The south-central region of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania is a region with many farms. Today, the farmers have access to trucks to ship their products to the warehouses and the stores. Before the availability of automobiles, the railroad was the fastest way to get their products to the market. Otherwise, you had to load a horse-drawn cart to the nearest town. As the railroads were built across the country, they began to connect the small towns with the big cities. The town of Stewartstown was not considered by and of the railroad companies. Farmers had to load their carts and go six miles (a long way when you do not have a car or truck) to the town of Shrewsbury Junction (now Railroad, Pennsylvania) to load their products on the train. With many farmers in the region, it would have been nice to have a railroad pass through the region as the ride to Shrewsbury Junction was half a day’s journey from Stewartstown.
The idea of a seven-and-a-half-mile short line railroad was born that would run from Stewartstown and connect with the Northern Central Railroad in the town of New Freedom. Will this short line railroad have any chance of success?
The answer is yes.
The Stewartstown Railroad was charted in 1884 and began service in 1885. Farmers were about to bring their products to Stewartstown, load them on a train, and then have them taken to New Freedom where they would connect to the Northern Central Railway to either south to ports of Baltimore, Maryland or north to York and Harrisburg. Factories and warehouses were built along the rail line making it more profitable to local farmers and business. Even when service declined in the 1960’s, the railroad continued to be a great service to the region.
Then, in 1972, Hurricane Agnes came.
Bodies of water throughout the mid-Atlantic region of the United States of America flooded. The good news for the people of the Stewartstown Railroad is that they saw no damage to their tracks. They were able to continue rail service between Stewartstown and New Freedom. The bad news was that the Northern Central Railway suffered massive damage particularly in the state of Maryland where the tracks run alongside of many creeks. The Northern Central Railway made no attempt to recover the line and abandoned it completely. Without the Northern Central Railway, there was no rail service to the Stewartstown Railroad. Without rail service, the Stewartstown Railroad was finished. They were done. They were no more. The Stewartstown Railroad is now a thing of the past never to be seen again.
Well, not exactly.
The rail line was still maintained with excursion trains running along short stretches of the line. How? Although the tracks were taken up on the Maryland section of the Northern Central Railway and was converted into a rail trail, the section of track in Pennsylvania remained although in disrepair. The tracks were taken over by the York County Parks Association who took up one track to make room for a rail trail while they kept the other track. However, no trains were using the track. With no trains using the track, no trains were going to Stewartstown. With no trains going to Stewartstown, the Stewartstown Railroad was forever doomed.
Not so fast.
While in service, the Northern Central Railway was ridden by many great dignitaries. One of those dignitaries was a man from the state Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Yes, this is the same Abraham Lincoln who became the President of the United States of America. He rode the train along the Northern Central Railway while on his way to Gettysburg to delivery his famous speech known as ‘The Gettysburg Address’. A few years later, his funeral train also passed through here while on its way to Springfield, Illinois. After Hurricanes Agnes in 1972, the rail line was dormant for forty-one years when ‘Steam Into History’ began. What is ‘Steam Into History’? It is an excursion train along the Pennsylvania section of the old Northern Central Railway that currently runs from New Freedom to Seven Valleys with plans to continue to York. The trains were pulled (and pushed) by a newly built steam locomotive called the William Simpson Number 17. William Simpson was the man who helped bring this excursion train to life, and the locomotive is a replica of a locomotive that would have pulled the train that Abraham Lincoln would have ridden in on the way to Gettysburg. (‘Steam Into History has recently rebranded themselves as the Northern Central Railway and now does excursions with the Number 17 steam locomotive and with diesel locomotives.) With the rebuilding of the tracks north of New Freedom, the Stewartstown Railroad hopes to rebuild its trackage to New Freedom in hopes that it will be able to bring back freight service to Stewartstown.
So, what is the Stewartstown Railroad doing now?
Today, the Stewartstown Railroad run excursion trains from the depot in Stewartstown which was built in 1914 and is on the Historic National Register to about three miles west with old passenger cars pulled by ‘Mighty Mo’, a gas powered locomotive that was built in 1943. They also run a maintenance train on occasions from the depot all the way to New Freedom. The future of this railroad is to have the ‘Mighty Mo’ pull trains all the way to New Freedom. As the old Northern Central Railway tracks are restored, they hope to have freight service return to Stewartstown. Until then, ‘Mighty Mo’ will still pull those trains, and you can still ride on tracks where you pass old loading platforms and cross over a steel truss bridge.
The Stewartstown Railroad is, as far as it is known, the longest running railroad in the United States of America to operate under its original 1884 charter. (There are older railroads still in operation but not under their original charters.) There have been great efforts to keep this railroad in operation, and the railroad has survived the Great Depression, the loss of business to trucks and even a major hurricane. This little short line railroad could possibly be the best stories among the railroads of America.
The Stewartstown Railroad is an all-volunteer railroad company with no paid staff. The track work, station staff and Board of Directors do not get paid. The railroad is a complete labor of love to preserve the history of this railroad. They run their excursions from the old Stewartstown Train Depot at 21 W. Pennsylvania Avenue (Pennsylvania Route 851) in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. It is just four miles east of Interstate 83 just north of the Maryland Line. Parking is a short walk to the depot. They run excursions from April to December. Please note that neither the depot nor the trains are handicap accessible, and steps are required to enter the train depot. You can get more information about the excursions and read more into the history and into the plans of the Stewartstown Railroad at http://www.stewartstownrailroadco.com/. You can also take a ride on the Northern Central Railway which is seven miles west of Stewartstown on Pennsylvania Route 851 (https://www.northerncentralrailway.com/).
Come to Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. Come ride a hidden treasure. Come ride the Stewartstown Railroad.