Web Master: Eric Bickleman
Updated: September 17, 2012
The Stewartstown Railroad
The Stewartstown Railroad, a long time historical landmark in southern York County,
Pennsylvania, may seem dormant to the casual observer but the railroad is still very
much alive. The railroad last operated in April of 2004, when a significant derailment
interrupted its operations. It has been speculated that this excursion would be our last,
as the Company had been struggling financially and had not scheduled any additional
operations at that time. Although rising insurance premiums have placed a hold on
passenger excursions for the foreseeable future, its principal supporters have been
working behind the scenes to insure that the future preservation of the railroad is assured.
Chartered in 1885 by local interests, the line provided freight and passenger service
from the small communities of the Deer Creek Valley to the Northern Central Railway
at New Freedom for its first eighty-seven years of existence. Known as the "farmer's
railroad," its traffic base was largely agricultural in nature, supplanted by a number
of small manufacturing firms. Unlike many railroads of its kind which succumbed to
the combined effects of the Great Depression and improved highways, the
Stewartstown Railroad survived primarily by switching from steam to gasoline motive
power. Despite a dwindling traffic base, a loyal group of shippers, many of whom
owned shares in the Company, enabled it to outlast its only connection, the mighty
Pennsylvania Railroad. Not long after the Pennsylvania was merged into the
ill-fated Penn Central, Hurricane Agnes tore through York County in 1972. While the
Stewartstown Railroad itself was relatively unscathed, the connecting Northern Central
line suffered heavy damage. With the Penn Central itself teetering on the verge of
collapse, it was unwilling to rebuild the storm-damaged line and when the USRA
planners declined to include the branch into Conrail, it appeared that Stewartstown
Railroad's fate was sealed.
Despite such overwhelming odds, the Stewartstown Railroad refused to file for
abandonment and, in fact, continued to maintain its right-of-way and locomotives,
ready to provide service. The Company's perseverance was, at long last, rewarded
when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation restored the Northern Central
Line from New Freedom to a connection with the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad
in York. In 1985, the company assumed operation of the Northern Central trackage
and resumed freight service only to have its largest shipper, the Summers Cannery in
New Freedom, close down following a merger with Hanover Brands. The Company,
nevertheless, continued to provide freight service to three other shippers in the New
Freedom area as well as handle a number of special shipments for a local utility
company. While ongoing efforts were made to drum up additional freight business,
the Company began operating passenger excursions to supplement its income.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania eventually sold the connecting Northern Central
line to York County which desired to develop a Rails to Trails project along the corridor.
Following a series of disputes with the County, the Stewartstown terminated its lease
of the line in 1992, and was once again left without an outlet for its freight customers.
Excursion trains continued over the original line from Stewartstown to New Freedom.
Service was resumed on the connecting line by the new Northern Central Railway in
1996 and continued until 2001, although no freight service was handled. Despite these
setbacks, a core group of individuals continued to operate passenger service over the
Stewartstown Railroad until the spring of 2004.
Today, while the Stewartstown Railroad again lies dormant, it remains intact, both
physically and in its corporate structure. It is, in fact, the only railroad in York County,
and quite possibly in the Commonwealth, to retain its original corporate structure and
its original right-of-way completely intact throughout its entire existence.
For a more detailed history of the railroad, see "The Story of the Stewartstown
Railroad" by Eric J. Bickleman which is available for purchase from the Baltimore
Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society at: