Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Celebrating Labor Day on the Pennsylvania Railroad

A remarkable PRR system map from 1855 showing the original main line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh including eastern connections to the Philadelphia & Columbia and Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad. Note the inscription of Chief Engineer Herman Haupt, who succeeded J. Edgar Thompson when he became the third president of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1847 where he would remain until his death in 1874. For 27 years as president, Thompson still played a very active role in engineering the PRR from a single track intrastate carrier to one of the most influential and wealthiest railroads in the land. Map created by J.P. & J. Lesley Jr. Topographers, the collection of the Library of Congress.  

A remarkable PRR system map from 1855 showing the original main line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh including eastern connections to the Philadelphia & Columbia and Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad. Note the inscription of Chief Engineer Herman Haupt, who succeeded J. Edgar Thompson when he became the third president of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1847 where he would remain until his death in 1874. For 27 years as president, Thompson still played a very active role in engineering the PRR from a single track intrastate carrier to one of the most influential and wealthiest railroads in the land. Map created by J.P. & J. Lesley Jr. Topographers, the collection of the Library of Congress.  

September 1st, 1849 marks a day of significant history in the early years of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1838 State and Philadelphia officials acknowledged the failure of the Main Line of Public Works and the need for a privately owned all rail route to preserve Philadelphia’s western trade. As a result surveyor, Charles L. Schlatter was sent to the wilds of western Pennsylvania to survey various routes for such a potential venture. Schlatter returned with three options; the one selected would follow the Juniata and Conemaugh Rivers, and by 1845 the legislature was asked to charter such a railroad.

Trimmers Rock, a location along the Juniata Division of the Main Line of Public Works canal system represents the typical landscape of the original PRR main line to Lewistown, loosely following the canal network the railroad later used to improve and relocate its main line alignment. Photograph by William H. Rau, collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc

Trimmers Rock, a location along the Juniata Division of the Main Line of Public Works canal system represents the typical landscape of the original PRR main line to Lewistown, loosely following the canal network the railroad later used to improve and relocate its main line alignment. Photograph by William H. Rau, collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc

Much to the dislike of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad who was attempting to build a line into Pittsburgh, the State Legislature passed an act on April 13th, 1846 incorporating the Pennsylvania Railroad.  The new company recruited J. Edgar Thomson as Cheif Engineer, and by early in 1847, the railroad let contracts to begin construction of the first 20 miles west of Harrisburg and 15 miles east of Pittsburgh, to meet requirements to make the B&O’s Pennsylvania charter null and void. By the end of 1848 more contracts for the grading of roadbed would total 117 miles of right of way west of Harrisburg to Logans Narrows. The anticipated operations to commence between Harrisburg and Lewistown by 1848, however, due to problems constructing the Susquehanna River bridge, the difficulty of obtaining rails fast enough and the overall lack of labor the opening would be delayed for some time.

The surviving main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad owes its success to the years of tireless improvements that all began with the charter to build a privately operated railroad connecting Philadelphia to the west in 1846 opening the route between Harrisburg and Lewistown on September 1st, 1849. The Main Line, looking west, Mifflin, Pennsylvania. 

The surviving main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad owes its success to the years of tireless improvements that all began with the charter to build a privately operated railroad connecting Philadelphia to the west in 1846 opening the route between Harrisburg and Lewistown on September 1st, 1849. The Main Line, looking west, Mifflin, Pennsylvania. 

The first segment of the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed and open for service providing a connection with the Canal and Turnpike system on September 1st, 1849. Though one of the easier segments of the original PRR construction this important date begins a chapter in rail transportation history that would forever change the landscape of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With much fan fare, the first through train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh departed On December 10th, 1852 commencing operation on the PRR which has been in continual service since. With the evolution of the PRR’s route in the 19th Century, advancements in technology and engineering the State’s first east west rail line would develop into a conduit of industry and commerce. The very same route that visionaries like C.L. Schlatter and J. Edgar Thomson laid out and successor William H. Brown improved upon survives today as a vital transportation link in the Norfolk Southern rail network, remaining in regular service for over 165 years.

Though for many of Labor Day marks the end of summer, we should all take a moment to acknowledge the countless men and woman that work to keep our rail networks viable, maintaining a transportation system that has been vital to American life for generations. Have a safe and happy Labor Day Weekend!

Main Line Tour Resumes!

Interior detail of the 1929 Lancaster passenger station. Lancaster is the county seat of Lancaster County and was an important junction between the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt Joy and Lancaster Railroad and the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway. After the PRR assumed operations of both railroads, Lancaster remained an important terminal for both passenger and freight operations in the area with many consignees including the large Armstrong Industries facility. 

Interior detail of the 1929 Lancaster passenger station. Lancaster is the county seat of Lancaster County and was an important junction between the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt Joy and Lancaster Railroad and the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway. After the PRR assumed operations of both railroads, Lancaster remained an important terminal for both passenger and freight operations in the area with many consignees including the large Armstrong Industries facility. 

There is a rich history associated with what became known as the Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Starting in the mid 1830’s the State owned Main Line of Public Works would construct a railroad between Philadelphia and Columbia, Pennsylvania connecting to a network of canals that was intended to compete with the Erie Canal. The system was troubled from the start as the advent of the railroad quickly triumphed over the slow, seasonal travel of the canals. The 1846 charter of the Pennsylvania Railroad eliminated any chance of the system succeeding as the new railroad paralleled the canal from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. Upon arrival at the Ohio River, the young PRR looked to expand from its current terminal points aiming to secure access to lines reaching West as well as to Philadelphia and New York. Initially the PRR had negotiated the right to operate over the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway in 1853 but poor track conditions, a result of the Main Line of Public Works financial distress, presented major limitations.

Seeking an alternative to the P&C the PRR surveyed a route in 1853 known as the Lancaster, Lebanon and Pine Grove Railroad, a route that would bypass the P&C all together, creating direct competition while taking away some of the State Works only railroad revenue. Construction however never took place, as the PRR finally purchased the failing Main Line of Public Works in 1857 for $7.5 million. This purchase included the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad providing exclusive control of the railroad to Philadelphia.

At the top of a complicated and dense triangle of heavy freight and passenger traffic funneling west from major costal cities, the Philadelphia Division was the gauntlet that fed traffic to the Middle and Northern Divisions. Map created with help of Elizabeth Timmons.

At the top of a complicated and dense triangle of heavy freight and passenger traffic funneling west from major costal cities, the Philadelphia Division was the gauntlet that fed traffic to the Middle and Northern Divisions. Map created with help of Elizabeth Timmons.

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Another formative railroad in the evolution of the PRR expansion east from Harrisburg was the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad. It was chartered in 1837 to connect Harrisburg and Lancaster to the Portsmouth Canal Basin in modern day Middletown. One of its founders and first president was a young James Buchanan who would later become the United State’s 15th President. Indicated by its name, this route provided an attractive connection with the PRR in Harrisburg to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in Lancaster via the new line, eliminating part of slow trip on the P&C. In 1848 the PRR contracted a lease for 20 years, which was later extended to 999 years to operate the HPMtJ&L, making it the first of many independent railroads the PRR would absorb to build its empire.

As the railroad expanded and traffic grew, this main line network proved to be outdated to meet the needs of the PRR. Extensive rebuilding, expansion, realignment and added infrastructure continued to alter the railroad landscape in bucolic Lancaster County. By the 1880s Chief engineer William H. Brown had begun improving the main line, expanding the route to the trademark four-track main line, and replacing lighter bridges with the ubiquitous stone arch bridge he became known for. Though these improvements alleviated congestion, the undulating grades of these alignments, which dated from the formative years of American railroad development, were far from ideal for the future.

Insets: Route guides based on 1954 Employee Timetables of the PRR Philadelphia Division - adjusted for eastward direction and  annotated to simplify presentation. You will see more of these for better reference and context of other locations as we continue our tour of the Main Line and Low Grade. 

Insets: Route guides based on 1954 Employee Timetables of the PRR Philadelphia Division - adjusted for eastward direction and  annotated to simplify presentation. You will see more of these for better reference and context of other locations as we continue our tour of the Main Line and Low Grade. 

Enter PRR President Alexander J. Cassatt who undertook a monumental system improvements project between 1902 and 1906 to eliminate operational bottlenecks and further modernize the PRR network. Cassatt and Brown would begin constructing what Chief Engineer and 3rd PRR President J. Edgar Thompson had envisioned many years before. Building a Low Grade route that provided freight traffic a dedicated right of way free of major grades, obstructions and curvature that would span the system between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, with the intention of going as far east as Colonia, New Jersey as well as a by-pass of the original Main Line into Philadelphia along Darby Creek.

A major piece of the this network was the Atglen and Susquehanna Branch, a two track main line that ran from a connection with the Northern Central south of Harrisburg, improving upon existing trackage to a location just south of Columbia, where the branch diverged off on what was the largest piece of new construction the PRR had taken on to date. Running across the rolling hills of Southern Lancaster County through cuts and fills, the A&S would connect back to the Main Line at Parkesburg continuing on a shared right of way to Thorndale where the routes split yet again, with the Low Grade continuing on the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch and the Trenton Cut-Off to Morrisville, and the Main Line into Philadelphia via Paoli. Opening in 1906, the A&S thrived for many years providing the capacity the railroad needed to handle the spike in traffic during World War I and II but would later fall prey to the Penn Central merger and subsequent creation of Conrail. As Amtrak inherited the main line between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, efforts were made to separate freight and passenger operations on the new railroads, forever changing the PRR network on the Philadelphia Division.

Starting next week we will resume our exploration of both routes, with many new photos, graphics and historical images to tell the story of the evolution of this important division on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Mainline Tour: Philadelphia Division Overview

Leaving the City of Harrisburg behind we will begin to explore the various lines radiating east. On the Philadelphia Division trains traverse routes purchased under PRR President, J. Edgar Thompson in an effort to gain access to Philadelphia. Later these routes would be improved upon or supplemented during President Alexander J. Cassatt’s series of system wide improvements which focused on reducing operational problems associated with the older alignments and increasing capacity

Images of upcoming posts exploring the former Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This series will include coverage on both the Mainline, Northern Central, Atglen & Susquehanna, Columbia and Port Deposit and Columbia Branch.

Images of upcoming posts exploring the former Philadelphia Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This series will include coverage on both the Mainline, Northern Central, Atglen & Susquehanna, Columbia and Port Deposit and Columbia Branch.

Understanding this network requires a look back to the early 1800’s during the building of canals as a key national transportation network. Pennsylvania followed suit with construction of the State Mainline of Public Works in 1826which was completed in 1834. The system would utilize a series of canals, inclined planes and railroads to move people and freight across the expansive countryside from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. While some considered the network an engineering marvel the seasonal and logistic limitations quickly proved impractical. In time the Mainline of Public Works would begin to struggle financially. Furthermore the State granted a charter to the Pennsylvania Railroad for construction of a private rail line connecting Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in 1846 which would be in direct competition to the Public Works network. While many protested the new technology, the PRR ultimately won building their right of way in many cases parallel to the canal alignments. Shortly after completion of this line, PRR president J. Edgar Thompson secured access east of Harrisburg via control of the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt. Joy and Lancaster Railroad (H&L) in 1849 providing  a connection to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway (P&C) in both Lancaster and Columbia.With this connection to the State operated P&C, the only all rail network between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would be created. With limited funding however, the P&C quickly became the operational lynchpin to quality rail service due to primitive trackage and poor right of way construction. By 1857 the PRR successfully purchased all remaining properties associated with the Public Works system, abandoning most of the canal and inclined plane operations but allowing the PRR to rebuild the P&C to suit the needs of the expanding railroad.

Detail of Pennsylvania Railroad system map circa 1855 listing connecting service with the Harrisburg & Lancaster RR, Columbia & Harrisburg RR and Columbia Railroad (actually the Philadelphia & Columbia) all which eventually would be taken over by the PRR. (Library of Congress Collection)

Detail of Pennsylvania Railroad system map circa 1855 listing connecting service with the Harrisburg & Lancaster RR, Columbia & Harrisburg RR and Columbia Railroad (actually the Philadelphia & Columbia) all which eventually would be taken over by the PRR. (Library of Congress Collection)

Around the same time the PRR would acquire access to Baltimore via control of the Northern Central in 1861 establishing connections to the mainline in Harrisburg and the former P&C and H&L near Columbia.  This line also provided connections to the Anthracite fields in Shamokin, Lake Ontario access via the Elmira Branch and a mainline to Buffalo, New York providing connections with Canadian Railways. During the system improvements of President A. J. Cassatt between 1899-1906 the Northern Central would also become the western anchor of a new freight only low-grade from New York and Philadelphia.  Built to separate heavy freight traffic from the current mainline with its winding curves and undulating grades of the original P&C and H&L, Cassatt and Chief Engineer, William H. Brown surveyed a line connecting with the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad (C&PD) near Safe Harbor on the Susquehanna River. The C&PD would become the link between Cassatt’s new low-grade, the industrial center Columbia and the Northern Central via a new bridge over the Susquehanna at Shocks Mills, providing access to existing lines to gain access to Harrisburg.  Subsequently the C&PD would also become the route of choice for moving freight to Baltimore via connection to the mainline at Perryville due to the water level alignment and lack of grades making the older NC route the default passenger line.

Detail of an 1863 system map shows the integration of the lines purchased under J. Edgar Thompson including the Northern Central which comes from the bottom center heading directly toward Hanover Junction. (Rutgers University Collection)

Detail of an 1863 system map shows the integration of the lines purchased under J. Edgar Thompson including the Northern Central which comes from the bottom center heading directly toward Hanover Junction. (Rutgers University Collection)

Known as the Atglen and Susquehanna the new line climbed the Susquehanna River valley slowly veering east to cut across the rolling countryside of Lancaster County.  Void of road crossings, major industry, challenging gradients or curves, the line came parallel to the mainline in a hamlet known as Atglen. Junction with the mainline was in neighboring Parkesburg via a fly-over arrangement insuring no delays to both freight and passenger traffic. Continuing east the mainline hosted combined freight and passenger traffic on four track mainline for nine miles to Thorndale where freight once again left on a low-grade line known as the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch.

Detail of a 1911 system map showing the completion of Cassatt's low-grade network by way of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch (lower center to lower right) between Cresswell and Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. (Rutgers University Collection)

Detail of a 1911 system map showing the completion of Cassatt's low-grade network by way of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch (lower center to lower right) between Cresswell and Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. (Rutgers University Collection)

Though large parts of this network have been abandoned the mainline still serves Amtrak’s successful Keystone Service while many of the lines along the Susquehanna River still connect the Norfolk Southern network to York and Baltimore via the old NC and C&PD. This segment of the mainline tour will explore the various routes the PRR used to move traffic between the Harrisburg and Philadelphia Terminals, utilizing imagery, maps and text to explain operations specific to each route.