Friday, November 25, 2016

Farewell to the Connellsville Subdivision (1975)

[Note: this is an edited version of an article I wrote for the Fall 1975 issue of Railfan magazine, now published as Railfan & Railroad by White River Productions. It is used here with permission.]

The last passenger train over the Western Maryland's Connellsville Subdivision crosses the Youghiogheny River near Connellsville (photo courtesy of Ivan S. Abrams)
Getting out of bed early has never been an easy thing for me. However, when the alarm rang at 6a.m. on May 21, 1975, I had absolutely no trouble. I was about to have the rare experience of riding a passenger train on the Western Maryland Railway's Connellsville Subdivision. One of the last previous passenger trains over this section of track was a Southern 4501 excursion two summers ago, and I had missed it. My thoughts that Wednesday included sympathy for any railfan who missed both that trip and the one I was about to take, because there would never be another chance. The Western Maryland had received permission from the ICC to abandon about 124 route miles of track, mostly from Connellsville, Pennsylvania to Hancock, Maryland, and today's train was to be the last one ever.

Opened for operation on August 1, 1912, the stretch of the Western Maryland that reaches from Cumberland to Connellsville has always been a "redundant" line. It was built to make the Western Maryland more competitive with the B&O by giving it friendly connections for Great Lakes shipping, Its connection with the Pittsburgh & West Virginia at Connellsville was to play a part in the George Gould transcontinental scheme. For most of the line's length, along the Youghiogheny and Casselman rivers, the B&O parallels it. Since both lines are now part of the Chessie System and competition is no longer meaningful here, economics dictated the removal of one line. It was decided that the Western Maryland tracks would be the ones to go because the B&O is double tracked. Besides the Connellsville Subdivision, the Western Maryland is abandoning its line from Cumberland to Hancock, and from Cumberland to a point about three miles East of Keyser, West Virginia, called Twenty First Bridge. Not one shipper will lose service as a result of the abandonment. Where Western Maryland tracks are the only ones capable of providing service, they will continue to be operated. For example, the stretch from Cumberland to Frostburg, Maryland1, and another around Blue Lick will remain in service. Despite this "clean'' abandonment, it took over a year to get the approval of the ICC.

The map that accompanied by article in Railfan Magazine
For a confirmed passenger nut like myself, the consist of the last train was almost more interesting than the route that it traversed. On the point was steam generator equipped B&O GP9 6600. This is one of three GP9's used in the pull-pull PATrain commuter operation in the Pittsburgh area. Next in the consist was Western Maryland 1700, a 54-passenger streamlined coach painted in red and white. The mural on the wall and a little plaque inside indicated that this coach was built originally for the Pere Marquette. The last car in the consist was supplied by Amtrak and was fittingly historic: dome coach 9401 (ex-CB&Q 4714) Silver Dome. Students of passenger train history will recognize this as the first dome car ever built. According to Arthur Dubin's, More Classic Trains (Kalmbach, 1974), this car was built in 1945 out of the coach Silver Alchemy by the CB&Q at its Aurora Shops. Unlike other dome cars, Silver Dome does not have curved glass. Because of wartime restrictions, the Q was forced to use flat glass.

Silver Dome at Hancock. Notice the flat dome windows.

As much as I enjoyed seeing Silver Dome, Amtrak should never have sent it to Pittsburgh; they should have kept it in their shops until it was put in better shape. The car suffered from a common Amtrak malady: no air conditioning. That, while not good, would have been tolerable had the dome been useable. Although the car was hand washed the night before, the plastic windows were filthy. Further inspection indicated that the dirt had been ground into the windows making them un-cleanable. A dome that you cannot see out of is useless. Putting such a car on what was essentially, a press train is unpardonably bad public relations. At least one of the railroad officials on board pointed out that the situation on our special illustrated the folly in Amtrak's priorities. He felt that, after making the cars safe, the first priority should have been to make them comfortable (mainly by making the air conditioning and heating systems functional). Then, and only then, should Amtrak have worried about making the cars pretty. Carpeting on the walls (something they did to "modernize" its inherited cars) is nice, but it doesn't keep you cool in the summer or warm in the winter. Anyone riding the special could see that the official was right. Although the Western Maryland car had not been carpeted or reupholstered, almost everyone on board rode in it; it was much more comfortable.

At Bowest for speeches

The passenger list for this historic last run consisted of members of the press, conservationists, VlPs, railroad officials, and at least two very lucky railfans. The conservationists were aboard because the railroad is giving the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy the abandoned right of way between Connellsville and Frostburg for use as a recreational trail, railfans will soon be able to hike or bike where mighty Decapods once pounded.

Although a trail needs only a narrow strip of land, this has always been extremely difficult to obtain, The problem is that negotiations must be held with many different landowners. By giving this land to the Conservancy, the Western Maryland joins the Chicago & North Western whose Elroy to Sparta, Wisconsin, abandonment is probably the best known trail of this type currently in use. Environmentalists consider this an excellent recycling of abandoned right of way, and hope that other railroads pulling up rails will consider following the C&NW and WM leads.2

At 7;00 a.m. the train left Pittsburgh from the Baltimore & Ohio's Grant Street commuter station, and used that railroad's tracks for the 58 miles to Connellsville where it switched to Western Maryland track. After a press briefing at Bowest Yard, the real trip began. To me it was just like a typical railfan excursion; complete with fighting for the vestibule windows! (Some of the press can be amazingly pushy.) To make the feeling complete, the railroad even provided a photo runby. Just outside of Ohio Pyle, at bridge 2379, the train paused to let everyone off. As I walked across the bridge to get in position for a good shot, l noticed that about half a dozen railfans who had bean chasing the train had already taken the beat spots. As l got closer, I recognized some of them as friends. When they recognized me and realized that I had managed to get on board, the looks that they gave were priceless (and deadly). Two of the fans who were previously unknown to me became life-long friends with me: Ivan Abrams and Bill Metzger. We would go on to railfan all over Western Pennsylvania, Northern West Virginia and Eastern Ohio until I finally finished my degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

On bridge 2379. I was standing next to Bill and Ivan who had already staked out the better angle

From Ohio Pyle to Confluence, Pennsylvania we had to use the tracks of the B&O on the opposite bank of the river. The Western Maryland had jumped the gun a little, and had already started to remove a bridge at Ohio Pyle. One had the feeling that they were tearing up the tracks as soon as our train had passed over them. At Confluence, the train paused to let off a TV crew and then headed for Rockwood, back on the Western Maryland tracks. From Rockwood our route took us to Meyersdale. After tunneling through Big Savage mountain and taking in the magnificent view of the Cumberland valley on the other side, it wasn't long before we found ourselves first in Frostburg, Maryland and then in Cumberland where some more of the press got off.

At Cumberland, Maryland

From Cumberland to Hancock our route paralleled and repeatedly crossed the C&O Canal (whose towpath is another recreational trail). The special arrived in Hancock at 5:15 p.m., and there were Greyhound buses waiting to take us back to Pittsburgh. Being a true railfan, l ascertained that it would be possible to accompany the Silver Dome and 6600 on their special movement back to Pittsburgh. When it became apparent that this train wouldn't arrive back home until at least 3:00 a.m., I decided to get on the Dingy Dog and call it a day.

1In 2016 one can still ride the section between Frostburg and Cumberland on the Western Maryland Scenic Railway (or will be able to when they repair the track damaged by a land slide.)
2In the ensuing decades I have had reason to question this statement. In 2016 a group of snowmobilers aided by the snowmobile lobby were trying to force a railroad in Upstate New York to abandon a line for their use.

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