Tracing the history of the Pomeroy and Newark Railroad
By J. Chambless
Telford ‘Jack’ Hill enjoyed putting together all the available scraps of information about a long-vanished rail line for his new book. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
While he was out, driving around southern Chester County, Telford “Jack” Hill would notice traces of a long-ago railroad. As a longtime history buff and rail enthusiast, he spotted a deep rock cut on Penn Green Road above Landenberg. There were huge stone abutments on Landenberg Road that used to carry something. Putting the clues together, Hill knew there had once been a railroad running through the area.
Hill, 82, has just finished putting together a book with all the information he could find on a little-known rail line that once linked Delaware and Chester County, called the Pomeroy and Newark Railroad. Subtitled “The Railroad That Never Should Have Been Built,” the 117-page paperback is available through Amazon.
The rail line was about 39 miles long when it opened in 1872, built during a time of national optimism and expansion following the chaos of the Civil War. With roads still unpaved, anything larger than a wagon load needed to be shipped by rail, and Pennsylvania was brimming with lumber and coal and oil to fuel the expansion of the nation. To move it, trains became indispensable, and speculation was rampant. “It was a get-rich-quick scheme of the day,” Hill said of railroad construction.
The founders of the Pomeroy and Newark gambled that there was a need for goods to be moved from the port at Delaware City up to Pomeroy, near Parkesburg.
“Over the 39 miles, they had to build 65 bridges” to carry the rails, Hill said, “and they had to re-channel the White Clay Creek at one point.”
In researching the scattered news items and records about the railroad, Hill said he grew to appreciate the optimism of the builders who doggedly kept the line running for 67 years.
One notable casualty along the way was Martin Landenberger, a successful German businessman who operated two woolen mills in what would become Landenberg, which was also serviced by the Wilmington & Western Railroad. The wealthy Landenberger is estimated to have contributed half a million dollars to fund the rail line, becoming a director of the railroad, but took a huge loss when business flagged, the railroad defaulted on its loans, and he never recovered.
At some time, the rail line became known locally as The Pommie Doodle, suggesting both the affection that local communities had for it, and the somewhat do-it-yourself nature of the operation. “People thought of it as their railroad,” Hill said. “It almost maintained its own identity the whole time.”
Since there wasn’t much other news in the tiny communities the line went through, its opening was well documented, with breathless predictions of its future success. In the June 26, 1872 issue of The Oxford Press, it was reported that, “The road is reported built of the best material and gives general satisfaction. The interest created along the route by the inhabitants to see the freight train pass over it was very great.”
Accidents were frequent, although apparently no one died in any of them, Hill said. Typical of the incidents was this one from 1876, duly reported in the local press when the train “ran into a wagon that was crossing the railroad. The cow catcher hooked into the hind wheel of the wagon and tore it off, making quite a wreck of it, and throwing the driver and mule team over an embankment into the meadow below. Strange to say, the team was not much damaged, and the teamster uninjured. The result is that the wagon has gone into the repair shop and the mules are taking a brief rest.”
Fires were another problem, since the locomotive shot sparks which landed in the woods and fields. There is one documented anecdote when the engine went off the tracks and the determined crew borrowed fence posts from a nearby farm to raise it up and put it back on its way.
After its first eight years, the Pomeroy and Newark Railroad (it had several names through the years) was controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad. While records are not available, Hill said, “It’s safe to say that the line never made any money,” or at least very little.
But they kept trying. There was passenger and freight service from Pomeroy to Delaware City until 1879, then between Pomeroy and Newark. The rail bed in Newark has been turned into a trail that bears the railroad’s name.
By 1910 or so, the line had to be reinforced, and the bridges strengthened, to accommodate larger, more powerful engines. But by that time, roads were beginning to be paved everywhere, and it was easier to travel and move goods by roadway.
Passenger service was never very robust, and was discontinued in 1928. Sections of the line began to be abandoned, along with the small stations along the line, and the final abandonments occurred in the late 1960s.
But the stories remained. “I’d go and talk to people about what they remembered, and they’d tell me there used to be 15 trains a day through Landenberg,” Hill said. “One young guy remembered loading hay onto the train in Chatham. It was a lot of little bits I put together.”
Hill started his writing and research in 2012, then realized he had enough information for a book that he formally pursued beginning in 2015. The result was made available this month through Amazon.
“For me, the story of the railroad is about the optimism of the times,” Hill said. “People saw the potential of the country. There was an expansion mentality that led to railroads being put in.” And there was plenty of financial and political negotiation over the placement of stations, and the route the train could take. Land for the line was purchased from one property owner at a time, sometimes requiring alterations in the route.
The book is packed with short news clippings, photos and reminiscences about events large and small along the line.
Hill laughed and said “I’m not going to retire” on any profits from the book, but for him, it’s satisfying to have all the anecdotes and information in one place. “It’s like when I used to come home from school in the old days and have lunch at my grandmother’s table,” Hill said. “She ran a kind of a boarding house, and people would sit and talk and trade stories.”
Everyone who shared stories of the Pomeroy and Newark Railroad with him is thrilled to have made a contribution, he said. “What it does is authenticate their tales,” he said, smiling. “The idea is to capture history. It’s important, because we’re losing a lot of our history.”
To order “The Pomeroy and Newark Railroad: The Railroad That Should Never Have Been Built,” visit www.amazon.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.