Haunted Lancaster: Death by Dynamite. How building the Enola-Low Grade claimed 200 souls

Ghosts of the Enola-Low Grade

Where to find it: There were deaths and injuries along the entire route of the Enola-Low Grade, but a majority were located between Creswell and Shenks Ferry. Highlighted in yellow below. Here’s a map with trail access points

Mc Calls Ferry, PA, 1:62,500 quad, 1912, USGS
A majority of the deaths and injuries along the Enola Low-Grade occurred between Creswell and Shenks Ferry. The area is highlighted in yellow.

Background

Cutting through the southern end like a demarcation line is one of the greatest feats of engineering marvels and hazardous working environments in Lancaster County—the Atglen & Susquehanna (A&S) Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) or commonly referred to 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.
Dangerous in reality. 

Construction of the A&S began in 1903 and continued at a breakneck pace until July 27, 1906, when the line was dedicated. The branch was built to relieve congestion on the Philadelphia to Harrisburg Main Line and the railroad’s Columbia & Port Deposit (C&PD) line. Being designed for freight service, minimizing the grade profile was of high importance. Thus the branch became simply known as the “Low Grade.”

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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 local 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, thousands of laborers, and tons of dynamite.

Roughly 1,000 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 Italy, Turkey, Syria, and other southeastern European countries. The men were often taken directly from incoming boats to the Lancaster job site.

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A view of Safe Harbor showing the older Port Road and an upper route for the new A&S

The rock cliffs on the Susquehanna River were blasted for months to create shelves to carry the rails northward. There was a lower route for the older Port Road and an upper route for the new A&S. Both crossed the mouth of the Conestoga River at Safe Harbor on sweeping curves and new tandem bridges.

Compressed air from a converted rolling mill in Safe Harbor was piped up the cliffs to drill holes for filling with explosives. The dynamite was then carried up the cliffs by hand and finally detonated.

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Boxed dynamite was passed by hand along the treacherous river face.

The process was repeated over and over until the route was close to its desired elevation. In some areas that meant creating valleys 90 feet deep. 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. The project significantly and permanently changed the landscape along its path.

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The High Price of Progress

But great projects like these often come at a high price. The A&S was no exception. The endeavor’s main priority was completing the job as quickly as possible, no matter the cost. Armed with cheap recently arrived immigrant labor, safety was too often an afterthought.

The persistent use of explosives often in untrained hands made the already dangerous work deadly with flying debris and premature detonations killing or injuring scores of men.

Safe Harbor Blasting
Blasting along the Susquehanna River approaching Safe Harbor in preparation for the A&S Branch. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA

Grisly Headlines

Local papers were regularly filled with tragic stories of men killed on the job. Headlines read “Blown Into Atoms His Awful Fate” and “Four Men Torn to Shreds at Highville.” Construction-related obituaries frequently appeared in local newspapers. Here are several horrific headlines from local Lancaster newspapers.

Explosion Kills Five
Read the full article here

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September 2, 1905 issue of the New Era

The Slaughter Continues
Read the full article here

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November 18, 1905 issue of the New Era

Two More Reported Dead
Read the full article here

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November 18, 1905 issue of the New Era

Blown Up By Dynamite
Read the full article here

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November 29, 1905 issue of the Lancaster Examiner

County Shaken by Dynamite
Read the full article here

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March 3, 1906 issue of the New Era

A Terrific Explosion
Read the full article here

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March 3, 1906 issue of The News Journal

Ghosts of the Enola-Low Grade

If you were looking for potentially haunted locations in Lancaster County, the Enola Low-Grade’s path along the Susquehanna River would be an excellent place to start. All told 200 people died while constructing the ambitious project.

Fifty are buried on a hill in the woods above the former historic village of Safe Harbor. It was here that St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church once stood. The church, built-in 1854 by Irish ironworkers, served the village’s workers and their families until 1883. The church’s cemetery has tombstones belonging to Civil War veterans while others are victims of shootings and stabbings. Another section of the cemetery contains the unmarked graves of at least 50 Italian immigrants who helped build the Enola Low-Grade Line. A plaque commemorates the location.

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Of course, for some unlucky souls, there wasn’t anything to bury after an unfortunate mishap with TNT. Take for example the 11 men that died on June 9, 1906, when 2,500 of TNT accidentally detonated just off the A&S work site. The explosion obliterated the building containing the dynamite and tore the 11 men inside to pieces so small that ten were utterly unidentifiable. In fact, a single casket was interred at Colemanville United Methodist Church for the remains of ten of the victims. Learn more about the Shenks Ferry Dynamite Factory explosion.

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Funeral services for the dynamite factory victims at Colemanville United Methodist Church.

What happens when there’s nothing to bury? Can you find peace if you don’t have a final resting place? Are some of these unfortunate laborers forever doomed to work the now abandoned railroad?

People often report hearing loud explosions while near or on the Enola Low-Grade trail. Of course, it could just be local rifle ranges or hunting clubs. But then again, it might be echos of the past and the three years of explosive work that took place there.

Large boulders regularly “break off” the cliff walls above the trail. It could be natural environmental forces. But then again, it might be the work of some poor immigrant ghost forever trapped in time working the route of the A&S.

I’ve walked the Enola Low-Grade many times. There are, without a doubt, cold spots on the trail. Areas that hold the winter’s ice until late spring and remain cool on even the hottest summer days.

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There are several always cold spots on the trail.

With so many lives lost and so much energy detonated, the impact on the area is palpable.

So on your left! Because hikers and bikers aren’t the only things on the trail.

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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.

More Haunted Lancaster

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