Freight locomotive ‘telescoped’ runaway Stewartstown Railroad car
The Stewartstown Railroad experienced an accident in 1923, the worst in its history dating back to 1885. With multiple railroads crossing York County, its rail history is filled with accidents (The Great Watermelon train wreck) and near accidents (The unsolved mystery of locomotive No. 1689). Background posts: What was it like aboard the Stewartstown Railroad?, Whatever happened to York County’s Hungerford? and Is mystery railroad the old Shrewsbury narrow gauge?
One day in 1923, a car carrying several passengers and crew members becomes uncoupled from a train on the Stewartstown Railroad and drifts down a grade.
A freight train, going at a rapid speed, meets it head on and plows through the passenger coach “telescoping” about two-thirds of the length of the car… .
Four women passengers are scalded and burned when thrown against a boiler, and two men are treated for cuts and bruises. The engineer of the freight, Lewis Roseberry, is injured when he jams on the brakes and jumps from the train.
That account from “Never to be Forgotten” is the most dramatic incident on the otherwise sleepy Stewartstown Railroad. In its heyday, the shortline picked up and delivered agricultural products from Fawn Grove to its terminus at New Freedom on the Northern Central Railroad.
Today, efforts are underway to rehab the still-intact, but deteriorating rail line.
Writer Eugene Paik tells about those efforts in a York Daily Record/Sunday News story (6/15/08):
More than a century ago, Stewartstown began its climb from a cozy agricultural burg into an ironclad industrial hub.
The Stewartstown Railroad, the so-called farmer’s railroad, opened the floodgates for the development. It gave rise to a local cannery, a milling company and a furniture factory inside the nearly square-mile borough.
During its peak, Stewartstown’s steaming heart was pumped by the iron horse.
The years passed, and the businesses disappeared. Generations of residents lived and died. Weedy fields grew unwieldy, and house fronts became chipped and faded.
And the cash-strapped Stewartstown Railroad — four years after a train last
traveled its tracks — was poised to be another casualty of time in the borough.
It’s something the Stewartstown Railroad Co. and a local preservation group, the Friends of the Stewartstown Railroad, are desperately trying to stop.
To them, a 7-mile track of rail isn’t being rescued. A piece of Stewartstown’s legacy is being preserved.
* * *
Everything about the Stewartstown Railroad seems stuck in time.
Built in 1885, it remains one of the few independent shortline railroads in the state. Even the rail company has avoided alterations to its structure since its incorporation.
Many descendents of the founding shareholders still have the original certificates of ownership framed and hanging on walls, said David Williamson, who is part of the company and the preservation group.
The only high-tech gadget in the Stewartstown station is a credit-card reader used when tourist excursions were held on the rail. The wooden benches are believed to have been there since the station was built in 1914, and they show few scars other than some water damage.
Planned by local businessman James Fulton, the railroad stretched from Stewartstown to New Freedom. There, it connected with the Northern Central Railway leading to Baltimore and York, said Eric Bickleman, a member of the Friends of the Stewartstown Railroad.
At its peak, it merged with the New Park and Fawn Grove Railroad and expanded to about 16 miles, he said. Later, the company leased part of the Northern Central Railway alongside Interstate 83 to reach York.
Then disaster struck in 1972: Hurricane Agnes washed the Northern Central line out of service. The Stewartstown line emerged unscathed, but without the Northern Central — the area’s rail artery — trains serving local manufacturers had nowhere to go.
The timing couldn’t have been worse, Bickleman said. Despite a dogfight with the trucking industry, rail freight service in the area was experiencing a revival.
“Things were looking up freightwise, but Agnes wiped things out,” he said.
* * *
During the hiatus, the railroad kept afloat primarily through the efforts of two men: George Hart and former state Rep. John Hope Anderson. Both had personal stakes in the railroad.
Anderson’s family was one of the founders of the Stewartstown line, while Hart dedicated his life to protecting railroads from neglect.
Anderson, elected as railroad president in 1960, was the heart of the railroad before and after the hurricane. He secured support for the railroad and gave the company direction as its shippers began to disappear, said Doug Winemiller of the Stewartstown Historical Society.
Hart joined the Stewartstown company in 1969, during the final years of the Stewartstown line’s fading glory, and offered his expertise.
The railroad continued to post profits until 1966, but its success became spotty when Hurricane Agnes hit. Bickleman said 1969 was the final year that a dividend was paid to stockholders.
Anderson and Hart faced tough odds to keep the Stewartstown rail viable. With the rise of the expressway, the iron horse was fast becoming an endangered animal.
Still, the company had high hopes in 1985 when rail service along the corridor was finally restarted.
* * *
By the time the Northern Central Railway was rebuilt for freight service, most of the industrial shippers in the area had dwindled, Williamson said. The Stewartstown Railroad once served 28 shippers. When it reopened, only three remained.
“The businesses either closed up shop or had to find other ways to ship,” Williamson said.
To survive, the railroad focused almost solely on transporting tourists along the length of the track, reinventing itself as a nostalgic ride to the past.
The trips were done only several times a year, but Bickleman remembers how crowds would flock to the station on Christmas and Easter.
“Sometimes the town just got shut down,” he said.
For Vita Failla, who works in a pizzeria near the station, the excursions meant increased business during lunchtime.
“We served between four to five tables for families,” she said.
But the seasonal success couldn’t stop the company from hemorrhaging money, and Hart continued to pour in his own finances, estimated by Williamson to be in the hundreds of thousands.
“He’s really the reason why it’s still around,” said Kurt Bell, a friend of Hart’s and archivist for the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Hart might also be a reason why it fell into disrepair, Williamson said. Hart became president after Anderson’s death in 2005, he said, but the man seemed to have lost the energy to maintain it.
Williamson and Bell believe Hart might have had trouble letting go of an era that had disappeared long ago. Seeking help outside his inner circle was a concept that was probably too modern for him, Williamson said.
That might have carried the railroad in the past, Williamson said, but it ultimately failed Hart as his health weakened and the company’s coffers dried up.
In 2004, rising insurance premiums officially halted traffic on the railroad. The final scenic trip was marred by a slight derailment.
* * *
When Hart died in April, his beloved railroad briefly appeared destined for the same fate. Hart owned 190 shares but had no heirs, and the company was heavily indebted to him.
Initially, some preservation advocates wondered if his death would mean shareholders would rid themselves of what was looking more like a money pit.
The Friends of the Stewartstown Railroad wanted to fix the railroad and preserve it as a historical landmark. Though the station and engine house are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 7 miles of track are not.
Yet for some reason — miscommunication, Bickleman said — the group was denied access to the railroad in recent years.
Williamson believes the group was kept at a distance because of Hart’s reluctance to share the railroad with a group that he wasn’t sure shared his vision.
“I guess he was doing what he thought best,” Williamson said.
But as the dust cleared from Hart’s death and the subsequent upheaval, the company seems to have a sense of direction.
Everyone seems to be united, Bickleman said, and the first step toward preservation will be to keep afloat with the railroad’s bills.
Renovating the railroad will be more complicated. The tracks are out of shape for regular use. Most of the overhangs of the Stewartstown station need to be redone, and the building’s exterior needs work.
A bigger problem is finding money for the struggling company. If everything works out, the railroad will offer scenic journeys again, Williamson said.
How will it pay for the repairs and the costs of operations? Bickleman said he aims to create a fundraising plan and apply for grant money by the end of the summer.
Meanwhile, the company is planning to offset restoration costs by using volunteers, Williamson said.
Repairs to the station will cost up to $4,000, he said, and fixes to the rail could cost in the tens of thousands.
Williamson isn’t discouraged. He’s looking beyond the immediate headaches and picturing the station being the core of community activities. Like it did about a century ago, the railroad could breathe new life into Stewartstown, he said.
“This is an original railroad. It’s very unique,” Williamson said. “There aren’t too many left that have this much continuity and history.”
Find out more about the Friends of the Stewartstown Railroad by visiting stewartstownrailroad.com or by calling 586-1144.
ABOUT GEORGE HART
George Michener Hart never felt the need to find a wife or have children: His heart belonged to the railroad, said Kurt Bell, a friend and archivist for the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Born in 1919 in Doylestown with a shy demeanor, an impeccable memory and an affinity for history, Hart spent his childhood waiting at rail stations and crossings for trains so he could photograph them with his Kodak camera.
As an adult, Hart made his name in tourist excursions.
He participated in the Reading Company’s Iron Horse Rambles and formed Rail Tours Inc., based in Jim Thorpe.
In 1969, he purchased stock in the Stewartstown Railroad, and the station became a second home for him. Bell said Hart would sometimes spend nights in the station.
Also that year, Hart was appointed the director of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, which he retired from in 1983.
Hart died in April in Jim Thorpe.
Source: Kurt Bell, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania
1885: The grand opening of the Stewartstown Railroad is held.
1901: The Stewartstown Railroad Company is incorporated.
1914: Stewartstown rail station is built in a new location to oblige New Park and Fawn Grove Railroad.
1923: Stewartstown Railroad takes over the New Park and Fawn Grove line, doubling its size.
1972: Tropical Storm Agnes washes out the connecting Northern Central Railway and halts operations of the Stewartstown line.
1985: The Northern Central reopens, which revitalizes the Stewartstown Railroad.
2004: Stewartstown Railroad stops its tourist excursions and ceases train operations on the track.
Source: “The Story of the Stewartstown Railroad” by Eric Bickleman (the most authoritative source in print on the railroad.)