Historical Markers
Williams Grove Historical Marker
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Williams Grove

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
SR 2011, .5 mile S of Williams Grove

Dedication Date:
October 19, 1980

Behind the Marker

"There will be the usual amusements and diversions, all of good grade, but no gambling, horse racing, immoral shows, or liquor will be allowed on the grounds.
                           - Program of events, Williams Grove picnic, 1899

The railroad picnic was a fixture of life in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. Those who still lived in rural areas - and they were still a majority in Pennsylvania - looked for a break from the tedium of farm life. On the other hand, people who had migrated to urban areas were eager for a break from the city's heat and the numbing routine in the factories.
Many solid and striped tents, and the grounds are filled with fairgoers.
Grangers Picnic Williams Grove, Pa. 1916.

Railroads and trolley companies operated special trains to parks, sometimes as sponsored excursions, other times as private charters for civic, social, employer, labor, school, or church groups. The destinations varied greatly, ranging from hastily built picnic pavilions with a nearby swimming hole, to amusement parks equipped with carousels and rides, and full-sized resort hotels. Often, the transportation company owned or operated the park as an attraction to increase passenger fare revenue, especially on weekends.

All over Pennsylvania, railroads carried picnickers away for a few hours' relaxation. Near Meadville in Crawford County, the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad brought passengers to its Conneaut Lake Park. Near markerLewistown in Mifflin County, the nine-mile-long Kishacoquillas Valley Railroad operated a fleet of shuttle trains to its annual community KVRR picnic near Belleville each year. One of the most renowned of the old-time railroad picnics was that held at Williams Grove, south of Mechanicsburg in Cumberland County.

Between 1837 and 1839, the prosperous markerCumberland Valley Railroad opened its line between Harrisburg, Carlisle, Shippensburg, and Chambersburg, later extending southwest to Hagerstown, Md., and Winchester, Va. One of its branch lines, built in 1872, diverged from the main line at Mechanicsburg, eight miles west of Harrisburg, and ran nearly eight miles due south to Dillsburg. Along its line lay a shady, twenty-acre site along the cool Yellow Breeches Creek that would become Williams Grove Park.

In the early 1870s, Robert H. Thomas, publisher of the Mechanicsburg Independent Journal and two magazines, Farmer's Friend and Grange Advocate, and Greater America, was elected secretary of the markerPennsylvania State Grange, an organization by and for the state's farmers. Looking for a site at which to hold the annual grange gathering, Thomas picked Williams Grove and in 1874, founded the Interstate Exhibition of the Patrons of Husbandry, popularly known as the Grangers' Picnic, held for a week each August.
Candidate William McKinley speaks at Williams Grove on his presidential campaign trail, c.1900 from a flag draped stand while onlookers are standing below.
Candidate William McKinley speaks at Williams Grove on his presidential campaign...

What began as a getaway for farmers and their families expanded to include exhibitions by the major agricultural-implement manufacturers. Speeches by politicians and reformers advocated for temperance, prohibition, suffrage, and peace. The governor of Pennsylvania was a regular, as was the state secretary of agriculture. On occasion, the U.S. secretary of agriculture spoke as well, as did Woodrow Wilson, who kicked off his presidential campaign there in 1912.

Over time, Thomas and the CVRR expanded the park to include a railroad station, two amphitheaters, a two-story hotel, a dance hall, and a national Grange hall. Midway attractions and amusement rides were added. Much of the transportation need was met by the CVRR, which shipped in not only the visitors, but also marker farm machinery, animals, and produce.
CVRR timetable, 1916
CVRR timetable, 1916

The enormous task of moving passengers in and out safely and quickly fell to the entire CVRR staff during the busy seasons. According to historian Paul Westhaeffer, "Every man on the entire railroad who could be spared, including general office clerks, telegraph operators, and freight trainmen, was given a passenger trainman's cap and pressed into excursion service." From 1886 to 1898, the railroad dispatched, during picnic week, as many as 118 trains a day over this single-track, non-signal-equipped branch. In all, during this period, CVRR handled, without incident, 729,348 picnic passengers on 3,896 trains. The record number of daily passengers reached 35,000 in 1907.

After Thomas died in 1908, his son and grandson continued operating the picnic for another eight years, until World War I. In 1919, the Pennsylvania Railroad took over CVRR, including the Dillsburg Branch. The Grange picnic was revived in the 1920s, but the coming of the automobile brought the end of regular passenger-train service on the branch in 1928. Picnic specials, some operated for the Grange event and others chartered by groups such as companies or the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, continued to run to and from the Grove until World War II.

The site is now mostly an amusement park, but the annual Grange picnic continues (always held on the week leading up to Labor Day), with steam-powered farm tractor displays. It's no longer possible to arrive at the Grove by train, but the Williams Grove Historical Steam Engine Association offers train rides on restored vintage equipment at the park.
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