Because there was no bridge over the Susquehanna River until 1866, trains crossed the river the same way everything else did, by ferry.
The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore RR Guidebook had the following description: “A ferryboat of the first class was ordered for the Susquehanna crossing, upon a plan which would permit the cars to be transferred to an upper deck by direct connection with the track.”
The same publication also noted that, in 1836, “this was the first boat constructed in the United States upon this model, and for this purpose.”
It would be replaced with a new boat in 1855.
Even with a specially-designed ferry, crossing the Susquehanna River in the winter could pose a challenge. According to C. Milton Wright's Our Harford Heritage, the ferries could be frozen in their docks for days, creating travel delays. During the winter of 1852, the river froze two- to three-feet deep.
From Jan. 15 to Feb. 29, tracks were laid over the ice.
“Freight cars glided down the inclined rails to the ice and were pulled by teams of horses to the opposite shore,” according to Wright. “The cars were pulled up again by the train engines waiting on the opposite shore.”
During these frozen weeks, 1,300 cars — with a total weight of 10,000 tons — were transported across the river without any loss or injury, according to Wright.
However, crossing the Susquehanna was not always safe. A New York Times article, dated Feb. 2, 1860, reported: “Accident on the PWB Railroad.”
As a train from Philadelphia reached the Susquehanna River, the express mail and sleeping car passed as usual on the ferryboat, but from, “too much headway, the express car went over into deep water, the truck falling on the deck of the boat, but doing no damage to her.”
Apparently, as the railroad cars were being loaded onto the ferry, there was too much space between them, and the car part of the express car came off of its wheels, or truck.
The report stated that ice on the brakes was the cause of the accident. There was no mention of injuries.
In 1847, the trip between Baltimore and Philadelphia took five hours, with 75 minutes needed to cross the Susquehanna, according to, “The Role of Railroads in Aberdeen,” by Charlotte Cronin, Harford Historical Bulletin (#54, Fall 1992).
By 1850, the train cruised along at 26.5 mph and made three stops for wood and water. That same year, there were six accidents that caused the engine to be thrown off of the tracks. Five of those involved cattle.
Cronin also noted that in 1860, the Baltimore-to-Philadelphia trip took three-and-a-half hours, with the train running at 30 mph.
Considering that 30 years earlier the only travel was walking, horseback, stage coach or boat, the railroad must have seemed a fabulous invention that traveled at marvelous speeds.
Aside from the comfort of the traveler, goods could now be shipped to more far flung markets, which opened the door for farmers, canners and manufacturers of all types.
Aberdeen was right in the middle of this first blush of American railroad growth.
Join me next week as we take a ride back in time from Baltimore to Aberdeen on the PWBRR.