Photographs & History

Photographs and History

William H Brown: The Tale of Two Bridges

In a beautiful image by William H. Rau we see the Conestoga River bridge, one of Brown's first stone bridges. Utilizing the figure and boat as a device for scale in the foreground Rau is looking south, as noted by the finished facade of the bridge. To the left out of view is the Lancaster Water Works which still survives today. Photograph collection American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

In a beautiful image by William H. Rau we see the Conestoga River bridge, one of Brown's first stone bridges. Utilizing the figure and boat as a device for scale in the foreground Rau is looking south, as noted by the finished facade of the bridge. To the left out of view is the Lancaster Water Works which still survives today. Photograph collection American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

In 1881 a rising figure in the Pennsylvania Railroad by the name of William H. Brown was promoted to chief engineer. At 45 years old the Lancaster County native had 31 years under his belt working his way from a rod man on a survey crew in 1850 to the top of one of the most ambitious engineering departments in the railroad world. Brown had a reputation for knowing every grade, curve and crossing on the PRR. As chief engineer his tenure was likely one of the most notable in the transformation of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s physical plant during the 19th and early 20th centuries, implementing various programs of improvements up until his retirement in 1906. According to his obituary in the New York Times he, “made 133 changes and revisions to the Main Line, built fourteen elevated railways through cities, forty-one tunnels, and 163 stone bridges, including [the world's largest] Rockville stone bridge.” The last point was perhaps one his more notable achievements and certainly one of the most recognizable today; the stone masonry arch bridge.

The connection between Brown's first two stone bridges are linked to various correspondence in the planning stages for both locations. Born from the endorsement of stone bridges during the four track expansion, they diverged at the time of design. The Conestoga is two tracks with provisions for expansion (note protruding stone work along the arches) the Conemaugh bridge designed and built with four tracks. Both survive today and remain in active service on Amtrak's Keystone corridor and Norfolk Southern's Pittsburgh line respectively. Left detail; Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Right detail William H. Rau, collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

The connection between Brown's first two stone bridges are linked to various correspondence in the planning stages for both locations. Born from the endorsement of stone bridges during the four track expansion, they diverged at the time of design. The Conestoga is two tracks with provisions for expansion (note protruding stone work along the arches) the Conemaugh bridge designed and built with four tracks. Both survive today and remain in active service on Amtrak's Keystone corridor and Norfolk Southern's Pittsburgh line respectively. Left detail; Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Right detail William H. Rau, collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Two of the earliest spans Brown designed for the Main Line were the crossing of the Conemaugh River in Johnstown and the Conestoga in Lancaster. Though bid separately both were originally to be constructed utilizing iron truss spans until Pittsburgh Division superintendent Robert Pitcairn endorsed the use of stone to Brown instead. Touting stone’s strength, durability and its abundant supply on the PRR, the stone bridge would be a long term solution, able to support the growing traffic and heavier trains the PRR was becoming accustomed to. It was there that the course divided for the two bridges. The Conemaugh bridge was built as planned with four tracks and the first to prove Pitcairn’s endorsement true surviving the wrath of the great flood of 1889 just a year after its completion.

With bridge renewals a major part of the program to expand the PRR’s trademark four track main line across the state of Pennsylvania, the Brandywine Creek bridge in Coatesville and the Conestoga bridge in Lancaster were the last remaining two track spans west from Philadelphia. As discussed previously, the Lancaster terminal was also a choke point in the movement of traffic necessitating the construction of the Lancaster Cut-Off. Just to the east of the junction of this new route with the old main was the Conestoga River, a 61-mile tributary of the Susquehanna. The crossing of the Conestoga saw several successive bridges built for the railroad; the first a 1400’ long series of wood lattice truss spans dating from the P&C which was consumed by fire and later replaced with a fill and a shortened series of iron Whipple trusses around the Civil War. Though Brown had considered another iron design for Conestoga in 1887 its design ultimately followed the fate of the Conemaugh bridge, choosing to use stone instead. Though initial correspondence suggests the Conestoga bridge was to be a four-track span, costs and traffic levels dictated a compromise in design, building a two-track span with provisions in place for expansion. As a result the five arch, 329’ long stone masonry bridge was constructed with foundations to support a four track span. In addition, contractors left stones protruding from the southern side of the bridge, which would allow for any expansion to tie into the existing structure when demand necessitated. Completed in 1888 traffic grew through the next decade but plans were on the horizon that would direct freight off the main line to a new dedicated low-grade from Atglen to Columbia, by-passing Lancaster all together. Though the span in Coatesville was replaced in 1906 to support the combined traffic demands east of Atglen the Conestoga bridge was never expanded, nor was the main line between Lancaster and Royalton since the PRR now had three two-track routes for both freight and passenger moves via the Main Line, Atglen & Susquehanna low grade and the Columbia branch.

Today many of Brown’s bridges are still in service without remark; the only exception of course is Shock’s Mills, which partially failed during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Building like the Romans for an empire in the transportation world, Mr. Brown and other people like him on competing railroads represented the pinnacle of engineering, design and forethought that built the United States and are largely responsible for the rail networks we have today.

New Line: PRR's Lancaster Cut-Off

1912 Sanborn Map Illustrating the addition of the Lancaster Cut-Off which would divert traffic away from the PRR's congested Old Main through the city center. Map collection of the Penn State University Library.

1912 Sanborn Map Illustrating the addition of the Lancaster Cut-Off which would divert traffic away from the PRR's congested Old Main through the city center. Map collection of the Penn State University Library.

Opening in 1883 the Lancaster Cut-Off was part of a series of main line improvements to eliminate excessive grades, traffic congestion and operational issues associated with the original main line through downtown Lancaster. Under the direction of chief engineer William H. Brown a two-track bypass running along the city’s north side was constructed between Dillerville and an interlocking named CG where it joined the existing main line just west of the Conestoga River. Though originally designed to divert only through trains away from Lancaster the improved line became the preferred routing because of the continuing problems operating through the busy city center. As a result service to the station on Queen Street declined, stirring complaints from city officials who demanded better passenger rail service.

Interior view of the concourse bridge waiting area in the 1928-29 passenger station that replaced the antiquated Queen Street station facility on the Old Main.

Interior view of the concourse bridge waiting area in the 1928-29 passenger station that replaced the antiquated Queen Street station facility on the Old Main.

Complaints continued well into the 20th century until city officials and the PRR began negotiations for a new passenger station to be located on the Cut-Off. Construction of the new facility began in August of 1928 and was dedicated dedication on April 27th of 1929. Situated between Lititz Pike and North Prince Street the beautiful brick and limestone colonial revival styled station featured a second floor waiting room with large arched windows and limestone walls. A concourse bridge over the main line connected the waiting room with 2 high level platforms while baggage was moved via a subterranean tunnel and elevators from the neighboring express building located immediately west of the station.

This plate drawing of the consolidated CORK interlocking plant circa 1963 illustrates the expansiveness of the consolidated territory which was once controlled be three separate towers. Plate drawing collection of  The Broad Way.

This plate drawing of the consolidated CORK interlocking plant circa 1963 illustrates the expansiveness of the consolidated territory which was once controlled be three separate towers. Plate drawing collection of The Broad Way.

The construction of the new facility also necessitated additional track capacity since the old line would be largely abandoned after this project was complete. Sidings and runners were added to the two main tracks through the station complex. A new interlocking tower aptly named Lancaster controlled the new station trackage in addition to consolidating three existing interlocking towers: DV (Dillerville) - junction with the Old Line, Cut-off, Columbia branch and H&L to Harrisburg, CG (Conestoga) junction of the old main, cut-off and main line east and ES - junction with the New Holland Branch and end of the four track main line just east of the Conestoga bridge. Later renamed Cork this standard design tower of the Depression era was constructed of brick with a copper clad bay and hip roof. Inside the tower a 67 lever Union Switch & Signal Model 14 interlocking machine controlled the expansive physical plant.

As built the Lancaster Cut-Off was intended to bypass traffic that did not service the City of Lancaster, today the route is the sole surviving main line for Amtrak and Norfolk Southern operations based out of Dillerville. On the east end of the Cut-Off the grade of the Old Line can be spotted at former CG interlocking where the two lines split. (L) In the brush to the left you can make out the diverging path of the Old Main in the gap in the trees. (R) The expansive area around the main looking east is where the Old Line connected to the Cut-Off and main line east. Just out of view is the Conestoga River Bridge.

As built the Lancaster Cut-Off was intended to bypass traffic that did not service the City of Lancaster, today the route is the sole surviving main line for Amtrak and Norfolk Southern operations based out of Dillerville. On the east end of the Cut-Off the grade of the Old Line can be spotted at former CG interlocking where the two lines split. (L) In the brush to the left you can make out the diverging path of the Old Main in the gap in the trees. (R) The expansive area around the main looking east is where the Old Line connected to the Cut-Off and main line east. Just out of view is the Conestoga River Bridge.

Cork remained operational into the 21st century, during the Keystone Corridor rebuild several revisions to the interlocking simplified the infrastructure in the area pairing out the various control points and retrofitting the old building with new CTC like control boards mounted directly to the old interlocking machine. By the close of the first quarter of 2013 Cork’s local control was cut-over to Amtrak’s centralized dispatching center in Delaware, ending 84 years of continual service under three different railroads. Despite the loss of CORK the PRR passenger station continues to serve the city of Lancaster  undergoing a slow and expensive renovation that will renew its facade and interior while adding modern amenities like climate control and new electrical systems. It is unclear to the author if additional retail spaces will be developed in the lower level but the facility seems to be ripe with opportunity for travelers who visit the county seat, home to a vibrant arts and tourism region. Only time will tell what the final development of the Lancaster passenger station will bring but today it continues to serve its intended purpose maintaining the Pennsylvania Railroad's presence in the city of Lancaster.