Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Columbia, Pennsylvania: 20th Century and the PRR Improvements Project

The area of Columbia along Front Street is host to Cola Interlocking. In this view looking east from the Chestnut Street bridge you can view the eastern limits of expansive interlocking which provides access to the original Philadelphia and Columbia Branch to Lancaster (diverging left) with the original Columbia and Port Deposit (Main Line to the right). To the west the PRR would become known as the York Haven line or Enola Branch. Note the 1877 PRR station, which survives along North Second Street.

The area of Columbia along Front Street is host to Cola Interlocking. In this view looking east from the Chestnut Street bridge you can view the eastern limits of expansive interlocking which provides access to the original Philadelphia and Columbia Branch to Lancaster (diverging left) with the original Columbia and Port Deposit (Main Line to the right). To the west the PRR would become known as the York Haven line or Enola Branch. Note the 1877 PRR station, which survives along North Second Street.

By the late 1800’s the Pennsylvania Railroad had developed into a well-heeled transportation system but the rapid growth of industry would necessitate system wide improvements to bring the railroad into the 20th century. In 1902 PRR President Alexander J. Cassatt and Chief Engineer William H. Brown would embark on a series of projects to eliminate bottlenecks and operational problems across the system. 

After the PRR acquired control of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway through the purchase of the Main Line of Public Works in 1857, various segments were improved during the second half of the 19th century. The route between Philadelphia and Lancaster became an integral part of the PRR Main Line connecting with the former Harrisburg & Lancaster creating the line we know today as Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor. The western end of the P&C would become a branch connecting the industrial and agricultural areas of Lancaster and Columbia. Due to the stiff grades both segments were less than ideal for heavy freight traffic. In addition to the P&C property accessing Columbia, the PRR had also gained controlled of the Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad’s Columbia branch via Royalton and the Columbia & Port Deposit by the mid to late 1800's, further establishing Columbia as an important railroad hub. Though much of these water level alignments provided a network to move freight to Harrisburg, Cassatt sought to build a new route east from Columbia running across Lancaster County to create a modern freight bypass from New York and Philadelphia to the Harrisburg area and the main line west.

Plate drawing circa1963 Cola Interlocking which controlled the junction of the York Haven line, Columbia branch and Columbia and Port Deposit as well as access to the local freight yard. This interlocking was part of a Centralized Traffic Control system that controlled a much larger district of trackage and interlockings. Collection of    The Broad Way   .

Plate drawing circa1963 Cola Interlocking which controlled the junction of the York Haven line, Columbia branch and Columbia and Port Deposit as well as access to the local freight yard. This interlocking was part of a Centralized Traffic Control system that controlled a much larger district of trackage and interlockings. Collection of The Broad Way.

The Low Grade as it was planned would run right through Columbia using the current alignment. From the east and west new construction would connect existing segments of the H&L and C&PD creating an improved main line designed to move freight on a new grade separated line. This new route would divert most freight traffic off the main line all together between Parkesburg and Harrisburg. Enola yard was completed in 1906 as part of the low grade project functioning as the western anchor for all freight trains and motive power between the Philadelphia and Middle Divisions. As a result Columbia importance as a major terminal would diminish due to its close proximity to the new facility, resulting in a significant loss of jobs in the area. Compounded by the diminishing local industry, a result of depleted ore and lumber resources, Columbia’s economy would begin a downward trend that continued through the Great Depression.

Cola tower was built in 1938 during the electrification to centralize traffic control on this freight network. Its jurisdiction reached forty miles to the east on the Port Road including the connection to the A&S branch while also controlling tracks to Shocks Mill and Lancaster via the Columbia branch.

Cola tower was built in 1938 during the electrification to centralize traffic control on this freight network. Its jurisdiction reached forty miles to the east on the Port Road including the connection to the A&S branch while also controlling tracks to Shocks Mill and Lancaster via the Columbia branch.

More change came on the PRR with the electrification of their network of rail lines in the Northeast.  One of the last segments of the ambitious project was completed in 1938 affording the PRR the benefit of electric traction on the Low Grade, Columbia branch and Columbia & Port Deposit. During the electrification project, the PRR also consolidated many of the early towers with two modern CTC facilities controlling most of this freight network. Cola tower in Columbia controlled all trains on the Columbia Branch to Lancaster, roughly forty miles of the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch including the junction with the A&S Branch at Port and the York Haven Line west to Shocks Mill. Cola’s jurisdiction over the C&PD was unique in that most of the line was actually under control of the Baltimore Dispatcher and was considered part of the Chesapeake Division, while Cola was part of the Philadelphia Division.

View looking west from the Columbia Branch near the Mill Street crossing. This is the original Philadelphia & Columbia alignment and is operated by NS to access Lancaster area industries and Dillerville Yard, the center of freight operations in the area. Note the steep descent of the branch, compared to the Low Grade visible to the left, which utilized heavier catenary supports on account of it supporting high voltage transmission lines to Royalton. In typical PRR fashion the Columbia branch was maintained to high standards including the use of catenary to provide a relief route in the event there was wreck on neighboring lines.

View looking west from the Columbia Branch near the Mill Street crossing. This is the original Philadelphia & Columbia alignment and is operated by NS to access Lancaster area industries and Dillerville Yard, the center of freight operations in the area. Note the steep descent of the branch, compared to the Low Grade visible to the left, which utilized heavier catenary supports on account of it supporting high voltage transmission lines to Royalton. In typical PRR fashion the Columbia branch was maintained to high standards including the use of catenary to provide a relief route in the event there was wreck on neighboring lines.

The Low Grade and electrification would survive the Penn Central debacle but ultimately met its demise after the creation of Conrail. Due to the high cost of electric supply charges, the aging infrastructure and the dependency on Amtrak to move trains east of Parkesburg it was decided to abandon an integral part of the system in favor of the neighboring Reading Railroad Main Line ending over 80 years of service on perhaps one of Cassatt and Brown’s greatest achievements. The Columbia and Port Deposit survives as Norfolk Southern’s artery to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Port of Baltimore. The former P&C to Lancaster provides NS a dedicated connection to Dillerville yard servicing the industrial areas around the seat of Lancaster County. Though not what used to be Columbia still sees a parade of freight daily, though mostly nocturnal, moving freight as Cassatt had envisioned over a century ago.

Columbia Pennsylvania: Early Transportation History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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