March 18th, 2015
The Sunbury & Erie Railroad was authorized as early as 1836 to give Philadelphia a connection to the Great Lakes in competition with the Erie Canal. The necessary finances could not be raised until 1852 when contracts were let for construction of the first section from Milton to Williamsport to block the Catawissa Railroad from using the route.
The location of the Sunbury & Erie Railroad depot played an important part in the development of Watsontown on its present site. In 1854, the Sunbury & Erie Railroad had extended its line through Milton to Watsontown and the railroad favored building a depot and watering station some distance south of the mouth of Warrior Run. Had the plan come to fruition, the community would undoubtedly have grown in that direction. Two men, however, through their determination and generosity, prevented this. They were David Watson (1772-1856), son of the community’s founder, and his son-in-law, Edmund L. Piper (1814-1882). They promptly made a free gift to the railroad of land for the construction of a depot which would have a never-failing spring nearby located on much higher ground than their tracks. In addition these men threw in more the $600 cash to sweeten the offer. The railroad abandoned the original plan, grabbed the offer and Watsontown as we know it was on its way.
The Sunbury & Erie Railroad was opened on the 18th of December 1854 and in 1856 John Starr (1805-1863) became the agent located in Watsontown and continued in that capacity until his son, Jacob Starr (1838-1912) took charge in 1861. It was in 1861 that the name was changed to Philadelphia & Erie Railroad. The line was finally completed to Erie on October 17, 1864 giving Watsontown its first direct connection to the Great Lakes. Jacob Starr continued as the local agent for the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad until 1880. Evidence is not entirely clear when Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the original Philadelphia & Erie Railroad, but it is believed to have been about 1883.
Work on the Wilkes-Barre & Western Railway running from Shickshinny to Beech Creek began about July 1, 1886 after Watsontown succeeded in efforts to be included in the route. At first it appeared the track would run a few miles south of Watsontown, through Milton. But people were asking more for land right than the railroad was willing to pay, and Watsontown, on a more direct route, was considered. The managers of the railroad wanted the town to subscribe the sum of $30,000, “a comparatively insignificant amount when the great and permanent benefit to the town and surrounding country is to be considered,” according to the Watsontown Record and Star dated May 22, 1886. Whether the entire amount was raised is not known, for a later edition of the paper called for residents to make up the funds still needed, but Watsontown got the railroad. The charter for the Wilkes-Barre & Western Railroad from Shickshinny to a point near Watsontown was granted by the State Department in June of 1886. By the middle of August track was being laid and the grading was completed as far as Turbotville. A connection was made with the Pennsylvania & Erie Railroad. A new engine and two new passenger coaches arrived in Watsontown the first week in December of that year. The new depot, with a room for the officers of the road, a waiting room and a freight room, was nearly completed. A new engine house and turntable was under construction. The railroad was formally opened for passenger and freight traffic December 13, 1886. Three trains left Watsontown daily, taking a little less than an hour to reach Lethergo, the name given to the post office that was to serve Washingtonville. By February of 1887 the Pennsylvania station in Watsontown was being used as a union depot, with all passenger trains stopping there. Services were extended from Wilkes-Barre & Western Railroad to Berwick in 1903 and in time the line was known as Susquehanna, Bloomsburg and Berwick Railroad. Mahlon Augustus Berger (1865-1913) was employed as the freight and passenger agent for the Susquehanna, Bloomsburg & Berwick Railroad from 1892 to May 1913. The Wilkes-Barre & Western Railroad had connections with the Sea Shore Express at Watsontown east for Sunbury, Harrisburg and Philadelphia; and with the News Express west for Muncy, Williamsport and Lock Haven. There were also connections with the Philadelphia & Reading, the Philadelphia & Erie and the Fast Line companies.
In 1918, the Pennsylvania Railroad took over the Susquehanna, Bloomsburg & Berwick and operated a substantial passenger service through Sunbury as part of its route between New York, Philadelphia and Washington on the south and Buffalo and Erie on the north. In addition to the expresses which lasted right up until 1971, local trains serving all of the smaller towns were operated into the thirties on the main line and all of the branches. Perhaps the most remembered train to operate through the Northumberland County was the “Pennsylvania Lehigh Express” or “Pittsburgh Flyer” as it is fondly remembered. This train operated from Phillipsburg, NJ to Pittsburgh, PA from 1916 to 1934 using the Lehigh Valley east of Mt. Carmel and passing through Shamokin, Sunbury, Northumberland, Milton and Watsontown on its way to Williamsport, Lock Haven, Altoona, and Pittsburgh.
In 1968 the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with its rival, the New York Central Railroad, to form the Penn Central Transportation Company. A series of events including inflation, poor management, abnormally harsh weather and the withdrawal of a government-guaranteed $200 million operating loan forced the Penn Central to file for bankruptcy protection on June 21, 1970. By April 1, 1976 the viable parts of the Penn Central system were transferred to the Consolidated Rail Corporation, commonly known as Conrail which began earning a profit in 1981. Though the rail lines have bounced back as a major source of freight transportation, competition from the automobile proved to be too much and there is no longer any passenger service.
Following the bankruptcy of the Penn Central, the railroad station at Watsontown was closed and eventually demolished in the early 1970s. Early records show that the ladies had a difficult time with railroad employees – who were sometimes not too kind to ladies traveling alone. At the Watsontown Station, they had to pass through the gentlemen’s smoking room to reach the ladies’ room.
[The Milton Standard, August 11, 1967, pg 4, 62; Historical Perceptions into the Future, Northumberland County Planning Commission, June 1977, pges 58-66.]
Last Modified: 02.16.12