There’s a small, brick building you may have never noticed, though it’s located in plain sight.
It’s little more than a stone’s throw from the East Wing of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, nestled between Forum Place and the State Street Bridge. And it’s played a big role in the history of Harrisburg.
Built in 1929, the Harris Tower long served as a critical link in a network of railroad towers that once controlled burgeoning passenger and freight train traffic, especially for the bustling Harrisburg Railroad Station (now the Harrisburg Transportation Center).
It’s been out of service since 1991, a victim to technology and automation. But, now, thanks to the intrepid efforts of the Harrisburg Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the tower—renamed the Harris Tower Railroad Museum—has new life and new importance.
Last month, society members and train buffs gathered to unveil a special plaque designating the tower as a site on the National Register of Historic Places, a list of locations and buildings deemed historically significant by the U.S. government.
“We hope this leads to a greater appreciation for the city of Harrisburg’s rich railroad heritage,” said John W. Smith Jr., president of the Harrisburg Chapter of NRHS.
Back in Time
Upon entering the tower and ascending to the open second floor, one has the feeling of being transported back in time. You’re immediately drawn to a bank of restored, chestnut wood-trimmed windows that allow you to peer out upon the sprawling Amtrak and Norfolk Southern railroad yard.
At its operational zenith in the 1930s and ‘40s, Harris Tower was staffed daily by 18 full-time operators, six men for each eight-hour shift. They masterfully choreographed the movement of more than 100 passenger and 25 freight trains among 14 sets of tracks through the bustling train yard and into the nearby Harrisburg station.
Since acquiring the tower, society members have been working quietly to restore it to its 1940s vintage appearance. Work has included refurbishing windows and walls, painting radiators, refinishing floors and baseboards, installing new pipe insulation and toilets.
The centerpiece of the museum is the tower’s “interlocking machine.” The electro-pneumatic interlocking failsafe machine system console helped operators whose job it was to safely orchestrate the movements of massive locomotives and their passenger and freight cars.
Built by Union Switch and Signal Company for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1920s, the original system was a technological marvel of its day, designed to control switches and signals in the area to prevent conflicting routes—and collisions—from occurring. It is covered with an intricate array of switches, indicator lamps and more than 100 levers to assist operators in carrying out their critical tasks of safely moving passengers and freight.
“You become train director and sit in the control nerve center to get a hands-on feel for how it feels to actually operate the interlocking machine and other equipment and learn firsthand what running a railroad was like at a time before the advent of modern operation,” Smith said.
To elevate the experience, the interlocking control machine, the model track board, communications panels and other devices have been painstakingly restored and reconfigured to operate via computer, which simulates train movements over the Harris Tower operational terrain based upon actual train schedules from the 1940s.
The tower is among the society’s crown jewels. Others include the PA Railroad GG-1 Electric Locomotive No. 4859. Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as the state electric locomotive by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the GG-1 pulled the first electric passenger train into Harrisburg in January 1938. It is joined by the former PA Railroad N6b Cabin Car No. 980016. Restored, owned and maintained by NRHS, they both are housed in a train shed at the nearby transportation center.
Currently, the tower’s first floor is not open to the public, but that should soon change.
Smith recently returned from a 1,700-mile trip to the Arkansas home of Kathleen Farrell to retrieve a treasure trove of Pennsylvania Railroad model gems collected by her late husband, John. They include 65 Pennsylvania Railroad diesels, four Pennsylvania steam engines, five GG1 HO scale (1/87th scale) engines and several unique Harrisburg industrial/train building models.
These and other items will be included in a diorama planned for the museum’s first floor, which is currently undergoing restoration.
“We’re working to have the first floor open so we can tell more of the complete story on the technology and human interest aspects of Harrisburg railroad history,” said Smith.
The Harris Tower Railway Museum is located at 637 Walnut St., Harrisburg. It is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., through the end of October. Admission is free. For more information, see visit www.harristower.org or www.harrisburgnrhs.org.
Watch our Burg in Focus video that accompanies this story.
Author: Bob Bunty