Only in York County

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A York County history mystery

In a recent Weekly Record story about the Heritage Rail Trail County Park, we included a few lines from the county parks department’s Web site about the park.

In there was a simple paragraph I didn’t even think that closely about. It said: “Approximately 5.5 miles south of the Colonial Courthouse is the Howard Tunnel, said to be the oldest continuously operational railroad tunnel in the world. The brick-lined, 370-foot tunnel originally opened for traffic in 1838. The tunnel was rehabilitated in 2003.”

Well, Jim and I got to talking, and he pointed out that, hey, railroading came to Europe WAY before the U.S., and aren’t any of those tunnels still operational? And, how many trains pass through Howard Tunnel nowadays anyway?

So I turned to my trusted research companion, Ye Olde Internet. And it turns out, there isn’t much there! Which means, it’s a perfect subject for us to take up on the blog!

I did find a York railroading history Web site that does say it’s the oldest operating tunnel in the U.S. It sources “The Story of the Northern Central Railway,” by Robert L. Gunnarson. (Anyone sitting on a copy of that?)

On another site, I found a tunnel built the same year – Taft Tunnel in Connecticut – but it is not “continuously operating,” apparently, because it was out of service at some point?

And as far as trains running through it, I think this sounds silly but here’s what I found: “York County, Pennsylvania, purchased the tunnel along with its rail corridor in 1990 and has maintained it as part of a historic railroad, thereby preserving its status as an “active” tunnel.” That was on Wikipedia, which is certainly not an authoritative source, but it’s the only place I found a definition of “active” that matches the tunnel’s use.

My next step was to look for the National Register of Historic Places papers. Turns out, I can find the existence of those papers online, but you try to read them and get a note that says “this record has not yet been digitized.” I already tried searching the York County Rail Trail Authority Web site, to no avail.

What’s next? Any ideas? I think it’d be awesome to be able to prove or disprove this claim once and for all! (And I think it’s awesome that I get another chance to use my great photo of daughter Sarah and our dog, Coby, at the Howard Tunnel, too!)

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