Region: Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region
County Location: Cumberland
Marker Location: 4 Strawberry Alley, Mechanicsburg
Dedication Date: May, 1992
Incorporated in 1831. Completed, Lemoyne to Chambersburg, 1837; eventually, Harrisburg to Virginia. For over 80 years, vital to Valley's economic life; merged into Pennsylvania R.R., 1919. Passenger Station, Stationmaster's House here, built in the 1860s.
People closely and constantly observed [the railroad], and its doings were the subject of daily conversation…. If No. 13 was 20 minutes late last night, half the males in town knew why, and a surprising number of the women.
– Author Paul Westhaeffer, in “History of the Cumberland Valley Railroad 1835-1919”
Credit: Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives
In the decades before the outbreak of the American Civil War, small and regional rail lines sprang up across the state of Pennsylvania. The arrival of a railroad to a town or business linked it into the state’s and nation’s rapidly growing economy – a growth that was accelerated by the increasing system of rail lines. Eager investors poured their money into small, independent railroads to link coal mines, iron foundries, and other economic enterprises and regions to previously distant markets.
The completion of the state’s Main Line of Public Works canal-and-railroad system in 1834 provided Pennsylvania with a bulk transport system that stretched east and west across the commonwealth. In 1835, businessmen from Franklin County, Cumberland County, and Harrisburg won a charter from the state to build a railroad feeder line that would tap the Main Line of Public Works, linking it with the rich agricultural lands and iron-ore banks in their region. Carlisle’s American Volunteer newspaper explained the appeal of the new venture well:
Credit: Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives
"If a railroad is made from Harrisburg to this place [Carlisle], we can leave Carlisle at nine o’clock in the morning and reach Philadelphia at six o’clock in the evening…. A farmer can put his produce into a railroad car in the morning and the same evening have it on Broad Street, Philadelphia, and that, too, at one half of the expense it would cost him to have it taken by wagon."
Through local stock subscriptions and individual investors, the new Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVRR) raised $642,000 to construct its line, work on which began in the spring of 1836. On August 12, 1837, the first seventeen-mile portion opened between Bridgeport (present-day Lemoyne) and Carlisle. A grand celebration and dinner followed the inaugural ride. Judge Frederick Watts and Pennsylvania Adjutant General Simon Cameron offered toasts that evening. On November 16, CVRR opened another segment, which extended its line another thirty-three miles southwest to Chambersburg. Fourteen months later, on January 16, 1839, it opened another critical link: a bridge over the Susquehanna River to Harrisburg that gave it a seamless rail connection to Philadelphia.
From the beginning, the CVRR was a general-purpose railroad that served multiple markets. It hauled farm products, iron-ore products, and passengers. In the days before railroads crossed the Alleghenies, it carried passengers on their way between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Taking a stagecoach from Pittsburgh over the mountains via Bedford to Chambersburg, travelers would hop on the 1 a.m. CVRR train for Harrisburg and get there in time for breakfast. To better accommodate these cross-state passengers, CVRR managing director Philip Berlin in 1838 commissioned the construction of one of the industry’s first sleeping cars.
From 1835 to 1919, CVRR was an almost perfect index of the Cumberland Valley’s production. Everything entering or leaving the valley moved by railroad. Consistently profitable, the CVRR threaded valley communities together. In addition to employing some 1,800 people, CVRR carried mail, newspapers, parcels, and telegraphic communications; it offered personal, business, and leisure transportation and connected three county seats. During the Civil War, its important role in carrying Union troops and materiel made it the target of Confederate raiders, who, on October 11, 1862, set fire to its main locomotive and car shops in Chambersburg.
Credit: Courtesy of Dan Cupper
Serving the prosperous Cumberland Valley, the CVRR in 1859 fell under control of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), which bought a controlling share of its stock to keep it in friendly hands. In the decades that followed the Civil War, it used its healthy revenues and PRR backing to buy smaller, less prosperous lines. In 1865, CVRR bought a line that extended it to Hagerstown, Md., and in 1873, to the Potomac River. In 1889, it reached Martinsburg, W.Va., and Winchester, Va., at the head of the Shenandoah Valley. In Pennsylvania, CVRR acquired a small branch line from Mechanicsburg to Dillsburg, another from near Chambersburg to Mont Alto and Waynesboro, and a third from Marion to Mercersburg and Richmond Furnace. All offered access to iron-ore traffic, and one gave it possession of the popular on-line picnic grounds at Williams Grove. Over the years, CVRR forwarded thousands of trains of West Virginia bituminous coal bound for eastern markets, and served as a middle link for New York-Harrisburg-Hagerstown-Roanoke, Va. passenger trains that operated in conjunction with the Norfolk and Western Railway. Track conditions and passenger amenities were always maintained to high standards. By the early 1900s, ninety mile-an-hour speeds for passenger trains over some parts of the route were an everyday occurrence.
After six decades of controlling the CVRR at arm’s length, PRR merged the smaller road into itself on June 2, 1919. With the coming of better roads in the 1920s and 1930s, cars and trucks diverted freight and passenger traffic. CVRR ended its commuter-train service in 1952, and PRR removed the last passenger train, an overnight New York-Roanoke run, in 1961. After PRR merged with New York Central to become Penn Central, a chaotic union that soon ended in bankruptcy, Penn Central closed all of Chambersburg’s railroad facilities in 1972. After Conrail took control in 1976, it severed and abandoned the CVRR line between Carlisle and Shippensburg, but retained pieces of the line for local freight service.
Passengers may yet ride a portion of the old CVRR route again. Harrisburg’s transit agency, Capitol Area Transit, purchased the bridge over the Susquehanna with intentions of someday building a commuter-rail system to Carlisle.
Paul J. Westhaeffer, History of the Cumberland Valley Railroad 1835-1919 (Washington,