For more than a century, the Northern Central Railway was the major rail corridor connecting the anthracite coal fields of central Pennsylvania to Baltimore's industrial waterfront.
Passengers from Baltimore and Washington also traveled the route to Harrisburg, where they boarded trains heading west to Chicago or north to upstate New York.
Today, most of the track is gone — much of it washed away by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 — but the route remains heavily traveled. Rather than riding train cars, people ride bicycles, horses or simply walk the rail trail that connects the northern Baltimore suburbs to downtown York, PA.
Operating as the Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania and the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail in Maryland, the 41-mile route is hugely popular, the site of roughly 800,000 trips a year.
"It is one of the longest rail trails on the East Coast," said Jeri Jones, program coordinator for York County Parks. "You can go from Ashland, MD, to York without crossing a lot of major roads."
An extension is under way that will eventually take the trail five miles north to York County's Rudy Park, ultimately creating a 46-mile trail.
Today's travelers pass quiet rural towns, pastoral settings and stunning rock outcrops, but vestiges of a bygone industrial era remain in train stations and signals that still line the route, and in the smokestacks and abandoned factories that were once served by 30 trains a day.
"There's history everyplace you look along the whole corridor," Jones said.
The railway was chartered — originally as the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad — in 1828, just a year after the Baltimore and Ohio, the nation's first railroad. Construction began in 1829. Over time, it became an increasingly important route, hauling passengers and freight, especially coal from the anthracite region around Sunbury, PA.
Several original railroad stations have been reborn along the trail. The Monkton station, built in 1897, serves concessions, provides information and has a small museum that operates during the summer.
The New Freedom station, built in 1885, is restored to its appearance in the 1940s. It provides concessions and houses a small museum that recreates the bustling activity that would have taken place in and around the station during that period.
The oldest remaining station is at Hanover Junction, which was built in 1851–52 where the Northern Central met the Hanover Branch Railroad. Wounded soldiers passed through after the battle of Gettysburg, and Abraham Lincoln stopped here on his way to give the Gettysburg Address. The station has a small Civil War museum that is open on summer weekends.
About 15 miles north of the Pennsylvania state line is one of the trail's main attractions: the 253-foot Howard Tunnel. During the heat of summer, the cool tunnel is a refreshing treat for bicyclists and hikers. The tunnel is wide enough to accommodate two railroad tracks — a reminder of the line's once-heavy use.
Built between 1828 and 1838, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest stone arch tunnel in the country along an active railroad.
"Active" is a relative term. While a single set of tracks remains along much of the Pennsylvania portion of the trail, it has been used only occasionally since a tourist train stopped operating years ago.
Traffic is expected to increase when a nonprofit organization, "Steam into History," begins to offer historical Civil War trips this summer. Trail users may have the treat of an authentic steam locomotive passing them by.
Traveling the trail is an excellent way to experience a watershed — a watershed being the area of land that drains into a particular river or waterbody. From the top of any watershed, all water flows downward, as if from the rim of a bowl, with tiny streams draining small areas flowing into ever larger streams until, ultimately the water flows into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Like many railroads, the Northern Central followed rivers and streams where land was often relatively flat, and grades gentler.
Traveling north in Maryland, riders follow the Gunpowder Falls from a wide river to a narrow waterway as streams branch off. They finally follow the narrow Little Falls, which ultimately disappears near the state line as they reach the top of the watershed. Just past New Freedom — the high point on the route — the trail follows the South Branch of Codorus Creek downhill. Trail travelers can watch the creek grow steadily as other streams flow in. Ultimately, the South Branch flows into the mainstem Codorus Creek in York.
As bike riders reach the top of the watershed, the grade of the trail noticeably increases. The trail may look flat, but bicyclists will certainly notice a perceptible grade for five miles on either side of the state line.
Ironically, this grade, known to railroaders as the New Freedom Hill, proved fatal to the Northern Central. Heavy coal trains needed an additional engine to help them surmount the grade, which added expense to the journey.
"That hill is ultimately why, from an operational standpoint, that line was largely abandoned," said Robert Bailey, a park ranger at Gunpower Falls State Park, which operates the Maryland section of the trail. Increasingly, coal trains bound for Baltimore were shifted to a line that ran along the Susquehanna River. "While that route was longer, it was flatter," Bailey said. "They didn't have to use helper units."
Flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes delivered the coup de grace to the line, but traffic had dramatically declined by the late 1960s.
The route has a rich geologic history as it traverses an area where continents were pulled apart and rammed together over the last billion years. Somewhat ironically, the trail's high point — New Freedom — was once the bottom of the ocean.
Jones, who is also a geologist, said the exposed billion-year-old gneiss rocks near Monkton are remnants of an ancient continent's crust, while schist rocks farther north were once the bed of the ocean. Just north of New Freedom, volcanic rock visible along the trail was once part of a mid-ocean ridge. "You actually start on an ancient billion-year-old continent and then dip down to the bottom of the ocean," Jones said. "It's a great geological story."
By the time the trail reaches York, people are on limestone that formed the continental shelf of North America 500 million years ago.
History along the route in York also predates the railroad. The trail passes a re-creation of the Colonial Courthouse where the Continental Congress met for nine months in 1778, debating and ultimately adopting the Articles of Confederation. Nearby buildings, including the Plough Tavern where members of Congress relaxed after their sessions, date to the early 1700s and are open to visitors.
Interpretive signs along the route tell the story of these and other historic structures as well as introduce travelers to the natural landscape and wildlife along the corridor.
Views are often striking. A small set of waterfalls about a mile south of Parkton is a popular attraction along the Maryland portion. An overlook gives people a good look at the cascading water.
The waterways on both sides of the border are major draws for the trail as well. Anglers use the trail to access the rivers; both the Gunpowder Falls and South Branch Codorus are trout streams. Where they widen is a popular spot for tubing.
While the portions of the trail nearest Baltimore and York are heavily used, much of the trail still offers a sense of remoteness that stands in stark contrast with its industrial roots. Visitors see a variety of birds, chipmunks, squirrels, the occasional fox or — in the streams — evidence of beavers. And, all along the trail they will see evidence that this route is a journey that spans more than miles.
Ready to Ride?
Parking areas are located about every four or five miles along the rail trail and are generally well-signed. Restrooms, either portable toilets or in buildings, are also available every few miles. Water fountains are available but a bit more sparse, although refreshments can be purchased in many towns along the trail. During the summer, some trailside homeowners sell soft drinks and snacks on weekends, and a number of concessionaires operate along the trail.
Three historic train stations provide information about the trail, including small museums about its history:
The restored 1898 Monkton Train Station is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and weekends in the spring and fall.
The New Freedom and Hanover Junction train stations are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1–5 p.m. Sundays from Memorial Day through September, and Saturdays in May and October.
Information about the Heritage Rail Trail Park, including maps and directions to parking lots, is found at the York County Parks website http://yorkcountypa.gov/parks-recreation/the-parks.htmlHer
Information about the Torrey C. Brown Trail can be found at the Gunpowder Falls State Park website: www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/gunpowder.asp
- Sunset Scramble Bike Ride: 6:30–9 p.m. Tuesdays in the spring and summer. 13– to 15-mile roundtrip ride starts from a different point each week. Bring a bike, helmet, water, snack money. Rides are free; registration is not required. For details, call 717-840-7440 or e-mail email@example.com.
- Moonlight Bike Rides: Learn about folklore, history, nature during a 9-mile, 1.5-hour ride. 8:30 p.m. May through March, 7:30 p.m. April & September. April 20 (Glen Rock / honey bees); May 25 (Brillhart Station / Howard Tunnel); June 22 (Hanover Junction / Glen Rock Railroads); July 20 (Seven Valleys / Christmas in July); August 17 (Glatfelter Station / Lincoln's Funeral Train); Sept. 14 (Railroad / Vampire Bats). Bring bicycle, light, helmet. Fee $5; children younger than 12 are free.
- Civil War Re-enactment: 12-4 p.m. June 22 at Hanover Junction. Enjoy music by the Victorian Parlor Ensemble; tour the station museum and Civil War Union campsite; and witness the conflict between Confederate cavalry and the Union force. Free.
- Nature Programs: 12–2 p.m. Saturdays Memorial Day to Labor Day at Monkton Station. Subjects vary. For details, visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/gunpowder.asp.