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York #17, the Simpson. A modern replica pulls excursion trains along the route of the old Northern Central Railway from New Freedom to Hanover Junction (SLM photo)

Railroad Robbery

Railroad travel, both commercial and military, increased dramatically during the mid-19th century. By 1860, there were some 21,000 miles of track in the North and 9,000 in the South. York County, Pennsylvania, had three interconnected railroad routes. The main line, the Northern Central Railway, ran north-south from Baltimore to Williamsport (and by 1863 to Elmira NY). By the time of the Civil War, the NCRY had superseded the canal system as a main transportation route for freight and passengers.

A short spur ran from York eastward to Wrightsville. There, on the world’s longest covered bridge, it connected with the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad (which owned 21% of the NCRY stock during the war years). Finally, in southern York County’s Hanover Junction, the NCRY intersected with the independent Hanover Branch Railroad which in turn connected with the Gettysburg Railroad at Hanover.

Railroad travel was not without its hazards. Occasionally sparks and soot ruined the clothing of passengers sitting near open windows. On more than a few occasions, riders suffered injuries or death in derailments or collisions. But, perhaps the most common misfortune was thievery.

Pickpockets abounded.

Here’s just one example, adapted from the September 13, 1862, edition of the Baltimore Sun.

“Robbed on the Northern Central Railroad”

“Yesterday afternoon Mr. Joseph R. Hess, of York, gave information to Marshal Vannostrand that he had been robbed, while on the cars of the Northern Central Railway, of his pocket book, containing twenty-five dollars in cash and some papers valuable to him. He stated that when the train stopped at Cockeysville [Maryland], a young man entered the car and took a seat beside him, and shortly after reaching the city he discovered that he had been robbed. He could give no definite description of the party, though the young man and himself were engaged in conversation until the train reached the city.”

To learn more about the Northern Central Railway during the Civil War, the public is welcome to attend a PowerPoint presentation that I will be giving on Monday evening, November 19, at 7:00 p.m. The Manchester Township Historical Society is sponsoring the talk. It will be held in the Manchester Township Municipal Building, 3200 Farmtrail Road, York, PA. This talk, as well as off-street parking, is free. The venue is just west of the Emigsville/Church Road exit of Interstate 83. Follow Church Road west through the traffic light at Susquehanna Trail.

I will have copies of the book, as well as 12 of my other Civil War and Underground Railroad titles, for sale and signature. Come out and show support for a local, award-winning historical society!


Scott Mingus’s popular book on the Northern Central Railway in the Civil War (SLM).