Northern Railroad Never Completed


Traveling through Jonestown toward Fredericksburg you can see what appears to be the remains of a road or a railroad bed to the east of the road. This elevated roadway is the remains of the proposed South Mountain Railroad. a railroad project that was chartered in 1854 and never completed. Also, just north of Market Street in Jonestown, the stone retaining walls for the railroad to cross the Swatara Creek were completed but no structure was ever built across the creek.

The railroad was to have connected with other lines to form a connection with Rockville, north of Harrisburg, and Boston. The line would have followed the Blue Mountains through northern Lebanon and Berks counties, with a branch line extending from Strausstown in Berks County to Reading, the capital of Berks County.

A number of factors contributed to the railroad's failure. One factor was the completion of the Lebanon Valley Railroad line from Harrisburg to Reading, which connected with other railroads along its course. Other factors were the depression of 1873, and the costs of construction which quickly rose above estimates. Also, the Civil War played a part in the failure of the line, since almost all northern manufacturing efforts were aimed at winning the war in the 1860s.

The company was granted the right by the state Legislature in 1854 to issue shares of stock to finance construction. The stock was quickly purchased but provided only enough money for work to get started. After numerous delays, a mortgage was granted to D. Dawson Coleman and Heister Clymer of Reading in the amount of $2,400,000 for work to continue.

Act No. 630, to incorporate the South Mountain Railroad, passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, 1854, read:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That A.O. Heister, Jacob Shell, Geo. M. Lauman, Amos Earley, Thomas Barnet, Daniel W. Gross, Jas. M'Cormick, Jacob M. Haldeman, Wm. Ayres and David R. Porter of, Dauphin County; Jacob R. Weidman, A. Bates Grubb, Edw'd B. Grubb, Elais E. Kinzter, John Harper, Lyon Lemberger, John B. Smeltzer, John Weidman, John Brunner, Sam'l Rank, David M. Rank, George Heilman, Jacob Houty, Jacob Snoterly, John Meily and Henry R. Seidle, of Lebanon County; J.A. Beiteman, George Shenk, Jas. Leibert, Ben'n Nunemacher, Soloman Albright, Franklin Wagner, Daniel Moyer, Will'm Shomino, Adam Schoener, Valentine Brobst, Benjamin Klahr, Frederick Harner, Isaac Gerhart, Martin Mayer, Henry Shubart and Philip Kline, of Berks County, of any five of them, be and they are hereby appointed as commissioners to open books, receive subscriptions, and organize a company by the name, style and title of the South Mountain railroad company (sic), with all the powers, and subject to all the provisions and restrictions prescribed by an act, entitled "An Act regulating railroad companies," approved the nineteenth day of February, one thousand eight hundred and forty nine.

Section 2. That the capital stock of the company shall consist of fifteen thousand shares of fifty dollars each: Provided, Said company may, from time to time, by a vote of the stockholders, at a meeting called for that purpose, increase their capital stock so much as in their opinion may be necessary to complete said road, and carry out the true intent and meaning of this act.

Section 3. Said company shall have the power and authority to build and construct a railroad, beginning at or near Harrisburg, in Dauphin county, and thence along the south side of the Blue mountain by the most expedient and practicable route to Jonestown, in Lebanon county, and thence along south side of the Blue mountain to Rehrersburg, and thence to the borough of Hamburg, in Berks county, to connect with any railroad or public improvement which is or may be constructed at either end of said route, as the president and directors of said company may deem to be most expedient to the public interest; and also to connect their road, by lateral or branch roads, with any railroad constructed or to be constructed in any of the counties through which the same may pass.

Section 4. That if said company shall not commence the construction of said road within five years, and compete it within ten years from the passage of this act, the same shall be null and void, except so far as the same may be necessary to settle up the affairs and pay the debts of said company.

E.B. Chase
Speaker of the House of Representatives

M. M'Caslin
Speaker of the Senate

Even with the additional financial backing, the railroad was never finished. In October 1877, the personal property of the South Mountain Railroad was sold at auction in Jonestown, bringing only $545.00. In February 1880, the rights-of-way, leases and passenger cars were sold for an additional $2,100. It is interesting to note that even though there were passenger cars listed among the items sold, the line never acquired any engines and never laid any track.

Later in 1880, the remaining assets of the company were sold for $2,000. These assets were later sold to the Pennsylvania and New England Railroad Company, which also went bankrupt before any work was started. The final blow to the company was when the workers had to be given their final pay in tools rather than cash.

If the construction of this railroad would have become a reality the northern areas of the county would likely be much different today. The idea for this railroad came at a time when many industries were starting up and looking for likely places to locate. Naturally, then as today, those industries were looking for easy access to transportation.

If the South Mountain Railroad would have become a reality, the lives of every resident in the area would have been changed.

Hower has been a newspaper copy editor and Internet Systems Administrator. He has served on various historical commission boards has written several hundred local history columns, edited two history books and collaborated on several other local history projects. Columns posted on the Web are repeats of those that appeared in print in other publications.

Copyright © 1997, John Hower