Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Conewago and the Lebanon Valley Gateway

Plate#91: View of the Conewago Gorge by photographer William H. Rau, during his first photographic commission with the Pennsylvania Railroad to illustrate the destinations and scenery along the system. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Plate#91: View of the Conewago Gorge by photographer William H. Rau, during his first photographic commission with the Pennsylvania Railroad to illustrate the destinations and scenery along the system. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Leaving Royalton behind the main line begins a sustained climb to Elizabethtown with a ruling grade of .84%. Four miles east from the junction of the Royalton Branch the main line, running on the alignment of the former Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt Joy and Lancaster Railroad crosses the Conewago Creek valley. Lenape for “At the Rapids”, the Conewago is actually two creeks of the same name: One running from the west to the Susquehanna River in York County the other coming from the east from the headwaters of Lake Conewago in Mt Gretna, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna near the village of Falmouth.

Pennsylvania Railroad Track Chart showing the grade and track profile between Highspire and Rheems. Note the junction with the Lebanon Branch at approximately Milepost 90 in Conewago, this branch had an interesting history connected with the Coleman Family iron dynasty of the late 1800's. Excerpts of track charts collection   Keystone Crossings  .

Pennsylvania Railroad Track Chart showing the grade and track profile between Highspire and Rheems. Note the junction with the Lebanon Branch at approximately Milepost 90 in Conewago, this branch had an interesting history connected with the Coleman Family iron dynasty of the late 1800's. Excerpts of track charts collection Keystone Crossings.

(Inset) Post card view of the 1885 Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad station in Lebanon, Pennsylvania designed by noted architect George Watson Hewitt. This building survives today and is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

(Inset) Post card view of the 1885 Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad station in Lebanon, Pennsylvania designed by noted architect George Watson Hewitt. This building survives today and is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

By the 1840’s iron forges to the north of Mt. Gretna owned by various descendants of Robert Coleman flourished in Lebanon with transportation access provided primarily by way of the Union Canal. The area’s close proximity to the Anthracite Regions, the Cornwall iron ore hills, an abundance of timber for charcoal/ coke production and local limestone quarries provided the catalyst for growth and development of an industry, which would become the backbone of Lebanon County and the Commonwealth of PA. To feed the forges William Coleman and cousin George Dawson Coleman constructed the North Lebanon Railroad In 1853 connecting the ore hills and forges near Cornwall to the Union Canal landings in Lebanon. By 1870 the railroad was renamed the Cornwall Railroad, interchanging with the Lebanon Valley Railroad, a line that was absorbed by the Philadelphia and Reading. As mining progressed at the Cornwall Ore Hills Company another line, The Spiral Railroad was constructed in Cornwall to facilitate moving material from the pit mines, loading the raw ore into Cornwall RR rail cars. The material would then head out to Lebanon for processing and concentration to be used in local iron production. By 1884 the Cornwall RR would also construct another route the Cornwall and Mount Hope Railroad, providing access to the P&R’s Reading and Columbia Branch allowing interchange freight and connecting passenger services via Manheim. 

For a long time the Cornwall Railroad ran with no competition until 1883 when Robert H Coleman, a cousin to William Freeman the president of the Cornwall Railroad and son to the founder to the North Lebanon Railroad, would open a competing railroad, the Cornwall and Lebanon, creating considerable angst between the two operations. Running southwest from Lebanon to Cornwall then onto the resort town of Mt. Gretna following the Conewago Creek Valley, the new line provided a direct connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad in Conewago, opening markets in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and points west. Consequently in the following year, the aging Cornwall Furnaces ceased production, unable to compete with larger mills like Johnstown, Bethlehem and Steelton. Lackawanna Iron and Steel purchased the facilities and iron mines in 1894, later becoming a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel whom operated the mines into the 1970’s.

Postcard view of the Cornwall iron ore mines circa 1922. The railroad in the image likely to be the Spiral Railroad, providing access to the three ore bearing hills at the mine site which then fed the material to both the Cornwall Railroad and Cornwall & Lebanon Railroads. 

Postcard view of the Cornwall iron ore mines circa 1922. The railroad in the image likely to be the Spiral Railroad, providing access to the three ore bearing hills at the mine site which then fed the material to both the Cornwall Railroad and Cornwall & Lebanon Railroads. 

Though the forges shut down Robert H. Coleman’s net worth in the 1880s was over 30 million dollars, owing other interests in the iron business. However his investment in the failed Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad Railway in Florida and the Financial Panic of 1893 Coleman would lose everything and his assets defaulted to debtors who took control of the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad. Providing an ideal operation to tap the remaining ore deposits, Pennsylvania Railroad’s board of directors authorized purchase of railroad on Mar. 12, 1913 from Lackawanna Steel Company for $1.84 million; officially merging w the PRR April 15th 1918. The route continued to operate through the Penn Central until Hurricane Agnes wiped out considerable pieces of right of way and flooded the remaining pit mines operating in Cornwall.

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.

Columbia Pennsylvania: Early Transportation History

Modern facade detail of the 1877    Pennsylvania Railroad station in Columbia located along North Front Street.

Modern facade detail of the 1877  Pennsylvania Railroad station in Columbia located along North Front Street.

Columbia Pennsylvania is a town steeped in transportation history, beginning with the area’s settlement led by English Quaker John Wright through the heyday of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Incorporated in 1814 and originally known as Wrights Ferry, settlers aspired to great accomplishments, renaming the town in honor of Christopher Columbus in an effort to entice Congress to select the town as the nation’s capitol. Despite a valuable endorsement by George Washington, Columbia fell just one congressional vote shy of this honorable distinction in 1790. Soon after, in 1812, Columbia lost another bid for distinction when Harrisburg was chosen as the capital of Pennsylvania due to its closer proximity to the Commonwealth's geographic center.

By 1826 Columbia would be central to various modes of transportation including Wright’s Ferry, and a 5690’covered bridge that provided access to the west bank of the Susquehanna River in Wrightsville. More significant was the construction of a series of canals, establishing Columbia as the eastern terminus of the Main Line of Public Works Project. These canals eased travel to points west such as Pittsburgh, Lake Erie and West Virginia, and provided access to the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal, opening the way east to Baltimore and other seaboard destinations.

PRR in the vicinity of Front and Walnut Streets. Note the passenger station on the right. Date Unkown. Personal collection of Fred Abendschein.

PRR in the vicinity of Front and Walnut Streets. Note the passenger station on the right. Date Unkown. Personal collection of Fred Abendschein.

By the 1834 opening of the canal the town also became the western terminus of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, which connected the namesake towns via Lancaster as the eastern extension of the trans-state Public Works. Though the P&C was far more effective than canal travel to the west, poor construction and inadequate equipment would hinder the railroad from operating efficiently. The 1846 charter granted to the Pennsylvania Railroad dealt a major blow to the Main Line of Public Works. By 1857 the growing private venture secured access to Columbia by purchasing the entirety of the system, including the P&C. Its rebuilding of the P&C and later use of canal alignments created a dedicated, all-rail route from Pittsburgh and points west to Philadelphia and New York City.

Illustration of the June 28th, 1863 Columbia –Wrightsville Bridge burning during the Civil War from Harper’s Weekly. Collection of  The Civil War

Illustration of the June 28th, 1863 Columbia –Wrightsville Bridge burning during the Civil War from Harper’s Weekly. Collection of  The Civil War

The PRR would serve a major strategic asset to the North during the Civil War, and Columbia would also play a part during the Gettysburg campaign.  As the war raged in Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee planned to advance Confederate troops east via the Wrightsville – Columbia bridge to take Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia.  The citizens of Columbia and the State militia burned the vital bridge preventing Lee’s troops from crossing into Lancaster County foiling their attacks. Shortly there after Northern troops would prevail and Columbia would settle into a time of industrial prosperity.

1894 map of Columbia at the peak of its industrial era by T. M. Fowler. Collection of Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

1894 map of Columbia at the peak of its industrial era by T. M. Fowler. Collection of Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The bridge to Wrightsville was rebuilt yet again, and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad would begin serving Columbia by way of the Reading and Columbia branch. With growing popularity the railroads would seal the fate of the remaining canals that survived hauling coal. Columbia was at the heart of an area rich with iron deposits, now being transported by rail, fostering the rapid expansion of anthracite fired steel and iron forges throughout the Chiques, Conewago and Swatara valleys. Textile mills, lumber and the crossroads of passenger transportation also contributed to local economy. As a new century approached, Columbia had overcome early challenges and the ravages of war to reach its industrial peak, becoming a major railroad hub, host to extensive rail shops and yards, employing hundreds of local residents for both the PRR and Phildelphia and Reading railroads.