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!
Photographs & History
In a strip of land between the former Harrisburg and Lancaster Railroad's Columbia branch and the Susquehanna River in modern day Royalton, Pennsylvania lays one of the few remaining clues of another transportation empire that succumbed to the practicality of the railroads. The State owned Mainline of Public Works was completed in 1834 creating a multimodal transportation network to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in direct competition with the Erie Canal. Consisting of over 273 miles of canal and 120 miles of railroad, the system utilized various modes of transport based on geographic necessity. The Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad connected its namesake towns to the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The Eastern Division ran 43 miles north from Columbia along the east bank of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster and Dauphin Counties. The canal made a northern connection to the Juniata Division Canal at Duncan’s Island and intermediate connections to Harrisburg and the Union Canal in Middletown. The Juniata Division paralelled the Juniata River making connection with the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Hollidaysburg where canal boats were then transported by rail over a series of inclined planes to cross the Allegheny ridge at a summit of 2322 feet above sea level. West of the Allegheny summit the Portage Road made connection to the Western Division Canal in the City of Johnstown following the path of the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers westward to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River.
The dangerous and slow inclined planes of the Portage Road along with the canals would prove to be the downfall of the Public Works system limited by capacity and the seasonal nature of operations. The vast and diverse infrastructure needed constant work, many cases in remote areas making the system costly to maintain. By the 1840’s some investors began to look to the railroad as a better transportation solution and in 1846 the charter to build the Pennsylvania Railroad, a privately owned rail route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh would challenge the Public Works System running almost exactly the same route. While the benefit of rail transportation over the Public Works was quickly realized subsequent expansion east to Philadelphia in 1854 would create the first all rail route across the state, dealing the final blow to the canals and Portage Railroad. The PRR eventually purchased most of the bankrupt Public Works system from the state to improve their mainline, often offering favorable routes alongside of towns rather than the early street running alignments of the original 1846 railroad.
Straddling the towns of Middletown and Royalton in Dauphin County, Royalton interlocking was a strategic point where most freight and passenger traffic separated for the trip east to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Approximately 10 miles east from State Interlocking the mainline and Columbia branch (today Norfolk Southern's Royalton branch) ran along side each other with the freight operating on tracks furthest to the north. The Columbia branch, which drops south along the Susquehanna diverted freight trains away from the main at Royalton requiring traffic to cross into the path of the busy passenger main. To avoid this potential traffic disruption the PRR applied a proven technique of building a fly-over to allow all tracks/trains to gain proper position without the need to physically cross or intersect the other route.
Prior to the late 1950's Royalton interlocking was controlled by a two story frame tower that sat on the eastern side of the tracks (railroad was oriented north - south here). The early interlocking plant was of an older design using a mechanical armstrong complex to control the switches and signals between the mainline and Columbia branch. The Columbia branch served as a back road connection from the mainline and freight yards in Harrisburg to the low-grade route via Shocks Mill allowing freight from all directions to bypass congestion in Enola when necessary. In the late 1950’s Royalton interlocking was made a remote facility named Roy with control given to the operator at State Tower in Harrisburg. Evidence of this project survives in the form of a single story relay house that rests on the foundation of the former tower. As part of Amtrak’s Keystone Line rehab, Roy was rebuilt once again providing Amtrak with a set of crossovers for operational flexibility (the line is now governed by Rule 261-allowing bi-directional traffic flow) while maintaining the connection to the Royalton branch.
Special thanks to Mr. Don Rittler, who's input on operations at Royalton provided some insight on this relatively obscure facility on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Don worked as a tower operator for the PRR and its successors in the Harrisburg region from 1937-1979.
Chickies Rock is a unique geological feature along the Susquehanna River known as an anticline, an arch of exposed rock arranged in layers that bend in opposite directions from its peak. Chickies is classified as the largest example of its kind on the East Coast. This particular location also played a significant role during the Civil War. As a highpoint along the Susquehanna River, the bluff was a strategic location for the Union Army during the Confederate’s occupation of Wrightsville across from Columbia during the Gettysburg Campaign. Later the Columbia and Donnegal Electric Railway would build a trolley line north from Columbia to the peak of the Rocks where it also constructed an amusement park. The line scaled 1900 feet up the west side of Chickies Hill Road on a 6% grade abruptly turning toward the peak to access the park. Opening in 1893 the line later extended down to Marietta providing both towns access to the popular recreation area. The trolley line and park continued to operate until its abandonment in April of 1932.
Looking to the north from Chickies Rock one can see the PRR York Haven line, the former alignment of the Columbia branch and the town of Marietta. The rail lines converge at the base of the rocks to squeeze south (railroad east) on a narrow flat along side the Susquehanna River. It was at this location during the construction of the low-grade that the PRR decided it would build the York Haven line out on a fill to avoid the curving profile of the older alignment between here and Columbia. As a result Kerbaugh Lake, named after one of the biggest contractors on the low-grade project was created. Though referred to as a lake the area was really a low laying swamp with poor drainage that separated the two alignments. In 1936 the flood prone Susquehanna rose to levels that consumed the new fill destroying the vital low-grade, flooding Kerbaugh Lake and the Columbia branch along the shore. The devastation required months to rebuild the York Haven line and forced the decision to abandon the older Columbia branch alignment. During this period the PRR also filled in Kerbaugh Lake and improved drainage in the area by installing several culverts between the lake and Susquehanna under the right of way. Today most of this area is part of the Chickies Rock Park operated by the Lancaster County Parks Department and provides some beautiful views along various trails following the former Columbia branch between Marietta and old Kerbaugh Lake in addition to park high above on Chickies Rock itself.
Continuing East on the York Haven line from Shocks Mill Bridge, we encounter more history on the fabled low-grade project of Alexander Cassatt. The east bank of the Susquehanna River was host to two major modes of transportation by the mid 1800’s, the Public Works Canal and the Columbia Branch of the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy and Lancaster Railroad. By the time plans came for the new low-grade the canals had been largely abandoned for some time, however the Columbia Branch became a vital link to the original Philadelphia and Columbia as well as the Columbia & Port Deposit Railroad providing connections to the mainline via Royalton. While designing the new low-grade the Columbia branch was the choice line to connect the Northern Central via the new Shocks Mills bridge, the old alignment would require revisions to fit the requirements of the new line. By the turn of the century Cassatt’s low-grade project would bring big changes to the local railroad scene. With the consolidation and construction of the new freight network many of the older track alignments were abandoned in favor of a separate right of way to avoid pedestrian and street traffic. Common to many locations on the PRR, these abandoned segments were either sold off or utilized as stub end tracks to serve industries still active near the town centers.
In the village of Rowenna, just east of the Shocks Mill Bridge, a segment of the old Harrisburg and Lancaster drops off the embankment where the Royalton - Columbia branch and the York Haven line meet at an interlocking simply known as Shocks. This spur continued parallel to the mainline for several miles accessing agricultural industries and a military transfer depot constructed during World War II. Sill in service today, this branch serves the former Military installation, now an industrial park as well as a feed trans-load facility off Vinegar Ferry Road.
Just a few miles further east we enter the Borough of Marietta. Established in 1812, Marietta once boasted many river, rail and canal dependent industries. On the south end of town remnants of the old Columbia Branch surface in an isolated area bound by Chiques Creek and Furnace Road. This area, which the creek and a local iron furnace are named after (albeit different spellings) derives from the Native American word Chiquesalunga, or crayfish. In different eras it has been spelled Chickies, Chikis and Chiques but all refer to this common meaning. The Chickies Furnace #1 opened in 1845 with production thriving until the late 1890’s closing due to better, more efficient facilities, most likely in nearby Steelton.
Among the foundations and rubble that remains of the former Chickies Furnace #1, the Columbia branch can be found along the old canal bed. You can spot telltale signs of PRR construction methods, the most immediate is the use of the ubiquitous 3 pipe railings on a bridge over a sluice between the canal and creek. Piers also remain from a deck bridge that carried the branch over the creek prior to the 1936 flood while the former roadbed of cinder ballast provides reference of where the line entered the area from the west. Just down stream on Chiques Creek, the York Haven line crosses the outlet to the Susquehanna on a W. H. Brown trademark 3 arch stone bridge well above high water. The history of when the Columbia branch was abandoned ties into not only the construction of the low-grade but also the great flood of 1936, subject of next week’s post!
Perhaps the bane of Chief Engineer William H. Brown's existence, the Shocks Mill Bridge is of significant note among the countless stone arch bridges, overpasses and culverts constructed on the PRR during his tenure. Opened in 1903 the Shocks Mills bridge was a part of the low-grade freight only line being constructed to connect Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Situated roughly 8 miles railroad west of Columbia the strategic bridge and accompanying line linked the Northern Central in Wago with existing lines in Columbia and ultimately the new Atglen and Susquehanna further down river. The 28 arch stone bridge was over 2200 feet long spanning the Susquehanna River with trains riding approximately 60 feet above low water. A smaller sister to the beautiful Rockville Bridge further upstream, initial construction cost the PRR $1 million dollars to build the bridge and long fill on the eastern approach. However problems with the bridge developed when piers began to settling in 1904 resulting in more money and time spent to reinforce the compromised areas of the span. After this additional work the bridge endured decades of heavy use and the additional of catenary during the later electrification phase of freight lines in 1937-38.
In June of 1972, Hurricane Agnes would batter the East Coast causing record floods throughout the area resulting in over 3 billion dollars in damage and causing over 128 fatalities. Cash starved Penn Central was hit hard having multiple washouts throughout the system but one of more significant would be the loss at Shocks Mill. On July 2nd, 1972 a train crew noticed problems with the center piers of the bridge as flood waters raged below during one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Soon after, six piers toward the center of the stone bridge would collapse rendering the low-grade line useless until the damage could be assessed and rebuilding could take place. Becuase the PC was under bankruptcy protection court permission was sought to rebuild the vital link. Started late in the third quarter of 1972 the new construction was completed by August of 1973 utilizing nine new concrete piers supporting deck girder spans to bridge the void. Until settling compromised a pier on the Rockville bridge in 1997 this would be the only major failure on record of the proven and sturdy construction methods Brown used during his 25 year tenure as Chief Engineer.
During the construction of the low-grade, surveyors encountered several obstacles in the form of creeks and rivers. At approximately milepost 47 on the York Haven Line, Chief Engineer, William H. Brown handled Codorus Creek like many others around the system utilizing the standard cut stone masonry arch bridge, this one consisting of five arches. The Codorus bridge curves to the east on a high fill as the mainline climbs toward the Shocks Mill Bridge over the Susquehanna River, less than a mile to the east.
Leaving the greater Harrisburg / Enola area from the west bank of the Susquehanna, the PRR's York Haven Line drops down river toward Columbia, PA. This line was a key component of PRR president Alexander J. Cassatt’s plan to build a low-grade freight bypass diverting traffic off the mainline from the Philadelphia area. Existing lines and new construction in the early 1900’s provided access to Baltimore by way of both the Northern Central via York and the Columbia and Port Deposit Branch via mainline connection at Perryville, Philadelphia via the new Atglen & Susquehanna and Lancaster via the original Philadelphia & Columbia. Running a distance of 15 miles east from Enola Yard along the former Northern Central alignment, this “branch” was actually one of the busiest electrified freight arteries in the east. Alongside the Susquehanna River in the town of Cly, the railroad maintained an interlocking here connecting the York Haven Line to the Northern Central. These lines would run parallel to Wago Junco where the NC drops southwest toward the city of York.
Cly tower was constructed in 1906; one of the few PRR interlockings utilizing an Armstrong plant of mechanical levers to control switches over the later US&S electro-mechanical installations. Constructed of brick the two-story tower was a contrast to neighboring installations built in the late 1930’s like Cola to the east, which controlled long stretches of line utilizing a Centralized Traffic Control installation. Though an important junction the Northern Central to York was never a preferred freight route in later days of the PRR hosting passenger trains and local freight. During the Penn Central years the route suffered heavy damage as a result of Hurricane Agnes. In a dire financial situation, Penn Central opted not to rebuild the route and Cly’s importance as an interlocking diminished resulting in the eventual closing of the tower in the early 1980’s under Conrail. Today there is little left here as Norfolk Southern works to modernize this line, the catenary poles have been cut down and position light signals replaced with modern installations. While connection is still made to the branch to York in a simplified interlocking at Wago the modern Cly is a mere curve and grade crossing at milepost 54 of the Enola Branch.
Continuing approximately 7 miles east from Steelton the mainline and Columbia branch arrive at historic Middletown, Pennsylvania. Skipping over Highspire, featured last year in the post, Industry Along The Line,Middletown, originally known as Portsmouth and was a significant place in early transportation history. Founded in 1755 and incorporated in 1828, Middletown is the oldest incorporated community in Dauphin County. Situated in a broad flat plain the Middletown- Royalton area was the eastern end of the Pennsylvania Canal System - part of the mainline of Public Works, the southern end of the Union Canal, and confluence of the Swatara Creek and Susquehanna River. Here many industries including boat building, lumber mills and iron works thrived in early years. The railroads arrived in the 1830's, served by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad via the Lebanon Railway and the Pennsylvania Railroad via the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt. Joy & Lancaster. Soon after the railroad arrived in Middletown, the region's significance as a canal hub diminished as railroads triumphed over the inferior system. Both the Reading and PRR served the area for many years to come, but the PRR had a much larger presence with the mainline cutting right through town.
Today both lines survive, and the town is served by three railroads: Amtrak, Norfolk Southern (both PRR) and the short line Middletown and Hummelston (former RDG) which serves a few remaining industries in addition to operating tourist excursions along Swatara Creek. While Amtrak and NS appear to be on a shared mainline, two tracks are actually Amtrak's Keystone Line while the southernmost track is NS's Royalton branch. Though this segment is part of a expansive interlocking starting in the Middletown area we will discuss this railroad location in greater detail when we reach Royalton.
Leaving Harrisburg station and State Interlocking both the mainline and Columbia branch follow the east bank of the Susquehanna River through the industrial town of Steelton. Incorporated in 1880 the town was host to Pennsylvania Steel, originally owned by fierce competitors the Pennsylvania Railroad and Philadelphia & Reading. Sold to Bethlehem Steel in 1915, the plant included four blast furnaces, billet mills, blooming mills and open-hearth facilities. At one time Steelton produced structural steel, rail, bar, pipe and other specialty products for the railroad industry which continues today under successor ArcelorMittal. Though the PRR and Reading served the Pennsylvania Steel facility, the Steelton & Highspire Railroad provided in plant switching through out the various facilties as well as working the interchange points with the parent roads. A majority of this activity ran right along North Front Street in the town's commercial district where at any time one could find multiple crews working.
Like many industrial towns through out the east, Steelton and neighboring Highspire are not the job and economic centers they once were, but nonetheless they survive and still depend on the remaining heavy industry and trade jobs associated with steel production. Flanked along the hillside, overlooking the mill, many one time company homes, churches and small businesses make up the culturally diverse neighborhoods of Steelton. The view of the sprawling works will forever remind the residents of how Steelton came to be and its contributions to the growth of America.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.