Written by: Gary Dolzall
Train Sim World will debut with CSX’s Sand Patch Grade, and Gary Dolzall tells the story of the legendary U. S. mountain crossing
Trains and Mountains. For more than century and a half, that combination has produced captivating drama, unrelenting challenges, and scenic wonder. Across America, railroading’s battle with mountains and passes has created places of legend: Donner and Cajon, Horseshoe and Raton among them. And astride the rugged Allegheny Mountains of Maryland and Pennsylvania stands one of the most famous and demanding of all: Sand Patch Grade!
It was the Baltimore & Ohio – America’s first common-carrier railroad – that fathered Sand Patch. The B&O was chartered in 1827 to connect by rail the important Atlantic port city of Baltimore, Maryland with the Ohio River. For the B&O to reach its namesake river, at what is today Wheeling, West Virginia, would take more than two decades of labored construction. B&O’s historic route stretched west from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry and a crossing of the Potomac River, then onward to Cumberland – the “Queen City” – in the western reaches of Maryland and along the eastern edge of the high ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. To build westward from Cumberland, the B&O might have first chosen a route that extended through the nearby Cumberland Narrows and followed Willis Creek high into the Alleghenies, but such would have taken the line into the state of Pennsylvania and toward Pittsburgh – and the great Pennsylvania Railroad would have none of that. The PRR used its considerable political influence to ensure the B&O would not then gain rights to build into Pennsylvania and the B&O instead constructed its original line west-southwest from Cumberland, cresting the Alleghenies at Altamont, West Virginia. In the decades to follow, this line would become part of B&O’s steel artery reaching all the way to St. Louis, and immediately west of Cumberland it took on great notoriety as a conveyor of enormous amounts of West Virginia coal tonnage and home to two fiercely difficult gradients, B&O’s “Seventeen Mile Grade” and “Cranberry Grade.”
The American Civil War cast a long shadow of destruction and disruption over the B&O during the early 1860s, but following the war, the B&O began an era of rapid expansion. Under the leadership of John W. Garrett, the B&O in the early 1870s finally broke the influence of the Pennsylvania Railroad and pushed toward Pittsburgh (and eventually onward to America’s railroad capital, Chicago). In 1871, the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad completed a line, which in fact had been started prior to the Civil War, between Pittsburgh and Cumberland. It was immediately leased long-term to the Baltimore & Ohio – and its crossing of the Allegheny Mountains just as quickly gained an iconic name that endures to this day: Sand Patch.
To lift the B&O over the Alleghenies, Sand Patch Grade climbed from Cumberland (at an elevation of 627 feet above sea level) to the line’s summit at – yes, Sand Patch, Pennsylvania – and a rail elevation of 2,258 feet. From the Sand Patch summit, the line then began a westward descent to Rockwood (1,837 feet) and eventually Connellsville, Pennsylvania (919 feet).
During much of its storied tenure as a main artery of the B&O, the Sand Patch route would formally be known as the “East End” of the railroad’s Pittsburgh Division. At the western edge of Cumberland, at a place known as Viaduct Junction, B&O’s original line west (now the Mountain Subdivision) and the Sand Patch route (now CSX’s Keystone Subdivision) diverged, with the latter having, initially, a relatively low-gradient westward climb thanks to its passage through the scenic water gap known as the Cumberland Narrows. But at a tiny mountain hamlet named Hyndman, Pennsylvania (12 route miles from Viaduct Junction), that all dramatically changed. At Hyndman (which would serve as an active east slope helper station far into the diesel era), Sand Patch’s ascent of the Alleghenies began in earnest and the westbound gradients would typically be approximately1.5 percent on much of the climb to the summit. Following the path of turbulent Willis Creek, the railroad’s right-of-way was rugged, steep, and twisting (highlighted by a horseshoe curve at remote Mance, Pennsylvania). Sand Patch’s east slope climb culminated with an unforgiving final stretch of 1.94 percent gradient at Manila, then, just below the summit, a plunge through the 4,475-foot-long tunnel with the name “Sand Patch” forever cast into the concrete of its eastern portal. Sand Patch’s western slope was constructed on a gentler gradient (with a 1.2 percent eastbound ruling grade yet generally at 1 percent or less), but nonetheless helpers to assist heavy eastbounds were stationed at Garrett or operated from Connellsville.
In the long B&O era, Sand Patch served, first and foremost, as a double-track mainline conveyor of the railroad’s freight tonnage. B&O massive and iconic S-1 class 2-10-2 steam locomotives were designed for and ruled Sand Patch in the heart of the steam era and were joined, shortly before dieselization, by B&O’s massive and magnificent Baldwin-build EM-1 2-8-8-4s. In addition to its bridge traffic, the route stood along rich seams of Pennsylvania bituminous coal, and several B&O branch and secondary lines fed tonnage onto the route, most notably the Salisbury Branch, diverging from the main line at Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, and the Somerset & Cambria “S&C” Subdivision, a line that connected with the main at Rockwood and extend north to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. And Sand Patch Grade also hosted Baltimore & Ohio passenger services, including the likes of B&O’s stylish, all-Pullman Washington (D.C.)-Chicago Capitol Limited.
Famed Sand Patch Grade – in its modern form as a heavy-haul artery of railroading giant CSX – will be the first route featured in the upcoming, new-technology Train Sim World. In the next installment of the Sand Patch Story here at Train-Simulator.com, we’ll continue recounting the history of the line, from the B&O and Chessie System eras, right up to Sand Patch’s vital role today as a key part of the 25,000-mile CSX rail system. – Gary Dolzall ■