Branch Line Empires by Michael Bezilla with Luther Gette

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Branch Line Empires
The Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads
by Michael Bezilla, with Luther Gette
Indiana University Press, 370 pp., cloth $55, e-book $54.99

During my time as a student at Penn State, I saw plenty of railroad tracks in Centre and Clearfield counties. Many of them were weed-grown and disused. I thought, “Somebody built these, but why? And what happened?”

Now author Michael Bezilla, who lives in Lemont, still served by one of these railroads, answers those questions in a book that is comprehensive and authoritative, yet easy to read. Branch Line Empires recounts how archrivals, the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, spiked their way into rich coal, lumber, iron ore and limestone country, battling each other for control through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The author untangles interwoven relationships among entrepreneurs, town boosters, railroad builders, financiers and politicians. In so doing, he describes the rise, fall and partial renewal of railroads locally, mirroring that of the industry nationally.

Nowhere else in Pennsylvania was so thick a web of branch lines spun to serve the bituminous coal fields. Every time a mine opened or was planned, it seems, one railroad or another extended a spur or branch – ultimately, dozens of them – to reach it. The flow of coal was staggering, running into the millions of tons annually. One by one, the author lays out the pedigree of each railroad. He observes that sometimes local boosters argued loudly for a railroad to be built, but when the stock was issued, none of them bought it. In other cases, PRR and NYC bought up weak connecting lines just to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. Concurrent with the collapse of markets for coal and other products, the competitors merged in 1968. This created the ill-fated Penn Central, which went bust in 1970, the largest failure on Wall Street to that point. Bezilla traces the decline of PC and its dissolution into Conrail, and then, in the 1980s, Conrail’s abdication of all lines in Centre and Clearfield counties. The branch line empires were left to abandonment or were turned over to regional short lines, which in case after case revitalized the remnants. The book is not all about corporate doings. It covers such notable events as the 1893 runaway wreck of the Walter L. Main circus train, as well as anecdotes from railroaders and others.

Branch Line Empires will appeal to railroad historians as well as those interested in industrial history. Bezilla writes clearly and well. References and quotations are meticulously footnoted. Several specially commissioned maps are included. The book is a most welcome and worthy addition to the literature of Pennsylvania’s rich railroading heritage.

Dan Cupper
Pennsylvania history author/licensed locomotive engineer