Riding the Early Rails

Passenger Train at Cumberland Valley State Normal School

Train at the Cumberland Valley State Normal School passenger station circa 1890s.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

Passenger service in the Cumberland Valley began in August 1837. It was provided by the Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVRR). Three years earlier, the CVRR had been granted a charter by the Pennsylvania legislature to build and operate a line within the state from Susquehanna Township in the north to Chambersburg in the south. For the maiden voyage along this line, 350 travelers enthusiastically boarded a train in Carlisle and rode approximately twenty-five miles north to the state capital of Harrisburg. The coaches that day were decorated especially for the historic occasion.

Passenger transportation by rail became increasingly popular in the Cumberland Valley because it allowed people to travel the long distances between towns more easily and quickly. Commuters relied on the railroad for business and school while other residents used it to access recreational sites. In addition, the federal government depended on the CVRR to transport troops during both the Civil War and World War I.

Cumberland Valley Railroad Local Time Table

Timetable from the Cumberland Valley Railroad circa 1892.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

First Excursions

In 1838, shortly after passenger rail began in the Cumberland Valley, the CVRR offered service to approximately fifteen locations, all within the state of Pennsylvania on a route from Harrisburg to Chambersburg. By the 1890s, the CVRR expanded its routes as far south as Winchester, VA with service to over sixty destinations. This line included stops in Maryland and West Virginia.

Printed time tables provided passengers with information about arrival and departure times as well as the fares for every excursion. This 1892 time table lists the many stops on the CVRR’s main line as well as on its three additional branch lines.

In the early days, the CVRR needed to entice passengers to use the railway rather than canals and other modes of transportation. Consequently, trips were offered at highly discounted rates. However, passenger traffic grew rapidly. Among the many customers riding the CVRR rails, citizens from small towns like Newville and Shippensburg traveled to larger cities to transact business or simply to visit and experience new places.

The Civil War

From the earliest to the final days of the Civil War, the CVRR played a crucial role in transporting Union troops, delivering over 25,000 soldiers within the first few years. When President Abraham Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers in April 1861, men from Franklin County traveled aboard a CVRR train called the William Penn in order to muster into service in Harrisburg. In September 1862, prior to the Battle of Antietam, Confederate forces burned a section of the railroad near Chambersburg, hoping to disrupt the supply of soldiers and provisions aiding Union forces camped in Maryland. That October, rebel soldiers under the command of J.E.B. Stuart also burned the CVRR’s woodshop, machine shop, blacksmith shop, engine house, wood sheds, passenger depot, and three second class engines in Chambersburg. CVRR President Frederick Watts estimated that the damages sustained from this raid were over $50,000. The CVRR line was attacked again in late June of 1863, shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, and once more in July 1864 when Confederate General John McCausland ordered his troops to burn the city of Chambersburg.

Cumberland Valley Railroad Station Brick

Brick from a Cumberland Valley Railroad passenger station circa late 1800s. 

Cumberland Valley State Normal School

Classes in teacher education began at the Cumberland Valley State Normal School in April 1873.  The school, which today is called Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, was located on a ten-acre piece of property that adjoined the railroad tracks. Images of trains and the tracks feature prominently in photographs and postcards of the school.

To accommodate the approximately three hundred boarding students, the Cumberland Valley Railroad made a special stop at the campus for the start and end of each twelve-week term as well as during holidays. This service allowed students from other towns to return home to their families more conveniently.

A passenger station was built on campus to provide the students with protection from the weather as they waited for the train. As time passed and the college grew, students and faculty members began using the train for daily commutes. Day Students such as Elizabeth Ziegler used the train to travel from Carlisle to Shippensburg. Her yearbook entry explained that many students did not know her because she was always on the train back-and-forth to school.

Monthly Commutation Ticket

Commuter Ticket from Elizabeth Ziegler circa 1921. Ziegler was a student from the Cumberland Valley State Normal School. 

Last Years of CVRR Passenger Transportation

The Pioneer is a wood-fueled steam locomotive that was in use on the Cumberland Valley Railroad from 1851 until 1901. Known as a “2-2-2T” type, the Pioneer has an unpowered leading pair of wheels, a set of larger, powered wheels in the middle, and another pair of unpowered wheels at the rear. The “T” stands for “tank engine,” signifying that the locomotive has no separate tender for carrying its fuel and water.  

Seth Wilmarth, the owner of a large machine shop in Boston, designed the engine to pull two-car passenger trains. However, by the time the CVRR took possession of the locomotive, its general type was obsolete on almost all railroads in the U.S. Still, the Pioneer hauled many passengers down the line from Harrisburg, PA to Winchester, VA over its long term of service. During the Civil War, the engine was badly damaged when Confederate troops burned the engine house that protected Pioneer and several other locomotives. The CVRR was able to restore the locomotive and it remained in service for approximately forty more years.

Because it is a rare type of steam engine, the Pioneer has been exhibited as a historic relic. It was repainted in 1947 and displayed at the 1947-48 Chicago Railroad Fair. Today, it is part of the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and is on display at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD.

The Pioneer

The last trip of The Pioneer circa 1901.  Courtesy of the Shippensburg Historical Society.

World War One: End of an Era

During World War I, the CVRR played an important role in the war effort, transporting tanks, supplies, and soldiers. In April 1917, the beginning of the US involvement in the war, the CVRR continued to operate independently. However, in December of that year, President Woodrow Wilson issued an Executive Order for the nationalization of the railroads. His aim was to ease congestion, expedite the flow of goods, and resolve disputes between management, labor, investors, and shippers. Wilson's order remained in effect until March 1920, nearly two years after the war ended. At that time, the CVRR was dissolved and the Pennsylvania Railroad took full control of the line.