Visit the ambitious Lancaster County engineering project that killed 200 men and cost half a billion dollars. Traverse the Enola Low-Grade Rail Trail.

Cutting through the southern end like a demarcation line is one of the greatest feats of engineering marvels in Lancaster County—the Atglen & Susquehanna (A&S) Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) or commonly referred to today as the Enola Low Grade. The goal of this ambitious project? Create a low-grade railroad line with no slope steeper than one percent and no curve sharper than two degrees.

Easy on paper.
Difficult in reality. 

If you are ready to start the Enola Low-Grade Adventureclick here. Otherwise, read on for more history about the Atglen & Susquehanna.

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The eastern half of the A&S. Westward from Parkesburg (milepost 0.0), the A&S raised an earthen road on the Chester Valley floor and etched deep canyons through the hills of the Susquehanna River Valley in order to reach Safe Harbor (milepost 27.36).

Leveling the relatively inaccessible and often rugged terrain of southern Lancaster countryside especially along the steep banks of the Susquehanna River seemed like an improbable venture. Not even the regional canals of the nineteenth century were able to traverse Manor Township’s western edge. Rarely short on confidence, the PRR was ready to meet this challenge with heavy steam-powered equipment, tons of dynamite, and thousands of laborers.

Roughly 1000 men and 150 horses were deployed along the bluffs of the Susquehanna and hundreds more worked east and west from Quarryville. Many of these men were immigrants from Italian, Turkish, Syrian, and other southeastern European countries taken directly from incoming boats to the Lancaster job site.

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An excavation crew pauses with a rail mounted steam shovel. Steam shovels and air powered drills were initially utilized to excavate the right of way in Manor Township as well as the deep cuts along the line to the east. 

It also meant dangerous blasting that in some areas created valleys 90 feet deep. The dynamite was often hoisted up the cliffs by hand and then detonated. The process was repeated over and over until the route was close to its desired elevation. From there, men finished the work with steam shovels and drills and finally pickaxes and shovels.

All that dynamiting generated 22 million cubic yards of earth and rock which was used as fill to level the low areas of the route that in some locations completely erased valleys and hollows. The project significantly and permanently changed the landscape along its route.

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Blasting along the Susquehanna River approaching Safe Harbor in preparation for the A&S Branch.

Along the route, approximately 80 beautifully constructed culverts and bridges of both steel and stone located above and below the railroad to span valleys, streams, and dirt roads were built. Many of these arches utilized massive 3′ X 3′ X 6′ to 8′ stones.

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The upper span of this bridge is the 1560 foot long Safe Harbor Trestle located at the Safe Harbor Dam, PA. It is a steel deck truss trestle that spans the Conestoga River at Safe Harbor. Below it is the Port Road Bridge.

The High Price of Progress

But great projects like these often come at a high price. The A&S was no exception. For starters, the main priority was completing the job as quickly as possible. Safety was an afterthought. As such dynamite was a frequent and necessary tool. The persistent use of the explosive made the job much more dangerous with flying debris and premature detonations killing or injuring scores of men.

Local papers were filled weekly with tragic stories of men killed on the job with headlines that read “Blown Into Atoms His Awful Fate” and “Four Men Torn to Shreds at Highville.” Construction-related obituaries regularly appeared in the papers. All told, the project claimed over 200 lives including 11 men when a dynamite factory exploded seven weeks before the dedication. Learn more about the dynamite factory explosion in this Uncharted Lancaster adventure. If you were looking for potentially haunted locations in Lancaster County, the 200 lost souls of the A&S might be a good place to start.

The second was the price tag. The Lancaster County portion of the massive three-year project starting in 1903 cost $19.5 million dollars or $548,000,000 million in 2017 dollars.

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The highlighted path shows the path of Atglen & Susquehanna Low-Grade Branch.

Dedication

At noon on July 27, 1906, the A&S—which ran from Atglen, Chester County, through Quarryville to the Crewell Station on the Susquehanna River—was officially opened in a dedication ceremony attended by hundreds of people outside of Quarryville in a section called the “Deep Cut.” Prominent Quarryville citizen, hardware dealer, and Groundhog Lodge founder George Hensel hoisted a silver-plated hammer and drove a silver spike into the track with three blows to officially open the line. Many of the men in attendance had spent the past year in this very spot blasting and digging through 90 feet of solid rock.

The historic project created a railroad superhighway which allowed for the efficient transportation of fuel and food throughout the east coast for the next 50 year as well as freeing up the existing heavily used and less efficient lines for passenger use.

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On July 27, 1906, the dedication ceremony was held near Quarryville in an area called the “Deep Cut” officially opening the A&S Branch.

Electrification

In April 1930, construction of the Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam began and by the following year work was complete. Built on the Susquehanna River near the mouth of the Conestoga, the dam was within a stone’s throw of the A&S. On December 7, 1931, the dam began producing power.

With an easily accessible and inexpensive power source, it wasn’t long until the PRR began planning the transition from steam locomotion to electric. Just seven years after the dam was built, the A&S was electrified with an overhead line and paired poles to power the trains via Safe Harbor power generation.

Even today Safe Harbor continues to supply electricity to the regional grid via the A&S for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor passenger service. Amtrak continues to upgrade the line. In 2011 Amtrak installed a new generation of catenary mono poles along the route of the A&S.

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1931 postcard of Safe Habor Hydroelectric Dam.

End of an Era

The A&S proved both popular and profitable for about 50 years. Peak service was in 1941 when the average A&S freight length was 89 cars between 3,500 to 4,000 feet. But after World War 2, railroads nationwide began to experience a decline of service. Eventually, the line became redundant in the 1970s as rail traffic further diminished and an alternate freight route to Philadelphia gained operational favor.

Conrail eventually took ownership in 1976. They downgraded the line, first removing the overhead catenary and then by rerouting traffic over the former Reading Company’s line from Harrisburg to northern New Jersey.

Just 82 years after its dedication, the A&S saw it’s last train on December 19, 1988. The following year Conrail petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line. In 1990, the track was removed.

Rail to Trail

Over the next 20 years, what remained of the abandoned A&S began to disappear under heavy vegetation. But in July of 2008 Norfolk Southern Railway, who now owned the property, sold what remained of the A&S to the seven townships which the line passes through. In addition to accepting just $1 from each township, Norfolk Southern provided $1.4 million for bridge removal or repair.

Today, the Enola Low-Grade Trail, formerly the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch, is open for nearly 29 miles in disconnected segments between the Susquehanna River and Atglen for hiking and biking.

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Download the Enola Low-Grade Trail map

Uncharted Lancaster: Safe Harbor Adventure

But that’s enough history. If you have what it takes to complete this Uncharted Lancaster adventure by hiking or biking the Enola Low-Grade Trail there is a hidden treasure souvenir waiting as your reward! When you are ready to start the Enola Low-Grade Adventureclick here.

Atglen & Susquehanna Photo Gallery

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