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

I recently came into possession of these Enola Low Grade images dating from between 1903 to 1906, which come courtesy of Herb Fisher via Benton Webber. Fisher often makes excellent contributions to The Lancasterian Facebook group.

Here are those images with a brief history of the project.

Cutting through the southern end like a demarcation line is one of the most remarkable feats of engineering marvels in Lancaster County—the Atglen & Susquehanna (A&S) Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) 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.

Chief Engineer William, H Brown, saw that the ablest contractors were employed to complete this challenging work. Image courtesy of Herb Fisher.

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.

The pictured railroad tracks are temporary narrow gauge used to haul 1.3 million cubic yards of debris. Image courtesy of Herb Fisher.

But great projects like these often come at a high price. The A&S was no exception. 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 constant 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.

The project claimed over 200 lives, including 11 men, when a dynamite factory exploded seven weeks before the dedication. 

The second 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 2017 dollars.

Excavation along the Susquehanna River in Conestoga or Manor Township. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

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.

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 historic project created a railroad superhighway allowing for the efficient transportation of fuel and food throughout the east coast for the next 50 years. It also freed the heavily used and less efficient lines for passenger use.

Guard Shanty. Image courtesy of Herb Fisher.

In April 1930, the Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam construction 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.

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. Kline Collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PMHC

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 transmission monopoles along the route of the A&S.

The Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad crossing the mouth of the Conestoga. Image courtesy of Lancaster History.

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.

Safe Harbor Trestle partially completed. Collection of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society, Columbia, PA.

Conrail eventually took ownership in 1976. They downgraded the line, first removing the overhead catenary and then 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 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.

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. Image courtesy of Herb Fisher.

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.

Today, the Enola Low-Grade Trail is open for nearly 29 miles between the Susquehanna River and Atglen for hiking and biking.

Adventure Awaits!

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