Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Sadsbury | Six Miles of Fill

A temporary wooden trestle supports two diminutive 3-foot gauge steam locomotives and their hopper cars, used to haul fill material from land holdings along Zion Hill to the   six   mile   fill Charles A. Sims & Company constructed for the easternmost segment of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch  .

A temporary wooden trestle supports two diminutive 3-foot gauge steam locomotives and their hopper cars, used to haul fill material from land holdings along Zion Hill to the six mile fill Charles A. Sims & Company constructed for the easternmost segment of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch.

Concurrent to the improvements on the main line at North Bend railroad contractor, Charles A. Sims & Company of Philadelphia was awarded the contract to complete the grading and masonry work for the easternmost segment of the Atglen & Susquehanna project in 1903. Sim's crews began the monumental task of building the new right of way in Sadsbury Township between Atglen (A&S milepost 3.3) west to Milepost 9, just beyond Lamparter Road, a total of almost six miles. Diverging from the shared right of way of the PRR Main Line that ran alongside the ridge of the North Valley Hills, the new line required a massive earthen fill to maintain the gentle grade as it veered southwest into the rolling countryside of Southern Lancaster County, making the ascent to Mars Hill Summit. 

Workers pose in front of the masonry work of the 60' arch spanning Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octoraro Creek. While it appears that much of the stonework is complete, the task of backfilling the span and wing walls is yet to be completed as construction progresses west toward Mars Hill Summit. 

Workers pose in front of the masonry work of the 60' arch spanning Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octoraro Creek. While it appears that much of the stonework is complete, the task of backfilling the span and wing walls is yet to be completed as construction progresses west toward Mars Hill Summit. 

Material excavated from various improvement projects had been stockpiled on landholdings in the vicinity of Zion Hill. A six-mile narrow-gauge railroad was constructed to transport the fill material from these deposits, crossing over the mainline on a wooden trestle and on to the new right-of-way via temporary trackage. The usual assortment of manpower, steam shovels and a copious amount of dynamite were then employed to generate additional material needed to construct the new right of way. Part of this six-mile segment involved building the first bridge from the east; a large 60' single-arch masonry structure that spanned the historic Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octoraro Creek. The stone arch and wing walls were erected and then backfilled with material hauled in by Sim's narrow gauge railroad, a process repeated countless times as the line reached further west into Lancaster County. 

While Sim's length of the A&S and the rest of the branch has found a renewed purpose as a recreational resource since abandonment in the Conrail era, the arch at Noble Road remains a symbolic portal, marking the crossing from Chester to Lancaster County. More importantly, it is a reminder of the stark contrast between the A&S and the role it played in our national railway network and the quiet life on the farm, typical of Southern Lancaster County. 

Changes at North Bend

Some time ago we left off on the Main Line tour in Christiana, Pennsylvania, crossing from Lancaster to Chester County, traversing the North Bend Cut along Zion Hill. What seems today like another unremarked view from the Main Line, the area around North Bend was a place essential to operations on one of the busiest transportation networks in the country. In the Brown era of the late 19th Century - early 20th Century, North Bend saw the realignment and expansion of the mainline, construction of the Atglen & Susquehanna Low Grade, the installation of the Atglen water pans, and later in 1938 the final phase of electrification. The endless parade of traffic during World War II was followed by a long, slow decline of the PRR system, visualized by the rationalization of the physical plant and facilities that continued well into the Penn Central, Amtrak and Conrail eras. The photographs here depict over 100 years of change on the ever-evolving railroad landscape.  

With Christiana in view, the distant signal to NI interlocking at Atglen stands prominently in this view looking west in the North Bend Cut around the turn of the century. Moores Memorial Library, Christiana, PA

With Christiana in view, the distant signal to NI interlocking at Atglen stands prominently in this view looking west in the North Bend Cut around the turn of the century. Moores Memorial Library, Christiana, PA

Charles Sims & Co, the contractor, tasked to construct the first seven miles of the A&S Branch erected this narrow-gauge railroad between an area near Zion Hill and the new Low Grade. The temporary line hauled material stored on local land holdings to the new elevated right of way, which required massive amounts of fill to maintain a gentle grade across the undulating landscape of Southern Lancaster County. Moores Memorial Library, Christiana, PA.

Charles Sims & Co, the contractor, tasked to construct the first seven miles of the A&S Branch erected this narrow-gauge railroad between an area near Zion Hill and the new Low Grade. The temporary line hauled material stored on local land holdings to the new elevated right of way, which required massive amounts of fill to maintain a gentle grade across the undulating landscape of Southern Lancaster County. Moores Memorial Library, Christiana, PA.

This 1962 view of an eastbound passenger train winding through the curve at North Bend shows evidence of the PRR's rationing of excess capacity with the removal of two of the four main tracks. While the era of steam has long since passed, a coal-fired boiler house remains, off to the right, once part of the extensive Atgen track pan system that allowed steam trains to take water at speed on both the Main Line and Atglen & Susquehanna Branch (visible behind the structure). James P. Shuman photograph, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC. 

This 1962 view of an eastbound passenger train winding through the curve at North Bend shows evidence of the PRR's rationing of excess capacity with the removal of two of the four main tracks. While the era of steam has long since passed, a coal-fired boiler house remains, off to the right, once part of the extensive Atgen track pan system that allowed steam trains to take water at speed on both the Main Line and Atglen & Susquehanna Branch (visible behind the structure). James P. Shuman photograph, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC. 

In this westward view of the North Bend Cut, near the vicinity of Shuman's image, we see two tracks remain, now under the guise of the Commonwealth funded Keystone Corridor, operated by Amtrak. The contemporary railroad landscape without the context of historical images can still present a beautiful study in light and shadow, in this modern view. 

In this westward view of the North Bend Cut, near the vicinity of Shuman's image, we see two tracks remain, now under the guise of the Commonwealth funded Keystone Corridor, operated by Amtrak. The contemporary railroad landscape without the context of historical images can still present a beautiful study in light and shadow, in this modern view. 

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!