Hidden history of Lancaster County’s Shenks Ferry nature preserve

Lancaster

CONESTOGA, Pa. (WHTM) — Shenks Ferry is known for its wildflowers, but it is also home to quite a bit of local history.

From culverts along the Enola Low Grade train line to remains of a train wreck to a plaque commemorating a deadly dynamite factory explosion, local history buff and Uncharted Lancaster founder Adam Zurn knows the stories behind Shenks Ferry.

Railroad culverts

The Enola Low Grade rail line was built in the early 1900s by the Pennsylvania Railroad, according to the Susquehanna National Heritage Area. The rail line was built with no more than a one-degree elevation change or a three-degree turn along the entire route, Zurn said.

The reason for this very specific criteria was economics, Zurn explained. Going up and down hills and around sharp curves requires braking and accelerating, which take up time and wear on the equipment.

“Time is money, so the faster we can get it from point A to B, the more money we can make or save,” Zurn said.

Of course, the natural landscape is not built to accommodate these criteria, so in constructing the Enola Low Grade line, hills were blasted apart to make way for the railroad, and valleys were filled in to maintain a consistent elevation, Zurn explained.

When the valleys were filled in, stone culverts were constructed to allow a pathway for the water flowing through the valleys. These culverts are still standing in and around the Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve.

In fact, one of the culverts can be found along Shenks Ferry’s main trail. Culverts look like tunnels, although Zurn explained that some people say there is a difference — culverts have water going through them while tunnels do not.

This culvert can be found along the main trail at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve.

The trains that traveled along the Enola Low Grade line carried freight rather than human passengers, but today, people can hike along the Enola Low Grade Trail where the trains used to travel. The rail line closed in the late 1900s.

Dynamite factory explosion

Blasting apart mountains to make way for the Enola Low Grade rail line required a lot of dynamite. For easy access to the explosives, a dynamite factory was constructed at Bausman’s Hollow near Shenks Ferry, according to Zurn.

The factory operated for more than two years, providing dynamite first for the construction of the Enola Low Grade and then for a nearby dam construction project. On June 9, 1906, an explosion at the factory killed 11 men and injured several others.

Photo showing the dynamite factory before the explosion (Credit: LNP/LancasterOnline)

No one is sure exactly what caused the explosion, but Zurn has a theory.

“The tradition is you would build a new dynamite factory every 1 to 2 years because the explosive powders settle on the floor and on the walls, and the longer you let the building go, the higher the probability of a premature accidental explosion,” Zurn said.

The Lancaster Inquirer called the explosion “the most horrible disaster of recent years in this county.”

The 11 people who died in the detonation are buried at Colemanville United Methodist Church.

People 15 miles away from the factory reported hearing the explosion, which means people north of Lancaster City, people in York County, and people in Maryland could have heard it, Zurn said.

The shock wave from the explosion was felt for a mile and a half, Zurn said. Newspapers at the time reported people’s windows and dishes breaking. Zurn said one barn was even dislodged from its foundation.

In the immediate vicinity of the factory, the leaves were blasted off of the trees and, according to The Scranton Republican newspaper, “immense holes were torn in the ground.”

Today, a plaque in the Shenks Ferry preserve marks the site of the explosion.

A plaque at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve marks the location of the dynamite factory.

Remnants of a train wreck

Decades later, residents of Conestoga thought they heard another dynamite explosion one December evening. In fact, what they heard was the sound of a freight train striking a boulder that had fallen on the tracks a short distance outside of Shenks Ferry.

“On December 23, 1981, Bill Neway discovers the answer to what happens when an immovable object is hit by an unstoppable force,” Zurn said.

An 82-car train engineered by William Neway was heading to Bucks County when it came upon a massive boulder on the tracks. Although the train’s crew tried to brake, there was not enough room for the train to come to a complete stop before hitting the giant rock, Zurn explained.

The train collided with the boulder traveling around 30 miles per hour, and the first several cars of the train folded back and forth like an accordion.

Photo of the train crash published in the Lancaster New Era on December 24, 1981

Fortunately, the train carried freight rather than passengers, so there were just four people on the train, and they all survived the crash. Neway was injured in the accident, and he retired on disability after the event, Zurn noted.

Zurn pointed out some metallic remnants of the accident that lie in the woods off the Enola Low Grade Trail.

“I think the really amazing thing is you come here and think, ‘Oh wow, there’s this beautiful wildlife preserve and there’s all this nature,’ but there’s so much more here, sometimes just feet off the trail or hidden around the corner,” Zurn said.

Notes on visiting Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve:

Shenks Ferry visitors should stay on the trails to avoid harming the wildflowers and other wildlife living on the preserve. Guests should also be sure to remove any garbage or other items they bring onto the preserve. The site is carry-in, carry-out, meaning there are no trash cans at the preserve.

Visitors approaching Shenks Ferry from the south should be aware that Green Hill Rd. is closed south of the preserve. Guests should instead access Shenks Ferry from the north via River Rd., Shenks Ferry Rd. and then Green Hill Rd. There is a parking lot at this preserve.

More information about the preserve is available on the Lancaster Conservancy’s website here.

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