And Havard wondered where the Italian immigrants got all the

stone they cut for a bridge to carry Orchard Buck Road over the new rail line they were completing through southern Lancaster County in the summer of 1905.

"He would sit there for hours and watch the workers building

the stone foundation of that iron bridge,'' says Lancastrian

Nancy Haubert, Martin's daughter.

"One day during their lunch break, a guy said he would carve

a rose in a stone for my dad. 'This is your rose,' he said.'"

The rose remains in the rock, but the earth has moved during

the intervening century, obscuring the foundation.

"Someone would have to dig to uncover it,'' says Haubert.

Someone also had to dig to uncover the full story of the construction of that rail line and its numerous stone bridges. In the early 1990s, that story lay buried beneath decades of time.

Columbian Fred Abenschein, a professional engineer with a passion for railroad history, began reading through reams of railroad materials and century-old newspapers. He rediscovered the details of construction of the Atglen & Susquehanna (A&S) Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad's famed Low Grade Freight Line.

The big picture always had been clear. From 1903 to 1906, the Pennsy built one of the engineering marvels of the age. The line cost $19.5 million.

In the scope and challenge of the effort, the Low Grade was compared with the building of the Panama Canal, which began at about the same time but took almost three times longer.

In its human dimension, the Low Grade construction resembled

a small war: Thousands of men fought to tame the landscape, and more than 200 died in the process.

A decade ago, a few years after recreational enthusiasts first proposed creating a rail-trail to run along a significant chunk of the by-then abandoned A&S Branch, Abenschein told the rest of the story in several magazine articles.

Now, as the county attempts to clear the final bureaucratic debris blocking the proposed recreational trail, Abenschein shares his research again.

"There's a major story here,'' he says, "and it's the story of all the people, the immigrants that worked on the line, and all of the accidents that went on. There was a lot of manual labor. Many workers died and got hurt.''

Their task was one of the riskiest but grandest in turn-of-the-century America.

What we commonly refer to as the "Low Grade Railroad'' in Lancaster County was part of a much larger plan to remove freight from the Pennsy's main line and speed it along its own rail system.

The Low Grade line consisted of four distinct sections:

The York Haven line ran from Marysville on the west shore of

the Susquehanna River in Cumberland County down to York Haven on the west shore in York County.

The A&S Branch ran from York Haven across the river on the

Shocks Mill Bridge, down the east side of the river to Safe Harbor and across Lancaster County to Parkesburg in Chester County.

The Philadelphia & Thorndale Branch ran along a short section of the existing main line between Parkesburg and Thorndale.

The rest of the Low Grade ran from Thorndale across the state to Morrisville, N.J., just on the other side of the Delaware River.

"'Low Grade' is one of those generic terms,'' says Abendschein as he fits one of two carousels of slides into his home projector so he can show vintage railroad scenes. "It sort of got known as the Low Grade, but the railroad had different names for different spots on the line.''

The 45-mile stretch called the A&S Branch made up about a third of the entire length of the Low Grade line, so named because its grade never exceeded 1 percent. Also, it had no curve greater than 2 percent.

The line cut into the ground beneath bridges like the one carrying Orchard Buck Road or was elevated over highways and streams. Thereby, railroad officials eliminated steep inclines and all railroad crossings. Trains using the Low Grade could move at a swift and steady pace.

The A&S Branch was by far the most difficult section to level because of Lancaster County's challenging terrain, especially along the Susquehanna River.

Massive amounts of material had to be removed at some locations. Massive amounts of fill had to be hauled in to level off other areas.

The Italian masons constructed dozens of impressive stone bridges under and over the rails. The Low Grade line is an engineering triumph, and its bridges are an artistic triumph.

Work began at the Shocks Mill Bridge over the Susquehanna in

December 1902. One thousand men and 150 horses labored to build the original bridge and its impressive approaches.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other men began working at Quarryville, proceeding both east and west from there.

In a brief history of Safe Harbor, the late Ernest Schuleen,

who managed the Safe Harbor Water Power Corp., explained who

these railroad workers were:

"The major portion of the laborers were immigrants from Italy, Turkey, Syria and the other southeastern European countries, who were taken directly from incoming boats to do the job. ... Getting the job done was the thing; safety was secondary.''

The workers employed steam shovels and steam-powered drills to chip away at tons of rock, especially in the hills along the Susquehanna. Then they wielded picks and shovels to do the fine tuning.

Explosives speeded up the work, at a terrible price. Flying rock killed several workers. Prematurely exploding dynamite killed more.

Abendschein's collection of newspaper headlines introduces tragic stories: "Blown Into Atoms His Awful Fate,'' "Four Men Torn to Shreds at Highville.'' Construction-related obituaries appeared in the papers several times a week.

"If you were a WASP, you got your name mentioned when you died,'' Abendschein says. "When others died, they were just numbers.''

The single most spectacular accident occurred when 2,500 pounds of dynamite and a ton of nitroglycerin exploded in a dynamite factory outside Pequea. Eleven men died. Relatives could identify the remains of only one.

The workers blasted their way through the river hills, raised the almost impossibly high bridge over the Conestoga River at Safe Harbor and headed for the crew working west from Quarryville.

An equally difficult section was the "Deep Cut'' near Quarryville, where workers spent a year blasting and digging through almost solid rock to a depth of 90 feet. And that is where the Pennsy held the A&S dedication ceremony July 27, 1906. Prominent Quarryville citizen and Groundhog Lodge founder George Hensel hoisted a silver-plated hammer and drove a silver spike into the track with three blows.

The A&S Branch was complete.

Why did the Pennsy spend so much money and manpower building

the Low Grade line and its elaborate stone-arch bridges when

it had a perfectly good main line to carry both passenger and freight traffic? "They needed to get those freight trains off the main line because it was getting crowded,'' explains Abendschein, "and they improved their profit because they didn't have to hire so many crews to work pusher engines to move trains up steep elevations.''

The Pennsy began running freights on the A&S shortly after the dedication. Within a month, one of those trains struck and killed a track worker.

The line served as a major freight hauler for the Pennsy and

its successor railroads for decades. Business declined, and in 1988 the line's owner decided to abandon the A&S, precipitating a struggle between backers of a rail-trail and those who supported a different use for the land. Hundreds of descendants of men who helped build and operate the Low Grade still live in the southern end. Quarryville's retired postmaster, Walt Minnich, is one of them. Minnich's father and grandfather began working on the Low Grade in the years immediately after it opened for business. His grandfatherretired in the 1930s and his father in the 1950s. Both had lots of stories.

"Dad used to talk about the Safe Harbor bridge,'' Minnich recalls. "That was not a fun place to be when trains went over it. I remember him talking about the bridge swaying as he stood at the ends of the ties waiting for the trains to pass.''

The fate of the old A&S Branch also has swayed back and forth as proponents and opponents of a county-maintained rail-trail have fought for control.

That process, this past summer, finally seems to be reaching the end of the line.

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