York Won’t Be Timeless Forever
Article by Michael Lijewski/Photos by the author
When scouting a city for railroads it's often best to head for the historic center of a town. On the east coast it's easy, just aim for the colonial sounding streets: King, Queen, George, Duke, and the like. This is certainly the case with York, Pennsylvania, a town 265 years young, doing her picturesque best on the banks of Codorus Creek; just a few miles west of Philadelphia and a stones throw from her sister city Lancaster. Once you've found the royalty, the trains will come into your sight with ease.
And like the rest of the eastern cities, York has had her ups and downs. Founded in 1741, York was the first city west of the Susquehanna (Unless you count Santa Fe, of course), and was home to the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1778. Some say that York was the first capital of the United States, and by all accounts, it's as valid a claim as any other. York lays claim to many firsts, including the first use of therapeutic oxygen, the first modern entomologists, and the first coal fired steam locomotive in the U.S. This particular locomotive was invented by Phineas Davis in 1832 and freighted by wagon to the B&O shops in Baltimore, there being no railroad connecting York and Baltimore at the time.
It wouldn't take long for the railways to find and connect to York and soon the town boasted several major carriers and a short line or two as well. First in town was the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, which later became the Northern Central, and then part of the PRR. The line fell on hard times and like so many ailing operations in the region, was ultimately finished off by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. Today the Baltimore-to-York portion of the railroad is a rail trail which can be walked almost in its entirety. Later came the York Hanover & Frederick Railway (1869), The Peach Bottom--later to become the Maryland & Pennsylvania (1873), Western Maryland Railroad (1892), and of course, the Pennsylvania Railroad proper too. By 1946, according to Mr. Carpenter's Atlas, there were six lines running into town, 4 of them PRR.
They are all gone now--the companies that is--the railroads live on in York and not just in our hearts either. York is currently served by the Norfolk Southern and by the York Railway Company. The NS has a small but respectable presence personified by Windsor Yard, a facility located just off Loucks Mill Road. York's biggest Railroad presence by far these days is the York Railway. The company runs on a conglomeration of tracks involving York's every railroad predecessor. This short line, most closely identified with the “famous MA&PA” is part of the Genesee & Wyoming family of railroads, an international outfit which owns and operates hundreds of miles of railroads the world over and has become a darling of investors. Perhaps because of the decades long contraction of the American railroad system, we still tend to think of every line as endangered and every short line as decrepit, but those days are over - that's 20th century thinking. The Genesee & Wyoming has grown and prospered beyond all expectations and York Railway has prospered along with it. Today she boasts over 40 miles of track, 2 yards, and connections with both Norfolk Southern and CSX.
That's the written history. The real fun of course, is in tramping around the place. Downtown York features a remarkably large number of vintage buildings, many still in use. Dark red brick factories and warehouses abound amidst residences sporting a profusion of roofing styles, most notably the Mansard type. The city has augmented its rich industrial history with murals, some of which lie along the tracks, and many more within a block of the right of way.
A proper railfan's tour of the city should start at York Interlocking, also known as Poorhouse Yard, where in the past, the NCR, WM, PRR, and MA&PA all converged; it's still where York Railway and Norfolk Southern exchange cars. The tower is still there, abandoned and in disrepair, alongside a vintage tool shed which some say was the NCR's and some say was the MA&PA's. Either way, it's a decrepit little shed with a slate roof. In fact, the whole yard is blessed with the kind of godforsaken beauty that won't charm just anyone, but for those in love with history, the place is an absolute gem. If there is any schedule to the place, I am unaware of it, both railroads seem to come and go whenever they please, though mornings are often a good bet. The yard is located along York Street, near N. Queen Street (remember the royalty?).
Following Queen Street to North Street will take you to a York Railway warehouse facility and in front of that, the old Northern Central Passenger Station. The station is in good shape, serving Greyhound and a photography studio. Close by, at North George and Arch Streets is the old Western Maryland freight station, still sporting the WM logo; behind is one of York Railway's grain transfer facilities. Behind that and across the street are several grain silos and an old MA&PA boxcar, now part of the facility. On either side of this little plot are tracks, one of which served the MA&PA and one which served Yorkrail and both now part of York Railway. And both cross the Codorus at this point, merging into a single line about a quarter mile to the west. There is a parking lot near North Newberry Street where one can view the bridges and grain facility without ruffling too many feathers; afternoons provide the best photography.
Near all this is some street trackage, running along Pershing Avenue, between Gas Avenue and West Market Street. I have never seen a train on it, but your luck may be better than mine. Nearby is also the northern terminus of the aforementioned Northern Central Trail, which you can use to hike or bike to the edge of Baltimore; weather, time, and stamina permitting. Or, since it's still tracked between York and New Freedom, you could take your trusty track speeder for a spin (see the Northern Central Railcar Association for details).
Back on Arch Street, traveling away from the old WM station, you'll find yourself on Loucks Mill Road; turn right on Windsor Street to find the Norfolk Southern Yard. The Northern end of the yard empties onto the old NCR mainline (now known as the York Secondary), to hook up with the Enola branch of the NS at Wago Junction, which lies along the Susquehanna River, not far from Harrisburg and Enola Yard.
All of this in a few square blocks, however time is of the essence; York's seemingly timeless railroad history is about to be disturbed by what's known as the Northwest Triangle Project and/or the York Outdoor Recreation Complex. The project is both large and vague, but involves building a minor league baseball stadium, along with retail shops and the such. The location has the potential to radically alter the railroad landscape in downtown York. The currently favored location threatens the old Northern Central Station and the York Railway warehouses. The second favored location is right where York Railway crosses Codorus Creek and could spell the demise of the old WM station. The third favored location borders Poorhouse Yard. The railroad itself isn't in any danger, the line will be moved if need be, but the old infrastructure will be changed and many old buildings face demolition. Interestingly, and perhaps irrelevantly, all this lies in a historic district. Indeed many of the buildings and infrastructure discussed in this article have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. My hope is that like Camden Yards in Baltimore, York’s railroad heritage will be incorporated into the design of the place, and not merely bulldozed for the sake of a fast buck.
As I've already mentioned, this isn't an area of commonly recognized beauty; it is however, one of great postindustrial charm and curiosity. One wonders if a less interesting area could be found for a stadium? Whatever the outcome, nothing will be changing in the next few months (and perhaps not for the next few years), so now would be a good time to pay York's railroads a visit; it won't take long and after it's all torn down, you'll be glad you did.
About the Author
Michael Lijewski currently resides in Fallston, Maryland where, along with the photographer Kim Choate, he publishes MDRails.com, an online journal of railroad photography. This is his first RAILROAD.NET byline.