Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 8, 2019. 

A contractor doing work on North Lime Street in Lancaster city recently discovered a void he thought was a sinkhole.

A closer look at the space — 5 to 6 feet deep, 30 feet long and as wide as the road — revealed that what he found was actually an open cavity under an old railroad bridge.

The bridge once carried Lime Street pedestrians and traffic over a section of the historic Pennsylvania Railroad that wound through the northeast section of the city to the former downtown station at North Queen and East Chestnut streets, according to Eric Conner.

“Clearly the (North Lime Street) bridge was never filled in” underneath, said Conner, an author, historian and assistant stationmaster at the Strasburg Rail Road.

Beginning Oct. 15, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation plans to do just that, closing the street between East Walnut and East Chestnut streets through Oct. 21 to complete what it’s calling an “emergency” project.

‘Bridge is in good shape’

It’s not that the 8,000 motorists that travel North and South Lime Street daily have been on a dangerous route, the city’s deputy director of public works Matt Metzler said.

“The bridge is in good shape,” he said.

But if it’s left alone, it will need to be maintained. So PennDOT will pump a loose concrete material in to fill the space under the bridge.

Metzler said the city notified PennDOT because Lime Street is a state road (Route 222). He said the agency, too, was surprised.

“There’s not a whole lot of people who know much about it,” Metzler said.

A burgeoning rail market led to the station at North Queen and East Chestnut streets being replaced in 1929 by a new, larger one on McGovern Avenue — the present day Amtrak station. The line near Duke and Lime was torn out.

A cavity under a similar steel bridge over Duke Street was filled in, but city officials only recently learned that the North Lime Street bridge was not, Metzler said.

For years, traffic on North Lime Street has unknowingly traversed the old railroad bridge, which sits beneath 2 inches of asphalt. After a closer look, city staff realized the space was the underpass of a bridge, Metzler said.

“It’s like a big room with a dirt floor,” he said.

Work will be done during the day, but the block will be closed continuously.

North Lime Street is a major northbound route for trucks and other traffic, so expect backlogs, according to an alert on Lancaster city's website. Traffic will be detoured east on Chestnut to North Broad Street, north to East Walnut Street and west on Walnut back to North Lime Street.

Flourishing rail industry

The rail industry flourished in Lancaster for nearly three quarters of a century, beginning as early as the 1850s, according to Conner.

The railroad became the key mode of transportation for Lancaster residents, he said.

The North Lime Street line carried some of the big names of the day to Lancaster.

“(It) brought in a host of dignitaries including (Abraham) Lincoln — both as president elect and his funeral train — Teddy Roosevelt, Horace Greeley, and many others,” Conner said.

A diagonal rail line went through what is now the Mayor Janice C. Stork Corridor Park in the northwest part of town. There are two known remaining bridges there, Metzler said, where James and Mulberry streets cross over the park.

There was also a north and south line from Water Street to Quarryville. Some of the tracks were badly damaged by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, according to LancasterHistory.

Passenger rail travel diminished after World War II, but there were still active rails in Lancaster well into the 20th century, Conner said.

Are there any other hidden bridges under Lancaster?

Metzler said he doesn’t believe so. A lot of the tracks were closer to street grade than the North Lime Street bridge.

Update: On Tuesday, PennDOT and Lancaster officials said they're looking for other cavities in the area of former bridges.