to the local freight yard. This interlocking was part of a Centralized Traffic Control system that controlled a much larger district of trackage and interlockings. Collection of    The Broad Way   .

Plate drawing circa1963 Cola Interlocking which controlled the junction of the York Haven line, Columbia branch and Columbia and Port Deposit as well as access to the local freight yard. This interlocking was part of a Centralized Traffic Control system that controlled a much larger district of trackage and interlockings. Collection of The Broad Way.

The Low Grade as it was planned would run right through Columbia using the current alignment. From the east and west new construction would connect existing segments of the H&L and C&PD creating an improved main line designed to move freight on a new grade separated line. This new route would divert most freight traffic off the main line all together between Parkesburg and Harrisburg. Enola yard was completed in 1906 as part of the low grade project functioning as the western anchor for all freight trains and motive power between the Philadelphia and Middle Divisions. As a result Columbia importance as a major terminal would diminish due to its close proximity to the new facility, resulting in a significant loss of jobs in the area. Compounded by the diminishing local industry, a result of depleted ore and lumber resources, Columbia’s economy would begin a downward trend that continued through the Great Depression.

Cola tower was built in 1938 during the electrification to centralize traffic control on this freight network. Its jurisdiction reached forty miles to the east on the Port Road including the connection to the A&S branch while also controlling tracks to Shocks Mill and Lancaster via the Columbia branch.

Cola tower was built in 1938 during the electrification to centralize traffic control on this freight network. Its jurisdiction reached forty miles to the east on the Port Road including the connection to the A&S branch while also controlling tracks to Shocks Mill and Lancaster via the Columbia branch.

More change came on the PRR with the electrification of their network of rail lines in the Northeast.  One of the last segments of the ambitious project was completed in 1938 affording the PRR the benefit of electric traction on the Low Grade, Columbia branch and Columbia & Port Deposit. During the electrification project, the PRR also consolidated many of the early towers with two modern CTC facilities controlling most of this freight network. Cola tower in Columbia controlled all trains on the Columbia Branch to Lancaster, roughly forty miles of the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch including the junction with the A&S Branch at Port and the York Haven Line west to Shocks Mill. Cola’s jurisdiction over the C&PD was unique in that most of the line was actually under control of the Baltimore Dispatcher and was considered part of the Chesapeake Division, while Cola was part of the Philadelphia Division.

View looking west from the Columbia Branch near the Mill Street crossing. This is the original Philadelphia & Columbia alignment and is operated by NS to access Lancaster area industries and Dillerville Yard, the center of freight operations in the area. Note the steep descent of the branch, compared to the Low Grade visible to the left, which utilized heavier catenary supports on account of it supporting high voltage transmission lines to Royalton. In typical PRR fashion the Columbia branch was maintained to high standards including the use of catenary to provide a relief route in the event there was wreck on neighboring lines.

View looking west from the Columbia Branch near the Mill Street crossing. This is the original Philadelphia & Columbia alignment and is operated by NS to access Lancaster area industries and Dillerville Yard, the center of freight operations in the area. Note the steep descent of the branch, compared to the Low Grade visible to the left, which utilized heavier catenary supports on account of it supporting high voltage transmission lines to Royalton. In typical PRR fashion the Columbia branch was maintained to high standards including the use of catenary to provide a relief route in the event there was wreck on neighboring lines.

The Low Grade and electrification would survive the Penn Central debacle but ultimately met its demise after the creation of Conrail. Due to the high cost of electric supply charges, the aging infrastructure and the dependency on Amtrak to move trains east of Parkesburg it was decided to abandon an integral part of the system in favor of the neighboring Reading Railroad Main Line ending over 80 years of service on perhaps one of Cassatt and Brown’s greatest achievements. The Columbia and Port Deposit survives as Norfolk Southern’s artery to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Port of Baltimore. The former P&C to Lancaster provides NS a dedicated connection to Dillerville yard servicing the industrial areas around the seat of Lancaster County. Though not what used to be Columbia still sees a parade of freight daily, though mostly nocturnal, moving freight as Cassatt had envisioned over a century ago.

Mainline Tour: Philadelphia Division Overview

Leaving the City of Harrisburg behind we will begin to explore the various lines radiating east. On the Philadelphia Division trains traverse routes purchased under PRR President, J. Edgar Thompson in an effort to gain access to Philadelphia. Later these routes would be improved upon or supplemented during President Alexander J. Cassatt’s series of system wide improvements which focused on reducing operational problems associated with the older alignments and increasing capacity

Images of upcoming posts exploring the former Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This series will include coverage on both the Mainline, Northern Central, Atglen & Susquehanna, Columbia and Port Deposit and Columbia Branch.

Images of upcoming posts exploring the former Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This series will include coverage on both the Mainline, Northern Central, Atglen & Susquehanna, Columbia and Port Deposit and Columbia Branch.

Understanding this network requires a look back to the early 1800’s during the building of canals as a key national transportation network. Pennsylvania followed suit with construction of the State Mainline of Public Works in 1826which was completed in 1834. The system would utilize a series of canals, inclined planes and railroads to move people and freight across the expansive countryside from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. While some considered the network an engineering marvel the seasonal and logistic limitations quickly proved impractical. In time the Mainline of Public Works would begin to struggle financially. Furthermore the State granted a charter to the Pennsylvania Railroad for construction of a private rail line connecting Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in 1846 which would be in direct competition to the Public Works network. While many protested the new technology, the PRR ultimately won building their right of way in many cases parallel to the canal alignments. Shortly after completion of this line, PRR president J. Edgar Thompson secured access east of Harrisburg via control of the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt. Joy and Lancaster Railroad (H&L) in 1849 providing  a connection to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway (P&C) in both Lancaster and Columbia.With this connection to the State operated P&C, the only all rail network between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would be created. With limited funding however, the P&C quickly became the operational lynchpin to quality rail service due to primitive trackage and poor right of way construction. By 1857 the PRR successfully purchased all remaining properties associated with the Public Works system, abandoning most of the canal and inclined plane operations but allowing the PRR to rebuild the P&C to suit the needs of the expanding railroad.

Detail of Pennsylvania Railroad system map circa 1855 listing connecting service with the Harrisburg & Lancaster RR, Columbia & Harrisburg RR and Columbia Railroad (actually the Philadelphia & Columbia) all which eventually would be taken over by the PRR. (Library of Congress Collection)

Detail of Pennsylvania Railroad system map circa 1855 listing connecting service with the Harrisburg & Lancaster RR, Columbia & Harrisburg RR and Columbia Railroad (actually the Philadelphia & Columbia) all which eventually would be taken over by the PRR. (Library of Congress Collection)

Around the same time the PRR would acquire access to Baltimore via control of the Northern Central in 1861 establishing connections to the mainline in Harrisburg and the former P&C and H&L near Columbia.  This line also provided connections to the Anthracite fields in Shamokin, Lake Ontario access via the Elmira Branch and a mainline to Buffalo, New York providing connections with Canadian Railways. During the system improvements of President A. J. Cassatt between 1899-1906 the Northern Central would also become the western anchor of a new freight only low-grade from New York and Philadelphia.  Built to separate heavy freight traffic from the current mainline with its winding curves and undulating grades of the original P&C and H&L, Cassatt and Chief Engineer, William H. Brown surveyed a line connecting with the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad (C&PD) near Safe Harbor on the Susquehanna River. The C&PD would become the link between Cassatt’s new low-grade, the industrial center Columbia and the Northern Central via a new bridge over the Susquehanna at Shocks Mills, providing access to existing lines to gain access to Harrisburg.  Subsequently the C&PD would also become the route of choice for moving freight to Baltimore via connection to the mainline at Perryville due to the water level alignment and lack of grades making the older NC route the default passenger line.

Detail of an 1863 system map shows the integration of the lines purchased under J. Edgar Thompson including the Northern Central which comes from the bottom center heading directly toward Hanover Junction. (Rutgers University Collection)

Detail of an 1863 system map shows the integration of the lines purchased under J. Edgar Thompson including the Northern Central which comes from the bottom center heading directly toward Hanover Junction. (Rutgers University Collection)

Known as the Atglen and Susquehanna the new line climbed the Susquehanna River valley slowly veering east to cut across the rolling countryside of Lancaster County.  Void of road crossings, major industry, challenging gradients or curves, the line came parallel to the mainline in a hamlet known as Atglen. Junction with the mainline was in neighboring Parkesburg via a fly-over arrangement insuring no delays to both freight and passenger traffic. Continuing east the mainline hosted combined freight and passenger traffic on four track mainline for nine miles to Thorndale where freight once again left on a low-grade line known as the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch.

Detail of a 1911 system map showing the completion of Cassatt's low-grade network by way of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch (lower center to lower right) between Cresswell and Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. (Rutgers University Collection)

Detail of a 1911 system map showing the completion of Cassatt's low-grade network by way of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch (lower center to lower right) between Cresswell and Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. (Rutgers University Collection)

Though large parts of this network have been abandoned the mainline still serves Amtrak’s successful Keystone Service while many of the lines along the Susquehanna River still connect the Norfolk Southern network to York and Baltimore via the old NC and C&PD. This segment of the mainline tour will explore the various routes the PRR used to move traffic between the Harrisburg and Philadelphia Terminals, utilizing imagery, maps and text to explain operations specific to each route.

Coatesville

View from the remaining canopy looking East toward Philadelphia at the Coatesville Train station, September 2010.

View from the remaining canopy looking East toward Philadelphia at the Coatesville Train station, September 2010.

Further West of the Junction of the Mainline and Philadelphia and Trenton Branch in Thorndale and East of the Junction of the Atglen and Susquehanna Branch, the Freight bypass to Enola Yard in Harrisburg, lays an Industrial town called Coatesville. Situated in the Brandywine Creek Valley, Coatesville, plays host to the former Lukens Steel Mill Complex, a "mini mill" facility that produces high quality plate and slab steel. While the mill is still active the town is very reminiscent of areas like Johnstown and Bethlehem, some neighborhoods in need of much attention. The station house, located at Third and Fleetwood Streets, is currently shuttered and vacant. The historic structure dates back from 1865, according to the City and has served a long career for the PRR and its predecessors. Currently, one or two sections of the Eastbound canopy still stand, and the Westbound Platform has a lone and battered bus shelter for passengers. While not all buildings have the opportunity to be saved or restored, this Station would certainly be a great candidate and much needed anchor for the surrounding neighborhood.