Sometimes, communities go in search of salvation. They sense the future is slipping away and they take desperate steps in an attempt to avoid irrelevance. Sometimes, salvation is a new facility; sometimes, a new industry or community redesign.
Here, in the Cumberland Valley, we are not strangers to this form of enthusiasm. These periodic enthusiasms are fine as long as a broad perspective is maintained. Here is a cautionary tale from almost 100 years ago.
Some 40 men look out of the grainy black-and-white photograph with an earnest hunger. They wear the ill-fitting, shoddy wool suits worn by country men in 1915. It is spring and they are looking for a railroad.
Fulton County, their home, was and remains one of the few counties east of the Mississippi that has never had a railroad. From time to time, there were temporary logging roads but never a real line on which you could haul passengers and heavy loads.
In 1915, this meant no large extractive industries (coal or iron mines). No extensive logging; no large-scale manufacturing. Business activity in Fulton County was limited to what could be carried in a wagon.
These 40 pictured Fultonians are convinced to a man they must have a railroad or the county will die. In fact, people in Fulton County had been working to get a railroad since at least 1867.
The first effort to get rails for Fulton County was led by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, who were seeking to beat down the tariffs of the Pennsylvania Railroad. They started work on a line, “Pen-South” from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. They bought right-of-way, built road bed and drilled tunnels (six out of eight they built are now used by the Pennsylvania Turnpike).
The work stopped when the Pennsylvania railroad caved and reduced rates. The Pen-South road cost about $5 million, most of which came as corporate loss to the Carnegie Frick interests but was deemed worthwhile because of the reduced freight rates.
The second major attempt to bring a railroad to Fulton County was a homegrown affair. In 1915, local investors spurred by three entrepreneurs from out of town (who would go to prison for their trouble) organized the McConnellsburg and Fort Loudon Railway. The line was to have been 10 miles long, connecting with the Cumberland Valley Railroad — a part of the Pennsylvania railroad — at Fort Loudon.
Legions of well-known local names were associated with the effort, among them Sipes, Duffey, Fraker and Rotz, all of whom can be found in Fulton County today.
Later in 1915, work on the road was suspended with about one-third of the grading completed. The company was reorganized and renamed, and the source of power changed from steam to electricity. Work on the line continued through August 1916, when money once again ran out.
A sale of the company’s assets in McConnellsburg in April 1918 realized $2,248 against $430,000 in liabilities. Not only did stockholders and bondholders lose their investments, but local governments lost their fees, workers lost their wages and the Republic Banknote Co. of Philadelphia lost what it was due for having printed the now-worthless bonds used in the transaction.
A memorable side bet came down when the National Bank of LeMasters, Pennsylvania, collapsed as a result of manipulations related to the railroad.
The 40 men in the picture remained, many of them broke or financially wounded, still looking for the Fulton County railroad.
But not to fear, within four to five years, with improvements to U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway arrived with trucks carrying Fulton’s freight and buses carrying passengers. The old problem of transportation met with a new and unexpected solution.
The solution for Fulton County was not a known one when work on the problem of access began. It was not a totally satisfactory one in some respects (there were initial limits on the size of loads), but highways have become more satisfactory over time.
Whether or not the prior attempts should have been made is hard to say. The Carnegie-Frick effort raised false hopes but cost the county and its citizens nothing. The Fort Loudon and McConnellsburg carried fairly high local costs. The highway cost the county and its people nothing. These are the kinds of reality that voters and leaders must consider when seeking new industry, new facilities or large-scale redevelopment. Sometimes, the ultimate solution does not exist when the problem is first perceived.
Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.