May 19, 2007

The MA & PA Railroad: Yesterday & Today

Seventy some years ago a boy was hand-jacking a boxcar up a siding and hating every minute of it. The progress was slow at best and for every gallon of sweat he put into the task, the car would move an inch or so up the little spur; it was part of his after school job though, and he wasn’t adverse to a little hard work. But he wasn’t exactly a railroader either and when the car crested the hill, the boy was too inexperienced, and too tired, to notice. The car started moving on its own, rolling off the siding and down the main line where it picked up speed and disappeared from view. The boy was stunned, sure in the knowledge that the runaway boxcar would collide with the afternoon local and kill everyone aboard, and he did what any normal kid would do in such a situation – he ran home and hid in his room.

And then, nothing happened, no explosions were heard, the police didn’t haul him out of the house to face certain execution, nothing. He later learned that the boxcar had come to a stop at the bottom of the grade and the local, which never moved at anything even resembling a fast clip, simply bumped it back up the hill and onto the siding.
Such occurrences weren’t all that unusual back then, especially on the easy going Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, a line that spawned hundreds of anecdotes and quite a few jokes too. It was an ambling little line that couldn’t hold a candle to the railroads on either of its flanks (the PRR and the B&O), but it was well thought of just the same.
The railroad got its start shortly after the Civil War, local Pennsylvania investors scheming to haul coal from Broad Top to Philadelphia while the Marylanders, a few miles to the south, having recently lost their prosperous southern markets to “the late unpleasantness,” had their newly coal smitten minds set on anthracite country to the north. Railroads were chartered and dissolved and built and bankrupted and merged and declared insolvent and auctioned and divided and merged again all to no avail, they never got near a coal mine. Both factions were foiled by obvious redundancy, there were already several major lines connecting Baltimore with Pennsylvania, and by the economics of geography as well, mountains to the west and the shallow but broad Susquehanna River to the east proved to be cost prohibitive. Indeed one of these early railroads went so far as to build an eastern division across the river before erecting, or even funding, a bridge. When the bridge failed to materialize the line was spun off to ultimately become a somewhat forlorn rural concern, plodding along until the advent of the motor car, coupled with soaring scrap metal prices, finally laid it to rest during the First World War. However, a viable short line did finally emerge from the chaos in 1901. The road known as the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad (MA&PA), meandered along 77 miles of standard gauge track connecting Baltimore, MD with York, PA, a distance of about 50 miles as the crow flies.

The line was oddly circuitous, the result of the numerous half starts, mergers, poor financing (they built towards any town with enough cash to lure them in), and the initial decision to make the various predecessor lines narrow gauge operations. It also took the long way home in an effort to serve the most farms and small businesses possible, emulating the practical views of the Baltimore & Delta, an early predecessor, which envisioned not great coal wealth, but a simple farmer’s railroad. At any rate the line looked, in the words of Jacques Kelly of the Baltimore Sun, as if it had been laid out by “a lost cow.” This isn’t to say that the MA&PA was an absurdity; the railroad boosted both the economic and cultural prospects of the region for decades, and for a long while it made money too.

The MA&PA rolled out of the prosperous industrial haze, of impolite Baltimore City up through polite, but not as friendly, Homeland straight into the cow pocked farm country of Baltimore and Harford counties and from there it invaded lower Yankeedom instantly personified across the Pennsylvania border by its innumerable townships and boroughs poking up through the corn in modest prosperity, all of which sported some small industry in need of a box car or two or ten; no matter that Baltimore was by far the biggest city on the line, the real money was always in the “PA” half of the name. Delta, Red Lion, Dallastown, Yoe, Enterprise, eventually into York which itself was a diminutive industrial powerhouse at the time.

Along the way the MA&PA served the passengers, mills, dairies, canneries, quarries, and small factories along the right of way. One of these was the mill at Muddy Creek Forks: the A.M. Grove Store and Mill. Grove, a nice enough man by all accounts, was a big frog in a turbid pond, he owned it all. The store, the rolling mill, the grain elevator, the telephone exchange, the cannery, a farm, the office space used by the postal service, and the railroad platform were all Grove's. He even owned the local tennis court. A. M. Grove and his family prospered as did the railroad which had 573 employees by 1913.
And then, several decades later, they both, more or less disappeared. The MA&PA was whittled down over time losing it's Maryland branch in 1958 and most of the Pennsylvania operation by 1984. The line evolved into a switching operation, toting cars around York, PA for CSX and Conrail, where it remains today, a smart little operation now called the York Railway, running under the auspices of the Genesee & Wyoming. Grove's little kingdom by the creek petered out as well, ending up padlocked, all but forgotten, though intact, and still astride the abandoned tracks of the MA&PA.
In 1986 the Pennsylvania portion of the railroad south of York was about to be taken up for scrap when a group of railfans formed the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society and bought 8 miles of right of way between Laurel and Bridgeton, including the tracks passing through Muddy Creek Forks. It wasn't much to look at; the line had been run on a shoestring for decades and was weedy, damp, and falling apart; date nails read from the time of Truman, Eisenhower, and at the latest, Kennedy. Nevertheless the society went at it hammer and spikes, eventually bringing the line up to speed, albeit a slow one thus far. And they acquired things, vintage things: a Plymouth locomotive, a burro crane, a Whiting Trackmobile, a tamper, a brace of Fairmont motor cars, some original MA&PA rolling stock including a four wheel "bobber" caboose, and perhaps best of all, in 1992 they acquired the entire hamlet of Muddy Creek Forks.

The town wasn't in much better shape than the railroad, but the Society has brought them both back to a considerable degree and today the entire complex is open to the public on a limited basis, usually summer Sundays and a few days in October for the purposes of leaf peeping.
The general store, amply porched and plain on the outside, sports a handsome interior displaying an abundance of interesting vintage goods, appliances, and decorations. The post office, switchboard, railroad ticket window, and a clever rattletrap of an elevator (no riders allowed), all remain intact and on display alongside innumerable relics and photos from the “glory days.” The rolling mill and grain elevator have been cleaned up and though not functional at this time, offer an almost complete look at an early 20th century milling operation. There are knowledgeable friendly docents on hand to explain it all. The interior of the mill is dark, rich with texture, and I hope one day to do it justice with a camera.

The train runs every 40 minutes and what a train it is: a trackmobile, two speeders, and a string of assorted smallish MoW cars all bumping along a line that must be every chiropractors dream come true, but it's fun, great fun. The excursion takes the riders along Muddy Creek and through some of the most beautiful forest the Mason/Dixon line has to offer - all for about four bucks a head. Highlights include a tiny bridge, a narrow winding cut, and a grade crossing complete with flagman. During trout season the society runs a "fisherman's special" ferrying anglers up and down the creek, which remains difficult to access otherwise. This inaccessibility kept the Pennsylvania division’s passenger operations profitable for the longest time due to a Post Office contract that lasted well after RPO’s on other lines were long gone. The creek is well stocked with trout by the Society.
In 1996 the Society, much to its credit, entered into a partnership with the local government and transferred the entire complex over to York County which in turn granted the society the right to continue their operations.

If all this weren't remarkable enough, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society trumped itself in 2003 by purchasing one of the few original MA&PA locomotives remaining on this earth: #82 an EMD SW-9 which had been retired by Yorkrail. The 82 is perhaps best known for making the last run on the Maryland Division way back in 1958. {Make no mistake here; the Society is not a large or wealthy organization, but what they lack in size they make up for in the sort of desperate ardor prerequisite to any successful preservationist undertaking.} The locomotive was purchased for around $8,000.00 and then set on a siding (space donated by the Pfaltzgraff Company), until they could scrape up the funds to move it - a mere $43,000.00 more. The funds were raised and the locomotive was transported via Yorkrail and Norfolk Southern (both free of charge), to another borrowed siding (Cooper Tools), where it was placed on a 19 axle flatbed truck for transport to the society's tracks at High Rock, where it was pushed a half mile down to Muddy Creek Forks by their powerfully small Plymouth locomotive – a real testament to the countless hours of track work performed by a small dedicated flock of volunteer gandy dancers over the past two decades. After 27 years #82 was home, but all is not well, the prime mover's shot along with a host of other problems, requiring another $30,000.00 in restoration funds over what they’ve already spent, and on top of what they need to restore and maintain the town, track, and rolling stock.
If, as George Drury put it, the MA&PA was “the quintessential, archetypal short line,” and in the words of George W. Hilton “never missed a thing aesthetically,” then Muddy Creek Forks must certainly have been the epicenter of its relentlessly quaint atmosphere. The village’s 11 buildings and 8 miles of track sit on 31 wooded acres in a quiet hollow far from the noise of any city, with nary a modern building in site for miles. The loudest sound usually heard, aside from the little train, is the occasional plop of a local kid jumping off the bridge into the stream below. Aside from the absolute beauty of the place, visitors may also find the entire experience thought provoking; it’s one thing to read about the MA&PA’s twisting path, it’s another thing to ride a portion of it.

Or walk a portion, as I did once again, last month. The southern section of the ROW at Muddy Creek Forks is not used for excursions at this time and has seen little work beyond a very basic stabilization. Some of the ties are so rotted that I stay off the tracks in order not to collapse them, which left me feeling guilty the first time I squished one; as if I, and not time, had been the real culprit - imagine steel rails perched atop empty Kleenex boxes. The walk takes me back to a time when there were still a lot of woods lining my own portion of the MA&PA, 30 mileposts to the south, and to a time when I could walk alongside any railroad tracks and not be accosted as a potential terrorist. Not a distant nostalgia by any margin, but the world changes quickly these days, especially in the crowded & terrified East. It’s quiet walking and I can hear myself panting; too many big meals along with too much time in front of the computer has made me a six year old again and a mile seems like a long, long, distance. I mutter aloud to myself, a bad habit, wondering what makes this long dead little railroad so appealing to so many people. We are after all, in the heart of PRR country and a short drive from the birthplace of the B&O. I could be sitting by the Northeast Corridor where trains zip by all day long at a hundred miles an hour, but here I am, picking my way through the creosote tissue cartons. And I take pictures, scores and scores of pictures that won’t mean a thing to anyone but me. “Wanna see a slide show of my walk in the woods? No? I don’t blame you.” In the end I can’t say where the appeal lies exactly, but I know that I enjoyed the walk much more than I would have if it had been on a sanitized “Rails to Trails” promenade, where the railfans have been displaced by people bent on immortality through shin splints. Maybe it’s the decrepitude that draws me in, the lure of the abandoned works - a little creepy and always marvelous. For a minute or two, I am a first grader again in mind, as well as in stamina. Tramping back to my car I picture Lucius Beebe lounging on a track speeder in his top hat and tales, munching on pâté, and feel absurd.
Anyone visiting Muddy Creek Forks would be wise to wear sturdy walking shoes and a healthy coating of bug repellent. Due to its historic nature the complex is not ADA compliant, but the station platform does offer a large historically accurate ramp that leads to the boarding platform and store’s main first floor; those with special needs would be wise to contact the society for more information before visiting. There are no indoor bathrooms, but a well kept outhouse is available onsite. The store sells drinks, snack foods, and a small selection of pertinent railroadania. Parking is plentiful in dry weather and limited when it’s wet. In spite of its damp fecundity, the grounds are cool and well shaded providing a pleasant visit in all but the hottest weather. Like the amiable Strasburg Railroad across the river, there is no general admission; visitors can tramp the premises for as long as they like free of charge, though donations are of course, gladly accepted. The village and railroad are open on summer Sundays between one and five.

Those wishing to make a full day of it would be well advised to visit the city of York, PA in the morning to see the living vestiges of the old MA&PA including the York Passenger station, a glimpse of the engine house, and a good view of the grimly named “Poor House Yard,” which features a decommissioned interlocking tower and is a stone’s throw from the old Northern Central station in one direction and a stone’s throw in the other direction from the old county jail itself, a dreadful looking building that emphatically puts the lie to mindless talk of the good old days. There are other bits of railroad history to be found in the city, but I’ll leave that to the individual explorer to discover. Heading west on Market Street leads one to Lincoln Yard in West York, usually a good place to spot a vintage diesel locomotive or two. West York is also home to the politest Hardee’s I have ever frequented. Proceeding further west, out of town along Route 116 will take one along the tracks to Spring Grove where a morning coal train is sometimes found servicing the Glatfelter Company, albeit with borrowed Norfolk Southern locomotives. Continuing west and turning up Porters Road reveals the tiny village of Porters Sideling (yes “sideling”) where York Railway interchanges with CSX on the former WM Baltimore & Harrisburg line.
Continue to follow the tracks west and you’ll end up in Hanover PA, crossing York Railway’s other branch along the way. Hanover is home to a prosperous canning industry, the world’s tastiest potato chips, and two vintage railroad stations (neither of them MA&PA), one of which was visited by Abe Lincoln where, as legend has it, he bought a quart of milk, a shoofly pie, and for Andrew Johnson, a Thaddeus Stevens bobble-head. Both stations are well preserved and almost side by side; one is in private hands and the other is still used by CSX.

Not too distant Baltimore also hosts some very large MA&PA relics, including a round house, now used by the DPW as a salt dump, and the old Baltimore freight house too. Both are near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, another local labor of love, which is also open on Sunday afternoons.
For more information on the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society go to; sorry but the society does not list a snail-mail address. For more MA&PA history check out George W. Hilton’s “The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Photos: MDRails


Ted Thompson said...

A lovely article. As a fellow fan of the old M&Pa and many things "of days gone by". I enjoyed it immensely.

Ted Thompson said...

A lovely article. As a fellow fan of the old M&Pa and many things "of days gone by". I enjoyed it immensely.