On this Day in History: Enola Low Grade officially opened in a section called the “Deep Cut”

On this Day in History
At noon on July 27, 1906, the Atglen & Susquehanna (A&S) Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) or commonly referred to today as the Enola Low Grade, was officially opened in a dedication ceremony attended by hundreds of people outside of Quarryville in a section called the “Deep Cut.”

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

The line ran from Atglen, Chester County, through Quarryville to the Crewell Station on the Susquehanna River.

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 blasting and digging through 90 feet of solid rock in this very spot.

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

Getting to this moment highlighted the completion of one of the greatest feats of engineering in Lancaster County. Its ambitious goal had been to create a low-grade railroad line with no slope steeper than one percent and no curve sharper than two degrees.

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. Rarely short on confidence, the PRR was ready to meet this challenge with heavy steam-powered equipment, tons of dynamite, and thousands of laborers.

But great projects like these often come at a high price. The Enola Low Grade was no exception. The main priority was completing the job as quickly as possible. Safety was an afterthought, and 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.

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

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.

Explosion Kills Five
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September 2, 1905 issue of the New Era

The Slaughter Continues
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November 18, 1905 issue of the New Era

Two More Reported Dead
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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

In addition to the human cost, there was the price tag. The Lancaster County portion of the massive three-year project starting in 1903 cost $19.5 million or $548,000,000 million in today’s dollars.

End of an Era

Despite the incredible cost in human lives and money, the Enola Low Grade only saw use for 82 years.

By the 1970s, the line had become redundant 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, removing the overhead catenary and then rerouting traffic over the former Reading Company’s line from Harrisburg to northern New Jersey.

The Enola Low Grade saw its 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 through which the line passes. In addition to accepting just $1 from each township, Norfolk Southern provided $1.4 million for bridge removal or repair.

Download the Enola Low-Grade Trail map

Today, the Enola Low-Grade Trail is open for nearly 29 miles continuous miles (except at the Martic Forge trestle while the bridge is being repaired) between the Susquehanna River and Atglen for hiking and biking.

Work near Quarryville had some of the deepest cuts as workers spent an entire year blasting their way through solid rock to maintain the level grade of the A&S. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC.

Learn More

Side Quest: Explore the wreckage of the Safe Harbor Christmas train accident

When the Conrail freight train hit the boulder, lower left, the cars behind the engine crumpled into a zig-zag formation.
When the Conrail freight train hit the boulder, lower left, the cars behind the engine crumpled into a zig-zag formation.

What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? Conrail engineer, William Neway, found out first-hand in 1981 when his freight train collided with a 3-ton boulder below Safe Habor. Click the link to learn more.


Side Quest: How to Access the Safe Harbor Bridge Trestle

Safe Harbor Bridge Trestle

I’ve received many questions asking how to best access the Safe Harbor Bridge Trestle. As I see it, you have four options. They are from shortest to longest Safe Harbor, Shenks Ferry, Colemanville Church Road, and Turkey Hill Overlook Trail. Happy adventuring! Click the link for details on where to find all the access points.


Brief History of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad

In 1903, the Pennsylvania Railroad began an ambitious three-year engineering project which ran through Lancaster County, moving 22 million cubic yards of rock, killing more than 200 men, and costing half a billion in today’s dollars. This bold endeavor was the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Today, it is a popular rail trail commonly known as the Enola Low Grade. Click the link to learn its history and see additional images.


Adventure Awaits!

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