Photographs & History

Photographs and History

God's Country | The PRR in Eastern Lancaster County

Leaving the city of Lancaster the PRR Main Line snakes its way across the rich agricultural landscape of Pennsylvania Dutch Country in central eastern Lancaster County. 

Leaving the city of Lancaster behind, the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad snakes its way through small hamlets like Bird in Hand, Ronks, Gordonville, Leaman Place Junction and Kinzer arcing gently through the heart of central eastern Lancaster County. Known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country, this area is home to a large population of Amish and Mennonite farmers offering a unique contrast between modern living and the simple life these people traditionally live.

Plate 68: Mill Creek Bridge. Facing the southern facade of a virtually brand new bridge spanning Mill Creek, photographer William H. Rau frames the special photography train staged on the bridge. Very little has changed here with the exception of the concrete reinforcement and catenary towers as seen by the inset photo below taken in 2013. William H Rau image collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.

Plate 68: Mill Creek Bridge. Facing the southern facade of a virtually brand new bridge spanning Mill Creek, photographer William H. Rau frames the special photography train staged on the bridge. Very little has changed here with the exception of the concrete reinforcement and catenary towers as seen by the inset photo below taken in 2013. William H Rau image collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.

The Main Line, part of the original Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad was the site of several improvements including grade separation and curve realignments along the route. Often in winter while riding the south side of the train the bare trees reveal traces of abandoned alignments especially around Kinzer where an early stone arch bridge and small fill once crossed Vintage Road south of the “new” main line. Eastbound trains face a .56% ruling grade approaching the crossing of Mine Ridge on a typical stretch of right of way for the PRR; Several brick freight houses survive, all constructed in a similar style around 1860, W.H. Brown era overpasses and culverts and two notable stone masonry arch bridges that cross the Mill Creek near Smoketown and the Pequea Creek in Paradise, all under a veil of catenary from the final 1938 phase of electrification.  

At Leaman Place Junction, connection was made with the Strasburg Railroad now a well known tourist operation that was originally chartered in 1832 to connect with the P&C. Operational by 1837 utilizing horse drawn coaches on rails the Strasburg purchased a locomotive constructed by the Norris Locomotive Works named the William Penn in 1851. 

 

Typical views along this stretch of the PRR Main Line include simple frame buildings and unspoiled views of the rich agricultural landscape inhabited by the Amish and Mennonites.

Typical views along this stretch of the PRR Main Line include simple frame buildings and unspoiled views of the rich agricultural landscape inhabited by the Amish and Mennonites.

By the 20th Century the Strasburg had changed ownership several times and passenger ridership suffered from the competition of Conestoga Traction Company’s streetcar routes into the city of Lancaster. Ultimately the line was put up for abandonment in the late 1950’s when Henry K Long, an area railfan organized a non-profit to save the line.  Commencing tourist operations in 1959 the Strasburg railroad has been a cornerstone of Lancaster County’s tourism trade offering steam powered train rides through the unspoiled PA Dutch countryside. The railroad has been unique in its mission, centered not only on operations but also working to preserve the historical landscape and feel of a turn of the century railroad while running a healthy freight business and a full service shop for Strasburg and contract restorations.

The Downingtown & Lancaster Branch

On Philadelphia Division, we take a diverging path from the Main Line and Low Grade as we leave the Lancaster area to explore the former Downingtown & Lancaster Railroad, an interesting branch line operation that may have been the result of early efforts to expand the PRR soon after its charter. 

The western end of the Downingtown & Lancaster Branch joined the PRR Main Line just east of the Conestoga River bridge. This undated view of ES tower with its classic wood frame structure looks east on the main line where it collapses from four to two tracks to cross the Conestoga. Left and behind the tower you can see the diverging route of the D&L. Image is from the collection of the  Lancaster History Archive

The western end of the Downingtown & Lancaster Branch joined the PRR Main Line just east of the Conestoga River bridge. This undated view of ES tower with its classic wood frame structure looks east on the main line where it collapses from four to two tracks to cross the Conestoga. Left and behind the tower you can see the diverging route of the D&L. Image is from the collection of the Lancaster History Archive

Early History: Surviving segment of Thomson’s Poker Game? No sooner than the completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh the fledging carrier looked to expand its empire by purchasing rights, property and franchises to gain entry to new markets and expand upon their existing system. Largely driven by third president, J. Edgar Thomson, one of the largest single objectives was to gain direct access to Philadelphia. This would require control of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, an 82-mile rail route that connected Philadelphia to the canal system at the P&C’s western terminus Columbia, all of which was part of the state-owned Main Line of Public Works. Though poorly engineered and in deplorable condition due to the mounting debt of the entire operation, the route had potential if the right funding could be secured and a staff of knowledgeable railroad men could be utilized to plan and execute improvements. This however would not be the problem for Thomson; it was more so the state who demanded a hefty sum for the Main Line of Public Works in its entirety with the clause that all parts of the system be improved and remain operational.  Thompson's response? Build another railroad and marginalize the state system.  Thus attention was focused on the recently incorporated Lancaster, Lebanon & Pine Grove Railroad, a start up enterprise looking to establish a connection between the Norristown Railroad and the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad which would essentially make the need for the P&C irrelevant. Founded in 1852, Christian Spangler a prominent Philadelphia businessman was named commissioner of the new line. Spangler, also a PRR board member would soon be named president of the railroad in 1853.  In the spring of the same year survey crews worked between Lebanon and Cornwall doing just enough work to look like the Lancaster & Pine Grove would come to fruition.

Detail of the 1855 map under Chief Engineer H. P Haupt shows the proposed Lebanon, Lancaster & Pine Grove Railroad (across the upper center area of the map) which would eliminate the need to purchase the State's failing Main Line of Public Works. Though the route was never built the similarities of the line with Downingtown & Lancaster branch makes one wonder if the property had once been considered to be part of the plan had the Commonwealth and the PRR never came to terms. Map collection of the Library of Congress

Detail of a 1911 PRR system map showing the New Holland Branch, symbolic of the corporate restructuring that rolled the D&L franchise into the PRR portfolio of lines and assets. Map Collection of the author

Detail of a 1911 PRR system map showing the New Holland Branch, symbolic of the corporate restructuring that rolled the D&L franchise into the PRR portfolio of lines and assets. Map Collection of the author

In 1854, facing the reality of an investment that now accounted for almost all of the Commonwealth’s debt, fear of financial ruin motivated the state legislature to pass an act to sell the Main Line of Public Works in its entirety for the highest bidder above 10 Million dollars. The PRR wouldn’t budge; Thomson continued his bluff letting contracts to begin minimal construction with no intention of building an actual railroad but rather to force the hand of canal commissioners to sell on the PRR’s terms and price point.  For the next three years Thomson continued to wage his bets, showing public support for the construction of the Lancaster & Pine Grove. In 1855 the state legislature authorized another sale complete with operational clauses for the State Works to be sold at a minimum bid of $7.5 million; still no takers. Finally in 1857 a third bill was authorized for sale at or above $7.5 million including all rolling stock and property.  With no other offers the PRR took control of the Main Line of Public Works in its entirety on August 1st, 1857.  Now that Thomson had the last piece of railroad to complete a wholly owned main line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh the Lancaster & Pine Grove Railroad would be dropped.

 

While the bidding war for the PRR to assumed control of P&C raged on, the East Brandywine Railroad had chartered in 1854, building an 18 mile line between the main line at Downingtown and Waynesburg (later Honebrook), Pennsylvania. Commencing operations in 1860 and reorganizing as the East Brandywine & Waynesburg Railroad Company the railroad extended another ten miles west to New Holland by 1876 operating in rich agricultural country. The line was operated by the PRR under leases until June of 1888, when the property was sold under foreclosure and the company reorganized as the Downingtown & Lancaster Railroad Company.  The road would later be extended from New Holland to Conestoga Junction, a total of 9.8 miles, opening for traffic in September of 1890 with the PRR operating the entire line as agent. The Downingtown & Lancaster was never intended to operate as a primary route, with a ruling grade of 1.6% westward, but the rural line did service the agricultural region with connections to the main line at both ends. When comparing the proposed route of the Lancaster & Pine Grove on Herman Haupt’s 1855 map the uncanny similarity of the route with parts of the D&L makes one wonder if the alignment is surviving property that was pawn to Thompson’s high stakes poker game to gain control of the P&C. 

 

The eastern end of contemporary operations is centered around Musselman Lumber in New Holland proper. Trackage here used to feature a wye track for turning locomotives, a freight station (which is now occupied by a screen printing company) and several public delivery tracks. The branch continues to the far eastern end of town and terminates around New Holland Concrete but currently no customers are utilizing rail east of this area

The eastern end of contemporary operations is centered around Musselman Lumber in New Holland proper. Trackage here used to feature a wye track for turning locomotives, a freight station (which is now occupied by a screen printing company) and several public delivery tracks. The branch continues to the far eastern end of town and terminates around New Holland Concrete but currently no customers are utilizing rail east of this area

The Downingtown & Lancaster in the 20th Century: In 1903 the 37.5 mile line, property and franchises were officially purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad and operation remained much the same as it had for some time. New Holland was one of the larger centers for traffic on the branch, originally home to New Holland Machine, Musselman Brother’s Feed and Lumber, EM Rutter & Co. among several others. One particular company stood out later becoming a major shipper on the branch; New Holland Machine. Founded in 1875 by Abraham Zimmerman a black smith and mechanical genius, Zimmerman began offering his services to area farmers in need of repair or fabrication of farming equipment. Zimmerman grew his business carefully watching the rising need for the internal combustion engines in the farming industry.  Despite imperfect designs Zimmerman saw potential in these machines and sought to improve them by developing a new freeze proof water-cooled engine.  By 1903 Zimmerman had incorporated the New Holland Machine Company hiring 40 employees to mass-produce the engines in a facility located on Franklin Street.  Other items in Zimmerman’s product line included feed grinders, rock crushers and wood saws. By 1911 the company had grown to 150 employees and in 1927 the company employed 225. In 1947 the Sperry Corporation purchased New Holland Machine becoming Sperry-New Holland. Since the acquisition the company has changed hands several times and is now a brand of CNH Global which is majority owned by Fiat International. The New Holland, PA location remains the North American headquarters and is one of the largest plants for manufacturing hay tools in the world.

The frame combination freight and passenger station at Leola provided very modest accommodations for passengers up until 1930 when service was discontinued. 

The frame combination freight and passenger station at Leola provided very modest accommodations for passengers up until 1930 when service was discontinued. 

William L. Seigford hired with the PRR in December of 1959 and was later promoted and transferred from the West Coast territory of the PRR to the Harrisburg Division where he was assigned to the Lancaster Territory. Locally based in the Lancaster area, part of his territory included the New Holland Branch. Among other major shippers, Bill worked closely with Sperry – New Holland, who received both inbound steel from various mills and shipped finished product. At one particular time during the final years of the Penn Central era Sperry was experiencing a surge in production and the railroad had difficulty providing the necessary flat cars on a daily basis to move the finished product. Bill recalls, “Sperry’s traffic manager came up with the idea to charter a small plane to fly over the railroad in order to scout empty flat cars sitting in yards or sidings and insisted I go with them. We flew over Enola then on up the Middle Division to Lewistown where they (Sperry) loaded flatcars at the public delivery tracks with product from their Belleville Plant.” Through a stop off arrangement written in the PRR tariffs, these flat cars would be partially loaded in New Holland then shipped to either the Mountville plant or Lewistown to be completed depending on what dealers out west needed in their shipment. During the early Conrail era, Philadelphia’s marketing offices quickly realized they were loosing money on the additional stop off and sought to put an end to the unprofitable arrangement. Shipment of outbound loads tapered off ending in the early 1980's but the plant continued to received inbound steel for a few more years until Sperry had the necessary trucking companies to haul both. 

The D&L faced several abandonments with the first major change in the 1950’s when 8 miles were abandoned severing the line’s end points. By the 1960’s the entire east end from Downingtown was gone and Honeybrook (formerly Waynesburg) was the far end of the branch from Lancaster. Conrail continued to cut the line back eventually making East Earl the end of the line. Today trackage ends on the far-east end of New Holland near New Holland Cement. The remainder of the extant line in service connects with the former PRR Main Line in Lancaster at Conestoga interlocking continuing 12.8 miles to the end of track. Though Sperry-New Holland doesn’t ship by rail the branch remains very profitable, being served today Monday through Friday by Norfolk Southern's locals H28 and H29 (afternoon relief crew) and is home to major shippers like Dart Container, L&S Sweeteners, RR Donnelley Printing and several others.  

I would like to acknowledge both William L. Seigford and Mark Hoffman for taking the time to show me around the branch and share a wealth of information on the operations and local history of the New Holland branch through its later PRR, PC and Conrail operations.

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!

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!