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It was a federal stimulus package that 80 years ago put Carlisle on track to ridding itself of what had become an eyesore and public safety hazard.

Months of planning and negotiations had yielded no results in the effort by the borough council to remove the railroad tracks that once ran down the middle of High Street.

“For a while it was feared that all chance of obtaining a federal grant had vanished,” The Sentinel recalled in a special series of articles published on Oct. 15, 1936 – one day before the scheduled pulling of the tracks and the running of the last train through the downtown.

“Citizens began to give up hope,” the newspaper reported. “Only occasionally was the matter mentioned at council meetings.”

The Sentinel was reaching back to remind readers of the long process that began on Jan. 14, 1935 when Walter C. Stephens called on fellow councilmen to support a resolution to explore the feasibility of removing the tracks.

That process almost went off the rails, but was saved by the approval in June 1936 of a $98,000 grant from the federal government. The Public Service Commission followed through that July with a decision to eliminate all the railroad grade crossings along High Street.

The door was open for the borough to step through. Contracts were awarded to remove the tracks, but first the community had one last chance to say goodbye to what started out as a blessing, but later became a curse.

A look back

On Oct. 16, 1936, thousands of area residents lined the route as the last train rolled through downtown. The era of the railroad in Carlisle ended 99 years and 41 days after it first captured the imagination on Sept. 4, 1837.

Back then High Street was Main Street and the arrival of rail service was greeted with excitement by residents who saw the cutting edge technology as an engine of progress for the town and the Cumberland Valley Railroad.

“The first tracks were heavy iron sheeting nailed to timbers running lengthwise,” read one article in the series. “To the discomfort of sparks and smoke from the curious little engines up front were added the dangers of having, as one historian noted, the iron sheeting rail ‘playfully curl up through the car and sometimes through a passenger.’

“The quaint coaches were built and finished inside after the style of the olden-time stage coaches where passengers sat face-to-face,” the newspaper reported. “So limited in strength were the first engines that it was not at all unusual for passengers to put their shoulder to the wheel to get the contraption up a grade.”

The first conductor on this railroad through Carlisle was John McCartney, who lived on North East Street. “He was a very popular individual and was especially liked by boys, many of whom he permitted to ride without charge to Mechanicsburg,” The Sentinel reported. “Mr. McCartney was a fiddler and often entertained passengers with a jig or two.”

A long process

For nearly a century, downtown merchants and local residents organized their day around the schedule of trains that ran down the middle of the main east-west corridor through town.

Yet by early 1935, the time had come for the locomotive to give way to the automobile. The railroad tracks that had proven to be such an asset in the development of Carlisle had become a liability and a danger to motorists.

But when Stephens called on fellow councilmen to support his resolution, few expected anything to come out of the request. The vast majority of the council had no prior notice that he was going to make a proposal.

“The (Jan. 14) meeting, while a special one, had been called for other purposes, and the offering of the resolution was a side issue that made no great stir within the body,” an article in the October series read. “Lack of finances then appeared as an obstacle too great to hurdle.”

The resolution asked that Council President J. Duff George appoint a five-member committee to explore the feasibility of pulling the tracks. The council tabled the Stephens request “to give public opinion a chance to crystalize.” The governing body was still waiting for this crystallization to occur when the chamber of commerce threw in its support for the resolution.

In February 1935, the chamber appointed a committee to investigate removal of the tracks. Conferences were held between borough leaders and officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, State Highway Department, the Public Service Commission and federal public works.

Committee chairman Eugene L. Martin learned early on the railroad company could not afford to remove the tracks given its current financial situation. With private money out of the picture, the attention turned to public funds, but the options were limited.

“The borough could not provide a sizable sum under its budget and the state could not dip into public funds for the local purpose,” The Sentinel reported. “It was necessary, therefore, to fit the track removal proposal into a plan coming under the expenditure of public monies for relief work.”

Federal funds

The nation at the time was in the midst of the Great Depression and federal dollars were being earmarked to stimulate the economy. As the chamber committee continued its work, Borough Manager George Searight prepared and submitted to the federal government a list of work relief projects for 1935, which included the removal of the High Street railroad tracks.

“At the time Congress was debating passage of the president’s $4.88 billion public works program, and Carlisle cast covetous eyes at this gigantic sum in hope of getting a share for its project,” The Sentinel reported.

In March 1935, the borough council convened a joint session with the chamber during which Stephens proposed the council committee and chamber committee work together. The newspaper mentioned how High Street merchants along with the majority of borough residents were in favor of the project to remove the tracks. It also received the backing of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the State Highway Department.

The day the tracks were pulled, The Sentinel published a column “Credit Where Due” on its opinion page. In it, the editorial board called on local residents to be thankful that the federal Public Works Administration made it possible for the railroad bed to be paved over and used as a safer thoroughfare.

“Not only have we a new sewerage plant and a new school building, but now a new highway, all of which were made possible by government financing,” the column reads. “Carlisle has looked for years to the improvement of High Street, but always has been balked by the great cost. Under the enlightened policy of Washington of extending aid to municipalities to create useful projects and thus fight unemployment, the removal of the tracks has become a reality.”

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com

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Education/History Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.