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Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad

The railroad is an integral part of Christiana's history.  The town of Christiana developed around the railroad and, because of the railroad, became an industrial hub.  

The original plan was to build a canal connecting the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers to enable the Coal Region in Northeastern Pennsylvania (home to the largest known deposits of clean burning anthracite) to supply anthracite to the eastern cities.  


It was determined (by the Canal Commission) that it was easier to build a railroad than a canal.  In April 1834 the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&CR) became one of the earliest commercial railroads in the United States, running 82 miles from Philadelphia to Columbia.  It was one of the first railroads in the world to be built by a government rather than private enterprise. 


Fun Fact: The original railroad was designed to be horse-drawn for the entire length.


The railroad was considered a public toll road.  Individuals and companies paid tolls to the Canal Commission to use the rails.  Anyone using the rails supplied their own horses, rolling stock and passenger or freight facilities.

Jan 1834, Slaymaker & Co. of Lancaster place experimental anthracite coal steam locomotive (Black Hawk) designed by Stephen Long (co-founder of Norris Locomotive Works) on the railroad.  It fails to operate properly until it switches to wood.  The Black Hawk eventually takes 2 days to travel the entire 82 miles.

Until April 1844, the railroad was used by both locomotive-powered trains run by the railroad and horse-drawn cars run by private citizens.  In 1844 horses were outlawed from the railroad.


1837 Passenger Train Schedule

The next stop after Gap is Pennington's which we currently know as Atglen.

In 1857 the P&CR became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR).

By the 1890s the railroad encountered capacity and infrastructure limitations.  The original train tracks were shifted some 150 feet to reduce the curvature and accommodate two more tracks (originally there were only 2).  This required moving the freight house 40 feet east as well as building a new overpass at Bridge Street.


The new bridge was Whipple Truss bridge.  Whipple was the first person to understand the stresses in truss members and he developed the first theoretical formula to calculate stresses in an articulated truss.

The original railroad bed can be viewed/hiked behind the Machine Shop in Christiana.  The original stone arch bridge that crossed Pine Creek still survives.  The bridge was built by skilled masons who used stone from nearby quarries.  Pine creek divides Lancaster and Chester counties.


The P&CR western terminus was the former ferry site known as Wright’s Ferry.


Fun Fact:  the Wright’s Ferry was the only means of crossing the Susquehanna River and was an integral part of the Underground Railroad.

The first Wrightsville-Columbia covered Bridge was completed in 1814 for pedestrian and horse and wagon travel.  This bridge was knocked down by ice, high water and sever weather in 1832.

Second Wrightsville - Columbia Bridge 1834-1863


This covered bridge was burned in June, 1863 to prevent Confederate troops from crossing the Susquehanna River.  Since there was no bridge, the troops took a left turn and ended up in Gettysburg. 

Fun Fact: Robert E. Lee was originally headed to Philadelphia, planning to stop in Christiana to 'burn it to the ground'.  Since he couldn't go to Philadelphia, he turned left and ended up in....Gettysburg.

Had the the confederates crossed the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, the outcome of the Civil War may have changed.

Third bridge 1868-1896

This covered bridge was built of stone, wood and steel.  It was destroyed September 1896 by the Cedar Keys hurricane.


4th and last bridge 1897-1963


Known as the 'Iron Bridge'.  It was considered the fastest bridge-building job in the world at the time.  It was designed to be resistant to fire, ice water and wind...the elements that had destroyed the previous bridges.  This bridge carried passenger trains until 1954 and freight until 1958.  It was then dismantled for scrap.


The pillars from the wrightsville-columbia bridge still exist today.

Norris Locomotive Works

Between 1834 and 1866, Norris Locomotive Works, based in Philadelphia, dominated local, regional and national production of locomotives.  This company was the 19th century equivalent of today's Silicon Valley. 

The company was founded by Stephen H. Long and William Norris.  Reminder: Stephen H. Long was the inventor of the 'Black Hawk' locomotive which was the first locomotive to travel the P&CR.

One of the biggest problems on the P&CR was getting out of Philadelphia.  Initially a stationary engine at the top of a 2800 foot long 7% grade from the river to the top of the Belmont Plateau used a hemp rope to pull train cars up the incline.  On July 10, 1836, the Norris locomotive George Washington did the impossible and was able to pull a ten-ton load up the incline. 

Enola Low Grade Railroad

This engineering marvel was the dream of Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) President Alexander J. Cassatt. At the turn of the twentieth century, the PRR struggled to keep up with passenger and freight demands. He planned a new line to stretch from Trenton, New Jersey to Enola, Pennsylvania. Lancaster County sat at a crucial location along the route and the proposed line would avoid congested passenger service areas and carve across rural land in the county.

The goal was a flat, straight corridor west to the Susquehanna and then north along its shore. The PRR deemed the new line as the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch but many referred to it as the A&S or the Enola Low Grade. The Enola officially opened July 27, 1906.

Noble Road Bridge

Rather than tell the story of constructing the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch, we will move through the line from Atglen to Enola discovering the most significant parts of the project. At Atglen, the new rail line came off the existing mainline at an existing curve. The first challenge was constructing a massive bridge over Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octorara Creek near Atglen. This 60-foot tall stone arch bridge stands at the line dividing Lancaster and Chester Counties. Millions of tons of earth were required to ascend to the bridge height on the easy, one-percent grade demanded by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The rail climbed for 5 miles westward from Atglen to the Low Grade’s highest point at Mars Hill Summit in Bart Township.

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