Strasburg Rail Road’s History: How We Became America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Railroad
If you google Strasburg, Pennsylvania, it’s impossible not to find a mention of its railroad. Since the borough’s founding in 1816, Strasburg has earned its nickname of “train town,” so clearly its railroad plays an important role in the history of Strasburg, PA.
Though it’s in its 190th year of service, Strasburg Rail Road’s survival was tested many times in the past. Learn how Strasburg Rail Road’s history has shaped the town into the thriving historic destination it’s come to be today.
The Borough of Strasburg
Before the Borough of Strasburg was officially established, it was occupied by French settlers. French hunter and fur trader, Pierre Bezailion, set up camp in the area in 1693. During that time, he initiated trade along an ancient Native American trail known as “the Old Conestoga Road” with local Delaware Indians.
In its early years, the town was nothing but a cluster of small log houses. As trade and travel prospered during the 1700s, Strasburg became a halfway station for travelers and teamsters (drivers) of Conestoga wagons. Hotels, stores, and other taxable properties were built to accommodate the town’s increasing popularity.
By the end of the 1700s, Strasburg had become the second most populous town in Lancaster County. It shook its reputation as a way-station for travelers and became its own commercial city. The town was officially termed a borough in 1816.
Many of the cabins and residential buildings that were built in the town’s most lively years still stand and are archived on the Borough’s website as historic district buildings. The Strasburg Heritage Society works to keep the history of Strasburg, PA alive today by offering tours of original homes and holding informational events throughout the year.
When the Philadelphia – Lancaster Turnpike was opened, travel along Old Conestoga Road decreased. This was the first economic threat that would hinder Strasburg.
The second hindrance was when the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad circumvented Strasburg by nearly 5 miles, leaving the town without a direct transportation connection to the borough of Lancaster.
The Strasburg Rail Road was founded on June 9, 1832, in an effort to increase the town’s economic prosperity and to give the town a direct connection to the mainline freight service.
During its first century of operation, its significance was small. Functioning as a short-line railroad, its main purpose was to connect a rural feed mill with the larger Pennsylvania Railroad.
What is a short-line railroad?
By definition, short-line railroads are independently owned, financed, and operated. They run shorter distances than Class I Railroads, and they’re often operated in small, rural towns. They are essential to the national freight network because they handle the first and last miles of freight service.
Every short-line railroad is connected to at least one – usually multiple – Class I railroads. This makes them great distribution and feeding centers for the national freight network.
They are operated in 49 out of 50 states and account for 40% of the tracks across the US railroad network. Short-lines are important to maintain the supply chain because they help keep freight distribution alive in small, rural towns that might not have access otherwise.
Strasburg Rail Road’s History
Historic Strasburg takes pride in the fact that its railroad is the oldest continuously operating short-line railroad in America. This reputation could have quickly been ruined if it wasn’t for Henry K. Long and Donald E. L. Hallock.
With the extension of the trolley system to Stasburg in the early 1900s, passenger transportation along the railroad dwindled. It was the distribution of freight materials during World War I and II that kept the railroad in operation for the next 50 years.
After the wars ended, transportation by rail decreased as highway transportation became the common method of travel. On top of that, multiple parts of Strasburg’s railroad were destroyed in a series of storms in 1957, placing an immediate embargo on the transit.
Its owners at the time petitioned the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for abandonment. They saw little reason to invest in its repairs because transportation along the railroad had made a tremendous decline following WWII.
But industrialist and railfan, Henry K. Long, and railfan enthusiast, Donald E. L. Hallock, had other ideas. Together, they formed a group of like-minded enthusiasts who fought to save the railroad.
Though inoperable at the time, 24 stockholders purchased the railroad for $18,000 the following year. They spent the next several months repairing the tracks – some of which were completely buried underneath the local farmland.
On January 4th, 1959, their hard work paid off. For the first time in nearly 40 years, the first passenger train departed from the station, pulled by a gasoline-powered locomotive. Strasburg Rail Road purchased its first steam locomotive shortly after in 1960.
Their steam locomotive, Canadian National No. 7312, is credited as the steam train that returned revenue passenger service to Strasburg’s short-line tracks. It took its first roundtrip on the tracks on September 1, 1960.
After that, tourism in Strasburg started to increase once again. People from across the state — even across the country — migrated to the area to hitch a ride on the passenger steam train.
Between 1960 and 1991, Strasburg Rail Road’s stockholders acquired 5 steam locomotives.
- Motorcar No. 10: Purchased in 1960, but didn’t operate at Strasburg Rail Road until 1997.
- Locomotive No. 90: Purchased in 1967 for $23,000. She is one of only two decapod class locomotives still active in America, which makes her a Strasburg Rail Road fan favorite.
- Locomotive No. 4: Purchased in 1962, it made it’s first revenue run on November 9, 1962. It is now retired and was sold to Age of Steam Roundhouse in 2020.
- Locomotive No. 89: Purchased in the spring of 1972. It’s still used at Strasburg Rail Road to pull small train cars.
- Locomotive No. 475: Bought for $100,000 in 1991. She pulled her first passenger train in 1993, and she is the only 4-8-0 class locomotive operating in America.
Strasburg Rail Road Today
The Strasburg Rail Road is still a popular family destination. We offer authentic passenger steam train rides through Amish Country with many different seating options. Our train cars include:
- President’s Car #10
- First Class Parlor Car #88
- First Class Lounge Car #118
- First Class Lounge Car #75
- Coach Cars
- Open Air Car
Additionally, plenty of unique events are planned throughout the year. From Wine and Cheese and Tap Takeover trains to Day Out With Thomas™ and holiday trains, our special events are designed to make your visit to Strasburg Rail Road an exciting experience for all ages.