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
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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 in disconnected segments between the Susquehanna River and Atglen for hiking and biking.

For a more in-depth history about the Enola Low Grade, click here.

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.

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