By Rick Dapp; Photography by Jadrian Klinger
Ever since John Harris put his ferry in the waters of the Susquehanna, people have been looking for ways to get to and from the West Shore. As the longest commercially non-navigable river in North America, the Susquehanna has numerous bridges crossing it, from its origin in Otsego Lake, New York to its terminus into the Chesapeake Bay. However, eight forsaken bridge piers standing like taciturn sentinels in the river at Harrisburg denote the end of the line – literally – in a notorious chapter of Pennsylvania history.
Physically, the eight piers paralleling the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Bridge (that now carries Norfolk & Southern trains across the river) appear largely intact and substantial. Boaters and passengers on the riverboat Pride of the Susquehanna, may look idly upon the piers and perhaps wonder what sort of a bridge rested upon them at some time in the distant and dim past.
The truth is, no bridge ever rested upon them. And, at the time of their construction, there were a total of 23 crossing the Susquehanna from west to east; originally designed to carry the locomotives and cars of the South Pennsylvania Railroad.
The South Pennsylvania Railroad was the name given to a pair of 19th century rail lines proposed but never completed. The first, chartered as the Duncannon, Landisburg & Broad Top Railroad in 1854 was renamed the Shermans Valley & Broad Top Railroad in 1857, then became the rather pretentiously named Pennsylvania Pacific Railway in 1859.
Little actual work other than a minor amount of grading was done to build the rail line, and the charter became inactive in 1879. However, in 1881, the South Pennsylvania Railroad was revived, and one of the most infamous struggles for financial control in Pennsylvania history ensued.
Cornelius Vanderbilt – another ferryboat operator – who made his first fortune transporting people and goods across the waters of Manhattan and New Jersey, had assembled a number of smaller rail lines into the powerful New York Central Railroad and was generally acknowledged to be the richest man in America.
Upon his death in 1877, his $95 million fortune and the New York Central passed to his son William Henry Vanderbilt. And, in 1881, William Henry Vanderbilt purchased the right to operate the South Pennsylvania Railroad.
At the time, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which monopolized freight transportation across the Commonwealth, was secretly acquiring control of a rival railroad of the New York Central. Upon learning that the industrial powers in Pittsburgh had long-standing grievances against the Pennsylvania Railroad, Vanderbilt made his move in 1882 to begin construction of the South Pennsylvania Railroad as a rival to the Pennsylvania Railroad. He attracted investors in the venture that was a veritable “who’s who” of American financial power at the time: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Henry Phipps, Jr., Henry W. Oliver, John D. Rockefeller, Daniel Drew, Jay Fisk, Jay Gould and, strangely, a Pittsburgh patent-medicine entrepreneur named David Hostetter.
Surprisingly, Hostetter, a transplant from Lancaster, was the second largest investor in Vanderbilt’s venture and was well positioned financially to take that spot in the organization. His Celebrated Stomach Bitters, which, upon analysis, proved to be 32 percent alcohol (that’s 64 proof), had annual retail sales exceeding $1 million between 1862 and 1883. Hostetter died in 1888, leaving a fortune in the amount of $18 million.
With the financial side of the South Pennsylvania Railroad squared away, Vanderbilt turned his attentions to the construction side and the problems to be resolved in bringing a rail line from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.
The route for the railroad was surveyed beginning in 1881, with construction commencing in November of 1883. Construction was supervised by a Vanderbilt-held contracting company that oversaw 150 separate subcontractors and the more than 6,000 men employed by them. The route for the South Pennsylvania Railroad, as surveyed, was perilous, crossing six mountain ridges, involving steep grades and numerous curves, the bridge across the Susquehanna – and eight tunnels.
Work on the South Pennsylvania Railroad continued unabated in 1884 with the power struggle between the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads holding the attention of both Wall Street and the media.
One person who had not invested in the conflict and watched the performance with a critical eye was J. P. Morgan, euphemistically called “the emperor of money” and known for amassing a fortune by backing industrial ventures. Morgan realized that the battle being waged by Vanderbilt with the Pennsylvania Railroad would result in depressed stock prices and possible collapse of one or both of the rail companies, seriously impacting his own financial stature.
In July 1885, Morgan orchestrated one of the most bizarre meetings in American financial history, inviting Vanderbilt and representatives of the Pennsylvania Railroad to a lavish party aboard his yacht Corsair.
As the yacht cruised the East River and those invited enjoyed the party, Morgan took the opportunity to demand that the South Pennsylvania Railroad be halted. When his guests refused to agree to his ultimatum, Morgan literally held them hostage aboard his yacht until they agreed. Late that evening, they were seen disembarking with an agreement to cease construction on the upstart railroad in hand.
With the stoppage of work on the South Pennsylvania Railroad, all of the contractors and employees were suddenly out of work, the Pittsburgh industrialists were still at the mercy of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the investors had little to show for their faith in Vanderbilt.
A reporter in Chicago asked Vanderbilt if he felt sorry for the workers, the contractors, farmers and other members of the public who had been ruined in the collapse of the South Pennsylvania railroad. Vanderbilt’s reply would be, unfortunately, the one for which he is best remembered: “The public! The public be damned!” A sad conclusion to what came to be known as “Vanderbilt’s Folly.”
An excellent book, The Railroad That Never Was, by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., Indiana University Press, provides a detailed accounting of the South Pennsylvania Railroad story and is highly recommended for anyone wishing an in-depth look at this infamous bit of American history. Written by a former railroad executive, the book is highly readable and contains many photos of the railroad project, with an excellent photo of those eight bridge piers on the dust jacket.
The work that was abandoned with the agreement aboard J. P. Morgan’s yacht, which included a number of excavated cuts through mountains, unfinished tunnels and, yes, those unused bridge piers across the Susquehanna at Harrisburg languished largely unattended for the next 50 years.
The 23 bridge piers in the Susquehanna were reduced to eight, although no one seems to know why they removed 15 of them and left the rest. And those unfinished tunnels (at Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain, Tuscarora Mountain, Sideling Hill, Rays Hill, Allegheny Mountain, Negro Mountain, Quemahoning and Laurel Hill) became very important in 1935 when a feasibility study introduced a project for a superhighway basically using the route of the South Pennsylvania Railroad –the Pennsylvania Turnpike.