Safe Harbor Mini-Adventure (2023): Trestle

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Location: Take the trail to the top of the Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge. The trailhead is within sight of the Susquehannock sign from the previous clue. Here are the GPS coordinates for the start of the trestle bridge: 39°55’26.7″N 76°22’53.7″W.

Clue: Find the spot that exactly matches the sketch below. Record the four words found on the oval plaque. The first word starts with a W.

History Brief: Built in 1905 for the Atglen and Susquehanna Branch (also known as the “Low Grade Branch”‘) of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Safe Harbor trestle can hold two fully loaded trains. The last train to cross it was on December 19, 1989. Here are some fun facts about the bridge and project:

  • Third highest trestle bridge in the U.S.
  • Second longest trestle bridge in Pennsylvania.
  • 150 feet high and 1,560 feet long.
  • Total cost: $9 million.

Rest of the Story: 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.

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.

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 explosives 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.

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.

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.

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