It has been more than four years since an arsonist destroyed the Martic Forge Trestle on Thursday, April 12, 2018. But like a literal phoenix rising from the ashes, the 1905 structure has been returned to its former glory and is ready to ferry passengers between Conestoga and Martic Townships. The bridge officially opens to the public on Thursday, October 27, 2022, at around 2 pm after the conclusion of a private dedication ceremony.
Cutting through the southern end like a demarcation line is one of the most incredible 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.
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 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 Italian, Turkish, Syrian, and other southeastern European countries taken directly from incoming boats to the Lancaster job site.
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. They repeated this process 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. It should come as no surprise that the ambitious engineering project also claimed the lives of over 200 men. Click here to read more.
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 path.
Along the route, approximately 80 beautifully culverts and bridges of steel and stone located above and below the railroad to span valleys, streams, and dirt roads were built. Two of the line’s most iconic structures situated approximately 3.7 miles apart are the Safe Harbor and Martic Forge Trestle bridges.
At noon on July 27, 1906, the A&S officially opened in a dedication ceremony attended by hundreds of people outside Quarryville in a section called the “Deep Cut.” Many of the men in attendance had spent the past year in this spot, blasting and digging through 90 feet of solid rock. 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.
The historic project created a railroad superhighway which allowed for the efficient transportation of fuel and food throughout the east coast, as well as freeing up the existing heavily used and less efficient lines for passenger use.
The A&S remained both popular and profitable for about 50 years. Peak service was in 1941 when the average freight length was 89 cars. But after World War 2, railroads nationwide began to experience a decline in service. Eventually, the line became redundant in the 1970s as rail traffic further diminished and an alternate freight route to Philadelphia gained operational favor. Only 83 years after its dedication, the A&S saw its last train on December 19, 1989. The following year Conrail petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line. In 1990, the track was removed. The following tiled gallery shows the Martic Forge Trestle in the early 2000s.
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 that the line passes. In addition to accepting just $1 from each township, Norfolk Southern provided $1.4 million for bridge removal or repair.
Then in 2015, a $750,000 makeover turned the abandoned century-old Martic Forge railroad trestle into a wood crossing for rail trail users. A parking lot, trailhead, and a pedestrian crossing over Route 324 were installed on the Martic Township side and just about to open when the trestle was set afire in broad daylight in April 2018.
Though local officials quickly vowed to rebuild, several financial and physical obstacles promptly became apparent. There was a modest insurance payout, and most of it had to be used just to dismantle and dispose of the charred decking. Then it was discovered the intense heat from the fire had twisted some of the steel infrastructure. This time repairing the bridge would cost $3 million.
With hard lobbying, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the state Department of Community and Economic Development came up with significant grants. Both Martic and Conestoga supervisors contributed $400,000.
Township officials are not taking any chances, as the bridge’s decking is now concrete with galvanized metal railings. No one is setting this one ablaze!
Similar to the Safe Harbor Trestle, the one at the Martic Forge superstructure soars 146 feet in the air. However, instead of the Conestoga, this structure straddles the Pequea Creek. Its eastern support trestle once straddled a trolley line that rambled along the creek, shuttling passengers and packages between the resort town of Pequea and Millersville, PA.
From atop the 634-foot-long structure, the once bustling iron town of the aptly named Martic Forge can be seen. In the early 1750s, ironworks manufactured metal farm implements, domestic goods, and, during the Revolutionary War, cannons for George Washington’s Continental Army. Click here to read more.
Here is a timelapse video of the reconstruction progress of the Martic Forge Trestle since it was burnt in April of 2018. I eventually started taking the photos from the same location. I thought the decking would have the same design as Safe Harbor, but they have instead chosen a stainless steel or aluminum railing instead of wood. No one is burning this thing.
Accessing the Martic Forge Trestle
Here are four options for accessing the Martic Forge Trestle. They are listed from shortest to longest.
Colemanville Church Road Parking Lot
Approximately .4 miles one way to the trestle
From the Colemanville Church Road parking lot, you can easily access the Enola Low Grade. Here are the GPS coordinates to the location: 39.908037, -76.337108. Finding it can be a little challenging as there are two Colemanville Church Roads. At one time, the two roads were connected. You can access the parking area via River Road. It is not large and fills quickly on weekends
From the Colemanville Church Road parking lot, head east (or left). The trestle is .4 miles away, and you will almost instantly be able to see it. Your trip is entirely level and wheelchair accessible.
Red Hill Road Parking
Approximately 1 mile one way to the trestle
Further away is the Red Hill Road access area. It has a much larger parking lot than Colemanville Church Road. The GPS coordinates are 39.910060, -76.313542. From the parking area, head west; however, you will need to cross Route 324. Luckily there is a four-way stop at this busy intersection, so crossing the road should be easy. Your trip will be entirely flat.
Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve
Approximately 2 miles one way to the trestle
Google lists the address for Shenks Ferry as 857 Green Hill Rd S, Conestoga, PA 17516, but that stops short of the preserve, with most people stopping at a residential home. The Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve parking lot is located at the bottom of Green Hill Road off Shenks Ferry Road off of River Road. As you approach, you will drive through a large tunnel on your way to the bottom of the hill near the Susquehanna River. Here are the GPS coordinates: 39.905861, -76.368222.
From the Shenks Ferry parking lot (which is by far the largest of the four listed parking areas), walk up Greenhill Road to the Shenks Ferry tunnel you drove through earlier. There is some parking near the tunnel, but it is minimal. On the northern end of the tunnel, find the walking trail.
This short, steep path will take you up the hill to the Enola Low Grade rail trail. Once you reach the trail, turn left (east). The trestle is two miles away once your reach the rail trail. While your initial hike to the Enola Low Grade is steep, the remainder of your trip will be flat once you reach the main trail. Accessing the path with strollers or bikes from this location will be cumbersome.
Sigman Road Parking Lot
Approximately 2.75 miles one way to the trestle
There is a small parking area with only a few spots for accessing the Enola Low Grade off of Sigman Road. Here are the GPS coordinates: 39.918341, -76.279283. From the Sigman Road parking lot, you can again easily access the Enola Low Grade. From the parking lot, you will travel west (or left). It is approximately 2.75 miles one way to the trestle. Along the way, you will need to cross Route 324. Luckily there is a four-way stop at this busy intersection, so crossing the road should be easy. Your entire will trip is flat.
Brief History of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad
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. Easy on paper. Difficult in reality. Click here for a brief history of the Enola Low Grade.
Unlock the secrets of Kepler Lodge—Martic Forge’s ironmaster mansion, YWCA, and Jewish Community Center
This is your chance to own a piece of American history! Built in 1735 and used by millionaire ironmaster Robert Coleman between 1793 and 1805, Kepler Lodge is the Martic Forge’s crown jewel and is currently for sale. This former ironmaster’s mansion was also home to the YWCA in the 1930s and the Jewish Community Center in the 1950s. Unlock the secrets of 5,400 square foot Kepler Lodge and how to purchase the historic property when you click the link.
How did this Martic Forge property end up with 300 millstones? Learn the history of Flory’s Mill.
If you have ever driven down Route 324 towards the Martic Forge, you may have noticed a brick wall with at least five embedded millstones near the intersection of Hilldale Road. After years of driving past them, myself, I wonder two things. Why are they there? Where did they come from? Click the link to answer both questions.
A brief history of Martic Township Park
Today Martic Township Park is a forest thick with trees. But you might be surprised to know that the land was once barren after being clear cut in the production of charcoal to feed the nearby Martic Forge. Click the link to learn a brief history of Martic Township Park.
- LancasterHistory: Martic Forge image search
- Martic Forge trestle rises from ashes, Low Grade Rail Trail now linked [column]
- Remembering Lancaster County by Jack Brubaker
- Atglen and Susquehanna Branch
- Measuring Worth
- Enola Low-Grade Trail
- Enola Low-Grade Trail Trail Access Guide
- The Cost Of Labor | Constructing The A&S
- Workin’ on the railroad / A century ago, a monumental task began along the Susquehanna River
- The Atglen & Susquehanna Low Grade