MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — At the intersection of N. Market Street and Strawberry Alley in Mechanicsburg is a state historical marker for the Cumberland Valley Railroad. Starting in the 1830s, the CVRR would tie the Cumberland Valley together from Harrisburg to Winchester, Virginia, and connect the Midstate with Philadelphia.
Incorporated in 1831, the CVRR started work on its first section of track in 1836. It opened for service in 1837, with a 17-mile stretch running from Lemoyne, known back then as Bridgeport, to Carlisle.
That November it opened an additional 36 miles of track connecting Carlisle to Chambersburg. There the company would locate its headquarters and workshops.
On Jan. 16, 1839, it grew eastward with a bridge opening over the Susquehanna River from Bridgeport to Harrisburg. Passengers and freight could now travel by rail all the way from Chambersburg to Philadelphia. The 1839 Bridge would later be replaced by a new iron truss bridge in 1887, which was in turn replaced in 1916 by the bridge you see today.
The CVRR gets the credit for creating the first sleeper car in 1838. In those early days of the railroad, people would travel to Chambersburg from Pittsburgh by stagecoach — a 37-hour trip. They’d arrive late at night and get right onto the train to Harrisburg. The exhausted passengers welcomed the CVRR innovation.
In 1859, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought a controlling interest in the CVRR. It continued to operate independently, with some Pennsy members on the board. Over the years, the connection got closer and closer, and the Cumberland Valley was soon building its equipment to Pennsy standards.
In 1860, the Cumberland Valley extended its reach into Maryland, when it contracted to run the Franklin Railroad from Chambersburg to Hagarstown. It later became a part of the CVRR.
Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out. The Cumberland Valley Railroad transported troops and materials to and from Harrisburg and Hagerstown. It became a major target of the Confederates. J.E.B. Stewart’s cavalry raided Pennsylvania in 1862. In 1863, the entire Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, in what we now call the Gettysburg Campaign. And in 1864, Confederate soldiers sacked and burned Chambersburg. Each time the Confederates made a point of wrecking as much of the railroad as they could.
But the CVRR recovered quickly and continued to expand. It controlled several branch lines, like the Dillsburg and Mechanicsburg Railroad, best known for transporting people to the annual grangers’ picnic at Williams Grove.
It built more buildings, like the station and station master’s house in Mechanicsburg.
In 1889, the railroad reached Winchester, Virginia, its furthest expansion south.
Then in 1919, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought out the Cumberland Valley Railroad and began to operate it directly.
By then automobiles, trucks, and airplanes were beginning to cut into railroad revenues. By mid-century, many railroads were on the brink of collapse. In 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the New York Central Railroad to form the Penn Central, which only lasted a little over two years before going bankrupt in 1970.
Today much of the Pennsylvania Railroad assets are owned by Norfolk Southern. The station and station master’s house in Mechanicsburg are a museum. The bridge in Harrisburg…well, that isn’t being used for much right now. But while the railroad that built them is gone, trains still run along tracks first set in place over a century ago by the Cumberland Valley Railroad.