Railroad Borough Historic District
The Railroad Borough Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Railroad Borough Historic District is a well-preserved example of a rail depot community of the 1840-1920 period. The town developed in an irregular fashion in two narrow, intersecting stream valleys, which are surrounded by wooded hills and open farmland. The building stock, reflects the town's roles as a freight depot and manufacturing center, and reflects as well the continued importance of agriculture in the area. Stylistic influences include Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne, generally applied to the standard vocabulary of Georgian forms. Some significant structures have been lost, but the borough still retains the atmosphere of a nineteenth century rail depot community. The district as outlined contains 55 acres. There are 60 major buildings within the district boundaries, of which 16 are significant, 38 are contributing, and six are intrusions.
The majority of the area within the Railroad Borough limits, which encompasses .66 square miles, is composed of open farmland, which is, for the most part, not visible from the center of town because of the wooded hillsides. The area of the borough is slightly greater than nearby Glen Rock, which had a population of 1,662 in 1980. The population of Railroad Borough in 1980 was 272, and in census years at least, has never exceeded 310.
The building stock of Railroad Borough reflects the town's roles as a rail freight depot and manufacturing center, and reflects the continued importance of agriculture in the area as well. Some of the more important buildings directly related to the railroad and industry include a two and one-half story store and commission house, a large, three story, stuccoed stone hotel, and a sprawling early twentieth century brick industrial complex.
The district presents a variety of very muted decorative features from various stylistic influences. These include attic frieze windows, dentiled cornices, and fret-corner block wooden lintels from the Greek Revival period, paired brackets and segmental arches from the Italianate period, and patterns: gable-shingles and irregular roof-lines from the Queen Anne period. The architecture of Railroad Borough is not remarkable, however, for its stylistic flamboyance — it is characterized by its straightforwardness of detailing, practicality of design, and for its solidity. Of the forty-five significant and contributing dwellings included within the district, twenty-one are built of either brick or stone. Most of the others are frame, with a few log structures included as well.
There are only seven intrusions within the district boundaries. Of these the most glaring is a concrete block service station at the intersection of East and North Main Streets. The other intrusions include a trailer and two ranch-style houses on South Main Street, a concrete block garage used for commercial purposes on Hill Street, a Cape Cod type dwelling on Shaub Road, and a recently completed pavilion and parking lot in the community park.
The Railroad Borough historic district shows significance in the areas of architecture, industry, and transportation. The Borough's location on a major rail line within a mile of Shrewsbury, a previously established population center, caused a freight depot to be set up and allowed the establishment of major industries, which included a phosphate factory, a flavine mill and a brewery. Railroad's remaining building stock, which includes a brick store and commission house, a sprawling factory complex, and a three-story stone hotel reflects the town's role as a freight depot and manufacturing center during the 1840-1920 period. In addition, a few farmsteads occur within the district boundaries and reflect the continued importance of agriculture in the area during Railroad's period of industrial and commercial development. In more recent years Railroad Borough has declined along with the general decline of the rail system in America. This decline culminated in 1972 with the destruction of the rail line by Hurricane Agnes. [The rail line is currently in the process of being rebuilt.] The town is no longer bustling, but still presents an air of encapsulated history.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia and Baltimore were at economic odds over the control of the vast Susquehanna Valley market. Baltimore interests, in an effort to increase their already substantial share of this market, had proposed the construction of a canal along the lower Susquehanna in the early 1820's. Finding this initiative blocked in the Pennsylvania legislature by Philadelphia interests and their allies, they proposed an alternative plan in 1827 in which a rail line was to be constructed northward into Pennsylvania. In February 1828, the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad was incorporated by the Maryland legislature to build a line from Baltimore to the Mason-Dixon line. Work began in August 1829. The Pennsylvania legislature, however was not so cooperative — it was not until March 1832 that a bill chartering the York and Maryland Line Railroad was passed. In August 1838, the line from York to Baltimore was opened. It was York County's first rail line and, because of the steep gradients it achieved, was considered an engineering marvel in its day.
South-central York County was a sparsely settled agrarian region in 1838. The only population center of any consequence in the area at a manageable distance from the new rail line was Shrewsbury, about one mile east of the railroad in Shrewsbury Township. Shrewsbury was a turnpike town, on the main road between York and Baltimore, which in the early nineteenth century developed as a mercantile and business center for the surrounding agrarian region. The town's proximity to the rail line allowed the establishment of a depot — Shrewsbury Station — which was incorporated as Railroad Borough in 1871. The completion of the rail line, logically, produced a decline in, or at best a levelling off of long distance traffic on the York and Baltimore Turnpike. Despite this, Shrewsbury was close enough to the rail line to share in the prosperity, and to take advantage of this, a turnpike was created between town and depot. Shrewsbury continued to be the religious, educational, banking, mercantile, social, and artisans' center for the area, while Railroad Borough developed into a sort of manufacturing suburb, or "industrial park" of Shrewsbury.
The Railroad Borough area had been the site of grist mills for many years prior to the coming of the rail line. After 1838 and before 1860, the major businesses of the town, aside from its role as an important freight depot, were grist mills, bark mills, and a tannery. The 1860 to 1880 period in Railroad, in addition to the incorporation of the borough in 1871, saw the establishment of several larger industries. These included an extensive flavine mill, begun in 1869 by Klinefelter and Habliton, a sizeable phosphate factory, established by G. P. Everhart before 1876, and a brewery, established by Frederick Helb in 1867, and capable of producing 800 barrels per year. Helb arrived in Baltimore from Germany in 1847, and came to Railroad in 1849 where he established a tannery. Over the next fifty years he became, with his sons, one of the foremost economic forces in Southern York County. In 1870 he established a distillery next to his brewery. This was capable of producing 500 barrels of apple brandy per season, and the brick vaulted cold cellars used in the process still stand. An additional Helb industry was begun in 1900 when Frederick Helb and his sons established the F. Helb and Sons Co., a furniture manufacturing concern. This became the Sieling Furniture Co. in 1905. The location of this factory in the southern part of the borough had been the site of a grist mill and distillery for many years. However, with the addition of a manufacturing plant, a small cluster of workers' houses sprang up along South Main Street. The Sieling plant was the borough's sole surviving industry in 1971.
Although the post-civil war period was prosperous for Railroad Borough, the growth of the town's population was stagnant, and that of Shrewsbury Borough was slowly but steadily declining. With the rise of Glen Rock, an important manufacturing center two miles to the northwest, and New Freedom, adjacent to Railroad Borough on the south, the Shrewsbury area was declining in relative importance during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An additional factor in this relative decline was the completion of the Stewartstown Branch of the Northern Central Railroad in 1885. The branch, which left the main line in New Freedom and ended seven miles to the east in Stewartstown, bypassed both Railroad and Shrewsbury and thus eliminated the need for goods moving to and from the Stewartstown area to seek out or pass through the depot at Railroad.
Railroad Borough's building stock reflects the town's roles as a manufacturing center and freight depot, with few intrusions present. Despite the borough's obvious links to the outside world, the architecture of the district is not remarkable for its stylistic flamboyance. It is important, however, for its straightforwardness of detailing, practicality of design, and above all, for its solidity. Of the forty-five significant and contributing dwellings included within the district, twenty-one are built of either brick or stone. In addition, three of the most important remaining industrial and commercial structures are also brick: these are the store and commission house, the Sieling industrial complex, and the Helb brewery. Although some of the more substantial structures in the borough have been lost, e.g. the stone depot, Railroad Borough still preserves the aura of a prosperous rail depot community of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, albeit in a decayed and overly verdant condition.
Railroad Borough, not surprisingly, is a product of the rail age, and the decline of America's railroads over the last fifty years has been paralleled by the decline of Railroad Borough. The same economic forces which put Railroad Borough on the map and then contributed to its decline are today transforming the town's parent community, Shrewsbury, from a small, agrarian, mercantile and business center into an expressway bedroom community with subdivisions, shopping centers, fast food restaurants, and an industrial park. In a sense, these are the twentieth century equivalents of Railroad Borough. The transportation corridor in which Shrewsbury lies still connects the same places, but the method of transport has shifted from the railroad to Interstate 83 and the automobile, and rendered Railroad Borough an anachorism.
Gibson, John. History of York County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: F. A. Battey Co., 1886.
Livingood, James Weston. The Philadelphia-Baltimore Trade Rivalry. 1780-1860. Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1947, pp. 116,129.
Prowell, George R. History of York County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1907, VI, pp. 558, 600, 611, 620, 879, 898-902, 907-909. VII pp. 129-130, 150, 815, 873. Booklets The Government of York County. Issued by the Board of County Commissioners. York, Pennsylvania: July 1981, pp. 56-58.
Medill, Jane. "Railroad Was Once Booming Center for Rails and Industry in York Co." Patriot News. Harrisburg, PA: January 17, 1954. Historical Society of York County file #196.
Nichols, Beach. Atlas of York County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Pomeroy, Whitman and Company, 1876. pp. 59, 60.
Shearer, W. O. and D. J. Lake. Map of York County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: 1860.
Small, D. & W. Wagner. Map of York and Adams Counties. NP, NP, 1821.