The Gettysburg Railroad

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the momentous Civil War battles and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, lies in Adams County, 526 square miles of lush hills and valleys, dairy and grain farms, clear streams and fruit orchards. The Gettysburg Railroad offers a steam engine journey through nature's gifts and the nation's history in 16-mile, 90-minute round-trip rides from Gettysburg to the small town of Biglerville in northern Adams County. It periodically ventures farther north on 50-mile round trips to the scenic town of Mount Holly Springs in the upper reaches of the county.

Gettysburg Railroad's two steam engines are remnants of America's transportation history. In the 19th century, locomotives powered by huge steam engines carried settlers and freight into the American West, but the great transcontinental rail companies that built those locomotives were based in the East, many in Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Railroad carries its travelers on a transportation system significantly different from today's diesel-electronic railways.

In 1769 Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt patented his design for the modern steam engine. By the early 1800s his engine, with some variations, was powering the locomotive invented by Englishman Richard Trevithick. In 1829 the first locomotive to operate in the Western Hemisphere, the Stourbridge Lion, built in England for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, was given a trial run at Honesdale, Pennsylvania, near Scranton. In 1849, only 20 years later, the California Gold Rush led to a huge expansion of the railroad industry, and dozens of variations of Watt's steam engine and Trevithick's locomotive carried tens of thousands of Americans into what was then the Wild West.

Through the rest of the 19th century, America's railroad industry grew in relation to economic upswings and downturns as the steam engine continued to dominate the country's most important form of transportation. It wasn't until the 1940s that diesel-electric engines replaced steam. Today, steam engines are to be found only in museums and at a few dozen short-run lines such as the Cornell family's Gettysburg Railroad.

Their company is the most recent installment in Adams County railroad history that reaches back before the Civil War. Historian Dr. Walter L. Powell, in his introduction to a 1989 reprint of the 1885 To Gettysburg by Train, says rail service first came to Gettysburg in 1858 with the opening of what came to be known as the Hanover Junction, Hanover, and Gettysburg Railroad line. "That line had a troubled financial history and did not provide direct or convenient access for passengers," says Powell. Abraham Lincoln traveled on the line to Gettysburg's Carlisle Street--now the site of the Gettysburg Travel Council--on November 18, 1863, the day before he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

The Gettysburg and Harrisburg Railroad Company took over the line and began significant passenger service in April 1884. According to Dr. Powell, this event marked "an important development in Gettysburg's evolution as a national tourist attraction," primarily because the company offered steady and frequent passenger service to the recently opened national battlefield park. The company also offered what it advertised as the "roomy, convenient, and attractive" new Philadelphia and Reading Station on North Washington Street where you'll find today's Gettysburg Railroad Company. The Reading-Short Line Railroad Company eventually purchased the track and station.

After passenger service ended in Gettysburg in the mid-1940s, the line was used solely for freight hauled by Reading-Short Line and later by Conrail. In the fall of 1976 Sloan Cornell started the Gettysburg Railroad Company as a short-line freight hauler for county manufacturers and fruit growers, carrying their products in his own cars to CSX Railroad in Gettysburg and to Conrail cars in Mount Holly Springs. Sloan and his wife, Clara, started the passenger operation in 1978 as a tourist line.

Jim and Beth Cornell, the second generation to enter the family business, took over the passenger line in 1986. Jim is the company's locomotive engineer, Beth is the business manager, and their four daughters help run the ticketing and sales end of the operation. Jim and Beth own the railroad company, its two steam engines, 10 passenger coaches and a one-of-a-kind double-decker passenger car built from an old railroad carrier. Jim's parents, Sloan and Clara Cornell, own the railroad track. "We take a lot of pride that we are a family-owned and operated short-line railroad, with no government subsidies," says Beth.

The Cornells' two steam engines are an ex-Mississippian Railroad No. 76 and an ex-Canadian Pacific Railway No. 1278. Steam engines are described and measured by their wheel base. The No. 76, built by the Baldwin Company at the Baltimore Locomotive Works in 1920, is designated a 2-8-0, meaning it has two small wheels in front at the leading bogie (a bogie is a locomotive's swiveling undercarriage) followed by eight large driving wheels and no wheels at the trailing bogie. The No. 1278, built by the Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston, Ontario, in 1948, is a 4-6-2 with four small wheels in front, six large wheels in the mid-section and two small wheels in back. No. 76 weighs 135,800 pounds and has a 10-ton coal capacity, and No. 1278 weighs 234,000 pounds and has a 14-ton coal capacity.

"That's what we get asked about the most, are the engine types," says Ralph Baker, one of the railroad's two conductors. This job is a second career for Baker and the other conductor, Don Florwick, whose backgrounds add a bit to the company's mystique. Until he retired, Baker built components for submarine and aircraft carrier nuclear reactors, and Florwick was a commissioned officer and nautical mapmaker with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Today, they help Gettysburg's passengers appreciate their steam-engine journey.

All trips begin by passing through the campus of Gettysburg College, founded in 1832 and one of the oldest Lutheran-affiliated colleges in the country. As the train reaches the first curve it passes the Lutheran Seminary and Confederate General Robert E. Lee's headquarters and enters the Gettysburg National Military Park where it crosses the field of the first day's fighting of the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg. Conductors Baker and Florwick describe that first day's action, and as the train leaves the battlefield they tell the history of the engines and coaches, explaining that the coaches were all built between 1920 and 1930, except for the double-decker built by the Cornells in 1986.

Soon the train leaves the town behind and huffs through woods and orchards so close that passengers are asked to keep their heads and arms within the cars to avoid being struck by branches. As the train approaches a roadway crossing, it sounds a two long, one short and one long series of blasts, a universal signal for railroad crossings.

One of the first small towns that line the tracks is the former whistle-stop of Goldenville where residents used to have to flag down passenger trains to get them to stop. Then, after crossing a trestle at Conewago Creek, the train chugs into Biglerville, known as "The Apple Capital of Pennsylvania." Here the first leg of the 16-mile trip ends. The engine disconnects, passes around the passenger cars on a separate track and reconnects to the last coach. It returns to Gettysburg backwards, its coal-burning tender leading the way.

For the 50-mile ride, the train continues into the orchards and woods of northern Adams County to the small town of Aspers, then up South Mountain, part of the Appalachian foothills. The engine puffs and churns mightily as it pulls the train into what is known as "The Wolf Pit," a two-percent grade with a series of 10-degree curves. It passes through Peach Glen, then on to the village of Starners at an elevation 545 feet higher than Gettysburg. The train then begins to roll down the mountainside through the hamlets of Goodyear, Hunter's Run and Upper Mills to Mount Holly Springs.

Once it reaches Mount Holly Springs, on the side of South Mountain and about seven miles south of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, passengers disembark to eat at either the Deer Lodge or the Holly Inn. Both the lodge and the inn specialize in steaks and seafood. The Deer Lodge began as a log cabin, built in 1930. It was expanded in 1962 and 1977 but retains its rustic atmosphere, with log walls and deer heads surrounding the 300-seat dining room. The Holly Inn, built in 1794, lodges visitors to Carlisle and hunters and fishermen who come to Adams County during the season. Other 50-mile trips take passengers to the Aspers Fire Company for an old-fashioned chicken barbecue.

Share:


Other Travel Tips: