The unsolved York County mystery of locomotive No. 1689
The Heritage Rail Trail County Park has taken over part of the old Northern Central Railroad right of way through the heart of York County.
At one time, trains ran on still-existing tracks alongside trail users. (The only vehicles regularly running on the tracks today are go-cart like vehicles adapted to rail use.)
But one August night, 10 years ago, a runaway train thundered from New Freedom past Seven Valleys… .
Fortunately, the rail trail was closed at that time of night, and the train drifted harmlessly to a stop.
No arrests have been made of the reported culprits who released the locomotive for its 9.5-mile run. That’s curious because you’d think someone with the gall to start a runaway would brag about it in some bar.
The runaway offered some insight about the rail trail’s elevations, as if any regular cyclist along there needs clarification. New Freedom obviously is higher than Seven Valleys and then the slope begins again upward toward Howard Tunnel. That latter slope caused the locomotive to stop rolling. If you’ve biked south or north on the rail trail from Seven Valleys, the tightness in your legs confirm the findings of the runaway.
The York Daily Record’s story about loco locomotive from August 2006 follows:
Bill Elmer’s telephone rang at just after 9 Thursday night.
Seven Valleys fire company authorities told him a runaway train car was heading down the tracks. They asked him to go outside to the Northern Central Railway behind his store and make sure nobody was in the way.
Children often play near the rails. In fact, the grocer said he found several little ones playing nearby that night.
“I made sure all the kids were moved away from the tracks,” he said.
Firefighters raced to the intersections at Seitzville and Granary roads, as well as at Maple Street and Glatfelters Station Road at Route 214. Other emergency workers blocked off roads in York and Spring Garden Township, among other areas in the path of the traveling engine.
Across the rails from Elmer, Walter Dinsmore got a call from his cousins who said they heard chatter on the police scanner about a runaway train. These Seven Valleys residents couldn’t believe a train would be coming at this time of night.
After all, the Liberty Limited dinner train runs on Saturdays and Sundays. Elmer and Dinsmore stood next to the tracks, waiting to see headlights or hear whistles to indicate that an engine was coming.
Then, the tracks rumbled. Elmer said he thought he heard the roar of a diesel, but Northern Central officials later told him the engine hadn’t been running. It was dark. No lights beamed from the approaching locomotive.
“It was like a ghost train coming along,” Elmer said. “I didn’t see anyone on the train.”
Elmer said the engine was traveling about 20 mph to 25 mph when it passed his store. Police and railway officials have no record of the ghost train’s actual speed.
“Not even John Wayne could have stopped the train,” Elmer said. Nestled behind a row of tall trees and houses, the Western Maryland Fast Freight Line #1689 sat unguarded Friday morning. It was in the same spot in Seven Valleys where it appeared to have drifted to a stop the night before. It looked unharmed and was returned to New Freedom later in the day.
The Northern Central Railway rented the black and yellow car for its Liberty Limited dinner train, which opened in June. When not running, the train normally rests in an open area in New Freedom, just minutes off the road, with no fence surrounding it.
The 1954 engine, one of just two like it in operation nationwide, weighs about 135 tons.
“It’s a museum piece,” said Fred Konhaus, a marketing and public relations specialist with Northern Central.
Parking and, presumably, moving the engine is an elaborate task for a trained engineer, he said. It requires stopping it, applying air and hand brakes. Then, the wheels are locked into place with metal clamps on either side of the side wheels.
“To get them out, it has to be intentional,” Konhaus said. “You don’t just roll one of those engines out. There’s no way the engine could roll over it.” He stopped short of suggesting it was an inside job. The incident is being considered an act of vandalism.
Southern York County Police took charge of the investigation Thursday, claiming to have “numerous leads to be followed up.”
At 3 a.m. Friday, police found the wheel clamps a few feet from the engine’s usual resting place. They spent part of Friday looking for witnesses along the engine’s path through Railroad, Glen Rock and Springfield Township.
Witnesses Thursday night said they saw some people jump from the train when it stopped, but officials Friday would not say whether they believe anyone was on the train. Konhaus said it’s a good thing nobody tried to jump on the train to stop it.
“It would have been impossible,” he said. An attempt, he said, could have resulted in a severed limb or death. But he isn’t worried about the safety of riding the dinner train.
“We don’t think people need to be overly concerned about runaway trains and cars,” he said.
Then again, in June, the Liberty Limited hit a bump in Springfield Township. The next day, someone found a railroad spike twisted around the track a deliberate act of vandalism that was reported to state police.
Before the York County Heritage Rail/Trail opened, and before the recent troubles, members of New Freedom’s borough council expressed concerns about security. Council President Brady Terrell said the borough’s rail/trail committee will meet to discuss the most recent incident and will then meet with the county’s rail/trail authority.
“The county has worked closely with the borough in the past,” he said. “We plan to share our concerns and hopefully prevent this from happening again.”
Historically, New Freedom has always had trains traveling north from Maryland to stop for passengers. Now, the borough is being used more as a storage and maintenance area. Vandalism hasn’t been an overwhelming problem.
Aside from the runaway train, Northern Central has only had a few broken windows on train cars, Terrell said.
“It’s something we will have to get used to,” he said. “Problems will need to be addressed as they come up.”
Liberty Limited operators reviewed safety procedures Friday, but have planned no changes for now. They say it’s impossible to prevent vandals from striking just as it was impossible to keep the bomb out of the Olympic park.
York County Parks Director Tom Brant said the criminal investigation is out of his department’s hands, but that the county may review safety for the rail/trail. He wouldn’t elaborate, saying the Rail/Trail Authority will take the lead on the review. Timothy Fulton, the authority’s chairman, said as a county park, the trail is supposed to close at dusk.
That means that the park rangers who regularly monitor the area don’t check the train at night.
“We just have to get the message out that this is criminal activity,” Fulton said, “not just childish pranks.”
Also of interest: Collector searching for Western Maryland Railroad memorabilia and Old Baltimore tunnel an intriguing reminder of the ‘Ma’ in Ma & Pa Railroad and What it was like aboard the Stewartstown Railroad.