Historical Markers
Tapeworm Railroad Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Tapeworm Railroad

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
PA 116, SR 3014, SW Fairfield

Dedication Date:
May 2, 1967

Behind the Marker

Pennsylvania congressman markerThaddeus Stevens earned a place in American history as a prickly debater, staunch abolitionist, and champion of free education. He is less known as a railroad magnate, perhaps because his foray into that arena was such a remarkable failure - and stain on his reputation as a great public servant.
Photograph  of Thaddeus Stevens
Thaddeus Stevens

After construction of the Mauch Chunk markerSwitchback Railroad in 1827, railroad fever swept through Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania legislature chartered seventeen railroads in the next three years, and in the 1830s authorized 136 more lines - only 20 percent of which were actually built. Every community, it seemed, believed that prosperity was just around the corner - if only a railroad came its way.

At the forefront of this thinking were Philadelphia businessmen, who helped convince the Pennsylvania legislature to support construction of the markerMain Line of Public Works - an extremely ambitious and expensive transportation system that would link Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The line began with an 86 mile railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia, on the Susquehanna River, then required excavation of a 172-mile canal to Hollidaysburg at the foot of the Alleghenies. From there, the thirty-seven mile long markerAllegheny Portage Railroad crossed the mountains to Johnstown, where another canal made the final 110-mile trip to Pittsburgh. After completion of the Main Line in 1834, various promoters proposed building feeder railroads to connect with this system; some of which, including the Dauphin and Susquehanna and the Cumberland Valley, were actually built.

Then a state senator, Stevens also had his eye on the main line. Since he owned iron furnaces and other enterprises in Adams County well off the route, Stevens proposed a branch railroad extending from Columbia, on the markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad, through York and Gettysburg into Maryland. There, the line would connect with the B and O. Stevens argued that his proposed railroad would siphon traffic away from Baltimore, and into Philadelphia. He also envisioned a spur into Franklin County, where he owned more iron works.

Elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly from Adams County in 1833, Stevens persuaded the state government to appropriate funds for his railroad. While his railroad was still under construction, critics began to complain that the railroad fattened contractors" pockets, created unnecessary patronage jobs, and guaranteed votes at the next election. His opponents dubbed it the "Tapeworm Railroad" after they learned that long its winding route took 35 miles to cover the 18 miles from Stevens" Maria Furnace iron works at Fairfield to the Main Line. More troubles soon surfaced for the Tapeworm. In January 1838, the state Senate issued a highly critical report on the Tapeworm, noting that more than two-thirds of the line would traverse dizzyingly steep terrain. A traveler on this line, the report concluded, would be threatened with "with instant death for his temerity."

Oil on canvas of Governor Joseph Ritner, (December 15, 1835 - January 15, 1839), c. 1835, Unidentified Artist
Joseph Ritner, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1835 - 1839, circa 1835.

The negative publicity, however, did not prevent Stevens from winning additional political advancements. In May 1838, Governor Ritner appointed Stevens president of the state Canal Commissioners. From this powerful post, Stevens could award jobs to political supporters, demand kickbacks from those he employed, and personally approve financing for the Tapeworm.

But Steven's nascent railroad empire soon came crashing down. In the turbulent 1838 election, the expensive Tapeworm became a campaign issue. When Governor Ritner lost his bid for re-election to Democratic candidate markerDavid Porter by fewer than 5,500 votes, Stevens and his party refused to acknowledge the results. In the resulting "Buckshot War," Ritner called out buckshot–armed militia to put down a riot of armed thugs from Philadelphia who had marched on the State House–and forced Stevens and his supporters to jump out of a window to escape.

Eventually, the Senate declared the election results valid. Now in the minority, Stevens lost power, his position on the Canal Commission, and state financing for his railroad. Laborers and masons picked up their tools and walked away from the Steven's only partially built line, leaving embankments, cuts and fills, and bridges unfinished. The cost to taxpayers? marker $766,127,39.

Elected to Congress as a Whig in 1849, and then as a Republican in 1859, Stevens won a national reputation as a staunch abolitionist. He also remained active in railroad issues. As a congressman, he advocated building not one, but three transcontinental railroads. In return for stock and land titles from railroad promoters, Stevens inserted a provision into the 1862 Transcontinental Railroad Act that only American-produced iron could be used in its construction.

Back in Adams County, the Gettysburg Rail Road Co. built a line eastward out of Gettysburg to Hanover, opening on Dec. 16, 1858. An amendment to the line's charter allowed it to "enter upon, occupy and appropriate and use the site, structure, and unfinished work" of the Tapeworm. Several corporate mergers later, the company built west from Gettysburg to Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., and Highfield, Md., to connect with the main line of the Baltimore-based Western Maryland Railway. On August 4, 1888, the Hanover Herald reported: "Grading is being commenced along the whole line of the "Tapeworm" Railroad."

The railroad Stevens envisioned in the 1830s finally opened on June 4, 1889, as the Western Maryland Railway's "Dutch Line" (it passed through York County, which was largely settled by Pennsylvania Germans). It remains active today as part of the CSX Transportation system. Contrary to Stevens" promise that it would divert Baltimore-bound traffic to Philadelphia, the line now leads directly to Baltimore.
Back to Top