Sure, the city of York, Pennsylvania is filled with thousands of freight cars this week – but not all of them are O and S gauge! Let’s take a look at some of the historic railroads and freight cars that have called York home.
It’s hard to go anywhere in the Commonwealth without seeing the impact of the “Standard Railroad of the World.” York was an important stop at about the midway point between Harrisburg and Baltimore on the historic Northern Central.
Construction on the route began in 1854. Work on the southern end of the line was greatly stymied by both finances and politics. The Civil War actually provided an opportunity for the line as it used new political connections to its own advantage. Thanks to Simon Cameron’s appointment to Lincoln’s cabinet and an allegiance with the Pennsylvania, the Northern Central was able to out maneuver the Baltimore and Ohio who had blocked attempts for the “foreign” line’s intrusion in their home city.
While the Northern Central remained a separate railroad on paper for many more years, it was operated as a division of the Pennsy. Its mainline eventually extended all the way to Buffalo and formed a critical north-south route for the Pennsy.
The route between York and Baltimore featured more curves and grades than online customers. But it was the most direct route between Baltimore and Washington and the Pennsy’s east-west mainline. Although most freight was routed via the nearby Columbia and Port Deposit, passenger trains continued to use the Northern Central up until Amtrak’s arrival in 1971. Hurricane Agnes delivered the final crushing blow to through service on the line two years later.
Today you can walk most of the route between York and Timmonium on a rail trail. One track remains in place on the Pennsylvania side of the border and there are hopes of returning a steam excursion to the southern end.
Although the eastbound Pennsy branch to Wrightsville and Columbia has also been largely abandoned, northbound from York, the line remains an active freight corridor. Today it is part of Norfolk Southern’s network and is served by a train to and from Enola daily.
Often overlooked in the history of York’s railroads is the Western Maryland. The “Wild Mary” reached the city off of a branchline from the southwest.
Although its route to Baltimore was less efficient than the Pennsy, the Western Maryland did represent an alternative for local customers looking for a route to the west. The railroad also brought loads and empties from other points along the winding southern Pennsylvania line from Hagerstown to York for interchange to the Pennsylvania for delivery to points north and east.
Today both this and a nearly parallel Pennsy branch are operated by Genesee Wyoming to serve local customers and interchange with CSX at the western end.
Maryland and Pennsylvania
The smallest of the roads to call York home was the Maryland and Pennsylvania. The quintessential shortline, the Ma and Pa was built up through the late Nineteenth Century from a series of independent small roads, some of them narrow gauge. The winding course from York to Baltimore rolled through the hills of York, Harford and Baltimore Counties to a terminus just blocks from the Pennsy’s Baltimore station.
The Ma and Pa never really represented a competitive threat to the PRR for through passenger or freight traffic however. Traffic generally originated or terminated on line. From points north of the Mason-Dixon, York was the primary interchange.
Although the lines south of the border ended operations in the 1950s, the railroad’s northern end hung on. It became part of Emmons Transportation who built a railcar refurbishing plant on the line. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, rebuilt “MA & PA” boxcars could be seen all across the country. The railroad was finally merged with the company’s Yorkrail line (a former PRR line to Hanover) in 1999. Today the property is part of the Genesee and Wyoming shortline group.