For quite some time now, enthusiastic volunteers have been whacking brush, clearing debris and replacing ties and rails on the old Pennsylvania Railroad's Northern Central Division, one of the nation's most historic stretches of railroad, which courses 10 miles northward from New Freedom, Pa., to Hanover Junction.
This work has been done under the guidance of Steam Into History Inc., a nonprofit that has returned the sights and sounds of steam railroading to York County just in time to observe the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
They are reactivating a segment that was part of the Northern Central Railway, which began building northward out of Baltimore in 1829 as the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad. It eventually linked the city with Sodus Point, N.Y., nearly 350 miles away on Lake Ontario; it fell under the dominion of the Pennsy in 1861.
The Steam Into History project is the culmination of a dream that began a decade ago between two close friends, the late businessman William Simpson and lawyer Reed Anderson, who were railroad and Civil War buffs.
The centerpiece of the operation is an accurate and gorgeous reproduction of a 4-4-0 Civil War-era balloon stacked steam locomotive — with all of its colorful and decorative finery — and tender that took three years to build in the Elgin, Ill., shops of Kloke Locomotive Works LLC. It was the type of engine that pulled trains from coast to coast once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.
There are a few concessions to modernity — which I can attest will not drive the railroad foamers crazy — such as air brakes that weren't around in the 1860s. Rather than being fired by wood, oil is used to convert water into steam, but there is plenty of black smoke to please the most ardent of fans. The engine's elaborately decorated headlight uses electricity rather than oil.
The engine, the York No. 17, arrived by flatbed truck at New Freedom. On June 1, with steam up, it pulled a trainload of happy riders and Civil War re-enactors on an inaugural trip to Glen Rock, Pa., about four miles up the line.
Passengers ride in two leased coaches, the Pullman green No. 213 and a Pennsy Tuscan red coach No. 213, that is lettered in gold for the Northern Central Railway. They will be used until period coaches being built by the Reader Railroad in Arkansas arrive.
Last week, as the York stood panting and steaming, engineers Stephen Meola and Alex Horneman and fireman Travis Moody readied the engine for a brief run.
Conductor Mike Billet called, "All aboard," and after a tug on its melodious steam whistle, the York slowly pushed its train up the line, with the coaches leading the way.
Plans call for turntables to be constructed at New Freedom and Hanover Junction in order to turn the locomotives. An engine shed will also be built.
As the train steamed northward, cars pulled to the side of the road and bikers, hikers and walkers on the trail that parallels the line stopped and waved.
Cars and trucks at flagged grade crossings answered the call of the engine's steam whistle by beeping their horns in extended salutes.
At Railroad Park, several miles north of its departure point, the No. 17 gently braked to a stop. After the engine was inspected for a few moments, the train whistled off for New Freedom.
The railroad's grand opening is set for June 21-23, when trains will operate through to Hanover Junction, about 20 miles away. The round trip will take about 21/2 hours.
It comes a few days before the anniversary of Col. Elijah White's forces destroying segments of the Northern Central Railway on June 27, 1863, as Gen. Robert E. Lee was moving the Army of Northern Virginia toward the disastrous clash that would unfold at Gettysburg. Workers were able to restore the railroad in time for the battle, and it transported thousands of wounded troops to hospitals in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In November 1863, President Lincoln rode over the line on the way to Gettysburg, changing trains at Hanover Junction, whose original station still stands. At the dedication of the national cemetery, he presented his stirring Gettysburg Address.
Trains depart from the railroad's Main Street station in New Freedom. For information, call 717-881-9966; or go to steamintohistory.com.