The Pennsylvania Railroad
Northern Division

A Brief History of the PRR's Northern Division

       Several trips to the area, along with various bits of information collected, have helped me to compile the information below. While interesting, there remains many voids which I would like to fill. If you are familiar with the area, and would like to contribute some information, I welcome your input. Please feel free to contact me at

This is a map of the PRR system with PRR trackage shown in red.
Modeled portions are shown in blue.

       The Pennsylvania Railroad Northern Division is modeled after its namesake, the prototype Pennsylvania Railroad Northern Division. The portions modeled are; the mainline between Sunbury and Northumberland, the Mt. Carmel branch (Shamokin secondary track) and the Wilkes-Barre branch, circa 1967. While every attempt has been made to model the railroad as accurately as possible, certain concessions have been made in the area of trackage arrangements, selective compression of industries, etc. The trains operated on the layout are versions of trains actually operated on the PRR during the time modeled. Again, certain liberties have been taken to enhance operations.

       In addition to it's famed mainline routes between New York, Washington and Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Railroad was largely comprised of many other routes which were established over the years from acquisitions of smaller railroads in the area. What is now known as the mainline between Harrisburg and Buffalo is no exception.

       The history of the line north of Sunbury can be traced back to as early as the 1830's. This small railroad, known as the Sunbury and Erie Railroad, quickly faced with the same trials and tribulations as many other railroads being born in the early 19th century. It's completion was delayed until it received financial backing from the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was constructed as the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad only to later become part of the emerging giant's system.

       Seeking a competitive route to move traffic to and from the growing industrial area around Buffalo, the PRR gained control of yet another small railroad of the region, known as the Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad. South of Sunbury, the line was constructed northward from near Harrisburg as an extension of the Northern Central's route out of Baltimore, and it too eventually came under control of the Pennsy.

       Numerous branch lines were built in the Susquehanna Valley which either connected with or bisected the PRR's route through Dauphin and Northumberland Counties. Most of these were either built by or, over time, came under the control of the PRR. Although the PRR did have a heavy influence, they did not have a monopoly on the area as there was also a strong Reading Company presence. The Lackawanna Railroad even had a route into the area, as it gained control of a branch of the old Lackawanna and Bloomsburg line. This line, completed on May 31, 1860, extended from Scranton along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River to a connection with the Pennsy in Northumberland Yard.

       Although the line never hosted the density of traffic that traveled on the nearby Middle Division, it did feature several hotshot freights and passenger trains, as well as numerous coal drags which originated from the Clearfield area and off the Low Grade, as well as from the anthracite coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania. It was not uncommon for over a hundred trains a day to pass through the Sunbury/Northumberland area in the early twentieth century.

This is the northern set of bridge spans crossing the Susquehanna on a very cold winter day in 1997. Packer's Island is to the left and Northumberland is to the right.

       The original bridge, which connects Northumberland Yard to the town of Sunbury, was completed in December of 1855. For a time, there were two sets of spans that crossed the river. Evidence of this remains in the form of the bridge piers which support the current spans, but are much wider and obviously supported the original spans as well. It is unclear when the original spans were removed, but some photographs suggest the original spans survived into the 30's or even the 40's. There are a total of six spans running between Northumberland to Packer's Island, and then six spans again crossing from Packer's Island to the town of Sunbury.

       Construction of the existing brick Northumberland passenger station was begun in 1909, as was the expansion of the classification yard at Northumberland. The station was completed in 1910 and served seven trains eastbound and westbound daily. This station still stands today, and is the home of a delightful little restaurant and bar, which is nicely decorated in a railroad motif.
A view of the station at Northumberland as it is in 1997. In the distance you can see the first of the twin sets of bridges crossing the Susquehanna River as the mainline heads towards Sunbury.

       Upon its completion, Northumberland Yard had the proud distinction of being the fifth largest yard of its type in the country. Although the yard was used to it's fullest capacity, it was soon downgraded upon the completion of Enola Yard in Harrisburg. The large engine facility at Northumberland Yard became known as the home of the famous collection of retired PRR steam locomotives until 1968 when the Penn Central railroad dissolved the collection.

       The town of Sunbury also had a strong Reading Railroad presence as well. The Reading crossed the Susquehanna River on a plate girder bridge near the center of town and then crossed the Pennsy at grade. It then continued towards Mt. Carmel, running next to Pennsy tracks most of the way. The Pennsy and the Reading both served a semi-large feedmill which had three tracks entering it. The Reading had the southern siding while the Pennsy had the northern siding. They both ran a track into the middle siding. This mill burned down in the middle seventies.

       The Pennsy and the Reading also both served the PP&L power plant across the river in Shamokin Dam. The Pennsy came in from Selinsgrove at the southern end while the Reading entered from the north. Conrail/Norfolk Southern still serves the plant with a bridge and branch about six mile south of town. The branch runs to Kreamer, but the spur to the plant runs north from Selinsgrove which is right on the other side (west) of the river.
A CP Rail frieght heads north through Sunbury towards the old Wilkes-Barre Branch during the winter of 1997.

       One curious feature of railroading in the town of Sunbury is the mainline itself. At the southern end of town where the mainline enters the town, the track runs down one side of the street, occupying approximately half of the 'roadway'. What is curious is how the homes along this street are built right up to the tracks, leaving only a front porch and standard sized sidewalk between the house and the track. As can be seen from the picture, this leaves enough room for one lane of travel and room for cars to park curbside on the other side of the street.

       I can find no information as to why this exists, but logic suggests that the railroad was in place first, although the houses in the area appear to have been built around the turn of the century. I am not sure if the railroad was for some reason relocated to this street at some point in time, or if the houses are original and the line was built there after the houses were there, making the houses much older than I originally thought.

       While the mainline is still in existence today, the branchlines in the area are all but gone. Recent trips to the area revealed little or no evidence of the Shamokin Secondary track, and the Wilkes-Barre branch is today under the control of CP Rail. CP Rail has completely rebuilt this trackage, but eliminated the few features of the line that once identified it as a PRR line. In Wilkes-Barre itself, there is nothing left of Buttonwood Yard but a small sign on the side of the right-of-way with the word "Buttonwood", identifying this as a control point. CP Rail's line continues north onto what was once the 'Wilkes-Barre Connecting Railroad', a joint venture between the PRR and the Delaware and Hudson RR and continues towards what was once the D&H's Hudson Yard.

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