Historical Markers
Lewistown Station Historical Marker
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Lewistown Station

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
Junction of PA 103 and Helen St., S end of Lewistown

Dedication Date:
October 19, 1996

Behind the Marker

It grew to become the single largest and most important line in America. But the 28,000-mile Pennsylvania Railroad started as a second, desperate attempt to keep Philadelphia competitive with New York and Baltimore after it became evident that the Main Line Canal/Portage Railroad system would not do the job. When the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) opened on September 1, 1849, Lewistown was its first western terminus.
Lewistown Station
Lewistown Station

Built westward from the state capital at Harrisburg, the sixty-one-mile-long line followed the markerPennsylvania Main Line Canal for much of the way, clinging to the valley wall above the Juniata River through the Lewistown Narrows. By the end of 1850, workers had pushed the rails beyond to markerAltoona, and by 1854, opened the route all the way to its original destination in Pittsburgh.

Soon after the Civil War, PRR expanded into a great trunk line, connecting Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago. An immense tide of commerce, both in passenger travel and in freight shipments, flowed aboard dozens of trains daily–all passing in front of Lewistown station.

Over the next century, Lewistown became a junction point, requiring a complex of facilities–engine house, turntable, freight and passenger stations, scale house, and two freight yards. A cluster of support buildings grew up around the station, including a small hotel. The current depot, originally a freight station dating from 1849, has served passengers since 1868.
Lewistown Station postcard.
Lewistown Station postcard.

In 1865, PRR opened one of its "commutation" railroads here - a feeder line that it agreed to build to stimulate local growth, in exchange for the Legislature's commutation of a tonnage tax enacted during the canal era (and superfluous after the decline of canals). This twelve-mile-long branch line was the Mifflin and Centre County Railroad, extending north to the villages of Burnham, Reedsville; and Milroy at the base of the Seven Mountains.

In 1871, PRR also opened the Sunbury and Lewistown Railroad, a forty-four-mile-long branch that extended eastward through McClure, Middleburg, and Selinsgrove, connecting at Sunbury for Buffalo, Canada, and Erie on the north and Harrisburg, Baltimore, and Washington on the south. Besides hauling grain and lumber, the S&L carried anthracite west from Pennsylvania's hard-coal region.

In 1892, a connecting short line, the nine-mile-long Kishacoquillas Valley Railroad, opened between nearby Reedsville and Belleville in the agriculturally rich valley of the same name. Later, KVRR trains steamed directly to Lewistown station. The short line even ran a Saturday afternoon movie train for rural residents to ride into town to catch a film. And from 1900 to 1932, residents rode the trolleys of the Lewistown and Reedsville Electric Railway, whose tracks led directly to the PRR depot.
Trolley postcard.
Trolley postcard.

The most notorious railroad incident in the area occurred a few miles south of the station on August 31, 1909, when a lone gunman held up and robbed a westbound PRR express train and shot its conductor. Although the bandit took $5,000 in gold bullion, police found most of it the next day, and the bandit got away with only a bag of newly minted pennies. A manhunt with bloodhounds failed to find him. A half-century later, hunters in the mountains stumbled onto a stash of 1909 pennies.

By the middle teens, thirty passenger trains a day stopped at the station. Many of those travelers were markerPenn State University students, connecting with buses to or from the campus at State College, thirty miles north. Penn State sports teams also used the station as a gateway when traveling to away games and matches.

On July 11, 1923, PRR temporarily converted the S and L branch into a test site for a safety device called the cab signal system. Signal technology had reached its limits, and train wrecks were becoming more frequent and more deadly. Rain, fog, snow, or just plain darkness made it hard for engineers to read lineside signals, especially at speed.

Developed by the Union Switch and Signal Co. of Swissvale, Pa., the system transmitted varying patterns of electric current through the rails. Pickup devices mounted on thirteen locomotives replicated line side signals on a miniature board right in their cabs. The test was so successful at making operations safer and more efficient that PRR installed cab signaling on more than 3,000 miles of track. On heavily traveled former PRR lines, the system remains in use today.

As a staffed ticket-selling point, Lewistown station closed in 1977, and a few years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society purchased the building and restored it for eventual use as an archives center. The society still maintains a small waiting room for passengers riding Amtrak trains. Fifty to sixty freight trains a day operate on the former PRR main line, now owned by Norfolk Southern, and the branch lines are operated by the Juniata Valley Railroad.
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