Photographs & History

Photographs and History

The Paoli Local: 100 Years of Electrification on the Pennsylvania Railroad

At 5:55 AM, Saturday, September 11th 1915 the first scheduled electric powered train departed Paoli for Philadelphia marking the beginning of one of the most famous railroad electrification projects in the United States. 

Overbrook Station marks the location where the Pennsylvania Railroad crosses from the Philadelphia city line into the suburban district knows locally as the Main Line. This location is full of PRR character including the station built in 1860, a PRR standard design interlocking tower and the original details from the first phase of the PRR's great electrification project. 

Overbrook Station marks the location where the Pennsylvania Railroad crosses from the Philadelphia city line into the suburban district knows locally as the Main Line. This location is full of PRR character including the station built in 1860, a PRR standard design interlocking tower and the original details from the first phase of the PRR's great electrification project. 

At the close of 1910 the Pennsylvania Railroad had certainly accomplished some remarkable projects. The building of Penn Station and the Hudson and East River Tunnels was an engineering feat that put the railroad at a major advantage over many others, giving them direct access to New York City while establishing a through connection to New England markets.  Out of necessity the new terminal utilized trains running on a proven direct current third rail system, as steam engines would literally suffocate passengers in the lengthy tunnels. The PRR had already begun utilizing DC propulsion on routes previous to the terminal as a way to economize operations and included subsidiaries Long Island Railroad and part of the West Jersey & Seashore. To the north the New Haven had just inaugurated heavy electrified main line service utilizing a new alternating current installation in 1907, but with little time to observe the New Haven’s technology the PRR’s conservative management instead chose the proven DC system.

Soon after the New York terminal project was completed, engineering forces turned their attention to a major traffic bottleneck in the PRR’s corporate home of Philadelphia. Broad Street Station, built by the Wilson Brothers in 1881 and expanded by Frank Furness in 1892-93 was a 16-track stub ended terminal that was situated in the city center directly across from city hall. Broad Street saw a host of trains including commuter and long distance trains that stopped, terminated or originated here; because of the nature of a stub end terminal and a lengthily and congested reverse move to the engine facilities west of the Schuylkill River, trains faced a host of delays limiting Broad Street’s capacity and efficiency. In order to ease congestion the PRR turned to engineering consultant Gibbs & Hill to develop a solution utilizing electric traction, but this time with AC propulsion. Now several years into the New Haven’s electrification the PRR could capitalize on their triumphs while incorporating technological advances to perfect the new installation. A simplified infrastructure and commercial power purchased from Philadelphia Electric made AC propulsion very economical over DC which required the railroad to construction dedicated power plants. With a supply agreement in place the PRR and Philadelphia Electric could easily expand the network over the next several years, sharing the power generation expansion cost with other commercial and industrial customers.

The western terminus of the 1915 electrification was Paoli, Pennsylvania just 20 miles west of Broad Street Station. Here in a modern view we look west toward the interlocking tower and former shop facility used to service the MP54 MU cars. Telltale details of the 1915 electrification include both the lattice style and tubular trolley poles that support the catenary system. Note: This photograph was taken with Amtrak permission under watchman protection, the author does not condone any type of trespassing on railroad or private property. 

The western terminus of the 1915 electrification was Paoli, Pennsylvania just 20 miles west of Broad Street Station. Here in a modern view we look west toward the interlocking tower and former shop facility used to service the MP54 MU cars. Telltale details of the 1915 electrification include both the lattice style and tubular trolley poles that support the catenary system. Note: This photograph was taken with Amtrak permission under watchman protection, the author does not condone any type of trespassing on railroad or private property. 

The initial phase of electrification would be a costly investment due to the complexities of the Philadelphia Terminal’s trackage.  Once completed however, it could not only support electrified Paoli service but also main line service to Wilmington, Trenton, the West Chester Branch and Chestnut Hill branch freeing up valuable terminal space while maximizing the benefit of the initial cost. Power would be supplied by the Schuylkill River generating station and transmitted across the river to the Arsenal Bridge sub-station then on to the West Philly, Bryn Mawr and Paoli sub-stations. Here the 25 cycle 44,000 volt single phase power would be stepped down to 11,000 volts and fed to trains via overhead trolley lines supported by cable suspension supports strung between tubular steel trolley poles. The route to Paoli was 20 miles in length and electrification included wiring a coach yard and service facility in the West Philadelphia shops as well as a new facility in Paoli, a total of roughly 93 miles of track. Initially limited to just the Paoli commuter runs the electrification would power some 80 plus trains a day while affording an 8% overall increase in capacity at Broad Street. Though this seems like a small advantage for such a significant investment, the PRR looked to the future making this the first of several steps to dramatically increase capacity by expanding electric operations off the initial hub.

Two of the original sub-station buildings still survive along the main line at Bryn Mawr (L) and Paoli (R). Note to the right of the Paoli sub-station the vacant land which was the location of the Paoli shops.

Two of the original sub-station buildings still survive along the main line at Bryn Mawr (L) and Paoli (R). Note to the right of the Paoli sub-station the vacant land which was the location of the Paoli shops.

While planning, design and construction of the Paoli electrification was taking place, the PRR turned to the proven class P54 steel coach that was already in production. Though only a basic coach design the PRR had incorporated provisions in the plans to accommodate electrification and operating components when it was time to develop a fleet of self-propelled multiple unit (MU) cars. These motorcars would largely makeup the initial fleet of the PRR’s electric operations until suitable locomotives were developed to haul long distance trains. Classified as MP54's many were already in electrified service on the Long Island and WJ&S utilizing DC propulsion. The MP54 fleet eventually comprised of over 1400 cars; 480 ran on the PRR proper, 923 on the Long Island Railroad and 18 on the WJ&S /PRSL, some of which outlasted the PRR itself, remaining in operation through 1981.

Detail of the Union Switch & Signal interlocking machine at Paoli tower. Though still in service the interlocking plant here and the facility's importance has been greatly reduced with the elimination of the shops. The model board reflects the abandoned #2 and #3 main tracks west of the interlocking. 

Detail of the Union Switch & Signal interlocking machine at Paoli tower. Though still in service the interlocking plant here and the facility's importance has been greatly reduced with the elimination of the shops. The model board reflects the abandoned #2 and #3 main tracks west of the interlocking. 

With the first phase of electrification a success the railroad continued expansion from the Broad Street terminal, next on the Chestnut Hill branch in 1918 and the White Marsh branch in 1924. Concurrent to the expansion of the PRR’s electrified network other notable projects commenced, one of great importance was the Philadelphia Improvements. With heavy construction beginning in 1927 the PRR sought to replace Broad Street Station with a new subterranean station and office tower called Suburban Station and Penn center respectively. All north-south oriented main line trains would utilize a new through station on the west bank of the Schuylkill River called 30th Street Station. East-west trains utilized an upgraded facility out on the main line in North Philadelphia to eliminate the need to reverse out of the terminal to continue after stopping since 30th was actually off the New York-Pittsburgh Main Line. Commuter trains in and out of Suburban would also service 30th Street from a separate upper level reducing the concentration of travelers separating commuter operations from the long distance and regional trains. 

Though the massive Philadelphia Improvements took years to complete electrification continued at a rapid rate extending south to Wilmington on the main line including the branch to West Chester in 1928 and north on the main line to Trenton and the Schuylkill Valley Branch to Norristown in 1930 completing the electrification of all Philadelphia region suburban lines. Further studies reiterated the economical advantage of electrification outside the commuter zones for regional and long distance trains between New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Harrisburg, prompting PRR president William Wallace Atterbury to close the gaps in electrification beginning late in 1928. Despite the Great Depression the electrification project continued through 1933, completing the retrofit of the New York Terminal for AC traction and finishing catenary work to complete the network to Wilmington and Paoli. Understanding that Wilmington would not be a suitable southern terminal for electrification, catenary was pushed south to Washington DC including Potomac Yard, financed by a $70 million loan secured from depression era federal recovery programs. Beginning in January of 1934, various reports say up to 20,000 men went to work, comprising of furloughed railroad employees and new hires in the electrical / construction trades to complete the electrification of the New York – Washington DC main line, which opened for business on February 10th 1935. As a result of the success on the north-south “corridor” the PRR sought to complete electrification from the eastern seaboard west to the Harrisburg terminal including all associated freight and passenger main lines. Work commenced on the Low Grade from Morrisville to Enola, the main line from Paoli to Harrisburg, the Columbia Branch and Port Road. Completed in 1938 the entire electrification created a powerful conduit that put the railroad in an excellent position to handle the impending pressure of wartime traffic demands.

View looking east at the western limits of the Paoli interlocking plant. Number 2 and 3 track mains (center tracks) are basically stub end sidings here used occasionaly for track and maintenance equipment. The surviving infrastructure of the electrification reflects various generations of expansion including the massive singnal bridge, tubular trolley poles and the sub-station. This would have been some of the western most electrified trackage until the 1938 expansion to Harrisburg.  Note: This photograph was taken with Amtrak permission under watchman protection, the author does not condone any type of trespassing on railroad or private property. 

View looking east at the western limits of the Paoli interlocking plant. Number 2 and 3 track mains (center tracks) are basically stub end sidings here used occasionaly for track and maintenance equipment. The surviving infrastructure of the electrification reflects various generations of expansion including the massive singnal bridge, tubular trolley poles and the sub-station. This would have been some of the western most electrified trackage until the 1938 expansion to Harrisburg. Note: This photograph was taken with Amtrak permission under watchman protection, the author does not condone any type of trespassing on railroad or private property. 

The electrified infrastructure of the PRR Main Line has remained visibly the same over the ensuing decades despite modifications and renewal. Surviving the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central, Conrail and Amtrak the sub-stations, tubular catenary poles and surviving interlocking towers remain along with many original station buildings preserving the character of the Main Line, a name synonymous not only with the railroad but towns along the route to Paoli. As Amtrak continues to renew their electric traction system the original details of the 1915 electrification, now part of the successful Keystone Corridor could be on borrowed time. There are plans being developed that would call for a total replacement of the 1915 era catenary system. The construction of larger modern support towers similar to those found on the Northeast Corridor will allow Amtrak to move feeder and transmission lines to the railroad right of way much like later phases of electrification did. For now while you ride the Paoli Local or one of Amtrak’s Keystone Service trains take note of the historical infrastructure that survives, that infrastructure around you was part of the one the most ambitious and successful railroad electrification projects in the world!

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.

Dillerville: Lancaster's Western Gateway

Dillerville Junction was a complex interlocking controlling access to several important lines on the PRR in the northwestern corner of Lancaster. This remarkable view looking railroad west from the Lancaster Cut-Off depicts the new line veering off to the right connecting with the H&L line to Harrisburg. The old alignment of the H&L into Dillerville and Lancaster still exists and is where Rau's photographic train is sitting behind the interlocking tower. Straight ahead is the connection to the Columbia Branch while the tracks that fan off to the left from that line in the distance  are the original alignment and connection to the Old Main to the Queen Street station. The last line of note through the junction is the single track passing left to right in front of the tower crossing all of the PRR tracks at grade, this was the Reading Company's Lancaster Branch, part of its Reading & Columbia Division which terminated at the foot of North Prince Street. The meticulous landscaping, track and ballast work reflect a railroad that took great pride in their physical plant. Image circa 1888 by William H. Rau, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Dillerville Junction was a complex interlocking controlling access to several important lines on the PRR in the northwestern corner of Lancaster. This remarkable view looking railroad west from the Lancaster Cut-Off depicts the new line veering off to the right connecting with the H&L line to Harrisburg. The old alignment of the H&L into Dillerville and Lancaster still exists and is where Rau's photographic train is sitting behind the interlocking tower. Straight ahead is the connection to the Columbia Branch while the tracks that fan off to the left from that line in the distance  are the original alignment and connection to the Old Main to the Queen Street station. The last line of note through the junction is the single track passing left to right in front of the tower crossing all of the PRR tracks at grade, this was the Reading Company's Lancaster Branch, part of its Reading & Columbia Division which terminated at the foot of North Prince Street. The meticulous landscaping, track and ballast work reflect a railroad that took great pride in their physical plant. Image circa 1888 by William H. Rau, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

In 1835 Revolutionary War officer and Sheriff of Lancaster County, Adam Diller founded Dillerville, a one time separate settlement in Lancaster’s northwest corner. In June of the same year Diller would grant the Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad a 1.5-acre plot to construct a depot. From these meager beginnings Dillerville would develop to become the western gateway of the Lancaster terminal, evolving with continual improvements after the PRR assumed control of the Philadelphia & Columbia and Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroads.

Originally the location where the PRR predecessors split away heading west on their respective routes, DV interlocking as it became known, developed into a far more complex facility with the addition of the Lancaster Cut-Off in 1883. The second know tower in this location was completed in 1884 for the new cut-off utilizing Armstrong levers to control lower quadrant semaphore signals and switch points throughout the junction. This tower was built in the typical style of that era with Victorian details including a slate shingled hip roof and center cupola similar to surviving examples like LEMO tower now located in Strasburg, PA and SHORE at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia. DV was an important facility, directing trains to the Columbia Branch, Old Main, H&L line to Harrisburg and the Lancaster Cut-Off / Main Line east. On either side of the interlocking there were several yards servicing industries on the Old Main and the later plants of Armstrong World Industries and its predecessors. Adding to the complexity of this interlocking was an at grade crossing of the R&C division of the Reading Company who’s Lancaster Branch terminated at the foot of Prince Street in the north west corner of the city.

This view looks west depicting the first tower at Dillerville around 1880. To the left is the Columbia Branch of the former P&C  and to the right is the former H&L to Harrisburg. Note the sign on this early wood frame octagonal switch tower which proclaims an exact distance of 69 and 30/100 miles to Philadelphia and 283 and 70/100 miles to Pittsburgh. Another noteworthy detail is the early signals utilized to govern traffic at the junction. As evident from Rau's photo in 1888 this junction would be greatly reconfigured with the addition of the Lancaster Cut-off. Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

This view looks west depicting the first tower at Dillerville around 1880. To the left is the Columbia Branch of the former P&C  and to the right is the former H&L to Harrisburg. Note the sign on this early wood frame octagonal switch tower which proclaims an exact distance of 69 and 30/100 miles to Philadelphia and 283 and 70/100 miles to Pittsburgh. Another noteworthy detail is the early signals utilized to govern traffic at the junction. As evident from Rau's photo in 1888 this junction would be greatly reconfigured with the addition of the Lancaster Cut-off. Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the late 1920s DV interlocking was part of a consolidation project in preparation for the opening of a new passenger station complex on the Cut-Off centralizing several towers into Lancaster Tower, which was later renamed Cork for its proximity to the PRR’s largest freight customer in the city, Crown Cork & Seal (Armstrong). Another component to this improvements program involved partial abandonment of the Old Line retaining only the segment from West Yard to the freight houses on Water Street. Dillerville Yard continued to serve as a local base of freight operations for the diverse manufacturing and agricultural consignees in the city and beyond on both the Main Line and New Holland Branch.

Views looking east and west from the footbridge off Liberty Street in the Dillerville area of Lancaster. (L) Looking west on the Old Main one can see the catenary poles of the Lancaster Cut-Off in the distance coming in from the right. At DV interlocking this line crossed at grade with the Columbia Branch and connected to the former H&L to head west to Harrisburg. (R) Looking east was the remaining segment of the former Old Main which recently terminated at the foot of Mulberry Street and Harrisburg Avenue. Here a bulk transfer trestle, crew base and engine storage area were all recently abandoned when NS completed the new H. Craig Lewis yard part of  the Lancaster Northwest Gateway redevelopment project. 

Views looking east and west from the footbridge off Liberty Street in the Dillerville area of Lancaster. (L) Looking west on the Old Main one can see the catenary poles of the Lancaster Cut-Off in the distance coming in from the right. At DV interlocking this line crossed at grade with the Columbia Branch and connected to the former H&L to head west to Harrisburg. (R) Looking east was the remaining segment of the former Old Main which recently terminated at the foot of Mulberry Street and Harrisburg Avenue. Here a bulk transfer trestle, crew base and engine storage area were all recently abandoned when NS completed the new H. Craig Lewis yard part of  the Lancaster Northwest Gateway redevelopment project. 

In 2009 Norfolk Southern, successor of PRR operations in the area (through the purchase of Conrail) began a major reconfiguration of Dillerville Yard in order to accommodate the $75 million Lancaster Northwest Gateway Project, which is developing acres of unused brown fields to provide expansion opportunities for both Lancaster General Hospital and Franklin & Marshal College. Earlier this year the last of the remaining PRR era facilities including the pedestrian bridge, trans-load facility and engine terminal were abandoned after NS dedicated new facilities in a yard named after the late H. Craig Lewis state senator and former NS VP of corporate affairs. Part of more than a century of urban renewal the Northwest Gateway Project is the last effort in removing all rail activity from the city center including the industries the railroads once served completing an effort that began in the 1880's with the construction of the Lancaster Cut-Off.

Lancaster Terminal: The Old Main

Postcard view of the ornate Victorian styled PRR station located at N. Queen and E. Chestnut Streets in the city of Lancaster. Collection of the author. 

Postcard view of the ornate Victorian styled PRR station located at N. Queen and E. Chestnut Streets in the city of Lancaster. Collection of the author. 

Lancaster Old Main: The original main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad made a gentle southern arc from the area of Dillerville in the northwest corner of the city limits to where it crossed the Conestoga in the northeast, intersecting busy streets through the growing city of Lancaster. The line was the combination of routes built by the Philadelphia & Columbia (P&C) and Harrisburg & Lancaster (H&L) railroads. The P&C, part of the state built Main Line of Public Works, was a through route connecting Philadelphia to the east and Columbia to the west. The H&L was an early private venture that terminated in Lancaster connecting the P&C via its own main line directly to Elizabethtown and Harrisburg. Shortly after the charter and beginning of construction on the main line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh the PRR contracted a 20-year agreement with the H&L in 1848, part of an effort to secure a direct route to Philadelphia. J. Edgar Thompson would accomplished this goal when the PRR finally assumed operations of the P&C in 1857, part of its $7.5 million purchase of the Main Line of Public Works. With the reorganization of both lines into the PRR, traffic patterns west from Lancaster evolved to a pattern familiar to contemporary operations with passenger trains favoring the more direct H&L and the P&C for freight traffic.

1912 map detail showing the congested area surrounding the original alignment of the Philadelphia and Columbia route which became the PRR's original main line through Lancaster. The station was located at Queen and Chestnut Streets (location 25 on the map) and the freight terminal was on the corner of Prince and Walnut Streets (upper left from station). Map collection of the Penn State University Library

1912 map detail showing the congested area surrounding the original alignment of the Philadelphia and Columbia route which became the PRR's original main line through Lancaster. The station was located at Queen and Chestnut Streets (location 25 on the map) and the freight terminal was on the corner of Prince and Walnut Streets (upper left from station). Map collection of the Penn State University Library

After the PRR purchased the P&C it immediately took initiatives to replace primitive station facilities run out of a local inn. The result was a beautiful train shed and station built between Queen and North Christian Streets parallel to Chestnut Street. While a drastic improvement from previous arrangements it would prove to be a stopgap measurement for the fast growing railroad. Larger operational issues existed to the west of the station in a maze of trackage servicing both PRR owned freight houses and numerous industries most of which was at grade with the city streets. Adding to the congestion was the connection to the Quarryville Branch and interchange with the Reading Company’s R&C Division all within the city limits.

Images detailing both the freight terminal and industrial tracks the spurred off the main line (left) and the western view from the passenger station shed looking out on the crossing of N. Queen Street. These images reinforce the complicated and dangerous operating conditions the city and railroad faced on a daily basis. Both images courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Images detailing both the freight terminal and industrial tracks the spurred off the main line (left) and the western view from the passenger station shed looking out on the crossing of N. Queen Street. These images reinforce the complicated and dangerous operating conditions the city and railroad faced on a daily basis. Both images courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Serving as the sole through route into the 1880’s the PRR addressed the limitations of the Old Main by constructing a bypass known as the Lancaster Cut-Off. After the 1883 opening of this new route only trains serving Lancaster navigated the city route. Despite the growth and increasing need for more rail transportation the unfortunate reality was the mighty PRR was diverting more and more trains away from the Queen Street station in favor of the new by-pass. The net result meant mounting political pressure on the PRR from city government to provide residents and visitors improved rail transportation, an issue  that would continue well into the 1920’s. This era marks the beginning of an effort of urban renewal that continues to change how people and the railroads interface with the city of Lancaster. In future posts we will continue the discussion of how and when the PRR diverted operations away from the Old Main and how successors have continued to revise and improve local facilities and operations.

Lancaster's Railroad History | A Brief Overview

The city of Lancaster has a rich and diverse history that began in the late 1600’s as a part of the Penn’s Woods Charter, a 45,000 square mile land grant to establish an English Quaker Colony in the New World. The area of Lancaster would develop and flourish around rich agricultural land and the development of iron forges throughout the 1700’s. As iron production increased the need to develop road networks became necessary to bring in raw materials and transport finished product to market, the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike was one of the first, opening in 1795. Lancaster held the honor of being the state capitol from 1799-1812 and was incorporated as a city in 1818 developing at the crossroads of trade routes connecting Philadelphia with manufacturing centers like Columbia, York, Lebanon and Portsmouth (Middletown).

City of Lancaster, circa 1864. David Rumsey Map Collection.

City of Lancaster, circa 1864. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Early in the first quarter of the 19th Century construction of the Erie Canal put the state of New York at a great  advantage over Philadelphia and the Comonwealth in trade and commerce. In an effort to compete, Pennsylvania would embark on a similar project known as the Main Line of Public Works, an ambitious network that utilized a multimodal system of railroads and canals. While the Erie Canal was in use by 1821, Pennsylvania did not break ground until 1828 and the network was not complete until 1834. What would determine success of these networks was ultimately the topography. The Commonwealth was far more challenging than the water level route of the Erie putting the Main Line of Public Works at a major disadvantage. The Main Line of Public Works  network required multiple transfers to move cargo from train to boat in Columbia, back to train in Hollidaysburg, onto inclined planes to surmount the Alleghenies, and back to boat in Johnstown.  Though the trip was a vast improvement over wagon travel, it was still hampered by logistics and weather. Though woefully under-engineered the only potential success of this network was found on the east end, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad which ran the 82 miles between its namesake towns with Lancaster along the way.

Detail of an 1855 map illustrating the Pennsylvania Railroad system and its connections. This map shows the proposed Lebanon, Lancaster & Pinegrove Railroad which was to bypass the Philadelphia & Columbia to gain access to Philadelphia prior to the Commonwealth and the PRR coming to an agreement on the sale price of the failing Main Line of Public Works in 1857. Map collection of the Library of Congress. 

Detail of an 1855 map illustrating the Pennsylvania Railroad system and its connections. This map shows the proposed Lebanon, Lancaster & Pinegrove Railroad which was to bypass the Philadelphia & Columbia to gain access to Philadelphia prior to the Commonwealth and the PRR coming to an agreement on the sale price of the failing Main Line of Public Works in 1857. Map collection of the Library of Congress. 

The potential success of this new railroad spurred private ventures to construct connecting lines like the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad (H&L for short) which completed its route in 1838 bypassing the train-boat transfer in Columbia and thus connecting local industry to an all rail route to Philadelphia. Recognizing the overall failure of the Main Line of Public Works the Commonwealth deemed that a private venture should be chartered to construct an all rail route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh in order to preserve and improve trade and commerce, therefore in 1846 the Pennsylvania Railroad was born. Once the PRR route was complete to Pittsburgh, lines east of Harrisburg including the H&L and P&C became the object of desire for the young railroad striving to complete an exclusive rail network between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. An operating arrangement was established with the H&L in 1848 leaving one last lynch pin, the now cash starved P&C. The Commonwealth offered the entire Main Line of Public Works system for sale in 1854 but it wasn’t until 1857 that the PRR would agree to purchase the system for $7.5 million, almost a third of the original asking price. This purchase secured the final segment of a wholly owned rail route between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while also providing the surplus canal right of way that would be crucial to expanding and improving the main line west of Harrisburg. With the potential for increased traffic the railroad began improvements to its main line system, an endeavor that would continue on and off well into the 20th Century. Antiquated facilities in Lancaster were a continuing concern; construction commenced on a new station in 1860, several bridges were improved, the physical plant expanded and finally a by-pass route was built around the congested city center in 1883. By 1904 the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad from Philadelphia to the Conestoga River was four tracks wide. In Lancaster the complex terminal reduced down from four tracks to two on the east end, splitting twice, once between the old main and the 1883 Lancaster cut-off and again at Dillerville where the old main (former H&L) connected back to the cut-off and the former P&C diverged to Columbia. Though plagued by the two track bottleneck over the Conestoga for some time, completion of the Atglen & Susquehanna branch in 1906 diverted a considerable amount of freight traffic away from Lancaster to the east and the two track Conestoga Bridge would remain as is, adequate to handle the remaining traffic on the main line.

One of many early improvements in the Lancaster terminal area was the stone bridge over the Conestoga River where the main line from the east entered Lancaster. Designed by Chief Engineer William H. Brown and completed in 1887 the two track Conestoga Bridge is unique in its design as the south side was left with protruding stonework to allow for further expansion had the railroad required additional capacity. Though this bridge was an operational bottleneck when the mai nline east was four-tracked subsequent construction of the Atglen and Susquehanna branch alleviated much of the through freight congestion in the Lancaster area.  Image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.     

One of many early improvements in the Lancaster terminal area was the stone bridge over the Conestoga River where the main line from the east entered Lancaster. Designed by Chief Engineer William H. Brown and completed in 1887 the two track Conestoga Bridge is unique in its design as the south side was left with protruding stonework to allow for further expansion had the railroad required additional capacity. Though this bridge was an operational bottleneck when the mai nline east was four-tracked subsequent construction of the Atglen and Susquehanna branch alleviated much of the through freight congestion in the Lancaster area.  Image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

 

Terminal improvements continued in the 1920’s including the abandonment of the old main and 1860 station in favor of a new passenger station on the cut-off providing expanded train service, the result of political pressure and some gentle encouragement from Armstrong Cork a major PRR customer in Lancaster. Around the same time electrification was sweeping the eastern main line, preparations were being made to modernize area interlocking plants which were centralized to a single tower appropriately named Lancaster (renamed CORK a few years after its construction for the neighboring plant of Armstrong Cork). In 1938 electrification of the Paoli – Harrisburg main line, Low Grade and Columbia branch were complete; Electric locomotives were now hauling the bulk of freight and passenger trains west to Harrisburg, leaving steam and later diesel propulsion to switch sprawling industries scattered about on the remaining sections of the old main, Dillerville area, Quarryville and New Holland branches.

Part of the last wave of Pennsylvania Railroad improvements in the Lancaster area was the 1927 abandonment of the old main line and station through town and the opening of the new passenger station on what was formerly the Lancaster Cut-Off, now essentially the new main line. Further improvements came in 1938 with the completion of the final phase of electrification including the main line from Paoli to Harrisburg, the Low Grade and Columbia branch. Illustrated here in a view looking east is the new station facility and Cork interlocking tower which consolidated control of several interlockings in the Lancaster area. Image collection of the author.

Part of the last wave of Pennsylvania Railroad improvements in the Lancaster area was the 1927 abandonment of the old main line and station through town and the opening of the new passenger station on what was formerly the Lancaster Cut-Off, now essentially the new main line. Further improvements came in 1938 with the completion of the final phase of electrification including the main line from Paoli to Harrisburg, the Low Grade and Columbia branch. Illustrated here in a view looking east is the new station facility and Cork interlocking tower which consolidated control of several interlockings in the Lancaster area. Image collection of the author.

Lancaster and the railroad thrived during the surge of World War II traffic but as peacetime settled in, the PRR began to show its age, left with mounting debts and a worn out physical plant. With a decrease in traffic and increasing competition from trucking the rationing of their physical plant began in the early 1960’s removing two of the main tracks east of the Conestoga Bridge to Parkesburg. Traffic continued to diminish and the ill-fated merger of the NYC and PRR drained cash away from much needed infrastructure improvements. In 1971 Amtrak was created to preserve national passenger train service, on the Harrisburg Line the new company slowly began carving away at money loosing  local, regional and long distance services the PRR once provided. In 1976 Conrail assumed control of freight operations in the Lancaster/Dillerville area which continues to generating traffic from a number of large industrial plants and new distribution warehouses. In the late 1990’s the future of Lancaster’s railroads faced more changes. Conrail was split up by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corporation, the later which assumed control of Lancaster freight operations. Amtrak’s Keystone Line was designated a high-speed corridor and work slowly began to rebuild the Harrisburg - Philadelphia main line for hourly electrified service once again. In 2008 Franklin & Marshall College and Lancaster General Hospital struck an agreement with NS to develop the land along the former old main that was retained for yard and bulk transfer facilites for the railroad. NS commenced a long-term project to move, reconfigure and expand Dillerville Yard all of which was completed at the close of 2013. Today contractors are removing the remaining traces of the old main changing the local landscape forever. Amtrak’s rebuilding of the former PRR Main Line is largely complete including the tumultuous rehab of Lancaster’s 1929 depot, the streamlining of the physical plant and the closing of Cork tower, one of a few left on the former PRR system. Though the PRR has been absent from the Lancaster area for over 45 years its legacy remains a vital infrastructure to the local economy. Over the next few months we will spend some time exploring the various lines and history of the Lancaster area including current and historic facilities.

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!

Pennsylvania Railroad Electrification

Yesterday, February 10th marked the 78th anniversary of regularly scheduled electric powered passenger trains running between New York City and Wahshington DC, a result of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s effort to electrify the main line system throughout the congested Northeast region.

Formerly known as Germantown Junction, North Philadelphia marked where the 1918 electrification of the Chestnut Hill Branch diverged from the main line to head north into the suburbs. This junction today sees Septa trains diverging on the same route while handling the north - south traffic of the Northeast Corridor. Note the massive signal bridge which originally spanned up to 8 tracks, and the early lattice style catenary pole in the foreground.

Formerly known as Germantown Junction, North Philadelphia marked where the 1918 electrification of the Chestnut Hill Branch diverged from the main line to head north into the suburbs. This junction today sees Septa trains diverging on the same route while handling the north - south traffic of the Northeast Corridor. Note the massive signal bridge which originally spanned up to 8 tracks, and the early lattice style catenary pole in the foreground.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s electrification projects date back as early as 1895 when the railroad used the Burlington and Mt. Holly Railroad as a test subject for a 7 mile 500 volt DC trolley system. The experiment lasted just six years when the Mt Holly powerhouse caught fire. In 1906 southern New Jersey subsidiary West Jersey & Seashore Railroad, built a third rail 600 volt DC system from Camden to Millville and Atlantic City via Newfield. Like an interurban or trolley system the line utilized overhead wire in congested areas like Camden but also had several installations in the countryside, as way to test the durability of trolley wire versus third rail at higher speeds. The same year the PRR installed yet another 600 volt DC system on a short Cumberland Valley Railroad branch running 7.7 miles from Mechanicsburg and Dillsburg all predecessors to the first large scale use of this technology on the railroad. In 1910, the PRR would construct a similar 650-volt DC system to operate the newly opened New York Terminal. Running from Manhattan Transfer near Harrison, New Jersey east to the beautiful Penn Station and ultimately to the sprawling Sunnyside Yard in Queens.

Map detailing the Pennsylvania Railroad's electrified territory circa 1947. Collection of    Rails and Trails .

Map detailing the Pennsylvania Railroad's electrified territory circa 1947. Collection of Rails and Trails.

Soon after the benefits of electric traction were realize in the New York Terminal, attention was focused on the Philadelphia area to relieve congestion, in particular operations radiating from the stub-end Broad Street Station complex. After considerable research the railroad adopted the use of high voltage alternating current for this and all future projects like that of its northern neighbor the New Haven who began use of this technology as early as 1907. Initial electrification included the district between Broad Street and Paoli on the Main Line, which was completed in 1915, followed by the Chestnut Hill Branch in 1918, and the White Marsh Branch in 1924.

PRR Document ET 1 Circa 1935. This document highlights a number of important specifications and layout of the newly completed electrified system, including catenary cable design, substation locations, insulator types and the completion dates of each segment among other items.  Collection of PRR.Railfan.net

PRR Document ET 1 Circa 1935. This document highlights a number of important specifications and layout of the newly completed electrified system, including catenary cable design, substation locations, insulator types and the completion dates of each segment among other items. Collection of PRR.Railfan.net

Expansion continued south to Wilmington on the main line including the branch to West Chester in 1928 and north on the main line to Trenton and the Schuylkill Valley Branch to Norristown in 1930 thus completing the electrification of Philadelphia region suburban lines. Subsequent studies indicated an economical advantage of electrification outside the commuter zones for regional and long distance trains between New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Harrisburg, prompting Pennsylvania Railroad President William Wallace Atterbury to close the gaps in electrification beginning late in 1928. Despite the Great Depression the electrification project continued through 1933, completing the retrofit of the New York Terminal for AC traction and finishing catenary work to complete the network to Wilmington and Paoli.

The PRR electrified network still serves the modern needs of Amtrak, providing propulsion for Acela, regional and local passenger rail service through out the Northeast. At Shore, on the Northeast Corridor a southbound passes as another northbound region approaches. Note the catenary above the void in front of the camera, this is where the line to Delair diverges and used to have multiple tracks, all electrified into Pavonia Yard in Camden.

The PRR electrified network still serves the modern needs of Amtrak, providing propulsion for Acela, regional and local passenger rail service through out the Northeast. At Shore, on the Northeast Corridor a southbound passes as another northbound region approaches. Note the catenary above the void in front of the camera, this is where the line to Delair diverges and used to have multiple tracks, all electrified into Pavonia Yard in Camden.

Understanding that Wilmington would not be a suitable southern terminal for electrification, catenary was extended to Washington DC including Potomac Yard, financed by a 70 million dollar loan secured from depression era federal recovery programs. Beginning in January of 1934, various reports say up to 20,000 men went to work, comprising of furloughed railroad employees and new hires in the electrical / construction trades to complete the electrification of the New York – Washington DC main line, which opened for business on February 10th 1935.

As a result of the success on the north south “corridor” the PRR sought to complete electrification from the eastern seaboard west to the Harrisburg terminal including all associated freight and passenger main lines. Work commenced on the Low Grade from Morrisville to Enola, the main line from Paoli to Harrisburg and the on the Columbia Branch and Columbia & Port Deposit. Completed in 1938 the entire electrification created a powerful conduit that put the railroad in an excellent position to handle the impending pressure of war time traffic demands.

The Harrisburg power Dispatchers office, which was slated to close the beginning of this month controlled the electrical supply network for both signal and catenary systems. This massive installation is an engineering marvel by itself, an impressive monitor and control system consisting of hundreds of push button breakers and miles of wiring. Though this facility remained in service, the actual console was taken off line and replaced by computers which were located out of view.

The Harrisburg power Dispatchers office, which was slated to close the beginning of this month controlled the electrical supply network for both signal and catenary systems. This massive installation is an engineering marvel by itself, an impressive monitor and control system consisting of hundreds of push button breakers and miles of wiring. Though this facility remained in service, the actual console was taken off line and replaced by computers which were located out of view.

The electrified infrastructure has remained visibly the same over the ensuing decades, surviving the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central, Conrail and Amtrak. Though Conrail abandoned the electrified freight service in the 1980's Amtrak continues to maintain and modify where needed the original fixed tension catenary system. With the implementation of CTEC, its centralized traffic and electrical dispatching center, the company has slowly decommissioned all the former PRR power dispatching facilities in favor of new computerized systems. Today, when you ride the Northeast Corridor, look at the details amongst this great infrastructure, they reveal the various phases of construction and symbolize the ingenuity and engineering ability of the great Pennsylvania Railroad.

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.