Railroads played a large part in Cumberland Valley's rich history and connected the area to the rest of the country. As the region became a hub for such industries as steel, coal, iron, and agriculture, the railroads facilitated the transportation of these goods throughout the country.
The Cumberland County Historical Society pays homage to the importance of railroads to Cumberland County's history with its newest exhibit, Railroading in the Valley: A Collaborative Exhibit Looking at the History of Railroads in the Cumberland Valley will open on April 14, 2023. Highlights include:
- Gardner Corner Gallery: Featuring a scale model of The Pioneer, the 1st locomotive in Cumberland County
- Tood Hall: A mobile exhibit featuring images from various collections in Cumberland County illustrating the role of railroads in everyday life.
- PK Miller Rotating Gallery: A historical look at railroading in Cumberland Valley from Harrisburg to Hagerstown, MD, featuring artifacts, text panels, and an interactive model train display by the Cumberland Valley Model Railroad Association.
- Kramer Rotating Gallery: Featuring objects, ephemera, images, and video from various collections throughout the county from the "Railroad Age."
- Bradley Photo Hall: A reboot of a previous CCHS photo exhibit from the Jim Bradley railroad photo collection.
- G.B. Stuart History Workshop: 150th Anniversary of Mt. Holly Springs
The Pennsylvania Assembly chartered the Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVVR) in 1831 to run between Carlisle and Bridgeport (now Lemoyne). It was among the first railroad charters in the country. However, the company failed to raise the necessary capital, and the charter was dormant until 1835 when it was revised to run between Chambersburg and Bridgeport. On August 19, 1837, the first excursion ran from Carlisle to White Hill, with horse-drawn transportation across the Market Street Bridge into Harrisburg. By the end of 1837, the line was complete between Bridgeport and Chambersburg, home of the corporate headquarters and primary maintenance facilities.
Between Harrisburg and Chambersburg, the train made stops in Mechanicsburg, Carlisle, and Shippensburg. Railroad enthusiasts will appreciate that the CVVR ran the first passenger sleeping car in the country on the Chambersburg to Harrisburg route in 1839. The berths were upholstered boards in three rows, one above the other, held by leather straps. During the day, they were folded back against the walls.
In 1859, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought a controlling interest in the CVRR to prevent the Reading Railroad from partnering with the CVRR and connecting with the B&O. CVRR management remained in place, with the addition of PRR members to the board of directors.
During the Civil War
The Franklin Railroad from Chambersburg to Hagerstown, MD, was initially beset with financial difficulties. It was acquired and rebuilt by the CVRR before the Civil War. During the war, thousands of federal troops traveled from Harrisburg to Hagerstown on the CVRR, followed by trainloads of supplies.
In 1862, Confederate cavalry destroyed CVRR buildings, equipment, track, and rolling stock in Chambersburg. In 1863, attacks on the CVRR continued as far north as Mechanicsburg. Finally, in 1864, Chambersburg was burned, affecting CVRR employees and their families. Despite all the damage, the CVRR came out of the war in a much better financial position than before the war.
After the Civil War
After the war, the railroad went on a building spree, including the Mechanicsburg Stationmaster's House in 1866 and the Mechanicsburg Passenger Station in 1867. The first "Freight House" in Mechanicsburg was built in 1874, with the current freight station built about 1886.
Several companies built branch lines from the CVRR main line to serve iron mines and furnaces along South Mountain. Three of them failed financially and were absorbed by the CVRR., including the line to Dillsburg. After another national financial collapse in 1873, the CVRR built several parks along these lines, hoping to transport crowds of people to leisure and events at the parks. One of these was Williams Grove Park, which later became the annual Granger's Convention site, drawing huge crowds from the eastern US.
By late 1881, the CVRR was becoming more integrated with the PRR. The PRR was buying additional CVRR stock, and it was apparent that a complete takeover was in the plans. In 1902, the CVRR became part of a PRR route to move coal from West Virginia to their dock in New Jersey, serving the port of New York City. Passenger service was also extended into West Virginia. With these changes, in addition to regular business, trains passed through Mechanicsburg 24 times daily. There were as little as 20 minutes between some trains.
During World War I, the US government took over the operation of all US railroads. Still, the Pennsylvania Railroad completed its acquisition of the Cumberland Valley Railroad in 1919 and began to operate it in 1920, when control was returned to the owners. The Cumberland Valley Railroad became the Cumberland Valley Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In 1952, service was discontinued as lines were re-routed away from former hubs such as Mechanicsburg, Carlisle, and Shippensburg.
The Enola Yard, located in East Pennsboro Township along the western shore of the Susquehanna River, was built in 1905 by the Pennsylvania Railroad and was the world's largest freight yard in 1956. Initially, the yard processed 7,000 cars daily. That number increased to 11,000 cars per day by 1953. Traffic began declining after the PRR renovated and expanded Conway Yard near Pittsburgh in 1959. Conrail took over the operation in 1976, and the Enola location faced several additional service reductions. Owned by Norfolk Southern since 1999, operations have increased. Today, Norfolk Southern operates 2,419 miles of track in Pennsylvania and employs 2,398 people statewide. (Source: http://www.nscorp.com/content/nscorp/en/about-ns/ns-state-facts/pennsylvania-statefacts.html)
Repurpose and Reuse
Although the heyday of railroads in Cumberland Valley has long since passed, their influence continues to be seen today. Visitors can take a tour throughout Cumberland Valley to learn more about this industry's importance to the region and its economy.
Today, the Cumberland Valley Railroad Museum features artifacts representing the history of the Cumberland Valley, Penn Central, and Conrail Railroads and exhibits depicting how these railroads affected the region. The museum is located inside a restored 1956 Penn Central 50-foot boxcar and serves as a focal point of the Shippensburg Station trailhead of the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail. On April 1, 2023, the Conrail Historical Society opened the Conrail Museum adjacent to the Cumberland Valley Railroad Museum. The new museum will be housed in a fully restored 86-foot Conrail boxcar and will display the Conrail Historical Society's artifacts and archival collection.
Photo: Cumberland Valley Rail Trail
Outdoor enthusiasts can hike, bike, and walk or horseback on the 13-mile Cumberland Valley Rail Trail following the abandoned Cumberland Valley Railroad corridor from Shippensburg to Newville. Along the way, enjoy interpretive way-point signs on the agricultural and Civil War heritage along the Trail. Pennsylvania has the third most rail trails of any state in the country, with more than 2,100 miles along 200 different trails.
With the opening of its railroad exhibit on April 14, 2023, the Cumberland County Historical Society, located in downtown Carlisle, will serve as the epicenter of all things railroad-related. If you can't make it for their exhibit, check out their Gardner Digital Library. This online resource offers several engaging stories and historical accounts of the county's railroads.
LeTort Spring Garden Preserve sits at the headwaters of LeTort Spring Run and features an 1881 Pennsylvania Bank Barn, an associated 1820's springhouse, and opportunities for hiking and wildlife viewing. Remnants of the South Mountain line, which ran through this site in the 1860s, can still be seen today.
Photo: Mechanicsburg Railroad Museum/Passenger Station
The Mechanicsburg Museum Association was founded in 1975 to promote Mechanicsburg's unique history. It owns and preserves four Mechanicsburg buildings built by the Cumberland Valley Railroad: the 1866 Stationmaster's House, the 1886 Freight Station, the 1867 Passenger Station, and the 1899 Washington Street Station. The Passenger Station features exhibits on Mechanicsburg and Cumberland Valley Railroad history; the Freight Station features changing exhibits; and the Stationmaster's House provides a glimpse of life from the 1860s. The Washington Street Station is a small building with displays that can be viewed through the window.
While the Enola Rail Yard is not open to the public, visitors can stop by the Historical Society of East Pennsboro to view an assortment of items highlighting the rail yard's history.
Photo: Adams-Ricci Park
Adams-Ricci Park in Enola has a 1942 vintage Caboose once used on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Rockville Bridge is the longest stone masonry arch railroad viaduct ever built. Completed in 1902 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the bridge crosses the Susquehanna River and remains in use today. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It can be viewed from several locations along the banks of the river.
The Harris Tower was constructed by the PRR in 1929 and opened in 1930. Its 113 interlocking levers controlled a complex maze of switches and signals along over 3,000 feet of track between Herr Street and the middle of the Harrisburg passenger station platforms. As the amount of tracks in Harrisburg was reduced, and regional control operations were computerized and centralized, the tower’s role was diminished. It was closed in November 1991. Today, the Harris Tower serves as a museum that allows visitors to control virtual trains through a simulation of the 1940 track pattern based on the period-correct PRR timetables and train schedules.
Special thanks to the Cumberland County Historical Society and the Mechanicsburg Museum Association for providing a summary of CVRR’s long history.
Header Image: Pioneer served the Cumberland Valley RR, connecting Harrisburg, Pa. with Hagerstown, Md. and Winchester, Va. The locomotive was designed specifically to pull two-car passenger trains. Fire damaged it badly during a Confederate raid on the CVRR roundhouse at Chambersburg. The CVRR rebuilt the engine and operated it on light, one- and two-car passenger trains till the mid-1880s. (Source: https://www.si.edu/object/cumberland-valley-railroad-steam-locomotive-pioneer%3Anmah_875724)