The name Penryn Park has long since disappeared from maps, but its history, as well as the history of the railroad that serviced it, make for a fascinating look into Lebanon County during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
Its story is one of major industry, breezy weekend getaways, baseball, thunderstorms, and the intense rivalry between two family members and the railroad lines they managed. Beginning in the 1880s, the Cornwall Railroad (CRR) and the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad (CLRR) became business enemies, each boasting a beautiful park to attract the attention of passengers, the former with Penryn Park and the latter with Mount Gretna.
As with many major Lebanon developments in the 1800s, the creation of these two railroads was the work of the Coleman family. In 1850, a coterie of Coleman family members began developing the North Lebanon Railroad Company, which completed its first railway from Cornwall to Lebanon and the Union Canal in 1855. The name was changed in 1870 to the Cornwall Railroad.
The origin of the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad came some time later, with Robert Habersham Coleman playing a prominent role in its creation. According to Richard Noble’s Robert H. Coleman biography, The Touch of Time, Coleman was interested in expanding the family empire into other industries in the early 1880s as he entered his mid-20s.
Coleman was the fourth-generation Coleman family scion, a man who grew up with more money and resources than he knew what to do with. In 1880, the young Coleman heir embarked on a trip to Europe with his wife Lillie to procure art and furnishings for their opulent new Cornwall mansion. The trip became a medical crisis when Lillie fell ill, and the couple stayed in Europe to seek top-of-the-line treatment.
It was at this time that Coleman received a notice that the Pennsylvania Railroad was surveying a possible new line from Cornwall to their own Conewago Junction at Elizabethtown, passing through Colebrook along the way. Artemius Wilhelm, business manager and adviser to Coleman, suggested that he enter into a pro-rata arrangement with the company after its construction, as it was exactly the kind of enterprise in which Coleman was eager to invest.
Coleman’s interest in the railroad business was to be put off for a time when Lillie died of Roman fever (better known as malaria) in May 1880, a little over a year after their marriage in January 1879. A grieving Coleman returned to the U.S. with her body, and his Cornwall mansion was left mid-construction and eventually demolished.
In 1881, Coleman approached William C. Freeman, the president of the Cornwall Railroad, with a business deal. Freeman was in fact a cousin of Coleman’s and carried the family surname as his middle name – his Coleman lineage came through his mother, Margaret Cassat Coleman, who had married William Grigsby Freeman and created another Coleman branch (the Aldens, also of Cornwall, are another such branch).
Robert H. Coleman sought to purchase a controlling interest in the CRR, which was at the time mostly serving an industrial purpose as a transportation route for mining operations and materials. The Pennsylvania Railroad had likewise attempted to either lease or simply obtain a connection with the CRR a year earlier. As he had done with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Freeman refused Coleman’s “fair propositions” – twice.
This appears to have been the inciting incident in what has long been reported as a personal and business rivalry between the two cousins. In October 1883, the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad and the associated Colebrook Valley Railroad, which merged with the former in 1886, opened for business. Coleman had founded both railroads and connected it to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Conewago Junction, serving both local industry and public passengers.
Newspaper reports of the time refer to a “railroad war” between Freeman’s Cornwall Railroad and Coleman’s Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad, though Noble contends that Coleman quickly “won” the war in terms of profitability and use. The deciding factor seems to have been Coleman’s decision to connect to the Pennsylvania Railroad, a massive artery of industry that became in the 1880s both the largest railroad and largest company in the world. The company is famous for having a budget second only to that of the U.S. government at the time.
Various episodes of conflict between the two railroads were of great interest to the public. The New York Times ran an article in late October 1883 detailing one major “battle” of the war. Coleman had wished to construct a spur line to the mines and had begun surveying and laying about 400 feet of track with some 40 or 50 workers. This spur crossed over the CRR, which had already begun to suffer losses in revenue to its competitor. As the Times put it:
“The men were putting down a crossing over the old Cornwall line when Freeman appeared with 50 of his railroad employees, 100 Hungarians from the ore hills, and a lot of contractor Reilly’s men from the New-Hope Railroad – about 250 men in all. They at once began tearing up track laid down by the other party. Mules were hitched to the rails and crossties and in a short time the work of demolition was completed.”
Coleman’s men made some attempt to prevent the destruction but were severely outnumbered. Freeman’s workers then carried the spikes and other pieces hundreds of feet away and dumped them off a cliff into a muddy valley. Coleman was subsequently granted the right to lay tracks on the land by a judge, though the disputes entered court and continued for years.
Famously, passenger trains on the two lines are reported to have raced each other along their parallel route from Cornwall to Lebanon. One would slightly delay its schedule to wait for the other, and the two would speed along the route to Cornwall or Lebanon and back again. Coleman himself is said to have been at the engine for at least a few of these races.
While Coleman’s involvement is largely unsubstantiated, he was known to be enthralled with trains, keeping a hobby indoor track and funding projects like a narrow gauge railroad in Mount Gretna largely for personal pleasure.
James Kercher’s 1969 history of the Cornwall Railroad also reports that the two lines would maintain their engines and cars with fierce pride, making sure that metal remained polished and the interiors spotless. If one line added a special feature to its cars one day, it would be reproduced on the other the next day.
Besides the connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad, the other major advantage that the CLRR had over the CRR was its passengers.
Though the CRR had a small passenger service, its use was primarily industrial. Kercher cites records showing that the line had carried 51,068 tons of ore in the first year of operation – six months of which saw the cars pulled by mule. The tonnage only increased as time went on, with an apparent peak of 1,448,000 tons hauled in 1949. It was no mystery why Freeman wanted to retain control of the CRR – prior to the opening of the CLRR, it had gained a reputation as one of the most profitable short line railroads in the country.
Coleman’s desire to attract passenger traffic is believed to have played a large part in the development of the park at Mount Gretna, which became a popular destination upon its opening in 1884. The development of Mount Gretna as Coleman’s project is detailed extensively in Jack Bitner’s book Mt. Gretna: A Coleman Legacy.
As Coleman began pouring money and work into Mount Gretna, his cousin Freeman began to draw up a similar attraction to bring in passengers to the CRR. It was Freeman’s idea to establish Penryn Park at a station just inside the Lebanon border with Lancaster County. Situated in a low-lying area of forest at the foot of the South Mountain, the park was designed to be a getaway to rival Mount Gretna. The well-kept grounds included a pavilion, bandstand, fountains, dancing floor, and a 45-foot observatory atop the mountain. A man-made lake for boating fed by the Chickasalunga Creek was also constructed.
A rapturous appraisal was published in the Lebanon Daily News on July 11, 1885, and has been reproduced in full in Charles Huber’s The Three Faces of Penryn Park. “Here nature seems to have bestowed her choicest gifts in wild profusion,” the column reads. “A visit to this park cannot fail to please anyone, as its many attractions will linger in memory as long as life lasts.”
The park attracted many visitors from the time of its opening in 1885. According to Huber, that year’s Fourth of July saw at least 2,500 passengers purchase 25-cent round-trip tickets from a Lebanon office. Three years after passenger service began in 1883, the Cornwall Railroad officially merged with the Cornwall and Mt. Hope Railroad Company, an extension connected with the Reading and Columbia Railroad at Manheim. Many visitors came from Lancaster and other areas south of the park.
It was a popular destination for clubs and organizations; these visiting groups included the Democratic Club of Lancaster, Lebanon High School, the Excelsior Literary Club of Avon, the Lebanon Cycle Club, the Perse Orchestra, and even a party of Bon Ton employees from the Lebanon store. Many churches and associated groups booked the park for gatherings. Entertainers and bands appeared regularly for picnics, celebrations, and various other events.
Thanks to the clearing of a field and construction of a large grandstand, the popular sport of baseball became a huge draw for fans and players. According to local legend, Babe Ruth played at the Penryn field in 1917, a claim that Huber repeats in his book. Ruth is known to have played in Lebanon at least once in 1918, though whether or not he first appeared at Penryn appears to be a matter of speculation.
Aside from the ball field, more amenities were installed at Penryn Park over the years, including a merry-go-round, a Whip ride, and a ball throw. Also popular at Penryn Park was the game of quoits, which is little-known now but shares some similarities with tossing horseshoes.
Unlike Mount Gretna, Penryn Park never became a community with permanent housing. Camping did exist at the park, as did a cottage built and used by later CRR president and general manager John Wintersteen. Wintersteen’s cottage was eventually rehabilitated into Hallman Hall, named for Richard “Lefty” Hallman of the Lebanon YMCA.
Huber also reports the existence of a logging operation southwest of the park. This venture was apparently the work of Harry Strauss and began in 1924. The operation continued even after the park was abandoned and primarily supplied materials to the industries at Cornwall. Some remains of the operation, including the Stone Siding rail and a narrow gauge line running up the hillside, can still be found on the property.
Though they share a name, the town of Penryn in Lancaster County is separate from Penryn Park. Both the park and the town, founded in the 1730s, ultimately derive their name from the town of Penryn in England – which, incidentally, is located in the county of Cornwall.
The decline of Penryn Park and rehabilitation
When the Cornwall Railroad and its properties passed into the ownership of the Bethlehem Steel Co. in 1923, so too did Penryn Park. The park gained a new proprietor at some point prior to the summer of 1925, John J. Jackson, who spent considerable money and effort in park maintenance and new features.
The park was now accessible by road and boasted a redone dining hall, new pianos, and tentative plans for bathing facilities. Among the new amenities was a ride called “Baby Ed’s Wheels,” which the Lebanon Daily News helpfully describes as “an entirely new device in this region.”
The improvements Jackson made were unfortunately largely in vain, however. On Saturday, July 25, of that year, a thunderstorm appeared and began to flood the Lebanon Valley. Penryn Park and Mount Gretna, as well as nearby communities, were inundated and severely damaged. The Cornwall ore mines were reported to have resembled Niagara Falls as the open pit partially flooded. (This scene would repeat in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes overpowered the mine’s pumps and the mine flooded, never to be drained again.)
The Cornwall Methodist Church and Sunday School were enjoying a noontime picnic at Penryn Park but participants were forced to evacuate on an afternoon train. Anyone who missed the train had to walk home the next day, as five miles of track had been washed out along the line.
The history of the park in the years after 1925 is somewhat sketchy, but it is certain that the damage of the flood and the start of the Great Depression in 1929 led to the park’s abandonment in the early 1930s. For about two decades, the park sat in a state of swampy neglect and decay.
In 1949, the 62.35 acres of Penryn Park property were deeded to the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA by Bethlehem Steel Co. at no cost. Thus began what Huber deems one of the largest public works projects in county history. Over the following years, the Lebanon Kiwanis Club fixed up the grounds and transformed the former park into a youth camp – Camp Kiwanis. An additional 222 acres were purchased from Bethlehem Steel in 1967.
Camp Kiwanis became Camp Shand-Kiwanis when it was leased to the Lancaster Family YMCA in the late 1980s. The Lancaster YMCA purchased it in 1996, naming it Camp Shand, and it operated under the organization until 2020, when it was purchased by the Lebanon County commissioners to pass back into operation by the Lebanon YMCA. Finally, in 2021, it was renamed Camp Rocky Creek, a reference to the Chickasalunga.
In 2022, only the Penryn ticket booth remains standing as an original Penryn Park building. The baseball grandstand, dancing floor, logging trails, pavilion, train station, and various other recreational or operational structures have either disintegrated completely or been reduced to stone foundations. The baseball field is still known as Babe Ruth Field after the legendary player who may or may not have stopped by for a game.
The field is still used, as is the lake, and the locations of old Penryn Park ruins are known to campers and staff. One favorite – and totally fictitious – campfire story involves the ghosts of young Penryn visitors who drowned when a nonexistent Ferris wheel tipped into the lake. Though there’s no basis for it, the tall tale does call to mind a detail from the 1925 flooding: children at the park were reported to have stayed above water by sitting on the merry-go-round horses.
William C. Freeman died on Feb. 7, 1903, leaving behind a legacy as one of Cornwall’s major businessmen of the late 19th century. Aside from his investment in the CRR and Penryn Park, he was involved in various Cornwall-related furnaces and other industrial interests. His son, William C. Freeman Jr., went on to represent the Lebanon and Northern Lancaster District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and later became sole heir of the Buckingham estate at what is now Cornwall Manor.
Robert H. Coleman’s investment in the CLRR and Mount Gretna had paid off handsomely for him, and his net worth in the late 1880s was somewhere in the range of $30 million. But another investment into the railroad industry in Florida resulted in the devastating loss of his family fortune. After about one decade of professional success as an industry magnate, Coleman contracted tuberculosis and relocated to Saranac Lake in New York, where he lived as a recluse until his death on March 15, 1930.
As for the two railroads that fueled the creation and growth of Penryn Park and Mount Gretna, neither have seen a train or passengers for quite some time. According to Railroads of Lebanon County, written by Donald Rhoads Jr. and Robert Heilman, the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad merged into the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1918. The Pennsylvania Railroad later merged with a rival company of its own, the New York Central Railroad, in 1968, and the former CLRR line running past Colebrook and Mount Gretna was abandoned in 1976.
While this line has since been rehabilitated into a portion of the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail, much of the Cornwall Railroad has not. Over 5 million passengers, many bound for Penryn Park, had traveled the rail in 46 years. Its passenger service was ended in 1929 and the line from Cornwall to Mount Hope was abandoned completely in 1964. A portion of the old railroad bed runs along a private road, Penryn Lane, heading down to and past Camp Rocky Creek. The rest has been reclaimed by the forest.
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