Railroads through Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Gorge in the counties of Lycoming and Tioga had a history that could be traced as far back as the earliest days of the industry itself. However, the first true attempt to actually build a line through the region came by way of the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek & Buffalo Railway (JSPC&B) in the latter 19th century. Eventually, this company was acquired by the burgeoning New York Central (NYC) at the turn of the 20th century and incorporated into its network. The NYC was the largest system in the East, along with rival Pennsylvania Railroad, stretching from New York/Boston to Chicago/St. Louis. Its JSPC&B addition went on to be part of a series of secondary lines, which served central and northern Pennsylvania’s coal fields. After World War II, traffic slowly dried up, and successor Conrail elected to abandon the route during the 1980s, which led to the creation of today’s Pine Creek Rail Trail.
The Pine Creek Gorge area is locally called the Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, hard to dispute given the incredible scenery the region affords, including lush canyon walls sliced by Pine Creek itself, which is really more like a river. For businessman and entrepreneurs of the 19th century, however, the area was recognized only for its profit potential; they believed it held vast amounts of coal, iron ore, and timber. The first such railroad conceived through the region was planned as early as the 1830s, yet nothing came of the idea. Several decades passed before the first serious efforts were entertained to put down rails through the valley.
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On February 17, 1870, the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek & Buffalo Railway was incorporated with intentions of building a line from Williamsport northeast to Port Alleghany. The concept behind the JSPC&B was to act as a bridge line; at Port Alleghany it would connect with the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad, and at Williamsport to the Catawissa Railroad to move freight and passengers between Buffalo and New York City (with help by way of the Central Railroad of New Jersey). Unfortunately, lack of funding and the Panic of 1873 grounded the project. Some grading did occur that was later sold and became the Coudersport & Port Allegany Railroad. The project lay dormant for more than a decade, but the JSPC&B was in the early 1880s, thanks to financing from the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (NYC&HR). The NYC&HR, predecessor to the later New York Central, wanted a foothold on the coal mining region in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. The JSPC&B would act as a primary link in this new chain, connecting to the NYC&HR main line in Tyron, New York (via Wellsboro), as well as funneling freight to ally Catawissa Railroad (which eventually became part of the much larger Reading Railroad) at Williamsport/Newberry Junction. After just a little more than a year of construction, the new line was completed on June 4, 1883, and officially opened on July 1. Passenger service began a year later.
Aside from the movement of both anthracite and bituminous coal, the railroad also transported vast amounts of timber and lumber, as well as other types of general freight. The original JSPC&B name was short-lived; it was renamed the Pine Creek Railway on June 6, 1884. During the entire time the Pine Creek Railway was in service, it was leased to the Fall Brook Coal Company. Under this setup, the line between Williamsport and Wellsboro was again renamed the Fall Brook Railway before the NYC&HR gained control of the operation during spring 1899. In the end, the railroad and a number of others, which ran from the NYC&HR main line at Lyons to Williamsport (a distance of 257 miles), were merged to form the Geneva, Corning & Southern (GC&S) in 1909. This also included several branches connecting to Harrison, Fall Brook/Blossburg, Antrim, and Penn Yan. In 1914, the NYC&HR merged with several of its subsidiaries, some quite large and including the GC&S, to create the New York Central Railroad. After this time the former GC&S lines were known as the Fall Brook Subdivision (or Fall Brook District) of the NYC’s Pennsylvania Division.
Looking at the bigger picture, the NYC also held a significant number of other secondary and branch lines through central and western Pennsylvania that also served the region’s coal industry. Heading west from Jersey Shore, this trackage reached Clearfield, Brookville, Polk, and a myriad of other small hamlets, essentially forming a half-circle and reconnecting with its Chicago main line at Ashtabula, Ohio. Over the years, freight and coal slowly dried up. In 1968, the NYC merged with the Pennsylvania, forming the ill-fated Penn Central (PC) system. The latter was not only plagued with thousands of miles of redundant and duplicate trackage, but also suffered from an inability of top management to work together (the two railroads had completely different company cultures). Bankruptcy followed in June of 1970, and the PC formed much of the government-created Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) in the spring of 1976.
An attempt to return its worn out railroad to a level of profitability, Conrail began selling off or abandoning large chunks of trackage it deemed either redundant or unable to meet a certain profit margin. This would eventually include the line through the Pine Creek Gorge, although it survived through the 1980s, hosting excursion trains until 1985. Finally, the last train traversed the line during the fall of 1988, and the rails were removed shortly thereafter. Almost another 10 years passed before the corridor between Wellsboro Junction and Jersey Shore, roughly 61 miles, was converted into today’s Pine Creek Rail Trail.
Railroad attractions, including a train ride near the trail, include the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitzin; the Bellefonte Historical Railroad in Bellfonte; Catawissa Railroad Company in Catawissa; East Broad Top Railroad in Rockhill Furnace; Harris Switch Tower Museum in Harrisburg; the world-famous Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark/Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona; Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe; Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad in Middletown; Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton and the Tioga Central Railroad in Wellsboro.