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Web Master: Eric Bickleman

Updated: September 17, 2012


 

The Stewartstown Railroad

 

 

The Stewartstown Railroad, a long time historical landmark in southern York County,

Pennsylvania, may seem dormant to the casual observer but the railroad is still very

much alive.  The railroad last operated in April of 2004, when a significant derailment

interrupted its operations.  It has been speculated that this excursion would be our last,

as the Company had been struggling financially and had not scheduled any additional

operations at that time.  Although rising insurance premiums have placed a hold on

passenger excursions for the foreseeable future, its principal supporters have been

working behind the scenes to insure that the future preservation of the railroad is assured.

 

Chartered in 1885 by local interests, the line provided freight and passenger service

from the small communities of the Deer Creek Valley to the Northern Central Railway

at New Freedom for its first eighty-seven years of existence.  Known as the "farmer's

railroad," its traffic base was largely agricultural in nature, supplanted by a number

of small manufacturing firms.  Unlike many railroads of its kind which succumbed to

the combined effects of the Great Depression and improved highways, the

Stewartstown Railroad survived primarily by switching from steam to gasoline motive

power.  Despite a dwindling traffic base, a loyal group of shippers, many of whom

owned shares in the Company, enabled it to outlast its only connection, the mighty

Pennsylvania Railroad.  Not long after the Pennsylvania was merged into the

ill-fated Penn Central, Hurricane Agnes tore through York County in 1972.  While the

Stewartstown Railroad itself was relatively unscathed, the connecting Northern Central

line suffered heavy damage.  With the Penn Central itself teetering on the verge of

collapse, it was unwilling to rebuild the storm-damaged line and when the USRA

planners declined to include the branch into Conrail, it appeared that Stewartstown

Railroad's fate was sealed.

 

Despite such overwhelming odds, the Stewartstown Railroad refused to file for

abandonment and, in fact, continued to maintain its right-of-way and locomotives,

ready to provide service.  The Company's perseverance was, at long last, rewarded

when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation restored the Northern Central

Line from New Freedom to a connection with the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad

in York.  In 1985, the company assumed operation of the Northern Central trackage

and resumed freight service only to have its largest shipper, the Summers Cannery in

New Freedom, close down following a merger with Hanover Brands.  The Company,

nevertheless, continued to provide freight service to three other shippers in the New

Freedom area as well as handle a number of special shipments for a local utility

company.  While ongoing efforts were made to drum up additional freight business,

the Company began operating passenger excursions to supplement its income.

 

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania eventually sold the connecting Northern Central

line to York County which desired to develop a Rails to Trails project along the corridor.

Following a series of disputes with the County, the Stewartstown terminated its lease

of the line in 1992, and was once again left without an outlet for its freight customers.

Excursion trains continued over the original line from Stewartstown to New Freedom.

Service was resumed on the connecting line by the new Northern Central Railway in

1996 and continued until 2001, although no freight service was handled.  Despite these

setbacks, a core group of individuals continued to operate passenger service over the

Stewartstown Railroad until the spring of 2004.

 

Today, while the Stewartstown Railroad again lies dormant, it remains intact, both

physically and in its corporate structure.  It is, in fact, the only railroad in York County,

and quite possibly in the Commonwealth, to retain its original corporate structure and

its original right-of-way completely intact throughout its entire existence. 

 

For a more detailed history of the railroad, see "The Story of the Stewartstown

Railroad" by Eric J. Bickleman which is available for purchase from the Baltimore

Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society at:

 

www.nrhsbalto.org

 

Email:  The Stewartstown Historical Society