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Civil War Railroad History Commemorated in York County

Posted on Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 2:39 pm

By Bob Ruegsegger

            Steam into History commemorates the Civil War role of the railroad in York County, Pennsylvania.

Participants and visitors were able to experience rail travel as it was during the Civil War aboard a replica of an 1860’s steam train. They traveled a portion of the Northern Central Railway route – New Freedom to Glen Rock – that President Lincoln took on his journey to deliver the Gettysburg Address in November of 1863.

“We’re all about history. We have an 1860 steam locomotive. We have a lot of people interested in re-enactments,” said Debi Beshore, marketing and development manager. “What better thing to do than have re-enactments with the train and celebrate our railroad history!”

The centerpiece of Steam into History’s Civil War Weekend was the replica of a 19th century steam locomotive. The York – Old No. 17 – was built by the Kioke Locomotive Works in Elgin, Illinois. It took three years to build at a cost of $2.5 million. The York has a sister engine called the Leviathan. The locomotives burn recycled motor oil – instead of wood or coal – to heat the boiler and create the steam to power the engine.

“It’s very authentic for the time period. There’s no doubt about it. It’s representative of 1863. Running it is a joy,” said Stephen Meola, engineer. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love the locomotives from this era.  I love the size, the look, the style, everything,” he said.. “I actually had a Lionel train when I was a kid that was like this.  I fell in love with them at that time.”

            Steam into History began as a capital development program to bring revenue into the area. William H. Simpson donated the funds required to construct the steam engines. Unfortunately, Bill Simpson passed away before the steam engines began to operate. The York – Old 17 – bears a plaque with Simpson’s name to honor the man and his vision.

“In direct and indirect revenue we bring in about $18 million to York County,” said Debi Beshore.  “We’re doing what we set out to do. Every year we make changes,” she noted. “This year we’re looking at getting more millennials to ride the train.”

Reb Scavone of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society has been participating in Steam into History from the beginning. He currently serves as event coordinator for the Confederate re-enactors who stop the train and the Federals who defend it.

“We had a re-enactment at Hanover Junction when the train first came into being,” recalled Scavone. “Unfortunately, the train broke down and wasn’t able to participate in it,” he said. “We’ve been doing this ever since then – since 2013.”

Scavone and his Confederate raiders – the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry – set up camp in Railroad Park between Glen Rock and New Freedom. They positioned a mortar to fire across the track as the locomotive approached.

When the mortar fired, the train stopped. Confederate cavalry rode along the tracks firing at the train. Federal soldiers exited from the rear of the train to ward off the rebel attackers.

“The mortar alone could stop the train.  The mortar could throw a hole in that boiler and bring the train to a screeching halt,” said Scavone. “The mortar was to show them that we were serious. They stopped, but they didn’t want to cooperate.”

During the Civil War in late June of 1863, not long before the Battle of Gettysburg, the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry – nicknamed the “Comanches” – conducted raids in the York County area. Lt. Colonel Elijah White commanded the 35th Virginia.

“Our outfit during the Civil War – the 35th Virginia Cavalry – raided Hanover Junction. We stopped there and took out the telegrapher,” said Gary Paules, a veteran re-enactor with the 35th Virginia Cavalry from Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. “Our history is in this area.  That’s why we became involved. It’s local for us. We don’t have to travel that far anymore.”

     Hanover Junction was attacked and damaged in an effort to disrupt railroad service. The Confederates were trying to cut supply lines to Baltimore and work their way into York and Harrisburg and into Wrightsville.  They were disrupting rail transportation as much as they could by using hit and run tactics.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quickly repaired the damage. By the time President Lincoln was headed to Gettysburg in November, the railroad was again fully operational.

Re-enactor Burnell Wildasin has also been involved with Steam into History from the beginning. He’s also a member of the 35th and generally has served as President Lincoln’s bodyguard when Lincoln living historian James Hayney rides the rails.

“I was with the first group. Usually, we played Civil War soldiers on the train,” said Wildasin. “We also worked on the trains as car hosts and re-enactors during the same events.”

When Wildasin and his wife renewed their wedding vows at Hanover Junction, President Lincoln – living historian James Hayney – was there that day.

“He has to be one of the best [Lincoln interpreters]. He’s a good guy to work with. I usually end up being his bodyguard when he comes here,” said Wildasin. “Hayney knows so much about Lincoln that you think he’s Lincoln for real,” he said. “He acts on the train just as you think Lincoln would have done. He walks around, talks to people, and cracks jokes.”

President Lincoln was not aboard the train during this year’s Steam into History Civil War Weekend. General and Mrs. Robert E. Lee (Frank and Bonnie Orlando)  entertained passengers in his stead.

“There were similarities between Lee and Lincoln. They were both humble people,” observed Frank Orlando.  “If Lincoln were to be alive today and could see the Lincoln Memorial that would embarrass him. Just as Robert E. Lee would have been embarrassed by the statues throughout the South that honor him.”

            Steam into History headquarters on Main Street in New Freedom is situated on the Heritage Rail Trail which stretches 25 miles from the City of York south to the Mason-Dixon Line. Local bed and breakfasts along the trail – such as the Jackson House in Railroad, Pennsylvania – provide lodging for trail hikers, bikers, and event patrons.

One block north, the restored New Freedom Train Station houses a small railroad museum and the Rail Trail Café. The New Freedom station, built in the 1860’s, was embraced as the center of town life for 100 years.

It housed a telegraph office and served as a mail depot. It has been restored to its appearance in the 1940’s. Although the old train station is occasionally used for local programs, the historic replica York generally departs from the Steam into History building on Main Street.

“We get a lot of visitors from Gettysburg. The reason we wanted to open the train attraction in 2013 was because that was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle,” said Debi Beshore. “We’re able to go from here to Hanover Junction. The tracks are not continuous to Gettysburg.”

During the Stream into History Civil War Weekend, the replica locomotive York and its rolling stock -passenger cars – ran from New Freedom to Glen Rock and back four times.

Saturday night featured a Gala Civil War Ball featuring the music of the Susquehanna Travellers – and plenty of period appropriate dancing. On Sunday, the train schedule called for only three trips.

“This is our second year doing the Civil War Weekend,” observed Debi Beshore. “We are in our fourth full year of operations so we’re still kind of feeling our way through what we’re doing event-wise.”

Note: For more information regarding Steam into History’s railroad adventures call 717-942-2370 or visit