Mt. Tunnel and the RailroadSep 22nd, 2009 | By Pat and Lloyd Reed | Category: Features, Lead Article
Elizabethtown became a borough in 1827, the same year that the state legislature appropriated money for a railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia. The state legislature had also authorized a canal be built along the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers from Hollidaysburg to Columbia.
The businessmen of Elizabethtown, Middletown and Mt. Joy feared traffic on the main road from Lancaster to Harrisburg, which ran through their towns, would diminish when people started using the canals and railroad. They decided to build their own railroad parallel to the highway to increase their ability to complete commercially. They financed the new railroad through stock subscriptions.
By 1836, the railroad between Lancaster and Harrisburg was completed except for one spot–Red Hill southeast of Elizabethtown. The hill, now Mt. Tunnel Hill, was too steep for a train to go over. A tunnel would have to be dug through the hard rock. Until a tunnel could be built, trains from Harrisburg stopped at Elizabethtown and trains from Lancaster halted near Rheems. Passengers had to travel by coach from one train to another. Later, a temporary railroad track was laid over the hill, and passenger cars were drawn by horses back and forth.
Work crews began to work both ends of the projected 900 ft. tunnel. A third crew dug a center shaft from the top of the hill 92 ft. straight down and began working in both directions from the center. All the rock from the center excavation area was drawn up the shaft by hand, loaded on carts, and dumped nearby.
As work was progressing on the Rheems side of the hill a cave in occurred near the tunnel opening, and the engineers had to shorten the tunnel design by 300 ft. Two Irishmen were killed when shoring timbers collapsed. They were buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard. A German worker killed on the track was buried in Christ Lutheran Church.
The Mt. Tunnel Cemetery was dedicated in 1843, which was five years after the tunnel was completed. The Elizabethtown railroad tunnel was an engineering feat and one of the first of its kind. Because the cemetery bordered the tunnel, it was natural that its would be named in honor of the unique undertaking.
Pennsylvania Governor Ritter condemned the private company building the railroad. He believed the private Lancaster–Harrisburg railroad would draw traffic away from the state-owned railroad and canal system imperiling the state’s profits. He was correct. The private railroads ran the canals out of business.
In 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the line of canals that by then ran between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad. In 1861, the privately owned railroad then known as the Portsmouth, Mt. Joy and Lancaster Railroad (Elizabethtown was not mentioned) was leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad for 999 years. Elizabethtown was now a stop on the most important railroad in America.
In 1889, the Pennsylvania Railroad constructed the present two-track line. The new roadbed roughly paralleled the old route. The old tunnel gave way to a deep, wide open cut. Earth and rock excavated in making these cuts was used for fill. The new elevated roadbed required an underpass for Bainbridge Street and a similar underpass at West High Street.
Pat and Lloyd Reed
The Elizabethtown Historical Society March 13, 2006