A reporter bicycles the old Enola railroad line and finds a treasure on a BEATEN PATH - LancasterOnline: News

A reporter bicycles the old Enola railroad line and finds a treasure on a BEATEN PATH

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Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2008 12:19 am | Updated: 1:58 pm, Thu Oct 3, 2013.

Baby heads, we called them back in the days when I rode rugged mountain bike trails.

Smallish, skull-sized rocks that shake the living daylights out of you.

The ballast stones beneath my tires Wednesday on the Enola Low-Grade Line reminded me of baby heads. They weren't quite so jarring. But they offered little traction. And they stretched west out of Atglen as far as I could see.

The day was bracingly sunny and cool. But a cloud of skepticism was already descending over my plan to pedal the entire 23-mile-long line east to west, across Solanco to the Susquehanna River.

Three hundred more yards of this and I'd be toast.

The corridor has been stirring up people for two decades.

Make it a linear park for hiking and biking and birdwatching, some said after Conrail discontinued train service in 1988. Others wanted a highway for Amish buggies. Or a truck route.

Some residents wondered if a recreation path would attract too many outsiders and even spark crime.

Norfolk Southern's acquisition of Conrail in 1999 posed a time-consuming hurdle to any potential resolution.

Legal wrangling over the abandoned line continued sporadically for years. In 2004, with an eye toward speeding up the multi-use trail idea, the county tried to seize the land by eminent domain. But the Solanco municipalities that host the corridor successfully resisted the move in court.

Then in July, satisfied that it had standing to do so, Norfolk Southern deeded over the 850-acre tract for $1 each to Sadsbury, Bart, Eden, Providence, Martic and Conestoga townships.

It also conveyed thousands of dollars to the townships for bridge demolition and/or maintenance.

Some supervisors from the municipalities met informally last week to discuss the corridor. At least two municipalities, Providence and Martic, are starting to groom their segments for public use.

In Conestoga Township, said Supervisor Steven Charles Sr., "We do want to put a trail in there."

Manor Township, home to a 5¼-mile continuation of the Low-Grade beginning just south of the double railroad trestle over the Conestoga River, is forging ahead with a rail-trail plan (please see related story).

The line in Manor is still owned by Norfolk Southern.

It remains off limits, as do some other parts of the corridor. People who wish to visit the right-of-way should check with local officials first.

Whether a long-distance trail materializes remains to be seen. Still to be ironed out are questions about the fate of the stately Martic Forge trestle and other historic bridges along the line.

Also unknown is the impact of a recently announced decision by Amtrak, which owns a power line easement along the route, to replace high-voltage wires and steel utility towers, possibly by planting a single row of poles down the center of the roadbed.

Against all odds, the property remains intact.

But what kind of shape was the thing in? What did it look like after all these years?

My boss suggested a report from the ground. I hastily complied. It isn't every day you get paid to take a bike ride.

After securing OKs from the township supervisors I visited Cycle Circle on North Plum Street. Shop owner Tom Podlesny graciously lent me a shiny new Redline Monocog 29'er mountain bike with fat balloon tires.

"Some people say these [wheels] make big stones feel like small stones," Podlesny remarked.

Spitting rocks

It was a good thing.

Back in Atglen, Wednesday morning, I clambered to the top of the stone arch bridge that carries the Low-Grade over Route 372 and shoved off.

Immediately I was cranking madly and my wheels were spitting rocks into the weeds. I got off and walked for a while.

At least there were no hills.

The Pennsylvania Railroad made sure of that when it laid track from Creswell Station in Manor Township downriver to Safe Harbor and east to Atglen.

Also known as the Atglen-Susquehanna Line, the project was the centerpiece of a rail network stitching together the Enola yards in Harrisburg with Philadelphia.

The Pennsy, as the railroad was called, mandated a grade of no more than one percent. Between 1903 and 1906, the company employed thousands of men to dynamite a route through the rolling Solanco hills.

The effort required miles of fill as well as the construction of some 30 bridges, many using stone hand cut by Old World artisans.

Dozens of men died in explosions and other accidents, according to newspaper accounts. Workers moved more earth than in any other project of the period, except the Panama Canal.

Compared to those hard-living Italian, Turkish and Syrian immigrants, I had it easy.

When the heaps of ballast leveled out I hopped back on the bike. Crickets were beeping. Fall asters nodded in the breeze and hawks sailed overhead. I began to enjoy the journey.

The corridor shot straight as a rifle barrel across Sadsbury, Bart and Eden townships.

The rails were long gone but a smattering of relic spikes and steel plates recalled an earlier era of thundering steam locomotives.

Just as they must have in the distant past, dairy farms quilted the horizons. Horses and Holsteins swiveled their heads quizzically as I labored past.

At White Oak Road in Sadsbury Township, an Amishman in a wagon piled high with fresh-cut corn stalks waved a greeting.

Though picturesque, the rural landscape gave off a busy vibe, with far-away helicopters churning the sky and the occasional Plain-sect farmer driving horse-drawn equipment across the corridor.

What appeared to be a trash fire burned on the edge of the path at one spot, hazing the air with smoke and ashes.

I rolled unexpectedly past some graffiti, which looked weirdly out of place in the sylvan setting. Such creations were to mar more than a few bridges and cliff bands for the duration of the route.

A few miles east of Quarryville, someone had discarded eight radial tires and wheels. Surprisingly, though, given that dumping is often cited as a problem along the line, this was one of the few overt instances I saw.

Because of bridge removals ordered by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, the right of way is no longer contiguous.

During the day I detoured around two major gaps in the line, at Brick Mill Road, Sadsbury Township, and Sigman Road, Providence Township.

In the vicinity of Hollow Road in Eden Township, a long chain of puddles and muck temporarily transformed the ride into a slog.

I reached the business end of Quarryville around lunchtime. A scrap yard, a mill, a row of truck trailers hove into view and then receded. Just west of town the landscape abruptly became forested.

Car and truck noises died away and the route swung around subtly to the north for a few miles before doglegging west again.

The right of way was flanked with ripe, purple pokeberries and sprinkled liberally with goldenrod.

I rode past a Providence Township maintenance worker leveling brush and weeds with a tractor, plodded through another marshy area and then beheld a cluster of trucks parked in the middle of the path.

Chainsaws revved. An oak branch crackled to the ground. The Asplundh Tree Expert Co. was clearing the vegetation around Amtrak's Depression-era catenary towers.

An Amtrak worker wearing sunglasses and a black cap chatted amiably – if anonymously – about the corridor as he ate lunch.

He hardly sees any people on it, he reported, except on Sundays when dirt bikers and all-terrain vehicle riders roar up and down the line illegally.

Some people who live along the roadbed have gotten to feeling awfully possessive about it, he added, recalling the time a Plain-sect farmer strung a fence across.

The worker also explained why there's thick ballast in some areas and not others - people have helped themselves to the stone - and noted that parts of the line have grown swampy because the drainage ditches along the sides have not been maintained.

Three summers ago, the Amtrak man continued, the railroad graded the Eden Township section that bogged me down because the water there was waist high.

I thanked him and his buddy for the info and pressed on.

Rutted off-road vehicle paths led down to the corridor at many points in the western reaches.

Where the route paralleled Pennsy Road in Martic, I came across a township worker gleaning railroad spikes.

The rusted, chisel-pointed fasteners can flatten a tire just like that, according to the man, who said he had been grading the surface of the corridor earlier.

He indicated a scattering of small, charcoal-colored balls in the roadbed and said they were pieces of iron ore from the old freight-hauling days.

He pointed east with one of his railroad spikes. "It gets rough out that way," he said.

I knew.

The worker, like the Amtrak men, declined to give a name. He was the last person I saw along the Low-Grade Wednesday.

In fact, the route featured more wildlife than human life.

I spotted two wild turkeys in the Martic Township woods, where a great horned owl also hooted softly at 3:30 in the afternoon.

The last prominent landmarks were the towering Marticville trestle - furred over now on top with birch saplings - and the river itself, which appeared suddenly around a bend in the path.

Safe Harbor, where the Conestoga River joins the Susquehanna, marked the end of the Low-Grade trip.

My transect of the county took 6½ hours, with plenty of time out for snapping pictures and making notes.

The trek had plastered Podlesny's bike with mud, coated my clothes and backpack with blackish dust and filled me with a sense of completion.

I hiked down the hill beneath the enormous burnt-umber girders of the Safe Harbor double trestle and headed back toward town.

Jon Rutter is a staff writer for the Sunday News. His e-mail address is jrutter@lnpnews.com.

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