The Hanover Branch Railroad – Part 2
Modern view of Hanover Junction from the approximate line of the Union defensive positions that “protected” the junction in June 1863.
With the rapid development of the railroad industry in the 1840s and 1850s, farmers in rural areas such as southern York County now had a convenient and reasonably priced way to get their produce and goods to markets in larger towns such as Baltimore and Harrisburg, as well as points beyond. Several new railroads were constructed in the county, and work crews were kept quite busy laying out and building the lines. Once the railroad tracks were finished and all the supporting buildings, signage, etc. in place, commercial service began. Small hamlets developed around many of the refueling stops / cargo / passenger stations, and York County maps became dotted with new names such as Hanover Junction, Smith’s Station, Porters Sideling, and dozens of other waysides.
Among the new railroads was the Hanover Branch, which ran from Hanover Junction (where it connected with what became the Northern Central) and the bustling town of Hanover. Later, another railroad connected Hanover with Gettysburg to the west.
All three roads became targets of the Confederate raiders in late June 1863, with the vulnerable wooden bridges being particular objects of Rebel attention.
Planning for the southwestern York County railroad line began in the mid-1840s, spurred by a group of Hanover investors and businessmen. On March 16, 1847, the Hanover Branch Railroad Company was incorporated and chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Work began a couple of years later, providing employment for scores of workers. It was completed in 1852. Captain Abdiel W. Eichelberger, a wealthy Hanover farmer and merchant, was elected as the president of the Hanover Branch Railroad.
The Hanover Branch extended some thirteen miles from the northern edge of Hanover to Hanover Junction, where it connected with the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad (which later became the Northern Central). In 1858, tracks were laid from Hanover to Gettysburg, providing access for hundreds of additional farmers and passengers.
Hanover Junction became an important stop, and a large hotel / tavern and a few other buildings were soon constructed for the convenience of passengers and freight haulers. The wooden three-story depot contained a telegraphy school, a dormitory for trainees, housing for the stationmaster and his family, ticket booths, mens’ and womens’ waiting rooms, and other rooms.
The tracks crossed over the meandering South Branch of the Codorus Creek and smaller tributaries and other creeks. In wartime, those bridges became the Achilles Heel of the railroads, and their destruction would temporarily cripple military transportation. The hastily organized 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, a Philadelphia regiment under the command of Republican politician and Port Collector William Thomas, was shipped to York. It deployed by companies to guard various bridges, as well as the Howard Tunnel on the Northern Central. A larger contingent, under Lt. Col. William Sickles, was sent southward to protect the vital Hanover Junction area.
As the Confederate forces arrived in York County on the morning of Saturday, June 27, 1863, the task of destroying the bridges and raiding Hanover Junction fell upon Lt. Col. Elijah V. White and his 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry.