A Vital Lifeline
The Cumberland Valley Railroad had a tremendous impact on agriculture. Prior to the arrival of the railroad, farmers transported their crops to the closest local market and hoped to be able to sell all that they had grown. With limited competition among buyers in rural areas, prices were typically lower than in cities that had greater numbers of consumers. Consequently, improved access to larger markets, where both demand and prices were higher, caused the region to experience a dramatic expansion of agricultural production and commercial development.
By 1839, the main line of the CVRR had been completed between Harrisburg and Chambersburg. From Harrisburg, agricultural goods were transported primarily to Philadelphia but also to Baltimore, New York, and Pittsburgh. Freight stations were located at regular intervals along the line in existing towns and in newly emerging commercial areas. Cumberland Valley farmers stored their grain in elevators. The grain would eventually be picked up for rail transport in CVRR hopper cars. The American Volunteer, a local newspaper, asserted that, “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.”
With the advent of rail transportation, yields of grain in the region rose significantly. High demand coupled with advancements in agricultural technology and access to markets led to increased crop supplies. In the period from 1840 to 1870, wheat outputs grew 43% and corn production improved by 71% as farmers began practicing crop rotation instead of relying on unproductive land fallows to replenish soil, started fertilizing with barn manure, and began using advanced machinery like the reaper, invented by Cyrus McCormick, a relative of the McCormick family of Cumberland County. On average, the typical farm in the Cumberland Valley was smaller than those in the counties east of the Susquehanna and larger than those west of the river; but, they had significantly more improved acreage than the typical Pennsylvania farm.
As farming became more lucrative, farm-related industries increased. Some of the development occurred in occupations directly connected to agricultural activities such as milling, blacksmithing, farriering, tanning, and equipment manufacturing and repair. Around 1840, over 140 mills were scattered throughout the Cumberland County along its powerful rivers and creeks. In addition to the gristmills that processed grain, there were paper, rolling, clover, plaster and chopping, oil, hemp, and woolen mills. The other businesses were typically located near the grain elevators, stockyards, and freight stations.
The growth in agriculture also initiated the rise of support services for farmers like grocery, dry goods, hardware, and clothing stores as well as brickyards, quarries, sawmills, and banks. In addition, hotels and restaurants began to thrive as visitors came to town to conduct business.
Accordingly, many small towns saw significant increases in population. From 1840 to 1870, Shippensburg experienced a 42% increase in population -- from 1473 to 2065 inhabitants. This change in population drove property values up 258% during this same time period — from an $8.7 million aggregate of all farms to $22.4 million.