Mount Gretna’s history is inextricably tied to that of the man who envisioned it: Robert H. Coleman. The town can be seen as a reflection of his business ventures, his personal pleasures, and, in the case of the two-foot “narrow gauge” railroad that carried passengers to the top of Governor Dick, his pet hobbies and interests.
Robert Habersham Coleman, born March 27, 1856, was the fourth-generation scion of the massively wealthy Coleman family, whose legacy in Lebanon County is too extensive to even begin to detail here. Their wealth had been gained through the ownership and management of iron furnaces in the area, including the original Cornwall Iron Furnace, and control of the entire estate – valued at $7 million in land, mines, and furnaces, plus $1.2 million in the bank – passed into Robert Coleman’s hands when he was 21 years old.
Besides managing the various “family businesses” of furnaces and mine operations, Coleman also wished to expand the family’s stake in the local railroad industry. In 1883, the Cornwall & Lebanon Railroad opened. This line, running from Lebanon through Cornwall and out to Elizabethtown, passed through a serene wooded area in the mountains – the future site of Mount Gretna.
Much of the line’s history (and plenty of related Mount Gretna topics) has been researched and written about by the late local historian Jack Bitner, who published a series of articles on the town’s history as well as the book “Mt. Gretna: A Coleman Legacy.”
Bitner speculated that Coleman had a personal interest in trains and railroads that went beyond business matters, referencing reports that he toyed with indoor train sets in his spare time. Furthermore, he had the resources and personality to build whatever he wanted to. “He was accustomed to having his own way, but given this, his relations with others — including his employees — were pleasant,” Biter wrote. In an unrelated Lebanon Daily News article, Bitner stated bluntly that “[Coleman] wanted a choo-choo, and he had the money to buy one.”
The park at Mount Gretna that developed into the town was first opened in 1884, and new attractions were being added all the time. Around the same time, the Pennsylvania National Guard set up an encampment in the area, which they would continue to occupy for decades.
Another factor in the creation of the narrow gauge was Coleman’s rivalry with William Freeman, his own cousin, who operated the competing Cornwall Railroad. Reportedly, the Cornwall & Lebanon Railroad often had races with its rival. Freeman’s line had a park of its own, Penryn Park, which also boasted attractions back in its day and, like Mount Gretna, was bringing in considerable traffic.
According to Bitner, the narrow gauge was completed in less than 12 weeks starting in the spring of 1889. In April, the estimated completion date and public opening of the gauge was set in mid-June. According to contemporary reports in the Lebanon Daily News, contractor Michael Reilly had 125 men working on the project. On June 18, it was reported that the line was more or less finished, and it was up and running regularly shortly afterward. It’s not clear if these runs were open to the public or not – July 4 is widely reported to be the official opening date for the line.
Regardless, it was an immediate hit. In its first season, the line reportedly drew in 36,000 visitors. Because its cars were open-air, it only ran in the warmer months. In Bitner’s estimation, the Gretna gauge was “Mr. Coleman’s greatest pride and pleasure as it took form in 1889.”
The rail branched off of the standard-gauge Cornwall & Lebanon Railroad northeast of the corner of Conewago Lake. It ran along the northern and western edge of the lake before passing over the Conewago Creek and ascending up Governor Dick, where it entered a 200-foot-diameter loop. Altogether, it ran for about four miles. At the summit, a pavilion and a 60-foot-tall observatory were constructed.
The following year, a branch was constructed just past the crossing of the Conewago. This branch ran out about one-and-a-half miles out west to a rifle range. This range was used by the National Guard as part of their encampment.
Gretna’s Narrow Gauge rail was special for several reasons. At only 2 feet, it was less than half the width of standard gauge railroads (4 feet, 8 1/2 inches). Furthermore, it was the only one of its kind in the country to run 4-4-0 type locomotives on it. A 4-4-0 type is classified as such based on the size and type of its wheels; in this case, having four unpowered leading wheels, four driving wheels, and no trailing wheels.
It only cost a quarter to ride up the side of Governor Dick and see, as a Lebanon Daily News ad put it, “the magnificent scenery of the South Mountain,” including views of “the Military Parade Grounds, Lake Conewago, the State Guard Rifle Range, and over the Horse Shoe Bend,” at 1,200 feet above sea level.
Three locomotives were used on the line, numbers #11, #12, and #15, all built by the short-lived Philadelphia manufacturer Baldwin Locomotive Works. These were scaled-down versions of the engines already in use on the standard railroads of the area. The most notable of the three engines was #11: it was built in just eight days from the day Coleman ordered it, and it arrived in the county on the eve of July 4. An early engine made by the H. K. Porter Company was taken off of the line early on after it was discovered it couldn’t handle the hairpin turns of the narrow gauge.
The Governor Dick ride only existed for a few short years, and, like its inception, its termination happened as a result of Coleman’s personal circumstances. Disaster struck for Coleman in the early 1890s as a major investment in a Florida railroad faltered and cost him much of his fortune. Just a few years earlier, according to the Mount Gretna Area Historical Society, Coleman’s net worth has been valued at $30 million, higher even then banker J. P. Morgan or fellow railroad tycoon Frederick W. Vanderbilt.
By 1893, Coleman had effectively given up trying to recover his fortune. He had come down with tuberculosis and left Cornwall with his family to the state of New York. For the rest of his life until his 1930 death, Coleman lived as a recluse in Saranac Lake. Before leaving, though, Coleman took one last personal ride up the mountain with just his son, an engineer, a fireman, and a photographer.
Without Coleman’s personal funds to prop up the Mount Gretna park, the area’s attractions began to rely on profitability, and the Governor Dick line was one of the first victims of this new paradigm. It closed at the end of either the 1894 or 1896 season (sources differ). However, the branch out to the rifle range continued to be used until July 12, 1915, when a crowded train toppled over while rounding a bend (no serious injuries occurred). After this accident, the line was closed for good. In 1916, the track was removed and sold for scrap.
The existence of the narrow gauge in Mount Gretna has made it a popular topic among railroad historians and locomotive enthusiasts. Models of the trains have even been made. Its story is unique, not only for its unusual technical characteristics but also for its relationship to Robert Coleman, who had the means and ability to produce something of such scale based (at least partially) on personal whims. For those who know where to look around the edges of Conewago Lake and the run up Pinch Road, remnants of its bed can still be found in Mount Gretna and up to the summit that once cost 25¢ to reach.
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