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The Pennsylvania Railroad's Bellefonte Branch

The Pennsylvania Railroad's Bellefonte branch for many years originated more lime and limestone traffic than any other location on the PRR. It was coal and iron, however, that initially attracted the railroad's attention to Centre County, Pennsylvania. The county's first railroad, the Bellefonte and Snow Shoe, began operations in 1859. Bellefonte, the county seat, was the southern terminus of this line, which tapped the coal deposits in the mountainous northern part of the county. Coal was transferred to canal boats at Bellefonte for shipment via Lock Haven and Williamsport to other eastern cities. But the coming of the Bald Eagle Valley Railroad in 1864 (ultimately the PRR�s Bald Eagle Branch) offered an all-rail connection both east and west. In fact, the Bald Eagle used B&SS trackage between Wingate and Milesburg, and both soon became PRR subsidiaries.

A Nittany & Bald Eagle stone train on the Bellefonte Branch at Milesburg. MILES tower is at left, the Bald Eagle Branch in the foreground.

The Bellefonte Branch began at Milesburg (telegraph call RU, later MILES) and ran south (railroad east) 2.5 miles to Bellefonte (BF), where the PRR established an engine facility and a yard in the outlying hamlet of Sunnyside (henceforth known by locals as Sunnyside yard). Track was extended further south to Lemont, at the base of Mount Nittany, by 1885 for a connection with the PRR's Lewisburg and Tyrone Branch. The L&T, like the B&SS, began as an independently incorporated line that was taken over by the PRR. It started at Montandon, across the Susquehanna River from Lewisburg on the PRR's line to Buffalo, and ran west some 58 miles to Lemont through lightly settled farm country. The Pennsylvania�s original aim was to extend the L&T from Lemont west across the Nittany Valley to connect with the Fairbrook Branch that ran east from Tyrone. However, these plans never materialized, once the decision was made to swing around the base of Mount Nittany and make a connection with Bellefonte. In anticipation of increased passenger traffic, the PRR built a substantial brick station in Bellefonte.

A Bellefonte Central train sets off covered hoppers in Sunnyside yard.

Beginning in 1887, the PRR interchanged at the east end of Sunnyside yard with the Buffalo Run, Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Railroad, a 19-mile shortline that was built west along Bufalo Run to reach iron ore deposits near State College. The ore traffic never amounted to much and the BRB&BE was reorganized in 1892 as the Bellefonte Central Railroad. Its primary sources of revenue then became freight and passenger business to and from State College, home of what was to become The Pennsylvania State University. Even more lucrative for the BFC by the early 1900s was the lime and limestone traffic that it originated from several large quarries in the Buffalo Run Valley.

The PRR greatly benefited from this interchange traffic, of course. It also served a number of online quarries via its own Whiterock Branch, which left the Bellefonte Branch at WR, about 4.5 miles south of BF and served quarries around Pleasant Gap. Steel mills were the primary limestone customers and as the steel industry flourished, so too did the Bellefonte Branch.

A second area shortline, the Central Railroad of Pennsylvania, did not enjoy prosperity. Opened in 1893, it connected Bellefonte with the New York Central Railroad's Beech Creek line at Mill Hall in the Bald Eagle Valley. The CRR of Pa's backers hoped to give shippers around Bellefonte an alternative to the PRR but apparently dissatisfaction with the latter's rates and service never reached the point where shippers felt compelled to turn to a competitor. The CRR of Pa ran its last train in 1918.

Because the PRR never constructed a wye at Milesburg, passenger trains heading west on the Bald Eagle Branch had to back in to Bellefonte. Eastbound trains likewise had to back out. Timetables as late as 1930 show three daily passenger trains each way over the Bald Eagle Branch with stops at Bellefonte. The last passenger trains to serve the county seat from the Bald Eagle Branch, Nos. 510-511, made their final runs on August 23, 1950.

This Sunday-only mail and express train is nearing Lemont enroute from Bellefonte to Sunbury, about 1947.

A daily mixed train continued for a few more years over the old L&T between Bellefonte and Sunbury. Mail (an RPO carried a "Sun & Bel" cancellation) and milk were the main contributors to revenue; passengers were something of a rarity. In earlier years, however, many students and others going to and from Penn State chose to make their PRR connection at Lemont and, depending on the academic season, business could be brisk.

A pair of Alco RS11 road switchers idle at the Bellefonte engine pit.

In the modern steam era, Bellefonte-based power consisted primarily of heavy H-class 2-8-0's. It was risky to turn any power larger than a G-classs 4-6-0 on the wye at the engine pit at the east end of Sunnyside yard. These 4-6-0's and occasional 4-4-2's handled the L&T trains out of Sunbury and were turned here. K4 and K2 Pacifics hauled the passenger trains off the Bald Eagle Branch but were not turned.

By 1954, steam succumbed to diesel, with Baldwin end-cab switchers predominating among the latter. Normally, Bellefonte-based jobs switched local industries and placed outgoing cars (and picked up incoming traffic) on a siding at Milesburg. Business�mainly lime and limestone�was sufficient to keep crews working round the clock six days a week through most of the 1960s. Indeed, the aggregates market was strong enough so that the PRR in the early 1950s constructed a 2.5-mile line�the Pleasant Gap Branch�off the Whiterock Branch to serve a new quarry and related preparation plant east of Pleasant Gap.

Since at least the turn of the century, the PRR designated the former L&T track (from Montandon to Lemont) as part of the Bellefonte Branch. From MILES to FONT (just east of the Bellefonte passenger station) was part of the Tyrone Division until this territory was folded into the Middle Division in the late 1920s. From FONT eastward, the branch was part of the Williamsport Division. This structure changed by the mid-1960s, when the railroad abandoned the middle portion of the Bellefonte Branch between Mifflinburg on the east and Coburn on the west. This section, virtually bereft of customers, included two tunnels, Coburn (Beaver Dam) and Poe Paddy. The now truncated branch ran only between Milesburg and Coburn and came under the authority of the operator at MILES.

The Bellefonte-based Conrail local heads east on the Pleasant Gap branch.

A further cutback came in 1972, after Hurricane Agnes destroyed much of the line from Lemont to Coburn, which served one or two feed mills and a Hanover Foods cannery. PRR successor Penn Central subsequently abandoned it. The hurricane also caused much damage and some eventual track abandonments in Sunnyside yard, as Spring Creek overflowed its banks. More bad news followed within a few years, when the steel industry entered a serious downturn from which it would never recover; limestone traffic fell precipitously. Some quarries closed, and others switched to trucks as new markets were sought. The Bellefonte Central quit operations in 1983 (although it had abanonded most of its line to State College in 1974). Meanwhile, many other customers, such as those in the lumber and concrete trades, switched to trucks. Conrail, which had succeeded PC in 1976, was handling barely 500 cars annually, provided mainly by a quarry on the Pleasant Gap branch and the Corning glass plant at Dale Summit, near Mount Nittany, which received sand and other dry bulk shipments.

Bellefonte Historical Railroad RDC 9167 pauses at the former PRR Bellefonte station.

A regional public body, Susquehanna Economic Development Authority�Council of Governments, purchased the Bald Eagle and Bellefonte Branches from Conrail in 1984. SEDA�COG contracted with the newly organized Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad to provide freight service. With a strong customer orientation and reliable service, the N&BE won considerable new business, and freight traffic increased steadily into the 1990s. At the same time the N&BE was starting up, a group of local volunteers established the Bellefonte Historical Railroad and worked with both SEDA-COG and the N&BE to operate both regularly scheduled and charter excursion trains, thus returning passenger service to the Bellefonte Branch after an absence of thirty years. The BHRR uses two Rail Diesel Cars and maintains its headquarters in the Bellefonte station built by the PRR in 1887.