Though we've discussed the trials and tribulations the Pennsylvania Railroad endured sharing the banks of the Susquehanna River, particularly on the Columbia and York Haven lines, I would like to take a chance to celebrate the river itself. The Susquehanna runs approximately 464 miles from the uplands of New York and Western Pennsylvania to create the longest river on the east coast to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The river's watershed drains some 27,500 square miles encompassing nearly half of the State of Pennsylvania. The broad shallow river winds a wandering course to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at Harve De Grace, Maryland. Through various routes including the mainline, York Haven, Port Road and Northern Central the PRR follows considerable lengths of the Susquehanna. In particular, for this post at least, we celebrate some of the natural beauty of the mighty river in context of Lancaster County and the PRR York Haven and Columbia branch. Enjoy!
Photographs & History
Chickies Rock is a unique geological feature along the Susquehanna River known as an anticline, an arch of exposed rock arranged in layers that bend in opposite directions from its peak. Chickies is classified as the largest example of its kind on the East Coast. This particular location also played a significant role during the Civil War. As a highpoint along the Susquehanna River, the bluff was a strategic location for the Union Army during the Confederate’s occupation of Wrightsville across from Columbia during the Gettysburg Campaign. Later the Columbia and Donnegal Electric Railway would build a trolley line north from Columbia to the peak of the Rocks where it also constructed an amusement park. The line scaled 1900 feet up the west side of Chickies Hill Road on a 6% grade abruptly turning toward the peak to access the park. Opening in 1893 the line later extended down to Marietta providing both towns access to the popular recreation area. The trolley line and park continued to operate until its abandonment in April of 1932.
Looking to the north from Chickies Rock one can see the PRR York Haven line, the former alignment of the Columbia branch and the town of Marietta. The rail lines converge at the base of the rocks to squeeze south (railroad east) on a narrow flat along side the Susquehanna River. It was at this location during the construction of the low-grade that the PRR decided it would build the York Haven line out on a fill to avoid the curving profile of the older alignment between here and Columbia. As a result Kerbaugh Lake, named after one of the biggest contractors on the low-grade project was created. Though referred to as a lake the area was really a low laying swamp with poor drainage that separated the two alignments. In 1936 the flood prone Susquehanna rose to levels that consumed the new fill destroying the vital low-grade, flooding Kerbaugh Lake and the Columbia branch along the shore. The devastation required months to rebuild the York Haven line and forced the decision to abandon the older Columbia branch alignment. During this period the PRR also filled in Kerbaugh Lake and improved drainage in the area by installing several culverts between the lake and Susquehanna under the right of way. Today most of this area is part of the Chickies Rock Park operated by the Lancaster County Parks Department and provides some beautiful views along various trails following the former Columbia branch between Marietta and old Kerbaugh Lake in addition to park high above on Chickies Rock itself.
Continuing East on the York Haven line from Shocks Mill Bridge, we encounter more history on the fabled low-grade project of Alexander Cassatt. The east bank of the Susquehanna River was host to two major modes of transportation by the mid 1800’s, the Public Works Canal and the Columbia Branch of the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy and Lancaster Railroad. By the time plans came for the new low-grade the canals had been largely abandoned for some time, however the Columbia Branch became a vital link to the original Philadelphia and Columbia as well as the Columbia & Port Deposit Railroad providing connections to the mainline via Royalton. While designing the new low-grade the Columbia branch was the choice line to connect the Northern Central via the new Shocks Mills bridge, the old alignment would require revisions to fit the requirements of the new line. By the turn of the century Cassatt’s low-grade project would bring big changes to the local railroad scene. With the consolidation and construction of the new freight network many of the older track alignments were abandoned in favor of a separate right of way to avoid pedestrian and street traffic. Common to many locations on the PRR, these abandoned segments were either sold off or utilized as stub end tracks to serve industries still active near the town centers.
In the village of Rowenna, just east of the Shocks Mill Bridge, a segment of the old Harrisburg and Lancaster drops off the embankment where the Royalton - Columbia branch and the York Haven line meet at an interlocking simply known as Shocks. This spur continued parallel to the mainline for several miles accessing agricultural industries and a military transfer depot constructed during World War II. Sill in service today, this branch serves the former Military installation, now an industrial park as well as a feed trans-load facility off Vinegar Ferry Road.
Just a few miles further east we enter the Borough of Marietta. Established in 1812, Marietta once boasted many river, rail and canal dependent industries. On the south end of town remnants of the old Columbia Branch surface in an isolated area bound by Chiques Creek and Furnace Road. This area, which the creek and a local iron furnace are named after (albeit different spellings) derives from the Native American word Chiquesalunga, or crayfish. In different eras it has been spelled Chickies, Chikis and Chiques but all refer to this common meaning. The Chickies Furnace #1 opened in 1845 with production thriving until the late 1890’s closing due to better, more efficient facilities, most likely in nearby Steelton.
Among the foundations and rubble that remains of the former Chickies Furnace #1, the Columbia branch can be found along the old canal bed. You can spot telltale signs of PRR construction methods, the most immediate is the use of the ubiquitous 3 pipe railings on a bridge over a sluice between the canal and creek. Piers also remain from a deck bridge that carried the branch over the creek prior to the 1936 flood while the former roadbed of cinder ballast provides reference of where the line entered the area from the west. Just down stream on Chiques Creek, the York Haven line crosses the outlet to the Susquehanna on a W. H. Brown trademark 3 arch stone bridge well above high water. The history of when the Columbia branch was abandoned ties into not only the construction of the low-grade but also the great flood of 1936, subject of next week’s post!