nee Tyrone & Clearfield Railroad

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The Pennsylvania Railroad's Clearfield Branch

The Pennsylvania Railroad's Clearfield branch featured rugged terrain and an extensive network of tributaries as it tapped rich, almost endless deposits of bituminous coal in central Pennsylvania. The branch began as the independently incorporated Tyrone and Clearfield Railroad, but the PRR secured a financial interest by 1858. Construction had begun in 1856 at the south end, in East Tyrone, where the Clearfield branch joined the Bald Eagle Branch at what later became known as PARK interlocking.

The Clearfield branch aimed to provide an outlet for Clearfield and Centre county coal (and to a lesser extent lumber and clay products) via the PRR's Middle Division at Tyrone. This meant a climb up and over the formidable Allegheny Front, the same topographic barrier that confronted the PRR west of Altoona. The single-track line included grades as severe as 2.86 percent. Between mileposts 10 and 11, the railroad spanned Emigh's Gap on the "Big Fill," a smaller but steeper and sharper version of the more famous Horseshoe Curve, then climbed to the summit of the Alleghenies near the town of Sandy Ridge. A wye was installed at the summit (m.p. 13) to turn helper engines, and double track began for the 2.65 percent descent to the Moshannon valley.

clear bigfillBig Fill, looking south, January 1972, 18 months after the last train passed.

The railroad reached Osceola Mills (m.p. 19), on the Moshannon Creek, in 1862. A yard was established that over the years would become the central hub of operations to work the surrounding coal fields. The Moshannon Branch extended west from Osceola Mills via Houtzdale, Ramey, and Madera to McCartney, a total of 21 miles. It was double track for about the first six miles (to Goss Run Junction). From the Moshannon branch, in turn, sprouted dozens of other branches, each serving countless mines among the hills and hollows along the creek. Meanwhile, the Clearfield Branch itself continued north, reaching Philipsburg (m.p. 23) in 1863 and then on through Wallaceton, Bigler, and Woodland to Clearfield (m.p. 40), the county seat of its namesake county, in 1869. The branch ultimately was extended on through Curwensville to Grampian, 52 miles from Tyrone.

Osceola yard had an enginehouse, a scale for weighing coal-laden hoppers, and -- in the days of wooden rolling stock -- a car shop. It was also the site, after World War II, of Elliot Coal Company's cleaning plant, perhaps the largest such facility in central Pennsylvania. Other notable features of the area included a six-span, 430-ft. plate girder bridge (most of which is still extant) across Clearfield Creek and the New York Central Railroad just south of Clearfield. In the latter community, the branch ran through the middle of Third Street for several blocks. A 1.5 percent grade confronted northbound trains near Wallaceton (m.p. 27-30), and Osceola-bound trains faced a 2 percent climb on the Moshannon branch between Madera and Ramey.

clear osceolayardA portion of Osceola Mills yard, looking north toward the Elliot coal cleaning facility, April 1968.

The New York Central (actually, its Beech Creek railroad subsidiaries) had a large yard in Clearfield and offered a rail alternative to shippers between that community and Philipsburg. A shortline, variously named throughout its history but mostly known as the Altoona & Philipsburg or "Alley Popper," had a friendly connection with the NYC at Philipsburg and tried to compete with the PRR in the Moshannon Valley. But it got there too late and led a hand-to-mouth existence for most of its brief operational life (1893-1931).

clear osceolaenginehouseOsceola engine house, looking north, April 1968.

Clearfield branch passenger trains for many years provided an important link to the outside world for Moshannon Valley residents, since the dirt road over the mountain from Osceola to the Bald Eagle Valley was exceptionally tortuous and threatened by slides and washouts. Better highways meant a decline in rail service, of course. Passenger trains were discontinued on the Moshannon branch in 1932. However, a daily except Sunday Altoona-Curwensville train, Nos. 790-791, lasted until October 21, 1942.

clear osceolasandtowerSand tower at Osceola engine pit, looking south, June 1969. Engine house (demolished that same month) was immediately behind the locomotives.

For many years until the mid-1960s, the James E. Strates Shows -- which played the Clearfield County Fair each summer -- traveled the branch. In fact, it was a circus train that brought international attention to the area. On May 30, 1893, the Walter L. Main circus train, descending the mountain via the Big Fill toward Tyrone, ran out of control. Amazingly, it negotiated all curves on the steep slope until it reached the floor of the Bald Eagle Valley, where it piled up in a huge crash on the curve at McCann's Crossing (m.p. 4). Six people were killed, and many circus died or escaped into the wild. A plaque marks the site today.

Motive power based at the Osceola enginehouse in the "modern" steam era consisted primarily of the heavy H-class 2-8-0's, with L1s 2-8-2's putting in occasional appearances. Typically, a loaded coal train leaving Osceola for Tyrone rated three or four 2-8-0's pulling and a like number pushing. Empty hopper trains coming up from Tyrone usually had a pusher, normally from the same helper pool that pushed Bald Eagle branch freights from Tyrone to Dix.

Steam was gone by 1954 or so, and diesels from EMD took over briefly until they were supplanted by newly delivered Alco RS11's. From the late 1950s until the end of the PRR, eight or nine RS11's called Osceola enginehouse home. Usually a single RS11 worked the Monday-Saturday local to Clearfield and Grampian, where brickyards and lumber companies were primary customers. Another local, powered by one or two RS11's, worked the Moshannon branch six days a week, where coal and pulpwood were the most important commodities. Loaded hoppers were weighed in Osceola, then dispatched in 40-60 car trains to Tyrone. These trains required 3 or 4 RS11's on the end head from Osceola but no pushers, since the trains doubled the grade to Sandy Ridge summit and were then reassembled for the journey down around the Big Fill.

clear sandyridgeSouthbound coal train led by an FP7 struggles upgrade through Sandy Ridge, January 1969.

From at least the end of World War II, traffic on the Clearfield branch was controlled around the clock Monday-Saturday by the operator at MILLS (Osceola yard) and Sunday (which saw few train movements) from PARK at Tyrone.

The 1965 opening of Rushton Mine, a Pennsylvania Power and Light captive deep mine between Osceola Mills and Philipsburg, changed this operating pattern slightly. Rushton brought unit trains to the branch for the first time. Normally four GP30s brought in weekly 100-car trains. With four RS11's pushing, the GP30s would take the loaded hoppers back up to Sandy Ridge 50 cars at a time. Most of this coal was bound for PP&L's York Haven power plant.

A monumental change came with the Penn Central merger in 1968. Osceola yard was closed in favor of the former NYC Clearfield facility, although for another year or so a pair of road switchers was based at Osceola to work the Moshannon branch. The enginehouse was torn down in June 1969. In that same month the last train ran between Osceola and Tyrone, as that heavily graded section was abandoned. The former New York Central WBV branch between Clearfield and Keating became the primarily outlet for coal. The Clearfield branch remained in service between Osceola and Wallaceton, where a connection was made to the less severely graded NYC line. Additional abandonments of the many tributary branches followed under both PC and its successor Conrail. For example, in 1987, Conrail abandoned the line to Grampian with its unique street-running trackage through downtown Clearfield, and much of the line has since been converted to part of the county's "rails to trails" system.

By the time R.J. Corman Pennsylvania Lines purchased Conrail's so called "Clearfield cluster" in December 1995, all that remained of the Moshannon branch was a two-mile segment from Osceola to Coal Run Junction, site of Power Contracting's Leslie tipple. Since Rushton Mine closed in 1991, Leslie has been the only source of coal traffic on what remains of the Clearfield branch. It loads one or two unit trains weekly, continuing the tradition established by the PRR nearly a century and a half earlier.