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
In a strip of land between the former Harrisburg and Lancaster Railroad's Columbia branch and the Susquehanna River in modern day Royalton, Pennsylvania lays one of the few remaining clues of another transportation empire that succumbed to the practicality of the railroads. The State owned Mainline of Public Works was completed in 1834 creating a multimodal transportation network to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in direct competition with the Erie Canal. Consisting of over 273 miles of canal and 120 miles of railroad, the system utilized various modes of transport based on geographic necessity. The Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad connected its namesake towns to the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The Eastern Division ran 43 miles north from Columbia along the east bank of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster and Dauphin Counties. The canal made a northern connection to the Juniata Division Canal at Duncan’s Island and intermediate connections to Harrisburg and the Union Canal in Middletown. The Juniata Division paralelled the Juniata River making connection with the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Hollidaysburg where canal boats were then transported by rail over a series of inclined planes to cross the Allegheny ridge at a summit of 2322 feet above sea level. West of the Allegheny summit the Portage Road made connection to the Western Division Canal in the City of Johnstown following the path of the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers westward to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River.
The dangerous and slow inclined planes of the Portage Road along with the canals would prove to be the downfall of the Public Works system limited by capacity and the seasonal nature of operations. The vast and diverse infrastructure needed constant work, many cases in remote areas making the system costly to maintain. By the 1840’s some investors began to look to the railroad as a better transportation solution and in 1846 the charter to build the Pennsylvania Railroad, a privately owned rail route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh would challenge the Public Works System running almost exactly the same route. While the benefit of rail transportation over the Public Works was quickly realized subsequent expansion east to Philadelphia in 1854 would create the first all rail route across the state, dealing the final blow to the canals and Portage Railroad. The PRR eventually purchased most of the bankrupt Public Works system from the state to improve their mainline, often offering favorable routes alongside of towns rather than the early street running alignments of the original 1846 railroad.
Straddling the towns of Middletown and Royalton in Dauphin County, Royalton interlocking was a strategic point where most freight and passenger traffic separated for the trip east to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Approximately 10 miles east from State Interlocking the mainline and Columbia branch (today Norfolk Southern's Royalton branch) ran along side each other with the freight operating on tracks furthest to the north. The Columbia branch, which drops south along the Susquehanna diverted freight trains away from the main at Royalton requiring traffic to cross into the path of the busy passenger main. To avoid this potential traffic disruption the PRR applied a proven technique of building a fly-over to allow all tracks/trains to gain proper position without the need to physically cross or intersect the other route.
Prior to the late 1950's Royalton interlocking was controlled by a two story frame tower that sat on the eastern side of the tracks (railroad was oriented north - south here). The early interlocking plant was of an older design using a mechanical armstrong complex to control the switches and signals between the mainline and Columbia branch. The Columbia branch served as a back road connection from the mainline and freight yards in Harrisburg to the low-grade route via Shocks Mill allowing freight from all directions to bypass congestion in Enola when necessary. In the late 1950’s Royalton interlocking was made a remote facility named Roy with control given to the operator at State Tower in Harrisburg. Evidence of this project survives in the form of a single story relay house that rests on the foundation of the former tower. As part of Amtrak’s Keystone Line rehab, Roy was rebuilt once again providing Amtrak with a set of crossovers for operational flexibility (the line is now governed by Rule 261-allowing bi-directional traffic flow) while maintaining the connection to the Royalton branch.
Special thanks to Mr. Don Rittler, who's input on operations at Royalton provided some insight on this relatively obscure facility on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Don worked as a tower operator for the PRR and its successors in the Harrisburg region from 1937-1979.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.