Railroads of the Spring Creek Watershed
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
“Bellefonte is now a great railroad center, and trains are arriving and departing continually, connections being made in all directions.” So proclaimed the Democratic Watchman, one of the community’s weekly papers, in its September 9, 1885, edition. The Watchman noted that two trains running the length of the Bald Eagle Valley in each direction made daily stops in Bellefonte, as did two trains that made round trips from Lewisburg via Penns Valley and Lemont. A train originating at Snow Shoe, on the Allegheny Plateau, made a daily run down the mountain to Bellefonte. All of these were passenger and express trains. Add perhaps a dozen freight trains to the mix, and the Watchman’s statement was no exaggeration.
Photo 1. Postcard view of a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train at the Bellefonte station, circa 1900
The situation was much different earlier in the century. Bellefonte and the rest of the Nittany Valley had much to offer of economic value. Abundant deposits of iron ore, coupled with nearby forests and limestone deposits, provided the three key ingredients for a thriving iron-making industry. The stone stacks of charcoal-fed furnaces dotted the landscape up and down the valley. The furnaces yielded pig iron that could be re-worked by secondary ironworks into consumer goods. The problem was that most of the mills that made the finished products and the markets that used them were located hundreds of miles away, in the more populated areas up and down the Atlantic seaboard and west of the Alleghenies. Centre County furnaces and forges commonly relied on pack animals and wagons to transport the iron, an inefficient and expensive mode of travel at best. Farmers and lumbermen faced similar difficulties in moving the products of fields and forests to those same markets. By the 1850s, the region’s economic engine was sputtering.
It was Spring Creek that first offered the prospect of a better means of transportation to market. From the main line of the state-owned canal system near Harrisburg, an extension ran north along the Susquehanna River to a point above Lock Haven. The privately chartered Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company began building a canal linking the state-owned system with Bellefonte. It ran through the Bald Eagle Valley to Milesburg, and from there paralleled Spring Creek to Bellefonte. The “Navigation” became operational over its entire 25-mile length in 1848.
The canal represented only a partial solution to the area’s transportation problem. Canals were out of service during the winter months. Even minor flooding could breach their walls. Boats were small and traveled at speeds of no more than the walking pace of the mules that pulled them. A ten-week Bellefonte-Philadelphia round trip was considered an exceptionally fast turnaround.
Railroads had none of those liabilities. When a railroad was proposed to carry coal and timber from the plateau down to Bellefonte, there was no shortage of investment capital. The Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Railroad began operation in 1859. Like the canal, it used Spring Creek as a water-level approach from Milesburg to Bellefonte. The investors intended to connect their line at Milesburg with a newly formed rail line running the 54-mile length of the Bald Eagle Valley between Tyrone and Lock Haven. Either end point offered a connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). But the Bald Eagle Valley Railroad (BEV) suffered chronic financial troubles, including some arising from apparently fraudulent handling of funds. Its completion in 1865 came after the Pennsylvania Railroad stepped in to restore financial stability and assume a controlling interest. The BEV gave the people and businesses of the Spring Creek watershed an efficient and reliable connection with the “outside world.”
A New Era of Making Iron
The railroad arrived in the Nittany Valley near the close of the iron industry’s charcoal-furnace era. Only a handful of furnaces remained active by the 1860s. Most had met the fate of Moses Thompson’s Centre Furnace, which went out of blast permanently in 1858, done in by increasing costs, including the high cost of transportation. A devastating flood in 1865 swept away much of the Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation’s infrastructure; it was not rebuilt. In the absence of a robust iron trade, no one commodity stood out in the railroad’s mix of freight traffic. Outbound traffic included pig iron from the Valentines and Thomas furnace along Logan Branch south of Bellefonte, fruit and grain in season, and lumber (mostly oak, pine, and hemlock). Inbound the railroad carried many of the manufactured essentials of daily life. Passenger trains carried the mail and express parcels.
The Pennsylvania Railroad had exclusive control over all of this traffic. It bought the Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Railroad in 1881. Four years later, another PRR subsidiary line, the Lewisburg and Tyrone Railroad (L&T), entered Bellefonte from the south. From Lewisburg, the L&T followed Penns Creek into Centre County and then headed westward through Penns Valley. From Tyrone, the L&T built eastward through the Nittany Valley. The PRR intended to have both ends meet in the vicinity of the fledgling settlement surrounding the Pennsylvania State College. However, on the west, construction halted at Fairbrook, from which point the railroad built a five-mile branch to Scotia, where Andrew Carnegie had begun mining iron ore in 1881 to feed his Pittsburgh steel mills. On the east, the PRR decided to swing the railroad around the base of Mount Nittany at Lemont and head north for Bellefonte rather than continue on toward the college and a junction with the west end. It reached Bellefonte in July 1885, prompting the Democratic Watchman’s subsequent editorial about “a great railroad center.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad was persuaded to aim the L&T toward Bellefonte in large part because of a threat posed by a competitor. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R) was planning to build into Centre County from an existing line at White Deer in Union County. The Reading had even purchased property in Bellefonte for a terminus. By linking the L&T to Bellefonte, the PRR effectively countered the P&R’s designs.
Photo 2. Loading pig iron at Nittany Furnace.
A new era in iron-making in the Nittany Valley dawned in 1887 with the opening of what would eventually be called Nittany Furnace, located on the site of the old Valentines and Thomas furnace along Logan Branch and adjacent to the PRR’s line between Lemont and Bellefonte. In 1888 a nearly identical plant, Bellefonte Furnace, went into blast along Buffalo Run near its juncture with Spring Creek. This second era of iron-making was made possible by inexpensive rail transportation. The two furnaces burned coke rather than charcoal and relied on a blast of hot gasses captured during the combustion process instead of using ambient compressed air from water-powered bellows. The new technologies enabled the furnaces to achieve higher and more even temperatures. With a daily output of 125 tons, each furnace could produce more iron in a week than the old-style furnaces could in a year. They joined other regional furnaces, such as those located in Punxsutawney, DuBois, Lewistown, Danville, and Riddlesburg, in supplying the iron demanded by the nation’s emerging steel industry.
The Pennsylvania Railroad no longer had a monopoly on rail traffic in the Spring Creek watershed The five-mile long Nittany Valley Railroad (NVR) hauled ore and limestone from east of Bellefonte to Nittany Furnace. Brothers Philip and Thomas Collins, who controlled Bellefonte Furnace, built the Bellefonte Central Railroad (BFC; chartered as the Buffalo Run, Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Railroad) to transport ore from deposits that lay between the Pennsylvania State College and Scotia. In 1893 the Central Railroad of Pennsylvania (CRR), under the management of J. Wesley Gephart, put into operation a 28-mile line between the New York Central system at Mill Hall and downtown Bellefonte. Gephart, a Bellefonte attorney turned businessman, promoted the Central Railroad as a competitor to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The CRR via the Nittany Valley Railroad gained access to Nittany Furnace, where Gephart served as president.
Map 1. Three railroads—the Bellefonte Central (BFC), Central Railroad of Pennsylvania (CRR), and Nittany Valley Railroad (NV)—hauled iron ore from numerous open-pit mines or “banks” to the large, hot-blast Nittany and Bellefonte furnaces, and to the small, cold-blast McCoy and Linn Iron Works. (From Bezilla and Rudnicki, Rails to Penn State, the Story of the Bellefonte Central)
The local boom in railroad construction was part of a nationwide trend. During the 1880s, the U.S. witnessed the construction of more than 75,000 route-miles of new line, nearly doubling the country’s mileage. That explosive growth continued right up to 1894, when a series of bank failures triggered a severe economic depression. Bellefonte and Nittany Furnaces shut down; rail traffic slumped. Prosperity did not return until late in the decade, when local rails were again burnished by carloads of ore, limestone, coke, and iron. The furnaces, quarries, and railroads in the Bellefonte area collectively employed more than a thousand people. Unfortunately, good times based on the iron trade were short-lived. Steel makers increasingly preferred to make their own pig iron as part of an integrated manufacturing process, sourcing inexpensive, high-grade ore from deposits around Lake Superior. Even factoring in transportation costs, Pittsburgh mills with their state-of-the-art blast furnaces produced far more iron at far less cost than the now-obsolete Bellefonte and Nittany Furnaces. The former went out of blast permanently in 1910, and the latter followed a year later.
Scheduled Passenger Service
Regardless of the freight they carried, railroads presented small towns and rural areas with unprecedented geographic mobility. By 1900, three of the four railroads serving the Spring Creek watershed offered passenger service. Only the Nittany Valley Railroad did not; it existed solely to serve Nittany Furnace. Nevertheless, even in the absence of competition from other modes of travel, local passenger trains were seldom moneymakers for their owners. As early as 1906, President Robert Frazer of the Bellefonte Central Railroad was complaining that passenger fares typically covered only about half the cost of running three daily Bellefonte-State College round trips. The deficit was made up by freight income—each of the trips was a “mixed train,” carrying both passengers and freight. Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, Frazer withdrew two of the three round trips under the guise of fuel (coal) conservation. The public hardly seemed to notice. By then a motor bus route had been established over the newly built state road that linked State College and Bellefonte by way of Pleasant Gap and Axemann. Private automobile ownership was small but growing steadily. With the BFC eventually selling fewer than a hundred tickets a year, passenger service became so inconsequential that the company did not get around to asking the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for permission to terminate scheduled passenger operations until 1945. The request was granted effective March 20, 1946.
Photo 3. Bellefonte Central combination passenger coach and baggage and express car.
Ironically, it was the Bellefonte Central’s passenger service to State College that played a key role in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s decision not to connect the east and west ends of its L&T line. The PRR had surveyed a five-mile alignment that ran from Lemont via what later became the Easterly and Westerly Parkways in the borough of State College southwest to Fairbrook. But it never moved to construct the line. “It would not pay,” declared PRR President James McCrea in 1910, because there was little prospect that adding the connecting link would be rewarded with much new freight revenue. McCrea also pointed out that the Bellefonte Central already served Penn State and the surrounding community. (He sidestepped the fact that State College residents considered the BFC a railroad of “the huckleberry variety” in the words of historian Wayland Dunaway, and desired direct service by the PRR as much for its prestige as anything else.)
Any doubt that passenger trains did not pay their way was removed by the Central Railroad of Pennsylvania. With the closure of Nittany Furnace, the CRR lost two-thirds of its freight tonnage. It was forced to depend on modest quarry traffic on each end of its line and revenue from the three daily passenger trains that plodded back and forth between Bellefonte and Mill Hall. That was not enough to prevent red ink from overflowing its ledger books. The railroad ran its final train on September 28, 1918, and was quickly liquidated to take advantage of high wartime scrap prices.
Photo 4. Central Railroad of Pennsylvania coaches stored at the company’s Bellefonte station soon after the railroad shut down.
The Pennsylvania Railroad gradually whittled down its passenger service as well. It was able to endure the rising tide of publicly funded highways, motor bus routes, and private automobile ownership longer than the short lines because deficits were outweighed by revenues from hauling considerable volumes of mail, express and dairy products. Loss of the mail contract to a highway carrier between Sunbury and Bellefonte, and Sheffield Farms’ transition from train to truck for milk, resulted in the discontinuance of passenger service over the L&T beginning September 24, 1949. The last remaining scheduled passenger train serving Bellefonte was a local making a daily round trip between Altoona and Lock Haven. Citing operating costs of $82,000 for 1949 and gross revenues of about $30,000, the PRR discontinued the train effective August 23, 1950.
Although special passenger trains occasionally visited the area after that time, it was not until 1985 that passenger service resumed with any regularity. The all-volunteer Bellefonte Historical Railroad was organized as an excursion line. Using two Rail Diesel Cars and operating under an arrangement with the rail lines’ owners and freight operators, the BHRR averaged more than 5,000 riders annually during its first decade of existence, complementing the Bellefonte-State College area’s growing attraction as a tourist destination.
Limestone and Lime
Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century and continuing to the present, the financial mainstay of railroading in the Spring Creek watershed has been the limestone and lime industry. The Valentine Formation, a deposit of limestone up to 90 feet thick outcropping along the southeastern flank of Bald Eagle Ridge, was known in the nineteenth century; but in the absence of demand, the formation was little exploited except for local use. The market finally blossomed in the early 1900s, reflecting America’s rise as the world’s greatest industrial power. Limestone was used as a flux to remove impurities from slag in making steel and for construction purposes of all kinds. Lime was used in the manufacture of such diverse products as steel, paper, glass, and industrial and household chemicals, and in food processing and water purification. In its simplest form, lime was made by crushing limestone (mostly calcium carbonate) and then heating (calcining) it in kilns to temperatures above 1,000 degrees F. to drive off carbon dioxide and other impurities. Left behind was calcium oxide or quicklime, which was processed further according to its intended use. The more calcium carbonate the limestone contained, the cheaper and more efficient the lime-making process was because there were fewer impurities to eliminate. The Valentine Formation offered some of North America’s purest limestone—as much as 98 percent calcium carbonate.
By 1914, a triumvirate of limestone and lime companies—all headquartered locally—dominated Bellefonte-area production. The Chemical Lime Company, served by the Bellefonte Central, had quarries and a lime plant a few miles upstream from the mouth of Buffalo Run. The BFC handed off its loads to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Bellefonte’s Sunnyside yard on the west bank of Spring Creek. The PRR itself served the American Lime and Stone Company, operator of quarries on both sides of Spring Creek a short distance northwest of Bellefonte. The PRR also served Whiterock Quarries at Pleasant Gap, where the Valentine Formation was present near the base of Nittany Mountain. The Bellefonte Central was originating around 300,000 tons of limestone and lime annually during the 1920s. Specific data for the PRR is absent, but a conservative estimate would put the PRR’s annual tonnage at more than double what it received from the BFC.
Map 2. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Bellefonte hosted four railroads: the three shown here, and the Nittany Valley Railroad, which served Nittany Furnace, located along Logan Branch just south of the borough. (From Bezilla and Rudnicki, Rails to Penn State, the Story of the Bellefonte Central)
There was also a variety of lesser freight to be carried. Customers in the immediate Bellefonte area included coal and gasoline distributors, a salvage and scrap metal processor, automobile dealers, building supply firms, a couple of flour mills and the Western Maryland Dairy (later Sheffield Farms). Farther up the line (that is, east by railroad timetable) was the state fish hatchery at Pleasant Gap, which used specially built rail cars to transport fish for stocking in streams throughout Pennsylvania. Beyond the hatchery was Rockview State Penitentiary (today the State Correctional Institution at Rockview), which received coal and tin cans and shipped vegetables from the prison-run cannery. The station at Lemont had two sidings on which were placed carloads for State College consignees who preferred to receive or ship there rather than via the Bellefonte Central. The daily eastbound passenger train through Lemont regularly picked up milk, butter, and large cans of cream for delivery to processors in the New York and Philadelphia areas. A short distance beyond Lemont was the Oak Hall Lime and Stone Company quarry. As the L&T worked its way farther east, the freight traffic was light and mostly agricultural—farm implements and livestock feed delivered, and fruit, grain and other products of farm and forest picked up by the lone freight train that made a daily Northumberland-Bellefonte turn. The Bellefonte Central’s State College freight business included building supplies for the rapidly expanding town and campus, coal for town dealers and the college’s steam and power plant, an array of perishable and nonperishable food, office supplies, and retail hardware such as furniture and appliances.
Photo 5. American Lime and Stone shaft kilns, with Pennsylvania Railroad tracks andSpring Creek in the foreground.
The Great Depression dealt a serious blow to the nation’s industrial output; limestone and lime shipments fell sharply. The BFC carried only 55,000 tons of the product in 1932; PRR tonnage was surely reduced in similar proportion. Chemical Lime determined that quarrying had reached its practical depth limits. Confident that good times would return soon, the company in March 1937 opened an underground mine that was driven at an 18-degree angle and (in years to come) descended nearly a thousand feet into the Valentine Formation. Galleries spread laterally from the main shaft. A new lime plant adjacent to the mine featured a 400-foot long rotary kiln, then the nation’s longest. Chemical Lime borrowed to finance the project but couldn’t recover its investment quickly enough and declared bankruptcy before the end of the year. In court-supervised reorganization, ownership passed to the National Gypsum Corp., headquartered in Buffalo, New York. The new plant and mine soon came to be known among locals, with considerable pride and affection, as “the Gyp.”
The American Lime and Stone Company had opened its Bell Mine, not far from the mouth of Buffalo Run, in 1922. It too would ultimately approach a thousand-foot depth. Sinking the mine and building an associated lime plant (Plant 19) was beyond the company’s capability, so it partnered with the Philadelphia-based Warner Company, into which American Lime and Stone was later subsumed.
Photo 6. Warner Co. Bell Mine entrance, lower left, with connecting narrow gauge rail line to Plant 19, 1920s.
National Gypsum and Warner thus became two of the Big Three players in the area’s limestone and lime industry. The trio’s third member, Whiterock, after World War II decided to exit the lime business rather than replace its obsolete shaft kilns with more modern rotary types. Its place as a member of the Big Three was taken by Standard Lime and Stone of Baltimore, which opened a deep mine and lime plant northeast of Pleasant Gap in 1952. To reach the new facility, the PRR built a 2.7-mile branch that left the main track near the state fish hatchery. Within a few years, Warner, National Gypsum, and Standard combined were mining more than 1.1 million tons of stone annually, with more than half of that output made into lime.
Some of that tonnage was vulnerable to trucking competition starting in the 1950s, but where the railroads’ rubber-tired competitors initially made their most significant gains was in consumer merchandise and high-value manufactured goods rather than bulk materials. The shift was a national as well as local trend and was facilitated in part by the heavy hand of federal economic regulation conceived in the first decade of the twentieth century, when a railroad’s chief competitors were other railroads. This topic has been explored at length by scholars and practitioners. Suffice it to say that railroad rate-making was subject to approval by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Often this meant a years-long review process that involved public hearings during which objections from shippers and competing carriers would be heard. In the end, it was the ICC rather than the marketplace that decided to approve, deny, or only partially fulfill a request for a higher or lower rate. Truckers labored under less restrictive rules while at the same enjoying the benefit of public spending on highways. Under such circumstances, most railroads had difficulty attracting investment capital; the smart money went elsewhere. It was against that troubling backdrop that the Pennsylvania and the Bellefonte Central railroads saw much of their freight business evaporate in the two decades after World War II. Even in cases where highway might be more expensive than rail, trucks could deliver the goods in less time and to the customer’s doorstep, without transloading from rail car to truck for the final few miles.
Bulk materials were not immune to trucking competition. In 1959 Penn State University began taking delivery of coal for its steam and power plant by truck. For decades coal had formed the core of the BFC’s State College business. In 1957, for example, coal accounted 511 carloads of the 1,146 total carloads handled on the State College end. The university had discovered that trucks could deliver the coal from the Moshannon Valley for 75 cents a ton less than the rail rate. With Penn State’s total annual burn expected to double within a decade from the current 35,000 tons, trucks meant substantial savings. The loss of the coal business, combined with a steady decrease in other State College traffic, led to a decline in rail activity until it barely amounted to a hundred carloads a year by the early 1970s. The ICC approved the BFC’s request to abandon the line into State College; the final day of service was July 12, 1974. The abandonment left the Gyp as the railroad’s only customer.
Photo 7. A Bellefonte Central crew shifts cars at National Gypsum, circa 1979.
It was the second major abandonment in the Spring Creek watershed in as many years. Twenty-two miles of the L&T line between Lemont and Coburn had suffered numerous washouts when the remnants of Hurricane Agnes struck the area in June 1972. (The L&T between Coburn and Mifflinburg had already been abandoned because there had been no regular shippers on that segment for many years.). The washouts could have been repaired; however, the line east of Lemont was generating fewer than 150 carloads per year with no prospects for growth. On May 8, 1973, the commission approved a petition for abandonment. The petitioner was the Penn Central Transportation Company (PC). The Pennsylvania Railroad had merged with its historic archrival, the New York Central, to form the new company in 1968. The two merger partners served much the same territory in the Northeast and Midwest, and both were in serious financial trouble. Penn Central was an effort to regain profitability by eliminating duplicate physical plant, consolidating services, and reducing labor costs.
Only a year prior to the merger, Corning Glass had opened a factory at Dale Summit to manufacture glass panels for television picture tubes. After considering many locations for the plant, Corning was persuaded to build the plant at Dale Summit because of abundant pure water that it could pipe up from Bellefonte’s Big Spring, and the site’s convenient access to rail service. A few surviving records from the Lemont station (whose agent handled billing for that section of the railroad) show why rail was important. A variety of dry bulk materials came from many sources, often at great distances. Carbonate of potash originated in upstate New York, litharge (lead monoxide) came from West Virginia, nepheline syenite from Canada, sodium nitrate from Louisiana, fluxing stone from Ohio, fluorspar from Illinois, and glass sand from Pennsylvania. All of the plant’s outbound glass products were shipped by truck.
Lemont station records also document that Centre Concrete received a steady supply of Portland cement from eastern Pennsylvania by rail, and Nease Chemical received tank cars of liquid potash. Most likely to be seen on the siding at Lemont were carloads of farm machinery and parts for local farm implement dealers, and home appliances for State College retailers. Gondolas of pulpwood were loaded at Lemont for the Hammermill Paper Company at Erie.
For a host of reasons, Penn Central’s anticipated savings and increased efficiencies never occurred. The railroad declared itself bankrupt in June 1970, the largest corporate failure in U.S. history up to that time. As PC struggled to reorganize, service deteriorated further; shippers from one end of the system to the other complained of mis-routed cars and lengthy delays. For instance, a turnaround time of three weeks was routine for carloads of limestone flux shipped from Pleasant Gap to Bethlehem Steel’s Lackawanna, New York, works. A carload of cement originating in the Lehigh Valley could take up to two weeks to arrive in Bellefonte, whereas trucks could make the delivery in four or five hours. Where the PRR had enough business to warrant multiple Bellefonte-based train crews working around the clock Monday through Friday, with at least one crew on duty on weekends, reduced rail shipments led Penn Central to cut back to one daylight crew working local shippers five days a week, and a night crew making a run to Lock Haven to set out outbound cars and pick up inbound cars. Weekend work was uncommon. Within a few years, the Lock Haven turn was abolished. A daily through-freight operating in each direction between Altoona and Northumberland made a stop at Milesburg to set out and pick up cars handled by the lone remaining Bellefonte train crew.
When it became clear that Penn Central could not reverse its downward slide, Congress considered ways to restructure railroad service in the Northeast, where several other carriers were also insolvent. In 1976 it combined PC with other bankrupt lines to form the Consolidated Rail Corporation or Conrail, a quasi-public entity. Conrail received $2 billion from Congress to buy new motive power and rolling stock, repair deteriorating infrastructure, and otherwise reverse decades of decline and decay. Nevertheless, Conrail started off losing money at about the same million-dollars-a-day rate as Penn Central. More fundamental reform was necessary. At the core of that reform was the Staggers Act, passed by Congress in 1980. Staggers brought economic deregulation to the railroad industry. Gone were the lengthy ICC hearings that usually characterized requests for rate adjustments. Railroads and their customers were now permitted to enter into privately negotiated contracts, freeing the carriers at long last to compete with other modes (and each other) on price. By 1986 Conrail was reporting net operating income of nearly $350 million, and the government was preparing to sell its interest in the company.
Conrail’s rise to profitability also resulted in part from its aggressive strategy (newly permitted under federal legislation) of selling or abandoning branch lines that either lost money or did not make enough to exceed the cost of capital, a condition that applied to Bellefonte-based operations. Traffic data from 1981 reveal that the largest shipper was the Marblehead Lime Company, which had acquired the Standard Lime facility at Pleasant Gap. It accounted for about 520 carloads. The Gyp, acquired by Canada-based Domtar, shipped about 350 carloads, as did the Warner Company. Corning was receiving about 200 carloads annually. A miscellany of smaller customers together accounted for fewer than 200 carloads, for a grand total of approximately 1,600 carloads. By contrast, the Bellefonte area accounted for 5,400 carloads a year at the outset of Penn Central. Even that figure was comparatively paltry, considering that in the mid-1950s the Bellefonte Central alone recorded more than 5,400 carloads. The year 1982 found the U.S. mired in a widespread economic recession that hit the steel industry especially hard. Mill after mill closed, many of them permanently. Domtar, shorn of its primary customers, ceased production in June 1982, effectively putting the BFC out of business. Conrail projected only a modest long-term rebound in the steel industry and thus decided to abandon or sell its network of trackage in the Bellefonte area and in the Bald Eagle Valley from Milesburg to Tyrone.
Photo 8. A Conrail train making its final run through Pleasant Gap, July 30, 1984.
Shipper alarm at the prospect of no rail service triggered the involvement of SEDA-COG, the Susquehanna Economic Development Authority-Council of Governments. Encompassing several counties in central Pennsylvania, SEDA-COG had been monitoring the rail situation since the Penn Central years. It now formed a separate entity, the Joint Rail Authority (JRA), to preserve rail transportation not only in Centre but in the counties of Union, Montour, Columbia, and Northumberland where Conrail also planned significant abandonments. The JRA’s board consisted of two representatives from each of the five counties—ideally one representing a rail customer and one from the public sector. Negotiations with Conrail led to the JRA’s purchase of 82 miles of track spread across the five counties, including Bellefonte to Pleasant Gap and Dale Summit, and Bellefonte via Milesburg to a CR connection at Tyrone. The JRA then searched for a private operator for all the lines. From among eight proposals, the authority selected Richard Robey, who had management experience with several large railroads and helped revitalize a short line in Chester County. Robey formed separate companies under a single Northumberland-based umbrella company to operate the various former Conrail lines. The Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad (NBER) was created to operate the Centre County-based trackage, effective August 1, 1984.
Robey explained the essence of his business philosophy in a local newspaper interview. “What we’re creating is a retail railroad operation—a pickup and delivery operation,” he said. “Our customers are everything to us, and we’re going to pay attention to them.” Big railroads typically had little or no time to cultivate smaller shippers, he noted, whose needs might comprise a few hundred or a few dozen cars a year. Short lines thrived on such business. Combined with flexible work rules and lower operating costs, “personalized service” had the potential to reverse the downward trend in rail traffic in the Bellefonte area.
It did not take long for that trend to materialize in traffic reports. The rail authority had estimated that the Nittany and Bald Eagle would need a thousand carloads just to break even. In fact, only three years after start up the NBER was handling about 2,000 carloads and growing. Limestone and lime continued to account for most of the shipments. British Columbia-based Graymont, a global leader in limestone and lime production, took over and expanded the mine and lime plant at the end of the Pleasant Gap branch. The former Warner Company’s Bell Mine and Plant 19 were eventually closed. Meanwhile Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc. of State College developed a quarry and transload facility at the end of the new (2008) Whiterock Quarry spur off the Pleasant Gap branch. Construction of the 1.65-mile track, which passes under Pa. Route 26 to reach the Hawbaker property, was financed by a combination of state, JRA, shipper and railroad dollars.
Photo 9. A Nittany and Bald Eagle crew works Sunnyside Yard, 1996.
The Nittany and Bald Eagle was able to win back some former rail customers. For example, in 2010 Penn State began receiving trainload shipments of low-sulfur coal. The fuel was transloaded to trucks at the Hawbaker site for delivery to the university’s West Campus steam plant. Coal shipments were discontinued when the plant was converted to natural gas firing in 2015. More recently, Centre Concrete, at the end of NBER track near Lemont, resumed receiving bulk cement after decades of sole reliance on trucks. There were also brand new customers, such as a plastic bag manufacturer that located a plant in Milesburg and received plastic pellets by rail. Growth in the physical plant continued as the JRA acquired the entire Bald Eagle Branch between Tyrone and Lock Haven, enabling the NBER to connect at either end first with Conrail and later with Norfolk Southern, which acquired much of the Conrail system in 1999. The NBER was not without formidable challenges. The closure of the Corning plant at Dale Summit in 2003 was a severe blow. New video technology had made television picture tubes obsolete.
Perhaps one of the best measurements of the recent achievements of railroading in the Spring Creek watershed (and Bald Eagle Valley) occurred in 2004 when the trade magazine Railway Age named the Nittany and Bald Eagle “Short Line Railroad of the Year” in recognition of how the company successfully marketed its service and expanded its operations and customer base in the new era of deregulation.
Michael Bezilla, Branch Line Empires. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.
Michael Bezilla and Jack Rudnicki, Rails to Penn State: The Story of the Bellefonte Central. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2007.
Bellefonte Industries. Pennsylvania Historic Resources series. Bellefonte Borough, 2006-2007.
Preserving Rail Freight in Central Pennsylvania for Thirty Years. Lewisburg, Pa.: SEDA-COG Joint Rail Authority, 2013.
Michael Bezilla received his doctorate in the history of technology from Penn State in 1978. He retired from the university in 2014 after a 35-year career in strategic communications. He is the author or co-author of four books and dozens of journal and magazine articles and reviews on a variety of railroad history topics.
All illustrations are from the author’s collection.